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Philosophy and the State in Africa: Some Rawlsian Considerations

Philosophy and the State in Africa: Some Rawlsian Considerations

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Published by Yamil Assi
It is often noted that the European partition of Africa, formalized at the Berlin
Conference, has left the continent with an illogical pattern of ethnic distribution, a
crazy quilt in which organic groups were split apart, or else pushed together, without
regard to their own internal needs. As the crowned heads of Europe scrambled
for Africa, Africa became so scrambled that the geographical map of the designated
countries no longer bore any relationship to the normative or cultural map. No
doubt this maldistribution, in so far as it forestalled the organization of indigenous
resistance, made the job of governing the territories easier for the European powers.
But its effects on the African peoples themselves have not been so fortunate. Issues
of economic exploitation aside, one of the effects was to retard the natural evolution
of political institutions within these indigenous societies.
It is often noted that the European partition of Africa, formalized at the Berlin
Conference, has left the continent with an illogical pattern of ethnic distribution, a
crazy quilt in which organic groups were split apart, or else pushed together, without
regard to their own internal needs. As the crowned heads of Europe scrambled
for Africa, Africa became so scrambled that the geographical map of the designated
countries no longer bore any relationship to the normative or cultural map. No
doubt this maldistribution, in so far as it forestalled the organization of indigenous
resistance, made the job of governing the territories easier for the European powers.
But its effects on the African peoples themselves have not been so fortunate. Issues
of economic exploitation aside, one of the effects was to retard the natural evolution
of political institutions within these indigenous societies.

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Published by: Yamil Assi on Dec 11, 2012
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35 PhilosophiaAfricana, Vol. 5, No. 2, August200
Philosophy and the State in Africa: SomeRawlsian Considerations
Ifeanyi A. Menkiti
Departmentof Philosophy WellesleyCollege Wellesley,Massachusetts 
It is often noted that the European partition of Africa, formalized at the BerlinConference, has left the continent with an illogical pattern of ethnic distribution, acrazy quilt in which organic groups were split apart, or else pushed together, with-out regard to their own internal needs. As the crowned heads of Europe scrambledfor Africa, Africa became so scrambled that the geographical map of the designatedcountries no longer bore any relationship to the normative or cultural map. Nodoubt this maldistribution, in so far as it forestalled the organization of indigenousresistance, made the job of governing the territories easier for the European powers.But its effects on the African peoples themselves have not been so fortunate. Issuesof economic exploitation aside, one of the effects was to retard the natural evolutionof political institutions within these indigenous societies.In the case of Europe, one could say that first there were kingdoms and then,later, states came to replace the kingdoms, such that, instead of kings, Europeansstarted having prime ministers. But in the case of Africa, the kingdoms simply ground to a halt, and what replaced them were territories created by an act of impe-rial will, not something that organically evolved. This dissolution of peoples by imperial will, and the subsequent attempt toimpose on the space, which was formerly occupied by the dissolved peoples, a new order of governance patterned after European national needs and political under-standings, lies, it has been argued, at the base of Africa's current problems of statemalfunction. To go from well-formed political peoples to a new order of gover-nance, which of necessity had to rely on the force of colonial arms to accomplishits aims, meant that the usual normative ingredients bearing on the internal cohesionof peoples had to go into hibernation, more or less, and could not therefore be madepart of an evolving political culture. This is not to say that some other failures, home-grown, may not have con-tributed to key factors in the rupture of political processes. It would simply be
 
