Dying Africa

Basil Davidson

Africa? But Africa is dying ... Or certainly the nation-state in Africa is dying wherever it is not already dead – see Chad, Sudan, Somalia – while dragging multitudes of starving or sorely wounded people into disaster such as the continent has never seen before, and on a scale that is hard even to imagine. Immediate arena of these evils, the post-colonial nation-state has become in most cases a fragile shell of exploded aspirations, a constitutional garbage-can of shattered loyalties, or a cemetery of projects without a future. There may be leaders who still believe that patience and courage can save the day for the sovereignties they claim to govern. In other cases, more numerous, governments without talent and politicians without conscience wade ever deeper into the miseries of failure.

No doubt a human failure: but much more a failure of institutions and of the ideas which can yield constructive power. Many explanations have been offered, but for me it is Ikem, the hero of Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, who finds the central reason for this failure before he, too, has to meet the killers. This reason ‘can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable: it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is: it isn’t even this second-class hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed.’ These are the effects of failure; the cause is elsewhere. It rests, concludes Ikem, ‘in the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being’.

The root failure, in short, has lain in the workings of a nation-state which has deprived its rulers of any sufficient legitimacy with the people whom these rulers are supposed to serve and protect. This post-imperial ‘structure’ has seldom managed to become more than a product of largely alien creation: some fifty or so such products in Africa if you count them all up. But their emergence has not been, of course, a purely African misfortune. All of them bear a family resemblance to the dozen or so new nation-states of the Wilsonian dispensation in the Europe of 1919, which later had to share the same ‘neo-colonised’ fate at the hands of Stalinist Moscow. None of them, with one or two partial exceptions in Europe as in Africa, ever achieved the accountability that would have allowed democracy to work. They altogether lacked the underpinnings of class organisation and bourgeois predominance that had assured success to the initiating model in Britain or France. They simply had the wrong model for their own situation: for post-imperial independence, tragically or otherwise, they have had to play Hamlet without the Prince.

But was there any basis for a workable model in the history of tropical Africa rather than in that of Western Europe? According to all the stereotypes up to the 1940s and later, the answer was no: in pre-colonial Africa there were only what a well-known Oxfordian judgment of as late as 1963 dismissed out of hand as ‘the gyrations of savage tribes’. Since then, some thirty years of a new African historiography, internationally pursued, has shown us otherwise. Far from fruitlessly gyrating, the peoples of Africa over some two thousand years of independent development were able to multiply from a handful of millions to perhaps 120 million by the onset of colonial invasion, to tame and cultivate their continent for fruitful use, and to evolve systems of self-government in which, however labelled, the accountability which gives legitimacy to rulers was a decisive component. Their societies functioned by principles of democratic accountability: wherever these failed, so did the systems in place.

These principles have been shown to have embodied a relative distrust of delegated power and an absolute distrust of tyrannical power. They presupposed forms of power-devolution easiest seen in the so-called segmentary societies but present even in those of aristocratic or monarchical type, as, for instance, in the Hausa and Yoruba systems. Until near-coastal societies had become degraded by the slave trade, participation by the governed was the cornerstone of political life. The point here is not, of course, that these societies lived in primeval bliss relieved of sin and sorrow. The point is that pre-colonial Africa knew no such monumental crisis as we now see on every side. Its tone and texture were quite different from the generalised mayhem and despair of today.

Could this pre-colonial ‘model’, if allowed to persist, have continued to function after ‘decolonisation’? Clearly not: great reforms must in any case have been required. But it may be worth recalling that the participatory base could still be valid, and that this is what African thinkers themselves believed in the brief interval before colonial dispossession took full effect. In 1865 a British Liberal establishment, fresh from its enthusiasms for Garibaldi and the liberation of an Italy subjected to (non-British) imperialism, was coming round to the view that British colonies in Africa were a mistake. A Commons select committee advised that British power should be withdrawn from tropical African ‘settlements’ in favour of local African powers. Briefly, it seemed that this might happen. So the Fanti of the Gold Coast (Ghana after 1957) produced in 1867 a constitution for their regained independence. This offered a synthesis of Fanti tradition with the requirements of modern times, and the men who framed it were encouraged from an unexpected quarter to believe it would work. They heard about the correspondingly modernising reforms introduced to Japan in that same year of 1867. Their writer Mensah Sarbah could recall a few years later, writing, however, in 1910 when all such perspectives had vanished, that ‘Fanti patriots, and the Japanese emperor and his statesmen, were both striving to rise up their respective countries by the proper education and training of their people.’ But whereas the Japanese remained free of foreign invasion and could work out their own future, ‘the Africans’ attempt to do the same was ruthlessly crushed.’ After the Meiji reforms the Japanese could look the West increasingly in the face. Modernisation, for them, did not have to mean alienation.

