Statehood and pan-Africanism

Looking at the idea of the state through Western eyes, we have a clear idea of what it should be, even if we find it difficult to pin down in words.  Theories of statehood, from Weber onwards, tend to take their definitions from a Western starting point. Criticisms of African states tend to accuse them of weakness if they don’t meet these ideals.  However, Weber sets a standard that few states conform to all of the time, and a more flexible definition, like Brownlie’s, focusing on a stable territory and a functioning government, is vague and flexible enough to fit reality more comfortably.

Jackson and Rosberg’s emphasis on external recognition from other states is interesting in light of pan-African movements and organisations.  Does membership of the African Union confer legitimacy on weak states?  This is interesting in the face of general arguments attempting to explain the apparent lack of success of any pan-African enterprise by focusing on the lack of enthusiasm to cede sovereignty in the wake of long independence struggles.  This suggests the idea and commitment to statehood is alive and well and that the level of integration conferred by regional and continental bodies may well be at just the right level, balancing all interests.

The profusion of regional bodies as well as the AU suggests that actually the idea of the state is stronger than expected.  The fact that for example SADC was founded within a year of the AU, and then in 1999 Angola, the DRC, Namibia and Tanzania signed a separate defence treaty within that makes me wonder if these organisations are not being used to counter-balance each other and in totality achieve the initial goal – peace and security on the continent for individual states.  It is a way of pooling risk without diluting sovereignty.

In the same vein, a state can appear weak if its institutions do not function to Western eyes, if there is widespread evasion of taxation, if bribery and corruption is rife, if rule by decree is the norm, but if the overall effect of this is to keep rival power-centres under control, that may be enough.  Ultimately a state has to benefit society, from peasants to elites.  Various groups may evade engagement at times, but if it works …


Jackson, Robert H., & Rosberg, Carl G. (1982). Why Africa’s Weak States Persist: The  Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood. World Politics, 35(1), 1-24.

Nathan, Laurie. “Synopsis of Community of insecurity: SADC’s struggle for peace and security in southern Africa.” African Security Review 22:3 (2013): 181-189.

Welz, Martin (2012), Integrating Africa: Decolonization’s Legacies, Sovereignty and the African Union. London and New York: Routledge, Introduction.

Weiss, T. and M. Welz, “The UN and the African Union in Mali and beyond: a shotgun wedding?”, International Affairs, 90, 2014, 889–905.


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