Tag Archives: Scramble for Africa

Exploring the Creation of the Nigerian State

Where does Nigeria fit into a discussion of how states are made? It is weak by nearly all measurements, and Foreign Policy magazine even labeled it a “failed state” based on its poverty and governance in 2010. To answer the Nigeria question, we might look to the institutional approach of state theory. It asserts that institutions—the way societies are organized—are the fundamental cause of countries’ underdevelopment. This traditional institutional explanation, built mainly on case studies in European countries, offers a helpful but incomplete framework for analyzing current conditions in Nigeria. It is deficient due to Nigeria’s unique human geography, colonial history, and resource endowment.

To remedy this weakness in institutional models, Jeffrey Herbst makes two key arguments about African state formation. First, he identifies population density as the causal factor behind institution building and a source of institutional comparative statics, not institutions themselves. His story is that Europe was scarce in land and high in population, whereas Africa had abundant land and fell short in population. This meant that Africans did not have to wage wars of land seizure or land defense that led to state-making and institution building, alá Charles Tilly. Furthermore, colonization in the name of resource plunder replaced the phase when institution building should have taken place. Colonization was followed by the Cold War in which the Western and Soviet powers were vying for allies in African countries, and this Western or Soviet financial support also replaced what would have been a period of institution building.

In Robert Bates’ state-centric mixed method analysis, he argues that the collapse of the state causes war and then violent political disorder, and not vice versa. The author focuses on what he identifies as the three keys to state failure in Africa aside from the destructive force of colonialism.  The first is ethnic tensions, which are the result of state failure and not of ancient hatreds, and the second is natural resources, which he finds to be a correlate but not a cause of war (as opposed to Collier and Hoeffler, or Fearon and Laitin).  The third cause for failure is a lack of strong democracy, and he maintains that competitive parties are required but not sufficient for order. Lastly, he concludes that public revenues matter more than private income, which is essentially an issue of poverty levels (Bates 2008). Bates and Barzel both think that strongly democratic states have greater productivity because individuals enjoy residual claims, thus giving individuals an incentive to be efficient (Barzel 2002).  Conversely, without rule of law the government keeps residual resources for itself, giving individuals no incentive to be efficient. Propositions by the two can aptly be applied to a reading of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s current economic, political and social conditions are best explained by research on oil politics specifically. For one, the stimied capacity of the state to raise revenues and its growing reliance on powerful interest groups conspire to limit the range of policy choices open to the government, paralyzing the process of institutional development. Thus, most extractive states like Nigeria develop similar institutional frameworks that encourage political leaders to pursue politically painless policy solutions. The end result is an institutionally weak state reliant on oil rents and beholden to rent seekers (Karl 1997).

Some argue that oil revenues interfere with state evolution—the competition for the survival of the fittest country. Most of Europe’s states did not survive because most of them were weak and unorganized; those that still exist today were simply better than the others.  Conversely, all of Africa’s modern states have survived, even bad ones.  Foreign influences and oil revenues has allowed weak states that should have died out continue on (Herbst 2000). Soares de Oliveira claims that oil may very well be the single factor allowing weak African nations to survive despite failing to meet Weberian criteria for stateness. He calls these “successful failed states” because they have immense amounts of money and can at times use ample force, yet are barely functional (with functionality defined by their institutionalization, legitimacy, and degree of rentierism). Their failure is a continuation of politics by other means (Soares de Oliveira 2007, 56).

Such a portrayal of African oil-rich countries accords with that of Scott, who conceives of the state as being an inherently extractive entity (Scott 2009). He adds to the discussion by describing how countries will use resources, e.g. oil revenues, to invent development schemes that inevitably fail because they ignore the complexity of practices, processes, and relations present in those environments, the value of everyday local knowledge. They continue to push forward these improvement plans because of their ongoing attempts at being more modern, which means greater “stateness” that justifies their own governance (Scott 1998). Oil actually exaggerates the phenomenon that Scott describes by providing almost limited resources. Nigeria has engaged in these modernizing development projects and virtually of them have been a failure.

Italian Colonization in Africa

Flag of the Italian Empire

When we think of the colonization of Africa, the British and the French are the key empires that first come to mind, followed by the Portuguese, Belgians, Dutch, and Germans.  In the Scramble for Africa, Italy was not considered a key player in comparison to other major European powers. Italy did come to occupy Libya, Somalia, modern-day Eritrea, and later on Ethiopia briefly (although Ethiopia can boast to have had the only army to successfully repel an European force, the Adwa victory in 1896). As a student of Nigerian history, I have spent the last several years analyzing the nature of British rule in West Africa, especially in comparison to the French style. An overly simplified description would be that the British were comparably hands-off, I emphasize comparably, preferring to use indirect rule by bribing local chiefs and maintaining pre-existing structures of indigenous rule.  France however took a more top-down approach, centralizing its governments in Africa using officials from France, ousting local rulers, and imposing oppressive law known as IndigenatSince arriving to Florence to write my Niger Delta findings, I have spent more time thinking about how a European power could have been comparably less successful in its attempts to colonize African territories. Italy is an example of this.

At lunch with a noted Italian historian yesterday, I asked, “Why was Italy so poor at colonization?” His answer was direct, that Italy simply arrived too late to the colonization game to be able to compete with the firmly established empires that were already occupying most of Africa.  He emphasized that Italy did not become united as a country until 1861, and by then European colonizers had already been exploiting African peoples and resources for centuries.  At this time Italy barely knew how to govern itself, let alone far away foreign lands.

I would add to his account that there was a resurgence in the idea of an Italian Empire during WWI, a war during which Italy secured its stronghold in Libya particularly.  There existed a popular rhetoric of nationalism, in which interlocutors described Libya as still part of the ancient Roman Empire, and by extension of that as being part of Italy. Giovanni Pascoli, a great nationalist writer, stressed the importance both in his written works and speeches of forging an expanded national identity through conquest and praising of the proletariat. Yet still, Italy could never quite “catch up” with other Europeans in the colonization of Africa.

Mussolini‘s regime sought to regain a foothold in Africa starting in the 1920’s, and did so with his conquering of Ethiopia 1936, when he declared an official “Italian Empire.” However, WWI had depleted the resources of the Italian government and Mussolini failed to understand realistically what was necessary to successfully maintain rule over African colonies. It was only a matter of time before his fascism was brought to an end, and WWII created such reverberating changes in the European-African relationship that Italy essentially no longer had any power in Africa by the end of the War.

There is a bridge in Addis Ababa that I have heard about which has Mussolini’s inscription on it, essentially marking it as his future domain.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and apparently makes rulers have totally unrealistic goals for their conquests.

Benito Mussolini