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Number 6 August 2000

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The historical framework of governance in Africa*
Joseph Ki-Zerbo** (Burkina Faso)

Is the theme of governance a fashion? Is it a discourse which echoes the powerful orchestration of discourse on Africa, which unilaterally come from the North? Why this subtle insistence on Governance when the Administration of things and the government of men whether good or bad, has always existed in Africa since its origins?

When Ousman Dan Fodjo (1754-1817) pleads in his writings for a just and enlightened power, what is he doing if not bringing to a conclusion the question of governance and social regeneration:

"And I say that a government should be founded on five things: first, power should not be given to one who desires it; second, is the necessity of consultation; third hint is abstention of violence; the fourth is justice; the fifth is charity."

Thus, good governance is at least a democratic regime of a government adjusted to realities, to the interests and values of a human community.

Certainly, it is not a question of projecting a romantic image of Africa of the past in an idealistic retrospective of self-satisfaction. Firstly, because in the same African history we also find examples of violent and tyrannical drifts.

On the other hand, African history is little and badly known; it has been read through crude prejudices which justify the interests of certain individuals or societies. When we think after having looked down upon the Black Africans because they only had embryo States, we ask them today, within the framework of the SAP (Structural Adjustment Policies), to deconstruct the new State, to nearly dismantle to the benefit of the private...

Pre-Colonial Africa knew about the State of Law

Many elements of historical research enable to affirm that a number of social and political formations in Africa had achieved the level of the State, of the government of Law, that is to say, well-ordered and structured by accepted standards, legitimising the power of certain individuals and consecrating their authority on condition that they submit themselves to this higher norm. As for the human rights which constitute the finality of the state of Law in Africa, they have also been ridiculed as elsewhere, but they have also been, as elsewhere, raised to the level of major social and ethic needs.

Here two elements need to be set right: a certain limitation of power accompanied by proportional distribution, firstly in time. A limitless governance cannot be good governance. The presidents who rule for life, for 20 to 30 years do not govern but control. What we have called the legal regicide or the motion of censoring which brings about the "suicide" of the ruler, expresses well the concept of responsibility and the idea that the true ruler was in reality the Law of the community. In fact, acceding to the seat of power, the selected candidate is required to make solemn promises committing himself in relation to the representatives of the people by means of a genuine contract.

Another important tool in restricting power is the freedom of expression. This has never been fully guaranteed. But the organisation of public speech, even though it favours a certain category of individuals (aged, men, princely clans etc.) have tactfully managed to create a space for contribution by most of the groups.

Three challenges: the State, the Nation, the Ethnic group

Colonisation came as a break in governance and endogenous development and a political renouncement if not a shirk from responsibility. Independence, instead of being an occasion for Africans to bring together positive contributions from within and the best from the African governance heritage, has often lead to an onrush for sheer power by amalgamation of the worst elements from within and outside Africa.

The colonial State in Africa was an institution with a twofold superstructure: as a State and as a superimposed State. The functions of the State that has left behind an inheritance, is the coercive and repressive apparatus. Packaging, hardware and not the principle, the software, the spirit which justifies the institution. In short, absence of a republican and democratic culture transforms the State which has become a patrimony, into an armed force hostage to a conventional Mafia.

And the nation? Some say that the endogenous nationalising process has been interrupted and broken from outside, that since independence there has been a lack of time to combine the elements of this process. It's too soon therefore for the African nation; but too late as a result of globalisation of techniques, of the market, information highways, mentalities, trans-national companies. A micro-nation in Africa today seems a contradiction in terms, absurd and meaningless.

And yet, this political nonsense is fine. We can afford to carry out wars on the frontiers at a time when international financial institutions call for an opening of borders. We carefully demarcate the borders drawn by the coloniser which are often just imaginary lines. We make identity cards which label the peoples and entire communities that are perfectly identical, as foreigners. It is here that the notion of reality of the ethnic groups arises. Ethnogenesis is a historical phenomenon of very great importance in all the countries of the world; in Africa, this concept dates back sometimes to thousands of years, sometimes to the 19th century. Colonisation has contributed in a decisive manner in order to shape new configurations having well-targeted objectives.

Therefore, conflicts in Africa, since the 20th century, have fallen successively into the grid of the three concepts or realities that I have just mentioned: the nation, with the wars of the resistance during the colonial conquest and the freedom movements. Then the conflicts between the Africans after their independence which were of interest first of all to the States, even to the governments or the regimes that are already in place. Today, an increasing number of conflicts are internal: these are the civil wars which reveal a degeneration of conflicts towards rudimentary motivations.

Priorities for a good governance

I can see four strategic priorities for a good political governance.

Research - There is no endogenous development without strategic answers to the following questions: "Who are we? Where are we going? By what means?" Africa is excluded and it excludes itself from research. 89% of the research on Africa is being carried out outside the continent. This explains well the paralysis and the schizophrenic and paranoiac incoherence; particularly this inability to define and above all defend our own realities, our interests and values. Many States preoccupied with the daily follow-up have given up. The excessive opening to the counter part of the exogenous research does the rest.

Integration - It is time to surpass the national State both towards the top and the bottom. Towards the bottom through decentralisation. Towards the top by an inter-African integration creating most viable spaces for production, for reproduction and good governance. An average African state has a budget equivalent to that of an average European city; it is not a question of obliterating the frontiers but surpassing them.

Democracy - It presents two important problems which condition good governance in this field. First, the status and function of the opposition which is equally important to a democracy as the party in power. The opposition in Africa seems to be an anomaly which must be absorbed or exterminated, in any case put out of danger from creating any damage. The death of the opposition would be the death of democracy. Even the opposition must constitute itself by presenting an alternate project, a platform for a programme by assembling experts, militant groups and various organisations in favour of society, which must first be able to constitute a counter-power by stopping the anti-democratic drifts and also by constituting an alternative that is not only desirable but possible.

Training - At last, all this urgently calls for an immense pedagogical mission which is one of the pillars of good political as well economic and cultural governance. The training must be permanent, an essential lever of all governance.

On the whole, it is a question of constructing a new coherence where the structural conditions which make good governance possible, must be given absolute priority.

* Excerpt from an article published in Renaissance, May 2000
** Historian and former member of the Vezelay Group

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© 2000 Alliance for a Responsible and United World. All rights reserved. Last updated October 29, 2000.