|Compared to Syria, Libya is a paradise. I am always amazed by the "anti-imperialist" warnings that Syria might end up like Libya if not for the intervention of Russia, Iran and Hizbollah. Talk about political psychosis.
With respect to Libya, there is no getting the genie into the bottle. Contradictions that existed before Gaddafi were suppressed under his dictatorship, especially regional rivalries that were a function of the creation of an artificial state after the fashion of most African nations.
This is the best analysis of a long-standing problem:
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft;
Published: May 17, 1992
THE BLACK MAN'S BURDEN Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. By Basil Davidson.
355 pp. New York: Times Books/Random House. $24.
SOMETHING has gone horribly wrong with Africa, and anyone who knows and loves the continent must have wondered what. Few know Africa better -- or have been thinking and writing about it longer -- than Basil Davidson. He is an Englishman, a journalist and an author (I am happy to say) rather than an academic, though he has been a visiting professor at a number of American colleges; he is also a man of the Old Left. Born in 1914, he served with distinction in World War II, ending as a lieutenant colonel with decorations from the British, American and Yugoslav Governments. He saw action as a liaison officer with Tito's partisans, and became something of a revolution groupie: his first book was "Partisan Picture" in 1946, followed by "Daybreak in China."
But Mr. Davidson really lost his heart to another continent. In the introduction to his new book, "The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State," he touchingly describes his first sight of Africa during the war. After it ended, he made himself an expert on the continent, and has published more than 20 books on Africa. He had two themes, the continent's past and its future.
The first theme was that Europe had not only conquered and colonized Africa, but had robbed it of its past. As late as 1963, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper took a different view, stating, "Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness." It was Mr. Davidson's task to confute that.
Africa, he insisted, had its own history, it had its own cultures, it had its own nations. He once wrote that in the 13th century, "the scholarship of Timbuktu and Djenne could probably have given points to that of Oxford and Cambridge." As for one particular derogatory distinction, he asked, "Isn't it mere mystification to describe a typical European people, with all their xenophobia, group ambition, and sense of exclusive pride as a nation , while reserving the word tribe ('primitive' or 'barbarous' being understood) for a people like the Yoruba?"
The second theme was that Africa could have a glorious future once liberated from European colonialism. He befriended many anticolonial and revolutionary leaders, and in one book after another he has saluted them and the new societies they were building.
He has now had to face some truths and does so honestly: the future he foresaw has not been so glorious. The "dreadful 1980's" have left large parts of Africa prostrate. Mr. Davidson concedes that many countries are actually worse off now than under colonialism. He could have emphasized this more strongly still. The British colony of Northern Rhodesia, for example, was not in bad economic shape when it became independent Zambia in 1964. Then it went downhill, slowly at first, more rapidly in the last dreadful decade, when the country's per capita income fell by a third while its rate of infant mortality doubled. How have things gone so terribly awry? Mr. Davidson's "meditation on the nature of the African experience" since independence tries to come to terms with this failure, but only partly succeeds.
In this effort, Mr. Davidson's authentic love of Africa and the Africans is a strength, and a weakness. He lays much stress on the vitality and creativity of traditional African societies, maybe too much. It is easy to sympathize with African resentment of the attitude epitomized by Mr. Trevor-Roper, or for that matter by Saul Bellow asking, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" All the same, some of Mr. Davidson's comparisons are plain incautious. He describes the Ashanti people of what is now Ghana in the 18th and 19th centuries, rightly saying that their polity and culture were vibrant and attractive (like, one might note, Celtic Ireland eight centuries earlier).
Yet he won't leave it there. In England's history, he says, the rivalry between economic tradition and progress was settled "by 40 or so years of internal strife and civil war after 1642, leaving England . . . to open wide the gates to private enterprise and capitalist supremacy." This, he suggests, might have happened to the Ashanti if the Europeans had not arrived. But (one feels like Bellowing) this was the England of Cromwell and Charles II, already the most powerful trading nation on earth, whose fleets traveled from America to Africa to Asia; not to say the England of "Paradise Lost" and the "Principia Mathematica," of "Dido and Aeneas" and St. Paul's Cathedral. What sense does it make to compare it with any West African society -- and what sort of favors can such comparisons do Africa?
