On failed states and the pitfalls of Western commentary

The tendency of Western commentators to dress up African tragedies in the patronizing logic of relativism.

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash

Why did a fairly obvious observation by two white American scholars about Nigeria being a failed state cause controversy? It is because their conclusion departs from a familiar arc of Western commentaries on Nigeria and Africa, which tend to favor platitudinous waffling over candor and critique, and because it aligns with the much-critiqued dominant Western narrative of African dysfunction.

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral critique of un-nuanced Western narratives that homogenize Africa as a hotbed of chaos and tragedy has become the staple reference for discussions on Western portrayals of Africa. But this critique has, in its virality, made it difficult to recognize and engage the other end of the spectrum of Western reportorial engagements with Africa and Africans, the flipside of what Adichie clinically critiqued: the tendency of Western commentators to dress up African tragedies in the patronizing logic of relativism.

Much Western commentary is steeped in a benign, avuncular racism that understands Africa as a delicate entity whose dire conditions must be minimized as the inevitable travails of developmental infancy. But Africans need informed, truthful, and nuanced commentary, not denialist, feel-good platitudes that gaslight them on what plagues their countries.

Paternalistic Western narratives about Africa work in two different but equally suffocating ways. One strand is quite familiar, seeking to inculcate Western values into Africans deemed to lack and need them, a neo-civilizing enterprise that seeks to remake Africans in the image of the West in total disregard for the cultural and aspirational singularities of Africans.

A second strand claims that Africans are not to be judged by Western standards of good governance, security, and citizen rights because Africans are allegedly culturally conditioned to find joy in small things, are happy even when beset by problems, and have more modest aspirations than Westerners.

In the old colonial days, this was the myth of “merrie Africa,” which is explained in detail in Curtis Keim and Carolyn Somerville’s book, Mistaking Africa. Today, the same construct of Africans being happy and content amidst adversity is so prevalent in Western commentary that when a Western opinion on the continent bucks that narrative, it rattles stakeholders from citizens to governments.

This was the case when Robert Rotberg, the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Interstate Conflict, and James Campbell, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a recent essay published by Foreign Policy that “Nigeria is a Failed State.”

The authors were echoing the verdict of most Nigerians, restating what many Nigerians had been saying for several years as they watched their country come apart under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari and his ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).

Although the Nigerian government predictably reacted to the publication with denial and bluster, and the presidency’s spokesperson even attacked the credibility of the authors—these overreactions demonstrated the government’s unfamiliarity with candid and critical Western assessments of the Nigerian situation—the essay resonated widely in the Nigerian media ecosystem.

The message that Nigeria is a failed state was not new to Nigerians because it merely, and faithfully, relayed their predicament under the devastating impact of several armed insurgencies and widespread violent criminality, which have effectively rendered Nigeria a failed state in their eyes.

The essay’s authors’ social scientific explanation of what it means for a state to be considered failed may have fleshed out their argument, but Nigerians already knew that their government was unable to protect them. The key indicators of this state failure are the helplessness of the Buhari administration in the face of growing insecurity, the number of internally displaced persons camps, and the large number of Nigerians who have fled to neighboring countries for refuge.

While the “failed state” message was not a surprise to Nigerians, the authors’ blunt delivery of it was uncharacteristically punchy. It was a departure from the familiar style of Western interlocutors and experts on Nigeria, who, much to the frustration of many Nigerians, often refrain from accurately naming the country’s dysfunction, let alone laying blame on erring incumbent leaders.

Nigerians are long-accustomed to platitudinous Western commentary on their country’s problems. They are used to Western reluctance to criticize the failures of Nigerian governments. They are familiar with Western experts who rationalize failings they would not tolerate in their own countries. They are acquainted with the tendency of Western commentators to relativize Nigeria’s problems because of what is known in American political debates as the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Many Western experts on Nigeria are in the habit of gaslighting Nigerians about the problems their country faces, which, in many cases, these Nigerians must navigate daily as matters of life and death.

Two weeks before the publication of Rotberg’s and Campbell’s essay, a British expert on Nigeria, Nic Cheeseman, along with a Nigerian coauthor, Fola Aina, published an essay titled “Don’t Call Nigeria a Failed State” in Foreign Affairs. In the essay, they managed, with a perplexing analytical logic, to turn the multifaceted calamity unfolding in Nigeria into an alternate reality of a nation on the rise and on the path of greatness.

I was one of many Nigerians who found their conclusion both depressing and mendacious. It made many of us who grew up in Nigeria, have daily informational pipelines to the country, and are called upon to help family and friends cope with the current crisis, question whether we knew what we knew about our own country.

These different strands of Western commentaries on Nigeria’s current conditions raise a broader issue, namely the responsibility of Western scholars and commentators to empathize with and defer to the sentiments, anxieties, and aspirations of Africans—or the extent to which they should let the perspectives of Nigerians and other Africans inform their analyses and arguments.

Although Rotberg and Campbell’s conclusion struck a chord with Nigerians because it reflects how they feel about the ongoing insecurity crisis in their country, the essay is anchored on the esoteric social scientific criteria the authors discuss, not on the viewpoints and feelings of Nigerians.

The main problem remains the reluctance of Western interlocutors to represent African realities accurately, or to consider the opinions and experiences of Africans. There are several reasons Western experts recuse themselves from faithfully discussing African realities or echoing the experiential perspectives of regular Africans, and why, when their conclusion aligns with the sentiments of Africans, it comes across as surprising.

When Western entities criticize failings in African countries, they are sometimes told to keep off or, worse, are accused of haughty interference, such as the Buhari administration’s reaction to CNN’s criticism of its crackdown against #EndSARS protesters in Nigeria last year.

