on 10 January 2013
What could be more natural than the nation-state? Don't people who share a common language, ethnicity, and religion deserve to form their own state? Not so fast, says Basil Davidson. Davidson's main argument in 'The Black Man's Burden' is that the European model of the nation state is alien to Africa. By foisting this model on African states, the colonial powers disrupted precolonial African institutions which had checked executive power. The result of this disruption has been catastrophic for Africa.
Basil Davidson (1915-2010) was one of the finest Africanists of his generation. Indeed, he became a trusted and effective populariser of African history. An independent and original thinker, he challenged the assumption among Western historians that Africa had no history before European colonisation. In the wake of nineteenth-century imperialism, European intellectuals, according to Davidson, had forgotten their history of contact (in the fifteenth and sixteenth century) with well-run African empires like the Bakongo, The Benin and the Mali empires.
Davidson argues that European amnesia regarding African history provided a convenient justification for European imperialism, usually dressed up in humanitarian garb. Since Africans had no history, Europe, in this narrative, had a duty to bestow upon those benighted Africans with the benefits of Christianity and civilisation? That should have been plain for all to see.
Perhaps more insidiously, the erosion of precolonial institutions led to a loss of confidence among Africans. In the course of the nineteenth-century, a class of Westernised Africans arose. They were usually ex-slaves returned to Africa or Africans who were trained in London and Paris. The 'recaptives' became deracinated; they began to see that Africa's salvation lay not in the comatose precolonial institutions, but in European models of governance. But how should they import European modes of thought to a predominantly rural Africa?
Fast forward to the 1950s. A wave of decolonisation is sweeping across Africa. The new Westernised elite is poised to assume power. But all is not well. The nation state, initially conceived as an expression of rejection of colonial oppression, is transformed into a clientelist state. The rest is history.
DOES IT MAKE SENSE?
My initial reaction to the misery I see in post-colonial African states is to blame poor African leadership. Hence, I did not agree with Davidson. However, upon further reflection, I see the power of Davidson's thesis: institutions matter. Leaders, being human, are subject to the institutions (ideas, culture, laws) extant in their societies. And institutions have lasting power. If the nation state, which was an instrument of wealth extraction, passed from Europeans to local African elite, is it reasonable to assume that - on average - the extraction would disappear overnight?
The case of Botswana supports Davidson's thesis. In Botswana, the British never really disrupted the peoples' pre-colonial institutions by which leaders' executive power was restrained. According to Robinson and colleagues, who wrote an influential paper in 2003 on Botswana. [...], the British colonial office appeared to have ignored Botswana because it did not hold the promise of mineral wealth. (See also 'Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson). Therefore, at independence, there was consensus among Botswana's elite on who would be Prime Minister and how the fruits of modernisation would be shared. The country has enjoyed 50 years of stability since. Unfortunately, most of Africa has not been that lucky.
Davidson's writing style is sometimes too stodgy for my taste. He uses too many sub-ordinate clauses, which obscure his meaning. Nevertheless, he often conveys his message with considerable wit. For instance, speaking about the 1970s in Africa, he writes on page 222: '...this was a time when the devil could and did take the hindmost, and shake the living daylights out of hope and wish'. A charming metaphor, if I ever heard one.
Despite 30years of post-independence failure, the book (written in 1992) concludes on an optimistic note. Davidson knew that African societies could not turn back the hand of time to precolonial times. He hoped that after the end of the Cold War African nation states would start serving the needs of the citizens - and start on the path to economic growth. I imagine that the recent high economic growth rates across Africa would have pleased Basil Davidson.
Basil Davidson was a first-rate Africanist with an unparalleled understanding of history. In 'The Black Man's' Burden he produced a compelling narrative of African history that is as relevant today as it was in 1992. The past, it seems, is never dead.