The Formation of States: Europe and Africa Essay

It is generally agreed upon that the seventeenth century was the epoch that saw the establishment of Europe as an assemblage of legitimately independent states. Between each state was a relatively clear recognition of territoriality. With the group of treaties commonly known as the ‘Peace of Westphalia’ came a new set of interactional rules set distinctly apart from the late medieval era. The settlement of Westphalia was the agreement “of a Europe permanently organized on an anti-hegemonial principle”.

1 The fierce competition for territory and dominion had been commuted to the arena of Colonial expansion and subsequently transported the apparatus of state-making to the undeveloped polities of Africa. It has been argued that because the history of state formation in Europe is so well documented and such an influence on the rest of the world any methodical conclusions which are confidently retained would become “plausible working hypotheses” to be applied in other models.2 This paper seeks to explore the applications of the European model to emergent Africa by way of comparison and contrast.

The institutionalized aggression that comprised the machinery of state-making in Europe will be analyzed and discussed. The organization of violence that has characterized the formation of European states is pertinent to the study of state formation in Africa. The European model of state-making as a process of establishing hierarchical authority structures, territorial demarcations and public judicial authorities has suffered aberrations in the African context. Two departures which illustrate the disparity between the formed European state and the African state are recognized and elaborated. The first is the attunement of African political institutions to foreign hegemony and the second is the use of brute force as an all-encompassing definition of the relations between African political units.

It was through war and the process of eradication that national states materialized in Europe as the foremost political entities. The emergence of monopoly over the use of violence was a seminal aspect of the centralizing features of the state. The increasing ability of the state to make binding decisions without the obstructions imposed by external actors instilled strong notions of sovereignty.3 Although not every European state developed its functional ability to make war in a uniform fashion certain salient characteristics were shared by all. By the means of state organization, as advanced by a greater ability of social control, state leaders were able to eliminate rivals.

4 The sovereignty derived from the elimination of extra-territorial rivals afforded some measure of legitimacy to the state’s central power structure. The threat of elimination was the primary element of cohesion for the community of individuals beyond their simple “societal-associational groupings”.5 The need for a more complete legitimation was met with the guarantee of protection and the increase of goods and services for the population. The development of standing “armies, navies, and supporting services”6 brought an ever-increasing need for sophisticated methods of extraction.

State formation in Europe was characterized by a combination of resource extraction, redistribution, and ever-increasing bureaucratic institutional oversight. Steadily and persistently, states developed means of extracting resources from a resident population within a demarcated territory. The advent of the modern secular state saw the emergence of contractual relationships being developed between state powers and the governed populations. The contractual arrangements consisted of a series of concessions by the state and the increasing acquiescence of the population.

Some measure of guarantee was given over individual rights through the creation of representative institutions and judicial bodies.7 Specific policy objectives required a certain amount of subjection of the population. The guarantee of rights and protection was offered as an incentive to mitigate the states’ demands for increasing taxes.8 The increase of legitimacy hinged on the state’s ability to provide “public goods to its citizens”.9 Required in return was obedience to the state’s tax necessities. Non-compliance resulted in a state withholding protection or utilizing its coercive apparatus against its citizens as an alternative to voluntary submission.

Redistribution of resources facilitated a state’s ability to make war and the establishment of institutions was necessary for this activity. Distinctive and autonomous systems of institutionalized bureaucracy penetrated European societies. The development of institutions of extraction and redistribution “entailed the elimination, neutralization, or cooptation” of a former feudal lord’s rivals which further revealed elements of state-making.10 The obligatory nature of a population’s relationship to the state was underpinned absolutely by the coercive elements of a state’s extraction apparatus. The fiscal and accounting structures of extraction functioned under the protection of internal extensions of monopolized force. A direct correlative is drawn between the size of a state’s military and the size of its bureaucratic institutions of extraction.11 Hierarchical authority structures, public judicial authorities and demarcated territories in which central state powers had “clear and continuous priority as wielders of force”12 now characterized the modern secular European state.

Distinguished, too, was the new sense of a European “commonwealth of sovereign states”13 legitimized by the settlements of Westphalia. The Westphalian treaties provided a charter of principles and rules of international conduct which formed a basis for the burgeoning notion of international law and relations. The modern European state was now characterized by control of its internal procedures and a strong assertion of its external independence.14 These independent states, though not equal in power, were considered juridically equivalent in many ways which would eventually see a relative ‘balance of power’.15

As a new imperial paradigm emerged some transfer of the raw force utilized in the previous configurations of inter-state conflict entered colonial theatres. The European model of state formation and maintenance was exported wholesale to Africa and beyond. More often than not the brutality that characterized the conflict between European political units was directed toward the maintenance of hegemonic control over African clients. The notion that the European model could be superimposed on the tribal composition of the African polity was an indication of the overwhelming confidence that the Europeans had in their system of state formation and yet, the state in the African context was artificial and convenient because it, territorially, far exceeded the existing political systems.16

Departure #1:

It has been argued that a significant element in the crises confronted by African political units has been the untenable legacy handed down through ruling institutions constructed to establish and uphold foreign hegemony.17 African polities suffered the overwhelming thrust of several developed sovereign territorial states in direct competition with each other in an all out bid for resource acquisition. The development of the state system in Africa has subsequently depended on political actors using the terms and definitions of sovereign statehood as generated from the European model.18 Often brutal and repressive methods of extraction were utilized by imperial powers intent on subjecting colonies to the formidable task of having to finance themselves: Imperialism was a vicious profit game that left no room for the paternal ethos of conservative European statecraft.

