Ludi on Celso and Nalbandov, 'The Crisis of the African State: Globalization, Tribalism, and Jihadism in the Twenty-first Century'

Anthony Celso, Robert Nalbandov, eds.
Paul Ludi

Anthony Celso, Robert Nalbandov, eds. The Crisis of the African State: Globalization, Tribalism, and Jihadism in the Twenty-first Century. Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2016. Illustrations, maps. 250 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5425-5109-0.

Reviewed by Paul Ludi (Miami University of Ohio) Published on H-Africa (January, 2019) Commissioned by Dawne Y. Curry (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Printable Version:

Anthony Celso and Robert Nalbandov argue in The Crisis of the African State: Globalization, Tribalism, and Jihadism in the Twenty-First Century that Africa has been, and is currently, in a state of crisis. The continent suffers from a series of “failed states” that stem from a breakdown in democracy, globalization, Islamic radicalism, and tribal animosities (pp. 1-2). These situations intensify security concerns for the continent and the West. Although Celso and Nalbandov provide insight into the many complexities that shape Africa, their approach buries perspective on Africa historically. This Afro-pessimism, which is the perception that sub-Saharan Africa has too many problems for good governance or economic development to be achieved, obscures ideas that do not reflect Western values. In spite of this, Celso and Nalbandov rightly suggest that Africa faces many crises, but crises can be solved. Solutions exist, and nations can change.

The Crisis of the African State explores both current and past security issues associated with ethnic warfare and jihadists who operate within a changing global context. Featured in the introduction are Sudan and Somalia, two states that reflect the “worst aspects of state failure” (p. 2). Through this book, the failed state is defined as one that has severe security issues, resulting from tribal animosity and/or civil war, which as a consequence of these situations leads to failed governance and economic structures. The scholars argue that this failure is caused by globalization, Islamic radicalism, and tribal-religious animosities. In Somalia, they contend, the overthrow of long-ruling dictator (General Siad Barre) led to collapse and chaos, which resulted in state instability coupled with Islamic militancy. The Islamic Court Union and its military wing al-Shabaab, which has ties to al-Qaeda, drew Western interest, which led to eventual global involvement in Somalia. Although this country has a far more of a religious undertone with its division between a Christian South and a Muslim North, Sudan is also seen as a major example of a failed state because extreme jihadist groups affiliated with Osama Bin Laden infiltrated the country in the 1990s. Extremists’ rise to power caused much strife and civil war between these two different religious regions; South Sudan, in an attempt to stop the violence, pushed for its independence, which it attained in 2011.

Divided into eight chapters within three sections, the book’s first part (the first three chapters) examines the impact of the Arab Spring and its potential for a revitalization of radical political Islam, paying particular attention to Tunisia and Libya (both of which played significant roles in the Arab Spring), and Mali (where French and African forces were hosted). The Arab Spring gains momentum and takes hold of northern Africa following the collapse of the ruling government and the chaos that ensued. To depict this history the book follows this outline. Chapter 1 focuses on Tunisia and the formation of jihadist groups almost immediately after the fall of longstanding dictator Ben Ali’s government through globalization. Chapter 2 turns to Libya. After Muammar Qaddafi’s fall from power, heavily armed African Muslim mercenaries who formed part of his army returned home to northern Mali. This led to the creation of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and severe security issues for both Libya and Mali. Chapter 3 explores how Mali has been coping with this security threat as it receives help from the French military.

