Sunday, April 01, 2012

No Way Out? A Review Of Basil Davidson's "The Black Man's Burden: Africa And The Curse Of The Nation-State"

Imagine a well-meaning, concerned self-professed devout Muslim who produced a video about the Enron collapse. Calling the video Enron2012, the video's producer would still have ample access to people victimized by Enron's various criminal acts, out their life savings with no chance whatsoever of recovering them. Such a video, presented as the work of a group of Muslim adults and children concerned only for the cause of social justice, their hearts and minds with the victims of the massive fraud that was the essence of Enron - its only real business model - is offered to the world on YouTube as a way of raising awareness around the world about the silent victims of a gross injustice that can never be made right.

Most Americans would, I would think, be outraged at the ignorance, the ridiculousness, and the irrelevance of such a video. Which is not to say there aren't millions of Americans even now who turn red with rage when the word "Enron" is uttered. On the contrary, the lack of serious action against Enron, its managers and board of directors, or the accounting and investment firms that advised and oversaw its various alleged businesses, was a prelude to our on-going "Let It Be" attitude toward the perpetrators of what can only be called Enron, Part II, wherein massive business fraud nearly destroys not only the nation's but the world's economy and those who brought this about are not only still walking around free, but enjoying the fruits of their questionable business practices while millions continue to lose their homes, look for work that isn't there, and we face the prospect of a fourth year where, as should be clear by now, our economy does little to right itself.

Americans would be outraged at the thought that such a project reflected the reality within which they live, and rightly so. Without denying the gross injustices of the failure to punish Enron for its crimes, our demands would focus on our current reality, far different from a picture presented by such a well-meaning but ill-informed attempt by an outsider to paint a portrait of America as it is. Such, I submit, is the reason for the meteoric rise and fall of the Kony2012 project. In no small part due to the Ugandan people's demands that their current situation is far more complex, and in need of far different solutions, than the pursuit of a single criminal, what was meant as a sincere attempt to inform an ignorant United States of the depredations of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army has become a bad joke, a reflection of the ignorance and racism of white America.

An alternative "awareness-raising" project, while itself even more dated than the Kony2012 project, is Basil Davidson's The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. Published in 1992, the fruit of forty years studying and writing about the vagaries of a continent that went from imperialist playground to seed-bed of a world-wide hope for a new birth of freedom to a decrepitude borne of kleptocracy and a misnamed "tribalism" - Davidson prefers "clientelism", with overtones of a kind of gangsterism reminiscent of parts of ethnic enclaves in the US under the thumb of various organized crime syndicates - Davidson always maintains the tension inherent in any consideration of "Africa". A continent of over fifty nation-states, hundreds of recognized indigenous ethnic and national groupings, whose record of achievement prior to the arrival of European traders in the mid-15th century is remarkable precisely for the many environmental and political burdens they faced on a continent not having vast stretches of arable land, whose jungles harbored death in a variety of diseases unknown anywhere else, and yet who nevertheless managed to create stable polities, some vast that lacked the one thing the Europeans had - an ability and willingness to dehumanize, dispossess, and kill on a scale Africans, in their dealings with Arab and Indian traders, had yet to experience.

Davidson's thesis is a simple one, if in need of a bit of historical explication. Using a variety of examples, principally from British West Africa - Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria in particular - Davidson paints a picture of populations, under pressure from foreign trade missions yet willing to deal with them on the basis of equality that are at first gradually then, in the 1890's quite rapidly, ignored as indigenous homelands are, one after another, invaded, their lands stolen, their traditional rights and privileges stolen, and every scrap of wealth wrung from both land and people with neither consent nor return, only to be told, in the decade of independence from the mid-1950's through the mid-1960's, they were now on their own. In the intervening decades, Africans were told they had no history, no society, no political sense, nothing of value in their own experience from which to draw to set about the difficult task of creating nations they could call their own.

