The first challenge is in the definition. There is no agreed definition of nation-building. A 2003 study by James Dobbins and others for the RAND Corporation defines nation-building as “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy.
The term nation-building is often used simultaneously with state-building, democratisation, modernisation, political development, post-conflict reconstruction, and peace-building. While this definition centres around the building of democratic processes, many argue that the use of the military to bring about democracy may be inherently contradictory.
Whether nation-building can be imposed from outside is one of the central questions in this regard.
Nation-building as a normative concept therefore means different things to different people.
However, the latest conceptualisation is essentially that nation-building programmes are those in which dysfunctional or unstable or “failed states” or economies are given assistance in the development of governmental infrastructure, civil society, dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as economic assistance, in order to increase stability.
Democracy, on the other hand, is what W.B Gaille called some years ago, an “essentially contested concept”. He noted that “there are disputes, centred on such concepts which are perfectly genuine: which, although not resolvable by argument of any kind, are nevertheless sustained by perfectly respectable arguments and evidence. Democracy, as an idea and as a political reality, is always contested. Until now, the world is not universally agreed on what democracy is or what it should be. North Korea asserts that it is a democracy just as the United States.
In the current global context, most who advocate democratisation still do not recognise democracy as a contested concept.
As a result, they view people with different interpretations of democracy as perverse. Thus, they are open to the risks of underestimating the strength of the alternatives.
This is especially true of advocates of the styles of democracy found in western Europe and the United States, who believe themselves to be the true heirs to the only legitimate democratic tradition and thus view any other effort to create democracies as false and undemocratic ( Esposito, 1996).
Because democracy is a contested concept, it is important to understand the perception of democracy within different African communities. However, among the most representative definitions of democracy is one by Larry Diamond, Juan Linz and Seymour Lipset. It says that democracy “denotes a system of government that meets three essential conditions: competition, participation and political liberties”.
Interestingly, the demand for increased popular political participation and empowerment takes place alongside another demand, that for recognition of special identities or authentic communities, which could be contradictory when trying to build strong states.
The African state must be strong to build more unity within society and to create legitimacy by providing security and other services. Yet, the political leadership does not have the resources to accomplish these tasks. In order to obtain them, it resorts to predatory practices or plays upon and exacerbates social tensions between groups in society- which only adds to these tensions and further erodes loyalties.
The weak state is thus caught in a vicious cycle. Everything it does to become strong actually perpetuates its weakness. Closely related to legitimacy is the personalisation of the state, a phenomenon Weber called Patrimonialism, in which the objective interests of the state are indistinguishable from the subjective interests of the ruler of the regime in power. Earlier, Mobutu and Moi and currently Bongo, Mugabe and Museveni are typical neo –Patrimonialistic identities.
Such leaders can only have a short-term political perspective because their security and their physical survival depends on the strategies they pursue for the moment. Consequently, it may be ‘rational’ for such regimes to adopt policies that, for example, utilise scarce resources for military equipment, and manpower and to perceive opposition groups demanding greater participation as security threats.
If democratisation aims at strengthening civil society, then it ought to threaten the leadership of a weak state. Civil society aid in the past fifteen or so years has been a central component of democratisation. But there are a few problems.
Many active civil society organisations have stayed or at least pretended to stay out of politics mainly for fear of state reprisal. So, they don’t contribute directly to democracy. Others, the elite kind most favoured by the donor community, those directly involved in promoting multiparty democracy often have weak roots in the community without a real social base.
It is also true that some of these NGOs cannot serve as agents of democratisation as some are internally undemocratic and are forced to be more responsive to donor than to any local constituencies.
Democratisation, unfortunately, remains a concept that can better be described than defined, leaving the door wide open to varying, often contradictory interpretations. More debate on democratisation may be necessary if the donors, civil society and African governments are to move in the same direction.