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The development challenges African countries face stem from their use of an inappropriate governance structure, the nation-state, writes Amira Kheir. The nation-state is an inherited system that does not match the continent’s needs and potential, says Kheir, arguing instead for a state that functions as an administrative centre for legislation and organisation but that remains free from ‘fictitious affiliations’ to a larger identity.

Conflict. Ethnic Cleansing. Scrambles for resources. Uncontrolled environmental degradation. Endemic corruption. Dependency. Failed States. Nearly 60 years since the first African countries declared independence (Sudan 1956, followed by Ghana 1958), the continent continues on many fronts to be in a state of arrested development. We seem to be caught in a perennial deadlock of human progress, due to ineffective institutions and an inherent inability to circumvent them. Will this be Africa’s predicament in 2010?

Perhaps it is time we re-examine the dilemma of African statehood through a different prism – as a crisis of inheritance rather than a crisis of capability. And by inheritance I am not predictably alluding to colonial legacy, rather to a very specific transition that occurred in the decolonisation era. While one is not independent of the other, pursuing a deterministic approach to the current status quo – one governed by cause and consequence, and not by simplistic notions of ‘nature’ – is perhaps where our answer lies.

More precisely, what I am attempting to present is an alternative paradigm – that the reason the state of affairs is as it is could be a direct result of the subtle inheritance of a system that did not match African needs and potential. This is an inheritance that is often overlooked as a norm and that is taken for granted as the natural and certain structure of governance: The nation-state.

While the state is symbolic of the physical structure and institutions of governance, the nation is something far less tangible. Its construction is essential in creating the allegiance, which ensures the nation-state’s longevity. It is in fact this relationship, which is at the basis of most successful nation-states – a robust linkage between the state and the nation, most commonly driven by a strong sense of nationalism propagated by the state.

So what does the nation-state mean in present day Africa? What is the future of African countries when they are gripped by an instability that shakes the very foundations of the nation-state? And most importantly, is it not time we transcend the aesthetic discourses regarding clientalism and tribalism, and begin to ask the more relevant questions? These are questions regarding the current legitimacy of the remnants of this exogenous model of governance carried on from European occupation.

Since independence, African politics have been characterised by conflicts at the root of which lie ethnic tensions. We need not look further than Rwanda, Nigeria and Mauritania (among many) to see evidence of this. Ethnicity has been, and continues to be, at the centre of the mainstream media debate on conflict and its repercussions.

Africa’s ailment of conflict is not as simplistic a categorisation as we may be led to believe. Behind it lies an obscure question regarding the fundamental flaw in a structure taken for granted to be the only structure and not the model it was imported as, which articulates itself as a broken promise. The nation-state has birthed countless crises of nationalism, minority destruction and the creation of contrived national identities to sustain this structure. The enigma of nationalism, its affiliation to statehood and its detrimental relationship to citizenship pose a great threat to a future of egalitarian pluralism.

According to Elie Kedourie (1960) the emergence of nationalism was a consequence of the moralisation of this new found ‘power to the people’-revolution. The nationalism doctrine was born out of European revolution by the start of 19th century. Consequently the introduction of an ideology of the nation as the sole natural political formation, upon which states can be built, set the nation-state as the ideal sum of all these parts. The derivation of the term ‘nation’ can be found in its Latin root ‘nasci’ to be born, which hence developed into the notion of a people from common origins.[1]

As a result is easy to see how inevitably problematic this conception becomes once exposed in its new environment of the post-colony. The post-colony is an amalgamation of arrested development of internal political formations, fragmented identities and transitory realties all coming together to mould into what is appropriated from colonial powers as the model of statehood and political and economic development of post-enlightenment thought. The disconnection of this acquired model of sovereignty with localised forms of rule has not only interfered with the natural progression of power structures (as colonialism itself has), but has also hindered the unitary formation of identities in post-colonial states creating disparate and competing claims to nationhood.[2]

Consequently the inheritance of the nation-state in the post-colony exposes the disjointedness of this appropriation as well as the fragmentation of identity through the destruction of minority consciousness implemented at the time of nation building. The crux lies in the specific transience of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial groups and the utilisation of assimilation, language and symbols to construct an identity deemed necessary for the formation of the nation-state – the national identity.

Post-colonial territories inherit the nation-state, as a pinnacle of modernity and progress.[3] The establishment of the nation-state necessarily requires the destruction of minority consciousness to allow for the establishment of some type of national consciousness. As a result, the phenomenon of nationalism as a derivative of the nation-state is the platform on which struggles for identity become visible.

