(Lack of) State Power in Africa, Again

Political evolution on the continent’s western side is often a series of eruptions: order appears to be established, and then the volcano explodes again. In Togo and Gabon, the levers of power have long seemed immutable, dominated by the same families for decades. In Guinea and Ivory Coast, both on the mend after years of upheaval, democratic order seemed to arrive at last only recently. But all of these nations bubble with uncertainty beneath the surface. Western donors and officials who visit the West African capitals to offer congratulations on stability — the new World Bank president was in Abidjan, the Ivorian commercial capital, last week — should be warned: their compliments may be premature.

Legitimacy, it turns out, is not conferred from the outside.

From an article by Adam Nossiter in last Sunday’s New York Times.

For me, the last sentence of the excerpt above sums it all up: the amount of outside recognition a regime enjoys is not a sufficient condition for state power.

A regime also needs its legitimacy to be recognized internally in order to be legitimate, and many (West) African regimes simply are not recognized internally as legitimate widely enough.

Thus, it is only when a regime enjoys both external and internal legitimacy that we can truly talk of state power. In the limit, it is probably the case that internal legitimacy can be a sufficient condition. But not external legitimacy.

Imagine what would happen if the US government were recognized by the governments of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc., but had little legitimacy within its own borders except in the areas around Washington, DC. Chances are whatever policies would be adopted in Washington would have little traction, say, in California or in Texas.

In a post on state power last week, I discussed how the point made above (and by Nossiter in his Times article) is made very well in Herbst’s States and Power in Africa. Another good reading on the topic is Crawford Young’s The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective.

Other books which seem interesting on the topic (but which I haven’t yet had a chance to read) are Besley and Persson’s (2011) Pillars of Prosperity (though note that there is a bit of microeconomic theory in there) and Migdal’s (1988) Strong Societies and Weak States.

That being said, I have not been trained as a political scientist, so I am not an expert on this literature. I hope a few political scientists will chime in with additional suggestions — in particular, suggestions for journal articles, which can be read more quickly than books.

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  1. Jay Ulfelder

    Legitimacy, power, and stability should not be conflated. Take one extreme example: North Korea. The totalitarian regime there is an international outcast (with one crucial exception), and I would venture a guess that it’s not terribly popular at home, either. Yet it has persisted for decades and even exerts some power internationally.

    Or take a less extreme example: the U.S. According to an April 2012 Pew poll, only 1 in 3 Americans has a favorable view of the federal government. Not terribly “legitimate,” but not very weak, either, and I don’t think anyone’s seriously anticipating a revolution here any time soon.

    In short, I think Weber got this one flat wrong. As I wrote in a recent blog post (http://wp.me/p1domH-Gg), “legitimacy” is a big ol’ red herring. Regime survival is not the result of a running straw poll. If we want to try to understand why and when popular uprisings and coups and such happen, we need to look elsewhere and talk in different terms.

  2. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thanks for this very insightful comment, Jay. Leaving stability aside for a second because my interest is really in what the absence of state power prevents the state from doing (i.e., provide public goods which eventually help economic development, such as roads, education, health, etc. and maintain order), you are probably right that legitimacy and power should not be confused, and that this is where I went wrong.

    But I’m not sure either one of your examples are terribly convincing, either. Or at least, not terribly convincing when I try to relate them to Africa. It is difficult to know anything about what goes on within North Korean borders. You are probably right that the regime is not popular at home, but it also uses repression to quash that dissent. In that sense, it is powerful, though if we judge by the night-time satellite pictures, it certainly hasn’t built much infrastructure to contribute to economic development beyond Pyongyang.

    As for the US, I think many Americans like to talk a big game about how they distrust the state, but the State (by which I mean the federal government) still manages to get most people to pay taxes and to abide by the law, which then allows the State to provide public goods (except maybe health, though that is changing) that have enabled the formidable economic performance the US has known over the past few centuries.

    Short version: I confused legitimacy with state power, but North Korea and the US don’t relate to issues of African state power very well.

  3. Jen Brass

    I’ve always thought that Jackson’s articles/books on “juridical” vs. “empirical” states are great (for example: Jackson, R. (1992). “Juridical Statehood in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Journal of International Affairs 41(1) – or Why Africa’s Weak States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood by Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg
    World Politics , Vol. 35, No. 1 (Oct., 1982), pp. 1-24 ). I think Herbst draws a LOT from them, too. For the theory, I agree on Young – that chapter on the state is dense, but it is SUPERB. Ditto on Migdal – I love his distinction between the idea of state and the practices of state.

  4. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thank you so much for these recommendations, Jen! I agree with you that Crawford can be difficult to read, but his book is also very rewarding. I’m looking forward to reading Migdal, along with the articles you recommended. I started reading the Besley and Persson book after I wrote this post, and it amazing so far.