WHAT FUTURE FOR AFRICA?

Even if the most ambitious programme of studies of the lives and contributions of individual African rulers, statesmen, religious leaders, scholars, could be carried out, we should still be a long way from achieving a reasonable understanding of African history. The principle that the history of a people cannot be adequately understood as the history of its dynasties, kings, paramount chiefs, nobility, and top people generally, is as valid for Africa as it is for Europe. Until we know a great deal more about the conditions of the people-vassal tribes, slaves, with their differing degrees of servitude, free commoners, the rank-and-file of the army-in the various African states at successive periods, we shall remain very much in the dark about the real character of these systems and of the causes of the changes which they have undergone. But until very recently such questions have scarcely been raised-let alone answered. Hence belle-lettrist generalizations about 'the African past', and speculations about 'the African future' derived from them, are likely in present circumstances to be valueless.

A further reason for our incompetence is that we do not, for the most part, see the contemporary African situation from at all the same standpoint as the majority of African intellectuals. We have come to make use of the term 'decolonization'; to take for granted that Western European colonial power is being withdrawn, more or less rapidly, from the African continent; and to be worried only about the possible consequences of this withdrawal. Few Africans, even those whose political thinking approximates most closely to that of Westerners, regard the phase of history through which we are now passing in this way. They are far more conscious of the survival of unlimited, naked colonial power in a number of states - Algeria, the Union of South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, the Portuguese territories; and the emergence of 'neo-colonialism' (meaning the gradual granting of formal independence, combined with the continuing effective presence of the metropolitan power) in others the states of the French Community, or, under very different conditions, the Congo. For Africans who think continentally, or globally-and there are many of these-'colonialism' remains a dominant aspect of the contemporary situation. indeed, they think with much greater subtlety than we about such matters, and are skilled in distinguishing the varying degrees of intensity with which 'le poids du colonialisme' presses upon the peoples of the various African states. And 'colonialism', in almost every context, means Western colonialism: naturally, since Africans do not feel themselves confronted with the fact, or likelihood, of domination from any other quarter. They are not at all impressed by the thesis, favoured by American publicists - 'European colonial systems are now virtually liquidated; therefore let us, the Free World, protect you against the dangers of Soviet or Chinese colonialism'.

There is a deeper sense in which we are ill-equipped to understand the processes of political and social change taking place in modern Africa.

We are too remote, historically, from our own revolutions three centuries away in the British, almost two centuries in the American, case. And when African intellectuals, interested in our histories as well as theirs, draw attention to resemblances between their political theories and those of the English Levellers, or Thomas Jefferson, or Robespierre, we seldom see the point. Americans in particular, are inclined to argue that Africans must either be democrats in their sense of the term-meaning 'Western values', anti-Communism, two-party systems, free enterprise, church-on-Sundays, glossy magazines, etcetera - or, if they claim to be democrats in some other sense, they must be crypto-Communists. But, I have argued elsewhere, there is a strong vein of Rousseauian revolutionary democracy running through the ideologies of most African radical nationalist parties and popular organizations.

There are, I think, five respects in which these similarities are most marked. There is, first, the tendency to take certain ethical presuppositions as the point of departure: the purpose of liberation is to recover the dignity, or assert the moral worth, of African man. Second, there is the classic conception of 'democracy', as involving, primarily, the transfer of political power from a European dominant minority-an oligarchy of colonial officials, or some combination of the two-to an undifferentiated African demos. Third, there is the idea of the radical mass party, and its associated organizations, as expressing - as adequately as it can be expressed-the desires and aspirations of the demos, the common people; and as having therefore the right, once independence is achieved, to take control of the state, and reconstruct it in the party's own image and in relation to its own objectives. There is also the constant insistence upon human equality: 'il n'y a pas de surhommes' as Sekou Touré once put it. Hence it is not only the privileged status of the European minority that is attacked, but also the special privileges and claims to authority-deriving from the precolonial or colonial period-of groups within contemporary African society, chiefs, marabouts, 'bourgeois intellectuals'. They can play a part within the new system only to the extent that they accept its egalitarian assumptions. Finally, there is the idea of the artificiality, undesirability, and impermanence of barriers-ethnic, linguistic, territorial, cultural, 'racial', religious - within humanity, 'Pan-Africanism', in one of its aspects, being an attempt to apply this idea in the modern African context.

(Thomas Hodgkin from an article in Encounter, June 1961)