Who’s to blame?

Kathryn Tidrick

  • The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State by Basil Davidson
    James Currey, 372 pp, £9.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 85255 700 0
  • Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn
    Hutchinson, 390 pp, £18.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 09 177082 3
  • African Silences by Peter Matthiessen
    Harvill, 225 pp, £7.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 271186 9

For a few years in the mid-Seventies I lived in Tanzania, my husband being at the time one of the horde of expatriate ‘advisers’ who flocked there hoping to be of service to Nyerere’s revolution, Even then it seemed the lights were going out in Africa, as country after country came under the control of greedy élites which used the power of the state to line their own pockets. Tanzania promised to be an exception to an already dreary tale of corruption and decline. Yet many of those who arrived in the early years of the decade feeling a modest hope for the future and a fine moral enthusiasm for the present, were to depart by the end of the decade sadder but not wiser men; or, if they did feel wiser, it was mostly because they had embraced that most conventional of all wisdoms, racism – this presumably being the only way they could find to account to themselves for Tanzania’s descent into a dark age from which it has only recently, with great difficulty, begun to emerge.

Towards the end of 1973 Tanzania’s philosopher president, Julius Nyerere, lost patience with his countrymen’s slow progress towards the collective utopia he had in mind – a utopia conceived so attractively and so modestly, with such attention to the local and the feasible, that it had us all enraptured so long as it remained on the drawing-board – and decreed that, as a first step towards becoming real socialists, all Tanzanians were to be brought together to live in villages. He then presided with increasing remoteness over a terrible series of abuses of state power. No sooner had a presidential decree been heard than it was obeyed by the instruments of government over which he had command, including the Army. There was a great in-gathering of the population: Nyerere later claimed that over nine million people had been moved. Countless home-steads were bulldozed and their inhabitants dumped by the sides of roads, where in due course they might be provided with the services on which their progress was thought to depend, not the least of which was the benevolent supervision of officials of the Tanganyika African National Union, the country’s only political party.

As a corollary to the movement into villages, all individual business enterprise, however petty, was crushed. Village shops, run up till then by a network of Indian traders possessing the virtues as well as the vices of their class, were closed down and replaced by shops run by committees. The shelves of these shops promptly emptied, leaving the new villagers bereft, not only of their homes, farms and gardens with crops already growing on them, but of such simple necessities of life as salt, sugar, soap, kerosene and matches. Not much was written about people’s sufferings at the time: they must be imagined. In Dar es Salaam the peanut vendors outside the government offices were denounced as petty capitalists and cleared off the pavements. They had been accustomed to wrap their wares in discarded government memoranda, a practice which seems completely appropriate.

Though food production, assisted by good rains after a period of drought, actually increased in Tanzania during the first few years after ‘villageisation’, the production of cash crops – as distinct from food surpluses offered for sale – declined drastically. Peasant farmers concentrated on avoiding starvation and were reluctant to make the investments of time and money required by, say, cashew cultivation. The process was helped forward by the Government’s abolition in 1975-6 of the farmers’ co-operatives, which were too independent for its liking, and replacement of them by government crop-marketing organisations which actually deducted the costs of operating their bureaucracies and their Land Rovers from the prices they fell able to offer farmers. With no cash crops to export there was no money for the schools and clinics which had been promised. Buildings with the appropriate signs on them were everywhere erected, in response to official exhortation, by the long-suffering peasantry – but providing the schools with books and the clinics with medicine was less easily achieved. By the early Eighties Tanzania had for all practical purposes reverted to being a subsistence economy.

The interesting question is not why this catastrophe occurred but why it occurred without any organised popular opposition. Nyerere, excessively revered and increasingly confined within a little group of courtiers, had predictably behaved as if l’ état c’ était lui. But why did not his people, perhaps through their elected representatives (who existed, if not very visibly), tell him how badly it had all gone awry? He could see for himself of course, even on his highly choreographed tours of inspection, that all was not well; but his response always the same – the replacement of some erring local official and the implacable continuation of the policy the official was, however incompetently or corruptly, attempting to carry out. What the great Teacher heard was the unorganised expression of an assortment of little local miseries, and to these he responded appropriately.

