Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and Development in Africa edited by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and Philip J. McConnaughay. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 308 pp.
In 1961, just as the countries of Africa were acquiring their independence, a junior Washington Evening Star reporter named Smith Hempstone, having just returned from a three-year-long odyssey across the continent, pessimistically opined:
All that can be said at this juncture is that Western democracy is not going to work in Africa. Nor is government going to revert to a tribal framework. A new synthesis is in the making and something new in political organization is about to emerge, an "Afrocratic" system which utilizes the form but not the substance of democracy and draws much of its inspiration from indigenous institutions. This implies limited freedom of speech, irregular and semi-free elections, a one-party system and rule of popular dictator. Western democracy evolved from a given set of circumstances to fit the needs and aspirations of a small portion of the world's population at a given point in time. This is not the time in Africa and parallel circumstances, needs and aspirations do not exist among the peoples and nations (Hempstone 1961: 640-641). In effect, the writer argued, one should not expect much from the new African nations in the matters of democracy and human rights. Four decades later, the same Hempstone, returning this time from a sojourn as United States ambassador to Kenya, professed his faith that:
[I]t is profoundly racist to suggest that democracy is impossible in Africa. It will be difficult and messy. The process will likely be a protracted one. But we owe it to ourselves as much as to the Africans to support the pro-democracy forces in their struggle. The support of human rights and the expansion of democracy will always be a component of U.S. diplomacy, but we need to decide how large a component it will be and then pursue it with logic and consistency (Hempstone 1997: 327). What is even more amazing about this volte-face is that the writer had not been converted to liberal idealism: prior to serving as the envoy to Nairobi of the administration of George H.W. Bush--the consummate foreign policy realist--Hempstone had retired as the hard-hitting editor-inchief of the conservative Washington Times. So, if journalist-turned-diplomat had not changed, what had?
There is a general consensus among political scientists and other observers that a wave of democratization swept across the globe with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc (Conteh-Morgan 1997). Many countries embarked on--or at least announced--a course of political transformation. While there have been reversals, failures, and even violence, many formerly dictatorial regimes have successfully made the tumultuous transition to freer polities. Neither has Africa been aloof from this worldwide process. Before 1990, all but a literal handful of the continent's states were ruled by one-party--if not one-man--regimes. Up to then, with the exception of the state presidents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, no African leader had ever left office through electoral defeat and only three had retired voluntarily: Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal (1980), Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon (1982), and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1985) (although Ahidjo, apparently undergoing a change of heart, subsequently tried to shoot his way back into office). By the end of the decade, however, virtually all sub-Saharan African states--even those that have collapsed or are on the very verge of collapse--opened themselves to what Jean-Germain Gros has termed the "first phase of democratization:" the opening of the political system to competition (Gros 1998: 2). Even some of the continent's longest ruling incumbents--including Gabon's Omar Bongo and Togo's Gnassingbe Eyadema, both of whom have been in power for more than three decades (1)--have felt themselves compelled by the zeitgeist to at least go through the motions of subjecting themselves to electoral scrutiny.
While the actual mechanisms and modalities of democratization varied according to the internal dynamics of each case, the phenomenon gives rise to several questions: What led to this evolution in the first place? What kind of political structures have been--and are being--erected in place of the former regimes? What is the future likely to hold for these enterprises? Of course, a historic transition as vast and complex as the wave of democratization in Africa in the 1990s defies generalization. Nonetheless, there are underlying commonalities that can be discerned that transcend contingent elements and may prove determinative of whether the newly democratized polities successfully make it through the more difficult "second phase of democratization," which involves creating the conditions conducive to the establishment of the rule of law--or, in the more inclusive French phrase, the etat de droits (literally the "state of rights"), which guarantees citizens a broad range of rights, social and economic as well as civil and political (Gros 1998: 3). It is in the search for the lessons to be learned from the general trends that Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, professor of African studies and history at Pennsylvania State University, and Philip J. McConnaughay, dean of Penn State's Dickinson School of Law, assembled the contributions of eighteen other scholars, including some of Africa's leading jurists and human rights advocates, to examine the experience of the last decade in Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and Development in Africa.
The first part of the collection, entitled "Universalism and Relativism in Human Rights Discourse," centers on Western and African discourses about human rights and whether the relevant paradigm of human rights ought to be universal or culturally relative. While the longest of the volume's three subdivisions, this one is ultimately also the least satisfying, with little new ground covered by the seven contributors, who rehash a theoretical debate that predates the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this issue, there is a diversity of viewpoints within the scholarly community, in general, and from the contributors to the present volume in particular, who span the spectrum from the spirited defense of the universal validity of rights (Ada O. Okoye) to passionate advocacy of their cultural relativism (Zeleza, Bonny Ibhawoh), with most located near the relativist end (N. Barney Pityana, Alamin M. Mazrui, E. Ike Udogu, and Kidane Mengisteab). The former position argues that the admission of cultural relativism is a slippery slope that undermines progress for human rights, while the latter fears the classical liberal formulation of human rights is itself a Western imposition on non-Western societies, especially, in this context, African ones. One contributor approvingly quotes the late Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, who once asked:
What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare existence from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced, will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful (36). The either/or argument is that economic and social rights, which are allegedly more "African," must take precedence over the civil and political rights that are said to dominate Western discourse. This line of zero-sum reasoning, however, tends to ignore the fact that civil and political rights are needed, not only to anchor economic and social development, but to protect society itself from the worst effects of even natural catastrophes (Sen 1999). It is no small irony that at the end of a life dedicated to denouncing Western "impositions" in favor of African relativism, Nyerere himself died in a private London hospital in 1999--the socialist medical system he bequeathed the people of Tanzania being found inadequate to treat his chronic leukemia.
The via media between the horns of the radical-universalist/radical-relativist dilemma might be found through recourse to Jack Donnelly's distinction between "strong cultural relativism" and "weak cultural relativism." The former holds that culture is the primary determinant of rights, values, and other social norms, although the universality of human nature can serve as a check on the excesses of relativism. The latter, while recognizing the importance of culture in the articulation, interpretation, and appropriation of norms, upholds their universality, particularly with respect to basic human rights. Donnelly wisely advises human rights advocates to hew to a "weak cultural relativism" which allows for "limited cultural variations in the form and interpretation of particular human rights," while insisting on their "fundamental moral universality" (Donnelly 1989: 124).
Donnelly's theoretical approach would be compatible with a compromise strategy for dealing with a case mentioned--but not resolved--by one contributor to the volume, N. Barney Pityana, former chair of the South African Human Rights Commission, in which a woman belonging to the Bafokeng ethnic group discovered that when her parents died, a tribal court, following customary law, awarded their estate to her nephew, to her total exclusion. Donnelly cites the work of Rhoda Howard who observed that while an outright ban on customary practices that are perceived to be particularly egregious in their discrimination might appeal to advocates of strict universalism, it would not only be objectionable to cultural relativists but might prove politically unfeasible in a given country. However, national legislation might be adopted that guaranteed the right of individuals or families to...