Basil Davidson’s The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State

A Review by Derrick Grose, October 20, 1999

Basil Davidson’s The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State refutes any claim that Africa is condemned to endless political and economic turmoil as a consequence of any inherit defect in African culture or indigenous African politics. He asserts that indigenous political systems with checks and balances on power were evolving in the years before Europe intruded in Africa and that contemporary Africans can draw on their own experience to develop grass-roots political structures appropriate to Africa. Davidson blames many of the political weaknesses of Africa on the pace of change and the alienation of political structures from the lives and needs of the population. He identifies the nation-state as a European structure that is at the root of many of Africa’s problems. He points out that it has not always worked well, even in Europe, and that the prototypical European nation-states, England and France, are evolving within the context of the E.E.C.. Davidson pins his hopes for the future of Africa on more participatory political structures, recognizing real differences through decentralized federal structures that will be based on the realities of Africa rather than some colonial legacy.

The historian begins his discussion with biographical information explaining the roots of his interest in Africa. Although it is not immediately apparent, this biographical information is related to his thesis. He describes his experiences as a military intelligence officer in eastern Europe at the beginning of World War II. Later he will discuss in more detail the parallels between eastern Europe and Africa in terms of the dangers of the nation-state as a remedy to imperialism. He also describes his own first experiences in Africa to demonstrate a widespread ignorance of Africa’s history. This ignorance feeds into assumptions about Africa’s political problems being rooted in indigenous African tribalism. He suggests that the problems are rooted in alienation from African culture; however, there is always hope because even when he found himself stranded in limbo in a Lagos devoid of African identity, "the ancestors were still around to speed [him] on his way." (Davidson, 6) He suggests that the same ancestors could speed the continent on its way if the principles by which they governed the continent can be rediscovered.

Davidson explains that the educated African elite who aspired to self-governance were alienated from their own history. These would become the people of the mission in Soyinka’s Aké. Many of them were "Recaptives" who had been enslaved by Africa, liberated by Europe and resettled in Sierra Leone or Liberia so they adopted nineteenth century European liberal ideas including the nation-state. Alienated from Africa, they become the agents of "Christianity and Constitution." (Davidson, 27) Known as "Saro" (Yoruba) or "Aku" (Igbo) they returned to their African homes as missionaries or, sometimes, in the colonial administration, often after being well educated overseas. James Horton Africanus, a British trained physician from Sierra Leone exemplified this goups. Trained in the middle years of the eighteenth century to serve in the Colonial Army’s Medical Service, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He advocated different kingdoms and republics along British model for Africa. Africans of his sort were spurned British colonial policy makers who reduced the proportion of Blacks in senior administrative positions. By 1909, they had recommended that Blacks should be excluded from medical service or at least put on separate roster from whites. (Davidson, 35-36) Ironically, the colonial power was reluctant to transfer power to the advocates of modernization. Instead, the colonial government chose to rule through traditional structures, the acknowledged chiefs, such as the Alake in Aké . As Achebe describes the process in Arrow of God, they even imposed these structures where they did not exist. Unlike the Japanese who modernized within their own cultural structures after the Meiji Restoration in Japan in 1867 Africans experienced dispossession. The guardians of tradition became the agents of foreign domination and those who wanted to modernize their continent were relegated to the periphery as trouble-makers and, in later years, "Communists." There was no consideration of how an independent, modern African nation should be formed although the foundations for such a nation could have been discovered in African history.

