Julius E. Nyang'oro's edited volume, Discourses on Democracy: Africa
in Comparative Perspective, makes debates about African democracy available
to African students and scholars. In his introduction, the editor correctly
points out that discussions about democracy in Africa take place largely
in the universities and academic journals of Europe and North America,
fora outside of Africa that rarely invite participation by the mass
of Africans that are the subject of these discussions. Published by
Dar es Salaam University Press, thus presumably widely available in
the English-speaking university community in Africa, this volume helps
fill the gap between African and Western scholarship and is likely to
have a seminal effect on discussions of democracy, especially among
young African scholars. A compilation of classic works about African
democracy from the late 1980s and early 1990s, the volume serves as
an introduction to the subject of African democratization valuable both
to the "African University Students," to whom the volume is
dedicated, as well as to First World scholars who will appreciate the
breadth of the discussions included in this single volume.
There is no doubt that Discourses on Democracy is valuable as an introductory
text, but that said, it is also important to point out that, in bringing
together a wide range of opinion and observation, Nyang'oro neither
synthesizes or prioritizes the arguments he presents, nor does he make
any contribution to the "cutting edge" of scholarship. Scholars
who are abreast of the most recent research on African politics will
find nothing new here, although the volume's juxtaposition of theories
and arguments may serve to reinvigorate old debates.
The most important contribution made by Discourses on Democracy is that
it assembles in a single volume the whole range of the debate about
democracy in Africa, from the liberal mainstream, to critiques of the
currently dominant liberal paradigm. Authors such as Samir Amin, S.
N. Sangmpam, Yusuf Bangura, and Ken Post point out the difficulties
of instituting democracy at the same time as capitalist economic development
is creating conditions of extreme inequality on both domestic and international
economic fronts. These authors give pride of place to economic relationships
in their analyses as they advance the notion of "popular"
democracy in Africa. Other scholars, such as Richard Sandbrook, Michael
Bratton, Naomi Chazan. and Daryl Glaser, by and large accept the vicissitudes
of capitalism in Africa's democratic equation, while they concentrate
their analyses on issues of individual rights, legal frameworks, and
political process associated with "liberal" definitions of
democracy. In his introduction, Nyang'oro draws on the work of Issa
Shivji to describe these two poles of scholarship and effectively uses
the tension between "popular" and "liberal" authors
to enhance the debate.
The inclusion of the "African Charter for Popular Participation
in Development and Transformation," as well as the work of Ken
Post, who, in Nyang'oro's own words is "one of the few remaining
diehards who see no prospects for democratic development on the continent
under the guidance of capitalism," suggest that Nyang'oro is more
intent on establishing the limits of debate in terms of "popular"
democracy than he is on communicating the dominant liberal position.
Indeed, if the volume lacks any important point of view, it is probably
that of a die-hard liberal-capitalist. Daryl Glaser's emphasis on the
importance of individual rights for democracy is as far as Nyang'oro
permits the debate to go in the liberal direction. However, considering
the reality of political and economic conditionalities enforced by international
finance in Africa, it is likely that Nyang'oro's principal audience
(the African intellectual) is already all too familiar with unrepentant
Nyang'oro also includes several articles that lie outside the popular
vs. liberal theoretical framework. Richard Sklar's contribution, the
oldest piece in the volume, provides a historical backdrop to discussions
of African democracy in the 1990s and serves to remind readers that
it was not long ago that scholars were calling for researchers to take
up the topic of democracy in Africa. In 1987, when Sklar's piece was
first published, his was a lonely voice, but only a few years later,
his perspective appeared prescient, a testimony to the enduring appeal
of democracy in Africa and the multiple research agendas available to
students of democracy.
George Sorensen's contribution concerning the role of the state in economic
development is certainly liberal in terms of theoretical assumptions,
but his use of examples from the Far East serves to critique the application
of liberal economic theory in Africa. Another article which does not
fit neatly into the popular vs. liberal framework is the piece by anthropologist
Maxwell Owusu. Perhaps reflecting his disciplinary roots, Owusu focuses
his analysis at the grassroots of politics suggesting African democratization
should be linked to the practices of direct democracy that are commonly
found in village level governance throughout Africa.
Because it touches upon so many aspects of the democratic debate, Discourses
in Democracy is a welcome addition to the African democratization literature.
Let us hope that this important summary of a critical topic will be
made widely available to its intended audience.
Department of Political Science
University of Florida