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KEYNOTE ADDRESS

CIVIL SOCIETY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF FREEDOM
IN AFRICAN HISTORY

By Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo



Civil society belongs to a congeries of constructs that have been invented by historians and political philosophers for the purpose of cultivating individuals' liberties. Their promotion has usually followed historical periods of severe threats to human freedom. Civil society therefore fits into a tradition of freedom- and democracy-enhancing conceptions that are associated with such other intellectual ensembles as pluralism, mass society, individualism, peoples' self-determination, separation of powers, and guilds and professional ethics. Each of these constructs serves the purpose of advancing the fortunes of individuals' freedom. Each of them has been invented in the aftermath of severe threats to individuals' freedoms and existence, mostly in Western history and ideology. Without some association with human freedom, whose ends they seek to advance, none of these constructs is fully meaningful in itself.

Civil society is the latest in this catalogue of such freedom-powered constructs. It was coined in order to describe and capture the contemporary political needs of Eastern European and African nations, especially, following the collapse of the Cold War in the late 1980s and the ensuing efforts to understand and remedy the political crises that flowed from the Cold War. Because of its special location in the history of ideas, civil society has a unique aspect in the company of constructs that have been invented in the aftermath of major threats to human freedom. It has been borrowed from Western ideas of the nineteenth century in order to address political problems outside the West in the fading years of the twentieth century.

Intellectually, civil society and the other related conceptions of a desired political society are reaction formations that are intended to correct systems of governments that have endangered the advance of human freedom. Their full political meanings will therefore emerge from their own contents but also from the characterization of the political systems to which they stand opposed. Hence, a great deal of our efforts in this address will focus on the failed political systems which political philosophers have sought to correct by inventing constructs like civil society.
 

CONSTRUCTS OF HUMAN FREEDOM IN WESTERN HISTORY

For an important comparative background, we begin with Western experiences in the field of intellectual constructs that follow from threats to human freedom. These will help us to understand the special problems of civil society in Africa. What is remarkable in the history of these ideas is that the problems that the construct of civil society has been coined to correct are vastly different for European history and contemporary African circumstances. An understanding of the European meaning of civil society will therefore be helpful in our analysis of the difficulties confronting individual freedom and civil society in Africa.

The earliest recorded wholesale threat to human freedom in a section of Europe can be traced to the schism in Western Christendom between Protestant northern Europe and Catholic southern Europe. The Protestant Reformation led to two Europes with different attitudes to the welfare of the individual. Catholic Europe was collectivistic in its theology, political thought, and organization, with little room for the freedom of the individual. On the other hand, Protestant Europe was based on the strength of the individual and his role in theology and rebellious Protestant political thought. By the time Europe crawled out of this ideological split in the 17th and 18th centuries, the power of individualism over collectivistic modes of organization was manifest in the economic and social advances that Protestant Europe had made over its Catholic counterpart.

Political philosophers and social scientists have documented these differences between Catholic Europe and Protestant Europe. One of the most notable of these is Max Weber's thesis on the Protestant ethic. It established individualism as a desirable model of economic and political organization in the affairs of the nation state. A great deal of modern Western European history of the 19th and 20th centuries has been dominated by the triumph of individualism and attempts by Catholic Europe to join the individualistic train, reversing the collectivism of the Middle Ages. Widespread respect for the individual and his growing freedom from control by society and the nation-state was thus the ultimate result of political development in modern Europe (see, e.g., Fromm 1951; Ullman 1967).

Other less embracing, but significant, threats to individual freedom arose in the European political history of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of these political developments, the French Revolution and its aftermath of radical democracy posed the greatest threat to individualism. The French Revolution had been based on a totalitarian impulse that was derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's antagonism against professional organizations: "It is therefore of the utmost importance for obtaining the expression of the general will, that no partial society should be formed in the State, and that every citizen should speak his opinion entirely from himself" (Rousseau 1762:25-26). The adoption of such Roussean tenets led to the creation of the infamous so-called Loi le Chaplier of 1791 which banned guilds and professional organizations, arguing for "only the [direct] individual interest of each citizen and the general interest" (Cited in Bendix et al 1987).

