Africa in International Relations: State-Building, War-Making and Representation

Updated: Mar 4, 2021


This paper tries to propose one of the most crucial reasons why African countries struggle in the process of pursuing viable and lasting state-building, and also the role of armed conflicts in that process.

Divided into four parts, this paper develops its discussions conceptual- and historical- wise at the same time and tries to explain the intertwining relations among foreign involvement, armed conflicts and state-building. This paper suggested that the fundamental challenge that countries in the African continent face is the lack of proper opportunity to go through a comprehensive process of (re)establishing the states without foreign engagement since the colonial period until now, which is the timeframe that this paper is discussing. The continuous pattern of a mixture of foreign involvement and armed conflicts over the timeline of the state-building process in African countries raise internal disagreement of legitimacy of expression of collective power (incomplete sovereignty and insufficient national political consensus as well as domestic societal cohesion which are the crucial elements of state- building) and impede the stable provision of services to their citizens as well as effective institutional development of these countries; thus, a primary challenge for the pursuit of viable and lasting state-building.

I. Post-colonial period and the residual of huge impacts of “colonialism”

Much literature shed light on the history of colonialism and the titanic influences on various aspects it had vis-à-vis the former colonies during the colonial period and after their independence[1]. As the content of the courses has pointed out, colonisation underwent a gradual process of transformation into early stages of modernisation and heightened the tensions between ethnic groups and various local communities which raised the tendency and prevalence of armed conflicts. After the colonial period, when the colonising countries left, the former colonies were left with citizens but empty effectively-working structures and without a naturally-formed well-functioning country. In other words, the post-colonial states in Africa did not go through a natural process of state-building on their own, but ineffective statehood which “imported”[2] the “Westernised” elements of building a state that barely meet the tradition and needs of the African countries, and generated problems of lasting re-ordering of political space, social hierarchies, cultural cleavages and economic modes of production.

As the result, these newly-built statehood remained fragile and with the seed of violence as the central feature of post-colonial rule. The lasting pattern of armed conflicts resulting from these aforementioned potential flashes during the desire for a viable statehood thus tangled with each other during the state-building process. As an example, among many others, we may find the case of the state-building of Sudan with the conflictual seed of ethnic disputes planted during the UK’s colonial period which later turned into the genocide incident of Darfur starting from 2003 and the establishment of Southern Sudan as another separate country in 2011[3].

II. Post-Cold War and the aftermath of “interventionism”

Following the end of the Cold War, as Francis Fukuyama wrote, it marked an “end of mankind’s ideological evolution” and opened a new stage of “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government[4].” During that post-Cold War period of history, the notion of “responsibility to protect (R2P)[5] ” and “humanitarian intervention[6]” were the hot topics for the global community under the UN's international governance when striking massive killings and ethnic cleansing incidents took place[7].

The underlying concerns and challenges that these interventions through outside forces – especially military ones – brought to the African states have been that these actions directly challenged the full sovereignty of the countries, and we may also observe that armed conflicts during interventions were again accompanied by the process of state-building. Moreover, these interventions also caused the historical state empowerment – especially the progressive imposition of the exclusive power of legitimate use of force of the state – to slow down. Depicted by Michael Barnett in his work, humanitarian organisations work with states that decide to intervene into other states to engage in political changes and “the functions that had once been the exclusive preserve of governments” of the states that were intervened[8]. What can be noticed in the African states having been intervened under the reason of “humanitarian interventions” were the erosion of the autonomy of these states and the weakness of these statehood due to the normalisation of such interventions when meeting certain criteria of the UN or the decisions of the Security Council, and later on resulted in internal disagreement towards the key components of state-building, including the ruling authority’s (which was “established or supported” by foreign forces) legitimacy of expression of collective power, and the serious question of insufficient national political consensus as well as domestic societal cohesion. Such examples can be found in the foreign intervention by the UK, US, and France in Sudan and French intervention in the two Ivorian Civil Wars respectively in 2004 and 2011.

III. Post-9/11 attack and the impact of transnational “securitisation”

This linkage between the safety and stability of other countries and the security of one’s own soil is referred to as “securitisation” in the post 9/11 era according to the lectures. This notion has triggered the discussion of “new” contexts and features of armed conflicts nowadays that are blended with “old” ones in the past. “Transnationality” is the keyword during this phase of interaction between wars and state-building when security is felt and dealt with in a global sense and rationale. As written by Francis Fukuyama about the importance of state-building of the “weak or failed states” by the global community because the former may lead to negative transnational issues, including terrorism[9].

