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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.