Most scholars date the notion of the sovereign state in the Western world to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. This was a treaty that had the charge to put an end to the Thirty-Year war, and reestablish the peace between the numerous Princes of Europe. It is also the document that largely determines the accepted borders of European countries presently. The scheme of the Treaty was to bring the Princes to return possessions that they usurped from during the War, and to mutually recognize each other’s territories as exclusive domains of the Princes to which they ‘belonged’. It established the non-intervention notion, which entailed that a Prince could not interfere with the internal affairs in territories of another Prince.
A ‘new’ institution rose from this treaty: the state. ‘New’, because one can make the argument that it is simply the assertion of an institution that is found in the intellectual traditions of the Western World, particularly in the Republic of Plato (Book 2), and the Politics of Aristotle. In the latter, the ancient Greek philosopher argues that the state is not only a natural institution for humans, but that it even surpasses the individual, in the order of importance:
“The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”
Ancient Greece is known for having a number of city-states (or polis in Greek) that inspired the above-cited philosophers, in their studies of human governments, giving the Western World its primary account of attempts at establishing statehood. In the same region, and a bit to the south, rose the first federating entity, under the able leadership of one man, Alexander the Great of Macedon
. Alexander succeeded by military might, to impose a system of government based on his authority, over a very large territory, taking the title of Emperor, and thus establishing what can be considered as the first state great monarchical state. During a somewhat parallel period, another great state was arising: Rome. Rome developed itself from 753-31 BC as a form of Republic establishing a strong and regulated administration that could enforce the decision of the metropolis in all its colonies and dependencies, with the same strength, as if they were enforced in the city of Rome. Rome later one evolved to become an Empire, then a Christian Empire, and eventually went through a decline, with its remaining eastern part transformed into the Byzantine Empire, under Emperor Constantine. Throughout this Greco-Roman era, erudition was of the utmost importance, as the traditions were set by the Greek philosophers - and historians such as Herodotus - of pursuing scientific inquiry, developing the arts, recording events of history, and sealing legislation in writing, all for the benefit of their contemporaries, and for that of their posterity
. This is important, as we will see further on in the paper.
The fall of these empires created an environment that allowed for a fragmentation, and chaos in the former territories of the Roman Empire. Leaders of several entities asserted their authority, and there was room for invasions, and some of the institutional advancement that had occurred during the Roman era was lost. These leaders created aristocratic families, such as the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, in present-day northern France and western Germany. It was not until the most illustrious of the Carolingians, Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768 AD), and crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Christian Pope in 800 AD, that some order would be reestablished. Charlemagne had the control over most of Western Europe. During his rule, we saw the establishment of a directive charter for the new Empire, the Capitulary
, and it details things such as the strong element of divine right of the Emperor, the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the state, and the powers granted to officials mandated by the Emperor throughout the Empire the “missi-dominici”. Charlemagne is also credited for the establishment of an extremely important institution: public education. After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his son Louis I the Pius, could not avoid the division and of his Empire (817 AD)
, and ordained that after his death, the Empire was to be quartered in such pieces that loosely form the basis for territorial claims of princes and lords in Western Europe, up to the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.
However, since the fall of the mighty and federating Roman Empire, and the division of the subsequent and enlightened Empire of Charlemagne, and before the Treaty of Westphalia, often referred to as the Peace of Westphalia
, the notion of statehood had been smothered, and reduced to signify only a feudal compact of communities, loosely led by a more or less powerful lord, that could claim no other suzerainty than that of God. The reference to God, and the attachment to religion, and particularly the Christian one, became paramount, and feudalism, a system based on ties of family, honor and class hierarchy, became the main mean of government. Increasingly, there was a rise of Absolutism, as several lords started to rely on the more powerful lords, the Kings, to protect them from the various threats they faced from the inside, and particularly from the outside. Eventually, the power became centralized in the hands of the kings, creating de facto states that corresponded to the lands of the lords over which they gained absolute suzerainty, or that they annexed in battle. This created an environment prone to military and territorial tensions, which led to the Thirty Year war, that was ended by the above mentioned Treaty.
It is not my intention to simply give a lesson of history. But it is important that we realize that the origin of the state borders decided by the negotiators of the Treaty of Westphalia, are extremely complex, and are the result of long processes, internal to the Western World. A look at the Treaty itself, and the various disputes that it settles, does give an idea of that complexity. The Kings and Statesmen, who gained an increased power over their subjects by this treaty, had now a mutually accepted basis for the legitimacy of the states that they ruled. With a few modifications, the borders of those states constitute the borders of states in present day Europe.