This old-wives tale - that Africa is a land without a history - was bought by the few lucky Africans allowed to study in London and Edinburgh, in Paris and Brussels, who returned to their homeland flush with the lessons drawn from Europe's torturous centuries of assembling itself in to a rough, working continent of two dozen or so nation-states, each sovereign in respect to its laws and traditions, whose inviolate rights to national integrity all other nation-states are bound to respect. The problem of the artificiality of the imperial borders, largely drawn in a happy ignorance of local realities, was something to be pushed down the road, something the new generation of state builders seemed would become a matter of course once constitutions were ratified, leaders were recognized, and treaties with fellow nation-states became ratified and part of local law. That this entire process ignored both the wishes and needs of the local populations was not even a matter to be discussed; the arrival of liberation meant, of course, the arrival of the nation-state, with all the demands of patriotic feeling and legal obligation inherent in devotion to one's homeland. One could be Asante, to be sure, as long as one were Ghanaian first.

Tacking a system of domestic and international governance on to the African reality that ignored both the local political realities, as well as the varieties of local needs, created, from the get-go, a situation in which the needs of the state became divorced from the needs of the society. The privileging of the nation-state, domestically and internationally, created the basis for the on-going troubles nations as different as Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique continue to face. That these allegedly sovereign nations operate without any regard for the needs of the people in whose names they supposedly govern, too often at the behest of the World Bank, the IMF, and transnational capital whether in corporate form or in the collective demands of the Chinese, whose presence across the continent is as much a cause for political concern as it is humanitarian concern, has become a truism without any more serious reflection among elites than the shrug that says, "It's Africa. What are you going to do?"

The alienation of Africans from their indigenous realities and histories wrought by indifferent imperial powers has led the great hope of liberation to sink in to the squalor of terror regimes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Uganda and Zaire, with much of the continent under the fiscal thumb of international and transnational finance who are all too willing to overlook local criminality as long as debt payments are made. Thus, the on-going situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in which a weak "national government" is in fact powerless to deal with invaders from Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, and other countries. The past decade has seen "Africa's World War", millions of deaths, principally in DRC, as these states have set up enclaves, for all intents and purposes, to rape the Congo of its natural wealth, particularly in mineral resources. That these "informal" economies and trade networks are tolerated, not least by international agencies allegedly in place to oversee "development" tells any even moderately intelligent observer they are as much a part of the problem as the various actors, too often labeled "warlords" and "tribal leaders" by outsiders who have no reason to look in a mirror and see the source of so much of the continent's misery.

Davidson's book was published in 1992. The intervening twenty years have, in many ways, borne out his thesis with a plethora of examples, from the Rwandan genocide to the collapse of Ivory Coast, through the short civil wars in Ghana and Kenya, to the barbarism and kleptocracy in Zimbabwe. At the same time, while the continent continues to be ravaged by environmental threats faced by no other land, from desertification to the ravages of diseases from AIDS and malaria through infant diarrhea and nodding sickness, there is the growing willingness of the African Union to demand states conform to some semblance of international norms, as was the recent case in Ghana, to the relative stability of states such as Tanzania and Botswana who demonstrate what might be possible given patience and imagination.

It would be easy to think of "Africa" as some odd, alien "other place", inhabited by strange beings possessing neither the skill nor imagination to overcome the many burdens, tricks, and traps placed in their way by, in turn, imperial powers bent on stealing as much native wealth as possible; by world powers who see in the continent the possibility of transferring at least some of their conflict as far from domestic eyes as possible; and neo-colonialist powers such as the IMF who govern with neither consent nor even jurisdiction, creating thriving cultures of theft and what Davidson calls "piracy" as well as the above-mentioned "clientelism" in order to fill foreign coffers with the stolen wealth from local inhabitants. The work goes a long way toward reminding readers that, being human living in communities that spanned hundreds of years of more or less stable continuity, the various indigenous polities of Africa could have been, and may yet be, a rich resource for a continent who reliance on the already senescent nation-state has failed it in every conceivable manner. This is not to argue for a return to some mythical status quo ante imperium. Rather, it is to remind readers that Africa is not without resources for extricating itself from the many burdens placed upon it over too many centuries of domination.

The recent introduction of some one hundred or so "American military advisers" on the prowl for Joseph Kony is reminder of how we continue to do precisely the wrong thing in regard to addressing local matters, wherever we insist on sticking our overlarge guns and noses. Which is not to say that the problems many places across the continent of Africa face are massive, and require not least assistance from outside, not least because so much indigenous wealth has been stolen over the centuries. It is only to suggest that the black man's burden will continue to be, as it has for far too long, outsiders who chase phantoms in the jungle while all the local people wish is to be left to live their lives, conduct their business, praise their gods, and conduct their affairs on their own terms.

Virtual Tin Cup

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