Mr. Davidson presents another, maybe more illuminating, running comparison between Europe and Africa, concerning the conflict between tradition, which might be nourishing, and modernity, which might be necessary. The trouble, Mr. Davidson maintains, is that modernization had to mean the alienation of those Africans whom the French used to call evolues (from the time the first Africans were educated or evolved on the European pattern). Although this is obviously true, it is hard to see how alienation could have been avoided -- or why, in fact, it was undesirable for Africa's culture or cultures to collide with the much more economically advanced culture of Europe. After all, such a collision of cultures has happened throughout the world and throughout history. Just the same alienation could have been seen 2,000 years ago when the rude Celtic and Germanic tribesmen (and let's call them that) who were Mr. Davidson's and my forebears were educated, assimilated and evolved by the Roman imperialists.
In several long digressions into European history, Mr. Davidson wonders why the evolution of nationhood followed different courses on the two continents, why only Africa saw a breach between a people's own history and their eventual nation-statism. The short answer, which he hesitates to spell out, is that the nation-state in Africa was completely artificial.
The difference between the country of those Celtic and Germanic tribesmen and almost any African country is that Celts, Saxons and Normans became an undoubted nation-state called England only after an immensely long drawn-out process. So it was with other true European nation-states. Indeed, those that were formed more recently in Europe and more quickly have proved less durable. Having fought with the partisans to create Titoist Yugoslavia, Mr. Davidson finds it understandably painful to watch that country's break-up. He grieves for the partisan ideals "of brotherhood and unity, such as could and did rise above old [ national ] conflicts," which is not quite how others have seen that country's sorry history.
IN noticing the illness, or the "curse" of his subtitle, Mr. Davidson is entirely right. It is not just a question of one-party against multiparty states, or socialist against free-market states, though it must be said, as Conor Cruise O'Brien pointed out seven years ago, that "not all the capitalist states have been successful, but . . . 'African socialism' has no success stories to tell. I say this not because I wish to make a fashionable Reaganite point but because it is true, and important."
The "nation-states" of post-colonial Africa can only be called that by misleading metaphor or false analogy. Almost none of them are nations, and very few are truly states. The outline of the story is not difficult to grasp. During their scramble for Africa, which took place with remarkable rapidity in the last decades of the 19th century, the European powers grabbed vast chunks of territory, partitioning Africa in entirely arbitrary fashion. Three generations later, it was these colonial units that became the basis for the new states of independent Africa when it was decolonized in the 1950's and 60's. And it is these states that have patently failed.
It was a strange business. Europe conquered Africa "in a fit of absence of mind," as an old line had it. Within less than 100 years Europe got out again, still absent-mindedly, not having made these territories nation-states but simply having declared them to be so, as if that could do the trick. They had bicameral legislatures (complete in the case of former British colonies with periwigged Speakers), they had supreme courts, they had constitutions guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion. They had every appearance of being modern, constitutional states -- and no reality.
It was as though a visiting troupe of Noh players had arrived in some small town in the American Midwest, given a couple of performances and gone away expecting the townspeople to perform the same pieces in the future and get every nuance right. The idea was so absurd as to take the breath away. And yet Mr. Davidson still has trouble completely grasping this. Marxist theory used to look forward to the withering away of the state. Mr. Davidson doesn't quite foresee that in Africa. But he does hope that, despite the years of despotism and corruption, "the era of mass participation in the political process was about to begin" (in the words of the historian Roland Oliver). And more than that, Mr. Davidson hopes for "a gradual dismantlement of the nation-statist legacy derived from imperialism," leading to "participatory structures within a wide regionalist framework."
The deeper truth is that the state as an institution has failed Africa, and it might be wondered in all seriousness whether many African lands and their peoples could actually be worse off without states at all. If the Congo, now Zaire, had not been a "state" for the last 30 years, some people might be worse off, notably President Mobutu Sese Seko with his reputed fortune of $4 billion in Swiss banks. But would the same be true for the masses whom decolonization was meant to benefit?
It seems to me that it would have been better for Africa if it had never been conquered and partitioned in the first place -- or if the European imperialists had stayed a good deal longer than they did. Assuming that the state is on balance a benevolent institution (and that is quite an assumption) we can see that states generally work only in the long term if they are authentic organic growths. If Africa had never been "discovered" by Europe, or if the European empires had stayed in Africa as long as the Roman empire stayed in what were to become the nation-states of France, Spain and England, then the outcome would surely now be happier.
As it is, Africa remains a tragedy. It may yet develop the indigenous institutions, true nation-states among them, that could rescue it. But there is an awfully long way to go.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a columnist for several London newspapers and the author of "The Randlords," a history of South Africa's mining magnates.