No event illustrates this African backlash against Western pontifications on African affairs than former President Barack Obama’s 2009 visit to Ghana, during which he gave a speech to the Ghanaian parliament that many African observers considered preachy and condescending. Obama’s subsequent address to the African Union in 2015 was similarly criticized for its tone of “insult” and arrogant, prescriptive lecturing.

While some African critics accused Obama of talking about Africa and African leadership in the mold of a colonial headmaster self-righteously scolding his “wayward” pupils without acknowledging the reality of colonial domination and intrusion, others praised him for what they regarded as his unvarnished, “tough love” truth telling about the dysfunction in most African countries.

These dueling African perspectives on Obama’s engagement with Africa illustrate four interrelated points. First, Western interlocutors, even those with sentimental affinities to the continent, struggle to find the right frame to engage with Africa and its issues.

Second, there is a tendency to pigeonhole Western commentaries on Africa into two categories of hostile and friendly opinions. This binary opposition, despite the emotional and intellectual energies invested in defending it, produces dead-end debates because it leaves out many nuances that defy these categories.

Third, debates on Obama’s Africa rhetoric skirt the critical question of whether or to what extent Obama’s evaluation and even his rhetoric accorded with or departed from the sentiments and quotidian narratives of non-elite Africans on the problems of their countries.

Finally, the debate over how Obama talked about and to Africa was shaped by the tendency of some African elites to become instinctively defensive in responding to Western criticisms of African leadership and state failure, a reflex that makes it seem like Africans are afraid to take responsibility for their failures, to be self-reflexive and self-critical, and to accept critique.

Contrary to this perception, Africans are able to separate tendentiously patronizing Western criticism from genuine concerns about leadership failure and dysfunction in their countries. Africans desire well-targeted criticisms from Westerners who are concerned without being conceited, critical without being condescending.

It is a delicate balance between minimizing and pathologizing African dysfunctions. A Western interlocutor who desires to study and engage credibly with Africa needs to painstakingly learn that balance and the appropriate terms for considering African affairs in ways that are respectful of African perspectives and sufferings. In tone and substance, the Western opinion should not contradict or lecture Africans about their own reality.

Most Western commentators on Africa lack Obama’s outrage-defying platform and clout, so instead of courting controversy, they avoid blunt criticisms of failings in the countries with which they engage.

Some Westerners refrain from criticizing failings in Africa because they don’t want to be thrown out by host governments, the way the Lagos correspondent of The Economist was expelled from Nigeria in 2016. Others who are scholars want to preserve access to research materials, informants, and interlocutors, and so refrain from critical political commentary.

Another group of Western commentators operates out of an antiquated handbook of White liberal guilt that forbids finding fault with Africans because, for them, criticizing African failings amounts to blaming or revictimizing the victims of violent Western intrusions such as slavery and colonialism.

Other Western experts on Africa take the calculated stance of not criticizing state policies so as not to endanger internally persecuted minorities and groups who could be further targeted if they are seen as instigators or beneficiaries of Western criticism and activism.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the turn towards overly rosy and unrealistically positive rendition of African realities is the recent critique of the dominant trope of  Western portrayals of Africa, in exclusively negative terms, as a diseased and poverty-ravaged basket case.

The Western media is accused of ignoring positive events in Africa to focus on the negative. This critique was given global visibility by Chimamanda Adichie’s searing audio-visual enunciation of the danger of the Western single story on Africa.

These may be legitimate reasons for Western commentators to avoid certain uncomfortable truths about the conditions of the countries they study or to tell the truth in a soothing, stripped-down manner, but such Western experts need to know that the option of maintaining a studious, deferential silence when they are not sure how to respond to African tragedies is available. They need to know that this option is preferable, from the perspective of Africans, to pandering, patronizing platitudes that conceal or dilute the seriousness of African countries’ predicaments or the failings of their governments.

Adichie’s memorable critique of the Western single story should not be read as permission to patronize and condescend to Africa and Africans with positive portrayals that bear little correlation to actual conditions on the continent.

The issue is not simply about balancing the negative with the positive or vice versa, in a mechanical, cynical way, only for the sake of reconciling the representational books. Rather, the problem is that commentaries on African matters often devolve into two extreme categories of overly negative or positive and, more crucially, with little or only partial fidelity to the perspectives and experiences of Africans living in the countries under discussion.

A graphic illustration of this tendency towards extreme narrative tropes is the fact that the May 13, 2000 edition of The Economist declared Africa to be “the hopeless continent” on its cover only for the December 3, 2011 edition of the same magazine to declare Africa “the hopeful continent,” projecting the simplistic narrative of “Africa rising” without explaining the parameters of this “rising” or considering the critical question of for whom Africa is rising, if indeed it is rising.

Negative or positive, Western analysis of African realities should be faithful to the ways that Africans themselves are experiencing and narrating those realities. It is not the job of Western analysts to make Africans feel better about their own conditions by whitewashing and attenuating those conditions or by deploying platitudinous and patronizing rhetoric, nor is it their place to articulate on Africans’ behalf how bad things are on the continent.

Whether it is expressed as the rhetorical exaggeration of and reduction of complex African realities to un-nuanced tragedy and adversity or advanced in the offensive language of cultural relativism, Western attitudes to African conditions spring from the same source: a reluctance to let the perspectives of Africans determine the narratives around their predicaments.

The Adichiean rebuke of the Western single story must be accompanied and balanced out by a complementary denunciation of its antipode: the condescending romanticization of African tragedies and the corresponding infantilization of Africans as uniquely resilient and unconditionally happy Others.

Western commentaries on African conditions and on governments that superintend these conditions should mirror the sentiments of Africans in those countries, not the ideologies or prepackaged bromides of the commentators.


Further Reading