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Fat-middle elites, civil society and the nation state

April 21, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young


‘Africa Since Independence: A Comparative History’
Paul Nugent
2004, Palgrave Macmillan (Basingtoke and New York) 620 pp.

It takes a brave historian to write about the recent past and an ambitious one to span an entire continent. (This portrait is in fact confined to sub-Saharan Africa but that still encompasses vast environmental and cultural diversity.) Paul Nugent, a Reader in African History at the University of Edinburgh, marches on boldly—for the sake, he says, of “the student and the general reader” (p. 5)—and gives us an impressively compendious work, packed with process-specific case studies from numerous countries.

It is not long, however, before he stumbles into pitfalls that he himself flags at the outset. One problem is that, compared to the breadth of the title, the approach is rather narrow. This is principally a work of political history, the story of the struggle for and practice of power. Within a few score pages the reader is hard put to cope with the growing cast of named actors—individuals, political parties, movements—across the continent. Yet we get less feel for the varied and changing social and cultural life lying behind the names and organisational forms, or for the ways in which power in Africa is understood and legitimated, although these are among the under-the-skin complexities that a non-African student or general reader may well find the hardest to grasp.

(A more anthropological perspective appears fleetingly, and rather oddly, in discussion of the extent to which fighters in various insurgencies may have believed themselves invulnerable to bullets.) Even economic history is skimpily covered in broad terms—state vs. market, import vs. export, subsistence vs. cash crops, pastoralism vs. settled agriculture—with few closer glimpses of the micro economies in which most Africans live, and little discussion of access to the resources, technologies and markets that put, or fail to put, food on the family table; and no discussion, either, of how families as the basic unit of organisations may themselves be changing in new economic circumstances. But all of this is, perhaps, unfairly to complain of an apple that it is not a whole bowl of mixed fruit.

A second problem is the lack of analytical frameworks for the recent past.

The decolonization process and early years of independence are handled with comfort, for here there are established viewpoints against which Nugent can bat. For instance, he discusses and adjudicates between three accounts of decolonisation. “Revisionist” theories (promulgated mainly, it would seem, by white historians) present the process as the calculated withdrawal of colonial powers, in apparent fulfilment of the “trustee” duties that had been used to legitimate their rule. “Nationalist” accounts (strong in Africa) emphasise the post-World War II political awakening and activism of Africans. “Neo-colonial” theories (popular among those who have heard of Marx) see ‘independent’ states trapped in new relationships of exploitation that are cheaper and easier for exploiting elites (on both sides) to sustain. Nugent is satisfied by none of these accounts although he cedes some ground to each. (For example, he portrays France—bruised by war and declining global influence—as more reluctant than Britain to let go of her colonies and more bent on locking them into exclusive relationships with a neo-colonial flavour.)

Nugent’s own take is that the Second World War unmasked the internal incoherence of the imperial adventure:

Had it not been for the outbreak of war, it is conceivable that the African empires would have endured for some decades more, although one suspects that much would still have hinged on parallel developments in Asia. [Quite so. For Britain, certainly, India was the prime colonial jewel; indeed, the very development of East African colonies was linked, albeit obscurely, to ‘strategic’ Colonial Office thinking on retention of that jewel. Less obscurely, vigorous Indian nationalism was doubtless an inspiration to African elites, while the experience of Partition must have weighed heavily on the final cohorts of colonial administrators in Africa.] Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the empires would have made it as far as the new millennium, because of the deep-seated contradictions which lay at the heart of the colonial project. The significance of the war lay in exposing these to public view. Furthermore, the unsuccessful efforts of each of the colonial powers to carry out a repair job after 1945 demonstrated not just the depth of the contradictions but also the dangers associated with reform. (p. 10)

The main “deep-seated contradiction” (an insight that Nugent attributes to Homi Bhabha) was that “European imperialism embodied a fundamental tension between the desire to represent the colonised as innately different—which provided the rationale for conquest in the first place—and the need to consider them sufficiently alike to make the effort [of civilising them] worthwhile.” (p. 11) The civilising (and proselytising) mission that served for a century as the imperial justification was open-ended but vague: implying that at some point the barbaric and infantile peoples of Africa would be grown-up and Christian enough for self-government, but never troubling to define a time-line for this. World War II made it clear that the status quo couldn’t last for ever, bringing the question of time into focus; while the anachronism of empire was underlined by the formation of the United Nations Organisation which, in an effort to prevent renewed global conflagration, signalled a new era of universality and formal equality between states (on the floor of the General Assembly, at least.)

