(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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