Moses responds to Ayittey's two parts on indigenous values, focusing his sharp remarks on what he calls "traditional Africa and village government":
George has consistently maintained that "traditional Africa" was/is governed by an orderly village democracy in which CONSENSUS, REPRESENTATION, and INCLUSION were the ideological and programmatic tripod. He has therefore called for a return to this originary condition of African democracy with all its economic and social corollaries. Let us examine these claims.
Decentralization, which was a feature of some precolonial polities over certain periods of their existence, does not equal consensus. In any political arrangement where the sole recognized king or queen has the capacity to issue decrees or binding instructions and to override subordinates, consensus is an alien concept. I have studied the political histories of the states that George calls decentralized polities in precolonial Africa-the ones with kings and monarchs-and I am yet to encounter one, except perhaps Oyo, where the king had no political role or power, could not override decisions of subordinates or could not issue decrees or binding political instructions. In most states, initiative and overall policy decisions flowed from the center to the constituents, not the other way round. I will await George's further posting for clarifications on this.
I have used "despotism" in the sense that Mahmood Mamdani used it in "Citizen and Subject;" as political arrangements with sovereign kings or chiefs who presided over territorially defined polities. It should not be taken to mean that all such despots had absolute power. My expression "differing degrees of despotism" should have taken care of that conceptual confusion. I doubt if even the so-called absolute monarchs and modern day despots had/have absolute power in the literal, practical sense of the expression. Even if one were to stick to the literal definition of despotism, traditional/precolonial Africa had no shortage of them. Shaka was a despot, so were rulers of the Hausa States, the kings of Bunyoro and Buganda, the Asantehene, Lobengula, etc. There is a famous cautionary tale in the Hausa language that illustrates vividly the nature of pre-Jihad despotism and tyranny in Hausaland. Weak or strong, absolute or not, despotism, under any guise, is precisely what Africa does not need.
Of course, kings and queens had councils of elders or title holders, but in almost all the centralized polities (not stateless or semi-stateless polities) that I have studied, the ruler had either the ultimate word or could override his council, and not the other way around. Oyo is a solitary exception. It is therefore utterly false for George to state that "African monarchs played little or no political role. Their function was super-natural-to ensure harmony, peace and order by propitiating the three gods (of the cosmos, the world and the earth)."
George has not demonstrated that village meetings were democratic or consensus building exercises in centralized (unitary or confederal) states---which were clearly in the majority in precolonial Africa? Assertion is not the same thing as demonstration. Quoting the words of individual Africanist authors whose dated perspectives are also guilty of excessive generalization, homogenization, and romaticization is not a substitute for making your point with empirical research and/or lived experience.
The selective use of the Oyo example, where, by the way, the checks and balances did not always work well, does not amount to showing an "African" political reality. Oyo was unique and hardly representative of Africa. And Oyo's political system was just as exclusive and as unrepresentative as the others. Oyo is hardly a template for African democracy unless it is unduly glorified and its problems suppressed.
Nothing I have said here amounts to denying that some precolonial African polities harbored institutions of representation or rudimentary democracy, however imperfect they may have been. Or that despotism was quintessentially African. Far from it; in fact European history provides us with the best example of despotism. But even in that same era one could find examples of European monarchs who were deposed or forced to abdicate their throne as punishment for misrule. The so-called absolute monarchies of pre-18th century Europe were never actually absolute. There existed formal or informal checks and balances of the type that George Ayittey talks about, and kings sometimes faced revolts from Lords or Knights or had to face revolutions such as Cromwell's in Britain, which forced them to compromise some of their powers. Nonetheless, that form of rule is unanimously regarded by Europeans as despotic and as a far cry from the far more desirable system of representation and choice called democracy. I know of no European who is advancing the era of absolutism in Europe as a template for present democratic projects in Europe in spite of the nuances and checks and balanced outlined above. In fact, in contemporary Europe, there is a consensus that the era of despotism and serfdom was a dark era and that the development of a public sphere and liberalism, however truncated, represents a qualitative leap from the era of absolute monarchy. I have not heard of any respectable European scholar who looks upon the era of absolutism with nostalgia or has harks back to that era to derive prescriptive inspiration for the present. Nor are Europeans romanticizing about a return to that European "traditional" political "heritage."
