This past March, a UN panel revealed that Liberian officials had signed a secret contract with an obscure European company, giving it a virtual monopoly on mining diamonds in the troubled country -- even though Liberia has been banned by the UN from selling its diamonds since 2001. The arrangement, it was disclosed, had involved members of the new transitional government operating under the (supposed) scrutiny of a large UN mission.

The discovery should not have come as a surprise. Liberia's new government, supposedly a model of national reconciliation, is largely made up of former militia members. During 15 years of war, armed gangs ravaged Liberia, turning it into a classic example of a failed state. Since the fighting stopped in August 2003, the erstwhile warlords have been quick to set aside their differences -- at least when doing so helps them acquire more loot. The mining deal was just one in a long series of similar scandals perpetrated by senior members of the transitional government, who are rapidly signing away their country's future in return for personal financial gain.

It did not have to be this way. The new regime was established in October 2003 as part of a peace agreement brokered by West African states and supported by Washington -- and backed up by a powerful UN peacekeeping mission. The UN force, originally led by Jacques Klein (a former U.S. diplomat with strong military credentials), has worked to disarm local fighters, build a working bureaucracy, organize democratic elections, and establish a basis for lasting peace. Preparations for presidential and parliamentary elections are proceeding on schedule, with voting expected to take place in October.

Unfortunately, the interim government has used the time to make things worse. Liberian warlords and politicians have found it easy to outmaneuver the UN and the international community in the conduct of what locals, with their habitual grim humor, call "business more than usual." Despite claims that they are struggling for peace, democracy, and reconciliation, the warlords and their henchmen continue to use the country's institutions for personal profit. Even if one of the few respectable candidates wins the presidential election in October, there is little chance that he or she will be able to rectify matters. And if the UN starts to wind down its mission after the elections, as it currently plans to do, the most likely outcome will be a resumption of politics-as-plunder and war. Nothing worthwhile will have come of the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Liberia by international donors or of the hundreds of lives lost by foreign peacekeepers.

Liberia is just one example on a long list of African states that have spent years on the brink of collapse (or have long since succumbed) despite international efforts to help them. Together, these countries (the list also includes Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia) point to a stark truth: the conventional approach for helping Africa's failed and failing states does not work.

Part of the problem involves the way that the international community understands failed states in the first place. The conventional view relies on a misleading mechanical metaphor, which leads policymakers to suppose that, like broken machines, failed African countries can be repaired by good mechanics. In fact, dysfunctional governments are more like sick people. Like humans, states fall ill in a variety of ways, can continue to function (after a fashion) even when sick, and do not all respond to treatment the same way. Some illnesses can be treated quickly, whereas others require long-term care. Most important, serious illnesses often leave their victims -- whether people or governments -- permanently changed, unable to return to their former condition.

Keeping this in mind, a better approach to dysfunctional states in Africa would begin with a diagnosis that takes full account of their individual characters and does not assume that the same therapy will work on all of them. The international community cannot get heavily involved in all of Africa's problem countries anytime soon. However, there are a few places, such as Liberia, where the outside world is already deeply entangled. New efforts should be focused in these states.

Achieving real gains will take time, however, and the international community must start thinking about how to help African states in more than just three- to five-year increments (the current lifespan of most UN mandates). International actors should be prepared to spend ten years or longer on Africa's hardest cases. A new approach will also require new institutional frameworks that draw in all interested parties, including some of Africa's more capable states and regional institutions. International financial bodies, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), must also be brought onboard.

In some cases, a form of international trusteeship will be required. This idea, anathema since the end of colonialism, deserves rehabilitation. Done properly, it need not involve the wholesale dismantling of national sovereignty, a precedent that would rightly worry many parties. Instead, trusteeship should entail a new, enhanced form of international responsibility.

Not all African states will need such radical intervention. The continent's countries lie along a spectrum of effective statehood. At one end are South Africa, Botswana, and Mauritius -- the few sub-Saharan success stories in terms of both governance and economics. At the other end lie the abject failures, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. And in between fall the majority. Notwithstanding the optimistic talk of international development officials, the vast bulk of Africa's countries are doing just about enough to get by. A few, such as Uganda, have pulled themselves back from the brink of ruin. Several others -- including Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, and perhaps Malawi and Zambia -- are functioning democracies that may be on the road to recovery. Still, of the African Union's 53 members, eight or nine could currently be described as war zones, and there are plenty more -- such as Chad, Togo, and Guinea -- that could go that way at any moment. It is past time that the world's leading states found a better way to help them.


