A Political Mystery: Why Are Africa’s States Collapsing?

The current headlines are full of the fallout from imploding states in Africa: French troops fighting in Mali; rebels in the Central African Republic; militias in Congo; hostages and piracy in Somalia.

The Failed State Index has numerous other African countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and Zimbabwe on alert status.

Failed-states-index-2012

Of course, not all of Africa’s states are collapsing. But we cannot help but wonder: why is there so much fragility among African states?

One answer is that it reflects ethnic divisions and/or predatory rulers. No doubt it does. But that merely raises the further question of why the ethnicities do not cooperate with each other and why rulers in Africa incline to exploit the ruled rather than cooperate with them.

Another answer is that Africa’s weak states of today are nothing new. Historically Africa did not evolve towards large-scale states. But that too just raises the question of why political cooperation did not scale-up in Africa beyond the level of chiefdoms– whereas it did in the Americas and Eurasia.

Perhaps another answer might involve the influence of polygyny and past slavery – both inclining to undermine trust and cooperation. But they existed elsewhere in places that generated big, strong states.

There may be other possible answers perhaps involving low population density, the prevalence of female farming in tropical agriculture, the possibility that general cognitive ability influences trust and cooperation levels, and no doubt more.

Still, it remains something of a mystery.

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