Courtesy Reuters

Well in evidence in Herodotus and Thucydides, the idea that peoples have an aggregate moral character and political temperament is one of the foundations of Western statecraft. It appears in a modern version in Machiavelli, who asserts that prediction of human events, for the purpose of making foreign policy, is facilitated if one observes that "nations preserve for a long time the same character, ever exhibiting the same disposition to avarice, or bad faith, or to some other special vice or virtue." At its worst, the "national character" approach consists of a litany of ethnocentric stereotypes which tells us more about the prejudices of the observer than about the characteristics of the observed. At its best, as in Tocqueville's analysis of the character of Americans, it seeks to derive from historical experience and observable cultural patterns features which are likely to have a lasting effect on the formation of habits and beliefs in the political realm.

Knowledge of this sort is often the foundation for the organization of "civilization" courses in institutions of higher education and is incorporated into the general education of future decision-makers. For better or for worse, whether they are treated as explicit working hypotheses or remain unspoken assumptions, whether they are triggered off by journalistic images or learned from scholarly accounts, such general notions are almost always a major starting point for the analysis of societies other than our own. The impressions formed on first contact, the initial discovery of the others, generally have a long life. They act as the durable lenses through which distant realities are perceived.

What are the lenses through which we perceive Black Africa, a region of great diversity, whose 300 million people are allocated by anthropologists into a multitude of ethnographic units, and whose states occupy nearly one- fourth of the seats in the General Assembly? It is significant that there are few statements concerning African culture or civilization which can be used as the sort of starting point for general understanding we have for other regions of the world, including even other parts of the Third World. Indeed, it can be argued that the absence of such a beginning is the most important characteristic of the thought-set we bring to bear on that continent. There is, instead, another beginning, associated with the images of blackness and darkness which are among the fundamental concepts of Western civilization. In the modern literature of the English-speaking world, the only great work of literary imagination that uses Africa as a central place is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a novel about many things, including the corrupting consequences of colonialism for the colonizer. What is most relevant for the present purpose, however, is that the novel casts Africa in the role of the black mirror of our own selves; the savage in Africa is the savage in us; life in Africa is life deprived of civilization, the id unbounded.

While it is unlikely that many recent observers of Africa made a conscious connection between Conrad's powerful images and the continent they now observe, it is likely that the image of a Dark Continent, inhabited by savage black men, remains a central, albeit often unspoken, assumption behind many of our perceptions of contemporary African political life. The news from Africa more often than not confirms our black thoughts. The first headlines, two decades ago, triggered off for newspaper readers in the English-speaking world the fearsome image of Mau Mau, crystallized for many into Robert Ruark's sensational best-selling potboiler, Something of Value. The nightmare of savages disembarking at Idlewild to occupy their seats at the United Nations was confirmed by the Congo. Born prematurely amid turmoil, bereft of all prerequisites for political viability, abandoned on the doorstep of an international system still in the throes of the cold war, divided into a multitude of tribes, led by political caricatures, the Congo seemed to exhibit during the first half of the 1960s a degree of savage violence which confirmed Joseph Conrad's acumen in selecting that country as his locale.

For many Africa-watchers, this horrifying nightmare heightened the contrast between the Congo and Nigeria, a country which clearly demonstrated the benefits of enlightened colonialism: the best-prepared, the most promising, the least pusillanimous, the best-led country in Black Africa. . . . But no sooner had the Congo disappeared from the headlines-in an apocalyptic vision of drug-crazed Simba warriors, their ferocity heightened by cannibalistic orgies, marching on Stanleyville where huddled whites waited for rescue from the skies-than Nigeria experienced the bloodiest military coup to date. During the ensuing five years, the international spotlight revealed there horrors which vied with the Congo's. Meanwhile, in Rwanda, on and off, rivers of blood. . . .

Not the least source of our stereotype of the unrestrained savage is the particular form that violent clashes take when they do erupt in Africa. Particularly shocking to the sensibilities of observers accustomed to the ways of death in more industrialized societies are the ways of death that occur under conditions of low-level technology. We view as more civilized death inflicted at a distance by means of bullets, or preferably even more impersonally by means of bombs, than death inflicted by the blade at the end of an arm. Civilized warriors clean up the battlefield, savages leave mutilated corpses to rot on a jungle path. That the former kill more comfortably and hence more massively than the latter is not the basis on which we choose to compare. Faced with the horrible fact that in Africa the ravages of even a small war, consisting of intermittent skirmishes, can cause famine among millions deprived of the meager harvest of a single annual crop, we are more concerned with attributing blame than with reflecting on the even graver long-term consequences of our own wars, or on the fundamental obligations the persistence of such possibilities imposes on us. Our filter selects features that emphasize the great gap which separates us from Africans. It is the most powerful means we can summon to deny our common brotherhood.


