The two works heading this list are the opening salvo of a young Harvard historian, of whom we shall certainly hear more. The first shot is a hasty one, fired from the battery of his early lectures. The second is more deadly, coming from his own first-hand research. Dr. Rotberg’s Political History is nevertheless the most important work of historical synthesis about Africa which has yet been written by an American. It deals with the whole tropical zone of the continent, from the Sahara to the Limpopo, from ancient times until the present. Within the narrow limits of the author’s conception of history, the research that has gone into it is exceedingly thorough. Its facts are seldom wrong. For all that, it is a strangely unimaginative and, in many ways, an old-fashioned book. Fifty years of anthropological work on Africa is virtually ignored. The use of archaeological evidence is slight and uncertain. Even in dealing with avowedly historical evidence Rotberg has come less than half-way to meet the current trend among historians of Africa, which is to be rigorous in using the external sources for what they tell us about Africa as opposed to Europeans in Africa. Rotberg has practiced no such economy. He has three long chapters on exploration, and a fourth on the slave trade, all of which might appear more appropriately in a textbook on European expansion.
To most historians of Africa today the paramount fact about the slave trade is that it was at least a form of trade, and that the African peoples who practiced it fared on the whole better than those who had no external trade at all. The slave-trading states of western Africa were the first to benefit from the American food-crops—especially maize and manioc—which made possible the growth of dense populations in the humid regions around the Guinea and Congo forests. Those who sold slaves bought guns, which they used, not only to capture more slaves, but also to create larger political units than had existed before—to the great benefit of most of their inhabitants. The opening of the Atlantic trade enabled the peoples of the Guinea coast to turn the tables on their ancient oppressors—the armored horsemen of the sub-Saharan savannah. With questions of this kind Rotberg has not tried to wrestle. Like the colonial historians of yesterday, he has concentrated on the oceanic aspects of the trade, which are in fact more relevant to the history of America than to that of Africa.
When he comes to modern times Rotberg displays another set of ideas very different from those of most contemporary African historians. Partly because he has so largely failed to study the pre-colonial situation in the interior of Africa, he sees the colonial partition of the continent as a series of outright military conquests, following as a logical sequel upon the commercial and missionary penetration of the later nineteenth century. In contrast with this view most historians of the colonial period have been more impressed by the hesitancy and weakness of the early colonial governments than by their strength. They have noticed how the numerically insignificant forces of the colonial powers had to infiltrate gradually and by diplomacy into the pre-existing pattern of inter-tribal politics, and how in large parts of Africa pre-colonial institutions were able to survive in an only slightly modified form during most of the colonial period. According to this view the origins of nationalism are to be sought pri-successfully by African societies throughout colonial times. Rotberg, however, sees little but conquest, resentment, and rebellion, expressed first in military revolts on a tribal basis, next in movements of religious dissent from mission-planted Christianity, and finally in the political efforts of the educated elite.
Rotberg’s peculiar outlook is no doubt partly due to the fact that he is a specialist in Central Africa, where in recent history the themes of conquest, rebellion, and religious dissent stand out most clearly. The first fruits of this specialization are present in his earlier book, The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa, and they are remarkable. This political history of Zambia and Malawi since the beginning of the colonial period is the first such book to be written about any part of Africa after a full study of the surviving British colonial government archives up to 1945. Rotberg does not say how he obtained access to such recent materials, but presumably others will now be allowed to follow where he has pioneered. At all events, he has seen things which no other historian has seen before—in particular, files relating to all the different kinds of local welfare and other associations of the 1930s and Forties out of which the nationalist politics of the 1950s and Sixties emerged. This is exciting stuff, because it shows in convincing detail how far, when the moment for action came, the nationalist leaders were able to build upon an existing network of local associations in which the germ of nationalism was already present. Those who still believe that African nationalism was the work of a handful of unrepresentative agitators should read Rotberg’s book and think again.