In fact, however, such a notion of radical democracy, demanding that each individual be compelled to face the state on his own, was a threat to individual freedom. The enforced absence of civil associations from the public arena was a nemesis facing the history of freedom that political philosophers were to confront on many accounts. For some important examples, Montesquieu's (1749) notion of pouvoirs intermediares and Mannheim's concept of unattached intellectuals (1956) are deemed important in the history of ideas because they promote values that contribute to the individual's independence from arbitrary state control. They advocate that the individual's freedom will be enhanced from his participation in groups not directly controlled by the state.

The poverty and limitations of the ideals of an absolutist state, which was free from the demands of individualism, became clear from the collapse of the French Imperial State in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The sociologist Emile Durkheim made the failures of the French absolutist state under Napoleonic rule the point of departure for the rise of French sociology

It was only after the war [of 1870] that the reawakening took place. The shock produced by events was the stimulant that reanimated men's minds. The country found itself faced with the same question as at the beginning of the century. The organization, or rather the facade, which constituted the imperial system had just collapsed; it was a matter of remaking another, or rather of making one which could survive other than administrative artifice -- that is, one which was truly grounded in the nature of things. (Durkheim, 1900: 12).
French sociology of the Durkheim school emphasized social structures that were independent of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville's endorsement of democracy in America as a product of the individual's participation in civil groups was also a reaction to their absence in ancien regime in Europe. It was to the robust existence of free and autonomous associations that Alexis de Tocqueville (1875) attributed the vitality of democracy and personal freedom in America (also see Kornhauser 1959).

In a proximate sense, the construct of civil society arose from such intellectual reactions to the dangers of an absolutist state. In each such reaction, the autonomy of civil associations was promoted as essential for the protection of individual freedom. In the end of this evolution, freedom came to mean individual's freedom. All Western social sciences - history, sociology, political science, and political philosophy - all labored on behalf of promoting individual freedom. The autonomy of civil associations was established in the nineteenth century as a necessary way of realizing individual freedom.

That view was to be assaulted by Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. The defeat of Germany's absolutist state did not, however, end the challenge to the notion that human freedom is best protected by the absence of an absolutist state and presence of vigorous civil associations. Rather, Europe was thrust into another schism that was multi-national inside Europe and international outside it. The Cold War of the 1950s-1980s was in a sense as severe as the conflict imposed by the religious conflict between Catholic Europe and Protestant Europe. But the Cold War's arena of conflict was larger because it extended beyond Europe. One scholar likened it to the great religious conflict in Europe three centuries earlier:

Twice since the Middle Ages has Europe been ideologically and politically bifurcated, with social order following the predilections of the rulers, on the cuius regio eius religio principle. The counter-reformation imposed a centralized, doctrinaire, intolerant, sometimes murderous, pervasive and self-righteous system on one half of Europe, as Marxism was to do three centuries later. Absolutization of truth and centralization of power went hand in hand . . . In each case, the countries finding themselves on the wrong side were condemned to somnolescence and torpor and retardation, and to an eventual effort at catching up (Gellner 1991: 496).
The end of the Cold War has led to a search on how best to regain lost ground on the part of Communist Eastern Europe. But the Cold War also led to command state politics in Africa and large portions of Asia. What is the best way of regaining normalcy in the politics of these nations that imitated the command politics of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in many instances with the support of Western powers?

For both Eastern Europe and other regions affected by the command politics of the Cold War, social scientists have recommended a turn to the autonomy of civil associations that Europe discovered and cultivated after the Reformation and after the French Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War. This is what has been labeled civil society. It is a recommendation that suggests that what was successfully tried for Europe after its ideological conflicts of previous centuries will work again for Africa and other regions negatively affected by the absolutism of command politics in these areas during the Cold War.
 

WHAT IS CIVIL SOCIETY?

With this rather copious historical introduction, we can capture the essential attributes of civil society as it has evolved in Western political history. The most important of these is the distinction between the private realm and the public realm. The dignity of the individual rests on this ancient distinction. It demarcates a zone of privacy over which individuals have control. Where there is an effective civil society, individuals' privacy is valued.

Second, the existence of a civil society requires that the uses of the public domain will be determined by deliberations in which individuals have a stake. The public domain is the arena in which the state operates. Sharing the space of the public domain between the state and elements of civil society requires a great deal of discipline; but it holds the key to the existence of human freedom. Whenever the state claims a monopoly of the entire space of the public domain, dictatorship and totalitarianism ensue. Such associations as political parties, ethnic associations, and newspapers are public enterprises that in a free society share the public domain with the state. Training the state to share the space of the public domain with elements of civil society that need the uses of portions of the public domain is an essential task that faces many countries in the post-Cold War era.

