From Fragile to Failed: Troubled Countries Across Africa

By Andrew Friedman AFKI Original Published: July 8, 2014, 3:05 am

In part one of this two part AFKInsider exclusive, we will take a look at the continent’s most fragile states and what makes them so fragile. Part two will examine the opposite end of the spectrum, states with high level of satisfaction in governance.

What makes a country? Is it merely the existence of a definite land mass with borders? Must the government be able to defend those borders? What of its population? Must it have a permanent citizenry and/or be able to provide them services? Infrastructure? Shelter? Water? Food? Economic opportunity?

In the eyes of international law this has always been a difficult test. In 1933 the international community drafted the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. Article one of this convention sets forth four pillars of statehood. According to the Convention, a state must have “a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government and d) capacity to enter into relations with other states.”

This is a very loose definition and, by the Convention, several non-country entities would qualify as states.

Somaliland and the Western Sahara are two very prominent examples on the African continent that fulfill the four pillars but are not recognized as independent countries by the international community.

These entities not only meet the requirements above, they also provide services (if limited) to their populations. What becomes more difficult, and is unfortunately common across the African continent, is a country that meets the four pillars above and is blessed with international recognition, yet is utterly unable to provide services, security or stability to its population.

These “Fragile” or “Failed” states fail to provide citizens with the most basic elements of the social contract.

In an effort to measure just how troubled many of these countries are, the United States based Fund for Peace creates an annual “Fragile States Index,” (prior to 2014 it was known as the “Failed States Index”) ranking the countries are “on the brink of failure.” The 2014 edition of the Index, as have all indexes in recent memory, contains far too many countries located across the African continent.

This year’s index, like all of those since 2012, has the top five slots occupied by African countries. This year’s top five, making up the Fund’s “Very High Alert” category, were South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

This makes up the lion’s share of the top five over the past several years, with the CAR ousting Chad (now occupying the number six slot) for 2014. Additionally, since 2008 Somalia had occupied the number one spot until South Sudan moved it to number two this year.

Why do these states perennially top the list?

Let us start with this year’s most fragile state, South Sudan. According to the Fund’s Patricia Taft the current violence has been a long time coming.

“From the start, the cleavages between the leadership…were evident. Decades of personal history, fraught with ugly political and tribal undercurrents, may have been temporarily shelved in the name of national unity but remained unresolved and simmering below the surface. When Kiir dismissed Machar and replaced most of the cabinet in July 2013, these cleavages became formalized, and the December 2013 clashes between soldiers loyal to each leader kicked off the current spasms of violence that have gripped the country ever since.”

It was these cleavages that would eventually plunge the country into near civil war, discussed in great detail earlier on AFKInsider, pitting neighbor against neighbor and leaving international security forces near powerless.

Current estimates put the number of displaced upwards of a million and more than 10,000 dead. Combined with nearly half the country’s population requiring urgent humanitarian aid, the statistics are staggering.

In addition to the horrific conflict and humanitarian crisis, neither side of the conflict seems to be interested in peace talks or laying down arms, nor has anyone, whether from inside the country or the international community, articulated a coherent vision out of the crisis.

It is this outbreak of violence, partnered with the humanitarian crisis and a nonexistent way back to a functioning state, which, indeed, has never truly existed in Juba, that has brought South Sudan to the top of the Fund’s 2014 index.

The other four states, along with Chad, another mainstay in the top five until this year, have immensely diverse issues, but common threads find their way across all very fragile states.

Perhaps the most prominent of these is conflict and insurgency with armed group within the state. The DRC constantly falls victim to attacks of a variety of armed groups, including the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony.

The current violent torment being perpetrated by Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militias throughout the CAR has reached terrifying levels, leading some analysts to call it genocide.

Somalia has been battling terrorist group al-Shabaab for years and, while there has been some success, the group is still active. Sudan, while official ceasing hostilities with South Sudan, still experiences sporadic violence in border areas including the Blue Nile state and Abyei.

The poverty among these countries is also crushing. All six constantly rank among the world’s poorest. CIA World Factbook rankings include Somalia, the CAR and the DRC as three of the five poorest countries in the world. Sudan and South Sudan are not far ahead at 182 and 207 respectively, despite being buoyed by a relatively steady flow of petrodollars.

Poverty and conflict often lead to the failure of institutions of governance. A central government can neither go into an active war zone to provide services and repair crumbling infrastructure nor do so in peace time with a lack of funds.

Fragile states require the support of the international community in providing the very services most citizens in the developed world take for granted. Determining what states need the most help is an important first step to providing that help.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.

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