In Tanzania at the time there were no obvious impediments to freedom of speech. The country had political prisoners, but, by the standards of Africa as a whole, very few. There was thus no reason in principle why the Government could not be held publicly accountable for what it did. But the response of the people to its abuse of power was, as elsewhere in Africa, personal and not political. Wherever possible, Tanzanians simply turned away from the state and its works and relied on existing informal networks of patronage and joint endeavour, based on kinship, to ensure their survival. The extent to which they succeeded in doing this showed how weak was the state that had been tormenting them. People drifted away from the new villages and lived in huts on their old farms; black markets and smuggling flourished: the Government was not opposed, merely ignored. At an admittedly low level of material existence, it was thus back to business as usual for the Tanzanian peasant. There was no contentious political class to dispute with the Government on his behalf because then had never been one and there was even now no need of one. Tanzanians simply reverted to their ancient way of life as independent farmers in a continent where there had always, overall, been a surplus of cultivable land in relation to the number of people living on it.

Basil Davidson argues in his new book, The Black Man’s Burden, that the blight that has settled upon black Africa in the present day is rooted in the nation-state. In developing his argument he spares no criticism of the African leaders who have used the powers accruing to them through the creation of such slates to loot their country’s economies and harass their people (Nyerere’s subtler transgressions, it must be added, escape condemnation), and it is not only right but admirable that he has done so – admirable because as a ‘friend of Africa’ of long standing it must have been tempting to him to pull his punches. It was through Basil Davidson that I, among mans others, first became acquainted with black Africa’s historical past, and felt moved to experience something more than an arrogant pity for its present condition. His connection with Africa has been a consistently honourable and enlightening one.

The Black Man’s Burden displays Davidson’s usual virtues as a writer: learning, enthusiasm, a willingness to ask (if not always address) awkward questions, and the romantic connoisseurship of struggle which has informed much of his work and helped to preserve its honesty. But it must be said that his contention that the blame for the African tragedy in its many aspects – political, economic, social, even ecological – can be laid at the door of the nation-state seems in the end a desperate and even a disingenuous one. Anyone reading The Block Man’s Burden without prior knowledge of Africa might be excused for thinking that tyranny began in that continent around the year 1970, when its new rulers began to succumb to the strains of operating within the unfamiliar institutions which then colonial masters had thoughtlessly, or possibly malevolently, bequeathed to them. As Davidson well knows, the history of state-sponsored predation in Africa long antedates the creation of nation-states and even the onset of the colonial period: the transatlantic slave trade could not have existed without the willing co-operation of the African rulers and ‘big men’ of the day, who, in exchange for European goods and firearms, consigned tens of millions of their fellow Africans to servitude in the plantations of the New World. In The Black Man’s Bunden the traditional political system of Asante, in which ‘Centralised power ... was exercised within structures that were devolutionary in their intention and usually in their effect,’ is offered as a model for an African alternative to the European-inspired nation-state; but nowhere is it mentioned that within this exemplary polity human sacrifice was practised on a terrific scale, or that the Asante owed their pre-eminence in wealth among their neighbours to their control of the slave trade. The histories of other societies have embraced similar contradictions: it is the job of the historian to come to grips with them, especially in books making the sort of claims that this one does.

Davidson is right to say that it was absurd to expect parliamentary democracies to spring up by fiat in African states which did not possess the economically and politically powerful middle classes that have been their essential prerequisite in Europe, and whose arbitrarily defined international boundaries meant they had no coherent national electorates. But he is scarcely alone in saying this and intends to say much more. What this might be is not always clear, but a central point appears to be that the coming of independence in the form of nation-states, with parliaments and government departments, created expectations about the disbursement of funds from the central government. These were then frustrated by the inevitable meagreness of the funds that existed, and led to fights for the spoils organised around kinship associations (otherwise known as tribes, though this is a term which Davidson, in company with other Africanists, eschews). But is he then saying that, had independence come on other, more ‘African’ terms, the struggle for control of the state and its resources might not have occurred? This certainly seems to be implied, but is not explicitly argued.

The fact is that independence could have come on no other terms to Africa because this is what the African nationalists who emerged to grapple with the colonialists at home, abroad and in the public prints, invariably wanted. They were the products of Afro-European interaction and knew that only nation-states were allotted parts to play on the great stage of the world, where alone the hateful stain of racial servitude might conclusively be washed away.

At times Davidson sounds uncommonly like one of those British District Officers who governed Africa in the secure conviction that those nationalist fellows represented nobody and the only way forward for Africans was through the slow development of native institutions, a policy officially sanctioned as Indirect Rule. The difference was of course that the District Officer believed this development should occur under British supervision and would take a very long time. But he would have experienced exactly the same reservations that Davidson expresses about the wisdom of leaving Africans to cope with the institutional paraphernalia of the nation-state.