In the event, all but the Portuguese empire unravelled fast, leaving a tiny African elite quite assuming responsibility for the ‘white man’s burden,’ although in many cases “the sudden demarcation of a single, political arena, after decades of partitioning colonial people from one another, created anxieties on all sides.” (34) Administration was in some cases transferred with unseemly haste. Belgium’s departure from Congo and Ruanda-Urundi gets a particularly bad press here:

Like the French, the Belgians were determined to find a way of re-entrenching the colonial relationship after the war, but like the British they eventually fell back upon a policy of scuttle. In the process, the Belgians managed to accomplish the worst of both worlds. Their response to events was ostrich-like throughout the first half of the 1950s, but once cold reality dawned they panicked and then withdrew in a precipitous fashion. (50)

Across the continent there was little time for reviewing the ethnically and geographically arbitrary boundaries that the colonial scramble had generated, and the great majority of these remained in place as national borders, with the Organisation of African Unity (precursor of today’s African Union) committed to respecting the territorial integrity of the states so defined. The stage was thus set for several irredentist and secessionist wars which, in the case of the north-south Sudan conflict, would rumble off and on for fifty years.

Nugent proceeds to discuss the post-colonial role of ‘traditional’ chieftaincies (often mainly the construct of colonial ‘indirect rule’), distinguishing between the chiefs’ “formal power, influence and prestige.” (136) The portrait is mixed, ranging from the reinvention of (more or less absolute) monarchy in Swaziland to Tanzania’s outright abolition of the institution of chieftaincy and, by further contrast, apartheid South Africa’s efforts—in what was effectively the reinvention of indirect rule—to co-opt ‘traditional’ leaders in the project of ‘separate development.’ Elsewhere the median was some continued prestige and influence (with the francophone countries generally integrating the hierarchy of chiefs more closely into routine administration), but significant reduction in formal power which new political elites were unwilling to share.

In the early days of independence the political leadership in some countries (notably, Tanzania, Ghana and Guinea) dallied with 'African socialism' whilst in others (notably, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal) the initiative was seized by “capitalist roaders.” In Nugent’s assessment the outcomes were broadly similar (and equally underwhelming); in no small part because “These paths were not really so different after all, given the centrality of the one-party state in each case and the frequent use of public resources for private gain.” (138) Indeed, he tells us, the “capitalist roaders” frequently borrowed the populist rhetoric of socialism, since:

On the one hand, they wished to convince their supporters that they were seeking to promote the welfare of the masses. On the other hand, they wished to blunt the impact of a new international discourse of human rights and democracy which could easily lend itself to interference in their affairs. Having just emerged from the darkness of colonialism, African leaders were reluctant to submit themselves to a new form of Western paternalism.(139)

Socialist-leaning leaders were equally convinced that African states must find their own way rather than imitating foreign models, and equally prone to see the one party state as the vehicle for unity and nation-building. Yet both ‘socialist’ and ‘capitalist’ efforts at finding an ‘African way’ failed to deliver generalised prosperity, whilst the ruling elites generally enriched themselves and their clansmen. (But not always: Nyrere in Tanzania, for example, despite the failure of his ujamaa vision, was quite the model of Confucian virtue; and it was perhaps his moral leadership that saw the country’s dozens of ethnic groups continue to cohere, more or less, in their shared poverty and disappointment.) Elsewhere, however, coups and military rule became common.

Nugent devotes a lengthy chapter to “Khaki Fatigue,” cataloguing and distinguishing between military regimes as “caretakers,” “reformers and redeemers,” “usurpers in uniform” or “Praetorian Marxist.” On this typology, genuine caretakers are hard to find—Nugent mentions only Togo—and more often become entrenched reformers and redeemers, as in Ghana and Nigeria. Notable usurpers, whose antics “mesmerised” Western media, were Mobuto in Zaire, Amin in Uganda and Bokassa in the Central African Republic; whilst Praetorian Marxist regimes took over in Congo-Brazzaville, Benin and Ethiopia. In seizing control “the typical pattern was one in which the unpopularity of the incumbent regime provided the backdrop against which the soldiers felt empowered to act.” Coups were normally justified in terms of patriotic responsibility but also driven by “other considerations of a more banal nature . . . sometimes corporate, sometimes ethnic and sometimes intensely personal.” (205)

The following chapter, “Second Liberation,” chronicles the long struggle for independence (and associated civil wars) in Angola and Mozambique; and for black majority rule in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia.

