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Review of Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa


By Peter Woodward

Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa. Eds Bruce Berman, Dickson Eyoh and Will Kymlicka. James Currey, Oxford, and Ohio University Press, Athens, 2004. pp 336. ISBN 0 85255 860 0 (Currey) & 0 82141570 (Ohio). £18.95 (pb) & £50 (hb).

This is a very useful collection that will hold an important place in the literature for a while to come. The rapid spread of democracy in Africa following the end of the Cold War- sometimes known as the continent’s ‘second liberation’- led to great outbursts of optimism in some quarters. Democracy appeared as a blueprint in the good governance toolkit that could be applied to transform the bad old days of autocratic and repressive rule under military rulers and one-party states. However by the end of the decade there were critics of Africa’s experiences with democracy who took a very pessimistic view of what they saw as all too many failures in practice, sometimes even where elected governments had survived. This collection avoids the danger of being overly pessimistic by never having shown undue optimism. If ethnicity had been mobilised in undemocratic days, there was little reason to believe that it would be swiftly reversed by the establishment of democracy. Indeed the reverse might well be the case, for democracy might open broader avenues of participation that would actually refresh and invigorate ethnicity as it reached the parts that undemocratic rulers had deliberately sought to exclude from the perquisites of power or proximity thereto.

The book falls into four parts. The first is essentially a review of the relationship between ethnicity and democracy ‘in historical and comparative perspective’. Most of this section is by the editors, with the addition of a chapter by Peter Ekeh on security needs and the issue of democracy that draws heavily on the Hobbesian tradition. The second section discusses the ‘dynamics of ethnic development’ in a series of five chapters: John Lonsdale on Kenya; Dickson Eyoh on Cameroon; Cheryl Hendricks on South Africa; Jacqueline Solway on Botswana; and Toyin Falola on Nigeria. Section three is on ‘ethnicity and the politics of democratization’ comprising: Atieno Odhiambo on Kenya; Shula Marks on Natal; Githu Muigai on Kenya; Mamadou Diouf on Casamance; Bogumil Jewsiewicki and Leonard N’sanda Buleli on Congo; and Raufu Mustapha on Nigeria. The final section on ‘ethnicity and institutional design’ includes: Richard Simeon and Christina Murray on South Africa; John Boye Ejobowah on multiculturalism and institutional instability; and finishes once more with the editors concluding thoughts.

Such a well organised collection of rich and thought-provoking papers goes beyond any brief summary. Much of its strength lies in the themed case studies that are presented, and if there is a criticism to be offered it might have to do with the country coverage. There is a lot of Kenya here, and while this is understandable in view of the editors’ own interests I would have welcomed something on Ethiopia, especially in the final section. Ethiopia’s attempt to create what is often termed ‘ethnic federalism’ is a notable development and due for some preliminary evaluation. That omission aside the overall conclusions are fairly predictable for those who know the editors’ earlier works, but no less important for that. Political institutions in independent Africa have been regarded less as deserving of civic loyalty and operating in a supportive political culture, than as opportunities for material advancement, whether directly by competing to take control of the state or less directly by fuelling the patronage that has enabled rulers to stay in place. It has been largely those patronage networks that have cultivated ethnic clienteles and thus encouraged the rivalry in state politics that we know as ‘ethnicity’: a modern product rather than expressive of primordial identities. Democracy has not and will not of itself banish ethnicity from African politics, and it will take care and imagination even to make current situations compatible with attempts at government reforms of various kinds. These reforms are now not simply an external imposition by the West but something to which African states have themselves signed up through the African Union which is just about to undertake the start of the peer review process. However, such reforms have little prospect of success and the establishment of stable democratic institutions supported by an effective civic culture unless they are accompanied by economic and social development as well. There is thus a virtuous circle to be established to replace the downward cycle in which so many African states have found themselves for the past decades. Those who care about reform- from the AU to Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa- will find here a timely and healthy dose of realism which deserves to be widely read.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 97-99]

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