Third, the existence of civil society requires that citizens exercise the right of being stakeholders in the affairs of the state. In other words, they have certain rights and designated duties in the way the state is run. Where, on the contrary, the state bars the individual from any shares of state affairs and where rulers claim ownership of the state, human freedom is threatened.

Fourth, where civil society reigns, the individual's welfare is the end of public policy. At least, in circumstances where there is high regard for civil society, public policy has ultimate justification in terms of the welfare of the individual. Erich Fromm expresses this point strongly in his famous book Escape From Freedom, as follows:

The future of democracy depends on the realization of the individualism that has been the ideological aim of modern thought since the Renaissance . . . The victory of freedom is possible only if democracy develops into a society in which the individual, his growth and his happiness, is the aim and purpose of culture, in which life does not need any justification in success or anything else, and in which the individual is not subordinated or manipulated by any power outside of himself, be it the state or the economic machine . . . These aims could not be fully realized in any previous period of modern history; they had to remain largely ideological aims, because the material basis for the development of genuine individualism was lacking. Capitalism has created this premise" (Fromm 1940: 270-1).
These attributes and assumptions make up the meaning of civil society in its European historical rendition. It is these notions, never fully stated, that various scholars and policy makers wish to extend to African politics in the post-Cold War era. The question that they raise is this: Will they work for Africa, given Africa's different history?
 

AFRICA'S RESPONSES TO HISTORICAL CHALLENGES TO HUMAN FREEDOM

In order to respond properly to such a question, we must search into African history to see how Africans have responded to challenges to their freedom. Have African responses been in the same mode as European intellectual reactions to challenges to freedom in that continent? Answering this question should help us to assess how well modern African politics may be able to incorporate elements of civil society into Africa's public affairs.

Africa has had its own full share of historical crises that threatened human freedom on the continent. In a real sense, Africa has faced prolonged crises from which there has been little relief since the Arabs conquered and occupied north Africa and the Sahara from the 7th to the 11th centuries. In many ways Africa's crises are more prolonged and much deeper than the political crises that threatened ancient and modern European man. Indeed, the periods of the Arab slave trade (950-1850) and the European slave trade (1480-1850) have seen the harshest attacks on individual liberties in human histories. The succeeding era of European imperialism in Africa (1885-1960 and even beyond) also attacked human freedom in a severe manner. Nor have the politics of post-colonial Africa, much besmirched by the coarseness of the Cold War, reversed these trends.
 

Slave Trade

One clear consequence of the slave trade was the rise of internal slavery and its folk conceptions in Africa, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries (Rodney 1966; Meillassoux 1986). There is no doubt that Africans paid enormous intellectual attention to slavery. There is hardly any African language in which there is no term for "slave." What is fascinating in examining these thought systems is that Africans intellectually tended to associate freedom with slavery. Indeed, freedom was conceived in many folk thought systems as the absence of slavery, and vice versa.

What is equally noteworthy is that the conceptions of freedom and slavery were integrated into norms and codes of kinship. In many communities, any person who was a member of a recognized kingroup was by that fact a free person. On the other hand, kinless persons were deemed to be slaves, unless they were incorporated into recognized kingroups (see Ekeh 1997). Thus, unlike modern European history and political thought, in which freedom was the attribute of the citizen, defined as a unique individual, freedom was effectively a function of kinship in large portions of African history and political thought.

These were intellectual reactions to the slave trade whose enduring ally was the state, both foreign and African. In the tumultuous centuries of the slave trade, kinship provided its members worthy sanctuary from persecution from forces of the state. Kinship's temple therefore became the center of Africans' concerns in these centuries. It protected individuals from numerous dangers. It provided their basic security needs, including undertaking their burial needs and caring for their families upon their death.

But kinship also deprived individuals of certain basic articles of freedom. They were constrained in their behaviors. Their morality was defined strictly with reference to their behaviors toward kinsfolk, with outsiders subject to amoral actions. Kinship was in large measure constraining on its individual members. That was a necessary trade-off. By its organization, kinship could only cope with its own. Outsiders were usually seen as threats.

Kinship was huge in Africa because it was the boldest social formation from the era of the slave trade. Its importance and size were consequences of the pervasiveness and duration of the slave trade. The slave trade was an attack on the individual African who sought protection, not always effectively, from kinship that emerged to help its own fraction of society. A net outcome of the slave trade was a successful assault on the freedom of its object, the individual African. Africans' survival was largely dependent on kinship which was a poor vehicle for realizing individualism.
 

