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on 5 June 2008
Basil Davidson has committed his life to understanding and telling the truths, as he sees them, about Africa. In this work he examines the formation of modern African states. He argues that, contrary to popular opinion, pre-colonial African states existed which had the capacity to integrate themselves into the global order on their own terms. He dwells extensively on the Asante nation-state to illustrate the vibrancy of these states. This organic process would have led to a much more positive end (as it did in Japan following the Meiji reforms of the 1870s) but it was aborted by the invasion of Africa by Imperial powers (driven partly by greed and partly by a racist worldview) and the subsequent imposition of "alien" political structures, completely divorced from, and hostile towards, "traditional" African institutions and society.

Davidson further argues that the later nationalist campaign for independence was led mostly by descendants of recaptive Africans (i.e returned slaves) and other similarly Westernized Africans who, though fighting for "freedom", shared the colonizers core socio-political values and hence attitude towards pre-colonial African institutions. Independence, therefore, did not change the fundamental nature of the African state. It remained primarily a tool for expropriating resorces and executing the "top-down" modernization agenda of the ruling elite.

Tribalism, David continues, was a defensive strategy adopted by society in the face of the hostility of the state. He suggests that it developed in response to the rise of the slave trading state prior to colonialism and was maintained during colonial rule as part of a "divide-and-rule" policy. It turned particularly virulent after independence as the modern African state further developed the exploitative and oppressive nature of its colonial predecessor.

Davidson relies extensively on historical sources and scholarly research. He makes extensive comparisons between the history of nation-statism in Africa and in Eastern Europe. He succeeeds in providing a strikingly different and refreshing explanation for the plight of modern Africa. While he mostly focuses on analyzing the issue, in conclusion, Davidson suggests that dealing with Africa's problems would require the building of a more organic and genuinely participatory state, which is sincere in its devotion to its people.

This is an excellent book.
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on 1 September 2009
The Black Man's Burden is an account of the nation-state. Davidson's main concern is the African nation-state.

Davidson shows that Africans were experimenting with various forms of governance before European imperialism interrupted the process. Some African societies had recognisable nation-states on the European model. They had a monarch, a nobility, a judiciary, a military and a police force. An example of this is the Asante Kingdom. Davidson goes into great detail of the Asante Kingdom.

Other African societies had a republican or commonwealth model of governance. The European colonial powers were unfamiliar with these models of governance. They concluded that the Africans in these societies had no government.

The Europeans created new states which took no account of African history, tribal loyalties, or trading relationships. These new states served the purposes of the colonialists. The colonial subjects were made to provide free or nearly free labour to the new state. As a result, most colonial subjects tried their best to avoid any contact with the state.

After gaining independence the artificially created states were retained. Some African independence leaders were aware of the dangers inherent in these artificial states. These new states were inherently unstable. They did not command the loyalty of the majority of the rural population.

The newly independent nation-states just carried on where the colonial powers had left off. They continued to exhtort surpluses from the rural population to satisfy the needs of the urban population. As a result, the rural population continued to avoid any contact with the state. The majority of people continued to see the state as a predator.

Davidson compares the post-colonial nation-states of Central and Eastern Europe and those of Africa. The experiences and behaviours of the two sets of nation-states are uncannily similar.

Basil Davidson has studied African history since the end of World War 2. He has written extensively on African history.

Some readers may find the language rather antiquated.

The book provides one explanation for Africa's plight.
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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.

MAIN ARGUMENT
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.

CONCLUSION
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.
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on 1 September 2014
I found this book to be a real struggle. The author may have a legitimate point to make, that the creation of somewhat arbitrary nations in Africa and Eastern Europe has been the main source of the violence these regions have experienced in their recent history.

The problem is that this contention is not explained in a manner that the lay person (i.e. me) can fully understand. There are far too many political terms thrown into seemingly every verbose sentence which are never actually explained. What is the difference between nationalism and nation-statism? I'm still not entirely clear on that.

In other words, this isn't so much a book as an academic paper. Unless you are already familiar with political theory, avoid.
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on 10 June 2006
This is a classic history by the great historian of Africa Basil Davidson. 'The Black Man's Burden' explores the legacy of nation statism in Africa. Reading sub-saharan African history with references to Eastern European history, Davidson explores the ambiguities of nationalism in Africa's late colonial and independence era experience. As relevant now as when it originally appeared, 'The Black Man's Burden' serves as an example of a historical text that went on to define a whole approach to its subject area.
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