My overall point has been to show the bewildering variety of political arrangements that proliferated in precolonial Africa and the dynamism that characterized these arrangements. There is nothing peculiarly African about this dynamic and complex political picture. Polities in other continents similarly vacillated between autocracy and democracy, by whatever name and of whatever type. And it was also not unusual to find different political arrangements and systems coexisting within Asia, the Americas, Europe, etc. In this sense, then, Africa's political complexity and structural pluralism is a universal phenomenon, not an African one.
African political arrangements except in the so-called acephalous (non-centralized) societies (Igbo, Tiv, etc) hardly provided adequate political representation for their populations. In centralized polities, the royal courts were very exclusive, admitting people by descent and sometimes by wealth. The mass of the people were not represented even when they purportedly lived in wards and districts with hereditary or wealth-based representation in the king's court. Even in so-called acephalous societies, where a degree of "democracy" was practiced, representation in the highest decision making bodies was exclusive to male elders who may or may not embody the aspirations and interests of folks that they supposedly represent.
This leads us to the issue of inclusion. In all these political arrangements, the young and women are hardly included or represented, nor are their interests protected or factored into decision making. The closest thing to inclusion is the village and age-grade government of acephalous polities, but even here, women are often excluded from the highest echelons of decision-making, the village elders' meeting.
Dr. Kissi has given concrete examples of the tyrannical, despotic, exclusive, and oppressive nature of some of the supposedly democratic and inclusive institutions that George wants us to return to. I will not belabor Kissi's insightful analysis and examples.
If George's postulations were simply exercises in cultural understanding, they would not have drawn the criticisms they have drawn. The fact is that he is setting up his erroneous ideas about Africa, its traditions, history, and what he calls its "political heritage" as bases for policy prescriptions. How can policy prescriptions based on these romantic and fantastic renderings of Africa be good for the continent's peoples or bring relief to them?
Conclusion: The fact that there is a healthy, emotional public appetite in Africa and its diaspora and in US policymaking circles for simplistic and neat renderings of Africa and its problems does not mean that we as scholars cannot exercise our ultimate moral responsibility to offer analyses and prescriptions that are historically true, pragmatic, and reflective of actually existing conditions in Africa. I do not believe in charting a path of isolation or insularity for Africa. Such a part neither reflects the continent's checkered history nor grapples with the nature of its intertwined destinies. The isolationist model merely validates the notion that Africa is exotic, different from the rest of the world, incorrigibly unique, pristine, primitive, traditional (as opposed to modern), and a haven of spiritual and irrational practices in a world ruled by reason. It does nothing but prove that Africa is unsuited to modern ideas, that the continent is trapped pristinely in a precolonial or traditional essence, and that it is the great exception that proves the rule of reason (represented by the West). Africa's regeneration does not lie in the appropriation of these racist postulations, no matter how psychologically soothing they may seem.
The bigger problem with the valorization of "African traditions" is the empirical and structural analogue of Mudimbe's philosophical argument: the fact that what George and others celebrate and reify today as African traditions and African political heritage were either created or reified by colonial authorities who sought to rule Africans "through their own institutions." Even the French, who initially sought to make Africans Frenchmen, quickly backed off the idea and adopted indirect rule, which relied for its operation on the reification, elaboration, distortion, and interpretation of what were dubiously collected and documented as traditions and customs. The convergence of the interests of African rulers and colonial administrative imperatives birthed much of what we now call "African" traditions, customs, and chieftaincy practices. In Nigeria, it is very common for litigants in chieftaincy tussles to go to colonial archives, especially the so-called anthropological reports, to validate their claims!
In the light of this, those who are invoking "African culture," "African tradition," and "African political heritage" must be circumspect, to say the least, about the archaeology of those categories and the tragic histories of their emergence. Their emergence spelled the death of alternative traditions, alternative customs, and practices, and other heritages. Some of this colonial cultural reengineering still reverberate in Africa today in the form of claims and counter claims to chieftaincies and in the form of competing and clashing traditions, customs, and cultures within and between polities.