Without hindsight

Where some dust has settled over past events, Nugent deploys his knowledge persuasively. Approaching the present, however, his narrative becomes less assured and more curiously organised.

Chapter 8, which opens in the early 1980s, is entitled: “Invasion of the Acronyms: SAPs, [structural adjustment programmes] AIDS and the NGO Takeover.” This is more of a journalistic witticism than an historical approach in anything other than a merely chronological sense. These phenomena occurred at roughly the same time. (If, that is, one concedes the highly dubious point that NGO activity amounted to anything like a “takeover.” A takeover of what, exactly? Western media attention?) No connecting thread is clear here.

The chapter’s most detailed attention is given to the SAPs devised by international financial institutions: IMF and World Bank schemes to overhaul and re-orient the economies of the young nation states, in keeping with the neo-liberal zeitgeist that had taken hold of the US and UK under Reagan and Thatcher. Structural adjustment is still a contentious topic and Nugent is at pains to be fair. Even so, his SAP report card is less than glowing.

He concludes that “the introduction of SAPs did not lead to spectacular rates of economic growth . . . and African economies may well have contracted over the 1980s and 1990s,” yet concedes that “the fastest growing economies were those in adjusting countries.” (p. 334). This came, though, at significant cost. The drive for growth through liberalisation and increased export of mineral and agricultural commodities—as opposed to the import-substitution efforts of earlier years, when many countries were trying to develop and protect their own fledgling manufacturing base—led, as sceptics had warned, to declining terms of trade for Africa. Not immediately or precipitously, as the direst predictions had it; yet “over the long term the trend has clearly been downward” (335), with producer prices falling as export volumes rose. Moreover, while local manufacturing was squeezed, “the limited influx of foreign investment failed to compensate for the losses.” And “Far from increasing the viability of African states, the SAP years witnessed the escalation of foreign debts to the point when these threatened to become unsustainable.” (“Threatened to become” is rather weak here; “became” would do perfectly well.) Finally, the pressure to slash social spending (in order to reduce budget deficits) hit the poorest hardest: “most of the social indicators did not point to improving living standards for the mass of the population and in many countries the poverty profile deteriorated in tandem with the SAPs.” (335) Ghana is considered in some detail as a (far from glittering) SAP success story; Tanzania as a less happy case where, by 1997, “more than a decade of structural adjustment had failed really to put Tanzania back on track” economically and the social costs included a drop in primary school enrolment “from 93 per cent of the population in 1980 to 57 percent in 2000.” (345)

Nugent’s final verdict, that “structural adjustment failed to unlock the development potential of the continent as much as the programmes which had been adopted after independence” (346), is ‘balanced’ by the rather lame argument that something had to be done to arrest the downward economic spiral of the’70s and that alternatives might have been worse. What would have been wrong with an alternative restructuring by removing the European and American farm subsidies that so distort global markets and constrain African agriculture? The persistent, self-interested Western refusal to create a ‘level playing field’—at the same time that Western-dominated global institutions like the World Bank and IMF were foisting their economic prescriptions on an unwilling continent—feeds African cynicism and enables leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to excuse their own incompetence through routine assaults on ‘neo-colonial’ hypocrisy.

Chapter 9’s coverage of AIDS is brief and rather weak, leaning heavily on a small number of secondary sources. AIDS thus appears here as another ‘significant challenge’ that is important to note in passing. This is precisely the kind of short shrift—ten pages out of 489 of substantive text—that people who work on AIDS in Africa struggle with all the time.

The ten pages accorded to the proliferation of NGOs of different stripe (“northern,” African, etc) are more thoughtful but proceed in a fairly straight line to the bleak conclusion that “In general, NGOs contributed to the weakening of the post-colonial state.” (357) This is not an unreasonable position and it overlaps with structural adjustment’s drive to limit the state’s role in the economy. ‘Fiscal discipline’ demanded a roll-back in state service provision, expanding the scope, or need, for NGOs to take up the slack in what effectively became a market in subsidized service provision (but not, alas, a market that necessarily allocated resources efficiently.) Yet, even granted that some “northern” NGOs are in fact little more than private consulting companies snapping up aid contracts without going to the trouble of paying tax, and further granted that some “local” organisations are equally opportunistic, Nugent understates the contribution of the NGO proliferation to expansion of political and discursive space beyond the narrow realm of pork-barrel electioneering.

