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Why States Failed in Late-Century Africa?

May 7, 2013

If one looks at the period 1975-1990 and counts the number of civil wars episodes every year across countries in Sub-Saharan African one notices one striking feature: as the time passes by the number of civil war episodes increases, in other words more and more countries are drawn into civil wars. In his book When Things Fell Apart professor Robert Bates asks why states in late-century Africa fell apart. He does so by centering his research on one argument: political stability is not a given, it is on the contrary an equilibrium which produces itself under given circumstances. If one is interested in finding out the roots of the prevalence of political mayhem over political stability one has to identify (from the theory) the circumstances which supports stability and then assess whether or not these circumstances prevailed in the period under examination. By doing so, Bates weaves a compelling argument which trumps previous (more simplistic)  explanations which focused on narrower factors (states collapsed because they were ethnically heterogeneous  or because they were cursed with too many resources etc).

When Does Political Stability Prevail?  Political order is defined as an equilibrium in which those who govern and who hold the power of means of violence (specialists in violence) refrain from preying upon their citizens and on the other hand offer protection to them. Similarly, for political stability to prevail the citizens must be content with the specialist of violence and pay taxes for the service (protection) they receive. The opposite scenario is one where the specialists in violence use their force to extract surplus from their citizens and/or citizens prey upon other citizens or revolt against those who govern. In the first case the specialist in violence content themselves with tax payments from the citizens, in the second they will devote themselves to predation. The next step then is to ask under what circumstances the first scenario will prevail. Bates identifies three factors under which specialists in violence refrain from violence:

1. if tax payments are high to a point that discourage predation

2. if they are not tempted to predate i.e. the expected rewards from predation are low enough

3. if the specialists in violence value the future against the present i.e. they are not impatient, greedy or insecure

Falling Apart (source cartoonstock.com)

In Late-Century Africa. If one looks at how these conditions evolved over the studied period one observes that they changed in way that vied political mayhem. As for the first condition, the crisis in OECD countries contracted the export of African goods to those market and thus cut the trade revenues (the bulk of African states’s public revenues) accruing to the specialists in violence. As they saw the level of tax revenues go down specialists in violence were tempted to abandon their role of guardian and turn to predation. This predation, and this is the second condition, was made only more tempting by the easy access to resources such as oil and diamonds. Lastly, the end of the Cold War and the pressure of African citizens unleashed a wave of political liberalization which swept the continent. Military and one-single party governments were replaced by multiparty democracies. This dynamic had according the argument one specific effect: specialist in violence faced with the prospect of being dethroned became more impatient and greedy and turn toward predation in the present in the expectation of loss of power in the future. In sum states in late-century Africa (in particular after 1990) fell apart because the three conditions which incentivize actors (specialists in violence and citizens) to opt for political stability did not exist.

Prospects for Political Stability in Africa Today. If one is wondering what are the odds for political stability to prevail in Africa today one can then look at the circumstances for political stability today. At a very macro level, public revenues are set to increase as African countries have displaced impressive growth rates over the past decade. Real GDP rose by 4.0 percent a year from 2000 through 2008, more than twice its pace in the 1980s and 1990s: politicians have therefore incentives to act as guardians and to pocket their protection money (i.e. taxes) rather than devoting to pillage. As for temptation to predate, one could argue that natural resources are there and with it the temptation to exploit them. The statistical findings of When Things Fell Apart however suggest that resource endowment fail to account for political order and play a role only when other factors are in place. In other words presidents will revert to diamonds exploitation only if public revenues are depleted. As for the discount rate, one needs to make a careful distinction: political liberalization contributed to political disorder insofar as incumbent leaders saw their prospect to stay in power reduced overnight. The decisive factor was the change in the expectation over how long they could access public revenues, it was not the political liberalization itself. As democracies become the norm across the continent, politicians are readjusting their temporal horizons to the new democratic realities: political alternation is not going to continue to feed into increased discount rates. This goes against the possible argument that democracy feeds by itself political instability. According to Bates’ argument in fact, the variable is discount rate (which in some case can be proxied as change towards multiparty regimes) and not the type of regime itself.

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