Common Causes of State Collapse in Africa Literature Review

State collapse has been a prevalent and dangerous phenomenon throughout the world, but never so much as in Africa. This literature review will be outlining theories revolving around the question of if there are common causes of state collapse in Africa. In examining common causes of state collapse in Africa, we can begin to understand more of what causes collapse in general, while also perhaps determining how Africa’s context may be leading to different results than other regions. The topic of weak and collapsed states became a priority for many after 9/11 suggested the link between weak states and terrorism (Clément, 2005: 2). According to the UN Secretary General’s report on “Threats, challenges and changes”, weak states ranked among the six most pressing threats (Clément, 2005: 2). This may be due to the fact that state failure threatens the idea of the nation-state, while also threatening global stability (Rotberg, 2004: 1). The relevance of the focus on Africa is even more pertinent due to the fact that most examples of state collapse are in Africa (Zartman, 1995: 1). The reason why one may want to understand the causes of collapse are that, as Clément put it, if we understand state collapse, then we can learn how to stop it or recover from it (Clément, 2005: 1).

The topic of state collapse, notably in Africa, is dominated by two authors, with a variety of accomplished academics also contributing to the study. The first is Robert I. Rotberg (1935-), an American professor in governance and foreign affairs (Rotberg, 2004). The second is Ira William Zartman (1932-), a Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (Zartman, 1995). Both have set out the study of state collapse in such a way that all the other authors have had to base their studies on these two men’s work. The definitions and approaches to state collapse stem from their works and all works that are included in this literature review either directly respond to or, at least, cite their work. While they are the progenitors of the study of state collapse, there are other prominent scholars, such as Caty Clément and John Emeka Akude, who both set out challenges against and in support of Rotberg, Zartman and the variety of other scholars who subscribe to their theories.

This literature review will be examining the current level of knowledge regarding the question of common causes of state collapse in Africa. This will be accomplished, initially through setting out the research designs and evidence that authors use, and then setting out the different proposed causes of African state collapse. The themes of these proposed causes are the crisis of patrimonialism, international factors, economics, security and dissent and structural factors. Within each theme, there are multiple points of view. While there is general agreement over bad governance being a cause of state collapse, this topic is contentious, with other common causes being disputed by many opposing scholars.

Definitions of State Collapse

State collapse refers simply to a situation where the structure, authority and legitimacy of the state is no more (Zartman, 1995: 1). This is indicated in a state’s ability to fulfil its functions. States collapse because they can no longer perform the functions of a state (Zartman, 1995: 5; Allen, 1999: 379). It is important to distinguish weak from collapsed states, as the former can still function, while the latter has ceased to resemble a state (Rotberg, 2004: 1). State collapse is typically indicated by a devolution of authority to non-state agents, a retreat to the core so that the surviving state only cares for a small group (often an ethnic or religious group), government failure to address issues or make decisions, the state employing a purely defensive strategy to try and retain its survival and state agents (such as the army) acting autonomously and going rogue (Zartman, 1995: 10). A common case between all the collapsed African states is that they simply failed to fulfil their functions as a state (Mazrui, 1995: 28). The goal of studying common causes of state collapse in Africa is to identify how and why these functions ceased or were never fulfilled.

Research Design and Evidence

The studies included in this literature review are split into single case studies and small-N, qualitative studies. Some historical analysis is also prevalent, especially in the examining of structural factors as a cause of collapse. There seems to be a level of disagreement over what research design is best. Allen (1999) argued that single case studies are ineffective as they cause generalisations across countries (Allen, 1999: 367), while Clément (2005) argued that large-N studies obscure the evidence and that only small-N studies are effective (Clément, 2005: 1). Clément elaborates by stating that large-N research only explains general variables but cannot explain why collapses erupt at certain times (Clément, 2005: 3). De Walle and Collier, while disagreeing on variables, would both disagree with Clément, as they used large-N analysis to observe the correlation of exports and economic data with regards to state collapse (de Walle, 2004: 95-109). While Zartman uses small-N studies, Clark argues that this is too broad, preferring singular case studies in order to maximise depth (Clark, 1996: 429).

