Global Policy Forum

The Myth of 'Failed State' in Africa: A Question


By Caglar Dolek

Journal of Turkish Weekly
April 29, 2008

"In his famous work, Thomas Hobbes described a "state of nature" without order where "continual fear and danger of violent death" rendered life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." These words have contemporary resonance in countries such as Somalia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo where the central authority of the state collapsed, law and order is non-existent and territory is controlled by competing fiefdoms and gangs." [1]

Regional instability, armed conflict, ethnic/tribal/religious clashes, indebtedness, hunger, poverty, (reemerging) diseases, environmental degradation, underdevelopment. These are just a few references produced to 'comprehend' the current state of affairs in sub-Saharan Africa. They have been discursively presented and thus perceived as 'natural' and 'internal' problems or even 'inherent' characteristics of the continent.

These 'natural' problems, according to the dominant paradigm, have nothing to do with contemporary structures of domination in the emergent neoliberal (dis)order - let alone the historical experiences of colonial subordination. Then, the discourses and policy justifications of the Western governments easily reach the conclusion that an external intervention, whether on military terms or not, is necessary to cure these 'abnormal polities'. The IMF/WB neoliberal intervention in the 1980s and the US military interventions in the 1990s were to a large extent legitimized with reference to this rationale.

The recently popular notion of 'failed state', as a categorical representation of post-Cold War Southern polities, has been produced in accordance with this particular way of thinking. It is much more of a general category utilized by many academicians and Western policy makers to attribute all those 'internal characteristics' to a broader problem of 'state failure'. That is, for many, the African states have been failing one by one, from Somalia to Rwanda to Sudan, because of the 'internally driven natural conditions'.

The discussion here is of a critical one. It mainly develops an argument that the 'failed state' is about nothing, but a mere myth constructed on the basis of the atomistic social ontology which isolates the object from the wider social and historical contexts and presents it as the atomistic agents within global capitalism.

'Failed State' as a New Category for the post-Cold War Southern Polities

When one looks at the vocabulary produced to define the notion of 'state failure', it can easily be understood that there is neither a single term to refer to such phenomenon nor a single definition for the concept in question. Especially since early 1990s, there has emerged a vast literature on the issue producing different categories of polities about the Southern countries. These include 'weak state', 'failed state', 'rouge state', 'collapsed state', 'collapsing state', 'disintegrating state', 'captured state', 'quasi-state'.etc. Although each of these concepts refers to different situations, they all depart from the Weberian conception of an ideal state. That is to say, the definitions about the failed states are made with reference to 'successful counterparts' existing in the West. Within this general categorization, the states like Haiti, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Sudan, Liberia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Zaire, Sierra Leone and the like have been declared as failed states.

Within the vast scholarly literature, dominated by Weberian methodology, the commonly held definition is produced by Zartman who argues that the state failure occurs when "... the basic functions of the state are no longer performed" in a proper way. [2] Zartman further argues that the failed states are "No longer functioning, with neither traditional nor charismatic nor institutional sources of legitimacy, it has lost the right to rule." Ignatieff similarly provides another Weberian account of the notion, and argues that the state failure indicates the loss of state ability to sustain its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. [3] He mentions Sri Lanka and Colombia as the examples proving such failure.

On the other hand, the writers like Fukuyama create a linkage between state failure and regional and international stability. In this perception, the failed state is presented as the one which is responsible for the humanitarian crisis, waves of immigration, regional conflicts.etc. [4] From the viewpoint of Fukuyama, failed states are the source of most dangerous problems challenging the international order today such as poverty, terrorism and drug trafficking.

As another scholarly analysis of the issue in question, Gros provides a taxonomy of five types of 'failed states' which is constructed on the condition of the fulfilment of Weberian criteria of statehood by the Southern countries. In his taxonomy, then, Gros develops the notions of 'anarchic states' (Somalia and Liberia), 'phantom' or 'mirage' states (Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo), 'anaemic states' (Haiti), 'captured states' (Rwanda) and the 'aborted states' (Angola, Mozambique). [5]

