This time, 20 women are missing, forcibly kidnapped at gunpoint and driven away the nether regions of Nigeria’s Borno State, while the world awaits the fate of 200 missing schoolgirls taken from Chibok weeks ago. Tuareg rebels continue to hold off the Malian government in the Sahara. Diplomats, from Washington to Brussels, have praised a new openness in Naypyidaw but remain largely silent about Myanmar’s unwillingness to reign in violence targeting the Muslim Rohingya. And election observers bruited free, fair elections in Kiev this week, as the Ukrainian army opened fire on Russian-backed militias in the east.
None of these countries are failed states, despite violence, rampant corruption, and inefficacy. Nevertheless, to a parent in Chibok, an unemployed steelworker in Donetsk, a trader in Kidal, or a Muslim cleric in Rahkine, each of these states does, indeed, seem a failure.
In large portions of Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar and Ukraine, citizens conduct business, write novels, and even (in some cases) vote in elections with varying degrees of confidence in the fairness of the outcomes. More importantly, centralized governments conduct diplomacy and set economic policies in concert with other global powers. These states function with an international legitimacy and success largely denied to true failed states, such as Somalia, or totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea.
The Nigerian army has repeatedly participated in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) actions in West Africa (most recently in 2012 in Mali), and has even claimed to identify the location of the missing girls but avows its own impuissance in the face of mobilized Boko Haram militants who would not hesitate to massacre civilians, even children. While those in western Ukraine voted enthusiastically for Petro Poroshenko, their Eastern brethren — whether pro- or anti-Russian — had no opportunity to voice their opinion through the ballot box, as militants successfully disrupted the electoral process itself.
These states function with authority and, indeed, success in parts of their territorial circumscriptions, yet wield little to no effective power in significant regions. Restive, organized, armed, and often externally supported militants in northern Mali, northern Nigeria and Eastern Ukraine prevent central authorities from acting. The example of Myanmar, however, may indicate a deeper history to such factionalism: The government in Naypyidaw has shown little interest in protecting the rights of minority populations, whether the Rohingya in the west, the Kachin in the north or the Karen in the east. The regional inefficacy of federal authorities may reflect, as in Mali and Nigeria, the state’s long-term refusal to countenance the interests of specific populations, while eastern Ukrainians fear an increasingly assertive and economically successful Kiev elite will leave them further behind.
The loss of state control follows upon the absence of state interest.
That states frequently neglect or fail certain populations of their citizens by no means represents a new political problem. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing involvement of other parts of the world in those states’ successes demands a rethinking in diplomacy. As Poroshenko pivots to Europe, diplomats in Berlin, Brussels and Paris must recognize that the democratically elected government in Kiev still lacks legitimacy in the east. As the American military cooperates with the Nigerian army and Washington encourages President Goodluck Jonathan to oversee orderly elections, American diplomats must simultaneously recognize the reasons behind the existence of Boko Haram as a threat inimical to the Nigerian state itself.
Thus, foreign powers face the necessity of engaging with and respecting partially legitimate governments and encouraging reconciliation with opponents, all without courting allegations of interference: This will mean raising regional grievances with counterparts in Kiev, Lagos, Naypyidaw, Bamako and many other places. The horrors of Boko Haram or the petty thuggery of Donetsk separatists must not obscure the fact that such violence emerged in part from states’ longstanding ignoring of regional problems.
As the United Nations, the United States, Europe, and other powers urge their partners on the ground not to cede ground to violence, they must also encourage peaceful solutions and the development of democratic institutions that will broaden the base of legitimacy for these states.
George R. Trumbull IV, PhD, is an associate professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of An Empire of Facts: Colonial Power, Cultural Knowledge, and Islam in Algeria, 1871-1914. He is currently working on a book entitled Land of Thirst and Fear: A History of Water in the Sahara from Empire to Oil.