George and other quantitative social scientists have a lot to learn from historians and anthropologists of Africa, especially those of them that are attuned to the current literature and are sensitive to the need for a deconstruction of fantastic and romantic representations of Africa in both colonial and indigenous narratives. Instead of referencing a literature that is passé and using historical writings on Africa in a selective, out-of-context way to promote a prescriptive agenda that is borne out of anger at the woeful performance of Western educated political elites in Africa, why can't George read the literature that attempts to understand and account for the African past and African societies, warts and all.
We all share George's frustration with the failures of postcolonial African leadership and poor development choices, not to say the corruption of the postcolonial ruling elites. But a diagnostic and prescriptive project founded solely on anger, frustration, and disillusionment is bound to miss the mark. Calling for discarding Africa's elites and returning to "traditional" leadership is a knee jerk reaction that reaches for the most simplistic and appealing solution in time of crisis. I have learned not to let my anger at the depressing condition of Africa divest me of my pragmatism and sense commitment to workable, even if hybrid, solutions. Let us insist that things be done the right way, hold leaders accountable, and craft pragmatic political solutions founded on fairness, justice, and inclusion, instead of taking refuge in a nostalgic romanticization of traditional/precolonial Africa.
For me, simply stating in different ways that Africans have a lot in common is not a terribly revealing intellectual statement. That is commonsensical. What fascinates me as a scholar are the ways in which Africans have made and remade their symbolic and material worlds with the conceptual and cultural resources derived from their changing world and from different sources that they have come in contact with throughout their histories.
Similarly, quoting statements from disgruntled traditional rulers to support the thesis that all was well and dandy when traditional rulers held sway in Africa is disingenuous at best, and pedestrian at worst. I cannot believe that George is saying that traditional rulers are Africa's greatest human resource and that the key to solving Africa's problems is to grant them more power or empower them above the "non-traditional" elite. The statements that constitute his evidentiary anchor are from self-interested traditional rulers who are invested in the traditional institution. Most of the accounts of traditional life and precolonial conditions that have been handed down come, obviously, from traditional rulers and their allies, who have presented a far more harmonious and pacific picture of precolonial and "traditional" Africa than was/is actually the case. It is a good thing that African scholars are increasingly turning their analytical searchlights on those glorious narratives about precolonial/traditional Africa.
For me as a scholar what is fascinating is not the glorious story of traditional bliss and precolonial harmony, which is a fiction of court-authored narratives of traditional rulers and elites, but the stories of oppression, misrule, despotism, tyranny, conspicuous consumption, corruption, patrimonial leadership, nepotism, favoritism, excess, and impunity (and there are many that have come to light) that do not make it into official accounts or oral traditions. Only a rigorous archival and oral research among the ordinary subjects (and victims) of traditional power formations can uncover the ugly sides of precolonial /traditional African society. These counter-narratives are beginning to find their way into recent anthropological and historical scholarship on Africa. You don't have to go as far as Jean-Francois Bayart to construct an ideological continuity between precolonial/traditional corruption (patrimonial leadership) and present leadership and corruption problems (what he calls politics of the belly); that is a stretch at best. But one can at least appreciate the truth, which is increasingly being told with well-researched stories and evidence, about precolonial/traditional malfeasance.
Placed against statements such as Winnie Mandela's claim about Africans living peacefully under their democratic kings in the precolonial era, such testimonies to the political tyranny and oppressions of traditional society and the despotism of traditional rulers present a far more objective gaze into traditional/precolonial political life.
If Africa must progress and we intellectuals must prescribe workable solutions to its numerous problems, we must first discard fantastic and romantic notions about our societies and their pasts and come to grips with their complexities as well as the not-so-proud aspects of traditional/precolonial life. The temptation to valorize and glorify traditional Africa as a model of our political and economic destiny should not stand in the way of coming to an understanding of African society that acknowledges rather than deny the syncretisms and hybridities that constitute the African reality and the intertwinements, complexities, and historical realities that we must factor into any political or economic prescriptions for Africa.
The premise of our solutions must be sound, true, and historically reflective of actual African realities for the solutions to be workable and