Jake Meador: Let’s get right into a topic you’ve written about recently: why violence and corruption continue to plague so many countries in Africa. In your book The Sacrifice of Africa, you argue that the reason for this is not the failure of the nation-state in Africa, as many assume, but rather its success. Could you explain?
Emmanuel Katongole: I wrote the book in part in response to the endless cycles of poverty, violence, and corruption in many parts of Africa, including my own country, Uganda. You often hear about the dysfunctional nature of politics in Africa; you hear about different techniques to help the nation-state become more rational, more transparent, more effective.
But all these proposals assume that African nation-states are the way they are – often with disorder, violence, and poverty – because they’re still at an early stage of history. We will, the story goes, eventually progress to a more rationalized, bureaucratized system, able to effectively deliver services and promote the common good. But that is misleading. In order to understand why, one has to do a little bit of archaeology, so to speak: one must dig into the foundational assumptions of the African nation-state, of when, how, and why it came into existence. That is what I try to do in The Sacrifice of Africa, which led me to see that the African nation-state is a successor institution to the colonial regime. The latter was set up to benefit, not the colonized peoples of Africa, but rather the colonial centers. Accordingly, whatever “development” was set in place simply represented the minimum required to maintain the colonial system of control and extraction.
At independence, when power was finally wrested out of the hands of the colonial regimes, the African elites became the de facto rulers. Yet the institutions they inherited continued to work out of the same imagination of control and extraction. They continued not only to depend on the colonial centers in systems of commerce, but also to serve elite interests. This is what I refer to as “King Leopold’s ghost.”
So when people say “Africa is dysfunctional,” I reply, no, it’s not. Given the foundational assumptions – that is, the nation-state – politics in Africa actually works as intended.
Meador: It’s done what it’s designed to do.
Katongole: Exactly. That is why what is needed is not just recommendations to help democracy flourish or to make the nation-state work better. We need to reimagine politics from a new point of view.