Although they vary in their details, dysfunctional states share two key characteristics: they cannot guarantee law and order throughout their territory, and they cannot fulfill certain critical international obligations. Of these two problems, the former tends to matter most to the state's own citizens, since they are the primary victims. But the latter creates the most widespread concern.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, made it very clear just how dangerous failed states can be for the rest of the world. The U.S. government has discovered that even the most obscure country can become a base for America's enemies -- a notion underscored in late 2001 when it was disclosed that Charles Taylor, Liberia's then president, had sold diamonds to al Qaeda. This discovery -- made not by a U.S. intelligence agent but by a reporter from The Washington Post -- highlighted the way that even nonideological leaders may cooperate with dangerous anti-Western forces. Even when they want to, moreover, dysfunctional states are often unable to comply with Washington's counterterrorism efforts (or with any other policy, for that matter). In such cases, providing military assistance (as the United States is doing in some parts of Africa) only makes matters worse.

Aside from these basic failures, no two problem states are exactly the same, and it helps to break them down into categories more nuanced than simply "working" or "failing." Nine years ago, the political scientist Jean-Germain Gros proposed a useful typology that the international community should adopt. He identified five types of dysfunctional states: "anarchic" states, such as Somalia, which lack a central government; "phantom," or "mirage," states, such as Congo (formerly Zaire), which exercise only a semblance of central authority and can manage just a few core tasks (such as protecting the president and his circle); "anemic" states, which are enervated by an insurgency or where, as in Haiti, "the engines of modernity were never put in place"; "captured" states, such as Rwanda, where a strong centralized authority has been taken over by an insecure elite that is primarily concerned with defending itself against rival elites; and "aborted" states, such as Angola, which failed before they were ever consolidated.

This framework underscores the fact that not all problem countries are amenable to the same treatment. Somalia, for example, may work better without a real state than it did with one, since the lack of a central government there has prevented any one warlord from capturing all the resources and aid money for himself. Rwanda, meanwhile, remains a problem not because its government is feeble, but because the paranoid Tutsi political elite regards any moderation as weakness. Crafting a strategy for dealing with these enormously varied situations might seem impossible, but it should not cause officials to despair. There are a number of African states that are now good candidates for international attention, and they should be made the focus of outside help.


Before explaining how best to provide aid, it helps to understand why past efforts have not worked. Large international state-fixing missions are currently under way in Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. These ventures share three major inadequacies.

The first problem is with their time frames: healing a seriously troubled state requires a comprehensive medium-term strategy, not a quick fix. "Medium term" here means longer than the four-year policy cycle typical in Washington; fixing dysfunctional African states can take ten years or more. Thinking in long time frames is not easy for Western governments, but they can do it when they have to, as they have shown with energy policy. And where Africa is concerned, there is little alternative; too many outside interventions have been undermined by the expectation of instant results.

The second flaw in the current approach is its historical imprecision. Foreign officials tend to talk as though they can restore African states to a degree of efficiency that existed at some vague time in the past. But much of Africa never enjoyed anything like what is now considered good governance. Before 1980, for example, Liberia was run by a few families who claimed U.S. ancestry, under a system analogous to apartheid. It would be a terrible mistake to resurrect such a system today, and Liberians would never accept it. What period, then, should Liberia aspire to reproduce? Even in its heyday, Monrovia never functioned well.

Although Liberia, which was never formally a colony, has an unusual history, its story is similar in important respects to those of many other problem states in Africa. In the majority, colonial administrations ruled for decades, relying on village chiefs and other rural notables to keep the masses quiet. Only from the 1940s onward did most colonial governments begin to try to develop their territories economically and to endow local administrations with some democratic credentials. When most African countries gained independence in the 1960s, they had very little experience with management or governance.

Still, independence came during the height of the Cold War and at the midpoint of the longest and widest economic boom in the modern history of the world (lasting roughly from 1945 to 1973). Prices for agricultural commodities were high, outside aid was easy to attain, and the development community felt very optimistic -- and very generous. Conditions have obviously changed since then.

