Political Development and Managing Conflict in the Post Colonial African State

Political Development and Managing Conflict in the Post Colonial African State

Friday, August 25, 2017 2:11 pm

Ademola Araoye

By Ademola Araoye

Politically underdeveloped and associated with very weak political capacity, Nigeria is treading a dangerous path. Although there exists considerable confusion over the concept of political development, most experts associate it with equality in the system, the capacity of the political system, and related to that, with the increasing differentiation or specialization of governmental structures and institutions to achieve the functions of the state. Political development is then generally understood as the increasing capacity of the state to penetrate society to extract resources. Political capacity refers to the relative ability of the state to function effectively.

In the final analysis, the relative political capacity of the government to rule is indicated by the degree of its success to reach into society and extract resources. Extraction deals with the transfer of resources, fiscal, material and non material, from the population to the government to allow the government to advance its policy goals. The ability of the government to tax society reflects this success or otherwise.

In effect, the relative success of the government to reach society also demonstrates the degree of the acceptance of the legality of the government. It is thus an attitudinal barometer and, critically, a defining variable of society’s perception of the legitimacy of the state as constructed or managed. But how the state builds this or fares in its extractive capacity defines the state as politically developed or underdeveloped.

The aggregate performance of governments can be approximated as political capacity, or the ability of political systems to carry out the tasks chosen by the nation’s government in the face of domestic and international groups with competing priorities. For both the interaction of the state with its diverse domestic interests and constituents as well as with external interests and threats, the instruments available to deal with and control its domestic and external environments range from persuasion, negotiations, bargaining entailing compromises, to violence and war.

The evolution of international sensibilities, including the ascent of liberalism, in particular in the post Cold War era, has de-legitimated the deployment of violence as currency of interactions of the state with its population. Even war as the ultimate instrument and horrible mediator in the games nations play has been de-validated. The state has been restricted by international society, as distinct from international community of states, from the indiscriminate deployment of its traditional weapons of violence and war to achieve political objectives, both in its management of dissent internally and resolving conflicting interests in its external relations. The dominant edict, even diktat, of international society is that states must learn to negotiate and persuade in overcoming clashing interests.

In the contemporary dispensation, the realist understanding of the centrality of power or force as the defining attribute of the state is outmoded. Accordingly, persuasion is acknowledged as the principal tool of internal engagement in sophisticated and developed polities. This is integral to the ascendant ideology of democratic liberalism. Also, violence, traditionally understood as the last legitimate currency in transactions with external interlocutors or threats from mainly state actors, has become untenable in the logic of the times. In more recent times, with the emergence of non state actors with demonstrated capacity to wage war and take territory like states, external interlocutors indeed include these emerged non state forces. Yet, in the evolved post Cold War and post realist era, the autonomous leverage of states to deploy the instruments of war to achieve political goals is severely constrained by the tacit understanding that the international community of states must explicitly approve the calibrated use of force in transactions between states. Violence, for whatever reason, in the domestic setting is abhorred. States confronted with untenable situations such as the Boko Haram phenomenon or the Al Shabab in East Africa often count on international solidarity and interventions to contain the menace. Otherwise, in internal affairs, states can hardly count on any iota of understanding in unleashing war against its own people. The threshold of tolerance of the international community to internal violence by a state to achieve political objectives is very low. Whatever the provocations and rationalizations, international sympathy is almost non-existent for states breaching these evolved international sensibilities.

The post colonial state fixated in the methods of an old and odd era is thus in a bind. It must navigate the evolution of international sensibilities and the virtual abrogation of unlimited state use of mindless force to subjugate its territory in earlier eras. Yet, the internal structure of the post colonial state poses grave challenges. This structure generates the first dimension of the problematic double instrumental character of this genre of state. The state is conceived as a political system, and its vital elements may be verified in conceptually variable amounts. These varying elements of the state operate as variables which determine the degree of stateness, autonomy of action, and indeed, the very legitimacy of the political system. In adopting the post-colonial state as a political system, the concept of national society or the emergence of a nation would connote success in the building of integrated and inclusive institutions which have given birth to a pervasive sense of nationalism and near universal sense of belonging in the political system.

As demonstrated in Nigeria, this ideal remains an ambition. Society in the post-colonial state is mostly fragmented and the political process merely camouflages intra-society schisms or struggles. Where religious and ethnic lines converge, they make more difficult the process of the distillation of various identities into one dominant nation. What goes for civil society is no more than an amalgamation of diverse interests groups that have a close fit to ethnic and tribal construction of the political system. Competition is the norm rather than collaboration in the national project. Patrick Chabal observes in this connection that though the discussions about African politics have largely been concerned with the state, states have not operated in a vacuum, and it is ultimately their action in relation to civil society which determines their complexion and the fate of their policies.

This complexion of the post colonial state hinges of the development of political capacity. The key accent in developing political capacity is penetration, for on it, whether successfully or unsuccessfully undertaken, depends the seamless operations and ultimate longevity of the state. It is an imperative of building a state. A state, especially in a post colonial setting, such as the quasi unitary Federal Republic of Nigeria, or troubled hegemonic Ethiopia, the wobbly Democratic Republic of Congo or even a relatively monolithic Gambia, that successfully penetrates its society and develops a consolidated national social capital through persuasion becomes a nation. But in all these cited instances, there have been massive failure in state penetration of society. Penetration may also often be closely tied to equity and social justice in the system. Ethiopia and the plight of the Oromo provide a classic expression of system inequity in the global conscience.

The Oromo constitute the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and East Africa. They comprise more than 35 percent of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. Yet, the Oromo have been the object of state discrimination, including massive security surveillance, tight policing, prosecution, imprisonment and heavy political manipulations under the guise of security and economic development. The failure of the Tigrayan dominated government to negotiate long-standing grievances of the Oromo and the government’s deployment of old fashioned instruments of state violence which killed hundreds of Oromos, exacerbated the tension, has transformed what was initially a mono-cause protest into a formidable mass anti-state hegomony movement. Experts note that for a quarter of a century, the Tigrayans, who make up only 6% of the country’s over 100 million population, have enjoyed domineering influence and hegemonic occupation of government. The attempt to perpetuate Tigrayan hegemonic appropriation of the totality of the sate space may yet lead to a further splintering of what remains of Ethiopia, since the breakaway of Eritrea from old Ethiopia. In spite of the tensions generated, the ruling party has refused to budge on the Oromo and AmharIs communities’ demands for expanded political, economic and human rights. The global consciousness at this point is therefore sympathetic with and aligned to the Oromo cause. This is a direct response to the hegemonic Ethiopian state violation of the “B and N” diktat of the international society to states: Bargain and Negotiate!!!

Dismissive of its own recent history, Tigrayan Ethiopia prefers the bad policy of coercion over the constructive approach of persuasion to what are largely perceived as Oromo legitimate grievances. There are two modalities of the state to penetrate its society. This is either through coercion or persuasion. Coercion, the permanent or frequent deployment of force in decision making, decision enforcement and decision mediating, is often associated with weak states. Weak states are often characterized by scant legitimacy, dubious state machineries, upended value systems, fractious civil society, turbulent political culture founded on parochialism and driven by patronage and prebendalism, among others. The state often lacks integrated national social capital but may have in abundance consolidated factional capital. This delicate situation of group and social atomism instead of corporate integration is often a reflection of the failure to transfer pre existing disparate communal allegiances to the “new” post colonial state entity. Penetration through suasion enhances the consolidation of national social capital. The lack of it poses a major challenge to state and nation building. These reflect what in conventional lexicon may be described as features of patrimonial and neo-patrimonial regimes. Nigeria can be described as a vast canvass of strategically cultivated patrimonial relations sustained by a dense network of patronages. It is the character of the dubious and convoluted national political settlement. Yet, even this dense network of extra constitutional affiliations is unable is to replace the critical functionality of a carefully cultivated national social capital. The failure to meld Nigeria’s fractious society and distil its disparate social capital into a consolidated integrated national social capital is a major source of its tenuous stability. In turn the perceived lack of social equity of the system is an impediment to the development of integrated national social capital. Accordingly, the Nigeria state as constructed is fully dependent on coercion to operate. A paradigm shift in state governance becomes imperative.

