Dr. Kissi Edwards makes an important intervention:
There is a popular saying that when water stays too long in a pot it stinks or goes stale in taste. I think the debate on tradition/indigenous Africa---its tropes and values and their overall relevance to the building of contemporary Africa----has gone on for far too long in this forum. We have already learned what we would learn from it. Indeed, it is becoming stale and sterile. So naturally, I would not have returned to the topic, but for the taunt issued by George Ayittey in his latest more of the same response to Moses's well-thought-out analysis on the subject. It is not for a lack of an ability to clarify my shared positions on the banal aspects of traditional Africa that has kept me mute on the debate since my last posting on the issue. Rather, by nature, I move on when I have made my point. But also because Moses and Kennedy Emetulu have offered detailed perspectives on the subject that I share. My silence has, therefore, been conditioned by the fact that I see substance in their analysis and I am impressed by the sophistication, accuracy and clarity with which they have articulated their thoughts on "tradition"; "the indigenous" and their merits and demerits as past and contemporary organizing principles.
George's [mis] characterization of my position, as well as Moses's and Emetulu's, in a previous mail, as "academic nitpicking" nearly drew my sleeping sword from its sealed sheath---"traditionally-speaking." But I thought that since I agreed with aspects of George's points on the need to return to aspects of our past that worked well, I thought that my response would constitute a piling-on that would serve little purpose. My position, Moses's and Emetulu's have been to offer clarifications on the debate on tradition and its import, and not necessarily to condemn Ayittey for raising it.
Today, I wish to respond to this taunt from George in his USA/Africa Dialogue, No. 198: George vs. Moses X:
"I disagree with what you, Kissi, and Emetulu wrote. Rather than you [Moses] continuously quoting them, let them respond to clarify their positions. The colonialists signed numerous treaties with traditional African rulers. If you, Kissi and Emetulu claim that "village government was a minority among the several political arrangements we had in pre-colonial Africa," I won't waste time debating this. You must know your own African heritage. You claim that different degrees of despotism and one-man rules were more prevalent." Explain what you mean by differing degrees of despotism and one-man rules? In which African states? Your ignorance of indigenous African political systems is stultifying."
The key issues here are the kind of political arrangements that existed in some African states, before colonialism, and how despotic or democratic were they. In which African states could one identify such systems. That if one has no inkling about indigenous African practices, as only Ayittey does, then one's African heritage stands impeached.
Well, I know my heritage and I am about to share it with you.
Unlike George who must have been born in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, I was born at Adensua (not even on the existing maps of Ghana). It is a village (no electricity yet), nine miles from the nearest urban center, Nkawkaw, in the Eastern region of Ghana. Like Moses, I know what it is to use a cutlass to weed and cultivate food on my father's "abusa" share-cropping cocoa and subsistence farm. Between 7 and 28 years of age, I collected kola-nuts to sell in order to supplement the meager monetary proceeds from my father's cocoa farm. I lived that rural life and saw subsistence agriculture, in its most painful form, with my eyes until I left for graduate studies in Canada on 28 August 1989. In the village, I saw indigenous African (Akan) political systems in operation. I endured its pernicious effects. Perhaps unlike George, every vacation from secondary school, in Agona Swedru, in the central region of Ghana, and from the University of Ghana, in Accra, I left for the village to form a cooperative to clear the bushes from the cocoa farm that paid my fees and the farm that fed me. I never received a Ghana Cocoa Marketing scholarship that many Ghanaians from urban areas who had never seen a cocoa pod in their lives had in secondary school. I helped produce the cocoa so that they can have the best education at Achimota and other top schools. So I have lived and experienced traditional Africa or the extensions of pre-colonial political systems into the post-colonial period.
