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Beyond the Steroetypes


By Rosemary Ekosso


In a 16 November, 2006,  New York Times' writer, Howard French described Africa as follows: “...home to the greatest collection of failed states and underdeveloped nations anywhere”.


I take issue, with this. 


Mr. French is by no means the first person to use this term, and he may be guilty of nothing more than subscribing to received wisdom. Lord knows there are enough people out there writing about failed states, and even, in the case of this website and this one, publishing a failed state index.


I do not really quibble with the failed states indices as such, although one might say that such indices should examine the underlying causes of what they describe as state failure rather than dwelling on the results.


But how long does a state exist before it can be described as having failed?


Let us use the example of the United Kingdom, with particular emphasis on England. Wikipedia says England and Scotland have existed as separate kingdoms for about 1000 years, and the United Kingdom has been more or less recognised as such since 1707.


The path to a united kingdom was fraught with wars, at least one of them civil, plagues, homicidal monarchs like the16th century Henry VIII, who had one of his wives (he married six women in his lifetime), Ann Boleyn, killed when he was tired of her. To obtain her execution, the King trumped up charges of, among other things, witchcraft, incest, adultery, and treason.


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Her head was cut off. Another of his wives, Anne of Cleves, was also beheaded because she was found to have cheated on the king.


Henry VIII formed his own church because he fell out with the Roman Catholic Church because of his attitude to his wives. This is today’s Anglican Church. If one had been living in England at the time, what with Oliver Cromwell running around assessing the wealth of monasteries so the King could seize the property of the smaller ones, and generally doing the King’s and his own dirty work before he was himself beheaded, might they not have called England a failed state?


I think they might have. But England survived her monarchs and is a democracy today. This country, a significant part of whose wealth comes from many decades of the terrible abuse and cruelty of black slavery and colonisation, was also one of the first to speak out against slavery and was a key actor in its abolition. One grows.


The United Kingdom has succeeded in bridging the huge chasm that existed between the nobility and the commoners and is still enjoying the effects of an industrial revolution whose nefarious side effects are depicted in Hard Times and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.


It has finally subdued rebellious parts of Ireland that the central government regarded as being part of the kingdom, but which the Northern Irish Catholics themselves defended  with their blood( and other people's blood too, it must be said), carrying on a guerrilla war for decades.


I would say that the United Kingdom is doing well. It is doing very well. It is not a failed state at all. Over a thousand years of history, it has, now that the Irish republicans have (sort of) laid down their weapons, finally formed a viable, peaceful state.


But it took a thousand years.


How long have there been African States in the modern era? About 60 years.


My second point is this: when the Romans were waxing martial and civilised all over the place, Britain was arguably less developed than many of the African nations it later colonised. And the Romans colonised large parts of Britain for about 400 years.


Africa’s official colonisation lasted from 1884 after the Berlin conference to the 1970s. Let’s not talk about the unofficial colonisation, which continues. The official colonisation of Africa lasted only about 100 years.


It’s nice to put things into perspective.


History turns and turns. Where is the Roman Empire today? Where are the Egyptians whose civilisation fired the imaginations of generations of Europeans to the extent that people went and looted ancient tombs for objects of beauty and, in the case of at least one person, placed the mummified remains of some poor Egyptian nobleman in his living room as part of the décor?


Three thousand years after their time came and went, were the Egyptians not colonised by the British, who were little more than cave dwellers when ancient Egypt was in its prime?


There is a new kind of industry developing around global issues involving third word countries: debt, development, failed states, that sort of thing. They call it aid when they’re lying to themselves and to us, but you and I know what it is, don’t we? It is the rope around our necks.


But if they want to do business their way, fine. If they want to lie, cheat, steal, cajole and kill to get what they want, what can we do about it except rant and rave as I am doing now? Very little.


They can do pretty much what they want to do with our countries because we have such abysmal leaders. Why do they have to make us feel inferior as well?


As far as statehood in the current era is concerned, we are mere babes. Do you tell a babe in arms that its life is over because it has colic?


Rosemary Ekosso is a translator and court interpreter with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. She blogs frequently at Ekosso.com


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