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  • “Civil” and Other Societies
  • Peter M. Lewis (bio)
Civil Society and the State in Africa. Edited by John W. Harbeson, Donald Rothchild, and Naomi Chazan. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994. 312 pp.

No less than other regions of the world, sub-Saharan Africa experienced a quickening of democratic pressures during the 1980s. Within the past five years, more than three dozen African states long characterized by authoritarian rule have undergone political liberalization or a transfer of power through competitive elections. Although [End Page 172] international pressure has frequently influenced political transitions in Africa, the main catalysts of change have been Africans themselves. Professional associations, labor unions, churches, and human rights activists have spearheaded many of the region’s democratic movements, while a panoply of local organizations, social networks, and market channels have served to undermine the legitimacy and power of authoritarian incumbents. The recent increase in grassroots organization and political participation has drawn attention to the character of civil society in the region. Civil Society and the State in Africa is a wide-ranging and conceptually ambitious exploration of this subject.

The idea of civil society has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance in recent years, as citizens from Warsaw to Lusaka, Santiago to Beijing, have struck with a vengeance at entrenched autocratic regimes. The global resurgence of autonomous popular organization, civic activism, and political contestation has provoked a search for analytic tools to help us make sense of these historic shifts in state-society relations. Despite its origins in European political theory, the idea of civil society has often appeared as a universal verity in comparative analyses of democratic change. Yet the concept has revealed many permutations, even within the European context, and its applicability to African circumstances is by no means self-evident.

Many analysts adopt a broad view of civil society as a diverse realm of private and particular concerns outside the formal precincts of the state, while others stress the role of organized interests interacting within a common civic sphere. A few writers have defined the concept even more narrowly, as nonparty political opposition. The colonial origins of African states—and the heterogeneous and divided societies that have emerged—raise questions specific to the region. Is it reasonable to conceive of a coherent civil society in such fractious countries as Zaire, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Liberia? Is there a clear demarcation between the public and private realms in Africa’s personalized, clientelist states? Even if we can discern the outlines of a civic sphere in many African countries, does it necessarily follow that African civil society is democratic in its aspirations and activities?

The first section of the book explores the idea of civil society and its utility in the African context. Crawford Young reprises the intellectual evolution of the construct, from Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville through Hegel, Marx, and Gramsci. This history has revealed some essential tensions, including those pertaining to the character of civil society itself as well as its relationship to the state. Civil society appears sometimes as a bastion of resistance to the encroachment of state power, sometimes as a dissonant sphere requiring state tutelage. Moreover, the societal realm has been cast alternately as a crucible of civic values and social continuity, and as an arena of class and factional conflict. [End Page 173]

Young’s discussion of state formation and social change illuminates the ambiguous character of civil society in much of Africa. Colonial powers implanted facsimiles of European states in Africa, while the imperial project itself accentuated the imperatives of domination and social control. Thus colonialism engendered civil societies in Africa even as it established a political setting largely hostile to autonomous societal organization. The surge of political participation that characterized the nationalist era offered fleeting opportunities for the creation of a vital civic realm, but the authoritarian proclivities of postindependence regimes quickly shrank the scope of the associational arena. Young refers to the difficulty of defining civil society in feeble or collapsing states, while acknowledging the potential for autonomous social forces to retreat into parochialism and conflict.

Africa’s weak authoritarian states have provoked a range of societal responses, from active collaboration and sullen acquiescence to strategic evasion, overt protest, and withdrawal. Victor...

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pp. 172-176
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