Africa Fails Again

George Ayittey of the Free Africa Foundation observes that most African countries in the Failed States Index followed the same depressing formula to failure.

For the fifth year in a row, Africa holds the unenviable distinction of being the continent with the most failed states -- 11 of the top 20 this year ("The Failed States Index," July/August 2009). Nearly all the African examples followed the same post-colonial script that led to their failure.

The crisis begins when one "educated" buffoon, civilian or military, assumes power and insidiously takes measures to entrench himself. He packs key state institutions -- the security forces, the judiciary, the media, the banking system -- with members of his tribal, military, religious, or political group.

Over time, "government" ceases to exist; it gets hijacked by a phalanx of unrepentant bandits who use the state machinery to plunder their country's mineral wealth for themselves and exclude everybody else -- what I call the "politics of exclusion." Eventually, this vampire state metastasizes into a coconut republic. The rule of law is a farce. Bandits are in charge, their victims in jail. The police protect the crooks in power -- not the people.

The implosion starts when a politically excluded group, fed up with the rotten status quo, mounts a rebel insurgency. Africa's rebel leaders do not seek to redraw artificial colonial boundaries; they want power and head straight to the capital city. The ensuing wars cause wanton destruction and horrific carnage. Rebel leaders seize power but often they are worse than the despots they replaced. Then the cycle begins again. As Africans often say: "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power, but then the next rat comes to do the same thing."

The politics of inclusion and political reform would have saved many of the African states on the Failed States Index. Benin, Cape Verde, Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia are rare success stories. But, alas, hardened coconuts are impervious to reason, so expect more African countries to implode in the years ahead.

George B.N. Ayittey
Free Africa Foundation
Washington, D.C.


The Fund for Peace replies:

George Ayittey is understandably outraged by the cycle of self-serving, predatory governance that has characterized many African states since independence, a factor that has contributed to their scoring high on the Failed States Index for several years in a row.

But the picture is not all gloomy.

First, several conflicts have been resolved. In the 1980s, southern Africa was aflame. Today, South Africa is a multiracial democracy; Angola and Mozambique are at peace; and some countries stand out as exceptionally well-managed states. For instance, Botswana has been conflict-free since independence, manages its natural resources well, is a model of a multiracial society, and had the courage to break ranks with other African countries to stand up for human rights in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Second, recent wars that had plagued West Africa in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have ended. Third, some states have been on a positive trajectory, including Ghana and Senegal, as Ayittey notes. It is erroneous to put all African states in the same basket, but he is right to point out that the politics of inclusion and political reform are what Africa needs most. The countries that have turned themselves around have heeded this call, and those that want to do so should take this advice to heart.

Pauline H. Baker
The Fund for Peace
Washington, D.C.


Macho Men

Irma Erlingsdóttir, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Iceland, thinks Reihan Salam's "The Death of Macho" overestimates the erosion of "male-archy" in Iceland.

Reihan Salam ("The Death of Macho," July/August 2009) has announced the demise of macho rule and offers many convincing global examples of the "monumental shift of power from men to women" as a result of the current economic crisis. Citing Iceland as a case in point, he maintains that the country's voters "threw out" the all-male elite responsible for the financial catastrophe and "named" the world's first openly lesbian leader, Johanna Sigurdardóttir, as their prime minister.

Although inspiring, this account of a gender revolution in Iceland is a bit idealized and premature. This is not to minimize the fact that a handful of Icelandic women have replaced men in real power positions, but the all-powerful male elite has certainly not been smashed.

Indeed, the good-ol'-boys network is still alive and clinging to power, even if it has suffered a few setbacks and casualties. It has even begun to fight back -- in a characteristically male-chauvinistic way. To take just one example, a former prime minister and governor of the Central Bank recently likened Sigurdardóttir to an elf. Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born French magistrate -- whom the Icelandic government enlisted to investigate white-collar crime in connection with the Icelandic banking collapse -- has also been a systematic target of sexist attacks following her harsh criticisms of the "financial vikings" who brought Iceland to near bankruptcy. A lawyer representing these "vikings" wrote an article questioning her "professional fitness" under the self-revealing title "She Ain't a Jol(l)y Good Fellow"!

Male-archy is not dead in Iceland or elsewhere. As Salam correctly points out, those in power will not give it up without an exhaustive fight. The crisis has exposed the bankruptcy of macho rule, but there is no guarantee that a new and better society will arise from its ruins. What is needed is a radical rethinking of gender equality in all spheres of society.

Irma Erlingsdóttir
Center for Women's and Gender Studies
University of Iceland
Reykjavik, Iceland


Reihan Salam replies:

I thank Irma Erlingsdóttir for her insights on Iceland's macho backlash. However, where she sees the "vikings" reasserting control, I see their distress as a recognition of the historic power shift taking place.