Earning Sovereign Trust

Interesting op-ed in the NYT today (6/12/10) by Pomona College African politics professor Pierre Englebert, entitled “To Save Africa, Reject Its Nations.”  He (admittedly radically) advocates derecognizing African countries that perform poorly in delivering basic democratic norms to its people (defined as safety and “basic rights”).  On the ground this means that the United Nations and other international organizations would expel non-performing states.  Bilateral relations, as conducted through reciprocal embassies, would also shut down. And with both, the macroeconomic, budget-supporting and post-conflict reconstruction aid programs that keep these regimes afloat.

Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Sudan are Englebert’s poster children.  His thesis results from a clear-eyed look at the track record of 50 years of independence celebrated by many African countries (including Senegal) this year:  Because modern African states were recognized immediately upon independence by the international community, they gained instantaneous status as sovereign nations without developing internal habits of sovereign responsibilities to its citizens.  As Englebert frames it:

“[B]ecause 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.”

Interesting proposition, but a bit too radical for my taste.  Aren’t civil society organizations, both international and grassroots national varieties, working internally to build these norms of democratic responsibility, to forge a modern social contract in each state?  Isn’t that what most of the aid dollar is really spent on, in the end, whether seeking improved security, transport, health care, and education – the personal tools of independent judgment and engaged accountability that, when collectively exercised, lead to good governance?  This is very hard work.  NGOs in the trenches do amazing things day and out to light these democratic fires.  I’ve seen my fair share in Senegal.  50 years on, I think the horse is well out of the barn when it comes to recognizing African sovereignty.  Instead, I’d advocate using international norm-setting tools like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)  and international and regional institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the African Union (AU) to correct the extreme cases of African countries who have not earned their peoples’ trust and thus not lived up to the world’s gift of sovereign recognition.

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