Reaffirming the Centrality of Structure in Managing Conflicts in the Post-Colonial State

Reaffirming the Centrality of Structure in Managing Conflicts in the Post-Colonial State

Thursday, October 19, 2023 1:40 pm

Ademola Araoye

Ademola Araoye,


By Ademola Araoye

This intervention is a contribution to the ongoing discourse on the contemporary challenges of Nigeria and the way forward. It is a slightly modified excerpt from my book “The Sources of Conflict in the Post-Colonial African State. (Africa World Press, New Jersey, 2014). It basically reaffirms the centrality of structure in managing conflicts in the multi-national post-African colonial state. Nigeria is an example of such a structurally fragile political entity.

Structure: Conflicts are inherent in the multiple instrumental characters 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 act in concert with respective affiliated transnational groups in the intermestic immediate external environment in which the state is located. The goal of the struggle is to dominate 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.
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 historic 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 leadership with partisan group-interest mandate as agents that at one level articulate the political goals of the protagonist groups and at another level articulate those partisan political goals in an interactive process between the people and their leaders.

Ademola Araoye

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 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 orders.1 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 postcolonial 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 the 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. As David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild show “state weakness, whether it arises incrementally out of competition between groups or from extremists actively seeking to destroy ethnic peace, is a necessary condition for violent ethnic conflict to erupt.”
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.

This is often the case at the end of a one-party state system, or through the death of the charismatic leader or the imposition by external forces leading to a sudden opening of the political space for truly competitive democratization of the process. Deprived of the overwhelming influence of the often cultic and charismatic sway of the old leader that drove the system, the stage is set for competition unlimited in scope by all the contesting groups. Often the single party, the instrument for the old leader, begins to implode through its internal contradictions as well as its inability to harmonize the parochial interests of all the contending forces that begin to publicly show dissent to established principles and modes of thinking that were considered sacrosanct. Often a conjuncture of factors may simply unravel the myth or delegitimize the old leader and his regime and open the political space to competitive contests.

In the ensuing post-one-party one-man state system (POPS/POMS), especially within the context of an incipient democracy, the political power of groups is often determined by the size of its population. Demographic structure acquires significant political importance in determining what groups have the population to win elections.

This is exemplified in Congo Brazzaville’s post-Marxist civil war that began with the delegitimization of the Sassou Nguesso-led Parti Travalleurs Congolaise (PCT) by the country’s national sovereign conference, the Kabila war in Zaire that began with the demystification of Sese Seko Mobutu by the sovereign national conference, the crisis of succession in Cote d’Ivoire in post-Houphouet Boigny that degenerated into a civil war and the emergence of an Ivorian proto state, the two and half decades of war in post-hegemonic Liberia following Samuel Doe’s April 1980 coup d’etat that toppled the True Whig party that had been in power since the founding of the Republic in 1847, as well as the crisis generated by the ascension to power of Faure Eyadema in Togo following the demise of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema. The leaders of these countries had ruled for over a decade and half before being forced out of office mostly through death. Before then, access to power was determined by historical factors, including the disposition of the colonial power toward the various contending groups. The leadership of virtually all francophone states in sub-Saharan Africa were validated or put in office by France.

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 struggle for control may also lead to the consolidation of an old hegemony. The two outcomes are often violently contested. The process of regime change has often sparked the start of violent conflicts as contending forces see the process as a unique opportunity to wrest power and control. These changes may be ushered through revolutionary means such as a coup d’etat. Such coups are designed to dislodge the dominant group from power as in the September 2002 attempt of the Forces Nouvelles in Cote d’Ivoire to usher in a Mossi-led regime. Coups are also staged to protect partisan rule. Most of the coups in Nigeria have been to consolidate partisan hold on power. It may also be through democratic means in which elections are required to legitimize the consolidation of the rule of the dominant forces. It could also be motivated by a power transition to another power-contending group or force in the political system as the experience was with the President Pascal Lissouba in Congo Brazzaville. President Lissouba who hails from the NIBOLEK region of the south overthrew a hegemony of the northern-dominated Parti Congolaise du Travailleur (PCT) in the post-Sovereign conference elections.

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 ethno-religious/regional 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 resources available to each group, and their capacity to organize effectively. More powerful groups have a larger say in setting the terms of the contract. The struggle for the appropriation of the state among contending forces, due to the structural incongruity of the post-colonial state, leads to the weakening of the polity and undermines its capacity to function to protect the interests of all. This breeds pervasive insecurity in the political process and directs 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, dominated by a hegemonic group pursuing partisan objectives, a totalitarian one.

*Professor Ademola Araoye, is a conict analyst and practitioner of over 32 years. A graduate of the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, he was Head of Political, Policy and Planning and retired as Head of O”ice for the Consolidation of Democratic Governance of the United Nations Mission in Liberia. He is author , among others, Sources of Conict in the Post-Colonial African State. (Africa
World Press, New Jersey, 2014).

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