The Importance of Being Black
Political Parties in French Speaking West Africa
How seriously should we take Africa’s loudly-voiced claims to African-ness? Is there an “African personality” which is sufficiently identifiable to be studied? And, if so, is it of such all-embracing importance as to have colored every set of ideas that has been brought into Africa during the past hundred years, so that one can now more meaningfully speak, for example, of African Christianity than of Christianity in Africa, or of African Socialism than of Socialism in Africa?
To Mr. Frank Moraes, a distinguished Indian journalist who has recently made the grand tour of Africa, such claims are merely contemptible. “African personality, African individuality and African democracy are some of the more prestigious terms in Africa’s advanced vocabulary. Reduced to simple equations, they emerge as the one-party state, economic authoritarianism, mass and individual indiscipline, and a general descent into tyranny.” In Ghana, Moraes saw, and was not amused by, the celebrated set of colored postcards depicting ancestral Africans of genius teaching the secrets of writing, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, and agriculture to the barbarians of Greece and Rome. “The socialism of Nkrumah and Nasser,” he comments, “is in essence the National Socialism of Hitler…Like Hitler, who propagated the supremacy of the Nordic race and culture, Nkrumah preaches a contrary chauvinism based on the importance of being black.”
Hence the title of Moraes’s book, which in construction resembles a volume in John Gunther’s Inside series. It starts in Ethiopia, proceeds to English-speaking and French-speaking West Africa, returns through the Congo to East Africa, and ends with a southward lunge through the Rhodesias to South Africa. Moraes is a master of the interview, tartly reported, with just the tell-tale phrase or two of direct quotation—though one wonders how many of his victims would receive him a second time. Awolowo, for example, who is described as “smug, self-centered and vain, with a fondness for high-sounding words and phrases”? Or the Sardauna of Sokoto, who “attributed all diseases to the Almighty, though he did not specify whether, in the case of the poor, he regarded such diseases as afflictions or blessings”? When the top man refused to see him, Moraes carried on cheerfully with number two, using him as a mirror through which to see his chief. There is a brilliant use of Botsio to rumble Nkrumah, and of Kawawa to rumble Nyerere. His biggest catch was Lumumba. This has resulted, however, in two chapters on recent Congo politics which are as onesided as the rest of the book is shrewd.
Interviews apart, the substance of the book consists of political and economic background covering the last four or five years, well chosen and, on the whole, accurate, though much of it, inevitably, of very ephemeral interest. It is a pity that Moraes did not exercise his undoubted talents as an observer to stray further from the narrowly political scene and give us, as Gunther used to do so well, some vignettes of life outside the capital cities. Moraes did call on Schweitzer at Lambarene, and records an interesting conversation with him about “reverence for life.” He spent, too, an afternoon with the bibulous ex-King of Porto Novo in Dahomey, and another at a chiefly durbar in the Akan state of Aburi near Accra. But both of these episodes seem to have been too much for his sensibilities, and he writes with evident distaste of how “crowds of half-naked, hysterical tribesmen screeched eerie war-cries, and the chiefs, brandishing their hatchets or swords, swayed as the drums beat and horns blared.” This is of a piece with the (quite untrue) assertion that “vast tracts of Africa have leapt from the Stone Age to the twentieth century in a matter of three generations.” One almost expects him to go on, in the style of white South African polemics, to say that these people never invented the wheel. It is evident that Moraes lacks sympathy for Africa, and not only for its politics. This inevitably undermines to some extent the force of his political observation.
The other two books show a more positive, and, certainly, a more enduring quality. Mrs. Morgenthau’s is a learned and long incubated study of political parties in four of the French-speaking West African countries. Originally undertaken as a doctoral thesis at Oxford some five or six years ago, it is essentially concerned with the politics of West Africa during the terminal phase of French colonialism rather than during the period since independence. It destroys from the start the widely held illusion (shared, for example, by Moraes) that the French, unlike the British, swept their African colonies into independence without preparation. It is true that French aims, as expressed first in the French Union and later in the Community, proved unattainable and had finally to be abandoned with dramatic suddenness, But the political education of French-speaking West Africans began in earnest in 1946, and for the chosen few who went as Deputies to the Chamber or as members to the Assembly of the Union, it entailed a far closer and more enduring involvement in the politics of France than the brief delegations and constitutional conferences in which English-speaking Africans negotiated with the government of Britain. This experience made of men like Senghor and Houphouet-Boigny politicians of a very different stamp from that of their English-speaking contemporaries.
