Date: Mon, 27 Nov 1995 20:36:28 GMT-5
Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@msu.edu>
From: H-AFRICA---Mel Page <AFRICA@ETSUARTS.EAST-TENN-ST.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.