The central image is by now well established. The author of a recent book on Africa sponsored by a highly respected Washington institution summarizes the past as follows: "Animism was the dominant religion. . . . Tribal wars were frequent and savage by modern Western standards. Ritual cannibalism and indigenous slavery were widespread."[i] Citing as his authority the statement by a journalist, "A female continent, Black Africa was to be 'discovered,' penetrated and dominated by others," the same author concludes his analysis of the past as follows: "Physically and politically, tropical Africa was passive." And what sort of life does this savage- passive tribal female lead today? It is not surprising that after a "premature transfer of sovereignty" from "mature metropolitan governments in Europe" to "fledgling leaders with little experience in the art of state politics," savagery came to the fore: "In the Congo, Nigeria, the Sudan and elsewhere, Western rules of war-respect for civilians, fair treatment for prisoners, etc.-have given way to atavistic and brutal behavior that shows no mercy for civilians or prisoners. . . ."[ii]

The clincher in this sort of analysis is the old-fashioned word "atavism." Scratch an African, remove the English, French or Belgian veneer, and you will find the Ancestor. Not the Noble Savage of yore, nor the Brainy Savage of contemporary structuralist anthropology, but the Savage tout court-in other words, the Cannibal-who does not even practice homicide in the approved manner. Even when it is expressed in less blatantly racist form, the message is the same: Most of the countries of Black Africa are tribal cockpits, contained within artificial boundaries, whose terrifying potential for violence is barely held in check by unreliable leaders and a rapidly receding façade of Western civilization. Whereas our images of the European or of the Asian past, expressed in such terms as "feudalism," "piety," "familism," "hierarchic order," evoke at least some ambivalence toward waning traditions, our key recurring concept in connection with Africa is strictly negative-"tribalism." The word "tribe," which referred originally to a Roman social group comprising numerous families, clans or generations together with slaves, dependents or adopted strangers, has become a pejorative concept. Countries whose social and political organization we view as "tribal" necessarily suffer from "tribalism," the irrational exaltation of tribes above all other groups. This exaltation leads to violence; and the violence itself takes horrible forms, a phenomenon which confirms the validity of our analysis.

Like other concepts of this sort, "tribalism" explains too little or too much. If it explains the Congo in 1960-1965, and Nigeria in 1966-1971, then how do we account for the peacefulness of the former (now Zaïre) in the last seven years, and for the state of Nigeria before and after the civil war? If this dreaded force looms so large throughout Africa, then why is there no permanent war of all against all? When applied to Africa, the concept "tribalism" hides more than it reveals, Another starting point is needed.


We have two basic maps of Africa: one, updated since 1960, shows the boundaries of states; the other, established without specific time- reference, is ethnographic. The establishment of ethnographic maps for individual territories and for Africa as a whole, often for the purpose of facilitating colonial administration, fostered a view of it as a region divided into permanent, mutually exclusive entities, to which individuals were bound by very strong and exclusive ties. But the strongest attachments of individuals, at the time of the establishment of the maps as well as today, were to social groups smaller than the designated units, segments to which direct descent could be traced and which retained a daily reality. At the same time, there existed in Africa a variety of nonethnic or transethnic membership groups based on occupation, economic exchange, religious identity, political alliance or mere proximity of residence. Most larger African societies made provisions for the presence of "strangers" in their midst.

Furthermore, the accumulating evidence based on the history of particular groups indicates very clearly that these were neither socially nor geographically immobile. As in other parts of the world, individuals and populations were absorbed into groups other than the one into which they were born-by necessity or by choice. Smaller units were amalgamated into larger ones, larger ones fell apart. Therefore, African ethnographic units should be viewed as historical entities, in some sense as "artificial" as contemporary African countries are said to be. Ethnographic maps of Africa should be viewed as pages in a yet unwritten historical atlas, which, when it is completed, will also contain pages revealing other dimensions of culture and society, all of them changing over time.

