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Date: Mon, 27 Nov 1995 20:36:28 GMT-5
Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@msu.edu>
Organization: East Tennessee State University
Subject: QUERY: Democracy in Africa

Democracy in Africa

A dialog on the H-Africa list
27 November 1995

From: Robert Hess, Messiah College <hess@MCIS.MESSIAH.EDU>
Date: Mon, 27 Nov 1995

The execution of Sero-Wiwa and eight others in Nigeria has set me to thinking about the difficulty which African countries are having in moving to more democratic structures. At the same time news came from Nigeria, I was reading and article in the *Journal of Contemporary African Studies* by Wim van Binsbergen entitled "Aspects of Democracy and Democratisation in Zambia and Botswana."

This article reinforced my awareness that traditional African societies had important democratic features, albeit not the representative democratic forms touted in Western cultures, but democratic nevertheless.

I also am aware that colonialized and poverty stricten peoples in Asia have been able to find their way toward contemporary democratic governments. Furthermore, eastern European poeples have struggled through to democratic structures is spite of pressures from their former Soviet neighbor. Romania is an example of where this took place against a repressive dictatorship.

My musings went deeper into the Nigerian situation. I am aware that the old Habe kingdoms were always subject to the tempering effects of their princes; Habe kings could not be tyrants, at least not until they began to come into possession of guns and other weapons. It was then that they became tyrannical, and it was then that they faced the challenged of the Fulani revolt.

What I find interesting in this is that that revolt resulted in the successful establishment of the "Fulani Empire," and that it did so by applying the ideals of an alien set of political and religious principles---that of Islam.

So why do Africans, in spite of traditional patterns of democracy and in spite of 30 to 35 years of independent rule, have so much difficulty? More importantly, what are the prospects that they will be able to do it in the near future?

As one who lived in Nigeria during the 1960s and who felt the pain of the initial series of coups, I continue to seek for explanations. It is for that reason that I raise these issues for our discussion.

Date sent: Tue, 28 Nov 1995
From: George Steffen, Tacoma School District <gws@wolfe.net>
Folks, at the risk of resurrecting the epic discussions about "tribes" that went on earlier, it strikes me that 35 years of independence is hardly enough time to work out the effects of the mingling and muddling left by nearly 100 years (+ or -) of colonial experience.

The policies which established the colonial states simply chopped up pre-colonial societies and then artificially pressed them together. I'm not aware of colonial policies which allowed these peoples to work out who and what they were to each other.

The primary focus of these peoples seems to have been how to survive or limit the colonial powers. Especially among the British, divide and conquer tended to be the policy of choice which usually leaves a legacy of considerable nastiness among the legaties.

The differences between peoples such as the Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani (an interesting melange in and of itself) make ideas like democracy difficult to actualize.

Following the American Revolution, the United States was governed by a set of agreements called the Articles of Confederation. For a variety of reasons, these agreements didn't work. There were shutdowns, rebellions, and refusals to recognize currencies and laws between states.

All this was among a people with a fairly homogeneous population, language and history. It led to a second, if legal, revolution - The Constitution. However, that was not birthed easily either.

So, the idea and practice of democracy comes hard. Bringing it to fruition among peoples with so many differences increases the problems tremendously. Trying to do so in the face of political and economic pressures from abroad and blandishments to cut huge deals for precious resources in the face of domestic reactions. Ah, now there is a scenario for a train ride through chaos, if not hell.

I would humbly suggest that the scholars on this net have a powerful public potential. The events in many African nations cry out for clarification. The American and European publics know so little about these nations that they easily fall back upon aged half-truths and prejudices.

Perhaps one or another of scholarly associations focused on Africa can pool its resources and establish a writers/speakers bureau - a focal point to which the media can turn in order to give stories and opinions a foundation in the best scholarship available. Bureaus such as this sprung up on several campuses during the Vietnam conflict and offered clarity when it was sorely lacking.

Please forgive my lengthy response to Mr. Hess, but the subject has been on my mind for a long time.

Date sent: Tue, 28 Nov 1995
From: Gordon Thomasson, SUNY-Broome Comm. College <THOMASSON_G@sunybroome.edu>

While I wish I had a more optimistic note to sound, I would say that a sort of comparative view of the development of nations is in order. The stereotyped third world country has been independent for how long? And what was the real, rather than the Parson Weems' idealized view of American (U.S.A.) history by comparison?

From the Whisky Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition acts through the Dred Scott decision, Bleeding Kansas, the "Civil" War and the constant warfare against indigenous peoples (to name but a few of countless items), if we generalize from the first century of U.S. history nation-building is not an easy process, especially in the aftermath of colonialism and within an essentially dependent economic context (as especially the American South was).

Put another way, in the late 50s and early 60s my image of political instability was that of the "banana republic" where revolutions happened "all the time." Then one day in 1968 I realized that here in the good old U.S.A. I had lived through more high level political assasinations (including MLK in that category) than had occurred in most Middle and South American nations combined in the same time period.

Today, my view is that considering where they "started" (no or little middle class, highly dependent economies with infrastructure built around resouorce extraction and at the mercy of antagonistic market forces, manipulated by both sides through most of their post-colonial existence in a game of cold-war chess--Somalia and Ethiopia come to mind first here, etc., etc.), most of the nations of Africa are doing no worse than the U.S. did.

That's not to say that I don't want things to improve 1,000 times faster than they are--of course I do. Too many of my friends and colleagues have suffered and died to want the insanity to go on one second more. But that said, what are realistic expectations about the possible rate of healing of wounds that were inflicted over centuries?

How long, if ever, can we expect it to take to unite peoples who were governed under a policy of divide and conquer? What does it take to turn a shotgun marriage into a love match? I agonize, but I do not despair. It is far too soon for the latter attitude. And when I consider separatist demands in Quebec and the prospect of devolution in nation-states around the world--even those "established" for centuries--I wonder whether hoping for "them" to find peace by becoming like "us" might not be the worst possible alternative.