Why do states fail? – Punch Newspapers

Punch Newspapers
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Dr Obadiah Mailafia
In this column, we have tried to meditate on the concept of state failure in relation to the Nigerian predicament. As a reminder to my much-cherished gentle reader, the indicators of state failure include: mounting democratic pressures; refugees or Internally Displaced Persons resulting in complex humanitarian emergencies; legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia; chronic and sustained human flight; uneven economic development along group lines; sharp and/or severe economic decline; criminalisation and/or delegitimisation of the State; deterioration of public services; suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights; security apparatus operates as a “state within a state”; emergence of factionalised elites; and intervention directly or indirectly by other states or external political actors.
State failure or state fragility derives from multiple and complex factors. They range from the historical legacy of colonialism to structural, economic and sociological factors.
Structural and economic factors are rooted in issues of poverty, economic decline, violent conflict, poor governance; proliferation of firearms; the emergence of armed insurgents, the accidents of geography (being in the wrong neighbourhood); and demographic implosion and urbanisation pressures.
Some of the problems derive from political and institutional factors, including crises of state legitimacy and authority linked to corruption and misrule; weak governance, repression of political opponents and lack of fair and open political competition; weak political institutions; widespread human rights abuses; erosion of the rule of law; the predatory state syndrome and the politics of neopatrimonialism, cronyism and clientelism.
There are also sociological factors. They range from deepening horizontal inequalities to severe identity fragmentation; social exclusion; gender inequity; problems of social cohesion, including erosion of social capital; weaknesses in civil society; and breakdown in societal norms that hold communities together.
One of the most important causal factors has to do with resource conflict. Resource conflict as a causative factor comes by way of resource scarcity, as groups, for example, struggle for water, grassland and other scarce or diminishing natural resources. A good example is the so-called farmers-herders “clashes” that have been perennially witnessed in much of the ancient savannah of the Middle Belt. But state failure can also manifest from the viewpoint of resource abundance. This is what economists have in mind when they talk about “the resource curse syndrome”. Oil has spurred violent conflict and youth unrest in the Niger Delta. In addition, when communities stumble upon gold deposits or precious stones in abundance, it can attract all sorts of jackals, hyenas and vultures, from within and outside the country. Birnin Gwari in Kaduna State and Zamfara are known to have considerable deposits of gold. Illegal mining of gold has attracted various bandits from as far afield as Sudan and Mali that are actively engaged in illegal mining.
There is anecdotal evidence of Chinese and Lebanese smugglers that are arming local groups to clear villagers from their ancestral lands so that they can mine the gold deposits unheeded. The Oxford economist, Paul Collier, has developed this theory of rent-seeking behaviour to explain how wars are spurred by “greed” rather than by “grievance”. An embarrassment of natural riches offers potential opportunities for rebel groups to collect rent with which to buy weapons to wage war against the state.


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Related to the above is the rentier state political economy model. For example, when a country generates its wealth merely by collecting rents from multinational oil companies, it has little or no incentive to build strong governance, extractive and regulatory institutions. Such a state tends to be inherently weak because it does not possess strong institutions. Failure to collect taxes deepens the phenomenon of grand corruption because power elites will have no sense of public financial accountability to citizens and citizens, in their turn, will have no moral basis to demand accountability from the rulers. Political science has established the fact that taxation is actually good for democracy when the state enhances its extractive capacity by collecting taxes, citizens often always demand accountability while ruling elites on their part feel a moral obligation to account for how they have invested taxpayers’ money.
Climate change and environmental degradation is yet another factor. The drying up of the Lake Chad in the North-East has forced millions who eked out a living from that region to move further South, pitching them in endless conflicts with local communities. According to experts, desertification is galloping at an extraordinary pace in the northern states. Such ecological pressures are leading to population migrations further, thereby causing pressures over land issues with other communities. According to one expert, “environmental impoverishment, increasing the conflict over resources, marginalisation of rural people, social and political unrest, displacement and uncontrolled migration lead to further conflict and the outbreak of wars between and within states”.

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Another factor is escalation of communal or inter-group conflicts. In multi-ethnic, multi-religious countries, tensions are always inherent in inter-communal relations. A good political leadership is one that is able to manage these “horizontal” tensions so that they do not escalate into open war. And even when they do, effective leaders are able to find creative solutions that peacefully address the key issues while ensuring harmony and bringing the conflict to an end. Failure to manage diversity can sometimes explode into open conflict. And when such violence persists over time, it can eventually lead to state collapse.
State predation can also be a factor. This occurs when power elites approach state power as an instrument for personal aggrandisement. The state becomes a Leviathan that sucks the blood of the people rather than being a servant that promotes their peace and happiness. Predatory states intensify rival competitions for scarce resources. Politics becomes a zero-sum game in which winners take all and losers take the hindmost. That kind of politics often leads to violence and bloodshed.
According to the political scientist, Robert Rotberg, state failure derives from a prolonged path-dependence of political tensions and conflict. State failure in Somalia, for example, does not derive merely from the unique conditions of the country, but because of the wider dimensions assumed by the conflict and the serious obstacles posed to rehabilitation and reconstruction in the context of a brutally battered and fragile state which has repeatedly failed society and citizens.
An important dimension that bears emphasis is the role of external actors. State failure in many cases is partly attributable to meddling by external actors, occasionally in obvert ways, but more often in covert forms. Equally crucial is the role of terrorism and global terrorist organisations on the one hand, and grand corruption, on the other.
Last and related to the preceding is democratic collapse.  Many of our African countries are nominal democracies. There are political parties, constitutions and independent electoral umpires in the formal sense. But more often than not, these institutions are shorn of the spirit of democratic constitutionalism. Most of the time the electoral umpire is biased or simply bought over. Political party candidates are selected on the basis of the highest bidders. Votes are never counted properly during elections while voters are intimidated. When electoral outcomes are clearly a violation of the fundamental political and civic rights of the populace, it would not be long before some aggrieved people take up arms and pitch their tent against the state. Democratic collapse can emerge gradually or as a big-bang through an armed insurrection or violent revolution. The end result is to undermine the state and to cripple democratic institutions.

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