One Cheer for Democracy

Commentary on Global Culture and Politics

One Cheer for Democracy

Fat-middle elites, civil society and the nation state

‘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.

Selective justice harms prospects for peace

The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is already serving—just as the African Union had feared—to worsen the plight of people in Darfur and to threaten peace processes in the region. More broadly, it bodes ill for efforts to create a new moral order based on the principle of no impunity for war criminals.

Bashir, who rode to power 20 years ago on the back of a military coup, is charged with war crimes in Darfur. No doubt he has blood on his hands. But this is a complex conflict that predates his presidency, and there have certainly been other villains in the Darfur piece—by no means all of them ‘Arab.’

Obama may nudge but won’t shake the world

It will be good once again to have a U.S. president who is a fluent speaker of English. And how fluent! Obama’s victory oration was a fine display, my favourite part being the closing remarks when, in ritual contradiction of those who doubt America’s ability to recover her economic and political prestige, he threw out that quiet little ‘Yes we can.’ Said too empathically, with a rising tone, too rousing a tone, this would have sounded strident, embattled. Instead, he deftly threw the line away, no emphasis at all, just quiet assurance. It was a beautiful delivery. Every bit as beautiful as the entire Obama family.

Financial meltdown reveals democratic deficit

How many of the world’s citizens understand what began a year ago as ‘problems in the sub-prime mortgage market,’ was rapidly promoted into a ‘credit crunch’ and has since become a ‘global financial crisis’ and ‘looming depression?’

After repeated analysis and explanations from economists, journalists, politicians and financiers we have all got the point that something went badly out of control. Many people vaguely feel that unchecked greed was largely to blame. The general climate of opinion seems to be that Reagonomics is over; or, as Nicolas Sarkozy put it, (grabbing the chance to immortalise a French sound bite that Anglophones would understand) ‘Laissez faire, c’est fini.’ Even The Economist has pronounced that ‘Capitalism [is at] at Bay.’ New phases of capitalism, nearly everyone now agrees, need new rules. But how many of us grasp in any detail what actually went wrong, and thus what rules are needed?


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