Colonialism

Unlike European historical crises affecting the freedom of individuals, the slave trade was not terminated with primary considerations for the welfare of individuals in Africa. As Eric Williams's (1944) thesis so capably put it, England abolished the slave trade in the 19th century because it was in its own best interest of securing raw materials from tropical Africa for the sake of its industrial production. It no longer needed the slave trade which had helped the development of its mercantile capitalism but was by the 19th century an impediment to its new occupation with the development of industrial capitalism.

Colonialism therefore succeeded the slave trade in Africa in the last decades of the 19th century for the benefit of Europe's economic interest, not for the sake of Africans' freedom. Indeed, colonialism became a severe attack on human freedom in Africa. As W. E. B. DuBois observed in 1945,

Democracy's] greatest successful opponent today is not Fascism, whose extravagance has brought its own overthrow, but rather imperial colonialism, where the disenfranchisement of the mass of the people has reduced millions to tyrannical control without any vestige of democracy.
Despite the enlarged canvass of the colonial state, colonial rulers largely recognized the authority of kinship which was promoted by colonial social anthropology, a discipline especially set up to study its ways. Individuals' fortunes were hardly enhanced under colonial rule. On the contrary, they suffered quite dramatically in several instances.

By the 1930s and 1940s, a handful of freedom fighters had arisen in Africa to question the authority of European imperialism. Their agenda was clear: they wanted European imperialism to be terminated. The major accusation against European imperialism was that Africans needed to manage their own affairs. Freedom was the goal of the freedom fighters. But the meaning of freedom that comes from the campaigns of Kwame Nkrumah and the other freedom fighters was distant from the individuals' welfare. Its prime beneficiary was to be ethnic peoples, that is ethnic groups, that under colonialism had crystalized from pre-colonial kinship systems. Hear Nkrumah's famous clarion cry for freedom:

Thus the goal of the national liberation movement is the realization of complete and unconditional independence, and the building of a society of peoples in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. PEOPLES OF THE COLONIES, UNITE: The working men of all countries are behind you"(Nkrumah 1962: 43; italics added).
The primary beneficiary of the freedom that would flow from Nkrumah's national liberation movement would be the "peoples" of Africa, not necessarily the unique individual in Africa. The principle of African unity, for which Nkrumah was the commanding advocate, was formulated to string together these peoples of Africa. This notion of African peoples (rather than the people of Africa or the African people) was evident in the Fifth Pan African Congress, the first of the Pan African congresses that was managed by African nationalists. Its supreme declaration was riddled with invocation to the needs of the peoples of Africa:
We believe in the rights of all peoples to govern themselves. We affirm the right of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All colonial peoples must be free from foreign imperialist control, whether political or economic. The peoples of the colonies must have the right to elect their own government, a government without restrictions from a foreign power (Fifth Pan-African Congress 1945: 44; italics added).
Independence and the Post-Colonial Era

African nations gained their independence from European imperialism and the freedom for their peoples to organize and of their rulers to control the destiny of their peoples. But there is little doubt that freedom has not come the way of the ordinary individual. Even Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, two of the most courageous freedom fighters against imperialists, quickly became oppressors, denying individuals elementary rights of free speech in Ghana and Guinea. In country after country, rulers claim that the security of the nation requires that individuals lose their freedom. They have been helped in these suppression of individuals by a troubled history of oppression of individuals and the Cold War in which both sides were more than willing to help dictators to suppress their own people provided they support the West against the Soviet Union, or vice versa.

But the Cold War is now over and African dictators are now called upon by their own people, as in Nigeria, and by the international community to organize their affairs in such ways as will permit some modicum of freedom. The chosen vehicle for such realization of basic freedoms is civil society, the nineteenth century European construct of individual freedom. These new challenges raise two questions that we must now answer. First, is Africa prepared for this new dispensation? Second, what conceptual changes are called for in African affairs in order to permit the flowering of civil society and the consequent individual freedom that should flow from it.
 

