Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

State Integration and Human Rights in Africa

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

State Integration and Human Rights in Africa

Article excerpt

In this article we discuss some disintegrative pressures on African nation-states, in particular Liberia and Somalia, and the implications of the failure of nation-statism for human rights. The destruction of the legitimacy and accountability of many states results, in part, from their territorial awkwardness. Formed by the colonial partition and "transferred" to African hands, overlapping ethnicity is sometimes more a source of suspicion rather than unity between states. In the past two decades more than two million people have died from conflict and many hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The geographical mobility of Africans remains enormous; hundreds of thousands of people have emigrated to escape from dictatorship or war. This desertion of the space of the state reflects an extreme degree of alienation from the state.

The economic sovereignty of African states is being undermined by pressure to join regional blocs at the same time as banditry and unofficial cross-border trading networks are growing at the expense of the state. A further threat to state autonomy and civilian populations arises from the growing militarization of conflicts. As the functionings of the state begin to deteriorate, as evident in Sierra Leone, Togo, Southern Sudan, Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, low-level warfare, famine, deprivation, and political crisis overlap. Those nominally in control of the state cannot provide security for their citizens, are not in full control of its territory, cannot lay the basis for economic improvement and are unable to either co-opt or to defeat their opponents. In Liberia and Somalia there has been total state disintegration. In these circumstances historically vulnerable groups including women, children and minorities are receiving little or no state protection. In other states, those holding the reins of power flout the rules of international law on human rights in the absence of civil society.

A further factor undermining the legitimacy of the state is environmental degradation. A fragile ecological inheritance has been further degraded during the course of civil war. Populations in the pastoralist cultures have been subjected to an almost criminal scourge of natural and man made impoverishment. The uneven development of states, as well as the socioeconomic systems anchored on those exploitative relations, create a fertile base for recourse to ethnicity as the area for struggle for the control of economic and political power. Ethnic identities, while having a "beneficial" spillover for the ethnic groups or groups in power, are primarily utilized to consolidate and serve the interests of the ruling classes of the dominant ethnic groups. The failure to resolve intrastate social tension is weakening central government from within in many cases. Economic pauperization and an ideological vacuum arising from the uglier face of nationalism, its capacity to erode freedom, are fueling a contemporary boom of religious cults and extremism, forcing a redefinition of social cohesion, of civil space even.

"Democratization" and the Mobilization of Ethnic Identities

Since 1989 many countries in Africa have experienced unprecedented waves of demands for democracy which have succeeded in bringing about the downfall of several authoritarian regimes and forced others to accept multiparty politics. Amongst the external factors contributing to a revival of democracy, specifically African dynamics were perhaps the most decisive, including the introduction of multiparty politics in Algeria, Nelson Mandela walking free in South Africa and the strongly contagious effect of the Beninois prototype of the National Conference (Bayart, 1993, p. xi). However these external events did no more than precipitate internal dynamics. Democratic forces had been smoldering a long time and had only been smothered by the combined efforts of African actors of the 'passive revolution' together with their foreign partners. …

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