Chapter 9 (“Democracy Rediscovered”), although mainly devoted to chronicling political and electoral developments in a staggering range of countries from São Tomé to South Africa, is quietly (and by no means triumphantly) suggestive of “the return of multipartyism” and democracy as a grand narrative and effort to resolve “the crises of political legitimacy of the 1980s” (369), and, one that may signal a brighter future. The dire alternatives—“the contagion of violence: ethnicity and warlordism” (450), from Rwanda to Sierra Leone—are considered in Chapter 10 (“The National Question Revisited”), towards the end of which Nugent concludes, cagily, that “the new millennium has witnessed attempts to reformulate the ‘nation state’ model rather than to abandon it altogether and there is reason to believe that there is greater mileage in this approach.” The caginess is understandable for, as he goes on to point out, there is:

. . . a rather awkward fit between a discourse about Africa, which is conducted in terms of the application of supposed cultural universals—like human rights and good governance—and a debate within Africa in which the emphasis tends to fall on alterity [‘otherness’]. If the one is unashamedly ahistorical, the other is heavily laced with claims about the past and their relevance for establishing present entitlements. (481.)

Nonetheless, renewed hope for more democratic nation states in Africa reflects a major strand of current Western liberal opinion about Africa. A good example is the UK’s Department for International Development which, under New Labour, has shown negligible interest in NGOs (proving, indeed, almost overtly hostile to them while Claire Short was Secretary of State) but has been far more interested in increasing the capacity of African governments to govern. Indeed, across the international donor community, including the World Bank, the mantras of recent years (now that the state has been pushed out of the marketplace) have centred on effective, accountable, transparent and responsive government that can promote ‘pro-poor’ growth. (The Millennium Development Goals, meanwhile, aim to restore the capacities in education, health, water, etc, which were so hollowed out by structural adjustment.) And every peaceful election and transition of power is cheered in Whitehall, Paris and Washington as a sign that Africa may finally be getting ‘on track.’

This is an “unashamedly ahistorical” enthusiasm. If the ‘developed’ world were not so amnesiac it would not be necessary to point out that most of the big steps in the evolution of European nation states—from the merging of principalities that once had distinct identities to the agrarian and industrial revolutions and associated urbanisation and proletarianisation of peasant populations—occurred long before universal suffrage or anything we would now recognise as democracy. (The American Revolutionaries were of course able to draw on the most cutting-edge 18th century thinking of the old world as they built a new one—for white people—on the tabula rasa of a large, resource-rich continent whose indigenous people had been swept away.) Most African politicians, by contrast, need to carry with them enfranchised, multi-ethnic populations to the vast majority of whom they can in the short term deliver very little indeed. That’s a tough call. Small wonder, then, that African political elites should so often concentrate on delivering mainly to ‘their own’ people (which is where the debates about ‘alterity’ comes in, along with the dubious claims about the past to establish present entitlements).

Are there, then, no grounds for optimism (other than the rather frail hope that African leaders will spontaneously start heeding lectures about good governance, or that some technocratic means for securing it will be devised?) Well, perhaps there are: and they are grounds that Nugent hints at, but that are perhaps obscured by the very density of the micro narratives, the dozens of case studies he so assiduously presents.

In the second chapter he notes that, at the time of independence:

Whereas a large, wealthy and relatively cohesive elite in other parts of the developing world—for example, India—has been conducive to stability, the elite in Africa was very small, insecure and prone to factionalism. (65)

Surprisingly, Nugent does not follow up on this point at the end of his book. For the elite has since grown significantly (a fact that has struck me forcibly, returning to live in Africa after an absence of 15 years.) After the pain of structural adjustment, the relative recovery and economic growth in many African countries over the last decade has, like growth in most developing countries worldwide, been highly unequal, mainly benefiting a professional, managerial and business elite (some of whom doubtless rose by means more foul than fair.) But it is a bigger elite than before, with more economic opportunities than before, and more pressure to find opportunities for its younger generations who, typically, are more educated than ever before. This in aggregate is often described as a ‘middle class’—but rather misleadingly so, because it is a class near the top, while the great majority continue to subsist beneath, hardly better off—and in many places worse-off—than several decades ago. The African middle class could perhaps more accurately be described as the class with fatter middles—although lifestyles may change fast.