The conception of securitisation can be viewed as another continuous impediment for African countries to undergo an indigenous process of state-building. The reason is that when a country feels that the security of its homeland may be negatively impacted by an unstable situation in another country’s territory, the former tends to take pre-emptive means of risk management by engaging directly into the latter’s “internal” affairs which moved the domestic state-building paradigm to be international and caused the presence of war-making – a hybrid of “old” and “new” wars – to increase. Therefore, this way of state-building which involved foreign impositions generated the unwelcomed matters including the legitimacy of the leader due to societal resistance, negative perceptions and sentients towards military presence during the engagement and post-conflict reconstruction phases, and that state- building per se is no longer a sovereign exercise in pursuit of development but foreign engagement into “weak/failed” states aiming to make sure the security of the intervening ones. When a nation-state fails to fulfil its basic contract, its people turn to other forms of social organisations and varying such non-state (armed) groups start to fight for the vacant power aiming at rebuilding authority of the statehood. External state builders (re)build the “weak/failed” states[10] in the social, economic and political manners based on the so-called “Western” values and overtake the quasi-governance function[11] of the “weak/failed” states without taking sufficient account the real needs, the past history and tradition, and the constraints of these states[12]. The work of Maxime Larive echoed the above-mentioned problems of Western countries’ engagement in the state-building process of other countries – with the examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya[13], Mali and Central African Republic – with the consideration of the former’s own security and national interests and resulted in failures[14].

IV. “Pessimistic” rhetoric when referring to Africa

Last but not least, one more issue of the lack of chance for African countries to undergo a comprehensive state-building process purely on their own is the continuous pessimistic tone of language used to describe the development and image of Africa countries. This issue – also discussed in the lectures – was particularly raised by members of L'Association des Étudiants de Sciences Po pour l'Afrique during my interview with them[15] which they regarded as a big challenge for healthy and viable state-building for African countries.

The usage of wordings like “dark continent” by Thomas Pakenham and Henry Stanley, “fallen” for the case of Nigeria by Karl Maier, “hopeless continent” by The Economists in May 2000, “fragile” or “failed” states by Robert Jackson, Gerald Helman and Steven Ratner, Christopher Clapham, Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart and Alastair McKechnie, and indexes with these wordings published by Foreign Policy, OECD and World Bank, for instance, have also put the “pessimistic” label to quite a number of African countries. My interlocutors think that the discourse and indexes almost all evaluate on the basis of the “Western” standards and criteria, compare the African continent to the growing (East) Asia where the international community positions as the new centre of gravity for politics and economy in the near future, and are lack of the thinking from the angel of African countries’ history and context. At the same time, they also found it positive that there is gradually growing “optimism” when talking about Africa in recent years with the example of The Economist’s edition in December 2011 entitled “Africa rising”.


This paper tries to propose one of the most crucial challenges to African countries’ endeavours for viable and lasting state-building through the three selected historical incidents – colonial era, Cold War and 9/11 attack – as well as the related notions. At the same time, it also addresses the relations between foreign involvement, armed conflicts and the components of (re)building states through the problems caused by the notions of “colonialism”, “interventionism” and transnational “securitisation” following the historical timeline. Moreover, besides the continuous pattern of a mix of foreign involvement and armed conflicts throughout the state-building process of African countries, this paper also suggests that the “pessimistic” rhetoric when describing the situation of Africa is also another critical impediment for African states to (re)build healthy and long-lasting statehood, especially when comparing with the positive language used to delineate the development of (East) Asia and evaluated by the criteria set on the basis of “Western” angels. This paper concludes that African countries lack the proper chance to go through the comprehensive process purely on their own and with their own means starting from the colonial period hitherto in order to (re)establish viable and lasting statehood.



[1] Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making”, in Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, Wiley-Blackwell, 1992; Jason M. Brownlee, “Imperial Designs, Empirical Dilemmas: Why Foreign-Led State Building Fails”, CDDRL Working Papers, Stanford University, 2005; Nicolo Nourafchan, State Building, the Colonial Legacy and Development: How the North and South Were Born, e-IR, 2008. [2] Bertrand Badie, L'État importé : Essai sur l'occidentalisation de l'ordre politique, Fayard, 1992. [3] The Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Report, Sudan. [4] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”, The National Interest, No. 16, 1989. [5] The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, International Development Research Centre, 2001. [6] David Chandler, “The Road to Military Humanitarianism: How the Human Rights NGOs Shaped the New Humanitarian Agenda”, Human Rights Quarterly, No. 23, 2001, p. 678–700; Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law, Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law, Cambridge University Press, 2007. [7] Ved P. Nanda, Thomas F. Muther Jr. and Amy E. Eckert, “Tragedies in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Rwanda and Liberia – Revisiting the Validity of Humanitarian Intervention under International Law – Part II”, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, No. 26, 1998; José E. Alvarez, “Crimes of States/Crimes of Hate: Lessons from Rwanda”, Yale Journal of International Law, No. 24, 1999. [8] Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity, Cornell University Press, 2011. [9] Francis Fukuyama, State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, Cornell University Press, 2004. [10] James Fearon and David Laitin, “Neo-trusteeship and the Problem of Weak States”, International Security, Vol. 28, No.4, 2004. [11] Roland Paris, The Dilemmas of State-Building: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations, Routledge, 2009. [12] Mats Berdal, Building Peace after War, Routledge, 2009. [13] Libya: International Pledges, Africa Research Bulletin, Volume 48, Number 2, 2011, pp.18734-18735 also pointed out similar view-points as this paper. [14] Maxime Larive, The Mirage of the State: Why the West has failed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Central African Republic?, Jean Monnet/Robert Schuman Paper Series, Vol. 14, No. 15, 2014. [15] Interview with members of L'Association des Étudiants de Sciences Po pour l'Afrique in Paris on 11 March 2019.


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