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« on: April 25, 2004, 08:52:16 AM »

From The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State by Basil Davidson:



On a grim day in October 1990, a journalist in Monrovia, the capital city of the West African republic of Liberia, finds himself invited to watch a video on a TV set whose owner lives on the city’s Stockton Creek. With mixed feelings, he accepts. The house at this moment is occupied by a leader of one of the “armies” fighting for power during the overthrow of the supposedly legitimate regime led by a former master sergeant in Liberia’s supposedly national army, President Samuel Doe. This Doe, himself a man of violence, has just been done to death.

Proudly shown by the killers, the video is the eyewitness to this death. The journalist and some others are given chairs in the front row for this replay, and beer is brought for them. Behind them, men of this particular rebel “army” close in to watch the film. This now begins, and is gruesome. Warlords have often done this kind of thing, but rather seldom cared to boast of it.

Doe, his face bruised, flabby and naked except for his underpants, his hands tied behind his back, looks up from the camera, which is placed, the journalist tells us, in the room next to the room where the killing took place. Doe watches his death approaching as his captors yell orders at each other, and his underpants soak up more blood from the gunshot wounds received in his legs when he was captured three weeks ago. The film continues to unwind. We hear its soundtrack:

“Cut off his ears!” Prince tells his men.

Prince is the Liberian warlord in command here. And the camera swings to the victim. The rebels stand on his body, laying him flat. A knife flashes in the bright lights. Then the knife saws through the screaming president’s ear and the ritual has begun ...

Doe shakes his head from side to side to prevent them from cutting off the other one. But somebody grabs his head hard. The scream pierces the air. For a second, the audience round the camera is silent, then they clap. The journalist hears this applause in counterpoint to the hushed silence of Stockton Creek; Africa hears it too. Doe at last is dying. “Doe cried all night. He died at 3:30a.m.,” says the man in the next seat. “Now Prince is acting president, and everything is going to be all right.”

The rivalry for Doe’s succession goes on; the killing too ...


Poor Liberia: yes, there is no doubt of that: Poor Liberia! This was the black American republic launched in 1847 for the benefit of former slaves and their dependents in North America, a black republic conceived so as to exercise “the genius of free government” over “this seat of ancient despotism and bloody suppression,” as its founders valiantly claimed.

The words are those of one of the founding fathers, the former New Yorker Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), who was himself the grandson of an African seized on this West African coast and taken into bondage across the Atlantic. Though not themselves ‘recaptives’ in the old sense, Crummel and his colleagues and fellow settlers were thus another version of the ‘old Freetown elite’, but still more alienated from the cultures and realities of Africa. They saw as their ‘mission’ the introduction of the elements of civilization, in Liberia, to a “vast population of degraded subjects.” They knew, of course, almost nothing about this indigenous African population.

In 1990, here, the outcome of this long experiment in civilizing Africa by denying Africa’s own history and achievements was to reach its ultimate degradation. The intentions may have been the best. “Africa, to become regenerated, must have a national character” – such had been the central  affirmation of the black American emancipationists of the 1850s. But this national character could not be African in its derivation or formation, for Africa’s own character was perceived to be one of ‘misery and violence’. It was in Africa, after all, that all the forebears of the Americo-Liberian settlers had been thrust into slavery. The national character must be imposed.

Convinced of this, generations of Americo-Liberians proceeded to rule their ‘degraded subjects’ by a contemptuous tyranny presented to the outside world, whenever that might seem useful, as a right and proper anteroom to manhood suffrage and representative democracy. But the anteroom was found to lead to no such result. Democracy was not even encountered.

What finally emerged in 1980, at the culmination of many miseries, was the master sergeant who made himself President Samuel Doe. And in Doe’s brief and violent life one may inspect the acutely pathological phenomena that appear in colonial and postcolonial dramas played out by men who have possessed the strength and character to seize power, but not the wisdom to control it. Such men seize power and greed sets in, whether for more power or for its fruits. Soon enough, sycophancy walls them round with fearsome mysteries of plot or private hope, and then the praise-singers punctually arrive to chant their anthems of ruin. Now the dictator is lost between greed and fear, and in the stifling grasp of this solipsism he will perish. Many others will have perished in the meantime.