In a Weberian definition the state is no more than a set of instruments of domination. Consistent with this, in the neo patrimonial establishments as in Nigeria and in many challenged post colonial state polities, the concept of national security is often invoked in dealing with inability to achieve penetration of society. Or rather, the failure to attain significant penetration is conveniently and erroneously equated with problem of national security. Although the concept of security, national in this case, has acquired many connotations, a holistic implementation of the concept translates to security as an inclusive non-partisan comprehensive engagement of the state in a manner consistent with the distilled will of the overall population. That, at least, is the case in advanced modern Westphalian state and the evolved post Modern state, if not in our own African post-colonial and post-liberation state. National security is a concept that a government, along with its parliaments, should protect the state and its citizens against all kind of national crises through a variety of power projections, such as political power, diplomacy, economic power, military might, and so on. In an earlier age, security was narrowly focused on military might. The distinctive meaning of national security in that antiquated realist term, is that the state possesses the capacity, mainly force projection, to ward off foreign intrusion, neutralize foreign aggression, and assure freedom from foreign dictation.


In the emerged global dispensation, security encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, all of which impinge on the non-military, entailing the psychical and economic security of the nation and the values espoused by the national society. Accordingly, in order to promote its national security, a nation needs to possess and radiate throughout the national territory economic security, energy security, environmental security, psychical security of society. Accordingly, holistic national security can only be dispensed or feasible under a regime constructed in a manner that infuses it with legitimacy across all sections and factions of national society. For example, even under the most favorable economic climate, a despotic regime cannot provide all round inclusive national security. By the very presence of a dictatorship, inclusive and holistic national security is threatened. All of these defining caveats culminate in a human security paradigm that elevates society and the individual above Maslow’s first and second rungs of human concerns. Complementary to this is that security threats involve not only conventional foes such as other nation-states but also non-state actors such as violent non-state actors, narcotic cartels, multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations; some authorities include natural disasters and events causing severe environmental damage in this category. To be sure, security threats in domestic settings do not include peaceful challenges to the structure or configuration of the state, agitations around issues of human rights or even political questions that reflect massive disaffect emanating from state incapacity to resolve the multi -dimensional crisis of nation building codified by Lucien Pye. Such a definition of security threat would be an anachronistic throwback to the past.

Lucien Pye’s classical crisis of legitimacy, identity, distribution, integration and participation adumbrates the challenge of nation building that the knee jerk deployment of coercive instruments of the state cannot resolve. This principle holds whatever the excuses any administration may have or provocations it may objectively be faced with. And one instrument of coercion does not fit all live realities that evolve by the day. Indiscriminate use of violence to overcome a tricky political impasse, given the historic trajectory and the difficult current circumstances of Nigeria, is the outcome of the failure of creative and imaginative thinking.

A policy of military containment of ever widening domestic spatial universes of threatening militants across the nation would elicit unfathomable expense in political costs as well as humongous material charges. The opportunity costs entailed in such a policy cannot be justified by any stretch of imagination. For the emergency powers to make the policy operationally feasible would be a heavy political cost. The tyranny of small and incremental security policy steps would almost certainly step in. Then to factor in the problem of a war economy on many fronts in a nation with no serious integrated national social capital. The Nigerian civil war started a mere police action. Yet, for all this trouble, at the end, military containment cannot be an alternative to hard political bargaining. As demonstrated in the resurgence of the agitation for the restoration of Biafra after almost half a century of the so called defeat on the battle field, the limits of military intervention in resolving profound political questions within a state space are profound. There was no uhuru in Nigeria’s battle field pyrrhic victory fifty years ago. Ideas have never succumbed to bullets. This is especially so in multi-national states. Khartoum has also learnt that lesson too well. The clamor for the Anglophone Republic of Ambazonia in the South of La Republic du Cameroun is another case in point. It is by far more cost effective to bring all sides to the negotiating table for the umpteenth time and avoid unnecessary and avoidable bloodletting. Nigeria must advance in the direction of a more sophisticated polity that repudiates violence and entrenches persuasion as its standard operating modality of conflict resolution. Nigeria must learn to “B and N”: Bargain and Negotiate.