What is more, there have been developed even more radial approaches to the 'state failure' by utilizing the terminology of psychoanalysis. Largely found with the thesis of 'New Barbarism', these approaches defend the view that the 'state failure' occurs as a result of the internal cultural/racial characteristics embedded in the African countries. As opposed to the ideal Western ones, the failed states represent the 'abnormal' or 'deficient' polities that are irrational, violent and even barbaric. This simply means that the 'state failure' occurs due to the existence of a 'serious illness' or 'mental or physical disorder' that should be cured by the intervention of a doctor, i.e. the Western countries. In other words, those 'failed states' are in a serious condition of mass trauma which should be treated through a whole-scale intervention. This kind of intervention, for Pupavac, perceives the "... recipient populations as irrational and emotionally immature and therefore implicitly incapable of determining their lives without outside professional intervention." [6]

This 'New Barbarism' thesis simply concludes that there is no need for complex analysis for the evaluation of the African crisis or Africa as a 'failed continent' because the continent is already brutish, irrational, uncivilized and backward. That is, Africa is underdeveloped because it is already underdeveloped and because it is African.

This commonly held scholarly position manifests itself in a similar fashion in the discourses utilized by the policy makers of the West for which the African continent demonstrates the most severe and extreme cases of state failure.

According to the official views from the US administration, the state failure results from the enduring collapse of the central authority, which is caused by such problems as revolutionary wars, ethnic wars, regime changes.etc. [7] Therefore, as already known, 'to cure the abnormal behaviours of the failed states' has become a primary objective of the UN Security Strategy within the last two decades because they have been presented as the 'new threat' to the international peace and security with their contributions to the problems like international terrorism, illegal immigration, humanitarian crisis, drug trafficking, regional conflicts.etc.

'Failed State' as a Myth Constructed on Atomistic Social Ontology?

What is at stake here is the constitution of a novel category of statehood for the developing countries in order construct the 'legitimate' grounds of intervention on any terms into the 'failed states'. Keeping in mind this vital point, the discussion from now on follows a path not towards the critique of the most ultimate aim of 'intervention'. The more critical attention is paid to the particular rationale and substantial fallacy behind the constitution of such categorical representations.

As discussed above, almost all the perceptions tend to make a descriptive account of 'state failure' giving no reference to the historical and social conditions through which these polities have happened to 'fail'. That is, as Bilgin and Morton argues: " reference is made to the process through which these states have become 'weak' while others have gained 'strength'. In other words, the question 'who's failed 'the failed state'?' is never asked." [8]

The main reason of the absence of such a question is because of the very ontological constitution of failed state or mythical representation of the 'failure' itself. That is, to refer to the Barthesian notion of 'myth', the state failure is presented as natural, universal and ahistorical phenomenon that suddenly emerged with the end of Cold War. To develop this critique, it is essential to have a deeper look at the notion of myth.

Roland Barthes, an influential French philosopher thanks to his invaluable contributions to the emergence of post-modern thought, argues that bourgeoisie ideology constantly creates a process in which what is historical is presented as if it were universal and ahistorical. He, therefore, claims that bourgeoisie ideology decontextualizes the object from its historical and social conditions. [9] These ideological products, for Barthes, are the mere 'myths' which appear as if they were produced outside the given context. 'The myth', then, takes a purely cultural and historical object and transforms it into a universal value. [10]

In his philosophy, however, the myths are not simply illusions in our minds. That is to say, the myths are not only ideological products of bourgeoisie culture, but also they are concrete things. Here, the most fundamental premise of Barthes arises: While the myth avoids the social and historical conditions of the construction of the subject, there is awareness among the people about these historical conditions. At this point, for him, bourgeoisie ideology creates the mythology that prevents us from seeing those historical conditions. That is to say, although we are generally aware of the historical background of the mythical aspect of that ideological product, we tend to think that it is natural. [11] This is the exact ideological function of the myth.

Barthes further developed his theory in order to demystify the myth. To this aim, he relied on the Saussurian analysis of the linguistic signs, but further developed such an analysis, and constructed the theory of the semiology. Therefore, semiology is the model for the demystification of the ideological products of the bourgeoisie society. It is beyond this study to analyze this rather complex theory of semiology in which Barthes used schematic figures to deconstruct the myth. Yet, the most important thing that concerns us here is the aim of semiology: to demystify the myth with reference to the historical and social conditions in which it was constructed.

With reference to the discussion here, it is of paramount significance to realize the mythical representation of the very notion of 'failed state'. Within the framework of Barthesian arguments, the scholarly analysis as well as policy justifications mostly rely on a 'state failure' decontextualized from the wider social, historical and international contexts. Then, the 'failure' itself becomes as a fault of those underdeveloped polities either due to intrinsic cultural features, or due to corrupted political elites. etc. Among the others, the thesis on 'New Barbarism', briefly touched upon above, provides most explicit manifestation of the mythical representation of postcolonial African 'subject'.