When we consider Africa, on the other hand, the history lesson is harder to administer, as the traditions within several societies in Africa, has been an oral one, and several elements of history, the most important of which was colonialism, made impossible to be transmitted for several years. Thus there is a problem – decreasing, yet still existing – of lack of information on the past experiences the various peoples of Africa. Nevertheless, we find that Herodotus, Greek historians mentioned earlier, mentions in his Histories, the Ancient people of Egypt and Libya
. We also find in the works of Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta, some accounts of the African experiences in government and statehood. More recently, in the 20th century, Senegalese historian Cheick Anta Diop has challenged common claims on African history, by attempting to reestablish the truth behind the history, the truth that Western domination had eroded over the years. An example that Diop refers to constantly is that of the de-africanization of the kingdoms of Ancient Egypt. Western historians have attempted over the years to make a separate entity out of Egypt, as a beacon of White Western culture in ‘uncivilized’ Africa. Interestingly enough, he makes a reference to Herodotus, by saying that "the Greek writer (…) may be mistaken when he reports the customs of a people. But one must grant that he was at least capable of recognizing the skin color of the inhabitants of countries he visited."
This is in response to the following sentence in Histories: “They have the same tint of skin which approaches that of the Ethiopians”. What Cheick Anta Diop wants to show here, is the manipulation that often occurs when we look at African history from a western perspective.
The above notwithstanding, recent inquiries have allowed to establish the existence, at various times of history between 2700 BC and 1750 AD, of such large states as the various transformations of Ancient Egypt, Axum and Ethiopia, the Empire of Ghana, the Mali Empire, The Songhai Kingdom, The Kongo Kingdom, Great Zimbabwe, the Zulu kingdom, and several other city-states and acephalous organized societies. The dates here are chosen on the basis of the approximate creation of the first dynasties of Ancient Egypt (2700 BC) and the approximate date of the beginning of full-blown colonialism in Africa (1750 AD).
An interesting case to examine is the Mali Empire. There are three historical documents that address clearly the history of and the life in the Empire of Mali. One is the epic of Sunjata, by Djeli Kouyate, and transcribed by Djibril T. Niane
, and the account of Ibn Battuta’s travel to the Mali Empire
. Both these documents are important because they establish two truths. The first document provides for an epic account of the formation of this African state, one that does not go without similarities to the prowess in the narrative on Romulus and the formation of Rome. The epic provides for a heroic account for the life of a figure that is proven to have existed in history, but also allowing for some insight on the type of state it was. The second document brings a more human and true historical account of life within the Empire, from a primary witness. And the type of interactions that one recognizes in this state, are normal for any kingdom:
“Thus I reached the city of Malli [Mali], the capital of the king of the blacks. I stopped at the cemetery and went to the quarter occupied by the whites, where I asked for Muhammad Ibn al-Faqih. I found that he had hired a house for me and went there. (...) I met the qadi of Malli, 'Abd ar-Rahman, who came to see me; he is a negro, a pilgrim, and a man of fine character. I met also the interpreter Dugha, who is one of the principal men among the blacks. All these persons sent me hospitality-gifts of food and treated me with the utmost generosity--may God reward them for their kindnesses!”
Despite the evolution of these states in pre-colonial Africa, it is not from there that we find the source of legitimacy for the states today. The states that emerged from decolonization from the West, find their territorial, institutional and legal legitimacy in colonialism itself, thus creating what appears, in my view, to be a paradox: How could people fleeing colonialism, create entities based on that very same animal that they were attempting to flee? It is nevertheless true that following the invasion, occupation and exploitation of the land and the people in Africa, the Western powers needed to have an agreement on how they would settle dispute as to the rights and territories that each of them held on the continent. Similarly to 1648, a treaty was established, with similar language, among the Western powers, known as the Berlin Act of 1885 (ANNEX A). As a result of this treaty, the Western powers made claims to various territories in Africa, thus dividing them in several portions, which were then divided for administrative reasons. Hence Africa became a patchwork of ‘colonial provinces’ that will eventually form the 53 states that the independence movement has produced in Africa. And the states had to evolve within the principles of sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia, and upheld in many international relations practices. Decolonization along the principles of the Berlin Act created entities of heterogeneous peoples, with little in common but the search for freedom from the colonial power, and that potentially had to compete in the diplomatic, political and economic arena, with countries of which the stability, the territories and the government had been agreed upon and established 300 hundred years earlier, and under very different conditions.
Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, as found in Yale Law school © 1996 The Avalon Project. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/westphal.htm
Aristotle, The Politics, (Translated by Benjamin Jowett) Book 1, Part II, 350 B.C.E
See PROJECT by John J. Popovic
, Alexandros III Philippou Makedonon, Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 B.C.)
See Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, copyright © 1994-1998, Daniel C. Stevenson
The Capitulary of Charlemagne (802), as found in Henderson, Ernest F. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages London : George Bell and Sons, 1896.
See The Ordinance of Louis the Pius, as found in Altmann und Bernheim, " Ausgewahlte Urkunden," p. 12. Berlin, 1891.
See Footnote 5
Herodotus, Histories, Book 2. Logos 4th through 6th.
Diop, Cheick Anta, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, translated from French by Mercer Cook. 1974.
Djibril T. Niane. Soundiata, ou l'épopée mandingue. Paris, Presence africaine, 1960,
Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354
Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354