Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Political Liberation and Decolonization in Africa: Lessons from Country Experiences. Julius Omozuanvbo Ihonvbere and John Mukum Mbaku. Westport CT: Praeger, 2003. 373 pp.
African scholars who have first hand experience of political developments in the continent since independence in the late fifties constitute all of the contributors to this collection of essays edited by Julius Ihonvbere and John Mbaku. This is a companion volume to the earlier The Transition to Democratic Governance in Africa: The Continuing Struggle (Praeger, 2003). It provides a gory assessment of the performance of African states since decolonization, focusing particularly on the failure of the African elite to deliver on the promises of independence. It paints a very sordid and unflattering picture of the lackluster performance of the post-colonial state (neo-colonial states) in most African countries, and the increasing alienation of these states from the civil society. The editors of the volume, both of whom have written extensively on African political economy, blame the current state of African political and economic terrains on the unpatriotic ambition of the new elite, whose primary goal is the pursuit of personal wealth at the expense of their people. The primary objective of this volume, according to the editors, is “to determine how best to proceed with the continent’s transition to democratic governance and economic systems that enhance wealth creation and sustainable development” (pp. xi).
The authors, in the introductory chapter, offer bold solutions to current African crises and suggest new paths to African future, which they claim could only be found in a transition to “democratic constitutionalism”. This magical transition to “democratic constitutionalism”, according to the authors, will offer new dimensions to African efforts in nation building including but not limited to peaceful co-existence of population groups, promotion and nurturing of entrepreneurship, and the establishment of adequate structures for the sustainable management of the environment in addition to protecting individual rights of the citizens and their properties (pp. xi).
While most of the ideas (or recommendations) proposed in this volume are hardly novel (see the UN Millennium goals), there are many arguments in the various chapters that will certainly open new debates about the failure of the African states particularly in those socialistic enclaves that offered so much promise to Africans during the revolutionary phase of the decolonization of the continent. Of course, I am referring here to formerly progressive states like Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.
According to the editors of this volume, one of the central goals of many African independence movements was to transform African states into people focused states. Unfortunately, with the attainment of independence, these lofty goals were soon jettisoned, and the various neo-colonial states that emerged in Africa after independence were soon transformed into institutions that solely benefited the economic aspirations of the new elites. These elite(s), the authors argued, soon abandoned the platforms upon which independence was fought and instead, engaged in activities that were plainly unpatriotic, using the inherited colonial structures, laws, and institutions in the pursuit of personal accumulation of wealth and capital. On top of it all, the authors argued, popular forces were abandoned, radical opposition forces were subjected to repression while the democratization agenda of the nationalist elite soon degenerated into personal rule, one party state, and military oligarchies. Institutional reforms pursued by the new African elite(s), according to the editors, only reinforced elite power to plunder national resources for personal gain leaving the masses behind in extreme poverty and political doldrums (pp.4). Personal oligarchical rule soon replaced participatory democracy with patrimonialism becoming the norm throughout the continent.
Covering a period of fifty years of political independence, the contributors in their different chapters, showed how the achievement of political independence quickly degenerated into chaos with flagrant violations of human and property rights, and increasing marginalization of women, and minority nationalities, from effectively participating in resource distribution and politics. Political independence, the editors contend, soon led to the suffocation of the civil society, economic plunder, and the ‘denigration of popular forces” (pp.2-5). The adoption of “statism” (state intervention in the economic sphere) as a model for economic development, by some African leaders, failed to deliver the promises of the nationalist elite especially promises of reduction of poverty and the development of all sectors of the national economy. The adoption of “statism” as a favored model for economic development, the editors further contend, “actually exacerbated the many problems that have plagued the continent since colonialism” (p.5).
The editors, however, concur that the neo-colonial states (states under the artificial control of local elite), in the continent, were never hegemonic, and clearly lacked the legitimacy to enforce the rules that would promote the development agenda of the nationalist elite. By hegemonic, I presume the editors mean the lack of state autonomy from the former colonial bosses and the various local oligarchies including the national and comprador bourgeoisies. The new elite governed, the editors further argue, to the extent that they can garner brute force to maintain order in addition to exploiting old primordial loyalties to sustain themselves in power. Elite rule thus became a macabre of authoritarian dictatorships and personal dynasties like the case of Mobutu Sese Zeko in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), and other military despots across the continent.
