When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa

when_things_fell_apartWhen Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, Robert H. Bates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 171 pp.

Reviewed by Donovan Chau, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science at California State University, San Bernardino

Like other developing regions of the world, Africa was host to much violence, bloodshed, and political upheaval during the twentieth century.  The “Year of Africa” (1960) and subsequent independence movements, it was thought and hoped, would bring a more stable and prosperous future for the continent.  Yet, violence, bloodshed, and upheaval persisted to the end of the century – and beyond.  Why?  Professor Robert H. Bates’ most recent book, When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, offers an explanation.  Using a top down, deductive approach, Bates argues that political disorder in Africa was caused by “crises in public revenues,” which led to elite predation and the “immiseration” of the majority of Africa’s population.  Put simply, African governments did not generate enough money and its leaders monopolized, squandered, and exploited what little money there was to the overall detriment of Africa’s nation-states.

The brevity of When Things Fell Apart – just over 170 pages, including the appendix – and the simplicity of the book’s central argument belie the extensive and, one may state, prolific background of Professor Bates.  Earning numerous academic and governmental fellowships and awards along with appointments at top universities in and out of the United States (including California Institute of Technology, Duke University, and Harvard University) demonstrate Bates’ forty-plus years of professionalism and expertise.  His knowledge and experience has been used to conduct research for governmental and intergovernmental organizations.  Moreover, his field research in African countries such as Zambia, Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya reinforces the overall persuasiveness and thrust of his work, including in his latest book, When Things Fell Apart.

The book’s argument, narrative, and quantitative data are preceded with a Max Weber-ian assumption that coercion acts “as the distinctive property of politics.”  Political theorists, scholars, and commentators who hope that the future will bring peace and change to human nature would discount this straightforward assumption.  Bates does not bother with such theorizing or wishful thinking.  Instead, he uses a fable to suggest that political order is possible if there is equilibrium between rulers who “choose to employ the means of coercion to protect the creation of wealth” and private citizens who devote their time “to the production of wealth and to the enjoyment of leisure.”  Throughout the discussion, Bates weaves narratives of “control regimes” and interventionist policies (the “ligaments” that bind together authoritarian regimes) from East, West, and Central Africa to illustrate his central thesis.  In addition, he sprinkles in quantitative data and figures to support his qualitative examples.

In seven concise chapters and a quantitative appendix, one learns much about state order and disorder in Africa – and, indeed, in all unindustrialized societies around the world.  The villains of “state failure” are the “miniscule elite” who secure wealth from power, change the structure of the political game, and create “logic of exclusion.”  Blithely yet truly, “In Africa, political order is expensive to maintain” – for those in power.  And, in general, the failed situation pits minority urban constituents against majority rural populations.  Therefore, according to When Things Fell Apart, Africa’s multitude of ethnicities and abundance of natural resources explain, only partially, the sorry story of state failure.  With regard to democratization and the lack thereof, Bates is cautious given the dearth of data.  At the same time, he takes the Robert Dahl-ian view, and rightly so, that democracy is much more than party competition, or elections; political and civil rights must be accompanied into the bundle that results in democratic forms of governance.  At the end of the day, the leaders who control the wealth – the public revenues – are the ones primarily responsible for the failed predicament Africa has faced and continues to face today.

It is not a simple task to find fault in a work such as this, which has a bit of everything – a succinct central argument, qualitative evidence, and quantitative support.  The only criticism one may level is that the work is not for the general, introductory, or even intermediate reader.  The book is better suited for an audience with a certain degree of academic knowledge and background, particularly in international politics, international economics, political theory, and, of course, Africa.  That being said, When Things Fell Apart is a book that, at the appropriate time, should be read, pondered, and debated.  The future of Africa and the developing world as a whole requires policies rooted in sound research and cogent understanding, which this book provides.

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