All studies focused on comparing African states, but some did compare African state collapse to that in other regions. Clément compared Somalia with Yugoslavia and Lebanon, as she wanted to test cases that were deemed Most Different – with the similarity being solely that they have all collapsed (Clément, 2005: 7). While not examining common causes between African states, this does accomplish determining factors of collapse in general, which can then be applied to Africa as a whole. The Most Different strategy is also employed by the other studies, such as Allen, who argues that states facing endemic violence and collapse are, for the most part, very different (Allen, 1999: 368). In approaching the main question, it is a case of determining the commonality between collapsed African states that may be the means to determining the common causes of collapse.

In terms of evidence, the majority of studies are empirically informed narratives, studying qualitative features to determine an answer. The small-N and single case studies that dominate this topic do so to attempt to extract themes from evidence in order to try and create some consistency in the analysis. This has seemed to have worked, as the studies have shown common themes between African states through their observations of single case studies and comparisons across states. Evidence and examples are based on examining the present and history of states deemed collapsed by the definition they have set out. Some examples of these states are Somalia (Zartman, 1995: 3; Ng’ethe, 1995: 257; Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012), Uganda, Ghana, Congo, Chad, Zaire, Sierra Leone and Sudan, among others (Rotberg, 2004; Zartman, 1995). The studies sought to find common causes between each of these states, many of which have different geography, cultures and structural factors. Evidence supporting their theories of common causes is found in succesfully finding mutual causes between all states that can be accurately attributed to causing collapse. For the single case studies, these are mostly meant to contribute to the greater topic. If causes of collapse are identified in a single nation, then it can be compared to other case studies.

Common Causes of State Collapse in Africa

There are a number of different themes with differing views dominating this topic. The two which seem to have drawn the most support and even a degree of consensus are that of bad governance and the accumulation of factors. Rotberg (2004) identified collapse as a process of decay (Rotberg, 2004: 14), whereby the state fails to fulfil its functions in the face of rising difficulty, thus losing legitimacy (Rotberg, 2004: 1-2). Clément (2005) argued that state collapse is due to an overload of “stress” on the state. She echoes Zartman in that states which collapse do so due to facing an excessive burden that becomes harder to fulfil, until such time as they fail to do so at all (Clément, 2005: 4). Klare (2004) argued that state failure and collapse were a result of a prolonged interaction of a number of factors, identifying economic stagnation, factionalism, corruption, decaying infrastructure and environmental degradation as some of them (Klare, 2004: 116). These all have the common theme of accumulation of factors resulting in a scenario where the state can no longer perform in the face of difficulty and responsibility. Bad governance links to this in the sense that a competent state would be able to deal with an increased number of factors, or solve them soon enough that they do not accumulate.

The rest of the themes that will now be outlined differ in their views on this accumulation argument. Some identify their theme as the most important and sole cause, but most rather seek to identify a common cause that may contribute as a factor to state collapse.

A popular theme is that of patrimonialism and personalistic leaders. This theme has been identified by Zartman, Allen, Ng’ethe, Khadiagala, Clément, Akude, Rotberg, Acemoglu, Robinson and Clapham. Rotberg states this theme quite succinctly in that state failure is man-made, stemming from bad leadership (Rotberg, 2004: 25). The theme, in essence, blames patrimonialism and self-interested leadership for state collapse and for leading to a variety of other factors.

Zartman and Rotberg argued that Siyad Barre in Somalia contributed to factionalist opposition to the state through concentrating the powers of the state in only his clan, delegitimising the state in the eyes of other clans (Zartman, 1995: 3; Rotberg, 2004: 12). Akude argues that this is a common theme, with personalistic rulers sowing discord among ethnic and religious groups by benefitting some and exploiting others (Akude, 2007: 1). Clément further argues that identity politics drives rebellion against exploititive states (Clément, 2005: 10). In addition, both Apartheid South Africa and Egypt collapsed due to benefitting an elite or ethnic group over others, stratifying and alienating the population and leading to dissent (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012).