To say that the boundaries of contemporary African countries are "artificial" tells us less about Africa than about our own historical myths concerning the emergence of nation-states. The boundaries of France, Germany or of the United States of America were established by an equally artificial process, but usually over a longer period of time and in the more distant past. What is probably most distinctive about Africa in this respect is that the establishment of a particular territorial claim did not require the ability to enforce that claim against those of others, as it usually did in Europe. Hence, for nearly three-quarters of a century, the European colonies in Africa were ruled lightly in comparison with other parts of the world. Very little effort was made to transform the population of these territories into subjects, let alone citizens.

The changes that began to occur can be viewed as a dialectical interaction between European and African intentions, and including unintentional consequences of both. Some aspects of the ethnographic map were frozen at the time of contact. For example, processes of conquest were usually arrested at the point they had reached; this ensured, on the one hand, that amalgamation was not completed, and on the other hand, that decay would not set in. Simultaneously, other aspects of the map experienced accelerated change. While the geographical movement of entire societies was generally arrested, there was greater movement of individuals and families. The inhabitants of several village societies might be grouped together for administrative purposes and be given a common designation; peoples might be separated into different administrative districts or even countries, and be given distinct names. New distinctions, stemming from the importation of a new religion (including in some countries mutually hostile varieties of Christianity), from growing economic, educational and political differentiations, as well as from residence in new towns, began to appear.

An awareness of these processes of change, vastly accelerated during the quarter-century since World War II, should help us understand that some "ethnic groups" or "tribes" to which "traditional attachments" came to be expressed are, in fact, of recent creation. Moreover, the very real appearance of an ethnic dimension in the politics of African states during the period of decolonization and after independence does not mean that the dimension is exhaustive, overwhelming or determinative. Other forms of social differentiation are relevant for African political life. And it is usually the combination of ethnic distinctiveness with these other forms that creates very severe problems in Africa as in all other contemporary societies. In such cases, it is not simply the fact that Africans are attached to their ethnic units which is a determinative source of conflict; it is rather that, in a given situation, ethnic identities take on new meanings.

Tense situations occur wherever the impact of colonization has produced very differentiated patterns of regional change. Take the simple situation of a country containing two groups, the Y's and the X's. The Y's are a minority of the population, located near the sea. Regardless of past relationships between them when there were merely X's and Y's, there are now poor X's and rich Y's, lesser-educated X's and better-educated Y's. The Y's were the clerks and the technicians of colonization, and as such were associated with its dominion; but they were also its intellectuals, and as such its most active opponents. The Y's were naturally one jump ahead in the organization of the movements and parties that led to independence and gained access to the spoils of political power. But the introduction of representative government founded on universal suffrage in such a situation is a source of great tension, as the X's constitute a numerical majority. The Y's can maintain themselves in power only by reducing the consequences of democracy, thus confirming in the eyes of the X's that their own ethnic group is being discriminated against by the new oppressors. If the X's ("tough up-country men") had been recruited preferentially into the colonial army, the remedy is obvious. If, to complicate matters, the Y's had previously established their own dominion over the X's by conquest, a dominion taken for granted and sustained by the colonizing power under a system of indirect rule, the potential consequences of the introduction of representative democracy amount to nothing more or less than a social revolution.

Such clear-cut situations are by no means typical of contemporary Africa. In rare cases, they are the situation (Rwanda, Zanzibar). More commonly, a multitude of situations can be found in a single country, and the sort of sharp antagonism which arises in the above cases may characterize the relationships between two particular groups in one small or large region. Communal conflict may arise, but it is generally contained, or at least less visible to outside observers. It also stands to reason that when severe disturbances occur at the very center of the society, whether related or unrelated to situations of this sort, the antagonisms tend to be expressed with fewer constraints. The interruption of normal processes of government in the capital provides the occasion for a règlement de comptes in the country.