The authors attribute the failure of the states and democratic transition in Africa, to the lack of institutional arrangements that would provide for peaceful co-existence among different ethnic nationalities, and the absence of adequate mechanisms for creating structures that would allow for popular participation in politics. They recommend “democratic constitutionalism”, (which I take to mean the ‘good’ old western liberal democracy that has failed Africa woefully in the past), as the surest way of guaranteeing “bottom-up” reconstruction of the post-colonial states into state forms that would enfranchise the masses. “Democratic Constitutionalism”, the authors insist, would provide African states with “laws and institutions that would enhance peaceful co-existence of population groups, adequately constrain state actors (my words), and provide the environment for the creation of wealth that the people need to meet their needs (sic.) (pp.8). The overall task set for the contributors, in the various chapters, is to engage in analysis that would provide the basis for the transformation of the post-colonial states in Africa into independent states that would “provide transparent, accountable, and participatory governance structures and resource allocation systems that guarantee economic freedom” (pp. xi). Case studies are drawn from Zambia (Ihonvbere), Cameroon (Natang Jua), Nigeria (Isumonah), Benin Republic (Kunle Amuwo), The Gambia (Abdoulaye Saine), Liberia (George Kieh, Jr.), Democratic Republic of the Congo (Osita G. Afoaku), Malawi (Ihonvbere), South Africa (Roger Southhall), Eritrea (Kidane Mengisteab) and Zambia (Sam Moyo). Many of these chapters were already published in one form or the other; nevertheless all the contributors should be commended for their rigorous and thorough analysis of the failure of the post-colonial states in Africa. The bulk of the research in this volume was based on both primary and secondary sources, and the bibliographical entries covered a wide range of scholarship that had been produced on Africa over the past twenty or so years by noted authors. That much said, there are some unanswered questions in this volume, especially issues of theoretical concerns. Besides the theoretical questions, the eleven-point recommendations by the authors in the introductory chapter are nothing new; they are precisely a rehearsal of the UN Millennium goals.
The recognition of the gender issues by the editors, and the necessity to address these issues, is very laudable indeed given the fact that most African scholars (including this reviewer), have marginalized such issues in their works. However, situating the African crises in the context of corruption and the attitudes of the elite towards personal accumulation misses the crucial point of the reasons for the failure of modern African states to transition into independent statuses.
Historically, the granting of independence was largely a farce as independence only encompassed the transfer of political power to local elites whose charge was to continue to pledge their allegiance to the former colonial powers. With the exception of revolutionary states like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and to some extent, petty bourgeois states like Ghana and Tanzania, under Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, political independence in much of Black Africa only reinforced the historic link of dependence between the former colonies and the imperialist metropolitan states of Europe. It is the same neo-colonial structure that essentially produced the likes of Mobutu in Zaire, Idi Amin in Uganda, Omar Bongo in Gabon, Gerry Rawlings in Ghana, and Sani Abacha in Nigeria. Therefore, analyzing the crises of transition in Africa in terms of elite conduct is ahistorical at best, and such analysis only reinforces the mentality that Africans are incapable of ruling themselves. By underplaying the structural determinants of the African problematic, Ihonvbere and Mbakwu, situate their work within the theoretical framework that is characteristics of petty-bourgeois scholars like Larry Diamond, George B. Ayittey, and other political modernization theorists.
It must be stressed that the neo-colonial states, in their present forms in Africa, are playing their historic roles of perpetuating European domination (and in the case of South Africa, Boer hegemony), and they can only be transformed through popular uprisings and not by any “democratic constitutionalism” as proposed by the editors of this volume. However, this popular transformation of both the economic and political terrains in Africa will be determined largely by the extent to which Euro-American imperialism, which relies on the fostering of global apartheid (driven by white supremacy ideology), will allow such a radical transformation in Africa.
Despite my reservations about the theoretical underpinnings, the editors of this volume, and its previous companion one, should be enthusiastically applauded for this project written entirely by Africans themselves, especially for their boldness in raising critical issues about the African conditions which are often taken for granted in western academic circles. This volume, and its companion volume, will be useful for scholars and students interested in the complicated politics of Africa and its crisis of political transition. It would also most certainly be a good resource text for students in Africana studies, politics, African history, African historiography, and African political economy.
Pade Badru University of Maryland
Ayittey, George B. (1992). Africa Betrayed. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Ayittey, George B. (2005). Africa Unchained. Palgrave McMillan: New York.
Badru, Pade (1998). Imperialism and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, 1966-1996. African World Press: Trenton, New Jersey.
Diamond, Larry (1967). “Class Formation in a Swollen State” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, 25(4), pp. 567-596.
Lewis, Peter (1998). Africa: Dilemmas of Development and Change. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Sandbrook, Richard (1985). The Politics of Africa’s Economic Stagnation. Cambridge University Press.