I did not live in pre-colonial Africa. I have only read about it. Yet, I do not believe how aspects of precolonial Africa have been constructed in books by George and those who romanticize "traditional Africa." I lived in my village and observed how it was governed between 1966 and 1989. What I saw and experienced has caused me to reassess "tradition" and its rituals of control. It was not as democratic as it is sold on George's market. It was as despotic as despotism itself. There the "Odikro" (village chief) represents the "Omanhene" (the paramount chief) of the Kwawu state of Twenedurase. The Odikro's eleders ("mpaninfo" ) help the odikro to administer the affairs of the village. This structure should not mislead us into the bizarre temptation of characterizing village political systems as democratic. The practice of democracy in the village that I lived in (an Akan, Ghanaian, African polity) was far from the mythic democracy in "Africa" that George claim Winnie Mandela describes. In the village, the young were shut out of the discussions and councils of the elders. The so-called consensus was and continues to be a contrived consensus of the aged and elderly mediated by rituals and customs of respect anchored on anachronistic rituals and oaths. A smart young man or woman could only be seen in the Odikro's palace and not necessarily heard. A young person cannot speak for himself or even defend himself against charges in the palace. He will tremble under presumed rituals of appropriate speech in the king's court. He needs an elder to speak for him though the elder often misrepresents the young person's thoughts. That happens in order to maintain traditional decorum. The elder is himself a part of a pack of people who claim to be repositories of wisdom by virtue of their grey hair and age. So "ageim" ruled village governance. This is an example of differing degrees of despotism.
One cannot edify traditional Africa without taking into account the rituals of control and subjugation that made the youth vulnerable to charges of violations of the king's oath. It was often these aggrieved youth, unable to break free from the strictures of tradition, who, in many parts of Africa, saw the coming of the Europeans as the dawn of a new era for them---a period to renegotiate social relations. The treaties the chief's signed were also partly to harness European resources to suppress youth discontent.
In pre-colonial Asante, a charge that a young person has shown insubordination to a chief or an elderly person could result in the selling of one into slavery, beheading or even banishment unless one paid in heads of sheep and bottles of aromatic schnapps. Today, there are some in our midst who by virtue of their training as economists, and by dint of their age, would want to silence historians and the young in any debate about Africa----run them out of town. That imperious attitude derived from a certain status construction is a lingering product of "African tradition." This "traditional doctrine" comes through George's writing. If you disagree with him, then you are not African enough. That is intellectual terrorism or cognitive hubris. The kind of terror and hubris in traditional Akan society of Ghana that says that you do not count if you are not a royal or old enough to have an opinion on issues.
Yes, in my village, governance was despotic and that despotism was sustained by indigenous rituals. These are the aspects of "traditional Africa" and indigenous systems that Moses and Emetulu and Kissi have been pointing out. What we are saying is that there are many sides to African traditions and we need to explore every dimension of it if we want to invoke them as sources of public policy. Might we not suppose that modern Africa is, indeed, the ugly child of pre-modern Africa in the sense of the extensions of some pre-colonial practices into post-colonial governance where the Ministers of State and the Heads of Government act like the old paramount chiefs.
George should know that many of the treaties the chiefs signed were protective agreements against their neighbors. George ought also to know that many of the colonial wars in Africa were led by Europeans, but the actual fighters were Africans who wanted to defeat their neighbors or secure the loots of war. The history of Ghana alone provides good examples. So pre-colonial Africa is not as neat as George often presents it. Yes, there is wisdom in his positing a return to some old workable values. Neither I nor Emetulu and Moses disagree with that. We caution against oversimplification of the past and the invention of tradition.
IN MY FATHER'S VILLAGE AND AT HIS FUNERAL
As recently as Summer 2003, I was in Ghana to bury my father. At his funeral, tradition and the indigenous hit me with a bolt. Here is an example of "differing degrees of despotism" and "one-man" or "one woman rule" in traditional Africa, whichever way one defines that. The village chief, a queenmother, resorted to distortion and terror of the kind that pervaded and pervades most traditional African societies. She sought money and many bottles of "European drinks" or "schnapps" from me. The reason was "tradition." She claimed that she permitted my bereaved mother and relatives to wail in the village to announce the death of my father at hospital in a nearby town. She appealed to tradition in a manner that meant that should I contest her mischievous requests, based on her own invention of tradition, then I would be seen as flouting custom. For an educated person just arrived from the United States that would cast me as arrogant and disrespectful of elders----a violation of tradition. That would impeach my education and cast me as having lost my heritage and traditional bearings.
