The World Cup, which began on Friday, is bringing deserved appreciation of South Africa as a nation that transitioned from white minority domination to a vibrant pluralist democracy. Yet its achievements stand largely alone on the continent. Of the 17 African nations that are commemorating their 50th anniversaries of independence this year — the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia will both do so in the coming weeks — few have anything to truly celebrate.
Five decades ago, African independence was worth rejoicing over: these newly created states signaled an end to the violent, humiliating Western domination of the continent, and they were quickly recognized by the international community. Sovereignty gave fledgling elites the shield to protect their weak states against continued colonial subjugation and the policy instruments to promote economic development.
Yet because these countries were recognized by the international community before they even really existed, because the gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within, it came without the benefit of popular accountability, or even a social contract between rulers and citizens.
Buttressed by the legality and impunity that international sovereignty conferred upon their actions, too many of Africa’s politicians and officials twisted the normal activities of a state beyond recognition, transforming mundane tasks like policing, lawmaking and taxation into weapons of extortion.
So, for the past five decades, most Africans have suffered predation of colonial proportions by the very states that were supposed to bring them freedom. And most of these nations, broke from their own thievery, are now unable to provide their citizens with basic services like security, roads, hospitals and schools. What can be done?
The first and most urgent task is that the donor countries that keep these nations afloat should cease sheltering African elites from accountability. To do so, the international community must move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states, forcing their rulers — for the very first time in their checkered histories — to search for support and legitimacy at home.
Radical as this idea may sound, it is not without precedent. Undemocratic Taiwan was derecognized by most of the world in the 1970s (as the corollary of recognizing Beijing). This loss of recognition led the ruling Kuomintang party to adopt new policies in search of domestic support. The regime liberalized the economy, legalized opposition groups, abolished martial law, organized elections and even issued an apology to the Taiwanese people for past misrule, eventually turning the country into a fast-growing, vibrant democracy.
In Africa, similarly, the unrecognized, breakaway state of Somaliland provides its citizens with relative peace and democracy, offering a striking counterpoint to the violence and misery of neighboring sovereign Somalia. It was in part the absence of recognition that forced the leaders of the Somali National Movement in the early ’90s to strike a bargain with local clan elders and create legitimate participatory institutions in Somaliland.
What does this mean in practice? Donor governments would tell the rulers of places like Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea or Sudan — all nightmares to much of their populations — that they no longer recognize them as sovereign states. Instead, they would agree to recognize only African states that provide their citizens with a minimum of safety and basic rights.
The logistics of derecognition would no doubt be complicated. Embassies would be withdrawn on both sides. These states would be expelled from the United Nations and other international organizations. All macroeconomic, budget-supporting and post-conflict reconstruction aid programs would be canceled. (Nongovernmental groups and local charities would continue to receive money.)
If this were to happen, relatively benevolent states like South Africa and a handful of others would go on as before. But in the continent’s most troubled countries, politicians would suddenly lose the legal foundations of their authority. Some of these repressive leaders, deprived of their sovereign tools of domination and the international aid that underwrites their regimes, might soon find themselves overthrown.
African states that begin to provide their citizens with basic rights and services, that curb violence and that once again commit resources to development projects, would be rewarded with re-recognition by the international community. Aid would return. More important, these states would finally have acquired some degree of popular accountability and domestic legitimacy.
Like any experiment, de- and re-recognition is risky. Some fear it could promote conflict, that warlords would simply seize certain mineral-rich areas and run violent, lawless quasi states. But Africa is already rife with violence, and warlordism is already a widespread phenomenon. While unrecognized countries might still mistreat their people, history shows that weak, isolated regimes have rarely been able to survive without making significant concessions to segments of their populations.
For many Africans, 50 years of sovereignty has been an abject failure, reproducing the horrors of colonial-era domination under the guise of freedom. International derecognition of abusive states would be a first step toward real liberation.
Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Pomona College and the author, most recently, of Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow.