The French military intervention in the civil war in Mali has drawn numerous comparisons to the European and American engagement in Afghanistan. In both cases, Western powers sent soldiers into more or less failed states to fight violent Muslim extremists in remote and almost inhospitable areas. The warnings that Mali could become a second Afghanistan echo the fear of a drawn out conflict that cannot be won by conventional means. While the similarities between the two cases are striking, the crisis in Mali is in many ways distinctly African: Its story of state failure is typical of the continent’s post-colonial history.
In his book “States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control” Jeffrey Ira Herbst, a professor of international relations and political science at Princeton University, offers an intriguing historical explanation for why Mali is too weak to control its own territory. His book is based on Charles Tilly’s famous argument that effective states are a consequence of war. In order to beat their enemies in combat, rulers have to collect taxes, raise armies and build up an infrastructure. In other words: War creates a strong incentive to build up a functioning administrative apparatus. This incentive, Herbst argues, was never present in Africa.
In Europe, high population densities created a need for agricultural land and led rulers to constantly fight over territory, which in turn led them to improve their state structures. In contrast, population densities in Africa have always been considerably lower. Fighting over territory simply wasn’t worth the effort in most cases and in this more peaceful environment African rulers rarely had an incentive to create effective state structures. This weakness of African administrative structures persisted through the colonial period. The Imperial powers had divided up Africa amongst themselves and largely refrained from fighting over territory. This lack of warfare combined with the European powers’ desire to run their colonies on the cheap meant that the imperial rulers saw no pressing need to extend and improve their administrative structures. In consequence, Africa’s colonial states had little more than formal control over most of their territories.
Upon independence, Africa’s newly founded states quickly decided to keep their boundaries from colonial times. Their own political and economic weakness and the unwillingness of the international community to tolerate state-on-state military aggression gave African leaders a strong disincentive to attack their neighbouring states. Few African countries thus faced threats from abroad and in consequence war as a state strengthening factor continued to play only a negligible role. According to Tilly, the weakness of African states such as Mali boils down to the fact that their borders have been uncontested.
Tilly’s argument is certainly controversial. Explaining the weakness of African states simply with demography and geography leaves out important ethnic and cultural factors. But his claim that the presence of external threats is crucial to state formation is compelling and can certainly explain part of Mali’s predicament. For decades, Mali’s rulers faced no threat to their territorial integrity from abroad. Aid money was always there to fill government coffers, and staying in power was merely a question of appeasing the urban population and military elites. In consequence, it is not surprising that the improvement of effective administrative structures into the poor north never happened.
The rebellion of the northern Touareg suddenly changed everything. The influx of heavily armed fighters for the first time created a foreign force strong enough to threaten the Malian state. In consequence, the task of creating a strong Malian state has suddenly become extremely urgent. The military coup in the capital Bamako in early 2012 was justified with the need to create a stronger government to counter the threat from the North. While the Putschists did little to actually strengthen the state, their actions indicate that Mali’s elites have realized that something has to change.
Paradoxically, the rebellion posed both an existential threat to Mali and a unique opportunity to reform its state once and for all. For a time it seemed as if Mali’s elites had their backs against the wall and had no choice but to try radical reform. After all, the Malian government in its current form was certainly unable to beat the rebels. The French military intervention has removed the existential threat posed by the Islamist rebels for now, but it has also removed a strong incentive to reform. Mali’s government now knows that it does not have to improve its administrative apparatus to ensure its own survival as long as the French are there to save it. Francois Hollande’s intervention has saved Mali in the short run, but it may well have doomed it for the future.