These imperial necessities were underpinned by racist ideologies and supported in kind by sophisticated military technologies.19 The forces of conquest were intent on effective occupation and determined to implement functional institutions designed to establish a utilitarian hegemony over the subjected African colonies. It has been argued that had the imperial powers effectively established a complete hegemony and a total reorganization of African society according to their ideal aspirations the African states may have begun with a considerably more advanced stability and a more wide-ranging political infrastructure better prepared for the vicissitudes of modern political discourse.20

The seemingly accidental grouping of African politicocultural units into colonial territorial systems undermined the potential for an organic formative process to develop.21 Colonial domination had the effect of severely retarding African political growth, effectively ‘infantalizing’ African politics.22 The character of the governing elites and the structure of their political institutions irritated or established “situations of nonintegration”23 which would remain as a pervasive force in African state formation. One manifestation of these situations was the discord established by the arbitrary grouping of indigenous African cultural groups into multi-tribal states. The sacrifice of political stability driven by the acquisitive oppression of European sovereign states would leave the indelible mark of empire on the African state system well into the twentieth century and beyond.

Departure #2:

The continual contest for office that was stimulated by indirect rule undermined the potential for a “smooth-functioning native order”.24 The imposition of imperial domination necessarily destabilized local authority. Colonial powers had the strict intention of making native chiefs their functional clients. Definitions of power and office were altered as colonized Africans incorporated new political concepts. The overarching rule of a colonial power had the effect of creating an additional echelon of authority above the hierarchies of chiefly rule.25 The strategies of political actors changed when new resources were garnered and adjudication was shifted from internal institutions to external ones. The colonial power was viewed as an exceptional resource for those rivals interested in over-throwing an African leader.26 Political actors who had acquired the language of their imperial dominators utilized this new political currency for the facilitation of their aspirations. The elimination of rivals was made easier by tapping the resources of the dominant power structure.

A salient feature of the African political context is the notion of a political entity existing only because of the perceived existence of an enemy. Success is deemed to have occurred when rivals have been unequivocally subdued and not necessarily when a sovereign territorial state has been attained.27 The present state system in Africa, being an aberrant product of the colonial system of state formation, is characterized by many states in which “rule based upon violent accumulation” devises groupings of control instead of “hegemony over a contiguous territory”.28 In many places states seem to lack sovereignty even though they may be territorially sound.

29 Current boundaries have been generally accepted as legitimate and yet there remain sizeable areas where boundaries are in hot dispute.30 The collapse of African states has been precipitated by competing militarized elites attempting to control the state or fabricate one of their own. They have been able to control resource distribution and claim the right to identify enemies. Brute force has come to define the relations of states and the relations of communities. What seems most important in the mechanics of African state formation is “whether there exists a community willing and able to define itself against a ‘non-self'”.31


Institutionalized violence has been shown to be a characteristic of European state formation. The processes of state-making in Europe distinguished by the struggle for territory and dominance and the rise of internally controlled, externally independent sovereign national states has revealed a unique model which when applied to the African context has produced deviations.

By no means does this paper afford an exhaustive study of the issue, but it has recognized two departures from this model: 1) the conformity of African political institutions to alien domination and 2) the perception of unmitigated force as a definitional quality of the relations between African political units. The weakness of state structures in Africa is a dark testimonial to the ruthless imposition of a distinctively European model of state formation. “Colonialism in Africa has been the medium for the indiscriminate diffusion of Western ideas and institutions”32 and only time will tell if Africa will develop a uniquely African method of state formation.


1) Coleman, James Smoot. Nationalism and Development in Africa, London: University of California Press, 1994. 67-79

2) Tilly, Charles. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, Introduction to Political Science, Ed. Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay, et al. (Thomson Nelson, 2003), 209-211

3) Tilly, Charles. “Reflections on the History of European State-Making”, The Formation of National States in Western Europe, (Princeton University Press, 1975), 3-46

4) de Toit, Pierre. Peacebuilding in Africa: Prospects for Security and Democracy Beyond the State, (African Security Review Vol 8 No 1, 1999), URL: Viewed 2003-11-13

5) Tremblay, Reeta Chowdhari, et al. Introduction to Political Science Political Science 202, (Thomson Nelson, 2003), 181-183

6) Warner, Carolyn M. “The Rise of the State System in Africa”, Empires, Systems and States, Ed. Michael Cox, et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 65-89

7) Watson, Adam. The Evolution of International Society, (Routledge, 1992), 182-186

1 Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society, (Routledge, 1992), 182

2 Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making”, The Formation of National States in Western Europe, (Princeton University Press, 1975), 13

3 Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay, et al. Introduction to Political Science, (Thomson Nelson, 2003), 181

4 Pierre de Toit, Peacebuilding in Africa: Prospects for Security and Democracy Beyond the State, (African Security Review Vol 8 No 1, 1999), URL:

5 Carolyn Warner, “The Rise of the State System in Africa”, Empires, Systems and States, Ed. Michael Cox, et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 67

6 Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, Introduction to Political Science, Ed. Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay, et al. (Thomson Nelson, 2003), 209

7 Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, 209

8 Pierre de Toit

9 Ibid.

10 Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, 210

11 Ibid. 209

12 Ibid. 209

13 Adam Watson, 186

14 Ibid. 186

15 Ibid. 187

16 Reeta Chowdhari, et al. 183

17 Carolyn M. Warner, 80

18 Ibid. 68

19 Ibid. 80

20 Ibid. 81

21 James Smoot Coleman, Nationalism and Development in Africa, (University of California Press, 1994), 67

22 Carolyn M. Warner, 80

23 James Smoot Coleman, 68

24 Roger Gocking quoted in Carolyn M. Warner, 81

25 Carolyn M. Warner, 81

26 Ibid. 81

27 Ibid. 89

28 Ibid. 89

29 Ibid. 87

30 Ibid. 87

31 Ibid. 89

32 James Smoot Coleman, 79