He would have agreed with Davidson too, most likely, that (post-imperial claims to the contrary) no serious thought was given to ‘nation-building’ in Africa by the imminently departing British. In 1947 the Colonial Office, at the instigation of the head of the African division, Andrew Cohen, changed its mind about the proper way of dealing with nationalists and momentously decided that in the spirit of enlightened self-interest it was best to enlist their co-operation in various aspects of administration. The men-on-the-spot were never at home with this approach. Co-operation with Africans did not come naturally to them, and some detected a whiff of cynicism in the new breeze, soon to become a wind of change, blowing from Whitehall. In any case, their reservations were soon made irrelevant by events British invitations to co-operate inevitably looked like British concessions to the nationalists, who lost no tune in asking for more. Having at bottom no clear idea what they wanted, other than contented subjects, the British found the governments of their African colonies becoming less and less white, as nationalists demanded and were given seats on the Executive and Legislative Councils which they perceived, in spite of British remonstrances, as precursors of cabinets and parliaments. The moment then arrived when independence seemed inevitable or unavoidable, and for better or worse the independent nation-states of Africa came into being.

Like many others who concern themselves with Africa, Basil Davidson takes heart from the efforts at political and economic reform taking place here and there and the vitality of the ‘parallel economy’ based on illicit trade. The Black Man’s Burden thus ends on a rather desperately achieved note of optimism. Whether or not this optimism is borne out by events, it may be assumed that Basil Davidson will remain a true friend to Africa: speaking his mind, getting it wrong sometimes, looking on the bright side, and staying involved.

Peter Matthiessen, the accomplished author of numerous books of travel and of wry and terrible tales of violence on remote frontiers, perhaps also considers himself a friend of Africa. He loves to be there and incessantly returns: there are many things in Africa which he wishes to preserve. He can be eloquent about such things and makes observations about them which, coming from others, would be banal. How many writers could get away with saying, of a dance by African children, that it was ‘a beautiful and stirring ceremony that summoned the deep mystery of earth’? Nevertheless, for all his affection for its people and delight in their ancient ways, Matthiessen’s books on Africa belong firmly in the tradition of the works produced by the Victorian explorers who are the subject of Frank McLynn’s informative study. Such men as McLynn describes went to Africa to assert their ability to see.

For the Victorians, this meant integrating the natural phenomena they travelled so far and so arduously to gaze upon into a general system of knowledge: they saw Lake Victoria in an entirely different fashion from the fishermen who lived upon its shores. To the local people the lake was an expanse of water with fish in it: to the explorers it was the source of the Nile. It is in this sense, as McLynn makes clear, that their claims to be discoverers are justified. Hearts of Darkness contains much of interest about the now almost unimaginable rigours of their journeys, and succeeds in reviving some of the awe the explorers’ contemporaries must have felt at their stupendous undertakings and mad persistence.

Peter Matthiessen sees in a different way. He writes at a time when no geographical Puzzles remain to be solved: there is no seeing of that kind to be done. Nevertheless the impulse to scientific dicovery remains a strongly legitimating motive for European travel in Africa, and this perhaps is why Matthiessen’s journeys are made so often in the role of invited companion to a man or woman who takes to the road (or, in African Siliences, frequently to the air in a light plane) with some scientific object in view. These inquiries generally relate to the habits of animals, and Matthiessen’s contribution appears to be to exercise the seeing eye that integrates the phenomena observed not only into a system of knowledge but into a structure of sensibility. His specialty is to articulate that sense of innocent wonder at the natural world usually assumed to be the prerogative of primitive peoples. There is a lovely passage in African Silences where he writes of the ‘smile of unabashed wonder and approval [of animal ways] that is so affecting in the hunting peoples.’ The hunter smiles his innocent smile, and Peter Matthiessen claims that sense of wonder for us by his articulation of it.

I have always accepted the legitimacy of the European rage to see. But recently I found myself forced to entertain doubts about it. I had related to my young son how I once put on a chador to enter a shrine in Iran where foreigners were in some danger if detected. But if the people didn’t want you to see it, came the response, why did you go in? Why indeed? Why, one might ask, did Europeans feel justified in invading the privacy of whole continents?