Such a discovery was unlikely in a colonial context. As Davidson implied in his introduction, European observers sometimes regarded African societies as stagnant and traditional leaders often resisted change. The African "recaptive" elite chose to reject their own history although it could have been a valuable resource. Davidson cites the example of the Akan of Ghana. In the 1690’s Agyei Frimpon – Okomfoe (Priest) Anokye – arrived to unite the Asante clans. At this time the Golden Stool (Sikwa Dwa) – of spiritual rather than bureaucratic significance - descended from the sky to knees of King Osei Tutu – containing sunsum, soul or spirit, of the Asante nation. With this symbol came the development of the Constitution of 77 Laws. This political structure was sufficiently flexible to accommodate a period of expansion while enabling the population of Asante to "participate meaningfully and effectively in politics." (Davidson, 59) Non-Akan subject people retained their own identities (Davidson, 59) but all participated in the Odwira or National Yam Festival. At the same time a sort of representative assembly met reflecting a systemic distrust of power which was "used and abused" in Asante as in other countries. This nation was not unresponsive to "marginal advantage" and resistant to change but it was denied the opportunity to evolve by the disruptions of the slave trade and eventual colonial absorption. There was a rising asikafo or commercial class in Asante but they were prevented from acquiring power when royal monopolies were supported by partnership with colonial commercial interests. These same foreign interests ultimately betrayed their allies when granting independence to new nation states. The King of Asante refused to attend independence celebrations in Ghana. ( Davidson, 73) Similarly in Nigeria, King Ja Ja of Opobo and others who might have been the "middle class" nation builders of Africa were exiled by Britain to protect commercial interests. Urban drift was feared as a threat to the economic and political balance of colonial power more than as a social problem. In Davidson’s words, "the British had frozen the indigenous institutions at the same time robbed colonized peoples of every scope and freedom for self-development." (Davidson, 72) Africans were denied the opportunities to re-form their societies in a way consistent with their own environment and experience.

Pre-colonial tribes were nations with experience in governing themselves in a way appropriate to their environment since the first farming communities had developed on the continent around 6000 B.C.. This experience was ignored when power was given to legal and constitutional experts with a European orientation. Many African societies had developed into myth based participatory polities with distrust of executive power. For example, the Igbo resisted chiefs and kings even when the British tried to impose them. The Yoruba myth of origin legitimized regional distribution of power; it was a "Charter for the rulers, the descendents of Oduduwa." It built in checks and balances on power with the Alafin or king, the Oyo Mesi or big men from big families and the Ogboni Society which provided access to power by new groups. (Davidson, 87) The balance of power was distorted by colonialism. The colonial mentality dismissed ethnic diversity as "tribalism." Ethnic units were grouped together into tribes for administrative convenience (Davidson, 100). These groupings became tools to amplify the group’s political voice in post colonial clientelist political structures. Differences were masked during the social struggle against colonialism but they emerged within the structure of the nation-state imposed with independence to serve the commercial interests of colonial powers.

Davidson demonstrates that the problematic aspects of the nation state in Africa are paralleled in Europe As in Africa, nationalism in Italy and Germany united working and middle classes until the middle class gained power and then social objectives were largely abandoned. Romania was freed from Turkey in 1880 but its nationalism was born amongst exiles and after they obtained power the peasants were ignored. He later cites the dictatorial excesses of Ceasesçu to demonstrate the alienation the governors from the governed. Hungarian nationalism resulted in "forbidden nationalities" in the Magyar Republic and in response to this Serbian ethnic movements were formed. No lesson about the dangers of the nation state was learned from Serbian nation chauvanism, Croatian Nationalist Fascism or Hungarian anti-semitic nationalism. In the face of industrialism and capitalism "things fell apart" (Davidson, 139) in Europe giving rise to the nation-state and, indirectly, to the Second World War . A similar process took place in Africa only at a much faster pace.

