Mali: Let It Collapse, Duh! Part 2

I just came across an article in the New York Times via Bill Easterly, and it is very discouraging. The article is, of course, about the aspirations of Azawad, the breakaway region of Mali that just declared its independence. The article outlines the slim-to-none chances Azawad has of breaking free from the shackles of colonial legacy and African despotism:

“[…] there is little likelihood that anyone will defeat the Tuaregs on the battlefield anytime soon.

Still, they face slim odds of establishing a nation. Just ask Ahmed Abdi Habsade, a government minister in Africa’s other unrecognized state, Somaliland. ‘We have many problems,’ Mr. Habsade said in a telephone interview from Somaliland’s capital, Hargeysa. ‘The country cannot get donations from the U.N. or other governments. We are not having a budget to develop our country.’

Somaliland, which sits in the northwestern corner of Somalia, has been a de-facto independent nation for the better part of two decades, and an oasis of calm in the chaos that has swept up Somalia. Its claims to independence date from the colonial era, when it was a British protectorate while Somalia was controlled by Italy. The two states merged after independence, but the Somalilanders had almost immediate regrets, and have been trying to break free ever since.

Somaliland has had successes, including holding peaceful elections, yet it has struggled without an international stamp of approval on its nationhood. The country lacks many of the trappings of a state.


Somalilanders who do not have a foreign passport have little choice but to go to Somalia to get travel documents, a great humiliation, Mr. Hassan said. ‘It is unfair,’ he said. ‘When it comes to Bosnia and other places in Europe, they recognize their claim. But when it is black people, they don’t care or pay attention.’

An African Union fact-finding mission in 2005 said that Somaliland might have legitimate claims to independence, calling it ‘unique and self-justified in African political history.’ Seven years on, the African Union has yet to change its position.


Africa’s borders are in many ways fictions. They are largely a creation of European colonial powers, who carved up the continent in the 19th century for their own convenience, paying no mind to ethnic, religious and linguistic borderlines that had existed for centuries […]

But when African leaders formed the Organization of African Unity in 1963, one of the guiding principles was that the colonial borders, no matter how inconvenient they might be, should be sacrosanct. [emphasis mine – BC] The alternative — a continent smashed into thousands of shards, constantly at war — was unthinkable. The organization, which came to be discredited as a club for despots, was disbanded in 2002, and restarted as the African Union. Much of the old structure was jettisoned, but the commitment to colonial borders remained.

There have been a few exceptions. Eritrea won its independence in 1993 after a long and very bloody war with Ethiopia. South Sudan, which had been operating as all but independent from the northern half of Sudan, voted to become independent in 2011 as part of a peace deal that ended a 20-year civil war.

But the story of separatism in Africa has been one of thwarted dreams and hard-won compromise. When the Igbo people of southern Nigeria tried to break free in 1967, the civil war was so brutal that no other group in that polyglot nation has tried with such force again. Separatist movements, both armed and peaceful, grind on in Ethiopia, Angola and Cameroon, among others, with little hope of success.”

If you haven’t noticed by now, one of my main academic interests is statehood in the post-colonial world. My three other (budding) fortes are pre-colonial polities, property rights, and post-colonial thought. I know I have a lot of work to do, but I think there are some lessons that can be drawn from the sentence that I emphasized in the NYT passage:

“But when African leaders formed the Organization of African Unity in 1963, one of the guiding principles was that the colonial borders, no matter how inconvenient they might be, should be sacrosanct.”

This is a big problem in not only Africa, but throughout the post-colonial world. During Europe’s imperial age, most of the children from the elite families of colonized people attended school in Europe, Russia, or, if they were lucky, the United States. Unfortunately, during the relatively brief era of European imperialism, Marxist thought utterly dominated universities. The end result was that most of the independence leaders of the post-colonial world came to view it through a Marxist lens, much to the detriment of the peoples living in these regions of the world.

This is partly the fault of classical liberals, who were either not ardent enough in opposing imperialism, or were actually proponents of the imperialist system itself (like John Stuart Mill). The result was that Marxists came to win not only hearts of future colonial leaders, but also their minds.

So after World War 2, when Europe was weak and its colonies smelled blood, the leaders who were influenced by Marxist thought seized their moment, and rightly so. Unfortunately, instead of preaching about free markets, decentralized government, and individual liberty, these leaders were advocates of class struggle. Class struggle, in case you missed Dr. Delacroix’s penetrating essay, is not really about “rich and poor”, but about different factions within a society struggling to assert their authority over other factions. We can see the fruits of these Marxist-influenced leaders’ labor today in the forms of the political structures that they aspire to maintain and control. We see it in Mali, we see it Nigeria, we see it Pakistan, we see it in Somalia, we see it in Iraq, we see it in Libya, and we see it in the United States.

The fact that the despotic leaders of the African Union want to keep the colonial boundaries intact should be the first clue that something is horribly wrong with this worldview. As an (ironic) aside, Marx actually thought that colonialism was good for the colonized, because, like capitalism, it would help to usher in communism faster. Unfortunately, the leaders of post-colonial states still harbor this view. The guns and the violence with which they defend such a view is telling of the state-socialist’s utopia. Freedom can not be imposed from above. It has to come from the ground up. This is why shattering the old colonial boundaries is a good thing, as it will enable more people to be able to participate in self-governance through decentralizing political structures. Of course, free trade needs to go hand-in-hand with decentralization, or else the new states, if they gain their statehood, will look more like North Korea than Switzerland.

Addendum: co-editor Fred Foldvary has written about Africa’s troubles in a much more clear, concise way here.

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