The second section (chapters 4, 5, and 6) focuses on the intersection of globalization, ethnoreligious conflict, civil war, and the capacity for stable government in several African states, which include Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, and Libya. With its inclusion as a result of its 1994 genocide, Rwanda also fits into this section because of the country’s ability to recover and remain stable. Eritrea and Ethiopia, by contrast, serve as examples because of the takeovers both countries endured, and in spite of this hostility, both have maintained stable governments. Chad’s stability is also noted, especially with regard to its opposition to radical Islam. Once again, Libya is used to illustrate how a stable government can collapse. Chapter 4 treats rebel groups like the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Eritrea People’s Liberation Front, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia that have gained control of their respective governments and nations. Noting the similarity of all three examples, the work also points out that none of the overthrown governments were strong initially, but new leaders have successfully negotiated their power in creating stable governments. Chapter 5 explores the horror of the Rwandan genocide and how this nation recovered from its deadly past. Chapter 6 examines Chad and its past civil war. Chad’s importance in this conversation stems from the imperialistic desires of both France and Libya to dominate the country as exhibited by their respective and repeated interventions.

The third and final section (chapter 7) attempts to integrate all of these complex factors into a Nigerian case study to illustrate Africa’s enduring problems. Like Sudan and Somalia, Nigeria embodies all the aspects of a failed state: radical Islam, ethnoreligious conflict, and an unstable government. Borrowing broadly from secondary works, the conclusion offers a synthesis that shows how the state decline emanates from Western-led globalization and democratization. Thus, students will find this book as a useful compendium of political processes occurring on the African continent, especially in countries like Rwanda, which through the governance of its current leader, Paul Kagama, brought the nation from the brink of destruction to stability and security. Other chapters while mildly optimistic end in a rather bleak tone, which is consistent with the infusion of Afro-pessimism that is threaded throughout the book. As a view that has gained increasing currency among political scientists, Celso and Nalbandov’s repeated allusion to this state and the narratives it produces leaves little room for the occurrence of a resurging Africa or a continent filled with expectations of stable governance as historians and other scholars—like Dayo Olopade in The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa (2014) and Steven Radelet in Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way (2010)—present in their historicization of the multiple and varied experiences of Africans. These viewpoints are needed considering that Celso and Nalbandov emphasize the impact of Africa’s exploitation through the imposition of arbitrary borders and economic policies, such as the cash crop system, as reasons for Africa’s current “failure” (p. 4). While this is undoubtedly true, the situation is not helped by the acceptance of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) of the colonial-defined borders in perpetuity in the 1960s. According to Olopade, the “truth is that African state divisions are less important than you’d think.” Continental acceptance of nation-state lines, constant cross-border movement, and “economic interconnections matter more than passports” and create more cohesiveness than most presume.[1]

Furthermore, the book’s contention that Africa is “awash with failed states” generalizes the experiences of over fifty countries as one encompassing problem (pp. 34-35). Such an assertion groups all Africans into one homogeneous body, and thus ignores the variation on the continent. Olopade points out that Somaliland, which borders Somalia, represents a counter-narrative because the country, which is not recognized by foreign nations as a state, has held four peaceful elections without external assistance since 1991.[2] While Somalia is in a state of chaos, its neighbor, Somaliland, which broke away from the Horn of Africa, is stable and successful, and therefore proves that a failed state can recover without Western support.

Somaliland is not the only success story, as there has been a dramatic increase in the rise of democratic countries within Africa since 1990.[3] Because of these occurrences, “Afro-optimism” has emerged as a counterculture to Afro-pessimism. Spearheaded by African youth, this culture seeks to improve Africa from within, as well as to ameliorate the continent’s global image throughout the world.[4]

Africa is a continent in transformation and change,[5] two important concepts that The Crisis of the African State ignores. Although this book might find use in an introductory course, historians and other scholars will find it difficult to embrace many parts of their argument.


[1]. Dayo Olopade, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 44.

[2]. Ibid., 34-35.

[3]. Steven Radelet, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way (Baltimore, MD: Brookings Institution Press, 2010), 54.

[4]. Olopade, Bright Continent, 215.

[5]. Radelet, Emerging Africa, 141.

Citation: Paul Ludi. Review of Celso, Anthony; Nalbandov, Robert, eds., The Crisis of the African State: Globalization, Tribalism, and Jihadism in the Twenty-first Century. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL:

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