AFRICANS' PREPARATION FOR CIVIL SOCIETY

There is little doubt that from our history, Africans are ill-prepared for the mandate of civil society. There are two principal reasons for this shortfall. First, the African state is largely alienated from the individual. Civil society presumes the presence of a responsible state whose rulers accept that the purpose of state policy is to advance the welfare of the individual. In practice, except for a very short period following independence from European imperialism, the African state has not taken responsibility for advancing the welfare of the ordinary individual. Individuals' basic security needs -- including upbringing of children, decent burial rites for the deceased, and the welfare of those they leave behind -- are not matters that the African state cares about. For millions of Africans, the state is an evil force that they would rather avoid. There are nations, such as modern day Nigeria, where the police are a source of terror to ordinary individuals. Until such a negative view of the state is reversed, the campaign for individual freedom will be an adversarial, rather than a cooperative, relationship between the state and elements of civil society. (Also see Ekeh 1994b)

The second problem confronting the successful adoption of the elements of civil society in Africa concerns the relationships between individuals and kinship. Kinship helped Africans in small settings during very difficult periods of African history. Kinship will continue to be relevant in the lives of millions of Africans who are either threatened by the state or else ignored by its agencies. Yet kinship distorts the expansiveness and universalism of civil society. Civil society requires that the worth of the unique individual be recognized beyond his or her ethnic group. However, the ideology of kinship imposes restrictions on the moral worth of individuals, with those from outside its domain being less morally valued than the kinsfolk. When Ken Saro Wiwa was so unjustly killed by Nigerian military dictators, his death touched his Ogoni kinsfolk deeply. But Nigerians from some other ethnic groups seemed less concerned than the international community. When Segun Obasanjo, a former military dictator himself, was condemned in an atrocious miscarriage of justice and when his fellow townsman Mashood Abiola was tossed into jail by the same Nigerian military dictators for daring to claim the elections he had won, the misfortunes of these mighty men were chiefly mourned by their expanded kinspeople in Yoruba land. The universalism of civil society helps to offer common moral empathy, whereas kinship is restrictive in its meaning of freedom. The dilemma of African politics is that the ineptitude of the state emboldens kinship and its organization of ethnic groupings which in turn threatens the operation of civil society.
 

REFORMING AFRICAN POLITICS AND THE STATE FOR CIVIL SOCIETY

It is unwise to assume that the grounds have been well laid for the reception of the doctrine and practices of civil society into African politics. It is false to assume that the nature of African politics and history is similar to Western European circumstances in which the construct of civil society was invented in the 19th century for the sake of achieving individual freedom. Reforming African politics and the state for civil society is a necessary exercise that will entail basic training in the proper behavior of the state. Such training should entail at the very least central lessons and principles of two doctrines of the modern nation-state.

First, Africans must be trained to accept the republican principle that the state belongs to its citizens. More simply and perhaps more challenging, we must ask this turbulent question: Who owns the state? At the beginning of the 19th century, the revolutionary Fulani warrior, Uthman dan Fodio, gave a firm answer to this question in his campaigns against Hausa states of northern Nigeria. To Dan Fodio and his Fulani adherents, the ruler owned the state. Fodio (c.1811: 53) puts the point directly: "The government of a country is the government of its king without question. If the king is a Muslim, his land is Muslim; if he is an Unbeliever, his land is a land of Unbelievers." The notion that the state, together with the lands lying in it, belongs to its rulers has survived two centuries of political changes in West Africa. The Fulani rule of northern Nigeria in the 19th century was based on its authority. Frederick Lugard and British imperial rulers of Nigeria gratefully adopted Fodio's doctrine. In post-colonial Nigeria military rulers have insisted on the authority of this doctrine as the charter for their governance of Nigeria. Training state functionaries to abandon this doctrine is therefore a major issue in the campaign for civil society in Africa.

A corollary of this republican principle is the view that state functionaries are subject to common laws. This is a view that has been well resisted by state functionaries in Africa, from full-fledged dictators to more benign advocates of strong states. The denial of the view that constitutions and law courts have a role to play in the determination of the uses of the public domain is an attack on civil society and eventually on the individual's freedom. The argument for the state's control of the public domain is to the effect that Africa has a special need for strong states at this stage of its development. It is an argument that Julius Nyerere has advanced on behalf of African states:

A strong Executive is essential to stability in any young state, be it in Europe or in Africa… a system where there is only one legal Party may be a better safeguard of democracy and Human Rights than a multi-Party system, because it can simultaneously strengthen national unity and help to build a national identity (Nyerere, 1993:18)
The creation and regulation of political parties by the state is a disease of African states from which they must be cured. Persuading state functionaries that political parties, newspapers, and television stations should be subject to ordinary laws which are supervised by courts, not by state executives, is a necessity in the enactment of civil society in Africa. The ownership and control of political parties and elements of the mass media are a sore point in Africa which proponents of civil society must confront.

