It is rather difficult to find an accurate definition and indeed to give typical criteria for a country to qualify as a ‘failed state’ but what is public knowledge is that failed states are unable to provide basic public services—(jobs and food for their people), have lost some of their territories to insurgency groups, and can no longer control the security of their borders.
There is a large literature on the link between violent actors and failed states – as these states have no security apparatus to deter or defend the integrity of their territories.
Since the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the international community has been grappling with security threats, especially those emanating from violent groups such as Al Qaida, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) just to name a few.
The threats posed by these groups are real as evidenced by recent beheadings of journalists which were done on screen by the IS in Syria, killings of innocent civilians in Kenya and kidnappings of young girls in Nigeria.
These acts of violence are utterly awful and need condemning across the world –there are many channels through which political injustices can be addressed.
The question is should failed states always be equated with violence and insecurity? There is an increasing trend in West to label everything as a security threat, and the question of failed states faced the same fate – fragile and failed states are lumped up together and branded as both direct and indirect security menaces from which the West should watch out.
In reality, there is absolutely no magical way of distinguishing weak, fragile or failed states from normal functioning states all of which form the international community.
Why would then some assume that every failed state is a threat to international security? Do all weak states trade drugs? Can we conclude that all of them are fertile grounds for terrorism?
These assumptions may be valid to some extent but there must be a rigorous public scrutiny when dealing with matters of security.
What does this mean to Africa? For a continent with a large share of failed states despite its economic potentials—should African states follow the Westphalian state model? How do you define things such as statehood? What constitutes security threat? Which qualities define a state as such?
In a realist view, states are seen as unitary rational actors that play in an anarchical system and which are compelled simply by the might of other units.
This simply means that states’ capabilities are the only enduring measure by which to use in labelling countries, but also the best tool for those who seek global configuration and domination.
In countries such as Somalia and South Sudan where interstate conflicts still constitute the major security concerns, it is obvious that people are direct victims, and also the neighbouring countries suffer from the spill over effects.
With regard to the West, problems deriving from weak and failed states are indirect threats to Western societies and these include threats such as terrorism and immigration.
What is the problem then? It is the security discourse which uses the ‘other’ who threatens the underlying ideals of Western countries.
There is an undeniable fact – since 9/11 there might have been an increase in talk of terrorism in the West, but also intra-state conflicts have relatively been declining during the same time.
As state violence (against its people) is declining, it is apparent some choose to frame fragile states as a security issue and consequently leading to securitization – the process by which issues are accorded security status or seen as a threat through political labelling, rather than a result of their real objective significance.
The ultimate goal for such branding is to give the green light to Western governments for the implementation of inequitable policies in Africa in particular and the global South in general.
The definition of a failed state itself presumes the reflection of an ideal type that, in this case, is the conception of statehood. State is defined in accordance to the Western idea of it, and this opens a door for labelling any African state—a failed one.
Therefore, the political construction of the ideal state appears to serve the major powers and the Western societies more in general, interests and security agendas.
African countries provide a striking example of how the application of the Westphalian notion of statehood in the continent is at the root of the instability of many areas and of the resulting human suffering.
The rapid course of decolonisation left some unqualified administrations to rule over portions of territory that did not experience any form of administrative arrangements since the colonial dominion was majorly exercised in the urban zones of a land.
This made the development of dominant sub national groups and entities possible, and, in several instances, these constitute the actual authorities over specific areas in a country.
Warlordism, a clan centred form of authority, is now a spread phenomenon in the continent (i.e. Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, DRC) and this is significant to the extent that it implies that sovereignty is thus a social construction arising from conventional practices.
The occurrence of the phenomenon of state failure is another sign that the Westphalian model is not supported by an empirical basis; it is rather a simple political construction that calls for a shift to a ‘post-Westphalian era’.
The Western notion of statehood tended to ignore the fact that many entities have never been actual states (i.e. African countries post-decolonisation), and to have a homogeneous vision of failed states that did not consider the different settings of each situation.
This is also reflected by the fact that while some countries (Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia) are highlighted as security threats in Western capitals, others are essentially disregarded (South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria).
The fiasco in addressing effective specific policies towards these countries can be thus attributed to a lack of understanding of the circumstantial dissimilarities of each case.
Ultimately many challenges in the developing world are concerned with matters of human security at subnational level, where issues of education, health and food security are the highest priorities.