Things fall apart: Requiems for a country and for the dreams of a continent

July 19, 1992|By Antero Pietila


Basil Davidson.

Times Books.

355 pages. $24. The bottom-line question is this: How is it possible that just three decades after independence, so many African countries are in far worse shape than they ever were under colonial domination?

Zaire, for example, has been reduced from a productive colony known as Belgian Congo to a basket case: Beyond the capital city and a few other key centers, the government does not function. Worse yet, the countryside has been the object of systematic exploitation and neglect. The whole country now teeters on the verge of famine.

Except for the Congo River and erratic air links, few things unify Zaire. Of the 88,000 miles of road that the authoritarian but

well-ordered Belgians left behind in 1960, fewer than 12,000 miles are now usable.

After a lifetime of trying to understand and explain Africa, Basil Davidson, a British journalist and historian, comes to the conclusion that the continent's recent failures are largely due to modern ruling elites insisting on copying European models. Whether early colonists or indigenous nationalists fighting for freedom, those elites scorned local traditions. They "slavishly accepted" the nation states as the only desirable governmental model, without much caring whether it was suitable in conditions in which the initial borders had been drawn in an accidental fashion.

"This nation-statism looked like a liberation, and really began as one," Mr. Davidson writes. "But it did not continue as liberation.

"In practice, it was not a restoration of Africa to Africa's own history, but the onset of a new period of indirect subjection to the history of Europe. The fifty or so states of the colonial partition, each formed and governed as though their peoples possessed no history of their own, became fifty or so nation-states formed and governed on European models, chiefly the models of Britain and France. Liberation thus produced its own denial. Liberation led to alienation."

This is the central thesis of Mr. Davidson's provocative book. But if this is the problem, what, then, is the solution?

He offers no panaceas, just a hope that future African leaders would go a different route, creating more suitable governmental systems and structures to allow true mass-participation and power-sharing. He suggests "the invention of a state appropriate to a postimperialist future," saying, "To those who prudently reply that it can't be done, the answer will be that it can certainly be thought of."

Although Africa is the focus of Mr. Davidson's "meditation" -- as he calls it -- he in fact devotes most of the book to the changing nature of nationalism and state formation, drawing extensive parallels between European history and Africa.

He gives particular attention to the tortuous experience of such post-Versailles Eastern European countries as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. There, too, nation states replaced traditional power arrangements. There, too, populations grew skeptical of governments they saw as alien and lost faith, enabling fascist and communist dictators to take over.

And it isn't over yet. "In Eastern Europe, a philosopher-poet may become president of Czechoslovakia, but is Vaclav Havel more than a lucky chance?" Mr. Davidson wonders. "If a democratic Serbia could be engulfed by militarist dictatorship in the 1920s, could it not happen in the 1990s?"

Historic comparisons have their value, but aren't we talking about apples and oranges? Even Mr. Davidson is not quite certain, saying, "I am far from sure of this." Nevertheless, his book is an invigorating contribution to a debate that is increasingly topical now that contemporary African history is under review.

Most of the freedom fighters who became the pioneering independence-era political leaders are gone. As people in more and more African countries demand multi-party democracies, the policies of such founding-father presidents as Tanzania's Nyerere and Zambia's Kaunda are being reversed.

They insisted on creating one-party states in which muzzled criticism and governmental media monopoly led to widespread corruption and inefficiency. Would early political pluralism and free-market economies (instead of huge, unwieldy and nepotistic parastatals) have made those countries perform better?

These are questions that many African intellectuals now ponder. It will be interesting to see how they receive Mr. Davidson's book. After all, it can be argued that few African countries really followed a true Western European political model.

They may have started with British and French structures, but allowed them to be corrupted to suit Soviet-style policies, which were based on the unchallenged, centralized power of one party and its unquestioned leader. In copying Soviet policies, they also implanted that system's failures in their soil.

The attraction Africans saw in the Soviet Union was that not only had that country never been a traditional colonial power, but it had made great strides in industrialization in a very short period. Even now, many Africans openly say they miss the Soviet Union because it seemed to promise a working alternative to capitalism.

Some are now captivated by the Chinese experience, which also has achieved great things, even though at a terrible cost to human rights. The danger is, of course, that just as in the past, African countries will opt for seeking new foreign models for success instead of trying to develop their own.

Mr. Pietila is an editorial writer for The Sun and former correspondent in Africa and the Soviet Union.

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