List of steps to a failed African state?
March 23, 2010 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for the identifiable steps that a government takes towards being a failed state, with a specific emphasis on African countries. I was wondering if anybody is aware of a list similar to this one written by Naomi Wolf. I am hoping for a list that might use Zimbabwe as a case study. Anything that addresses the systematic movement from a working to a failed state will be appreciated.
posted by gekko15 to Law & Government (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You could start with the Failed States Index and the accompanying article about it in Foreign Policy.
posted by proj at 10:36 AM on March 23, 2010

This literature complicates your question rather than addressing it directly, but Beatrice Hibou, Jean-Francois Bayart, Patrick Chabal, and William Reno brought out several volumes over the past decade around African statehood that have been rather influential: books about warlord politics, the criminalization of the state, and one called Africa Works. A more recent volume on the privatization of the state in Africa is closely related.

The gist of much of this literature is that it is analytically misleading to think of many African states as "failed." Rather, that it's more useful to think of them as working in ways different than we're used to (not that people don't suffer for the states working in these ways).

Mind you, if you check in the references sections of these books you will probably find key entries in the "failed state" literature.
posted by col_pogo at 10:42 AM on March 23, 2010

Another book that you might benefit from is Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa's Future. The author analyzes the recent history of the continent and its various failed governments, as well as talks about what needs to be done to get African nations on track for the future.
posted by rancidchickn at 10:47 AM on March 23, 2010

FYI, here are the steps from the Wikipedia link:
  1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.
  2. Create secret prisons where torture takes place.
  3. Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens.
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system.
  5. Harass citizens' groups.
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release.
  7. Target key individuals.
  8. Control the press.
  9. Treat all political dissidents as traitors.
  10. Suspend the rule of law.
This seems to be steps towards a totalitarian state, rather than a failed state. A totalitarian state, as its name implies, is a very strong state, and generally has control within its borders. While North Koreans and Somalis may live in the same kind of abject poverty, if a Somali decides to join a Muslim militia, the state will not swoop down and kill him on the spot.

Failed states all end up in the same place, but the path is different. For example, Zaire/Congo became a failed state because of Mobuto's sudden departure and the resulting civil war, which was compounded by the Rwandan genocide and the presence of heavily armed and organized Interahamwe militias in its eastern region.

Combine civil war with no central government, an unpaid but heavily armed military, no roads or other infrastructure, and you have chaos.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:47 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wolf is pretty biased and can be described as over the top and reactionary. I dont see how a feminist writer is qualified to comment on fascism let alone predict it.

I think you need to see the political forest for the trees. "Failed state" is very much a term used politically to dismiss your enemies. I'm sure if you asked an Iranian hardliner if the US was a failed state, he would say yes. Or ask a college student if Israel was a failed state and they would say yes.

There's a list of failed states you can lookup. Is North Korea really a failed state? There's no competing militias taking government power and they have a centralized military and control of their borders. Or Burma or Pakistan.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:52 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found this article on why the term failed states isn't useful quite illuminating, and if not directly to your question, it does provide some context to consider.
posted by forforf at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2010

While not strictly speaking answering your question, Jim Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, once told me that, to be viable, a country needed four things:

1. A viable banking system (i.e. reasonably honest and independent and reasonably accessible to all strata of society).
2. A viable legal system (i.e reasonably honest and seen to be so, reasonably fair and one where there was a good chance that justice could be obtained).
3. A viable investment protection system, i.e. one where foreign investors as well as domestic investors could be sure that they could put their money in and take it out and would not be subject to arbitrary seizure.
4. A properly functioning stock market.

The further a country was removed from these four criteria, the more likely it would be to fail.
posted by TheRaven at 2:04 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia's current description of Zimbabwe 1999-Present may provide a verbose version of what you're looking for. Here's how I'd boil it down:

1- government redistribution of privately owned goods
2- policing agencies not following judicial decisions
3- lack of management / assistance in times of hardship (drought further impacted the farming potential, leading to famine and hyperinflation)
4- hinder / ruin the democratic process

Simplified further to general notions:
1- arbitrary government control of goods/services
2- failure of government to follow it's own mandates / police act without reason
3- government exacerbates hardships through lack of support
4- end of democracy
posted by filthy light thief at 4:14 PM on March 23, 2010

But is Zimbabwe a failed state? The state itself still has lots of power: if Mugabe changes law regarding land title, militias will arrive to enforce those laws, and I would argue that the primary characteristic of a failed state is lack of centralized authority, combined with disparate, decentralized power blocks, much like the warlords of Afghanistan, or a capital city like Bogota that is effectively surrounded by a narco-insurgency.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:26 PM on March 23, 2010

Wikipedia has a pretty interesting article on failed states, and since there really is no common definition (my example above uses the metric of a central government being able to impose its will through force inside its territory, which may not be the best or most positive descriptor), lists a number of indicators.

Here's a list of failed states. Interestingly, the United States, the UK and Japan are at moderate risk of being failed states, presumably because their high levels of public debt versus GDP, while countries such as Canada and Australia are cheerfully listed as "sustainable".

Foreign Policy magazine acknowledges that it's difficult to classify a failed state, and points to the Fund for Peace as a generally recognized authority about what criteria constitute a failed state.

The Wikipedia article above also cites the Fund for Peace extensively, as well.

Here are the indicators:

Social Indicators
1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons creating

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
3. Legacy of Vengeance-Seeking Group Grievance or Group Paranoia
4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight

Economic Indicators
5. Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
6. Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline

Political Indicators
7. Criminalization and/or Delegitimization of the State
8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
9. Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and

Violation of Human Rights
10. Security Apparatus Operates as a "State Within a State"
11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
12. Intervention of Other States or External Political Actors
posted by KokuRyu at 4:38 PM on March 23, 2010

Ayittey's Africa in Chaos has a pretty good timeline of how and why many African states fail or weaken. Zimbabwe, as I recall, isn't particularly covered, but I think you could divine some wisdom. Also, Greg Mills edited a great book that, as I recall, dipped into the topic - Big African States (though this one definitely does not cover Zimbabwe, the section on the DRC would be useful).

I agree with KokuRyu - there's no "one path" to becoming a failed state. There's a few steps one could take to fail a state, and there are signs that a state might, could, or will fail*, and there are signs that a state is about to fail. But the way Zimbabwe has disintegrated is different from how Somalia has disintegrated is very different from how Afghanistan has disintegrated.

*I am still not convinced this term is particular useful outside defining the specific, marked lack of a state monopoly on force within its borders.
posted by quadrilaterals at 6:51 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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