This is not to say that African countries can never regain the sense of optimism and progress they enjoyed in the mid-twentieth century, or that their public administrations can never gain a reasonable degree of efficiency and honesty. But in order for them to do so, they must first face up to modern realities. Prices for many agricultural commodities have declined and may never return to their 1960s or 1970s high point. Most African states have shown themselves unable to industrialize and incapable of absorbing capital; instead, outside money has been used to enrich tiny political elites and their partners abroad. Today, many African governments are further than ever from being able to finance themselves through their own resources, and they rely on permanent subsidies from donor countries for their very existence. Population growth has changed the relationship of people to the land, in both economic and cultural terms. Many of the most dynamic and best-educated Africans have emigrated to Europe or North America. Young people express little hope for a better future. And HIV/AIDS is cutting a cruel swath through the continent, with long-term implications that are hard to predict.

Outsiders also tend to ignore the historical roots of today's conflicts. Virtually since independence, much of Africa has been consumed with warfare -- in the Great Lakes region and Sudan since the 1950s, for example, and in Liberia since the 1980s. Today's strife is not just the product of the end of the Cold War or the withdrawal of military funding by the superpowers. Many of Africa's current conflicts are just the latest twists in a long and bloody history that goes back to the circumstances of decolonization. Understanding this history is essential for rebuilding today.

The third and final weakness of current attempts to rebuild Africa is that most are too narrowly oriented toward individual states. This was one of the mistakes made by the World Bank and the IMF in the 1980s, when prescriptions for economic reform were given to neighboring countries with little thought of their cumulative consequences. In a similar fashion, Africa's wars are today often erroneously understood as internal, rather than interstate, conflicts. The truth is that most combatants receive support from neighboring governments, making Africa's wars regional in fact if not in name. Indeed, Congo's "civil" war -- a conflagration that has persisted, in one form or another, since 1997 and has claimed more than three million lives -- has involved forces from at least eight countries. And the ongoing chaos in Liberia has helped to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Guinea.

To have a chance at success, peacemaking efforts and rebuilding strategies must take these regional dynamics into account. Regionwide cooperation is also necessary on economic issues, such as facilitating cross-border trade and ensuring that people can travel, work, and own property outside their home countries. Achieving such cooperation may require the creation of international customs administrations, for example, and pooled revenue arrangements.


No African state has been undergoing major repairs for longer than Sierra Leone. As a result, it has become something of a laboratory experiment in state sickness and remedy. And it serves as a good test case for just what is wrong and what is right about the international approach to Africa.

Sierra Leone started out as colony under British auspices in 1787, serving as a refuge for homeless black people from the streets of London (many of them veterans of the wrong side of the American War of Independence). After the British departed in 1961, the new country quickly succumbed to corruption and misrule under the long reign of Siaka Stevens (1968-85). War broke out in 1991 and began to taper off only after British troops arrived in May 2000.

Since then, the international effort to reconstruct Sierra Leone has been intense. Under UN and British auspices, its army and police force have been reorganized and retrained, law courts and police stations have been rebuilt, and a government has been democratically elected. Many officials in the new government, however, have murky pasts -- including ties to a militia that committed atrocities during the war. They and their colleagues have shown little interest in making more than a rhetorical commitment to good governance. Many officials are also highly corrupt and have paid scant attention to the deep social problems (such as bad education and unemployment) that led to war in the first place. Government ministers and senior officials seldom venture outside the capital city, Freetown, where they drive around in luxury SUVs paid for with international aid money. Meanwhile, nothing has changed for the impoverished veterans of Sierra Leone's vicious wars -- or for their victims. Some former fighters say they would pick up arms again at the first opportunity; at least the militias provided them with jobs. If the UN and the British leave Sierra Leone in the near future, there is every reason to believe the state will once again collapse.

The same goes for neighboring Liberia, which is now a wreck -- despite having boasted the world's second-fastest-growing economy during the 1950s and having been home, more recently, to the largest UN mission in the world and a recovery process to which the United States is estimated to have contributed some $750 million.

In both countries, as in many other parts of Africa, ruling cliques have developed a vested interest in disorder and show little interest in seeing an efficient state emerge. This is not a problem of education: Africa's elites include people with degrees from leading universities around the world. Many of Liberia's warlords studied in the United States, for example, and the president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, is a former UN official.

And the problem goes deeper than crooked officials. Countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Somalia, which have suffered through fighting for almost a generation now, lack not just honest, competent leaders but also clerks and bureaucrats. Not enough people have been educated or trained for effective government work. An entire range of social and economic institutions also needs fixing. Reconstruction will take a minimum of ten years and could require as many as 50.

