Asmarino Fundraising: Because There Is So Much More to Be Done!

A Review: The Black Man's Burden - Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State by Basil Davidson

We take the idea of sovereign nation states for granted. Nationalism is the religion of nationhood, and its 'uplifting' emotional rhetoric can lead us to assume that the 'sense of nation' is as integral a part of the human make-up as city-building and trade, and has been around forever and forever shall be... But consider: before World War I, there were only a handful of nations in Europe; after, there were over two dozen. The first 'nation' in Europe was England, and it likes to date its nationhood from the Glorious Revolution of 1686. France became a nation in 1789 with its own revolution, and the United States in 1791. The nation state is a very recent phenomenon, and a uniquely European construct. Its devlopment goes hand in hand with the rise of capitalism.The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were constituted a mere 40 or so years before the nations of Africa. And in case we didn't notice, Davidson reminds us that much of Europe, particularly the Balkans, is in many respects in as much of a mess as Africa. The difference lies in the magnitude of the pillage to which Africa was and still is subjected.

As Davidson considers the question of 'what's gone wrong in Africa,' he lays the blame squarely on a virulent Western 'neocolonial nation statism.' The idea that the modern nation state was the machine that would power decolonization in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa was taken for granted. Sovereign African governments would take the place of colonial ones, and few gave the issue much more thought than that. He does not blame Africans for this. African leaders like Nyerere of Tanzania saw the potential for disaster in Africa's instant move from colonies to numerous and competing nations. He and others proposed federalist systems as the alternative: "unities of sensible association across wide regions within which national cultures, far from seeking to destroy or maim each other, could evolve their diversities and find in them a mutual blessing." (286) Suggestions such as these were swept away by the tide of nationalist self-assertion that washed over Africa as it threw off colonialism. Unfortunately, applying European 'solutions' (which proved not even to work in Europe) to African challenges spelled disaster absolutely everywhere.

Western Europeans certainly took the virtues of the modern nation state for granted. They ignored the evidence coming out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where groups like the Serbs, when given the chance, eventually set up brutal authoritarian ethnocentric regimes. Though support from the mass of African people was necessary in the movements to throw off colonialism, their leaders were most often European educated, and in general shared many of the same assumptions as their colonial rulers, especially when it came to the idea of what postcolonial governments would look like. After 'liberation,' they quickly devolved into client states of Europe, and later the US and Soviet Union. They needed the common people to launch their movements, but ended up betraying them utterly. As central governments collapsed and poverty deepened to the point of starvation in many places, an atmosphere of despair gave rise to despotic governments that gutted the infrastructures of countries, taking everything they could steal. The core issue as Davidson sees it is what nations exist for: do they exist for their own sake, for the material benefit of the elites who run them, or do they exist to serve the interests of the people? What is perhaps most tragic is that Africans themselves had answered this question in the precolonial period in favor of mass citizen participation, and had their own history not been violently disrupted and ultimately rejected and forgotten, Africa would most probably look very different today.

Davidson shows that the failure of nation statism in Africa is not due to some particular African defect. The more horrific aspects of this failure are due above all to the steady bleeding of African resources into European pockets.

The great mass of Africans (or even Romanians or Hungarians) were not interested in nationalism or any other ideology; Africans were interested in basic justice, i.e. land and food, but also and interestingly, they were interested in moral reclamation after the degradations of colonial rule.

Davidson gives the examples of the little-known or understood liberation movements in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau. Though eventually defeated by the machinations of the US and the Soviets, these movements stressed mass political participation. The dedication over long years of so many 'grassroots' people "reflects[s] a conviction that there is a moral order in the universe, and that man's well-being depends upon obedience to that order as men see it." (298) This is indeed a most ancient and indigenous African idea. It is an idea that civilized governance could be built on.

The men who ended up running the show in Eastern Europe and Africa embraced European-style nationalism as a way of asserting group identity after centuries of oppression. The 'point of no return' in Africa came when the unnatural boundaries the British had originally set up to make colonial rule easier for them were unquestioningly adopted at decolonization. Regions whose people had natural affinities and common trading centers were chopped up into numerous 'nations,' as enormous as Congo/Zaire and as tiny as Gambia. What ended up happening time and again was that the basic aspirations of common people were used to constitute 'national identity' constellated around popular leaders like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, in whom people put their modest hopes. These hopes, despite the intentions of leaders like Nkrumah, were inevitably betrayed as African governments from their very onset adopted assumptions and forms that were European, and unresponsive to the needs and spirit of Africa. Even in Brazil today, we can see how quickly President 'Lula' has succumbed to American and European demands that he pay down the Brazilian debt before making any moves to help his desperate people. Mandela and Mbeke in South Africa have made the same mistake, capitulating to Western priorities, and it is only a matter of time before the amazing patience of the South African people looking for basic improvements in their lives runs out.

European-educated African leaders viewed their own civic history as virtually nonexistent, and thus incapable of providing models for the modern African nation state. What is stupendously ironic about this is that pre-colonial Africa is loaded with examples of highly organized, highly functional political structures and civil societies. It is in fact stunning to see the degree to which the idea of government by the consent of the governed was a guiding principle in precolonial Africa. A 'regulatory principle' in most of pre-colonial Africa was 'a permanent distrust of power.' (84) The assumption always was that kings would get carried away and become corrupt, and structures evolved to respond to this eventuality. Systems of checks and balances existed, and every smart king knew he had to answer to his people. These people understood that citizen participation was indispensable to political stability. Even in a rigidly hierarchical system like the Yoruba, an association called the Yogboni, which reflected all segments of Yoruba society, existed to balance and check the power of priests and kings and aristocracy. Governments in precolonial Africa "were centrally concerned in securing and sustaining their legitimacy in the eyes of their peoples. They endured because they were accepted."(88) The Asante existed in relative stability for hundreds of years, and not in stagnation, but with steady progress. We are not talking about groups of downtrodden serfs as in Eastern Europe, but informed and responsive citizens. Europe has no such tradition as its heritage.