Ineffective and extractive institutions may lead to violence and the collapse of the state. Common among collapsed states was an elite that maintained institutions to extract wealth primarily for their own self-enrichment (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012). Ng’ethe (1995) argued that a common cause of state collapse was weak institutions that were unable to maintain the functions of the state (Ng’ethe, 1995: 257). Akude contends that inneffective institutions are to be expected because leadership in these states is purely self-interested and does not care about promoting institutions while all their wealth simply comes from commodity exports (Akude, 2007: 8). Rotberg argued in a similar vein, stating that collapse comes from personalistic leaders directing funds towards self-interest rather than to the functions of the state (Rotberg, 2004: 7). Clapham maintains that the difference between successful and failed states is efficient resource management and using resources to fulfil the functions of the state (Clapham, 2004: 89).

Personalistic rulers cling to resources and power, leading to violence as opposition groups seek to gain a share (Allen, 1999: 373). As rulers cling to power, the patrimonial system concentrates it all in the ruler, such as Idi Amin in Uganda (Zartman, 1995: 3). When the ruler is overthrown, this results in a power vacuum that the opposing force and citizenry is unable to fill (Zartman, 1995: 8). The simple act of using coercion to maintain patrimonial practices also contributes to delegitimising the state and fuelling opposition (Khadiagala, 1995: 36-37).

A few theorists argue for the case of international factors contributing to state collapse. Clément argued that an inconsistent international environment (regardless of the actual environment) contributed to state collapse as rulers cannot plan ahead (Clément, 2005: 1). She quotes Charles Tilly, who backs up this sentiment with the fact that many state collapses were spurred by the end of the Cold War (Clément, 2005: 8). Akude argues that the Cold War propped up personalistic leaders and allowed bad governance in exchange for political support (Akude, 2007: 1). Clapham takes a different approach, stating that state collapse can actually lead to further collapses in neighbouring nations due to the creation of stressful factors such as refugees and conflict (Clapham, 2004: 88).

Economic causes of collapse range from correlations between bad macroeconomic policy and collapse (de Walle, 2004; Clément, 2005) and lack of development due to patrimonialism. De Walle argued that rent-seeking and bad fiscal policy leads to collapse (Rotberg, 2004: 29). He identified over-employment of civil servants without a sound fiscal policy to correlate with collapse in many states (de Walle, 2004: 101-105). He argues that economic performance is integral to stability (de Walle, 2004: 109). Akude would probably agree, but stresses the inability and unwillingness for states to develop their economies to contribute towards collapse (Akude, 2007: 1). He argues that a reliance on commodity exports for funding the personalistic rulers leads to a lack of need to develop institutions, which leads to an inability to solve issues and fulfil the functions of the state (Akude, 2007: 6). Both de Walle and Akude have identified that Africa’s economic factors may contribute towards collapse, not only in terms of a lack of resources but also in contributing to a states willingness to develop the means for self-preservation.

States collapse because they are opposed by other groups and are unable to maintain a legitimate monopoly of security. Not all weak states collapse, and this is because not all of them have an active opposition. Rotberg argues that Zimbabwe should have collapsed, if only they had an active insurgency to undermine the failing state (Rotberg, 2004: 16). Weak states are unable to fulfil the function of security, causing distrust between individuals and groups that can lead to what Klare calls an ‘internal arms race’ (Kasfir, 2004: 59; Klare, 2004: 119), which further exacerbates distrust and violence. Klare (2004) further contends that small arms proliferation has made state collapse more prevalent as anti-government groups can do more to oppose the state (Klare, 2004: 116). Klare argues that, by definition, state collapse is found in its inability to deal with violent groups (Klare, 2004: 117), but this ignores those factors which must have caused these violent groups to erupt, such as patrimonialism leading to ethnic factionalism or structural factors placing conflicting groups in one nation.

