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West African Lessons

Politics in West Africa

by W. Arthur Lewis
Oxford, 90 pp., $3.50

The Penetration of Africa: European Exploration in North and West Africa to 1815

by Robin Hallett
Praeger, 458 pp., $8.00

Politics in West Africa by Professor Arthur Lewis is distinguished by its brevity and its brilliance. This book is about the single-party state, which Lewis, an eminent economist and a specialist in centralized planning, finds not only repulsive but irrelevant to all the major problems of West Africa. As a former economic adviser to Nkrumah, he speaks from direct experience of at least one single-party state. This experience was evidently a disillusioning one. Certainly his castigation of West African politicians is devastating. “Our political scientists,” he scornfully observes, “fall over themselves to demonstrate that democracy is suitable only for Europeans and North Americans, and in the sacred names of ‘charisma,’ ‘modernisation,’ and ‘national unity’ call upon us to admire any demagogue who, aided by a loud voice and a bunch of hooligans, captures the state and suppresses his rivals.” Single-party power, he insists, was seized, not granted, by the voters. It was seized by people of low quality, with an adolescent attitude to politics typified in such sayings as Nkrumah’s “Seek ye first the political kingdom …” Conscious of their own inferiority, such men feel that in order to survive they must end the independence of trades unions, churches, universities, and all other free institutions. “They make a desert of democracy and call it social peace.” Such men enjoy making arbitrary decisions, ignoring expert advice. They are quickly corrupted by money and power. “Men who claim to be democrats in fact behave like emperors…They dress themselves up in uniforms, build themselves palaces, bring all other traffic to a standstill when they drive, hold fancy parades and generally demand to be treated like Egyptian Pharoahs.” The mistake one should avoid at all costs is that of thinking that such behavior, which would be deplorable and wrong in any other continent, is natural and right in Africa. “It is not natural to West African culture except in the sense in which cancer is natural to man…It is a sickness from which West Africa deserves to recover.”

THE RECENT MILITARY coups d’état, especially those in Nigeria and Ghana, may indeed provide some indication that West Africa is beginning its recovery. All of them may be taken to imply a popular judgment against the corruption of politicians. It may well be that the period of presidential palace-building and ministerial high living is nearly at an end. It will, however, be interesting to see whether Lewis’s dismissal of the single-party state proves as prophetic as his dismissal of those who created it. For in his opinion the single-party state is not only not inevitable in the West African situation: it is positively unnatural. It is unnatural because in Africa the sense of tribe is still so much stronger than the sense of nationality. The natural political party in Africa, says Lewis, is one with a geographical and ethnic base; and therefore the natural constitution for an African country is one which provides for the sharing of power between two or three such ethnic parties. “What is wrong with the parties in new states is…that their inheritance from European political philosophy is the language and tactics of the class war rather than the language and tactics of groups whose problem is to learn to live in coalition…The new states would have fared better with an American heritage, which would have taken the federal idea for granted.”

But I wonder whether Lewis is not here committing precisely the error of which he accuses the political scientists, of arguing that Africans, because they are Africans, need a different kind of democracy from other people. I suspect that, had he come to the study of West African politics from a background of history rather than economics, he would not have argued as he has done. For the historical fact is that the parties that won independence in Africa were nationally, and not ethnically, based. Otherwise they would not have succeeded in unseating the colonial governments. It was rather the opposition parties that tended to be ethnically based; and we must never forget that most of these local opposition parties were at least as ready to make a desert of democracy as the national parties were. To that extent they share responsibility for the lapse into single-party dictatorships. It is very doubtful, for example, whether the National Liberation Movement of Ghana would have produced a more democratic government than Nkrumah’s C.P.P., and certainly the violent and intimidatory tactics of the N.L.M. were what enabled Nkrumah to move so quickly towards single-party powers.

