Security in an Africa of Networked, Multi-level Governance
In the summer of 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil spoke with University of California Berkeley’s Emeritus Professor David Leonard about his work on the Global Uncertainties: Security in an Africa of Networked, Multi-level Governance project while he was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex. This project emerged from a PaCCS-funded Ideas and Beliefs Leadership Fellowship. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started telling me a little bit about your research backgrounds, and how you came to work on this project?
Professor David Leonard: I began my career of work in Africa in 1963, as a YMCA Secretary working on race relations issues in what was then Southern Rhodesia. That experience hooked me on continuing to work in Africa, and since that time I have lived in Africa for 13 years, and have taught at universities in Africa, at the University of California Berkeley, and at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. While at the Institute of Development Studies, Dr. Niagalé Bagayoko and I received an Ideas and Beliefs Leadership Fellowship from PaCCS, from which emerged this project on Global Uncertainties: Security in an Africa of Networked, Multi-level Governance.
What were the primary aims of this project?
Professor David Leonard: From the beginning this was a collaborative project, involving several fellows from the Institute of Development Studies. Our collaboration focused on the ways in which states and militaries work in Africa that do not fit the common understanding of them in the developed Western world. The developed world has forgotten what their countries looked like before the French Revolution transformed the way in which states related to their militaries and communities. The pre-1789 European understandings of states and militaries relationships with communities looks much more similar to state-building approaches in Africa. Based on that understanding, we became interested in exploring the structures of legitimacy, governance, and networks in state formation in Africa.
Can you tell me a bit more about the collaborative nature of this project?
Professor David Leonard: We put together an international network of researchers with whom we could work collaboratively, which included researchers from several European countries, the United States, and Africa. With such an international network we were able to elevate the visibility and connections of people from a variety of places and backgrounds through this work.
What were some of the main findings that emerged from the work?
Professor David Leonard: One of the main things we discovered about the structure of the state and governance is that the basic unit of legitimacy in Sub-Saharan Africa today lies at the village or community level. Those communities of legitimacy and governance are then aggregated into larger units which make up the state. This is similar to the history of state formation in Western Europe, but it is very different from the top-down way we think of state legitimacy and organization in Western Europe and the United States today.
These different forms of state organization mean that people in some parts of the world see themselves first as a citizen of a country, and then as a part of community, while for others the allegiance to the community comes first. We need to recognize those allegiances, because if you do not pay attention to the importance of the community level in societies which place an emphasis on the local, those allegiances can shift to non-state legitimacy systems, which is what we are seeing in the Sahel and have been seeing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ultimately, you can end up with competing systems of legitimacy which might capture community level governance and thereby threaten the state.
Our research also explored how the state had neglected community-level structures in Sierra Leone prior to the civil war, but in the aftermath of the war those structures were rebuilt in a very different way, and now have a much greater resilience. In contrast, Mali today is severely threatened, as are other countries across the Sahara, because it can be difficult for communities to retain really strong structures of connection with the capital. When you are in Bamako, Timbuktu is a long way away.
Another key element of our work examined the money going into community development and community maintenance in Sub-Saharan Africa from international donors, including private donors. There had been worries that these structures were undermining state legitimacy, but it turns out that these relationships between communities and NGOs are often brokered by state authorities. That means that those structures operate in a different way than the donor community, particularly non-governmental organizations, generally assume.
Finally, we also conducted research on the hybrid character of militaries –that is to say that militaries which represent ethnic and regional alliances, rather than uniform structures with unitary commands. Here in England, this type of military structure existed in the Tudor and pre-Tudor periods, and it exists in Africa today. You need to approach these types of military structures differently when you are building military capabilities in Africa, because you have to rely on both formal and informal networks.
In Somalia, we explored the places where relationships between the state, clan structures, and local command structures are brokered within formal and informal networks. This results in layered legitimacy structures, which can be a real challenge for international donors, who do not understand the roles which religious leaders, village elders, and clan leaders play in making communities work.
What would be your key messages for policymakers, based on the findings of your research?
Professor David Leonard: The relationship between the local and the national is something that policymakers need to be aware of and prepared to negotiate their way around. That requires a great degree of flexibility.
Anecdotally, another one of the big problems we saw is that donor representation in Africa tends to be highly fluid and very impermanent. Prior to World War II people used to spend their entire careers working in countries and developing deep understandings of the context in which they worked, but now, donor officers move around a lot. An officer can implement the same project over and over in different contexts, and have it fail repeatedly after they leave because they never stayed long enough to see what the outcomes would be in the first place. So, an informal lesson is that you need to build strong relationships with the people who will still be there –the local government officials who can provide real continuity.
What are some of the ways in which this project has led to impact beyond the life of the project itself?
Professor David Leonard: One of the biggest long-term developments – something that is still generating impact today – is Dr Niagalé Bagayoko’s development of her African Security Sector Network, which brings together researchers of multiple nationalities who work on the subject. Another academic who worked on this project has now brought the lessons from this project to her current work in the European Union. Meanwhile, other members of this research network had their careers advanced through the opportunity this project provided and continue to do work in African countries – including, for example, in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Somalia. Ultimately, many of the researchers who were involved in this project remain very active, and the project created an opportunity to build networks, which have been consequential for the work we have been doing since. African militaries and security sector networks have remained central to Dr. Bagayoko’s professional life.
As for me, I am now mostly retired, but before I left the United Kingdom, I had the opportunity to testify to a House of Commons committee to present the findings from some of my work, and that drew on some of the networks that PaCCS enabled me to establish. I still do a bit of fieldwork where I can, but I mostly work through NGOs now.