But however we define security, there is a paradoxical nexus between security focused on military might and human security that encompasses the protection and assurance of the wellbeing of the population by the state. It is instructive that countries with the strongest military capacities often also tend to have formidable institutions to subjugate the coercive machinery of the state and tame it under civilian control. When these powerful states mobilize their militaries, including the national guardsmen, in domestic scenarios it is to bring succor and comfort to citizens caught in terrible natural disasters. Or save society from itself in carefully modulated interventions. Strong states are exceptionally restrained by the Constitution or institutional as well as operational mandates in the deployment of military forces to resolve internal political questions. General Jean Marie Michel Mokoko as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) redefined this in setting a different example when he once sent troops to surround the Congolese parliament only to force the nervous legislators to resolve a burning national concern. Thereafter he sent his boys back to the barrack.

The coercive instruments of advanced political systems or states are targeted and directed to meet challenges that are externally instigated or foreign in design. This is a fundamental requisite to protect the well-being of citizens from harassment of the state. Indeed a major opposing paradoxical affirmation is that the post-colonial African state, with its very weak institutions, including the usual putative military might, tends to turn its state coercive agents internally against its own society. Often, as in Tigrayan hegemonic Ethiopia, it is to suppress political dissent. This projection of force to unleash violence in the domestic space is in lieu of laborious and rational national discourse or negotiation between constituent parties, especially for the hegemonic force at the center of state operations. Given the hegemonic character and intent of the extant regime and its pervasive exclusivity, it is the hall mark of the weak state that the challenge to its stability and longevity is internal. The post-colonial African state is thus often the main threat to the well-being of its society and by implication the longevity of the state itself. Meanwhile, Harvard University history professor Charles Maier’s definition of National security as a capacity to control those domestic and foreign conditions that the public opinion of a given community believes necessary to enjoy its own self-determination or autonomy, prosperity and wellbeing would seem to be most relevant to our current circumstances. Control of conditions is central to the attainment of national security.

In brief, security is the capacity to exert control in and around you to safeguard the well-being of society. Attaining significant penetration through persuasion and, through this, forging a consolidated national social capital are then the first conditions of national security. Coercion is anathema to this condition. Nigeria’s challenge in managing its perennial political tensions has been a political culture of heavy dependence on coercion because of the distortions in values underpinning governance and the incongruent mindset emanating from long military rule. Also Nigeria’s post military era has been dominated by ex military men with little tolerance for the pains staking protocols and procedures of civilian structures and institutions. The tragedy has been compounded by the validation of this mindset by a fawning and insecure of what may be termed, for lack of better phraseology, a political class.

As a result, it is noticeable that the what pretends to the Nigerian political class is not mobilized by any ideological or philosophical or value precepts. The membership of that class are motivated by opportunities to project personal political and economic ambitions. Such pragmatism logically leads to alienation and delinkage from the legitimate interests of the constituencies that they purport to represent. In the final analysis, there is a big gap in the articulated interests of the multiplicity of legitimate interests from the grass roots and the political sentiments purveyed on their respective behalf by their political leaders and representatives. The potential for serious and robust national discourse is truncated by a lack of integrity of the political class. In the final analysis critical decision making revolves around the mantra of resounding: show me the money!!! Otherwise, it is how does this promote my presidential or ministerial ambition? In this context, the concept of national interest is just a rhetorical abstraction at all levels. There is therefore the permanent decoupling of the people from their leaders and from the state and its system. The situation is enabling for the rise of radical repudiators of the status quo who express in actuality the pulse of the grassroots and are perceived as more legitimate than their professional political jobbers. This gulf is a potent source of instability, since democratic channels are gridlocked by popular resentment and frustration against the state and its operators. The perspectives of the status quo bear no relevance to the lived reality of the disenchanted constituencies.