To the above qualifications of "tribalism" one could add a lengthy discussion of its less obvious positive aspects, in particular how much the persistence of ethnic attachments in Africa operates against the unchecked development of urban-rural and class cleavages. But even if that is kept in mind, and even if it is acknowledged that the least traditional aspects of ethnicity are the most significant in relation to contemporary politics, and that communal conflict is as much a consequence as a cause of political disturbances, it nevertheless remains the case that tensions involving an ethnic component, and especially large-scale violence, surfaced more prominently after independence than before. This phenomenon confirms the view that while before independence Black Africa experienced development, after independence it experienced decay. Since the most obvious thing that happened was a change in the race of the rulers, this view in turn evokes an invidious comparison between the political acumen of the white masters of Africa and the incompetence of their black successors. An alternative way of comparing their performances is to examine whether they face the same political tasks and have the same means at their disposal.

Beneath the variations in the specific components of their colonial policies, the British, French and Belgian colonizers of Africa developed over time for the government of their possessions a strikingly uniform regime which might be called the "administrative state." This sort of regime came most naturally to the French, who had experienced it at home in recent times and where it had left important sequels; but even the British and the Belgians were Napoleonic in Africa. In such a state the bureaucracy is nearly sovereign as long as it acts in accordance with the interests of key economic groups and is able to contain gross civil disturbances. Its rule is based primarily on strength, displayed by a powerful constabulary force (army, police, gendarmerie), and on competence, by a hierarchically organized field administration with authority over specialized services at all levels. The key personage between the uppermost level of the state and the local level is some form of prefect-in Africa, the District Officer or the Commandant de Cercle. Below, the administrative state extends its rule through a system of alliances with notables-in Africa, more or less traditional "chiefs." Such alliances add to strength, or force, an element of exchange founded on the mutual interest of the state and various groups in the population.

When a degree of popular representation and democracy becomes necessary, the administrative state is normally able to adjust accordingly. But the resulting pattern is very different from the one associated with the more liberal tradition of statecraft : the state is not merely a government to be entrusted to the winners of competitive marketplace politics. The administrative state, with a political purpose of its own, remains above parties, or becomes the dominant, if not exclusive, party. In any case, the process of exchange or of bargaining between state and society, conceived of as separate entities, is always controlled by the state itself. Great care is always exercised to avoid uncertainty about the outcome of social interactions, a major source of insecurity for the state. Backed by its coercive apparatus, the bureaucracy can consult the population, but on its own terms-by defining the categories which will be consulted, the problems to be placed on the agenda, and by organizing the necessary structures (including interest groups and even parties) in a suitable manner.

The initial demonstration of strength, sustained by the ability of Europeans to repress disturbances, fostered respect mixed with envy, fear and emulation. Toward the end of the colonial period, the exchange aspect of colonial regimes had become more prominent in most cases than the coercive aspect. Nevertheless, the coercive potential available to European governors remained a prominent feature of the situation and was used to control the very terms of bargaining which led to independence. The final act of exchange placed the administrative state's apparatus in the hands of Africans. Much as Tocqueville argued that beneath the upheavals that accompanied the French Revolution there was great continuity with the state- building project launched under the ancien régime, so it can be asserted that in Africa the fundamental character of the administrative state was not affected by racial change among its rulers.

What did change significantly were the tasks which the state assigned itself. While much has been said about the "revolution of rising expectations" among the general population of Third World countries, what is being stressed here is the "revolution of rising expectations" among their post-independence rulers. This stems less from the fact that they are "unrealistic" in comparison with their predecessors than from the fact that they necessarily define realities in very different ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than with regard to social and economic development. To put it rather bluntly, development was not one of the goals of the colonial state. Its concern was, at best, with improvement, which is not at all the same thing. Annual colonial reports could almost always look back with satisfaction upon the past and note how far the territory had come from the way it had been before: where there had been no schools, roads, hospitals, exports, imports, administrative buildings, there were now some . . . and some more every year. The same statistics, viewed by leaders of newly independent states, merely revealed how far behind their country was in relation to the rest of the world. In the same sense that they were concerned with improvement rather than with development, colonial rulers were concerned with the maintenance of peace rather than with nation- building. If the consequences of the transfer of outlook which accompanied the transfer of rulers are most cruelly obvious when they entail quantifiable indicators, they are not less dramatic when they entail the more qualitative indicators of nationhood.

The drastic increases in the burdens of African states since independence stem not merely from the subjective factor of the changes in the aspirations of their rulers. The new African rulers were left holding a most unruly bag. The very process of decolonization ensured that objective conditions would be much more difficult after independence than before. This is not to impute evil intentions to the European rulers, but rather to draw attention to the conjuncture produced by the timing of processes of change and the timing of independence.