By the same tradition, I had gone to greet the queen on the day I arrived in the village. I thanked her and the ancestors for their gracious help to my bereaved family. But when the following day she accosted me for failing to meet other customary obligations, ( and she invoked many) I spoke out. Because, I saw that despotic attitude as the clearest example of the same problems of bribery and distortion and greed that beguile urban politicians. Here, tradition and modernity seemed fused. When I sought to resolve this tension between me and tradition by telling the chief in my own village wisdom that I am bereaved and thus wallowing in chafing stream. What I need, I told her, are people who can save me from drowning in sorrow not those who are eager to sink me in custom or push me further downstream. The queenmother took offense at that proverb, because it came from a "child." I was summoned to her palace---the elders in full council. The charge was violation of custom and inappropriate speech from a "toddler" as if to say that children never grow and should be trapped in an infant capsule perpetually. Say that to a teenager in American society and you will be shocked at the response.
The corpse of my father would not be allowed to leave the village until I have paid in drinks and money. This is an clash not of civilizations but of modernity and tradition, and an example of one-person rule and a degree of despotism in rural Africa. Urban Africans or Ghanaians who have never experienced village government can be glib and gleeful about their romanticization of tradition. The indignity of letting my dead father lie in state while the rains pelted and while a rented hearst waited to transport the body to Akyem Kanakan---distances from the village to my father's birthplace reminded me of what Kwame Anthony Appiah experienced when his father died in Ghana. He sets forth his experiences of Asante funeral traditions in his book IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE. It was my wailing and pleading mother who forced me to accede to the demands of the chief and his elders. In short, I paid up, much to my discontent, so that I can honor my mother and father as "tradition" required. The queen's concept of tradition, my mother's and mine still compete for clarification about which of them is "African" and "indigenous."
None of the elders spoke up while I was being persecuted for fear of being seen as flouting the dictates of the queen or violating tradition. That is as despotic as it gets and if George wants examples of traditional Africa in the modern, here it is. Unlike the mythic structures of kinship and lineage and consensus that George continuously paints, in my village governance, there was no debate. Yet there were trees that we could sit under and reach consensus. Wisdom is regarded as the exclusive preserve of the aged and elderly as some today believe that only them and their disciplines hold the truth. I am modest in my approach to learning and I am open to persuasive ideas. Perhaps in our quest----in the days of African nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s---to posit some kind of democratic traditional Africa to contest colonial historiography that painted Africa as primitive, some African scholars invented some mythologies about democracy in pre-colonial Africa. That literature is sobbing for review.
My solemn point has always been that Ayittey should look beyond Ghana, his country, and beyond Winnie Mandela and the Washington Post and the New York Times, his chief sources on Africa, to discuss Africa to his students and to his audience. He should look at some of the well-researched accounts of traditional Africa and some of the best analysis on the subject in this forum to examine the kind of tradition that he wants Africa to return to.
Moses is correct that colonialism transformed much of what can be described as pre-colonial and that "hybridities and syncretisms" characterized the past. I agree. But if one were to go beyond Ghana, a colonized and transformed African polity, to seek the "traditional" and the "indigenous", in an African society unadulterated by colonial transformations, one needs to look at the operation of tradition and the indigenous in Ethiopia----the one African society that some would argue maintained intact its indigeneity or Africanness. Even many would debate that. Perhaps only George might argue that Ethiopia was democratic and that there are fine traditions there to return to or indigenous political systems that other African nations can adopt.
In Ethiopia, history and tradition shaped approaches to development. Despite the fact that it fought tenaciously to maintain its sovereignty, during the partition of the rest of Africa by European nations, Ethiopia pursued its own policy of despotic and imperial territorial expansion. Ethiopia's imperial creed embodied a claim to govern any people--- from the Oromo to the Konso---- and any territory---- from Eritrea past Addis Ababa---- that the successive emperors---- from 1270 to 1975---- could bring under their control by conquest or cession. Political authority in Ethiopia was patrimonial at best and highly personalized at worst. If you want an example of differing degrees of despotism and one-man rulership, in Africa, here is an example. Ras Tafari Makonnen (Haile Selassie) took tradition and the indigenous to a bizarre extent. He promoted the myth of his divinity. As King of Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, he saw his life and Ethiopia's fortunes as inseparable. Fealty to him, as in my village, became the basis for promotion and demotion of his officials. In the Ethiopian Constitution of Selassie's time, the Emperor's body was deemed sacred, his words and edicts were law and uncontestable. Is this the democratic traditions of Ethiopia that Ayittey, in his indigenous theses, want Africa and Ethiopians to return to?