Another corollary of the republican principle is the norm of accountability which has largely disappeared from African public affairs. The illegitimate assumption that the state belongs to its rulers and their hirelings allowed state functionaries to appropriate public resources with impunity, resulting in huge corruption (see Ekeh 1994a). Reforming the African state should include the re-inculcation of this important norm into public affairs that would compel public officers to be faithful to their public stewardship. The disappearance of the norm of accountability has hurt the operation of civil society in major ways, especially by corrupting the morality of society.

A second worthy principle that must be cultivated on behalf of the development of civil society in Africa is the doctrine of multiple sovereignties within African states. The campaign for decolonization and independence was phrased in terms of transferring national sovereignty from foreign rule to African nations. But the word sovereignty is ill-understood. It represents dominions of rulership, including sub-national domains. Under a regime of rule of law, regional and local governments have their own sovereignties and jurisdictions that may not be dissolved by the national government arbitrarily. This is important for the operation of civil society because local and regional sovereignties have more meaning for the individual. They and the civil associations that they create can shape such dominions whereas national governments are distant dictatorships that they cannot control. Training the African state to respect local autonomies and sovereignties as constituent parts of the state is an exercise that will enhance the prospects of civil society in Africa.

Let me conclude this address by urging that in our new efforts to master the principles of civil society, we should attempt to learn from important lessons from the mistakes of the past. When at the end of European imperialism, most African nations gained independence in the early 1960s, there was an outright and rather simplistic supposition that we understood the imperatives of the nation-state. Africans were sure that they could run the nation-state as easily as they assumed that European nations had been run. The truth of the matter is that the character of post-colonial state was like neither that of the modern European state nor that of the traditional African state. It had arisen from the strange circumstances of European imperialism in Africa, requiring different logics of operation. The failures of many African post-colonial states has arisen from poor understanding of their nature.

The renewed efforts to reform African states by injecting elements of civil society into African public affairs should not take too much for granted this time around. Instead, we must be willing to raise fundamental questions concerning the new structures that we wish to create. It is not enough to cite some authorities on civil society who claim to offer all that there is need to know on civil society in Africa. This time we should test our hypotheses with some humility, always ready to refine our means in order to better understand the supreme goal of civil society, which is the freedom of the individual.


REFERENCES

Bendix, Reinhard, John Bendix, and Norman Furniss. 1987. "Reflections on Modern Western States and Civil Societies." In Richard G. Braugard, ed., Research in Political Sociology, Volume 3.Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, pp. 1-38.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1945[1975]. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus-Thomson.

Durkheim, Emile 1900 "Sociology in France in the Nineteenth Century." Pp. 3-22 in Emile Durkheim, On Morality and Society: Selected Writings. Edited with an Introduction by Robert Bellah. Chicago: Univerisity of Chicago Press.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. 1875[1966]. Democracy in America, edited by J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner. New York: Harper and Row.

Ekeh, Peter P. (1994a) "The Public Realm and Public Finance in Africa." Pp. 234-258 in Ulf Himmelstrand, Kabiru Kinyanjui & Edward Mburugu, eds. African Perspectives on Development. Controversies, Dilemmas & Openings. London: James Curry.

Ekeh, Peter P. (1994b) "Historical and Cross-Cultural Contexts of Civil Society in Africa." Pp. A-21- A-45 in USAID, Civil Society, Democracy, and Development in Africa: Proceedings of a Workshop for Development Practitioners. Washington, D.C.: USAID.

Ekeh, Peter P. (1997) "The Concept of Second Liberation and the Prospects of Democracy in Africa: A Nigerian Context." Pp83-110 in Paul A. Beckett and Crawford Young, editors, Dilemmas of Democracy in Nigeria. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Fifth Pan-African Congress. 1945. "Declaration to the Colonial Peoples of the World." [Written by Kwame Nkrumah. Approved and adopted by the Pan African Congress held in Manchester, England, October 15th-21st, 1945.] Reprinted in pp. 44-45 in Nkrumah, Kwame. 1945[1962]. Towards Colonial Freedom. Africa in the Struggle against World Imperialism. London: Panaf.

