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Human Rights Quarterly 26.2 (2004) 512-518

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Realizing the Promise for Ourselves

Human Rights Under African Constitutions (Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im ed. Philadelphia, Penn: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) x and 434 pp ISBN 0-8122-3677-7.

This is a book to be welcomed, for the ambition of the project of which it is the published outcome, for the attempted filling of the substantial gap in our knowledge which it represents, and for the level of success in its execution which the contributing authors have largely achieved. I have used the subtitle of this collection of papers as the title of this review, to emphasize the centrality of this theme in the book as a whole, as well as the necessity for Africans to assume the responsibility of achieving the desired level of compliance with human rights norms to ensure good governance; particularly in the current political climate, little assistance is likely to come from the developed world in pursuing this objective.

As a continent, Africa is not usually associated with the protection of the human rights of those who live there, and in the political bleakness of the 1970s and 1980s, a book such as that under review would have been greeted with some skepticism, and intense disappointment, especially after the hope with which decolonization had been greeted in the 1960s. In those decades, military dictatorships were pervasive as the system of government in Africa, not to mention the tenacious hold which racist colonialism continued to exert on much of the southern part of the continent, either directly or by proxy, stoking the fires of ethnic division and human greed. [End Page 512] The 1990s, however, brought new vision and hope, as a wave of "democratic constitutionalism" swept through much of the continent and civilian rule returned, in line with developments in central and eastern Europe, South America and parts of Asia. So the late 1990s was an appropriate time to take stock of any progress made in achieving the protection accorded to "human rights under African constitutions," and we are indebted to Professor An-Na'im and his supporting donors for conceiving of and engaging in this project. What are the main features of this project? In the words of the editor's preface:

Without claiming to do so definitively or exhaustively for any particular country, this project attempts to provide a coherent approach to understanding and documenting the relation between civil society and the state in Africa. Second, [it] seeks to develop strategies for overcoming the sense of apathy and powerlessness among the population at large toward the state and its institutions, including its constitutional and legal order. The underlying rationale of this approach is that, despite its limitations, the legal protection of human rights is both an end and part of the means for addressing the situation in African countries. But it is important to acknowledge first the reality and negative consequences of the present relation between civil society and the state, and its implications to the principle of constitutionalism and the repeated failure of African constitutions. Otherwise, it would be merely wishful thinking, if not harmful, to speak of the legal protection of human rights under African constitutions.1

Against this general background, and after a meeting in Zambia in 1995 which brought together participants from a representative sample of sixteen African countries, and a further conference in Senegal in late 1997, at which draft studies of the selected countries were considered, the authors of ten such country-studies were asked to prepare their papers for publication in this volume, which has duly appeared five years later. To what extent have the laudably ambitious objectives of the project been met?

The book starts with a challenging and thoughtful introductory chapter, entitled Expanding Legal Protection of Human Rights in African Contexts, by An-Na'im. His goal is:

[T]o provide a theoretical framework for these country-studies by clarifying the parameters of the role of the people themselves in protecting their own human rights because that is the only legitimate, principled, and sustainable way...


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