But that is what it had to mean for Africa. After 1900, all African institutions of self-government were castrated or suppressed. For upwards of a century, all government was to be exercised by military or para-military forms of foreign rule. Modernisation had to mean ‘de-Africanisation’. And so it came about that the model of the Western European nation-state was enshrined as the supreme problem-solving formula for Africans emerging from a quite different history. Just as bureaucratism had ruled in the colonial period, so now it was re-installed no matter what the texts and titles might claim. No structures of participation became effective; all the lessons of pre-colonial times were ignored. And the outcome is what we see now. ‘The bald fact,’ remarked a former Nigerian head of state, General Obasanjo, some months ago, ‘is that in Africa we have squandered almost thirty years with ineffective nation-building efforts.’ The African nation-state, a former secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity concluded at about the same time, has become ‘a shackle on progress’.

Off-the-shelf remedies for consequent disaster have come clamorously to hand from Eastern Europe’s recent ‘year of revolutions’. Of these the most applauded, or at any rate the most publicised, has been the curious notion that a shift from ‘single-party’ to ‘multi-party’ systems provides the key to salvation, rather in the manner of counting the number of angels able to stand on the point of a pin. Now while there may be everything to be said for political competition rather than political monopoly, there is in the last thirty or forty years everything to show that political competition in itself is not the beginning of wisdom. Somalia today is practically a chaos: but Somalia achieved a political system with no fewer than 62 parties as long ago as the Sixties. And the case of Somalia is neither unique nor even rare.

What all these states require, as all their best thinkers can now be heard to agree, is legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. ‘Multi-partyism’ may help towards this, but will not, by itself, be enough to prevail against the two enormous obstructions which have derived from colonial dispossession and its aftermath. One of these is what Europeans have liked to call ‘tribalism’, which, more exactly, is clientelism operating through lineage affiliation or the like. This is something neither mysterious nor ‘atavistic’ but simply the common effort of private persons to defend their interests against a state which cannot defend them. As everywhere else in the world, this ‘tribalism’ has operated in times of statist weakness or collapse. Today it operates everywhere in Africa, and ‘multi-partyism’ in itself will be powerless against it.

The same applies in the economic field. Illegal or ‘parallel’ trading and production is another function of kinship-network ‘tribalism’; and so huge is this today that we are now at a point, generally, where most official statistics on trade and production can be little more than propagandist artifacts. In some large regions – the vast basin of the Congo river is perhaps the most blatant example – illegal trade represents pretty well the whole economy outside mining and big-plantation enclaves. Conclusions follow, but so far they have been little noticed. They apply especially, perhaps, to the field of ‘foreign aid’, which, having for the most part to operate within the framework of artifact, has to be – or, at least, generally has been – rigidly ‘top-down’ in concept and practice. What is called ‘development’, in the words of a well-known Nigerian thinker, Professor Claude Ake, ‘has turned into concerted aggression against the common people’ because ‘development strategies in Africa, with minor exceptions, have tended to be strategies by which the few use the many for their purposes,’ and, in so doing, deny the principles of ‘popular participation in political and economic decision-making’ on which pre-colonial stabilities had depended. It is an opinion, I think, that is nowhere seriously in dispute in Africa today.

What critics like Ake are saying is not that solutions can be found in trying to ‘return to the past’ – in his case, to compensatory structures such as the Oyo Mesi and the Ogboni – but in cutting away from the rigidly centralist practices and assumptions of the colonialist legacy so as to give power to structures of participatory government tiered upward from the ‘grass roots’. The result may be ‘inefficient’: but it cannot possibly be half so inefficient as the centralism of today. At the same time none of these thinkers can be heard to suggest that a reversal of current ‘top-downism’ will be enough to set Africa on a highroad to civic recovery. There is no such highroad for the poor and dispossessed in the present world-system of trade and its consequences. A cheerful future for the ex-colonial world is bluntly out of the question so long, for example, as the economic relationships of the industrialised and non-industrialised countries remain anywhere near where they Hand today.

What is being claimed by the advocates of one or other form of democratic participation, however variously labelled, is that reversal of ‘top-downism’ can now alone raise a stalwart defence of all those countless communities who live on the losing side of the ‘world-system’, which means most people in the world as we have it now: so that, until the times do alter, this majority may at least be enabled to seize a lifeline to survival. This would be much more than they can do at present. It could even make the difference, as these years unfold, between a dying Africa and an Africa alive.