For example, the development of a bureaucracy suitable to the needs of the "welfare-state" version of the colonial regime after World War II required the vast development of educational institutions. Given the relationship of the colonial state to African society, however, it was then possible to regulate educational development in keeping with an overall administrative plan, e.g. to produce or not to produce university graduates. Since these bureaucracies were being simultaneously developed and Africanized, it was relatively easy to absorb the flow of educated claimants to bureaucratic posts. With few exceptions, the process had barely begun in the post-World War II period; in most cases, the problem was more likely to be a shortage of educated Africans than an oversupply; and even where the supply surpassed local needs, it was possible to transfer the surplus to other territories within the same colonial empire.

But the new institutions, once created, continued to churn out graduates, regardless of need. The consequences of this inexorable process had their full impact only a few years later, when yearly cohorts of graduates knocked at the door only to find that offices were already staffed. The colonial rulers had the rather pleasant task of encouraging Africans to become educated and the rather reasonable task of building up clearly needed bureaucracies; their successors were faced with the choice of shutting off educational valves or of expanding bureaucracies needlessly. In any case, it was they who had to bear the full brunt of the anger of their youth.

Further consideration of the time lag between the origins of problems and their political consequences leads us back to our starting point, "tribalism." It was argued earlier that the extension of suffrage and the institutionalization of representative bodies dramatically reveal, both to the population affected by these changes and to outside observers, the inequities occasioned by the uneven impact of modernization. It was further argued that it is often this sort of dramatic revelation-involving what social scientists call "status reversals"-which is at the root of tragic communal conflicts. Now it becomes understandable that the political consequences of such sociological monstrosities will become visible only after a while and that, in the history of contemporary Africa, this "after a while" was sufficient to account for their appearance after independence rather than before. It must be remembered that almost everywhere, universal suffrage was granted as the very last political concession on the road to independence, often less than a year before the appointed date. Where conflicts arose immediately, they could still be contained by coercion because that instrument of government remained to the last minute under European command. Alternatively, the very appearance of such conflicts speeded up rather than slowed down the schedule of European departure. Their attitude could generally be described as après moi le déluge.

In other cases, the conflicts were exacerbated by an additional difference between the pre- and post-independence state: Whereas European rulers could add sufficient coercive weight to one side, defined as the legitimate side, to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion, African rulers are faced with the problem of the permeability of their own states to external influences. This is not to say that the state is always right; it simply draws attention to the difference between a conflict where one rather than both sides has access to reinforcements, both in materiel and in manpower. Without external aid, some secessions would not occur; left to their own devices, some African states would not be able to contain secessions. Whatever the outcome, and whatever injustice might be involved, it is unlikely that the horror would reach the level it can reach when outsiders intervene.

The consequences of some of the more monstrous aspects of colonial legacies are still coming to light. What demonic race of philosopher-kings would construct a pyramidal society stratified into three racial compartments, their own at the top, indigenes at the bottom, and an imported intermediate race-"Wogs"-in the middle? Would anyone expect such a society to work except under the watchful control of the philosopher-kings themselves? And if they depart from the scene, leaving the other two races to fend for themselves, can we consider those as anything but victims of a past that was not of their making?


In most of Africa, the War of the Tribes did not take place. Will not? Or not yet? Must we account for its nonoccurrence by the absence of problems, by a sort of sociological inertia which provides some respite, or by the wisdom and skill of Africans themselves? For reasons suggested, few African countries are immune to the possibility of communal conflict. It may well be that the situations with the greatest conflict potential have already exploded. In at least some of the situations where that occurred, there is evidence that peace can return through the concerted efforts of black men. What they endured and what they later achieved may help those who have benefited from a period of respite to tackle the problems of "tribalism" at their source, by moving toward greater equity of political and economic life.

Some African leaders, it turns out, have been doing so all along, usually by combining the structures and processes of the administrative state with a form of permanent consultation based on their deep knowledge of African society-not as it is alleged to have been "in the traditional past" but as it is today. The result, which might be called the "palaver state," may provide the beginnings of a formula of government adapted to African needs in this age. That not all the rulers of Black Africa, whether civilians or men in uniform, possess the wisdom and skill to devise equitable solutions to the problems of political life in ethnically and racially heterogeneous societies is something which we, of all people, should understand.

[ii] Ibid., p. 21.