African Political Structures: A Debate

I just hooked a big fish on the end of my line when I tweeted about my support for secession of Azawad to Dr. George Ayittey, an economist at American University and one of Africa’s leading lights of classical liberalism.  I have a talent for ribbing people in just the right place at just the right time, and the following response I got from Dr. Ayittey confirms my magnificent talent (some may disagree with the label ‘talent’, but I digress).

In response to my support for Azawad, Dr. Ayittey tweeted the following:

Secessionist wars in Africa have been FEW, not countless: Casamance (Senegal (dormant); Tuareg, Mali (active); Biafra, Nigeria (put down); South, East and Western Sudan (one successful, two active); Cabinda, Angola (fizzled), Katanga, Congo put down); Ogaden, Ethiopia (active) – total is 9. No secessionist wars in Somalia. The Somali are ethnically homogenous.  After the ouster of military dictator, General Siad Barre in 1991, central government in Mogadishu disintegrated as “educated barbarians” – warlords and Islamic extremists – battled fiercely for control, even though the capital has been reduced to an ash heap of rubble. At that point, Puntland and Somaliland decided to walk away from the chaos in Mogadishu. There was no war of secession. They have indicated that they would be willing to come back if Mogadishu can get its act together.

Break-up or secession is NOT the solution to Africa’s woes. There are more than 2,000 ethnic groups in Africa, with 250 in Nigeria and over 400 in Congo DR. If secession is taken to the limit, we may end up over 1,000 “Little Djiboutis” all over the continent, each with its own president-for-life, Swiss bank account and one-plane fleet of airlines.

The solution is reconfiguration of the colonial state – from unitary state system to federal or confederal system. The unitary state system is unsuitable for ethnically homogenous Somali, let alone multi-ethnic African nations. It concentrates power at the center, which leads to competition among various groups to capture that power. We need a state structure that DECENTRALIZES power and allows the constituent ethnic groups the autonomy and freedom to pursue their own affairs – not dictated to by the center as currently. Such a state structure can be found in Africa’s own indigenous system. All the ancient empires of Africa – Ghana, Mali,, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe, etc. – were confederacies. Modern day Switzerland is a confederation of 26 cantons.

Oh my God, I’m good!  It is worth repeating that Dr. Ayittey is a world-renowned scholar and opponent of African dictatorships, and one of my favorite books I’ve ever read is his Indigenous African Institutions, a book explaining that property and other individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law are already embedded within the traditional indigenous legal and political laws of African tribes.  It is a book with an argument that deserves much more attention in the world today.

With this being said, I am going to pick Dr. Ayittey’s argument apart and show why secession is actually one of the options that should be used to decentralize Africa.  What is remarkable about this debate is that Dr. Ayittey and I probably agree on 92% of what needs to happen for liberty to flourish on the African continent.  The 8%, though, is important.

Secessionist wars in Africa have been FEW, not countless: Casamance (Senegal (dormant); Tuareg, Mali (active); Biafra, Nigeria (put down); South, East and Western Sudan (one successful, two active); Cabinda, Angola (fizzled), Katanga, Congo (put down); Ogaden, Ethiopia (active) – total is 9. No secessionist wars in Somalia. The Somali are ethnically homogenous.

What about Libya?  Benghazi sure seems bent on at least attaining much more sovereignty than it has had in the past.  The violence in the Ivory Coast also seems to have secessionist elements to it, though again this may just be a way to try to secure more regional autonomy.  So, nine total secessionist movements since independence, with the caveat that much of the violence in Africa is due to the struggle between the center and the regions.

After the ouster of military dictator, General Siad Barre in 1991, central government in Mogadishu disintegrated as “educated barbarians” – warlords and Islamic extremists – battled fiercely for control, even though the capital has been reduced to an ash heap of rubble. At that point, Puntland and Somaliland decided to walk away from the chaos in Mogadishu. There was no war of secession. They have indicated that they would be willing to come back if Mogadishu can get its act together.

Okay, but what if Mogadishu doesn’t get its act together?  Why doesn’t the international community recognize the de facto independence of these breakaway regions?  If these regions want to get back together later on, they should be free to do so, but if they don’t want to rejoin with Mogadishu, why shouldn’t they be allowed to pursue their own paths?  I think the gist of Dr. Ayittey’s worries come in his next line of reasoning:

Break-up or secession is NOT the solution to Africa’s woes. There are more than 2,000 ethnic groups in Africa, with 250 in Nigeria and over 400 in Congo DR. If secession is taken to the limit, we may end up over 1,000 “Little Djiboutis” all over the continent, each with its own president-for-life, Swiss bank account and one-plane fleet of airlines.

I think the corruption Dr. Ayittey laments has more to do with Africa’s self-imposed isolation than it does with the geographic size of its states.  Socialism and national self-sufficiency were popular rallying cries in the early days of African independence, and the societies there are now reaping the bitter rewards of their sowing.

Smaller states would be much better for Africa than the large ones in place.  My line of reasoning is thus: in Europe, there are a little over fifty states in a geographic area one-third the size of Africa.  In both Africa and Asia, another continent with lots of problems, there are also more or less fifty states in these geographic regions.

State size matters.  The more “Little Djiboutis” there are, the better.  Of course, there is a catch to this, and Dr. Ayittey addresses it in his next paragraph:

The solution is reconfiguration of the colonial state – from unitary state system to federal or confederal system. The unitary state system is unsuitable for ethnically homogenous Somali, let alone multi-ethnic African nations. It concentrates power at the center, which leads to competition among various groups to capture that power. We need a state structure that DECENTRALIZES power and allows the constituent ethnic groups the autonomy and freedom to pursue their own affairs – not dictated to by the center as currently. Such a state structure can be found in Africa’s own indigenous system. All the ancient empires of Africa – Ghana, Mali,, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe, etc. – were confederacies. Modern day Switzerland is a confederation of 26 cantons.

I totally agree, and if you extend Dr. Ayittey’s common sense approach to, say, the European Union or the US federal system, you get the gist of why such political structures are so good for liberty.  My critique of Dr. Ayittey’s argument, then, is why does he not see secession as a legitimate way to decentralize Africa?

A thought exercise is in order.  Suppose that State A doesn’t have its act together.  There is lots of corruption, some murder, lots of looting, and no democracy.  So Region B in State A decides it wants no more of it and declares its independence from State A.  Region B tells State A that it would be more than willing to rejoin State A once it got its act together, since Region B and State A have a lot of ties: the people in State A and Region B both use French as their lingua franca (oh, I get it!) and both, while not ethnically homogenous, have ethnic groups who share a common affinity for a common cultural trait, like enjoying fufu and jollof rice.

Region B goes to the international community and presents its case, including its promise to consider rejoining State A if it gets its act together.  State A protests Region B’s case under the guise of state sovereignty, and the international community rejects Region B’s case.  State A then embarks on a campaign to stamp out resistance to its dictator.

Does anybody see anything wrong here, or am I thinking about this the wrong way?

Federal and confederal systems have worked great for the Western world, and for the world’s pre-colonial polities that utilized these systems, in part because, as Dr. Ayittey points out, there is so much political decentralization, which in turn creates more economic integration.  This economic integration is integral to promoting peace and prosperity, and is largely the reason why Dr. Ayittey and others fear what secession would do to Africa.  Yet socialism and economic isolationism are on the wane, and secession supported by the international community would send a clear signal to dictators: either behave yourselves and reform, or be held responsible for the disintegration of the state you are (mis)ruling.

So why can’t Region B get any love from the international community?  I can see why Russia and China and India say ‘no’, but what about the West?

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