Despite her sure command of the French background, however, Mrs. Morgenthau never loses sight of the fact that African political parties, though dealing largely in imported ideas and projects, are based on African societies, and that in the course of gaining power they had to become in fact African institutions, interlocked with clangroups, age-groups, warrior-groups, artisan-groups, Muslim religious brotherhoods, pagan secret societies, and bands of migrant workers. “The parties,” she says, even used “traditional points of assembly: births, circumcisions, weddings, funerals, markets, feasts and dances.” The detailed study of local circumstances is therefore inescapable, and four territorial chapters on Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mali form the core of the book. Particularly interesting is the contrast which emerges between the first two countries, where the seizure of power turned upon the challenge to privileged minorities—in Senegal the black citoyens of the quatre communes, in Ivory Coast the French planters—and the last two countries, where it turned upon the outflanking of appointed chiefs and traditional leaders supported by the French administration. In the first case chiefs and rich men joined and influenced the forces of nationalism; in the second they were first its enemies and next its victims. Mrs. Morgenthau justly reflects that, if the British had allowed Lord Leverhulme to start plantations in Ghana, the nationalist revolution might well have been led by cocoa-farmers from Ashanti instead of by the “verandah-boys” of Accra and the coastal towns.
Unfortunately, this, like many other serious books on contemporary Africa, has been overtaken by events. Begun at a time when it seemed that the French West African Federation would grow into single independent states in which the political parties of the four principal territories would be dominant, it had somehow to explain the sudden break-up and re-grouping which took place between 1958 and 1960. This could hardly be done without a comparable study of the politics of Dahomey and Mauretania, Niger and Upper Volta. Mrs. Morgenthau’s attempt to fill the gap within the space of a single, penultimate chapter has not been completely successful. Still less, her attempt in the final chapter to define the very new predicament in which the several governments found themselves after their independence had been achieved. The powerful, but essentially temporary, solder of anti-colonialism had now dissolved, and the political parties which it had brought into existence had now to find new policies with which to galvanize their supporters. Négritude had long been sung by the French-speaking African poets, but only now did it have to be converted into political ideologies justifying the different kinds of one-party states. And here Mrs. Morgenthau leaves us, with only a cautious hint or two of what was to come.
For the latest phase, that of independent existence, the volume called African Socialism is a useful introduction. The first and basic point is the one on which Mrs. Morgenthau closes her book—that when the original, negative aim of anticolonialism had been fulfilled by the retreat of the colonial powers, it could be succeeded only by a policy of rapid economic development. Only by creating a visible improvement in the material conditions of life could the new African governments hope to absorb the high expectations generated during the campaign for independence. And in under-developed countries with no significant sources of capital in private hands, and with outside aid negotiable only on a government to government basis, it was obvious that development must be mainly the work of the state. This was in fact the pattern already set in colonial days. Planned economies, with the emphasis on the public sector were therefore necessary and inevitable; and in the view of most of the contributors to this volume the remarkable thing is that most African governments have been content to leave the argument there. With a few exceptions, notably Ghana and Guinea, they have not sought to reinforce the necessities of development economics with an orthodox socialist theory of public ownership of the means of production. And they have all, even Ghana, been prepared to make a place for private enterprise from overseas.
The second, and still more compelling, necessity of the independent African states has been the attempt to replace tribalism by the sense of nationhood. For this the chosen instrument has been the single, national party, to which all may belong, and within which all may express themselves—though none may oppose it from the outside. Although liable to all the familiar abuses of totalitarianism, this, as various contributors point out, is a very different conception of the partly charged with the dissemination of revealed truth. With, again, the exception of Ghana, where Colin Legum detects in Nkrumahism a hopeless attempt to pose as the African Lenin, national party is primarily old tribe writ large. And the claim that traditional African societies already possessed the socialist virtues of solidarity and classlessness is to be seen as a praiseworthy attempt to soften the transition from tribalism to nationalism rather than as a sinister design to lead the new nations into the one path of Marxist-Leninist truth.
The third necessity for the independent African states is to pay lip-service to Pan-Africanism. This in the view of the contributors is a necessity which arises from the novelty and weakness of national feeling. Africans, they say, are conscious firstly of their tribal affiliations, and secondly of their African-ness. It is the intermediate sense of nationhood that offers the least immediate appeal, and therefore politicians must temporarily capitalize on the larger loyalty. But this does not imply any real movement towards a Union of African Socialist Republics. It is significant that most of the literature of Pan-Africanism has been written by people who saw Africa from the outside, and therefore saw it whole. The current thinking of Africans inside Africa is increasingly regional rather than continental.
A symposium, it is well-known, is the reviewer’s nightmare, for any attempt to bandy authors’ names and subjects must result in a dead catalogue. Too often the symposium is also a nightmare to the reader. But African Socialism does not fall under this condemnation. The contributions are well-knit, and they provide a more rational as well as a more reassuring assessment of “the importance of being black” than the rather shocked censoriousness of Mr. Moraes.