Not Only 'Neocolonialsm' - Why African States Keep Failing

As France embarks on its third military intervention in Africa in the past three years, in the Central African Republic, a search for the sources of a continent's perennial instability.

Congolese soldiers near Goma
Congolese soldiers near Goma
Jean-Loup Amselle

PARIS — The recent French interventions in North Africa (Libya, Mali), and the one that began last week in the Central African Republic, raise the question of the very existence of the state on the continent.

Even though anthropologists identified the existence in precolonial times of two types of societies — state societies represented by kingdoms and empires, and segmentary lineage society, organized in tribes — it is clear that the former's characteristics are very different from that of the rational bureaucratic state, which one can observe nowadays in most developed countries.

The great Sudanese empires of the Middle Ages (Ghana, Mali, Songhai) or those that developed from the 18th century onwards — like the Fula empire of Massina, the Imamate of Futa Jallon or the Bamana Empire — did indeed possess specific characteristics. At the center of these political entities, sovereigns had absolute power, leaving none to those situated on the outskirts of the kingdoms. They only controlled these parts remotely, creating divisions among the villages, lineages and different leaders to establish their rule.

At the end of the 19th century, the French conquest ended with the destruction of the empires of El Hadj Umar Tall and Samori Ture, and the establishment of a colonial bureaucratic machinery over the societies of the region. The French colonial administration was however far from direct, often relying on local intermediaries such as canton leaders.

When these countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they kept using the same institutions as the former rulers, even though they sometimes sought to imitate the functioning of socialist countries (Mali, Guinea, Ghana, etc.). But the weakness of these political institutions together with manipulations from the former colonizers led, more or less quickly, to the fall of these states, which were then replaced with military regimes (Moussa Traoré"s in Mali, Lansana Conté"s in Guinea, etc).

Pressures from the French — among them from then President François Mitterrand in a famous speech in June 1990 — soon drove the military out of power. This is how Mali, after Senegal, became the longstanding model of democracy in Africa. Therefore, observers were all the more surprized when in March 2012, a simple officer from the Malian army, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, managed with an almost unbelievable ease to topple President Amadou Toumani Touré. And it is only thanks to the French intervention that the Malian state was saved.

Without going as far as talking about neocolonialism or puppet states, the conditions in which this intervention took place and what followed do raise questions as to the nature of politics in Mali, as it appeared very clearly that there was no centralized political system — or as a matter of fact, no existing state in Mali, and possibly in many other African countries.

Politics in Africa are essentially dominated by predatory principles and vote-catching redistribution. So much so that speaking of corruption makes no sense in these countries where it is crucial to occupy positions of power to allow one's family and friends to benefit from it.

Predators and politicians

Moreover, it appeared that the more a regime was democratic and decentralized — the keyword of the policies pushed forward by international sponsors in 1990s — the more important predatory skills and clientelism would become. The Malian state machinery, like many of its African counterparts, is therefore riddled by networks that feed on the range of resources available on the continent: mining and oil as well as international aid and drug trafficking.

No state and no society either — but instead networks whose functioning methods are based more on Marcel Mauss' theories of reciprocity and gift exchange (set out in his 1924 essay The Gift) than on Western treaties of political science. What happened in Mali was not a one-off: This alarming phenomenon also affects the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the central power fails to have authority on the whole of its territory, Somalia, the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, and the Central African Republic as well.

Africa is now experiencing the implosion of its bureaucratic state and the redefinition of social and political ties, which far from systematically being all about ethnicity show instead the emergence of religious factors.

For developing countries and international organizations, the fall of the state creates a number of problems, especially with regards to maintaining law and order on the continent. In the meantime, it also allows multinational companies and the richest countries to get hold of the much sought-after raw materials at a lower cost.

*Jean-Loup Amselle is an anthropology teacher at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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