Talked recently with a young man originally from Ethiopia but now living in the US. He keeps up with his native land and was just back from a visit. I asked him how things were. He said: “It's Africa, you know what that means, corruption and conflict.” He spoke of the 2005 election and the resulting denial and repression of those he termed the “winners” and lamented the current situation in which, as he put it, the third largest ethnic group rules over the rest of the “80 tribes” that live in Ethiopia.
It is easy to see why someone might see Africa – mired in poverty, corruption and violence – as a land without much of a future. It's hard to name one functioning multi-ethnic democracy on the continent. Some countries have elections but these serve either to anoint those already in control and holding all the advantages of state power – official and otherwise – or to simply provide a patina of legitimacy for autocratic, tribally based rulers and cliques. African countries remain on the periphery of the global economy. As such they must earn their living in an environment where rapid technological change and the built-in advantages of the already developed core leave them little room for much more than the export of raw materials and the importation of finished goods. This may produce some wealth but it runs into the hands of those with the local monopoly. At best, it may feature as a form of primitive capital accumulation but even then the trickle down cannot keep up with rising populations and expectations. It would take an extraordinary amount of good governance, popular support and patience for even gradual economic development to lift these countries to the level of societal well-being basic to sustaining democratic norms, procedures and results.
History dealt Africa two cruel blows. The first was the slave traffic. Slavery certainly existed before the outsiders – European and Arab – brought it to the continent. But the tremendous demand created especially by the traffic to the New World magnified the level of violence already existing among the many native groupings. Slavery also was the entry point of European expansion into Africa, followed by the exploitation of natural resources and colonization. This was the second blow, the carving up of Africa into territorial units that took no regard of existing tribal patterns and political arrangements. There had been empires and nascent states before colonization but these were based on local realities with their own ebb and flow. Once this was super-ceded by the state boundaries drawn up by the Europeans, disparate peoples found themselves lumped together inside arbitrarily chosen fences. After independence – with almost no experience of political participation or democracy – they were left in the hands of those willing and able to use identity politics and violence to seize and hold power. Corruption, poverty and repression within the framework of tribally-based competition for space – economic and political – became the norm.
Some see democracy as the way to move forward. But democracy requires a level of economic development and political maturity (especially a willingness to see someone not like yourself win power). In a context of scarce resources, winner-take-all, tribal politics democracy is likely either to fail or simply produce further conflict between winners and losers. It would be nice if some model of power-sharing might work within federal or confederal arrangements. But such mechanisms also require an extraordinary degree of tolerance and political experience to function in a sustained fashion, especially in the context of economic underdevelopment.
In the history of Europe, stable states grew from heterogeneous tribes only through the growth of centralized states imposing a “national” culture and language. For the future of Africa, it may be necessary for the West to temper efforts to export “democracy” with an understanding of its own history. Acting against genocide or gross human rights abuse is an international responsibility. But it will also be necessary to recognize that over the next decades that African states will have to find their own way of constructing nations within the confines of the colonial fences left them.