The African state, with origins in Berlin, was founded with the raison d’être of serving the interest of the mother country in Europe. The primary failure of the postcolonial political leadership in Africa is its inability to reorient the state inwardly—i.e., from that Berlinian raison d’être to a political orientation that transforms subjects to citizens whose interests the state exists to promote; this is the moral aim of the state as opposed to the immoral aim of colonial extraction and exploitation. It is for this reason that independence has remained incomplete and deceitful: the institutions that were left behind are intended to reinforce this external posture, and the stakes remain high for anyone who attempts to imagine independence as an opportunity to alter this structure.
In the early postcolonial period, those leaders – like Lumumba, Nkrumah, Sankara, and others – who naively thought that independence would offer a chance to substantiate citizenship for their people were removed from power and replaced by those – like Mobutu, Senghor, Houphouet Boigny, and many others of a similar hue – who would acquiesce to a dictated, colonial meaning of independence: leadership as a placeholder for external interests. Most of the Lumumbas were forcefully replaced by the Mobutus around the 1960s to 1990s, which can, therefore, be termed the era of the emasculated African leader.
Consequently, the instinct for self-preservation by these colonial proxies has hindered efforts towards reorienting the state internally, efforts which would substantiate independence and make it meaningful to the African people. Once bitten, twice shy. Even as the methods of emasculating African leaders changed – from outright assassinations to more subtle forms such as sanctions and condemning reports that threaten international justice – the African leader remains cowed and unable to stand upright in the community of nations. This crisis of confidence and climate of fear that engulf African leaders have demobilized them from being of any consequence to the lives of the African people.
Perhaps only Botswana, and in some degree Mauritius, have built states that are inwardly oriented, with organic governance systems that are responsive to their context. Others who have aspired to do the same don’t seem to know where to start. For one thing, being colonial creations, just to sound tautological, African states’ only historical memory of why a state exists and what it exists to do is colonial: repressive and extractive. There is no memory or inspiration that links governance to anything healthy. Yet, there is unfortunately not enough amnesia to forget the colonial state in ways that do not reproduce it in people’s lives.
Moreover, the diversity of ethnic and religious groups that colonial history forcefully assembled into the current weakly-structured states has largely been negative; it has rendered them incapable of coming to a basic agreement around which consensus can be built about what aspects of their respective societies can be retained to imagine a new society. As a result, they do not know what aspects of their values and indigenous frameworks are worthy of being held onto to design a new, healthy and prosperous state. Rather than look inwards, they have settled for the colonial state as a “unifying” factor despite its inbuilt repression. It’s a unity in violence.
Accountability as consensus
The Berlinian state continues to thrive because every African generation has had only a few leaders who attempted to confront it and turn it inside out – “outside inside” to be precise. At no time have those few constituted a critical mass of leaders needed to constitute an irreversible turning of the corner. In fact, the very purpose of the hostility towards the few Lumumbas who dare to be different has been to cower the rest and prevent the emergence of the critical mass for a new African state that is internally oriented and responsive to the aspirations of the people.
In the post-cold war context, the leaders who have demonstrated a degree of confidence to channel the state inwardly have all understood the significance of accountability as the foundation. The much-praised democratic experiment in Ghana rests on this very foundation laid by the late Jerry Rawlings. It is telling that since Rawlings left power, the superstructure has proven formidable to carry a subsequent generation despite its shortcomings and occasional bouts of self-doubt, expressed in corrupt practices that have invaded the Ghanaian political space. It is credit to the wisdom of those who came after him to build a democratic dispensation upon that foundation.
Similarly, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is betting that those who will come after him can and will deepen the democratic agenda atop the model of governance that is heavily built on accountability and has made significant inroads towards being inwardly oriented through home grown solutions, for example.
Like Rawlings and Kagame, Meles Zenawi was loathed, in life and death, for the audacity to reject western lectures in his quest to turn Ethiopia inwards. His predecessor had oriented the state, an Empire that had successfully resisted colonization before that, outwardly by seeking the patronage of the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War.
Zenawi and the People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) managed to overthrow the Derg and to rescue the state from Soviet control that was in effect a replica of the Berlinian construct, albeit made in Moscow. Zenawi’s legacy is, therefore, his ability to rescue the Ethiopian state from the Soviet logic without turning it over to its counterpart of the Berlin model.
His critics couldn’t discountenance Ethiopia’s progress (the country was among those that, for instance, used resources, including aid, the critics’ main preoccupation, effectively to transform the lives of Ethiopians) to the point that they could only caricature him for his unrestrained arrogance (read self-confidence) as someone who “made authoritarianism respectable”, a back handed compliment and a euphemism for the foundation of political accountability and a capable state he had put in place. Could Zenawi have done better on the human rights front? Certainly. Neither did anyone expect that he would solve all Ethiopia’s ailments. Moreover, like the Ghanaian example above, this was the responsibility of those who would came after him: to deepen democracy without destroying the edifice.
However, like others who have attempted to transform the state to serve the needs of their people, he had also accepted that hostility towards this pursuit, from those accustomed to an externally oriented state, came with the territory.
These were those who have inherited the historical mission of preserving the logic of the Berlinian State and wish to expand it onto Ethiopia. For instance, they dismiss the view attributing the crisis in Ethiopia to a mismanaged transition from the Zenawian state to those who came after him because such viewpoint does not discredit the foundation upon which the EPDRF system was built, especially the essential aspects of it – around accountability – that could serve as an inspiration elsewhere in Africa. Instead, these critics of Africa’s introspection question this very foundation by suggesting that their exclusion from the internal aspirations of Ethiopians, especially during the Zenawi era, is the principal reason the country is unravelling and that the solutions that Ethiopians had for their society were inherently defective. They are suggesting, without any subtility, that the conflict in Ethiopia should put an end to this internal aspiration, implicitly demanding that the levers of decision-making should be handed to them to guide not only Ethiopians but the rest of Africans on what to do. As expected, the criticism is unprincipled and lacking in nuance. It fails to take stock of the decades of ruins resulting from Africans having to listen to their unhelpful lectures.
Consequently, the battle for the soul of the African state is currently brewing in Ethiopia and the protagonists are not just Prime Minister Abiy and the TPLF. There is a second layer between those who view the conflict as an unfortunate situation arising, as noted above, from the mismanaged transition that could be reversed and those eager and cheering on what they conceive as the failure of the Ethiopian experiment and as an opportunity to reclaim what they believe belongs to them: the right to dictate the choices Africans make. In other words, the stakes are higher than any outcome between the visible protagonists, with more far-reaching consequences than the future of Ethiopia: two wars taking place concurrently.
Only the crisis of confidence prevents Africans from noticing that the global leadership crisis is a clamouring for systems of governance that are responsive to the needs of the people, regardless of what they may be labelled. In other words, it’s a clamour for accountability. And if accountability is what the people want, then accountability is democracy, and its opposite is dictatorship anywhere in the world. Moreover, accountable leadership is the practical solution and the foundation upon which institutions that express the value systems and dignity befitting Africans and authentic to Africa can be erected in due course.
If Africa cannot destroy the (ethos of the) Berlinian state, it must circumvent it—by all means.