Open Thread: NYT Op-ed Argues to Derecognize Certain African Nations

by Latoya Peterson

Reader BW sent in this op-ed published in the New York Times, which argues that the world should stop recognizing certain African nations. Pierre Englebert, of Pomona College, believes this will end many of the problems on the continent:

[F]or the past five decades, most Africans have suffered predation of colonial proportions by the very states that were supposed to bring them freedom. And most of these nations, broke from their own thievery, are now unable to provide their citizens with basic services like security, roads, hospitals and schools. What can be done?

The first and most urgent task is that the donor countries that keep these nations afloat should cease sheltering African elites from accountability. To do so, the international community must move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states, forcing their rulers — for the very first time in their checkered histories — to search for support and legitimacy at home.

Radical as this idea may sound, it is not without precedent. Undemocratic Taiwan was derecognized by most of the world in the 1970s (as the corollary of recognizing Beijing). This loss of recognition led the ruling Kuomintang party to adopt new policies in search of domestic support. The regime liberalized the economy, legalized opposition groups, abolished martial law, organized elections and even issued an apology to the Taiwanese people for past misrule, eventually turning the country into a fast-growing, vibrant democracy.

In Africa, similarly, the unrecognized, breakaway state of Somaliland provides its citizens with relative peace and democracy, offering a striking counterpoint to the violence and misery of neighboring sovereign Somalia. It was in part the absence of recognition that forced the leaders of the Somali National Movement in the early ’90s to strike a bargain with local clan elders and create legitimate participatory institutions in Somaliland.

Englebert believes derecognizing nations would go like this:

The logistics of derecognition would no doubt be complicated. Embassies would be withdrawn on both sides. These states would be expelled from the United Nations and other international organizations. All macroeconomic, budget-supporting and post-conflict reconstruction aid programs would be canceled. (Nongovernmental groups and local charities would continue to receive money.)

If this were to happen, relatively benevolent states like South Africa and a handful of others would go on as before. But in the continent’s most troubled countries, politicians would suddenly lose the legal foundations of their authority. Some of these repressive leaders, deprived of their sovereign tools of domination and the international aid that underwrites their regimes, might soon find themselves overthrown.

Reading the article struck a few chords with me. I’m not particularly well versed in the issues facing various nations. I read Arise and check for news about telecoms and major political/technological/cultural innovations on the continent, but that doesn’t really provide a solid foundation for post-colonial political deconstruction.

However, a few questions linger in my mind:

1. The argument seems to be applauding the death of old school colonialism, but into the rise of a neo-colonialism. Expelling various nations from the UN, cutting off aid, and withdrawing embassies are major moves – so who gets to define failed states? Is it by military coup or by suffering of the people?

2. I have yet to see these arguments made about destabilized regions in other areas of the world. Is Africa being singled out, or am I missing some critical discourse around places like Kyrgyzstan?

3. I am not finding a lot of critiques (or engagement, really) of Englebert’s work. (There may be some in French, which I am not fluent in. However, since a few of his works were translated into French, it is entirely possible there is another dialogue going on.) Much of his writing is locked behind scholarly paywalls and/or textbook priced. The book he is currently promoting, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty, and Sorrow, is sixty-five dollars in paperback form. However, in an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, he suggests the societal ills plaguing the Democratic Republic of Congo could also be solved by forgoing typical government solutions and instead bypassing the state:

Congo presents Mrs. Clinton with the most daunting challenges and greatest opportunities of her seven-country trip to Africa. Yet outsiders have too often made things worse by cajoling and rewarding rapacious politicians and soldiers, reinforcing rather than abating the authority of a criminal state. Recent UN-supported operations against Rwandan Hutu rebels, for example, have encouraged the deployment of unpaid and poorly trained soldiers who loot, rape, and terrorize more than they protect.

Although Clinton will speak against “gender-based violence,” and Congress has approved a $15 million project for a “professional rapid reaction force” of Congolese trained in “the fundamental principles of respect for human rights,” this is unlikely to achieve much. Soldiers terrorize because they, like other state officials, benefit from near total impunity; they steal because their officers and politicians hijack their pay; and they rape because it is an easy way to control and dominate civilians.

It is only by exposing and stopping the scam that Congo’s tragedy will end. The more we contribute to rebuilding the state, however, the more we inadvertently restore authoritarianism, domination, and predation, features that have characterized Congo since its creation by Leopold II of Belgium in 1885. However failed a state Congo might be, Clinton must avert uncritically embracing its rebirth.

Englebert seems to share a similar philosophy as Dambisa Moyo (author of Dead Aid), by believing that reducing direct aid will force many governments into self-sufficiency. However, when I read critiques of the West (and some of the East) from a global South perspective, one of the recurring ideas is that developing nations are a petri dish, a place where theorists experiment with the people on the continent paying the price. Is Englebert’s proposed solution more of the same?

Your thoughts, readers?