None of these problems can be solved by simply throwing more cash at Africa. Many on the continent have come to see foreign aid as nothing more than a cow to be milked. Unfortunately, much of the international community has yet to recognize this. Consider Our Common Interest, the report published earlier this year by the Commission for Africa (convened by the British government). While it cites the need for reform, the report also recommends a major injection of new aid -- as if Africa's main problem was a lack of capital. The commission did not adequately consider why that formula has failed so badly, and so often, in the past.

Now the G-8 (the coalition of the world's leading industrialized powers) has made a similar mistake. At the recent summit at the Gleneagles resort in Scotland, leaders promised to increase by 2010 official development assistance to Africa by $25 billion a year, doubling current totals. But Africa's real problem is not a lack of money. In fact, new aid from the West will only make matters worse unless it is integrated into a strategy that also involves much more incisive political input from donor countries.


Instead of more money, what Africa really needs is governments that are responsible to their own voters, that are largely self-financing, that are internationally respectable, and that can attract home some of the hundreds of thousands of talented Africans who currently live in the West. New infusions of aid would likely just perpetuate the kleptocratic regimes that have slowly strangled the continent since independence.

Healthier states will need to reflect the actual politics of their societies, including some unconventional arrangements. In Somaliland (a region in the north of Somalia), for example, a relatively competent though still-unrecognized independent government has sprung up, funded by local business leaders and remittances from abroad -- which turn out to have a much more salutary effect on government than does foreign aid. Premature recognition of Somaliland could kill it by turning it into another aid junkie. But the territory deserves some form of legal status to recognize its impressive development and to take it out of its present limbo.

Of course, providing basic security remains an essential first step in any rebuilding effort. Africa's lack of security -- physical, political, and economic -- has wreaked such psychological havoc that it will be hard to redress through conventional government techniques. Few Africans can muster the confidence to invest in their countries, whether financially, professionally, or personally. Persuading them to reengage will require providing military and economic security; only then will the climate improve enough to permit the training and retention of professional and administrative personnel.

But traditional peacekeeping is not enough. Even well-meaning international efforts can do more harm than good. As the academics Denis Tull and Andreas Mehler have pointed out, often the worst violence in Africa has occurred after the outside world intervened to create power-sharing deals between rival elites; think of the slaughter in Angola in 1992, in Burundi in 1993, and in Rwanda in 1994. What was missing, in each of these cases, was enough international pressure and outside resources to keep fragile and sometimes misconceived peace treaties in place.

To craft a better approach to Africa, one other problem must be confronted head-on: effective intervention is going to occasionally require overriding traditional national sovereignty. Certain African governments have never managed to create durable working administrations. In these countries, sovereignty has become a mere legal fiction, one that provides cover for all sorts of internal abuses. For too long, legitimate worries about infringing on Africa's independence have stymied international efforts to address this problem.

Fortunately, there is now a growing body of international jurisprudence defining the circumstances in which the international community is justified, or even required, to bypass such nominal sovereignty in order to protect people who have been abandoned or abused by their governments. And several African governments, most notably Nigeria's and South Africa's, have started to signal a new flexibility on this question, as have the leaders of the new African Union (AU). All seem to agree that in some cases, when states are unable or unwilling to prevent massive human rights abuses, intervention is appropriate -- whether local powers like it or not. Intrusive outside meddling often smacks of colonialism and is thus a bitter pill for African nationalists to swallow. But sometimes there is simply no alternative.

This understanding should allow for a new form of international engagement in Africa: namely, trusteeships for certain failed states. No one is advocating a return to the UN's old trusteeship system. Under the new paradigm, locals would remain full partners in any arrangement. What is called for now are multilateral joint ventures in which certain countries and institutions share control over key operations. In such missions, the UN should still play a fundamental role (although not an administrative one), since it alone can confer the kind of legitimacy critical to such projects. In this regard, it would help enormously if the UN Security Council were expanded to include a representative from sub-Saharan Africa, since this would give Africans a sense that they were full partners in the body.

The most obvious current candidate for such a trusteeship is Liberia. Congo and Sudan might equally need help, but they are too large in political, economic, and population terms, and have too many self-interested outside actors involved to allow a novel international arrangement to succeed. Liberia, by contrast, has far less to lose and fewer outside influences and allies. Liberians are also so deeply attached to the United States that many locals would likely support a U.S.-led effort.