Alongside, as Nugent describes in his “Democracy Rediscovered” chapter, there appears to have been significant growth in associational activity (including churches and faith based organisations) and in print and broadcast media. NGOs too—even if some them are feckless, purely opportunistic or corrupt—are contributing to an expansion of both the arena in which political debate occurs and the spectrum of social and political discourse. At the same time, as Nugent points out in his closing pages, the African diaspora—temporary and permanent international migrants, students and refugees—sends home not just remittances but contributes in a variety of ways to “a re-skilling process which had [sic] been immensely beneficial to African countries where a modicum of stability has prevailed.” (489)

Nugent is reluctant to see, much less agglomerate all of this, in terms of the growth of ‘civil society’ since, as he is entirely correct to point out, “the concept of ‘civil society’ has been bandied about with such little analytical rigour that it has lost much of the precision which it once possessed.” (369) Yet he is clearly pointing to the kind of phenomena that absorb enthusiasts of the ‘civil society’ tag and that, many of them hope, will lead to improved governance. It is not an entirely fatuous position.

At the same time, recent growth has been accompanied by urbanisation (which in some cases, such as Angola’s, was also driven by war). For most poorer newcomers this is not a straightforward process of proletarianisation but, rather, involves getting by somehow in the informal sector, both in terms of livelihood and in terms of shanty town life, divorced to a greater or lesser extent from state services. The lack of state capacity to deliver jobs or services tends to underline the importance, as survival lifelines, of ‘hometown,’ clan and kinship networks. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that urbanisation will see the development of new forms of social and political organisation and solidarity. And it is, certainly, harder for ruling elites to ignore the needs of the urban poor, camped in squalor only a few kilometres away from the sedate suburbs, than the needs of a rural poor who are too dispersed and distant from those suburbs to make their voices heard.

None of this gives firm reason to expect that an expanding ‘middle class’ will as a whole champion human rights and democracy ahead of their own interests, or show much interest in poorer sections of the population. (Although, of course, many decent middle class individuals will.) But it does suggest a changing social dynamic, in which new alliances (and conflicts) are likely to be emerging, and thus a new kind of politics. In countries with extremely young populations (fully half of Uganda’s population, for example, is under 15 years of age), there is profound scope for generational change and new things might take hold fast.

Do it again, Paul

A third inherent problem in a venture of this kind is that recent histories always have short shelf lives. My guess is that Nugent wanted to offer a wide-angle view of Africa at the beginning of the 21st century—even if the millennial date was in itself entirely arbitrary—and he was rather unlucky in that things have since moved on fast.

Prominent largely by their absence are discussions of how Africa has been affected by the geopolitics of the ‘war on terror’ (although the decision to exclude North Africa rather limits this project) and the growth of trade and investment links with Asia and the Middle East. China has been talked about most—presented in some knee-jerk, Western responses as a new ‘neo colonial’ power with no interest in rights or fair play—but India, Korea, Malaysia and Gulf states (notably, Saudi Arabia and Dubai) all have a variety of interests in Africa—encompassing not just the headline ‘quest for oil and minerals to fuel their own growth’ but also investment opportunities for sovereign wealth funds, market expansion for their own manufacturing, and the need for food supplies. This creates a much more complicated international outlook, less dominated by relations with the former colonial powers and the United States; and that is by no means necessarily a bad thing for Africa. It is also notable that, five years after this book was published, the neo-liberal orthodoxies that drove the SAPs no longer look so bright and shiny; and it is not yet clear whether or how this will, in due course, impact upon Western donor approaches to Africa.

Notwithstanding these omissions and other weaknesses discussed here—which, to repeat, Nugent broadly anticipates and acknowledges in his Introduction—this was a worthwhile enterprise that offers a good starting point (and reference resource) for readers, like me, trying to get a broad, contextual overview to illuminate what is happening in any particular part of the (sub) continent. Now, all that Nugent needs to do is to write a new version.

Sack the copy editor

A final gripe. The copy editing of this text is atrocious and should make Macmillan Palgrave blush. Especially in later chapters irritating and distracting grammatical errors appear on page after page. The textual evidence suggests that many of these arose from edits where something new was inserted but the original was not fully deleted, or prepositions or tenses have not been appropriately amended. These are natural hazards of on-screen editing, but so large a mainstream publisher should have overcome them by now. Its failure to do so continually erodes the authority of the text and is disrespectful of the subject matter.

Nick Young
April 2009, Kampala