Did a lack of war cause African states to fail?

By Camelia Vasilov

Starting from Tilly’s well-known argument that in Europe “war made the state, and the state made war”, Herbst proposes an insightful thesis in his article on state-making in Africa: that the absence of inter-state war removed one important avenue for successful state formation on the African continent.

I think the state-war-making thesis hides more from the researcher than it reveals. For instance, it allows us to dispense with the local conditions in the pre-colonial times as variables explaining the success of state making or lack thereof. One example in which these conditions can hardly be ignored is the Tiv culture in Nigeria: a flourishing yet completely egalitarian and stateless society before the arrival of the British.

The Tiv people held beliefs that impeded state creation at every point in time before and even during the colonial times. Namely, as the anthropologist Paul Bohannan argued, the Tiv believed that a person capable of making others following his or her orders must be guilty of witchcraft. A very popular religion amongst this population – the Nyambua – was based on selling charms to protect from those who seemed to possess the dark power tsav (which we would maybe call today “leadership”) and on issuing accusations against such people. Tsav did not mean only “power” or “leadership” – a successful tsav was thought to be also a cannibal that gains extra power from eating human corpses.

The spread of Nyambua posed real problems to the British government in 1939, when its adepts started to declare the “local chiefs” put in place by the British as tsav and rebel against them. Further research showed that this religion became popular since time immemorial, when a series of intra-community conflicts caused by men gaining too much power spilled the blood of the Tiv people. Essentially, the deeply held belief of this people – learnt from war times – was that no one should gain too much power. How can one expect a state to arise that would successfully govern the Tiv?