/ 20 February 2024

What does Africa need: Strong states or freedom?

General Election In South Africa
Democracy is alive and well in South Africa, but is the state weak? (Photo by Siyanda Mbokazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The African continent usually picks its political strength from South Africa’s leadership. In the absence of strong leadership in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt, which have failed to be a voice for Africa, and with no strong African Union leadership to talk of, South Africa has tried to provide leadership and represent the continent’s interests. 

But when South Africa is weak, it replicates across the continent. Is South Africa failing as a pioneer strong state? 

In the Federalist Paper No 51, one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, no checks and balances on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Enabling the government to control the governed means building a strong state. Obliging the government to limit itself means instituting control on government by rule of law and democratic accountability.

Hamilton is saying you need a strong capable government with a competent bureaucracy well conceptualised, well structured, anchored in good law, staffed with technically qualified people, well funded with a good appraisal system to ensure basic service delivery to the citizens is optimal.

By the time the colonialists stepped foot into Africa, most European nations had already built strong capable states.

This evolved from years and years of long drawn war beginning with the Habsburgs attempt at European hegemony and was consolidated by the French Revolution in the state that was thereafter built by Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Nations around France would then succumb to Napoleon’s conquest and those that resisted later copied the Napoleonic state and its code civilis

Having watched the dangers of extremely strong states with no limitations on them, at the beginning of the 20th century, the debate in global politics was on how to constrain and limit the powers of rogue but strong states.

African states were born in the first half of the 20th century when institutions of constraint and limitation, such as the rule of law and democratic accountability, were the main concern of dominant powers.

Colonial masters were no longer building strong states. They already had them in place.

In their colonial advent, preoccupied with constraining strong states, they neglected the difficult task of building strong states and rather attempted to establish some skeleton legislative councils and judicial administrations.

Some scholars argue that the colonialists undermined and disrupted Africa’s traditional political systems and then left before building alternative institutions. At their departure, our independence fathers were left with the tough work of nation building — most African peoples had band, clan and tribe level political organisations — and state building, which are very different concepts.

So, whether authoritarian or democratic, what most European powers had, which some regions such as Asia were struggling to build and Africa lacked, were strong capable states.

Measures of state strength

The strength of a state is measured not by how democratic or authoritarian it is but by whether it has the capacity to protect lives and deliver services to the citizens. Its ability to govern.

Whether it can protect lives and properties, enforce law and order, and defend human rights, fundamental freedoms and civil liberties. 

It is also measured by the ability of the government to build a conducive environment for citizens to be part of wealth creation. 

The government must also have the ability to regulate the economy and other facets of social engagement to minimise exploitation, inequality and to assure food and service security. 

The World Bank outlines the following as measures of state strength:

1. Ability to enforce territorial integrity by military strength.

2. Capacity to secure lives and protect property by enforcing law and order by a strong police service and competent Judiciary.

3. Capacity to collect adequate tax revenue to fund government programmes through a strong revenue authority and a well thought out tax code.

4. Ability to undertake and complete mega infrastructure projects.

5. Ability to control/suppress corruption. 

6. Ability to regulate the economy effectively to minimise exploitation and inequality. 

States come into place either by democratic (electoral) or authoritarian (revolutionary) means.

Similarly, a state whether democratic or authoritarian can be either strong or weak.

There are four likely scenarios.

1. A state that is both strong and democratic — for example, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Belgium — which deliver both good economic growth as well as freedom.

2. There can be a state that is strong but authoritarian — for example, Russia, Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These states deliver economic growth but they suppress freedom and limit human rights.

3. There are weak but democratic states such as India, Kenya and South Africa. These states foster freedom and democratic institutions but are incapable of delivering great services and good economic growth. 

4. Similarly,  there are weak authoritarian states that do not deliver economic growth and suppress freedom such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Guinea Bissau. 

State capacities are both military and administrative/bureaucratic. 

What enables states to protect their countries against external military aggression and deliver services to their citizens is state strength, not whether they are democratic or authoritarian. 

Neoliberalism champions strong democracies as the ultimate panacea for our problems because they not only generate super economic growth but also expand freedom. 

It is therefore based on the above context that a deeper search for South Africa’s leadership role is placed on the radar. 

It is because socio-political stability is a quality hard to acquire in African governments, and often fleeting once obtained. Politicians, once taking office, can hijack a democratic system, turning the country into a paper democracy that has democratic institutions like constitutionally elected executives, judiciary and legislatures but is an autocracy whose governance institutions serve the head of state. 

These fragile “stabilities” are also a relatively problematic factor in the governance of Africa, given the limited progress in human development, with specific reference to high levels of hunger, poverty and high levels of corruption versus the unmatched wealth African countries produce. 

Belying the suggestion that socio-political stability is easier to achieve in countries with small populations is, for example, Ghana. 

The underlying factor that has created a foundation of “stability” on which these nations have been built is a serious will by the citizenry and their elected representatives to “sustain” democratic institutions and processes. 

Mauritius comes to mind, as it lurched from one political crisis to another until its road to Damascus moment in the 1990s when the island’s leaders and people chose to pursue a democratic path as a means to achieve economic advancement. The dedication has paid off handsomely, and Mauritius is poised to acquire Africa’s first developed economy within a few years. 

Another island nation, Cape Verde, has shown equal commitment to socio-political stability, and has been rewarded as the African location most searched for on the internet for holiday inquiries, as the country’s peaceful reputation spreads globally.

The people of Botswana have never varied from their commitment to a strong democracy, which has led to more than 50 years of a socio-political stability that is the envy of many other African countries. A quarter century after Botswana was established, Namibia was born in 1990 with a Constitution pledged to the empowerment of democratic institutions beyond the ambitions of any leader. Namibians have stayed the course of that pledge. 

But it will be foolhardy not to look at what juncture South Africa lost its African political influence and how it is losing that political strength to extend its influence across the continent. 

Domestically, South Africa remains vulnerable. Corruption and lack of ethical leadership is also costing South Africa in the African perception index. 

Anatomically, what’s of major concern is the country’s domestic and international intelligence services that are at the lowest ebb. 

South African peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is another indication of its dying strides of strong leadership because war in the DRC is escalating, even if it places it on the opposing side to Rwanda and Morocco who are under the influence of the West.

South Africa should be aware that the African continent is looking to it to provide visionary leadership. 

The question is, what does South Africa need to re-lead, pioneer and reclaim its leadership role in the African continent? Because Africa must rise, after all.

Mphumzi Mdekazi is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University and Dr Babu Owino is a member of the Kenyan parliament.