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The Copycat State: Blind mimicry, neo-exceptionalism and the politics of failure in Africa

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Lecture sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, University of The Gambia, July 6, 2017

Scholars and researchers have persistently grappled with the question of why Africa remains stuck at the bottom of the world’s developmental index. They have grappled with the mystery of why a continent so richly endowed with human and natural resources remains trapped in seemingly intractable poverty and dependence. And they have grappled with the question of why Africa remains mired in civil crises, bloody conflicts and humanitarian crises that have almost become synonymous with the continent’s name and identity.


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There are certainly no simple answers to these questions; and there is no single factor that can explain these problems. However, we can safely conclude that a fundamental explanation for Africa’s seemingly unending crises is the failure of the African nation-state system. More specifically, Africa’s crises are linked to the failure of African governments to transform in a creative manner the geopolitical, human and natural resources of the continent in response to the challenges of independent nation-statehood. While contemporary factors may legitimately be explored for clues to Africa’s abiding politics of failure and its attendant cultures of poverty and conflict, useful pointers to the continent’s predicament are historically situated. It is to Africa’s history that we must look for the roots of what we might call the African Condition.


To understand why Africa keeps failing we must begin by looking at the origins of the African state as we know it today. We can start by understanding that as a political formation, the African state is not indigenous to Africa. It is a Western political artifact. But unlike the state in Western societies, the state in Africa did not grow out of the relationships between and within African societies. Rather, it was imported and imposed on African societies for purposes of domination and exploitation of the African people. In essence then, the contemporary African state historically grew out of a coercive apparatus designed by imperial powers not for the development of the African people, but for their domination, their control and their exploitation. For a brief period after the Second World War, because of pressure from emergent nationalist movements and the United States, the major European colonial powers tried to reform the autocratic colonial state by introducing what was called “developmental colonialism”.

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Developmental colonialism suggested that the colonial powers were now committed to transforming the coercive and exploitative mission of the colonial state into a mission for the transformation of African colonies into normal self-governing countries within the next twenty five to forty years. As fate would have it, developmental colonialism was short-lived. Nationalist agitation for independence and post-war financial difficulties made decolonization a difficult but appealing prospect for the colonial powers, especially France and Britain. The result was that when independence suddenly arrived in the late fifties and early sixties, Africa’s new leaders inherited a state apparatus that was a carbon copy of the coercive, exploitative and domineering colonial state.


The new African leaders inherited structures and institutions of governance that were not designed for purposes of development, but for purposes of domination, control and exploitation. The primary task of the new leaders, which unfortunately they never managed to execute, was to transform this coercive apparatus into a citizen-friendly apparatus capable of meeting and overcoming the challenges of independence. Having moved from the “problem-space” of colonialism into the “problem-space” of independence, the newly independent countries required creative new strategies of governance to move in the right direction. Unfortunately, Africa’s new leaders proved utterly unequal to the task of devising these strategies. In fact, historical evidence suggests that the need for these strategies was marginal to the interests and consciousness of the new African leaders and governments. In a very real sense, they simply stepped into the saddle of power vacated by the colonial governors and continued cracking the whip against the backs of their newly independent citizens as if they were still the powerless subjects of an alien colonial despotism.



The result is that since independence the African state has remained more a less an uncritical copycat state that engages in blind mimicry and neo-exceptionalism and practices a damaging politics of failure and underdevelopment. In other words, after independence, African governments adopted and perpetuated most of the instruments and traditions of colonial rule and their attendant legitimating ceremonies and practices without questioning their utility or relevance for an independent people. Some of these seemingly harmless but utterly wasteful traditions include the practice of large numbers of government officials gathering at the airport to see the leaders off or welcome them home when they travel overseas; they include the practice of mounting and inspecting guards of honor when the leaders depart or arrive from foreign trips. Most of these ceremonies were specifically invented in colonial Africa to showcase imperial power and glory, and to enhance and legitimize the subjection of colonized Africans. Their chief function was to flex imperial muscles and dazzle colonized Africans into a state of unquestioning subjecthood. In the language of colonial overlordship, they were called names like “trooping the colors” and “showing the flag.” They have no place in independent Africa and should be discarded as crippling legacies of colonial coercion and subjection.



The immediate postcolonial situation demanded a transformation of the authoritarian cultures and practices of the colonial state into cultures and practices of inclusiveness and collective responsibility for the new national project. The situation demanded “transformative-servant leadership” that would empower the citizens of the new nations, encourage them to actively contribute to and question their governments’ policies and actions, and motivate them to assume leadership of the national project. Instead, what Africans got was mostly autocratic and transactional leadership that behaved more like alien colonial governors and muzzled their people’s creative potential and the intellectual energies without which no nation-state can ever make meaningful progress.
It is a tragic fact of African history that most postcolonial African leaders and governments misread the demands of independence and did little to change the autocratic colonial political culture within which their new nation-states were forged (Mamdani 1996).


Having justified their struggles against colonialism by appealing to post-war international rights discourses enshrined in documents like the Atlantic Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the new leaders and governments now called these same discourses harmful vestiges of imperialism and instruments of neo-colonialism designed to undermine Africa’s independence. The idea of a struggle for freedom and equality was now considered an alien and divisive aberration that had no room within the independent nation-state. The political aspirations of ordinary citizens were delegitimized; unquestioning subjecthood was routinised; citizens were denied the right to question the actions of their governments or to freely support the political movements of their choice. Oppression became the preferred mode of governance. An imposed political uniformity smothered constructive dissent, stifled political creativity, and generated a culture of political hostility, silent cynicism or passive indifference that has increasingly rendered Africa’s populations incapable of rising to and overcoming the challenges of day to day living arising in their immediate environments.


