“Nationalism came before the nations. The nations do not form States and nationalisms, but rather the reverse.”
Following the wave of independence in the 1960s, debate took place between the pro-capitalist and pro-socialist schools, but such discussion always focused on how to maintain tradition within modernity.
What from the historical past should be preserved? Whether to adopt the language of the colonizer as the national language, or give preference to a local language? Should the borders drawn at the turn of the 20th Century, after the Conference of Berlin, be maintained or redrawn? What system of government should be adopted, monarchy or republic? These, and many other themes, were examined by leaders and intellectuals of the period and influenced the creation of the nations.
Few States kept their traditional kings in power, as did Swaziland, where the king still reigns. All adopted the language of their colonizers as a common language, with the exception of Somalia, which already had a national language of its own. Likewise, at the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, option was made for the maintenance of the colonial borders and national governments, despite the great influence of Pan-Africanism among its leaders.
The African State in the second half of the 20th Century was forged by Africans, who fought to a greater or lesser degree, achieving domestic legitimacy following the model of pax americana, which had achieved political victory in the anti-colonial struggle and was economically strong. The State appeared as a modernizing force; a transformer of traditions that hampered development; strong and centralized, when not dictatorial; capable of defining and executing public policies and actively participating in all fields of the social and economic life of society. The outlook for the future was promising: all the rest was mere sentimentalism. Under discussion was the dosage; not the medication. The great debate centered upon capitalist ideals and socialist ideals (which is no mean argument).
In the literature, many criticisms are to be found claiming that the postcolonial State was waylaid by bloodthirsty dictators and unscrupulous persons, and that this explained all the evils of the continent.
They forget that such people exist not only in Africa, but everywhere, and that they are still very much in evidence. The correct question, then, is: why, at that time, did dictators command the nations? Indeed, at that time, this was also occurring in other parts of the world, notably in Latin America. What can be observed is that, it was not the State changed because men changed, but that men changed (or rather, their style did), because the economic policies changed. Those were the men required to perform the tasks before them: some being more competent, others more personable. In Africa, many such leaders remained in power, even after having radically changed their attitudes and political thought. That model, in the circumstances of the Cold War, facilitated, when it did not demand, dictators. With the crisis of the 1980s, as hostages to international aid grants needed to face up to their domestic crises, the African States were cowed into adopting the neoliberal model.
At that time, the previously-advocated Strong State was deemed outmoded, and privatization and a decentralization of functions, with civil liberties, good governance and free flows of capital were in vogue. Traditional African values flourished in this power vacuum, encouraged by non-government organizations (NGOs), by religious groups, and by the discourse of international experts from organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (FMI) The State in Africa and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). After all, it was postulated, if modernity is no longer to be attained via industrialization or building of a domestic market, why modernize minds? If modernity is now ecological, the natives should revert to their cultures, production, rites and religions. Such positions were endorsed by various African leaders and disseminated by NGOs.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, still suffering the effects of low production, economic and political crisis, civil wars, endemic health issues and the destruction of school systems, despite some signs of recovery of economic indicators in recent years and having found new international partners, Africa still has no new State model with which to underpin its rebirth. It lacks theoretical and practical bases; but is now feeling its way, speculating and criticizing, rather than simply lamenting. New forms of participation are being sought and, in some places, the masses are beginning to take to the streets (much to the chagrin of leaders and dominant classes) evidencing hope for change.
Accepting and understanding the weight of ethnic groups and of regions, and also of the African religions (be they traditional or syncretic) within state institutions and decision-making bodies is crucial for understanding how they work.
Beyond the rationalism inherent to public institutions, the African State is a place of power (in the traditional sense) with primordial functions in society (solidarity and obligations) and, whereas society continues its pre-contractual relations, based on extra-economic ties, such power will surely prevail. There are reasons to believe that groups and countries that maintain external relations with the continent will remain interested in maintaining domestic pre-capitalist or post-modern relations with Africa, in the same way that the people seek forms of participation in decision making.
In this context, classification of the African State into five periods —
i) Traditional (or pre-colonial, until the 19th Century)
ii) Colonial exploitation (from the end of the 19th Century until World War II)
iii) Colonial valuation (from World War II until the early 1960s)
iv) Independent developmentalist (up until the 1980s)
v) The Neoliberal State (from the 1980s to the present day) — helps us understand the changes that have occurred and, during each of these phases, the types of governments, institutions, and specific economic, social and cultural policies that have prevailed, imbuing each with an identifiable individual “face” in each period, in the light of modern and traditional, internal and external pressures