Sam Amadi, Former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, and Director, Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts

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Nation-building is back with a bang 08 May 2023

As diplomats and international aid workers hurry out of Sudan, I wish they will spare a thought on what this moment means for global politics. We are seeing everywhere the return of nation-building as the priority responsibility of national government and the international community. We have seemingly come to the crossroads where we may retreat before deciding on the way forward. That retreat will be to review what has happened to the world of international development after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of liberal internationalism.

Sudan is burning because it has not solved the problem of political order, or in the idiom of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, it has not travelled far enough through the ‘Narrow Corridor’. Despite religious orthodoxy and democratic pretenses, Sudan is trapped in neopatrimony, which defines the workings even of such professional entity as its military. The citizens of that historically great but severally brutalised country are trapped in an avoidable war that is in essence a war of primal order, resembling those that Thomas Hobbes equated with the state of nature.

This violent war that has consumed hundreds of people is an expression of the failure of nation-building. Sudan is now the ultimate criminal state where violent criminal transactions define statecraft. The diplomatic posturing by the international community does not belie the fact that it boils down to the business interests of feuding kingpins. Reading the statements from the Rapid Response Service could deceive one into believing that this war is about democracy or sovereignty. But that is a ruse; it masks the real issue, which is the collapse of the nation-state and the reign of criminal kingpins.

There are many local factors that explain this tragic moment in Sudan. But there is an overarching explanation that fits it into the narrative of collapsing African states. This explanation is that we are being reminded that we are yet to build the nation. Sudan adds to the number of African countries failing because they are not focusing on building the nation first. It is not only in Africa that post-colonial states are collapsing. In other parts of the world, the nation-state is undergoing serious ferment, suggesting that something is wrong with the post-1945 concept of the nation-state. Even in the heart of Europe, we see states that are mortally divided across ideological or ethno-religious lines, we see states where dangerous populism has raised the specter of the worst form of ethnic or religious persecution. From Hungary to Poland, there is a real anxiety about what it means to be a member of a polity. This anxiety about the management of diverse societies has relaunched the importance of the crisis of state-society relations in political discourse.

In Africa, we should worry a lot about the rise of primordial violence at the height of globalisation. Immediately after decolonisation, global efforts were focused on building viable nation-states from the many plural societies that the colonialists constructed together. These efforts were defined by some grand narratives. Negritude, Pan-Africanism, and different shades of communism provided the template to build prosperous Africa nation-states. The economic misadventure of many of these countries in the early years of post-independence and the collapse of the alternative to capitalism has foisted a fait accompli that replaced the grand narrative of nation-building in the ideological sense of fashioning the modus operandi of diverse African countries with the incrementalism and convergence of liberal internationalism.

Current African leaders abandoned the idea of nation-building as a search for just and social order that can stabilise the state. The quest for the political state, that is, a state that is legitimate in that it answers to the aspirations of the people, has been replaced by the search for the technical state, that is, a state that checks the macroeconomic essentials of what is furtively described as ‘Washington Consensus’. But the political state is fighting back with a vengeance. The contraption of the neoliberal state is unraveling. And none of the King’s horsemen can put Humpty Dumpty together. In the past, there was significant commitment to build the nation out of diverse social and cultural communities. The efforts may not have succeeded, leading to the blackmail and seduction of the neoliberals who led African leaders toward the antipolitics of technical reforms. We could admit failure and not abandon the enterprise entirely.

What is clear is that African states constructed at the behest of colonial powers post-Berlin and even some like Ethiopia that defied the colonial onslaught must prioritise nation-building. The scramble for institutional convergence will not help these countries to avoid the instability that they are facing now. The danger of political instability is enhanced by their immersion into globalism and the sophistication of information technology. As these countries improve in technical abilities and finesse, they make their implosion inevitable and more devastating. Digital technology may not be that empowering as Sudanese pro-democracy activists may have realised by now. Yes, it gives us the tool for quick mobilisation of outrage. But unless the political institutions of the state, including the political class, have been transformed and coordinated towards political agenda that are legitimately defined in the sense that they answer to idioms and norms of collective existence, transformation and stability may still elude us.

Sudan is a tragic reminder that we have not yet superseded the nation-building stage, and that we should make haste slowly so we can attend to the fundamental question of state order.

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.