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  • Intellectuals and African Development: pretension and resistance in African politics
  • Jeffrey Haynes
Björn Beckman and Gbemisola Adeoti (eds), Intellectuals and African Development: pretension and resistance in African politics. London: Codesria/Zed Books/Unisa (pb £19.99 – 978 18427 7765 7 and hb £65.00 – 97818427 7765 7). 2006, 192 pp.

The aim of this book, according to the back cover blurb, is to look at the 'very different responses to the African predicament' from various notable writers, including Soyinka, Ngugi and Achebe, military rulers, and students 'who defy repression'.

It is a truism that (sub-Saharan) Africa is a culturally and religiously diverse, politically complex region of nearly fifty countries. The background to Africa's democratic transitions – which occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s – was an array of apparently unpropitious structural characteristics which, according to many observers, including the authors included in this book, made it very unlikely, even impossible, that the region would make clear democratic progress along with other 'third wave' regions, such as eastern Europe and East Asia. Instead, and this is another general conclusion to emerge from this book, formal democratization has not made that much difference to how politics is done in Africa. In many cases, much of the impetus for political reform emanated from a combination of domestic and international factors, with the latter often most important – at least in the early stages, as it was very often linked to foreign exchange remittances via 'foreign aid' of various kinds. Overall, beset by economic problems and growing societal strife, Africa was in crisis at the end of the 1980s; in many African countries there was a clear sense that things had 'gone wrong' since independence. For many observers, not to mention local political activists, fundamental reforms – of state structures and institutions – were essential in order to correct things.

Many African 'democratic transitions' began with popular uprisings against unelected leaders, which gradually developed into demands for multi-party elections and democratic governments. However, such protest-led, reformist-oriented actions did not necessarily lay a firm foundation for the subsequent institutionalization of democratic regimes. African countries experienced various modes of democratic transition, and then introduced rather similar sets of constitutional reforms – often in quick succession. The characteristic sequence was: (re)legalization of political parties, constitutional separation of powers, date set for elections. The outcome, typically, was that incumbent rulers were able to exploit the advantages of incumbency to win elections and retain power.

Confirmation of pessimism about the possibility of real political changes in Africa has seemed to be confirmed by the slow pace of democratization in many African countries in recent years. By the early 2000s, typically, there had been two or three rounds of elections in African countries where democracy had been introduced. Outcomes were generally ambivalent, with a mixed bag of evidence related to assessing prospects for democratic consolidation. Generally, however, democratic transitions had failed to produce adequate political frameworks for the reforms that needed to be implemented to increase political accountability and spur sustainable economic development. On the other hand, there was some optimism regarding a few countries, including South Africa and Ghana, where, it appeared, democracy might be taking root. In these cases, the significance of contingent factors to democratic outcomes, including the importance of individual agency, was highlighted. In such circumstances, it appeared that sufficient political will on the part of political leaders could build democracy, despite the obstacles, in even the most [End Page 321] unpropitious surroundings. Neither country comes under focus in this book (South Africa is mentioned on one page only).

The book under review is not a straightforward survey of the trials and tribulations of recent democratization attempts in Africa. Instead, it is a rather odd hybrid, structured in three separate sections. The first section is entitled 'Intellectuals, writers and soldiers' and features three chapters that collectively look at how three of Africa's literary giants – Soyinka, Ngugi and Achebe – have viewed the problematic of Africa's political vicissitudes. In addition, the section also includes a chapter on how Africa's (many) military rulers have sought to justify their regimes through literary defences.

The second section is entitled 'Students, youths and people...


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pp. 321-322
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