But wait, there is more. For much of Ethiopia's history, participation in national politics depended on acceptance, by all, of certain basic principles which the Emperors, from Yekuno Amlak to Haile Selassie, promoted as "the traditions of Ethiopia." These traditions induced acceptance of Amharic--- over all the 80 or so Ethiopian languages----as the official language, Christianity, over all other religious systems, as the national religion and the Emperor, over everyone else, as the symbol of national identity and the leading source of authority. The Emperor was also the theoretical owner of all lands in the Empire. The contrast here is that in my village, in Ghana, the chief was not the theoretical owner of all lands. But Ethiopia and Ghana are African societies. Until 1975, one-third of land in Ethiopia, an agrarian society, was kept by the Imperial family and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Here are some of the causes of famine in Ethiopia of Selassie's period.
Worst still, imperial hubris dictated centralization of decision-making (NOT CONSENSUS)---a political practice that engendered hesitation and sycophancy at all levels of the imperial bureaucracy. George, here is an example of an African traditional society in which your consensus-building thesis did not apply. You and Winnie Mandela's happy peasants in the Chief's palace scenario did not exist in the moral economy of traditional Ethiopian society. You may regard a consensus over Amharic as a national lingua franca commendable. But it was imposed or forced consensus by king, state and church. Ask the Oromos and Tigrinya people who spoke their own language if they loved that "consensus." The Oromo people formed the Oromo Liberation Front to fight that tradition. The Tigrinya-speaking people of Eritrea formed the Eritrean Liberation Front to contest that "tradition" from 1962 till 1994. The mainly Muslin Oromos also opposed the imposition of Christianity on them. I grant that these wars in Ethiopia were partly fought over the toxic effects of that fictive category called "tradition."
If you are not convinced, take a look at this too. Haile Selassie's desire to preserve "tradition" and his quest for "a uniquely Ethiopian" concept of development----reminiscent of George's arguments in this forum and his African solutions for African problems slogan----led the emperor's government to resist any suggestion of change from Ethiopia's intellectuals (especially the students) that undermined the privileges of the landed elite and imperial loyalists. The Emperor cared less even though his opposition to student calls for change in the political system and land reform had dire consequences for peasants who died frequently from famine. George once quoted Amartya Sen in this forum in his criticism of Dr. Abaka's posting on democracy and the poor and hungry in rural Africa. It might interest you to note that Sen's argument that a society with freedoms and a free press does not experience famine was drawn from Sen's analysis of the famile in Wollo, in northern Ethiopia, in 1972. George might be heartened to know that tradition in Ethiopia made it impossible for a free press to exist. Where is the democracy? But here is the despotism if you really want examples.
Tradition in Ethiopia created a dangerous culture of deference to state, king and church. That made it difficult for the Emperor's officials to accurately report the incidence of famine in rural Ethiopia to him. That was because in the Emperor's yearly proclamations, he romanticized Ethiopia as a fertile empire with 3,000 years of unbroken history. Only a few dared question this romanticism. Those like Tilahun Gizaw and the indomitable students who questioned Selassie's romanticization of the Ethiopian past were castigated as Ayittey frequently does to his critics. Ayittey does not rule a state, does not command an army so it is easy to challenge his mythic postulates. Haile Selassie ruled an empire and commanded a sycophantic army and his critics, like Gizaw, were killed or incarcerated. So much for democracy even in the most unsullied of traditional African polities.