Fodio, Uthman dan. c.1811. Tanbihu'l Ikhwan. Translated and edited by H. R. Palmer, Journal of the African Society, 13 (1913-14): 411-14; 14 (1914-15): 53-9, 185-92.

Fromm, Erich 1941. Escape From Freedom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gellner, Ernest. 1991. "Civil Society in Historical Context." International Social Science Journal, 129: 495-510.

Kornhauser, William. 1959. The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1956. Essays in the Sociology of Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Meillassoux, Claude. 1991[1986]. The Anthropology of Slavery, The Womb of Iron and Gold. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Montesquieu, Charles. 1749 (1962). The Spirit of the Laws. London: Hafner.

Nkrumah, Kwame. 1945. Towards Colonial Freedom. Africa in the Struggle against World Imperialism. London: Panaf, 1962.

Nyerere, Julius 1993 "Reflections on Constitutions and African Experience" in T. J. Barron et al (eds) Constitutions and National Identity. Quadriga, Edinburgh.

Rodney, Walter. 1966. "African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade." Journal of African History, 7(3): 431-33.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762[1957]. The Social Contract. New York: Hafner Publishing Company.

Ullmann, Walter. 1966. The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Weber, Max. 1904-05 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Unwin University Books, 1930.

Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch, 1964.



 
 

LUNCHEON ADDRESS

A Context for the Topic:
"African Perspectives on Civil Society"

Jeffrey Crawford
Central State University, Wilberforce, OH



Professor Eke's keynote address stressed the need for African scholars interested in democratic development and individual freedom to pay increased attention to civil society. His address implies that attention to civil society has been overshadowed by focuses on state politics and economics. I would suggest that this overshadowing is both understandable and problematic. It is understandable because since independence a primary need of newly emerging nations has been the development of governmental processes and institutions, including the economics of the state sector. Scholarly discourse and attention have followed where post-independence realities have led. While understandable, the limited focus on civil society, the institutional space between the individual and the government, is problematic for at least two reasons. First, as the concept behind this conference implies, political and social development are intimately linked to the nature and development of civil society. Second, while the lack of focus on African civil society may derive partly from the immediate needs of independence, some part of that lack of focus also derives from the ideological racism that developed during the slave trade and continues as a legacy of colonialism.

One of the highest, or lowest, expressions of this ideological racism, was the "Hamitic" theory that used the story of Noah and his sons to bolster the idea that there were no characteristically human activities (culture, civilization, politics, art, etc.) worthy of study in Africa. In his The World and Africa, W.E.B. DuBois describes the theory as alive and well into the 20th century. His view was that what was established as the norm in European scholarship in the 1700s and 1800s, continued to influence how the world in general, and Africa in particular, were perceived even after aspects of the original thinking had been generally rejected. Once it was established that the "true Negro type" did not produce complex cultures, much less civilizations, the limits on how Africa and Africans were perceived continued, even after belief in a "true Negro type" was rejected. Sub-Saharan Africa did not need to be studied according to the norms of scholarship, because there was nothing there to study. A few facile generalizations culled from the writings of philosophers, missionaries, colonial administrators, and anthropologists would do. No detail could come to light in such undeveloped shadow. An image was being formed of Africa and Africans that would be at once persistently negative, yet malleable enough to be adaptable over time and depending on need.

The "Dialectics of Denial" that grew out of the ideological racism associated with the slave trade and colonialism skewed perception and discussion. Inclusion in the fully human family had to be proven, rather than being assumed. The burden of proof was on those who were falsely accused, and then denied the resources for a robust self-defense. And this proof was to take place in a context in which the West and Whiteness were constructed as the norms and standards for human development. Africa, and the rest of the world, became the background, the field, out of which Europe and Europeans emerged as the fully human figure. The image of Europe was persistently positive as developed, stable, and justifiably wielding world power. The image of Africa was persistently negative as underdeveloped, unstable, and in need to direction from others. The dominance of Western interpretations of African civil society is reflective of this.

The irony is that the dark "other" was so absolutely necessary for the emergence in imagination of the light "self." Ralph Ellison's protagonist in The Invisible Man learns this lesson while mixing paint. He is instructed, against all logic, that to make the whitest paint, it is necessary to add the blackest pigment.

