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By Mutumwa D. Mawere

THE purpose of this article is to assess the role of the state in light of the last 50 years of post-colonial experiences.

The extent of the state’s role in the transformation and development of Africa continues to be debated particularly in light of the unorthodox institutional arrangements that seem to have facilitated economic development in the East Asian economies.

Post colonial African politics have been heavily shaped by controversies over the role, size and strength of the state.

What is the role of the state in post-colonial Africa? This question is fundamental to the debate over the failure of post-colonial Africa to deliver a sustainable and economically viable alternative to a colonial model.

There is a need to interrogate whether political factors in the past 50 years have positively or negatively impacted on poverty alleviation in Africa. With 53 countries and a variation in political regimes, it should be possible to make an objective assessment whether political regimes do make a difference on poverty reduction policies, expenditure patterns and outcomes in Africa.

The post-colonial African experience has not had any material positive influence on poverty reduction to the extent that the continent’s political and economic challenges are high up on the global agenda that is dominated by the continent’s former colonial powers as if to confirm that there was no serious appreciation of the implications of political independence on transformation and economic development by the architects of the decolonisation project. There is no doubt that colonialism was underpinned by a clear agenda whose outcomes were predictable. What is less clear is the agenda of Africa’s post-colonial masters.

In attempting to analyse the role of the state in post-colonial Africa, I am aware of the existence of two trends that tend to marginalise or question the role of the state. The first of these is the inherent anti-statism that is informed by neoliberal, managerialist, and communitarian agendas, each of which in their way has influenced approaches to development and poverty alleviation in Africa. The second stems from a complex assortment of radical and critical ideas associated with the anti-colonial struggle that challenge the global ascendancy of capitalism, liberal democracy, Western culture and neoliberal welfare theories.

Should the post-colonial state be an impartial, omnipotent and act merely as a social guardian or should it be a “predator” or a vehicle for primitive accumulation for politically powerful groups including state actors, comprising politicians and bureaucrats? Whether the post-colonial state has acted in the interests of the people it purports to serve and from whom it draws its legitimacy is a question that ought to occupy the minds of all Africans.

Can we safely say that the motives of Africa’s political actors in the post-colonial era have been informed by the maximisation of collective or material self interests? Does Africa’s post-colonial experience serve to denounce the role of politics as a legitimate way to correct the colonially determined market outcomes according to the collective will?

Many of the post-colonial African leaders have not been shy to bring politics into economics using a technocratic view of the role of the state. Arguments have been advanced that seem to suggest that only enlightened and educated people should govern Africa notwithstanding the absence of any empirical evidence confirming the proposition that poverty can be materially alleviated through state intervention. There is a need, therefore, to expose the fundamental problems with the technocratic view of the role of the state that has prevailed in post-colonial Africa that attempts to crowd out the role of economics in the transformation process.

The post-colonial state as a successor to the colonial state was fundamentally a political construction. The institutional framework that has informed the post-colonial state has its foundation in a colonial state whose interests cannot be said to be the same as the post-colonial state and yet after 50 years of “uhuru” it is evident that the contemporary African market cannot be defined except with reference to the inherited and specific rights/obligations structure of the colonial state.

For example, many African leaders easily retreat into an argument that even after extended terms in office, the lack of development is a consequence of colonialism and often refuse to take any responsibility for their own policy bankruptcy. Arguments are frequently advanced that since the rights/obligations in post-colonial Africa were determined through a colonial political process, and not by any scientific or natural law as many apologists of colonialism may want to believe, all markets in Africa have a fundamentally political origin.

Therefore, it is then argued that it is politically naïve to make the neoliberal arguments about the need for a free market in Africa without exposing the ideological position of the person(s) making such arguments regarding the correct boundary for state intervention in a post-colonial state. It is often argued that if so-called free markets that existed in the colonial state were not able to produce socially and inclusive optimal results how can the same ideological framework be expected to address the needs of the poor in the post-colonial state.

The legitimacy of the inherited rights/obligations structure becomes an issue that is often used to obscure the abuse of the state by post-colonial African leaders. The reversal of the rights to land, minerals, and other resources that often have a colonial and political origin becomes the preoccupation of the post-colonial state with little or no regard to the consequences on poverty alleviation and economic progress. Yes, we can have rights to our land and minerals, but do we have a plan to meet the obligations inherent in exercising such rights to the benefit of the collective?

Without sounding like an apologist of colonialism, it is important that we critically examine whether political engineering of economics necessarily produces better outcomes. Is the state the most optimal vehicle for addressing the colonial injury? If so, what has been the experience of post-colonial Africa is redirecting the benefits of economic progress, if any, to the majority? Would Africa have been better served with a minimal or maximal state? The preoccupation with who occupies State House is just about one of the symptoms of the misplaced priorities in Africa about where real power to address poverty should reside.

One has to draw on philosophical constructions that Locke and Hobbes considered in attempting to understand the proper role and form of the state i.e. “the state of nature”. The “state of nature” was the world before laws, institutions or agreements of any sort. Much of human activity was directed at self sustenance and this was followed by minimal social contracts between citizens designed to promote collective social welfare. The state was merely an instrument designed by sovereign citizens to enforce their own basic social contracts and not to oppress them.

In short, a state should exist at the behest of citizens to enforce a mutually beneficial truce and its justification should not permit the state to do what citizens in their self interest can do better or permit the expropriation of private property or permit the violation of human rights. However, many African states believe that they can be referees and players at the same time with no regard to the outcomes.

What is evident is that the post-colonial African experience has failed to produce desired and positive outcomes that help to promote and protect the brand. As a result, the bar has been lowered by us collectively to the extent that it becomes difficult for citizens to objectively decide on who should lead them, what kind of institutional framework to inform the state’s actions, the role of non-state actors, and make choices on the correct boundary for state intervention.

Often in looking for leadership, confusion reigns on what choices to make and invariably incumbents become the beneficiaries. Whoever becomes the first to control the post-colonial state makes it his mission to raise the bar and constructively prevent anyone from taking over the baton while he is still alive.

The attempt to monopolise wisdom by political leaders is not unique to Africa but is a universal phenomenon that can only be mitigated by informed and vigilant citizens. The economic outcomes generated by our own leaders suggest that Africa has to look beyond the state for salvation.

It is also important to recognise that it will never be easy to objectively assess the effectiveness of post-colonial African leaders as long as the rights or obligations matrix is regarded as a political construction. In other words, colonialism is a useful and convenient ally for bankrupt leaders who often have no other excuse of remaining in power.

Mutumwa Mawere's weekly column appears on New every Monday. You can contact him at:

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