The Danger of Weak States

NEW YORK: Fateful events in Israel and Yugoslavia have obscured ongoing turmoil in Nigeria and Indonesia. Yet ethnic and religious conflict in both “megastates” is consuming many lives. We must not lose sight of the cataclysmic consequences that could result if such violence is not curbed. The problem is that both countries, hobbled by legacies of tyranny and degradation, are in danger of losing the capacity to curtail violence.

The history of the struggle for rights from the Magna Carta to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been mainly about placing limits on state authority. So it may seem anomalous to argue that, if rights are to be protected, what is required today in various parts of the world is reinforcement of centralized governmental power. Liberal values, however, are threatened as thoroughly by state incapacity as by despotic power. All over the world, including two of its largest countries, the implications of this truth loom menacingly.

The consequences for Nigeria’s 114 million people, for the rest of the troubled continent of Africa and for the international system would be catastrophic if Nigeria disintegrated. And though the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo is the most democratic and the least corrupt Nigeria has known since independence (including a period in the late 1970s when General Obasanjo was the country's military ruler until he stepped aside voluntarily to permit election of a civilian president), the country remains dangerously weak.