Legitimacy Crises and the State System in Africa

18 Jan

An introductory essay by Nwanatifu Nwaco

The constant occurrence of territorial disputes in Africa has necessitated numerous scholarly research and theoretical formulations on predicting, understanding, explaining why states wage war against each other.  What is intriguing is that most of these disputed territories might in fact have no geostrategic or economic resources that benefit the claimants. Looking at the several self determination and secessionist movements in Africa as engineers of internal and trans-border conflict, the very nature and process of state formation and building of African states explains the prevalence of conflicts in and among them, in the same way it determines their how they relate to each other. 

States vary in how they have been formed, so do their sources of legitimacy. African states comply with the Montevideo treaty’s [1] definition of a state. The Peace treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established two predominant principles of international relations among states into:

(1)   The government of each country is unequivocally sovereign within its territorial jurisdiction.

(2)   Countries shall not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs.[2]

This legitimized the ideas of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. States in the modern state system always claim or invoke these principles to justify their actions. However recent African states are in contrast failing to develop into sovereign nation-states if compared in terms of institutions and state capacity to the older states that had have evolved since Westphalian state system.

The Oxford concise dictionary of politics defines a state as “a distinct set of political institutions whose specific concern is with the organization of domination, in the name of common interest, within a particular territory.” It defines further that the most influential definition of the modern state is that provided by Weber which emphasizes three aspects of territoriality, the monopoly of the means of physical violence and its legitimacy. [3]

“A state is defined as a territorial association of people recognized for the purpose of law and diplomacy as a legally equal member of the system of states.”[4]

The embedded and interacting attributes in the above definitions are the State, Government and Legitimacy. Due to the abstract nature of the state, the governmental attribute shall be used to explain how the conflict resolution process between the African states in question was acquired and exercised with dependence on legitimacy and recognition from other states. The principle of territoriality interweaves in the formulation of the theory of state legitimacy to explore the  question why the international community is successful in preventing conflicts in some border disputes but not in others?

The quest for theories to explain the causes of boundary disputes in Africa in respect to other states within the international political system and on the continent of Africa, while they stress territoriality more and emphasizing short comings from governance as established causes and potential solutions, has not gone in depth into researching how the external dependency of African states owing to their process of arbitrary creation from international action by European colonialism[5], recognition has been both a cause and choice of solution to these states. As such, the willingness and denial of the disputants in the Bakassi and Badme border disputes of international pressure for peace is more a matter of acquiring legitimacy and recognition from fellow states.

Max Weber and why do African states fail to establish this monopoly?

Max Weber offers yet an outstanding definition of Legitimacy as:

a compulsory political association with continuous organization that successfully upholds a claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order within a given territorial area.”[6]

The Weberian definition the state is the source of monopoly of the legitimate use of force which is exercised by state institutions or persons and commands obedience from the governed or the component elements of the state. Legitimacy enables the government to project authority and dominion over the internal and external sovereignty of the state it represents.

Deducing from empirical research, African states do not have the monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force, due to variations in state capacity, because of difficult geography, rough terrain, poverty, inter-state competition and warfare and the domestic political competition influence the incentives of politicians to build state capacity.[7]  Moreover, “Claims to territorial legitimacy may rest on the asserted right of a state to control all of the territory which it has occupied at some point in the past on its own right to govern the area allocated to it by international agreements or revolutionary aspirations to liberate or even salvation.”

Weak countries and failed states lack the means or competence to deal effectively with violent conflict because they are not capable of guaranteeing internal security and their instruments to execute the state monopoly of violence are inefficient. This lack of effective control over territory and sociologic components of the state, the absence of authority to advance basic rights and freedoms, enforce laws and allow for citizens participation in the political process, breeds the need for external intervention by the international community in the sovereign domain of a state if its government cannot provide the most basic state functions makes them risky to both the people of that country and to international peace and security.[8] These erode internal legitimacy and leave the state dependent on external sources of legitimacy for internal domination.

Cycles of Conflict

If a reason exists that has succeeded in replicating itself within the causal factors responsible for the emergence of disagreements and disputes between states, it is none other than boundary related disputes. The world in general and indeed Africa in particular is sated with such disputes.  Nevertheless, boundary or territorial disputes between nation-states are based on rival or competing interests…

This introduction is a prologue to a subsequent article on the theme: “Military interventions and the peace building processes in failed states.”


[1] Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States; December 26, 1933, ARTICLE 1 definesThe state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

[2] Andreas Osiander, Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth. International Organization  No.55, 2, Spring 2001, pp. 260-261http://www.labmundo.org/disciplinas/OSIENDER_sovereignty_international_relations_and_the_westphalian_myth.pdf

[3] Ian McLean, 1996, The Oxford concise dictionary of politics, Oxford University Press, pp 472-474

[4] Christopher Clapham, 1996, Africa and the International System: The Politics of State Survival, Cambridge University Press, pp 11

[5] Op.cit, Clapham, 2006, pp 4

[6] Max Weber, 1947, The Theory Of Social And Economic Organization, The Free Press, pp 154

[7] Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson, Rafael J. Santos, November 2009, The Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Colombia, pp1 http://www.econ.ku.dk/phdstudent/Bentzen/Monopoly%20of%20Violence.%20Evidence%20from%20Columbia.pdf

[8] Herbert Wulf, 2006, Reconstructing the Public Monopoly of Legitimate Force, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces , pp 87 – 89

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One Response to “Legitimacy Crises and the State System in Africa”

  1. Edmond Che N January 18, 2013 at 09:34 #

    I like the way you have identified and analyzed the causes of most conflicts in Africa.

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