Fifty Years and Counting

Review of The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960-2010, by Crawford Young (Chicago: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012)

Initial hopes of peace and free and fair political elections after colonization squashed by the ascension of dictators and the onset of one-party rule and political repression. Dreams of wealth and prestige fueled by some of the world's most valuable natural resources dashed by kleptocracy and staggering debt. A desire to demonstrate to the world the prowess of formerly colonized people thwarted by disease and civil warfare. This is a standard narrative of African history in the post-independence era, and Crawford Young's book The Postcolonial State in Africa does not break with it. Indeed, it provides a nuanced account of the various forces that have caused Africa to suffer from many of the same problems it did under colonial rule.

As with his earlier The African Colonial State, the preceding volume to this work, Young adopts a comparative approach. As he outlines in his introduction, a desire to trace the various trends underlying the transformation of states over the first half-century of independence drives this project. Young asserts that six distinctive periods of transition and change have marked African states since the heyday of liberation from European empires in the early 1960s.

The first stage witnessed the end of colonialism, the transfer of control to post-colonial state apparatuses, and attempts to nationalize major industries along socialist lines. The eminent political scientist argues here as elsewhere that the structure of the colonial state as well as the manner of attaining independence (violent struggle, forced continued relations with former colonizer, etc.) determined the extent to which the transition to independence proved seamless or bumpy.

The second phase, which he entitles "Single Parties, Military Rule," sounded the death knell for any visions of multiparty, democratic political systems in many corners of the continent, leaving room only for one-party and/or military-backed regimes. Further, as he explains, coups by armed forces have continued to serve as one of the major catalysts for overthrowing governments and reorienting their trajectory.

In contrast to changes in the political scene, the next era saw an end to the independence generation's ambitious economic aspirations. A late 1970s debt crisis ushered in an era of state decline and calamity, characterized by spiraling-out-of-control corruption at the hands of elaborate patron-client networks. This period continued through the 1980s and only ended with the arrival of a democratization wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the next period Young examines. The latter also saw the general liberalization of African economies. Finally, African states have now entered a moment in which governments across Africa are following much more widely divergent paths than they have in the past.

Of particular note in The Postcolonial State is Young's inclusion of North Africa in his analysis. The addition of nations between the Mediterranean and Sahara to his study proves fruitful; many of the North African states provide interesting examples and counterexamples to Young's generalization of postcolonial patterns of state affairs. Overall, events north of the Sahel closely resemble those occurring in areas south of it, albeit in some instances with a different set of cultural and environmental issues at stake.

One of the most interesting portions of The Postcolonial State in Africa arrives when Young grapples with the question of why African states, despite in many instances having more favorable forecasts upon decolonization than their Latin American and Asian counterparts, have failed to attain the dizzying levels of growth and development that many nations in these other global regions have. Throughout the work, Young points to the need for effective governments to affect positive change for citizens across African nations. Here he illustrates that a lack of historic internal ethnic and cultural cohesiveness for many of Africa's countries (as opposed to many of the nations in Southeast Asia), along with environmental factors (famine and epidemics), and, above all, poor governance have limited African nations' potential for development and prosperity and are to blame for continuing underdevelopment on the continent. This part of his book, along with instructive chapters on post-independence states and internal conflicts and nationalism, ethnicity, and identity stand out as significant contributions to previous scholarly discussions.

While Young thoroughly investigates instances where state authority falters in the face of armed insurgency, the author does not address more subtle ways citizens circumvent state authority on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, passive resistance garners only a fleeting mention in the 400 page tome. Young likewise does not address at length areas of the continent where states have historically failed to wield much control and influence. What does it mean for African politics and economics that vast territories such as the Sinai Peninsula lay outside state jurisdiction? Treatment of such questions concerning the existence of regions beyond the purview of states appears more vital in light of the recent turmoil in Mali, in which armed militias have used the virtually unregulated Sahara as a launching pad for their war against the government in Bamako.

Young has produced an intriguing volume detailing the different developments for African nations since the dawn of independence half a century ago. The bibliography alone covers the most of the important works on history, economy, and politics on the African continent since the 1960s. What is more, a study seeking to cover such a wide geographic area over half a century risks losing depth as a result of its breadth. Yet, by focusing on general tendencies and providing greater insight into specific cases in his detailed footnotes, Young manages to avoid creating a superficial work. Rather, he offers a thoughtful macro-level examination of the strengths and weaknesses of states on the continent in the post-colonial era. Students of recent affairs as well as scholars wishing to learn more about the functioning of and challenges to state governance in Africa in the post-colonial époque will find The Postcolonial State in Africa both enlightening and informative.