Ironies and absurdities aside, the loss accompanying the legacy of ideological racism is both a particular loss to African development and general loss to world understanding. This conference is part of the ongoing effort to overcome the limitations of the past, and as such, it is fitting that Central State host the conference. Here, in Wilberforce Ohio, at the close of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois wrote "The Conservation of Races." By today's lights, some of the argument seems dated. But DuBois' drive to transcend limitations and to return Africa and Africans to their rightful place in the broader discussion of human affairs continues to be relevant.

The organs and institutions of civil society are proposed in that essay by DuBois to serve for purposes of self-organization and self-development. What the Black church had done, he argued, should be done within the academy and across the entire range of other social and economic institutions. One can see here in this early essay what emerges more fully developed approximately forty years later in Dusk of Dawn: cooperative organization aimed at group and individual development in every aspect of life. DuBois' early and later visions of democratic development based on a robust development of the institutions of civil society are certainly consonant with the goals of this conference.

This conference is part of a movement beyond the "Dialectics of Denial" to what Leopold Senghor termed the "Civilization of the Universal." In this process as cast by Senghor, the purveyors of cultural dominance meet the other and come to see themselves in that other. The whole complex that was created to make cultural distinctions for purposes of control and exploitation collapses as hybridity and cultural miscegenation become the norms. Cultural and intellectual space becomes mestizo space. A conference on civil society and Africa, conducted by African scholars, at a state supported historically black university, in North America, can be seen as a moment in the Civilization of the Universal.

Senghor's core insight consists of several parts: (1) that the processes of civilization, which had been claimed as the province of one group, would inevitably burst asunder the illusions of that group; (2) that the very concept of civilization in the world context of the 20th century would move to a universal level, accepting no limits to its application; (3) that cultural dynamism, diversity and pluralism are the norms, not the exception. For Senghor, as for others since, the voice of the other is both surreptitious and subversive. It is a hidden voice, upon one before being fully noticed. Its message and impact are unexpected, unpredictable, transformative. Such, however, is the nature of the process by which the whole is civilized, by which assimilator becomes assimilated and assimilated becomes assimilator. Cultural colonialism and exclusivity bring about, with a certain inevitability, the conditions of their own demise.

The demise of cultural colonialism is the staging ground for a higher level of development captured in the term "Civilization of the Universal." As with DuBois, some of Senghor's language seems dated, tainted, perhaps, by the language of earlier European racial theory. But Senghor's vision was essentially correct and prophetic. In the midst of all the turmoil of the late 20th century, something like the processes Senghor foresaw and/or hoped for goes forward. This conference is part of that process of the Civilization of the Universal. In this process, the metropole is not brought low only to make the periphery appear higher. Rather, both metropole and periphery are changed, some of their roles reversed, certain limits of both metropole and periphery transcended. Such cultural interplay does not obviate brutal realities or brutal inequities. It does, however, undercut the traditional justifications for such realities and inequities. In the processes of the Civilization of the Universal, the illusions and absurdity of the ideology justifying racism and colonialism are made plain, even if every valley is not exalted and every mountain and hill made low.

A third metaphor may be added to the Dialectics of Denial and the Civilization of the Universal to provide a context for this conference: Six Degrees of Separation. This contemporary incarnation of an ancient idea suggests how closely we are tied together, by mutual acquaintance, by biology, and by shared need and interest. Of course, the Civilization of the Universal, supplanting the apartheid of the Dialectics of Denial, implies close relationship. And even in the Dialectics of Denial, the apartheid is illusory. We each are separated from every other, by only six degrees. We are friends of friends, enemies of enemies, and cousins of cousins.

Intellectually, the lesson of Six Degrees explains why Professor Eke's background remarks are so helpful. There is every reason to review the concept of civil society as used by European thinkers over the preceding centuries, both to point out the limitations of Western discourse and to distill what is usefully applied to Africa. The application of the concept by African intellectuals to African realities both repairs the distortions of a compromised past and adds to the intellectual capital available to all.

The language of individual freedom and democracy continues to echo down from the European Enlightenment, even as the limitations of that Enlightenment are increasingly understood. The voices that coalesced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II speak volumes both supporting Enlightenment ideals and revealing their limits. Those voices reflect a post-World War II human family that is much more inclusive than the Enlightenment family. The rights of which those voices speak are also further developed. History proceeds strangely, the Universal Declaration and more inclusive family resulting at least partly from European instability that has twice in this century trampled over itself and the world. History also proceeds through conferences such as this. This conference is an encouraging and timely expression of both realism and vision. The work of this conference is necessary work that bodes well for Africa and well for the world.



 
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