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Reviewed by:
  • Human Rights and Governance in Africa
  • Abdullahi An-Na’im
Human Rights and Governance in Africa (Ronald Cohen, Goran Hyden & Winston P. Nagan eds., 1993) 303 pp. $39.95 Cloth.

This collection of eleven essays, arising from a 1988–1989 Carter Lecture Series at the Center for African Studies of the University of Florida, is organized into two parts. Part I, entitled “Theoretical Perspectives,” contains essays by Ronald Cohen, Timothy Fernyhough, H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo, and Winston P. Nagan. Part II on “Substantive Issues,” consists of chapters by Rhoda E. Howard: women’s rights and the right to development; Art Hansen: human rights of refugees; Robert Shanafelt: human rights and political violence in Lesotho; F. Niyi Akinnaso: language rights in Nigeria; Ajuji Ahmed and Ronald Cohen: education and rights in Nigeria; and Goran Hyden: academic freedom in Africa. The last chapter, on the challenges of domesticating rights in Africa, which serves as a conclusion for the whole volume, is also by Goran Hyden.

According to the editors’ preface, this book is concerned with the processes by which claims get to be acknowledged as rights, rather than with legalistic exegesis of one specific rights list or another. The linkage between human rights and governance in the title is intended to emphasize the fact that the scope and protection of human rights depend on the state and how its institutions accept and interpret such rules.

The editors say that the book is deliberately eclectic in order to be a forum representing a wide variety of views because it is not possible, at least not yet, “to assume a priori that any one paradigm—i.e., a particular set of causal relationships or variables—is more valid or explanatory than any other.” (p. xiv, Preface.) However, the editors do have their own theoretical objectives: “to present, interpret, and challenge the traditional approach that argues for a specifically African quality to human rights in contrast to a universalist view . . . [and] to demonstrate the utility of a processual approach to rights issues—looking at how and why rights emerge and become accepted” (p. xv).

The second objective, persuasively argued for by Ronald Cohen in the first essay, is one possible paradigm, and a very useful one in my view, which needs to be seriously considered. However, I wonder whether putting the notion of a “specifically African quality to human rights” in a sharp contrast with “a universalist view,” with a preference for one over the other, is not the sort of “paradigmatics” the editors claim to eschew. It is true that the book contains a variety of views on the so-called universalist/relevatist debate, but none that questions the dichotomy in the first place, or examines its underlying rationale and dynamics.

It seems to me that much of the confusion in this debate is due not only to the absolute terms in which the universality of the present regime of international human rights standards is either uncritically assumed, or totally rejected, but also to the fact that the protagonists on both sides tend to respond to those extreme formulations instead of seeking common ground based on a more realistic [End Page 574] and constructive formulation of the issues. An uncritical assumption of universality is unjustified, in my view, because the manner and circumstances in which these standards have been conceived and articulated through the United Nations and other interstate systems were not particularly conducive to ensuring genuine universality, whether as a matter of agreement on their moral and philosophical foundations or actual acceptance of their normative and behavioral implications. How can taking the universality of current international standards as an accomplished fact be reconciled with, for example, African claims of collective rights and individual duties (discussed by Okoth-Ogendo in chapter 3 of this book) when these notions are believed to be inconceivable under the UN and other regional systems; whatever may have been the motive(s) behind the African claims?

I also find the rejectionist position objectionable in that it goes to the other extreme of concluding that the universality of human rights is not possible, and perhaps even undesirable according to some “relativists.” The imperative need for universal standards...

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