One of the biggest differences between strong and weak states is the nature of the moral imperatives that operate in the public realm. Whereas in well-governed countries, people feel obligated to act according to certain minimum ethical standards, in badly governed countries they do not. There are many reasons for this divergence, most notably differences in the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms, the area that receives by far the most attention from donors and reformers alike.
But there is a deeper, more important cause of the dysfunction that plagues governments in fragile states that is rarely considered or addressed.
In the most robust states, a common moral foundation underpins both the public and private realms. What is wrong in the private sphere is also wrong in the public sphere. In contrast, in highly corrupt places there is a sharp dichotomy between public and private morality. What is wrong in the private sphere may be right in the public sphere. The net result is that people do not feel obligated to act ethically when it comes to anything involving the state or public affairs, with severe consequences for the quality of governance.
In fact there are two public realms in postcolonial Africa, with different types of moral linkages to the private realm. At one level is the public realm in which primordial groupings, ties, and sentiments influence and determine the individual’s public behavior. I shall call this the primordial public because it is closely identified with primordial groupings, sentiments, and activities, which nevertheless impinge on the public interest. The primordial public is moral and operates on the same moral imperatives as the private realm. On the other hand, there is a public realm which is historically associated with the colonial administration and which has become identified with popular politics in post-colonial Africa. It is based on civil structures: the military, the civil service, the police, etc. Its chief characteristic is that it has no moral linkages with the private realm. I shall call this the civic public. The civic public in Africa is amoral and lacks the generalized moral imperatives operative in the private realm and in the primordial public.
Most educated Africans are citizens of two publics in the same society. On the one hand, they belong to a civic public from which they gain materially but to which they give only grudgingly. On the other hand they belong to a primordial public from which they derive little or no material benefits but to which they are expected to give generously and do give materially. To make matters more complicated, their relationship to the primordial public is moral, while that to the civic public is amoral. The dialectical tensions and confrontations between these two publics constitute the uniqueness of modern African politics. . . . The unwritten law of the dialectics is that it is legitimate to rob the civic public in order to strengthen the primordial public.
This dialecticism explains why Africans (and others from similar societies) can be extremely hard working and honest when working on something that they have a personal tie to (the primordial public) while be anything but when working on something that they have no personal tie to (the civic public). The same person who handles their ethnic association work with utmost discretion and care will drag their feet and embezzle funds in their municipal job. Corruption is widespread in the public sector (and in many large organizations that have no primordial basis), but is absent from any grouping that is based on kinship, ethnic, or religious ties.
Although Dr. Ekeh focuses on Africa, this description can be applied to many countries across the developing world, from the Middle East to South Asia to Central Asia and to Latin America. It may also apply to places such as southern Italy and southeastern Europe, which are considered part of the developed world but which struggle to eliminate corruption and improve governance.
Although colonialism is a major cause of this situation, it is not the only one. Corrupt locales such as Afghanistan and parts of China have similar characteristics despite never being colonized.
In fact, anytime society is weakly integrated such that it is broken down into multiple—competing—social groupings that have little loyalty to the state such circumstances are likely. And anytime a society develops into what Robert Putnam calls the “uncivic community”—a self-reinforcing vicious cycle of corrupt practices—it will end up looking like this.
In postcolonial states, social divisions are exacerbated by the history of antagonism to the foreign-ruled and later foreign-imposed state structures. Habits developed to oppose colonizers—and the colonizers’ state—have carried over. Artificial regimes with little legitimacy are easy targets for amoral behavior.
Elsewhere, a similar antagonism between local actors and the ruling state probably occurred at some point in the past, leading to similar conditions. Indeed, many of the places that share such characteristics but are not thought of as postcolonial were occupied by an outside power for extended periods of time (southern Italy by Spain, southeast Europe by the Ottomans, Central Asia and the Caucasus by Russia). Some places may simply have spent most of their existence as part of a large empire from which they have few qualms to steal from (as is the case in China at times).
There is a great need to consider what policies might change these underlying dynamics. What Dr. Ekeh concluded almost four decades ago still remains true:
Our problems may be partially understood and hopefully solved by the realization that the civic public and the primordial public are rivals, that in fact the civic public is starved of badly needed morality. Of course, ‘morality’ has an old-fashioned ring about it; but any politics without morality is destructive. And the destructive results of African politics in the post-colonial era owes something to the amorality of the civic public.