It is not only in his use of government records that Rotberg has made a valuable contribution. Before turning to political history he made a detailed study of Christian missions in Zambia, the full results of which still await publication. This earlier work has given him special and important insights. Two of the most interesting chapters in his Rise of Nationalism deal with the history of African secessionist movements which broke away from the mission-founded churches and acted as channels for the expression of political as well as religious discontent. It is a pity that the influence of “orthodox” mission Christianity on African politics is virtually ignored in comparison with the space given to the influence of religious dissent. After all, most schools in Central Africa were mission schools, and most Christians in Zambia and Malawi today are still Roman Catholics or Presbyterians or Anglicans or Methodists rather than members of local dissenting churches. I would place the influence of “orthodox” Christianity much higher than Rotberg has done.
I would also place much higher the influence of external political factors. Rotberg has written a story of which every Malawian and Zambian will feel proud. But the total effect of his book is one of African peoples liberating themselves by their own efforts from the joint yokes of colonial rule and settler domination. There is no hint of the place of Central Africa in the Pan-African struggle, no mention of the forces operating in Britain to break the Federation and hasten decolonization. One looks in vain for the name of Devlin; that of Monckton appears once, that of Michael Scott three times. It is symptomatic of Rotberg’s total concentration on the local situation that the name of Lyttelton, the most important of the British Colonial Ministers in his story, is consistently misspelled.
John Hatch, author of A History of Postwar Africa, was for seven years the Commonwealth Officer of the British Labour Party, and in that capacity was intimately concerned with many leaders of the African independence movement. His knowledge of modern Africa, French-speaking as well as English-speaking, is remarkably solid. It is disappointing, however, that his book is so narrowly a history of the mechanics of decolonization, country by country, party by party, conference by dreary conference. It proceeds geographically, in two sweeps around the continent—from West to South, to Center, to East, to North. The first sweep takes 167 pages, just to get the pieces on the board. The second sweep deals with decolonization to the north of the Zambezi and with reaction to the south of it. All we hear about the independent states is crammed into an epilogue of sixteen pages. It is a story not of adventures by young nations, but of grim, measured retreat by their former rulers. The real African revolution, Hatch insists, will be the economic revolution. And that is still to come.
The idea of starting a modern history of Africa in 1945—almost ten years before decolonization got into its stride—was a good one. But Hatch is a negative kind of anti-imperialist, who has eyes only for the shortcomings of the colonial system that were to lead to its overthrow. He has completely failed to convey the tremendous achievements of the last ten years of European rule in Africa, which were in a very real sense the triumphant culmination of the sixty years of spade work that had gone before. In any long view the postwar decade was the period when the African colonies of France and Britain were just beginning to come alive—when education was starting to have an effect and economic enterprise to burgeon, when tiny administrative settlements were growing into towns, when paved roads and airfields were opening up the back-country. The fact that, everywhere between the Zambezi and the Atlas, the momentum of change was at the same time slipping from European into African hands was a fulfillment, not a disease. To speak of Uganda, for example, as being “still sunk in feudalism” in the 1950s is utter nonsense. Even if the emergent politicians of Buganda were temporarily seeking to outbid each other in loyalty to the Kabaka, the country as a whole was, like most other African countries, undergoing the greatest renaissance in its history. The Kabaka was nothing but a symbol of one part of Uganda’s desire to preserve something of its historic individuality in the post-independence world.
What one mainly wants to know about the first postwar decade is the direction and the pace of change in different parts of the continent before the emergence of mass politics. Of this I think that Hatch has given only a narrow, fragmented, and overly political survey. As to the second postwar decade, what one wants, and all that one can possibly hope for within the compass of half a book, is some assessment of how far the direction and pace of change in Africa has been altered by the advent of mass politics and independence. One cannot in so short a space include the details of party-building and constitution-making in every single African country, yet this is just what Hatch has valiantly but unsuccessfully tried to do. Ghana’s march to independence makes a comparatively simple story with a few well-marked turning points, which can be clearly summarized in twelve pages; but Nigeria’s far more complex evolution cannot be so treated, while the one or two pages allotted to countries like Sierra Leone and Somalia are even less satisfactory. A single volume study of all Africa cannot be comprehensive. It must generalize and give examples, and leave the reader to fill in the details for himself by further study.