Men like Doe are children of their own ancestral cultures. But they are also the product of an alienation which rejects those cultures, denies them moral force, and overrides their imperatives of custom and constraint. Such ‘cultural hybrids’, to borrow a term of the Gold Coast (Ghana) nationalist Kobina Sekyi, may be said to have become “lost between two worlds” – and this saying has at least the merit of suggesting the mental confusion in which their seizure of power forces them to live. They turn to the AK-47, and use it with the blindness of the damned, at which point their power rebounds upon itself and becomes a route to suicide. It has happened in every culture dispossessed by another, and thereby driven to its roots.

Such persons, and Doe in those years was not the worst among them, are destined to a tragic fate, or would be if the squalors of their degradation deserved to be called tragic. They are destroyed as though they had never been, but in their lifetimes they have been all too dreadfully present: Idi Amin, Bokassa, Macias-Nguema – the names pile up, symptoms of a political self-destruction of which Africa has been all too rich in examples. They have demonstrated, time and again, just why it was that leaders of an entirely different mould and mentality, men strong in their wisdom such as Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, so clearly warned that armed violence was a road to be entered with austere reluctance, and travelled with an ever-present fear of its infections.

The pathology is explicable, but only in terms of alienation. The ancestral cultures of the peoples of Liberia, as with those of neighbours near and far, knew plenty of abusive violence. But they possessed rules and regulations for the containment and repression of abusive violence; and these were the rules and regulations, before the scourge of the slave trade and the colonialism that followed it, that enabled them to evolve their sense and value of community.

To persons outside that background who may think of this sense and value as an arbitrary and vicious free-for-all, there is little to be said. They have yet to understand how communities, anywhere and at any time, are able to emerge and grow strong in their rules and structural restraints but are also able, if these should become lost or cast away, to fall into utter disarray or self-destruction. In Europe, for example, such critics have had to watch the Germany of Goethe and Heine give way to the Germany of Hitler and Himmler, and have fumblingly tried to explain the decay by speculations on the nature of the German ‘character’, speculations which are then found to have explained nothing.

In Liberia, or Africa as a whole, the perversion of community can be rationally explained as arising from the consequences of the slave trade and colonialism. But alienation from the ancestral community was then carried further, and systematized, by imposition of the culture of an imported oligarchy, an oligarchy whose ignorance of local realities was easily encouraged, by the corruptions of power, into a contempt for the peoples who lived in these realities. And Doe, along with others, was the eventual product of this systemic alienation.

Though a “native from the bush”, and not the alumnus of an Americo-Liberian academy of imported manners, Doe was equally the victim of another typical pathology of the times that formed him: the pathology, that is, of a colonial or neo-colonial “tribalism” or “clientelism” which, itself, was a product not of Africa’s pre-colonial development, but a desperate mode of self-defence by citizens whose state could not or would not protect them. By the middle of the 1980s, this generalized collapse of the African nation-statist project was widely perceived, whether inside or outside Africa. But what now became scarcely less obvious were the incapacities of the outside world, of the “developed world”, to act on any self-critical analysis or even to refrain from purely negative and adventurous interventions. Of these interventions there have been various and many. Some were of an economic nature, designed to protect the industrialized countries’ advantageous terms of trade with African primary producers. Others have been political measures of a clandestine nature, aimed at overtaking governmental ‘blunders’ or comparable ‘disruptions’, while still others were simple acts of militarized violence, adding to the legions of licensed or merely criminal gun-toters now unleashed upon this hungry continent. More and more of the latter have been the puppets, often murderous puppets, of aims and forces they could neither have understood nor even have known a way of understanding.


The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State by Basil Davidson
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