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The Black Man's Burden

By Rootsie
July 03, 2004

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.

Of course, chattel slavery and subsequent colonization devastated these structures, and set the stage for the 'tribalism' of today that we are told is an indigenous ancient tendency in Africa. This is absolutely false. As governments that could protect their people crumbled, smaller family-based groups banded together for economic and security purposes. As African nationalism itself failed in the 70's and 80's, ethnic and tribal affiliations accordingly strengthened, leading to the horrific 'warlordism' that is laid at Africa's door as ultimate evidence of her continuing inability to enter the hallowed halls of 'civilization.' What a terrible distortion.

"Once the national sovereignties were declared, the arena was fixed for rivalry over the resources in that arena; and the rivalry was bound to become abrasive, and therefore divisive, if only because the resources were in short supply. This divisive rivalry was then discovered to be 'tribalism': that is, the reinforcement of kinship or other local-scale alliances competing against other such alliances...this postcolonial 'tribalism' flourished less because the states were weak than because their organization into separatist nation states gave full reign to elitist rivalries." (185-86) And of course, the European beneficiaries of this chaotic situation, did their part to promote the power and privilege of the few. Throughout Africa can be seen the terrible price to be paid for uplifting 'nation' at the expense of 'society.' What is a nation if it does not serve its people?

We can see in the United States today how useful it is for despotic leaders to invoke nationalistic fervor to cover up the multitude of their sins and manufacture public consent. This is not the case in Africa, and never has been. Africans cannot have their emotions manipulated so easily, especially when the most basic needs of people remain unmet by their governments.'National identity' has always been a very tenuous concept in Africa.

Ironically, as people, particularly rural farmers, found themselves outrageously seduced and abandoned by their governments, which by the 1980's had devolved into thuggish 'kleptocracies' (Mobutu's Congo/Zaire being the most outrageous example) that were too busy looting to govern, the precolonial tendencies to local control and wide participation did indeed return, in the form of extra-legal, 'parallel economies.' In Benin in the 70's for example, fully 90% of the economy, largely devoted to smuggling, did not 'officially' exist! "For the first time in recent history, men (and also youth and women) are representing their villages and communities...without having to be also rich, notables, educated, or familiar with French culture." (239) Here was the rising middle-class so desperately sought for in all nation state schemes, but it came as a result of a breakdown in central government, not as the consequence of the nation state.

This example, though far from ideal, does give a glimmer of a way out of Africa's suffering. Europe is well on its way to dumping its own nation states in many important respects. And the interesting thing is that people can share many things across their borders: a common currency, trade agreements, mutual defense, environmental regulations, and still retain their 'national identities' uncoupled by the rabid need to defend them. Under federalist systems, ethnicity can be celebrated instead of providing a pretext for bloodshed.

Africa has a long tradition of what can only be called participatory democracy, even if buried and forgotten. The same cannot be said for Europe. Europe's lack of democratic instincts is seen nowhere more clearly than in its behavior in Africa (with Latin American close on its heels). 'Democracy' is obviously an extremely relative concept in the European mind, considering how little they value it anywhere but at home. The reality is unimaginably far from the rhetoric. Just as in America chattel slavery gave way to an equally and perhaps even more profitable system of sharecropping, in what way can it usefully be said that the colonial powers ever really left Africa at all?

"...The extraction of wealth from an already impoverished Africa was in no way halted by the 'transfer of power.' A transfer of poverty continued as before, even while the means of transfer were modified or camouflaged." (219)

And as the years of 'independence' went by, Africa was bled more and more.
"In 1975, a ton of African copper could buy 115 barrels of oil, but in 1980 only 58 barrels; a ton of African cocoa could buy 148 barrels of oil in 1975, but in 1980 only 63 barrels; a ton of African coffee could buy 148 barrels of oil in 1975, but in 1980 only 82 barrels; and so on down the line. Great conferences were called by United Nations organs with a view to reversing or reducing this adverse trend and its consequent extraction of African wealth for the benefit of non-African buyers and spenders. None of these portentous and costly conferences produced so much as a sliver of material benefit for Africa...When the economies of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union went flagrantly into crisis in 1989, there was much self-congratulation in the West and happy talk about the virtues of free-enterprise capitalism. It was less noticed that these were virtues of which Africa had so far known little or nothing." (220-21)
Aggravating the situation has been the United States, which views Africa solely in terms of its own strategic interests, and thus acts reflexively against anything but the status quo, which played out in its support for the 'forces of stability' in Apartheid South Africa, for the succession of criminals in Liberia, for Mobutu in Congo, and its actions against liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique. The Soviet Union, with its insistence on 'developing the urban proletariat' at the expense of the agricultural base, and stifling all dissent, was equally reactionary in its own way.

Davidson does not put forth his ideas about the effects of nation statism at the expense of looking at the complex factors at work in Africa, but he does demonstrate the terrible power of an unexamined idea. Even though after World War II there was much talk in Europe of the inevitability and even the necessity for decolonization in Africa, not a single European country in any sense planned for it. The assumptions of nation statism were simply that: assumptions. It was assumed, and by Africans as well, that colonies would become nations, that a middle class would magically materialize in each one, and that the nations of Africa would proudly and at last join the ranks of Western Civilization...while having their resources siphoned off and their futures ultimately determined by Europe and being used as pawns in the name of 'strategic interests in the region.'
"...Africa would prosper upon condition of rejecting itself. The future was not to grow out of the past, organically and developmentally, but from an entirely alien dispensation. And the cultural contradiction in this, it must be said, was barely so much as noticed. While triumphal slogans of 'Africa for the Africans' rang out from the rooftops, innovations were to be forms of self-alienation. Being such, their sociocultural penetration was to remain persistently shallow, as would be seen most tragically when warlord mayhem burst upon the scene in later years." (199-200)
It is simply absurd and hypocritical in the extreme for Europe to say they had democratic aspirations for Africa. The new nations simply appropriated the colonial authoritarian bureaucracies: where would democracy exist in a system in which any sort of local control was resisted, and violently so, by centralized governments?

Then there is the issue of capitalism itself. Where in the world has capitalism developed and flourished except by banditry? Since Europe and the United States have been brainwashed by their own rhetoric, they were surprised that influxes of foreign aid and reams of paternal advice did not magically confer peaceful capitalist affluence onto Africa. Post Civil War American industrialists were the 'robber barons' after all. Why would anyone expect anything different in Africa?

The ugly assumptions of racism are so integral to this story that they almost go without saying. Almost. The assumption that precolonial Africa offered no models for modern African governments. The assumption that blacks are incapable of evolving their own approach to modern self-government. The assumption that blacks require white guidance in all aspects of their existence, and the 'end of racism' means that whites are kind and charitable and merciful to blacks instead of murdering and enslaving them. At least in person.

Davidson makes a complicated argument, but really the issue is very simple, and it is a global issue. What should governments exist for? Whom should they serve? The cynical 'nation building' that took place and is still taking place by the West in Africa willfully ignores the fact that the rape of Africa is still taking place, under a different and more dangerous guise, to this day. More dangerous because somehow the story has been turned around and Africans are blamed for their own victimization. If we can't get the story straight, there is no hope of changing it.

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