Monday, March 25, 2013

Questioning the Nation State

The nation state model of organizing society in which each ethnic group as defined by language has its own state has in many ways caused more problems than it has solved. In Europe the creation of relatively homogeneous nation states came about only through the massive use of violence to remove minorities through partition, expulsion, and extermination. That is it took World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the massive expulsion of ethnic Germans from East Central Europe, and the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia during the 1990s to reach the current state of rough correspondence between states and nations. Whether the human costs involved in reaching this stage of development was worth it or not is rarely debated. It is just assumed that the nation state is natural and that events like the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia were necessary.

While in Europe the nation state has been largely achieved through the shedding of rivers of blood, in Africa the realization of the idea remains virtually non-existent. Most African states are multinational states with a large number of ethnic groups speaking different indigenous languages. These groups unlike in Europe do not each have their own exclusive state to give their nation political self determination. Instead they are forced to share state sovereignty with other ethnic groups. Ghana is not an Akan state, South Africa is not a Xhosa state, and Nigeria is not a Hausa state. The European pattern of violent partition, expulsion, and extermination to create homogeneous nation states has been avoided by most African states. The result is that these states are very different from those in Europe and much of Asia where the nation state model has triumphed.

This leads to the question of whether the existing African states should be called nations at all. If we do call them nations what do we call the various ethnic groups inside them seeking modern forms of political representation? Because when people talk about the Ghanaian nation they mean something very different from the Hungarian or Kyrgyz nation. There is no Ghanaian language or common myth of being a single extended family for one thing. There is only a common Ghanaian state founded in 1957 from the territories of the British Gold Coast colony and the British Togoland League of Nations Mandate. This state is composed of a number of ethnic groups none of which is a state bearing people. Ghana is a multi-ethnic state rather than a nation state and this pattern is widespread throughout Africa.

1 comment:

Leo Tolstoy said...

The simple answer is that they're obviously not nation-states. I think a true nation-state is very rare and probably only exists as a result of genocide.

The nation-state is a new concept. It really only came into existence with Napoleonic France and has generally been used as a tool of aggression. Patriotism, which is the direct result of the notion of the nation-state, is an unambiguously destructive force. I hope the nation-state is a short lived aberration in the history of humanity, and the African peoples should certainly avoid it at all costs.