What has been the result of the formation of nation-states based on colonial borders in Africa? The Republic of Benin flourished because the government was ignored. Potentially successful experiments in popular government in Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola were obstructed by foreign interference. In Congo-Brazzaville, the urban elite lived off oil revenue and foreign aid while the rural population struggled to survive. In Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko’s government virtually ignored the rural hinterland while enriching himself and an urban elite with mineral royalties and foreign aid. The 1980’s were "the Decade of the AK-47" in Uganda, Chad and Burundi. Davidson talks of "Pirates in Power" as a result of the alienation of government from the people. He describes the brutal murder of Samuel Doe in Liberia in 1990 as the product of the clientelist system. He refers to the brutality of Amin in Uganda, Bokassa in the Central African Republic, Macias-Nguema (Equatorial Guinea) as the consequence of alienation from restraints of tradition. He explains the conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus in Burundi as the result of a feudal relationship distorted by colonial power. U.S. support for UNITA in Angola , Soviet support for Mengistu in Ethiopia and South African Police tolerance of violence against the A.N.C. impeded change. .There was little preparation for independence because African "trouble-makers" were ignored until the last moment before colonial administrators dumped all of their problems into the laps of the leaders of the newly independent states. The nation-state has contributed to handicapping Africa with the continuing extraction of wealth has which did not cease with the transfer of power. The new nations were burdened with bureaucracy trained in authoritarian habits and practices, artificial borders, interest groups defined by those boundaries, petty bourgeois nationalism rooted in foreign capitalism, rivalry for resources that reinforced tribalism. Elitist rivalries rather than social goals motivated the national struggle. Foreign aid served import and export needs of former colonial powers and there was a loss of food production due to neglect of rural populations and outside political interference from both the East and West. The African-state as defined by the colonial powers was a burden to the leaders of "independent" Africa.

The ancestors may still be around to send Africa on its way, to give Africa the confidence to rebuild itself. He quotes Acehebe’s Anthills of the Savannah where failure of the state is attributed to loss of "vital links with the poor and dispossessed of the country" (Davidson, 290-291) Both neo-colonialist Africa and post-Stalinist Europe failed because of gap between government and people. Claude Ake writes, "Development has turned into concerted aggression against the common people, producing a theatre of alienation." (Davidson, 294) However, Davidson notes the success of mass movements such as those in Portuguese Colonial Africa that were empowered by moral legitimacy after moral order had been destroyed by colonialism. Under leaders such as Amílcar Cabril, using participaçao popular, PAIGC in Guinea and Cape Verde, FRELIMO in Mozambique and the MPLA in Angola were able to enjoy success in political reorganization despite interference from outside. Cape Verde and Eritrea are cited as examples of nations that have succeeded in connecting the government with the people. Elsewhere, more limited victories have been achieved. The Ethiopian dictatorship was overthrown in 1990. In Somalia the people have rejected the possibility of collective escape within the national structure imposed in colonial times; The cleiteleist dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote have been rejected in Uganda under Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement which has transferred considerable power to local committees. In 1981, Jerry Rawlings critique of top-down governmentt in Ghana resulted in increasing grass-roots participation in government. In Nigeria, Togo and Zaire voices are being raised against dictatorship. The pessimism inspired by tribal violence in Somalia and Sudan is offset by the hope inspired Ethiopia and Eritrea. Organization such as ECOWAS and South African Development Coordination Conference are seen as bridges over the divisions created by colonial powers. Africans are discovering solutions to their political problems.

In conclusion, having read The Black Man’s Burden, one almost hears the echo of the words of Olunde in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman:

You white races know how to survive; I’ve seen proof of that. By all logical and natural laws this war should end with all the white races wiping out one another, wiping out their so-called civilisation for all time and reverting to a state of primitivism the like of which has so far existed in your imagination when you thought of us. I thought all that at the beginning. Then I slowly realised that your greatest art is the art of survival. But at least have the humility to let others survive in their own way. (Soyinka 53)

Davidson shows how the nation-state has contributed to the evolution of Europe but not without catastrophic consequences most dramatically exemplified by the second world war. Europe is adjusting and may avoid self-destruction. Davidson’s hope is that Africa will be permitted to draw upon its own experience to find practical solutions to the problems that plague it largely as a result of the failure of the nation-states imposed on Africa as part of the colonial heritage. He emphasizes the need for African nations to be governed on the basis of their own moral principles derived from popular participation in government that will eventually dissolve the artificial boundaries of nation-states. There may be set-backs but there is also evidence of positive change.

Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980.

Ba, Amadou Hampate. The Fortunes of Wangrin. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Davidson, Basil. The Black Man’s Burden. New York: Times Books, 1992.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

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