The states of Africa are Africa's burden

Monday Book Review

August 17, 1992|By Elena L. Berger

THE BLACK MAN'S BURDEN: AFRICA AND THE CURSE OF THE NATION-STATE. By Basil Davidson. Times Books. 355 pages. $24.

THERE are many possible explanations for Africa's present predicament, but Basil Davidson focuses on a fundamental one -- the type of state African countries inherited from their colonial masters at independence.

This is well-trodden ground, but recent events have given Mr. Davidson new material to add to conventional views about the partition of the continent. He draws interesting parallels between Africa and Eastern Europe, pointing out that nation-states there are also "on the rocks," failures resulting from grand political experiments that proved over time to be shaky. Whether under capitalism or socialism, rulers were capable of manufacturing national political units that resulted in eventual collapse.

The author discusses at length what was so attractive about the idea of a nation-state in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The concept helped to unify Italy; pulled together disparate elements in Hungary and in Romania; and, at the other end of the spectrum, was used to impose order on unruly Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian example, playing out before us now, shows the worst-case results of creating a state where no lasting basis for national unity exists.

Nationalism, the book stresses, is an ambiguous creed. It can be a source of strength, but also a source of destruction if national feeling does not exist within the defined state boundaries. Just as bad, if national pride develops into expansionary aims, neighbors are endangered.

Turning to Africa from his Eastern European examples, Mr. Davidson says that the establishment of the nation-state there was "an enormous invitation to disaster." Educated Africans, as well as the colonial masters, accepted the concept as modern and desirable, even though it bore no real relation to traditional African patterns of political organization.

It is well known that the boundaries of many African countries are arbitrary lines drawn on the map in colonial times, frequently by agreement among competing European powers. These artificial lines bore no relation to ethnic or other local factors, cutting across tribes and established economic relationships with casual precision -- at least on paper.

In due course the colonial powers, where they made any thoughtful provision at all, encouraged the establishment of "nations" within the state boundaries, and in the struggle for independence African nationalists accepted the concept. The new elites, after seizing power, protected their own interests and often ignored the majority of the people.

Some rural people, as Mr. Davidson notes, have been able to ignore the government. Although there was a pronounced flow of population from the countryside to the towns, where European ways had influence and African traditions grew weaker, in the remote rural areas the central government had limited authority. In many places governments still cannot control their borders, and local people act as though they did not exist. Smuggling is so widespread that in some cases it causes serious losses of foreign exchange and revenue. Smugglers in Nigeria, for example, send large quantities of agricultural produce and petroleum across porous borders into neighboring countries.

Mr. Davidson gives only vague suggestions about how Africa might have developed without the nation-state, hinting at lost possibilities for regional federation and the use of old consensus values. His "meditation" on the unsatisfactory political modernization of the continent rehashes old history. His timing, however, is perfect. This highly critical account of the way Western political thought was carried wholesale into Africa comes just as we are embarking on a far-reaching new Western political experiment there.

Throughout Africa, aid donors are now insisting on democratization in exchange for new money. Just as the idea of the nation-state once seemed modern and appropriate, now democracy is the watchword of development.

The replacement of dictatorships and one-party states with democratically elected governments seems a reasonable step forward. But just as the nation-state was a nebulous concept, adaptable to many circumstances but trailing intrinsic problems, democratization in Africa is a vague idea that could have

unexpected and unsettling outcomes.

Elena L. Berger has written about colonial rule in Africa. She lives in Baltimore.

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