Instead, I tend to think that the West Africans got the kind of politicians they deserved, or rather that they got the kind of politicians they were prepared for. It was fortunate, rather than unfortunate, that the national parties that won political power from the colonial governments were able to keep it, even by strong-arm methods, for a period long enough to tide the new nations over the greatest perils of disintegration. I think that most West African voters of ten years ago expected their rulers to spend lavishly and to make frequent and arbitrary demonstrations of their power. If they have now learned their lesson, well and good. But what is to take the place of the single-party as military rule in its turn becomes stale? According to Lewis, the answer should be coalitions of geographically and ethnically based parties elected by proportional representation, with all parties being offered seats in all decision-making bodies, including the cabinet. But I wonder whether nation-building does not demand something more positive than this.

ROBIN HALLETT’S The Penetration of Africa is the first of two volumes which will cover the forty-two-year period leading up to the opening of the River Niger in 1830. During this time the main drive in African exploration came from the precursor of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society—the small, learned, and aristocratic body called the African Association. Originating in the motion of a London dining-club that “while we continue ignorant of so large a portion of the globe, that ignorance must be considered as a degree of reproach upon the present age,” the Association found a moving spirit in Sir Joseph Banks, the well-to-do naturalist who had accompanied Captain Cook on his great voyage of discovery in the Pacific, and who was President of the Royal Society from 1778 till 1820. The hundred or so members of the African Association, who each subscribed five guineas a year, were liberal-minded men of affairs. Their support of exploration was prompted by utility rather than romance. But they expected no personal gains, and they were prepared to wait for results. Banks set the target—the interior of West Africa, whose inhabitants had been trading with the Moslems of North Africa for a thousand years, but whose country had remained completely concealed from the Europeans who had been trading for three hundred years around the Atlantic coast. Banks, again, chose the explorers—Lucas and Ledyard, Houghton and Park and Hornemann—and set them probing, across the deserts from Tripoli and Egypt, and up the rivers from the west. In retrospect it looks like a grand design. At the time it must have seemed more like a desperate course of expediency, moving on from disaster in one direction to limited success in the next.

The undoubted hero of Hallett’s first volume is Mungo Park, the young Scottish doctor, who in 1795-6 made his way from the Gambia to the Upper Niger, and who in 1805 returned to West Africa, to perish in the Bussa rapids on the northwestern frontier of modern Nigeria. Leo Africanus, the sixteenth-century Moorish traveler to the western Sudan, and the last whose works were known in Christian Europe, had made an extraordinary error of memory by saying that the Niger flowed from East to West; it was therefore an epoch-making event when on the 20th July 1796 Park saw “with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission—the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward.” It was the end of a long chapter. Henceforward the search for the gateway to the West African interior would be transferred from Upper to Lower Guinea, from the Senegambia to modern Nigeria. Hallett’s second volume will doubtless center upon the Tripoli-based expedition of Oudney, Denham, and Clapperton to Bornu and Hausaland, and upon the final discovery of the Lower Niger by the brothers Lander.

Since the main theme of Hallett’s work concerns the western bulge of Africa, I find it a pity that it has been presented against a backcloth which seeks to summarize the exploration of all Africa through all the centuries. Hallett has exceptional talent as a writer, and, had he worked to a more economical plan, he could have produced a book which would have put, say, Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile in the shade. But, as he admits in his Introduction, one line of inquiry led to another. A teaching post in West Africa led him to the printed works of the explorers. These led him on to the manuscript records of the African Association and of the British government, which revealed that what he had regarded as a series of isolated expeditions were in fact part of a great movement of exploration that reached back to the year 1788, when the African Association had been founded. This in turn led him to ask why men in the eighteenth century were interested in Africa, and what was the knowledge about Africa with which they started upon their enterprise. “So I found myself led back by logical degrees to the Portuguese, who had known so much and told so little, to the Arab geographers, to Ptolemy and Pliny, and at last to old Herodotus, Father of History, beyond whom—with relief I recognized—it was not necessary to go.” Hallett has told his Odyssey with charm and learning, but at the expense of an evident lack of proportion which spoils what might have been a masterpiece.

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