Meanwhile, it is clear that conflict inheres in the multiple instrumental character of the post-colonial African state. At one level, the post-colonial African state is a vehicle for the articulation of the parochial interests of contending groups within the state who often act in concert with respective affiliated transnational groups in the intermestic environment in which the state is located. The goal of the struggle is to dominate the policy process in the state. At another level, the post-colonial state is an instrument for the advancement of the hegemonic agendas of powerful elite forces in the international state system. These powerful forces collude with internal forces whose strategic interests are served by this cooperation, to determine the direction in which the post-colonial state should evolve. Through the joint actions of the international forces and their allies within the state and its intermestic environment, the hegemonic force imposes its vision on the post-colonial state. The interaction between these multiple forces, either as separate elements or acting in concert, evolves into conflict. This interaction also determines the dynamics of the conflict that is so generated and impacts on its outcome.

Ademola Araoye

Yet, the instruments of coercion are accentuated in the regimes in post colonial societies because of the very nature of the state. Because of the extreme fragility of the state, coercion is the preferred choice of anxious hegemonic forces as the instrument of state penetration. This defines the regimes. Regime, in this context, refers to the rule, principles, norms and modes of interaction between social groups and state organs. The regime encapsulates the procedures and mechanisms of political exchange. Yet as witnessed in Nigeria, coercion, entailing the accentuated use of security mechanisms, even when it is legal and constitutional, has a tendency to erode constitutionalism and, ultimately, alienate majority of society. In cost, effect and benefit balance, coercion as an instrument is horribly effective only in the very short term. In the long term, the frequent deployment of coercion by the state is horrendously defective as it undermines the capacity of the state to penetrate its society long after. This is especially so in post colonial settings dealing with the intense challenge of partisan state appropriation and domestic hegemony. Contemporary challenges in Nigeria exactly reflect this.

By contrast to coercion, persuasion to attain penetration, implying long, frustrating and difficult process of negotiation, give and take in meeting the challenges of Lucien Pye’s multiple crisis listed above has no other comparable rival. Coercion is an aberrant tool. It never wins in managing domestic political turbulence because conflict inheres in the very character of the post colonial state. Conflict that is inherent in the sociological construction of the post colonial state has to be managed. The management lies in political settlements that must be reviewed as social, economic and political evolution makes obsolete former agreements by throwing up new realities that must underpin the set of new protocols and codes that must govern interaction between constituent elements of state and society. In Nigeria this translates to realistic constitutional reforms based on open mindedness to abjure a culture of hegemonic aspiration on all sides. Partisan total state appropriation has been the common bane of multi -national states in post colonial Africa. It is important that Nigeria transcends the instrumental character of its post coloniality.

Conflicts in the post-colonial state may thus result from competition at the first level around the struggle for domination by internal forces and their transnational allies. It may also emanate from or be compounded by the actions of second level systemic actors struggling to consolidate their historical control over that state. In either case, the dynamics and trajectories of conflicts that are generated in the post-colonial state are determined by the interaction between the forces at the two levels, variously in collaboration, or in opposition, to achieve certain strategic outcomes in that conflict. Finally, the struggle implicates the people who create leaderships as agents that at one level articulate the political goals of the protagonist groups and at another level define those partisan political goals in an interactive process between the people and their leaders.

The sources of conflict in the post-colonial state are thus first found in its peculiar internal structure and, by implication, the structure of its intermestic external environment. This environment is constituted by the state system in the immediate sub-region, the collection of contending forces made up of groups whose territorial spread traverses the boundaries of the states in the system and their loyalties are primarily to the group than to the state, as well as the proto states that may periodically exist within the various post-colonial states. The post-colonial African state lumps together and attempts to superimpose an order on disparate groups that are distinguished by wide cultural and value dissonance and often traditionally hostile to one another. The internal construction of the post-colonial state and the ordering principles elicited by this peculiar construction impact on the structure of its inter-state system and the definition of the critical ground rules of inter-state relations.

The immediate consequences of the problematic structures of both the post-colonial state and its state system are the existence of objective, transnational and extraterritorial stakeholders who perceive legitimate interests to protect in the outcomes of the strategic interactions of its domestic processes. These interests include the emergence of a configuration of power that is favorable to this transnational community from the conflict(s) that rage for the control of the political space by contending internal forces within the state and its immediate inter-state system. The structural attributes and the internal processes of the state therefore impact on the nature of relationships generated in the inter-state system constituted by such states. The nature of relationships elicited by the structure of the inter-state system and external environment also impact on the internal characteristic of the post-colonial state in an interactive process. Strategic interaction among groups is characterized by competition for control of the state as the state sets the terms of competition among groups. Accordingly, the pursuit of particularistic objectives often becomes embodied in competing visions of just, legitimate, and appropriate political order.

