The state in Africa

Article published on July 31, 2006
Article published on July 31, 2006
Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga, a researcher at the Centre for African studies in Paris, speaks about corruption in subsaharan Africa and a state imported from Europe

Today, everyone speaks of the obligations African governments have towards accountability and good governance, is this how the state in sub-Saharan Africa really works?

If we understand 'state' in the Weberian sense of a European bureaucratic structure, it does not exist in Africa. Nevertheless, a form of centralised politics certainly does exist. For instance, corruption does not work against the State, rather it forms a part of it. In Africa you often hear the claim that ‘the state is every one of us’, and citizens see themselves as having the right to claim and steal whatever they consider to be theirs. When a civil servant does not receive his salary, he starts to work less and will steal everything he can get away with.

During the Cold War, power passed from hand to hand in what was known as the 'incarnation of power'. There existed a kind of one-party system whereby the strongest group got to power by way of a coup d’état and had the mandate to rule – until it found itself up against opposition, which little by little was in turn in a position to undertake another coup and gain power, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. Since the 1990s, the democratisation of these regimes only widened the field of violence, which nowadays is no longer just in the hands of the elite (the single ruling party of old) but also in the hands of the population at large. One could call it the ‘popularisation’ of war, whereby the people see they have political rights – and believe they can claim them through violence. Political violence thus produces political subjects.

Some writers, like Jean-François Bayart, talk of the African State being rhizomatic, or based on an informal, complex, non-hierarchical structure. Do you think corruption is more legitimate in Africa than in the West?

What can be said with certainty is that all over Africa the European powers have set up the same system: a right-wing state with a constitution. But the logic switches in most African states. There exists a perversion of this system, and the rationalisation of bureaucracy is relative: a civil servant can demand that a citizen pays to get hold of documents that in the West would be free. The presidency also often claims a sort of sacred right. In any case, some writers say this behaviour is due to the inexistence of state, whereas in reality it shows the state exists in the first place. At the end of Mobutu’s Zaire, for example, many predicted the collapse of the country and the state – but today the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) still exists as a state structure.

Sometimes one finds the dilemma – as now in the DRC – of choosing between elections (democracy) and facilitating an end to violence (security). Which should come first?

Often elections are called as a means to put an end to conflict. But war reared its head again in Angola straight after the elections. These are what I call ‘electoral wars’, or wars produced or reinforced by elections. The vote form a part of the process. The coming to power of Charles Taylor through elections in Liberia is explained by the fact that voters preferred to keep him in power than have him out of power and in a war situation – thus saving their own lives. The election of Denis Sassou in Congo-Brazzaville is a result of the same logic: ‘Better that [Sassou] leads us rather than giving him the chance to kill us’. So it is hard to proclaim ‘free’ elections in a time of war. Nevertheless, still no way has been found to stop violence. The then Director General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, managed to secure a ‘culture of peace’ agreement in 1997 in Congo-Brazzaville between the armed factions. Two months after signing the agreement, violence was back with a vengeance… What we need is for armed groups to get so fed up of fighting that they are prepared to give negotiation a try.

Why in recent years has the DRC received so many millions of euros in official development assistance – a unique situation across the continent – without giving the expected results?

There are geopolitical reasons vis-à-vis its neighbours in the East, but above all the DRC is a country extraordinarily rich in natural resources. Its colonisation was founded on the exploitation of this by multinationals… To not pay some of this back today would be a huge insult!