Any trusteeship established to oversee the country should include representatives of the U.S. government, as well as of the other parties to the international "contact group" on Liberia, which was formed in September 2002 to track the country's progress (the group also includes representatives from the UN, the EU, the AU, the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS], France, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and the United Kingdom). The IMF and the World Bank should also be included, as well as whoever is elected as Liberia's president in October.

One of the main priorities of the trusteeship of Liberia should be to encourage some of the many Liberians living abroad to return home. These returnees and other exiles could be organized into a continent-wide international corps of administrators who could be deployed wherever in Africa they are needed. The international community, however, must avoid simply giving control of all aspects of the country's public administration to the new trusteeship. To ensure that Liberia starts to govern itself effectively, foreign administrators should concentrate on securing the boundaries of the political field while allowing new local arrangements to emerge. This can best be accomplished by taking control of the main sources of revenue and ensuring that money is then passed on to the Liberian Treasury on agreed terms. A comparable system has been pioneered for oil revenues in Chad, an example that should be studied for future cases. Another option is the arrangement some analysts have proposed for Congo: requiring both local and international businesses to pay taxes not to the central government but into a series of provincial trust funds jointly run by locals and foreigners. Such innovations could be very useful for these countries and many others throughout the continent.

Although the trusteeship idea might sound complicated and costly, the sums of money involved in restoring African states to health will be small -- far less than what is now pouring into Iraq or is given as aid to a range of other countries. In many cases, the new paradigm would involve no new allocations, but would simply spread out over longer periods what has already been budgeted. Expensive, large-scale peacekeeping forces would not generally be required, certainly not for the long term. Where peacekeepers are needed, the best approach would be to copy the Sierra Leone model: use a small number of Western soldiers (800 British troops were deployed in Sierra Leone) to spearhead a larger force of regional peacekeepers (such as the West African troops deployed in Côte d'Ivoire or the AU forces sent to Burundi and, more recently, to Darfur). The AU has expressed interest in creating an African standby force, but this may take years to assemble and organize.

Such forces should not occupy whole territories, but simply guarantee effective military intervention in defined circumstances -- such as if a legitimately elected government is threatened by a coup or if a troubled country is threatened by invasion. As the British armed forces have shown in Sierra Leone, the credible threat of a deployment by an "over the horizon" force serves as an effective deterrent when part of a wider political strategy.


One of the few hopeful developments to come out of Africa's many dysfunctional states is the way power vacuums have been spontaneously filled by new structures with deep roots in Africa's history. These institutions, such as Somalia's subclans or West Africa's initiation societies, do not figure in textbooks on government and sometimes play a negative role. In other cases, however -- as in the self-governing Somaliland -- they have made a positive contribution. At present, UN administrators tend to ignore such networks and often spend an entire tour of duty patiently rebuilding formal new governments without noticing the alternate structures already in existence right under their noses.

Administrators should learn to take advantage of such indigenous political institutions. Over the next few decades, governance in many parts of Africa must be substantially reinvented, and the more solidly it is grounded, the better. Not all local institutions that have a historical pedigree should be preserved. But because certain deep-rooted local structures are not going to disappear, it makes sense to think about how they can play a role. Some self-defense and vigilante groups, for example, could be incorporated into local police forces or national guard units.

With every month that goes by, it becomes clearer that the chapter of African history that opened in 1945 has now closed. The golden age of decolonization and nationalism in Africa did not lead, in most cases, to successful sovereign states. This fact may be hard for Africans to admit, but it is even harder for them to live with.

Too often, Westerners ask only whether Africa's problems affect their security and, learning that they do not, decide to ignore them. Such short-term thinking must now change, especially given the new, global threats that have emerged since September 11. The West should adopt a new, enlightened form of self-interest and be open to engaging in new sorts of involvement in Africa. Sick states there cannot be restored with the medicines and surgical techniques of a bygone era. What is required instead are international joint ventures as discussed above. These arrangements would avoid the evils of colonialism and the errors of more recent peacekeeping and state-building efforts. The outcome -- a healthier, more stable, and more secure Africa -- would benefit everyone, on the continent and around the world.

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  • Stephen Ellis is a researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the former Director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. He is a co-author of Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa.
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