For the new postcolonial African state, independence meant doing what the rulers liked and as they liked with their own people and their countries’ resources. They avoided human rights discourses but zealously appealed to international protocols that emphasized the “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” of the state, and the rights of all sovereign states to non-interference in their internal affairs. The sovereignty and integrity of the African individual was suppressed and submerged under the sovereignty and integrity of the state, whose identity was often rendered synonymous with the identity of the leader. Territorial integrity was equated with the state’s right to control everyone within its borders.


Rather than nurture the resources of the new nation, the new rulers threw a shroud of enforced silence over it, suffocating and subverting its creative potential, even as they justified their harmful actions in the name of national development. Draconian laws—including laws imported from the colonial period —were deployed to muzzle the freedoms Africans struggled for and to perpetuate the injustices they struggled against. The African people were considered enemies of the state; they were presumed to eye the coveted power of their leaders and they were severely punished for their imagined crimes. What were expected to be spaces of freedom and hope during the anticolonial struggle suddenly became spaces of oppression and fear policed by independent regimes often more tyrannical and exploitative than the departed colonial rulers.


The hegemon-subject relations of colonialism now morphed into ruler-ruled relations in which the distribution of power was totally weighted in favour of the rulers, just like they were under colonialism. The new African rulers emerged not as dedicated servants to the ideals of freedom and human rights they fought for, with and on behalf of their people, but as self-imposed masters of their people with the unquestionable right to define and decide what was best for their countries, what constituted human rights and freedom, and who among their people deserved to enjoy or be denied such human rights and freedoms.


The historical record shows that all colonial powers left newly independent African governments constitutions that had all the rights, responsibilities and duties enshrined in their own national constitutions. Every one of these constitutions was modelled on Western parliamentary democratic constitutions. They had provisions for the separation of powers and respect for the rule of law, provisions for the holding of regular elections, and provisions that guaranteed the rights of the new sovereign peoples of Africa. It is reasonable to argue that had African governments kept these constitutions, the trajectories of Africa’s political history would have been different and much better than what they turned out to be. Unfortunately, most of these constitutions were soon demeaned and discarded as instruments of neocolonial control. They were replaced by constitutions that gave more powers to the state and drastically diminished the rights of the people. Within a decade of independence, most African rulers had declared themselves presidents for life and imposed one party states with the help of what we might call a politics of African neo-exceptionalism.


Prior to and during the colonial period, Africa was seen by Western societies as an utterly exceptional place. Africa was called the Dark Continent and pseudo-intellectual propositions like the Hamitic Hypothesis suggested that Africans were the cursed descendants of the Prophet Noah who could justifiably be enslaved and colonized for their own good. It was even suggested that Africans had no history, no culture and no religion and that the ruins of ancient African kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe, Nubia and Meroe were remnants of great civilizations built by white people from the East because Africans were not intelligent enough to build any great civilizations. Ultimately, Africans were considered savage folks of primitive mind who needed the light of Western civilization and guidance. Hence, Europeans justified their imposition of colonial rule in Africa through what they called the “civilizing mission” and by appealing to patronizing notions like “the white man’s burden.” To the Europeans of the precolonial and colonial periods, the fact that Africans were different from Europeans meant that Africans were inferior to Europeans. Only with the growth of oral and nationalist historiography in the period after 1945 were Africans able to refute and discredit these demeaning narratives on Africa and Africans.



Unfortunately, Africa’s postcolonial copycat state and its leaders also copied this culture of African exceptionalism from the colonial rulers. In order to deflect rising criticism over their human rights records and to tighten their stranglehold around the necks of the African people, African leaders started proclaiming and practicing a sort of neo-exceptionalism, a new exceptionalism. They contended that while Africans were not inferior to Europeans, they were nevertheless fundamentally different from Europeans. For this reason, the cultures of respect for human rights and the rule of law that characterized Western societies were considered neither suitable nor applicable to African societies. Political pluralism and other aspects of democratic practice were branded totally Western and unsuited to African conditions. For example, when Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire was asked why he executed three of his ministers by public hanging, he responded that “we are Bantu” and that Europeans should not expect his government to act like a European government.


In a sense, Mobutu was saying that in Africa it was okay to engage in acts of savagery against one’s citizens because that was okay in African societies. In Guinea, Sekou Toure justified his brutal oppression by calling his regime a “democratic dictatorship.” Here in The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh tried to justify his oppressive regime by calling himself a “dictator for development.” Even as they emasculated and dismantled traditional and neo-traditional structures and institutions of governance after independence, Africa’s new rulers assumed the status of traditional African rulers complete with traditional dresses and titles that were in total variance with the institutions of the nation-state system they headed. Some of them wore leopard skin caps or flowing boubous and carried swords, beads, flywhisks, walking sticks, handkerchiefs and other strange objects in their hands to appear mystical and to prove that they were true African rulers who were not concerned about the niceties of democratic traditions of civility or human rights. They espoused meaningless ideologies and philosophies and had themselves compared to heavenly bodies, rivers, lakes, and ancestral spirits with magical powers.



These neo-exceptional pretenses allowed African rulers and their governments to ignore the growing problems of their peoples and countries, to ignore human rights and the rule of law, and to hold their citizens hostage for as a long as they could. It allowed them to ignore the important task of transforming their countries’ political cultures by educating and empowering their citizens to hold their governments accountable. It allowed them finally, to oppress their people and marginalize and exclude all ideas and initiatives that they considered potentially corrosive of their power and their capacity to exploit and loot their countries’ resources for as a long as they could. Ultimately, it allowed them to continue practicing a politics of failure that keeps Africa at the bottom of the world’s developmental index.

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