36 Philosophia Africana
 wrong to blame all of Africa's political problems on Europe's amalgamation of indigenous peoples into a hastily contrived juridical existence, one whose justifica-tions came from abroad, and which was imposed from above. There have been plen-ty of opportunities since independence to begin to reverse the damage, and the greedof politicians and the ineptitude of officials, at the local level, cannot be dismissed.But despite granting this contribution to the current political problems by  Africans themselves, I think it best not to dwell on it any longer. Rather, let mereturn to the larger claim of structural discontinuity, the way and manner in whichpolitical authority from above failed then, and still fails now, to connect with legit-imizing values drawn locally from below. Two things stand out to define the maincontours of the structural account. On the one hand, we have the various tribal orethnic communities whose political powers have been switched off by the imposi-tion of colonial rule, dismantled as it were, but whose normative pull on the lives of the people still remain noticeably strong. On the other hand, we have the newly minted states with laws organized to command a new citizen body, but states, itappears, whose normative pull on the lives of the people is either negligible ornon-existent. Add to this the facts of economic poverty and immune deficiency diseases anda picture emerges of an embattled continent, where hope appears to recede every-day, and where the local wits have taken to joking that instead of a GNP (grossnational product) all that the African countries can speak of is of a
GPN
(grosspitiable nothing). In all of this mix, whether it is the political disorder that generatesthe facts of poverty and disease, or the facts of poverty and disease that generate thepolitical disorder, it remains to be seen what exactly follows from an answer tothose questions. For my part, I wish to argue that the problem of political disorderin Africa today is at bottom a problem bearing on the unresolved question: what isthe proper basis for the enpeoplement of a political people? The way we answer this question is extremely important, since, for many of the world's peoples, politics is now without question a key determinant of social life. Asthe late Ghanaian leader, Kwame Nkrumah, used to say, "Seek ye first the politicalkingdom, and all other things shall be added unto you."Governmental systems obviously vary everywhere in the world; so likewise thenuances of state structure. But the one thing that states have in common is the ideaof central command, and central command is followed up with another notion, thatof a detached domain, or territory, over which central command is to operate. Theissue then becomes how the claimed domain, or territory, is to be understood as bestgoverned, i.e. how the various units that we now designate as territorial states arebest approached from the vantage point of political morality.Liberalism has an important account to give about this issue of appropriategovernance, and Rawlsian liberalism, compliant with the general movement of theparent tradition, appears particularly well suited to the needs and temper of ourtimes, and to the sets of facts on the ground, which continue to propel those needsand shape that temper. I say that Rawlsian liberalism, or at least a certain aspect of 
Rawlsian liberalism, is well suited to the needs of our times because it can, withoutexaggeration, be said that the one thing that most strikingly marks our world today 
 
 Rawlsian Considerations on the State in Africa 37 
is the fact of conflict borne of perceptual pluralism and a de-centering of knowledge,both within and across cultures. Whether within or across cultures, there are now so many visions regardin what is the case, or what ought to be the case, that it often appears an impossibletask to reconcile the various claims of individuals and of groups. It is my belief thatalthough liberalism has traditionally been hailed as an ideal of freedom, of humanliberation, it would be best, in these troubled times, to regard it as an efficient enginefor the management of conflict, not as something to be defended because it pro-motes human freedom, whatever the moral content of the exercise of that freedomhappens to be in actual practice. What Rawlsian liberalism says about the nature and dignity of the person isless pressing than what it says this citizen ought to abandon by way of entitlementto comprehensive moral visions, so as to be able to place citizens together with oth-ers in a domain argued to be free-standing and political. These restrictions cut rightto the center of my earlier question: what is the basis of the people's enpeoplementas a political people? What feeds into this basis, and what, of necessity, has to bekept away from it? A fruitful mutual engagement is possible between an ostensibly individualisticliberal philosophy and a communitarian cultural orientation, such as one finds in Africa. Not only could Rawls be relevant to the reworking of ideas concerning polit-ical association on the continent, but Africa could also be pertinent as an additionaltesting ground regarding the strengths and shortcomings of aspects of Rawlsianpolitical philosophy.Especially appealing to the African situation are Rawls's strategy of risk aver-sion, and his general methodology for the avoidance of destructive conflicts. This issomething that African political philosophy should embrace. Benjamin Disraeli issaid to have once remarked, "Damn your principles; stick to your party." Africanleaders, in sticking to their parties, and not to binding principles, may yet find that,i n t h e e n d , w h a t t h e y c a l l c o u n t r y i snot really country anymore, but anempty space devoid of normative
Fruitful mutual engagements 
meaning.
arepossiblebetweenlibera
 Admittedly, Rawls's risk aver-
philosophyandth
sion strategy makes sense only againstthe background of a situation in
communitarian culture in 
 which one holds out little hope for the
Africa• 
possibility of coordinating the multi-ple intentions of a given citizen body _______________________________ through a unified moral or customary belief system. But the social world is what itis right now, and reason tell us that in the light of a collapsed center, we must engagein damage control and try as best we can to keep our political households from cav-ing in altogether.I must make it clear at this point that in attempting to engage Rawls on issuesof African governance, I am not trying to suggest that cultural differences do notexist between the West and Africa. Surely, my intention is not to argue that African

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