The appropriation of the construct of the nation-state, used to regulate European models of society proves problematic when implemented in African and Asian realities of multi ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic societies. Nationalism conflicts with minority consciousness for three major reasons.

Firstly the nationalism deriving from the ‘importation’ of the nation-state renders it illegitimate in the eyes of the masses comprised of minorities, as the nation-state carries the legacies of colonial administrative rule and exploitative occupation.

Secondly, a particular variety of nationalism developed in the colonies as a response to colonial rule and was ultimately utilised as part of a struggle for liberation. As we will see this form of nationalism was never actually able to bind people together under the banner of a ‘nation’, but rather was instrumental in forging independence movements. As a result, once the objective of independence was met, it left the nation-state in a state of identity fragmentation resulting from a lack of real national linkages.

Thirdly, citizenship and the enjoyment of equal rights becomes the measure of the modernity or antiquity of a nation. Granting citizenship and rights is an intrinsic facet of nationhood and draws the line of separation between a nation-state (state being that which institutionalises) and a community of another type such as an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority. There is also a fundamental prerequisite of perception – internal and external – as nations or groups are in relation to other bodies.[4]

Consequently, Africa today is gripped by ailments whose roots lie in a structural flaw, which has by now become embedded in the system. Contrived nationalism – while not immediately acknowledged as an obvious discrepancy – is perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon that has secretly contaminated the 20th century.

In the post-colonial era these nation-states are faced with major challenges of validation and the deciphering of identities. In the face of the governance challenges that emerge during and after this period, they have weak tools at their disposal to combat fundamental problems of re-emerging sectarianism coupled with economic and political demise as the political apparatus within which they operate does not enable natural assimilation. Rather it superimposes a forced model of assimilation and in doing so carves deeper the divides.

In some cases, suppression of pluralism and minority rights becomes common in nation-states, where minorities are perceived to be a direct threat to the identity of the nation. In other cases where flagrant sub-groupism still exists and regulates society the nation-state still doesn’t fulfil the scope of effective governance on behalf of the whole. Yet both are examples of the same syndrome. This can be observed in countries like Sudan and Tanzania. In the former, ethnic ties still prevail over a larger national identity. In the latter, a fabricated national identity during independence is increasingly under threat from emerging competing affiliations.

Paradigms of integration within national borders also begin to emerge and their repercussions are directly felt as mass migration flows, displacement, refugee crises and scrambling over resources leading to conflict all continue to increase. All these issues are reconfigured as group-based problems, when in reality their roots are in economic disparity. But they become integrated into already existing polarised group relations, which are themselves a syndrome of contrived nationalism, deriving from the adoption of the nation-state.

So what could the alternative be to the nation-state? A state that is devoid of nation. A state functioning as an administrative centre for legislation and organisation, free from fictitious affiliations to a larger curtain identity.

The irreconcilability of the realities of diverse ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic minority identities with the construction of the nation-state’s pre-requisite national identity is at the centre of the subsequent break down in structural management of the state. The inherited model of the nation-state in Africa (and its derivative nationalism) caused the destruction of minority consciousness in post-colonialism and has had far reaching repercussions of identity fragmentation in modernity.[5]

This process, undergone at such a crucial time of state formation, undermined not only territorial authentication but also identity authentication and legitimate societal interactions and ties which themselves lay the foundations for statehood’s functioning. This fabricated toxic vacuum, which becomes embedded in political and social structures transcending time, could be a way of revisiting emerging phenomena, such as ethnicity substantiated conflict and religious extremism.

In the wake of a new decade and in a world where our inherent interconnectedness is ever more exposed (and simultaneously ever more challenged) Africa – and the world at large – has to embrace its diversity, not only at a social level but at a political and economic one too. It has to acknowledge its legacy and shed fictitious notions of nationalism. Only this way, will every African citizen truly have the opportunity to shatter deceiving notions of identity and attain true freedom – of thought, association, sexuality, practice, and political and social affiliation. Only this way will it we be equipped to face the challenges of our merging future.


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[1] Kedourie, Elie 1971 Nationalism in Asia and Africa, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
[2] Mbembe, Achille 1992 ‘The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Post-colony’ in Public Culture 4 (2)
[3] Mamdani, Mahmoud 2001 ‘Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism’ in Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, Columbia University
[4] Tivey, Leonard 1981 The Nation-State; The Formation of Modern Politics, Oxford: Martin Robertson
[5] Chatterjee, Partha 1993 The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press