In fact in the political and diplomatic history of Ethiopia, many officials lost their careers and some foreign ambassadors in Ethiopia were rebuffed for advising Emperor Haile Selassie to reform the political arrangements and the land tenure system of Ethiopia. He had numerous "traditions" to appeal to in order to avoid listening. His former officials that I have interviewed who knew the emperor's style of governance followed the path that he laid down. They called it "Ethiopian tradition." That fad was always waged in front of foreign visitors and dignitaries. And, as in many traditional and modern African societies, officials massaged the leader's ego for the status rewards that came with sycophancy in a traditional political system. In official circles, the whispered symbol of deference to this traditional leader called His Imperial Majesty was "Janhoy eshi ayloum" (Amharic---meaning the emperor won't approve). Where is the consensus-building?
I am aware that Ethiopia's traditions and indigenous political structures are not representative of Africa. That is what Moses, Emetulu and Kissi are saying. But to provide some response to Ayittey's taunts, I have provided here a composite comparative study of two Africa's: Ghana and Ethiopia----two spaces of political thought and practise---a Ghanaian village that I grew up in and an African empire that I have studied---a village and an empire in which anybody looking for tradition can find it and assess it. Two spaces where the traditional has spilt into the modern.
I strongly believe---and I stand to be corrected---that what we call contemporary Africa is, perhaps, the ugly child of traditional and pre-contemporary Africa. Perhaps to understand a lack of democracy and consensus-building in today's Africa, we should look back and examine where and how it all began and the changes and continuities that have occurred. Because apples do not fall far from the apple tree. The idea, often attractive yet fanciful, that there was a "merrie Africa" that has been subverted and all we need to do is go back and seek and retrieve it may have some merit to it. But often, it sounds like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge romanticizing the Cambodian past for a mythic glorious Angkor empire when the Khmer people used manpower, without technology, to create an agrarian nirvana. We all know what befell Cambodians when they could not critique that fanciful thought by the intellectuals of the Khmer Rouge namely Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. They all had studied abroad in France and parroted a Cambodia that never existed from their redoubts abroad. When they had power in 1975, they tried to implement their defective analysis of Cambodia and wrecked their society. There are some lessons in their experience that we can draw.
All I am asking is that collectively we continue to reassess our policy prescriptions for Africa based on a very nebulous and romanticized view of the African past. My life has mainly been a village life and I combine textbook and village experience in my discussion of "traditional Africa" and its salience in our troubled present. I know my heritage as every African does. I have lived that heritage in two spaces: the rural and urban. My experiences have allowed me to discard my conceptual blinders about the Africa that may not have existed or an Africa that may have undergone so much change that it may be futile to distill the indigenous and traditional from what actually existed.
George likes quoting authorities so let me emulate his pious example. Kwame Anthony Appiah has cautioned in his MY FATHER'S HOUSE that "an inability to change your mind in the face of evidence is a cognitive incapacity; it is one that all of us surely suffer from in some areas of belief." (p.14) I have seen so much of tradition and the indigenous in my village governance that in the face of evidence and experience, I think differently about traditional Africa and its precepts from George whose experience may be derived from textbooks and his probable urban experience.
Are systems traditional and indigenous because villages behold them or the elders and scholars say so? I share Appiah's conclusion that "the peoples of Africa have a good deal less culturally in common than is usually assumed." (p.17) Examine what I have shared here about Ghana and Ethiopia and draw your own conclusions. Appiah adds that "the psychology of race has led, that is, not only to a belief in the existence of a peculiar African form of thinking but also to a belief in special African contents of thought." (p.24). If you live too long abroad, and you feel you need to justify or criticize Africa to an audience that sees things in black and white, and in the manner described in one recent mail from Kampala, Uganda, you tend to suffer from this race-induced psychosis. This is reflected in Ayittey's writings and television appearances about Africa. Like Appiah---and unlike Ayittey---I believe, based on my village experience, that "Whatever Africans share, we do not have a common traditional culture, common languages, a common religious or conceptual vocabulary." (p.26). It is, therefore, nobler to celebrate our differences and respect one another's perspective than to yield to the autocratic desires of some to construct a hegemonic discourse for all. In short, "I do not believe in a homogenous Africa", to borrow an evocative sentence from Appiah (p.27). Any attempt to homogenize Africa worries me deeply as an African. That does not mean that I would not sit and break kolanuts with George. In fact I even wish him a splendid new year. That too is "African tradition."
Here is my humble response to Ayittey's beckon.