Moreover, within the context of African 'failed states, there is no reference to the colonial experiences of subordination through which a neo-colonial dependent state structure has been inherited. Nor is any critical attention paid towards the 'perpetuation' of the conditions of underdevelopment in the continent especially with the introduction of neoliberal policies to those already weak African states. It has become an undeniable fact that the introduction of neoliberal structural adjustment programs, legitimized in the name of resolving development impasse in Africa, has become main obstacle before the development objectives of the African countries. Therefore, the 'African crisis' of 1970s and 1980s have been transformed into 'African tragedy' meaning that the problems in the continent have already exceed the point of being temporal crisis.

Therefore, behind all these mythical representation of 'failed state' lies the particular social ontology which isolates the object from its social and historical conditions through which it has come into being. This is the atomistic social ontology which treats the failed states as atomistic agents constituted equally within international relations. That is to say, the juridical or political equality of the nation states lies at the basis of this social ontology as it produces the illusion of a state being abstracted from the international sphere, or from the structures of domination within global capitalism.

This very ontological position, as Jones has put it, results in the problem of "blaming the victim" according to which ". the wealth or poverty, success or failure of the person or state is their fault and their responsibility, it is to be explained by their choices, attitude, commitment and so on." [12] Jones discusses the issue with reference to an inherent characteristic of capitalist social relations: separation of the politics and economics which is fruitfully analyzed in the writings of Wood.

With regard to the discussion here, such a separation means the existence of the 'surface appearances' of a complex phenomenon. [13] In that sense, to use Barthes' words, we tend to see the state failure as normal because of the mythology of the failed state. It indicates both an illusion (surface appearances) and reality. Yet, we tend to disregard the social context of the state failure, and think that the state failure fundamentally results from internal conditions of a country. Furthermore, the unacceptable violations of human rights committed by these failed states strengthen this vision. All in all, an external intervention becomes inevitable and necessary because of the 'responsibility to protect'.

In Place of a Conclusion.

The discussion here has been on the mythical constitution of failed states with reference to atomistic social ontology. A particular reference has been tried to be made to the African continent. However, rather than making a descriptive analysis of the cases within the continent, the central aim has been mainly to demystify the myth of failed state.

Decontextualized from the social and historical conditions, and thus blamed for their own fault, the 'failed states' have been discursively produced to function as the legitimate basis of Western intervention into the internal affairs of the developing countries. Revealing this very mythical representation of failed states is a vital job in order to provide more substantial and enduring solutions for the 'failures' of those states.

[1] "Failed States and the Failing States", the Speech given by the Secretary Jack Straw at the European Research Institute, University of Birmingham, September 6, 2002. (Available at
[2] W. Zartman, Collapsed States, (London: Lynne Reinner, 1995), p. 5.
[3] Michael Ignatieff, "Intervention and State Failure", Dissent, Winter 2002. Available at: (accessed on 1 November 2007).
[4] F. Fukuyama, State Building, (London: Profile, 2004), p. 125.
[5] J. -G. Gross, "Towards a Taxonomy of Failed States in the New World Order: Decaying Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and Haiti", Third World Quarterly, 17(3), p. 455.
[6] V. Pupavac, "Therapeutic Governance: Psychosocial Interventiona and Trauma Risk Management", Disasters, 25(4), 2001, p. 368.
[7] W. M. Wise, "American Perspectives on the Threat Posed by Weak and Failing Asian States ", Paper presented in the US-China Conference on Areas of Instability and Emerging Threats, Beijing, February 23-24, 2004. Available at: (accessed on 4 November 2007)
[8] P. Bilgin and A. D. Morton, "Historicizing Representations of 'Failed States': Beyond the Cold War Annexation of the Social Sciences?", Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1., 2002, p. 66
[9] Graham Allen, Roland Barthes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 34
[10] Ibid, p. 36.
[11] Ibid, p. 37.
[12] B. G Jones, "Blaming the Victim: Ideologies Arising from the Global Separation of the 'Economic' and the 'Political'", Paper presented at the conference on the Global Constitution of the 'Failed States': the Consequences of New Imperialism, University of Sussex, April 18-20, 2001.
[13] E. M. Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 28-32.

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