“I don’t think it was my nervousness alone that made me feel that the political system I had known was coming to an end, and that what was going to replace it wasn’t going to be pleasant. I feared the lies—black men assuming the lies of white men.” — Salim, character in V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River
In this week’s readings, both Young and Pierce (in their respective pieces “The African Colonial State and Its Political Legacy” and “Looking Like a State: Colonialism and the Discourse of Corruption in Northern Nigeria”) analyze a perceived “failure” in the modern African state. Though their conceptions of the modern African state are born out of different contexts with Young writing in the late 1980s and Pierce in 2006, both pieces point to the processes of state formation, and colonialism specifically, as a cause of the failures that now manifest themselves.
Young’s piece places the colonialism of African territories within the grander context of statehood theory and the history of colonialism across Asia and the Americas. Young explains the three phases of the African colonial state (construction, institutionalization, and decolonization) in order to illustrate how this particular form of statehood caused the five imperatives of state reason (hegemony, security, autonomy, legitimation, and revenue) “joined hands and enclosed regimes in an ever-shrinking circle of constraint.” (Young, 60)
Pierce explores this theory with the specific narrative of the concept of “corruption” in northern Nigeria. Countering the common narrative that patterns of corruption are “problematic deviations from the conduct of rational, modern state actors,” (Pierce, 896) Pierce perceives corruption as a direct result of indirect rule by the British government and the state formation that resulted. Corruption, as we currently see it, is a result of the state as opposed to a contradiction within it.
While the actual specifics of this state-building by way of colonization is alluded to in specific scenarios in Pierce’s piece, C. L. Temple written in the early 20th century provides a much more personal and up-close perspective on the conversations surrounding the effectiveness and ideological justifications of the colonial practices of the time. Temple was a proponent of indirect rule of a colony. His approach to colonization had little to do with state-building as he was much more interested in his white man’s burden, civilizing mission than he seemed to be in the potential material value of the project.
Pierce defines the role of statehood as an ideological force that empowers individual actors with general, national legitimacy and incentive. Analyzing corruption through that definition, he argues that corruption is evidence of the very failure of that ideological goal because it exploits national legitimacy for a local desire or general validity for individual need. Pierce points to specific examples of reorganization of the northern Nigerian taxation systems by the British colonizers as evidence of this. Young does not give specific examples, but also analyzes powerful roles created by the colonizers that were then exploited by the new ruling class in service of hegemony and security, though he approaches the subject in terms of power consolidation on a grander scheme rather than material accumulation on a rather smaller scale of corruption.
What are the implications of this shift in perspective? Neither article provides much in terms of solutions or propositions to the failure or corruption they examine, only an understanding as to why they happen. Finding the root causes of current instability or failure is beneficial in reaffirming our conviction that the colonial policies were ethnocentric, racist, and unsustainable, but what else? Reimagining failure, and corruption as a part of failure, in terms of a continuing colonial legacy as opposed to circumstantial miscalculations or exploitation certainly has implications on how we approach contemporary social, political, economic issues questions in Africa, but what are they?
A synthesis of Pierce and Young may allow us to analyze corruption on a grander political scale. Pierce sees material corruption fitting into former patterns of indirect rule and colonial institutions. Young similarly says that state personnel in the post-colonial state “needed more incentives to perform zealously and pledge personal fidelity” (Young, 57) in their new, independent role. These two analyses together begin to touch on the consolidation of power and political corruption we see in places today like Burundi, Angola, Nigeria, the DRC, etc. The formation of the state under direct-to-indirect influence from ethnocentric western powers allowed for institutional patterns to be established that did an adequate job of assuring the satisfaction of colonial enterprise, but prove inefficient for independence. Perhaps, a re-imagining of statehood is necessary in the modern African context.
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