Given this structure of the post colonial state, David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild note that the political process becomes rivalries of contending groups to control resources and dominate state policy as the communal agenda of the competing entities, incorporating ethnic cousins outside the territorial demarcations of the post-colonial state. This generates clear security imperatives that drive the struggle of the constituent groups for the appropriation of the state. It is imperative that the political process is a struggle without safeguards for all the forces implicated. The zero-sum struggle without safeguards is unending. Armed hostilities, which often break out, represent the most intense stage of the struggle.


At this first level, the security dynamic is also an interactive one between the post-colonial state and its immediate external environment. This interactive dynamic implicates not only constituent groups in the states, but also allied stakeholders in the intermestic external environment who are directly and actively engaged in the struggle. Conflict in the post-colonial state is thus a clash of interests among various transnational cultural forces and their communal blocs whose activities transcend its borders and challenge its civil order of the post-colonial state. Conflicts in the post-colonial state are thus hardly internal to the state entity. This process leads not only to the weakening of the post-colonial state, but also undermines the very state system in the immediate neighborhood. Yet, collective fears of the future arise when the weakened state loses its ability to arbitrate between the constituent groups or provide credible guarantees of protection for groups. The political system in the post-colonial African state environment is most prone to violence when one constituent group perceives an opportunity to bring to an end the domination of another group. Power transition or in this case power diffusion has to be managed.

As a result of the unending pervasive contest for control of the post-colonial state, regime changes are very unstable for the political process because they are invariably transitions of power from one contending group to another. The process of regime change o power diffusion in the case of Nigeria has often sparked the start of violent conflicts as contending forces see the process as a unique opportunity to wrest power and control. In the nominally democratic scenario in the post-colonial political process which is marked by the absence of commitment to any social or ideological principles, the population structure, especially along group lines, becomes a critical indicator of the potential configuration of power between of the constituent forces. The political power of groups is determined by demography, the quantum of resources generated and internal revenue derivable from and available to each group, and their capacity to organize effectively. But more powerful groups or better organized groups with sustained internal policy coherence have a larger say in setting the terms of the contract. The struggle for the appropriation of the state among contending forces however leads to the weakening of the state and undermines its capacity to function to protect the interests of all. This breeds pervasive insecurity in the political process and leads the constituent units to factor the ensuing security dilemma into their strategic calculus as they interact with other contestants for the domination of the social, political and economic space. The national process becomes a zero-sum game and the state a totalitarian one.

One critical element of differentiation in the post-colonial state is based on degrees of access to the center of power in the state. A series of rings that revolve around direct relationships to the group that has consolidated its appropriation and instituted its hegemony at the center constitutes the core of the state. The locations of the various groups on those concentric rings indicate the proximity and distances of contending groups to and from access to the state. The further away the ring is from the core, the more distant groups on those rings are from the state until the margins of the state are reached. Along these margins brew extreme repudiation of the status quo. This would seem to be the case of Nigeria.

In the face of the weaknesses of the state in the post-colonial state system and the complex linkages created by the intermestic character of the external environment, a domino effect is set off when any one state in the sub-region implodes as the violence, in time, spreads across adjacent borders. The complex linkages between the contending domestic forces and their transnational allies across international borders and the perceived legitimacy of the stakes of these transnational forces in the affairs of the various states in which they are represented imply that there are no affairs strictly internal to and limited to each formally demarcated sovereign state whose communities are inextricably linked.

• Ademola Araoye is a former Nigerian diplomat and a retired official of the United Nations. Currently a Visiting Professor associated with the SARCHi chair on African Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg, Araoye is author of critically acclaimed books including Cote d’Ivoire: The Conundrum of a Still Wretched of the Earth and Sources of Conflict in the Post-Colonial African State. He is a regular contributor to TheNEWS magazine

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