Mr. Schwartz’s Nigeria is a timely and wholly admirable successor to Dr. James Coleman’s Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, which appeared ten years ago and still remains the leading study of Nigeria’s political evolution up to 1954. Schwartz has five introductory chapters, which summarize the ground covered by Coleman, but the central part of his book consists of a lucid, analytical and yet impressively succinct exposition of the course of Nigerian politics since the eve-of-independence election of 1959. No previous writer has so successfully delineated the political problem presented by the three original regions—the North, the East, and the West—each with an ethnic majority which was certain to vote mainly on ethnic considerations, and yet each comprising substantial minorities which might have been expected to seek their political salvation by supporting the dominant parties of regions other than their own. Faced with this situation, the main regional parties of the North and the East chose to confine their campaigns mainly to their own regions with the object of reaching a mutual accommodation when the election was over. The third main party, the Western-based Action Group of Chief Awolowo made a bold bid for the minority votes of the other two regions but failed to score anything like the expected results, because most of the minorities were too frightened of the dominant majorities to vote against them. Instead of accepting this verdict as final, Awolowo, now leading the Opposition in the Federal Parliament, developed an increasingly radical policy in the attempt to create a workable nation-wide platform. The result was to antagonize those of his own Western supporters who were content to maintain a merely regional supremacy. This opened the way for Chief Akintola’s revolt against Awolowo in the Western region, which is still very much the dominant issue in Nigerian politics.
It is here that one detects the missing link in Schwartz’s otherwise impeccable analysis. How came it that the Federal Prime Minister, Sir Abubakr Tafawa Balewa, and the dominant Northern core of the Federal Government suddenly switched from its earlier alliance with the Eastern (NCNC) party to support of Akintola and his Western rebels? Is it possible that Akintola’s revolt was the result of prior collusion with the Northerners in the Federal government? Why has Akintola only just dared to face an election in the Western Region? Is it the case, as so many Yorubas still claim despite the election results, that an unrepresentative clique now holds power in the West, and, if so, why have the Northerners chosen to look for their main outside support here, rather than, as before, in the East? I do not know the answers to these questions, and it may be that there is insufficient evidence to answer them; but it does seem that some closer study of the deteriorating relations between the Northerners and the Easterners during their period of close association from 1959 to 1963 would have been illuminating.
The final third of Schwartz’s book is analytical and reflective. He concludes that, despite the increasingly one-party trend in the regions, the balance of power at the center will continue to act as an important safeguard of democracy, if only because it leaves key men like federal judges, civil servants, soldiers, and policemen less dependent upon the favor of politicians than they are in unitary one-party states. This is probably a more important factor than the “fundamental human rights” which have been written into the constitution, but which are marred, as Schwartz points out, by an excessive legalistic spelling out of “reasonable” exceptions. The constitution leaves the Federal government in a very strong position in economic matters, and this power will tend to grow as the Nigerian economy is industrialized. There is a real hope that this growing economic power at the center will offset the likely hardening of ethnic and religious discords within the regions. In foreign policy it is the poltical dominance of the North that is responsible for Nigeria’s exceptional moderation. Schwartz is certainly correct in saying that “the Northerners, though they did not benefit from colonialism nearly as much as did the Southerners, also were less humiliated and uprooted by the colonial experience.” They can therefore face the world more confidently and less aggressively. This does not mean, however, that Nigeria is more “pro-Western” than other African countries. Mr. Schwartz indeed foresees that she will move into an increasingly “neutralist” position. But Nigerian “neutralism” will be a genuine “neutralism,” conditioned more by reason and less by emotion than that of some African states.
December 23, 1965