Some theorists argue that the reason many African states collapse is simply that the modern state system is incongruent with their context. Mazrui (1995) claimed that while effectiveness of institutions is crucial to understanding state failure, it must also be noted that diverse ethnic groups can contribute to conflict and that a singular culture dominating a region may also lead to instability due to it containing factors that are inconsistent with the idea of statehood (such as the clan system in Somalia) (Mazrui, 1995: 30). Akude argues that African states were forced into modern statehood due to colonialism and global affairs, leaving personalistic leaders to rule over a population that, for the most part, did not understand the state system (Akude, 2007: 1-3). He further argues that many groups in African states simply do not owe loyalty to their state, but rather to pre-colonial allegiances such as ethnicity, religion or family (Akude, 2007: 8). Herbst and Clapham both maintain that many so-called African states have never fulfilled the actual requirements of statehood (Rotberg, 2004: 28). Clapham reasoned that many precolonial factors, such as sparse populations and lack of communication, resulted in societies that are just not conducive to states (Clapham, 2004: 84). He compares collapsed states to relatively stable African states and finds that, historically, the stable states developed their states naturally due to a need to do so (Clapham, 2004: 87). While structural factors play a big role in state collapse, or the inability for states to even be sufficiently created, Clapham does point out that it is only a contributing factor (Clapham, 2004: 91).


While there does seem to be avid disagreement among the theorists on the common causes of state collapse in Africa, there is nothing within the readings to suggest that their arguments are mutually exclusive. The merit of the accumulation approach is that it takes into account all these factors, so that the debate becomes more on including and excluding factors from relevance. While structural causes may be a strong contributing factor, for instance, if it isn’t combined with other factors, a state may end up coping. At the same time, however, structural factors may be the reason other factors develop. The singular theme that has been adequately explained may very well be that of patrimonialism, as each author has accurately argued that all African collapsed states had a patrimonial system in common. The other themes may be a lot more limiting, relying on particular case studies which they have used to generalise trends among other nations, or unsubstantiated claims such as de Walle’s argument that Structural Adjustment Programmes may have caused civil conflict (de Walle, 2004: 108), or the structural factors argument that may be relying on ad hoc conceptions of what constitutes a natural state.[1] The limiting nature of empirically observed narratives (and studies, as a whole) is that they can lead to confirmation bias, drawing theorists to research exclusively to back-up previously held assumptions. This is always a problem, however, and not easy to overcome. For the most part, the theorists have presented convincing evidence. The main limitation is that the vast majority of them do not concretely compare collapsed states. They present case studies or small-N comparisons and then extrapolate a conclusion which informs their claim, but only Clément actually outlined a direct comparison between the states to look for trends. Rotberg and Zartman have done similar studies, but not in as concise and as concrete a manner as Clément. All the theorists could benefit from a more concrete and concise comparison of common causes among different states, rather than just presenting the findings from their case studies and assuming them to be common. While these theorists may have been inadequate in their comparisons, this may be remedied by databases such as the Fragile States Index, which compiles their and other information and analyses it to give a better view of fragile states worldwide (FFP, 2015). There are still limits to this index, however and, in answering the question directly, there is room for an empirical study utilising the themes mentioned in this review to determine if they are all relevant to every collapsed state in Africa.


As mentioned in the evaluation, there is still room for study on this topic. The cases and evidence are there, and the study in that regard may have been exhausted, but a formal culmination of all the evidence into a final table that lists all African collapsed states and sees if each argument is valid to each particular study would be useful and answer the question directly. In this regard, the topic can still be exhausted, but more in terms of culmination than further research. There is a possibility of new factors, however, so researchers should be on stand-by for newly collapsed states to apply old theories and create new ones.

In conclusion, this literature review has presented the current level of knowledge pertaining to the question of common causes of state collapse in Africa. It has found that while there are a variety of views and disagreement on the subject, none of the arguments are mutually exclusive. Rather, they can all be seen as valid factors contributing to an accumulation of problems, which ultimately collapses any state unable to cope.


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Rotberg, R.I. 2004. The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention, and Repair. In R.I. Rotberg, ed. When States Fail. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1-50.

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[1] This may be true, but de Walle failed to argue for it sufficiently.