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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and Future from Liberia

The Evolution of Democracy in Multi-Ethnic Societies

By H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Ph.D.

Posted July 26 2008


The history of African nationalism--in all its variants--has been the history of the struggle for the conquest of state power. The various approaches and methods used in the pursuit of this objective have determined the forms and content of the emerging social formations. 

An analysis of nationalism in Africa and its impact on the evolution of institutions and the nature of social transformation must as a necessity inquire into the pitfalls of tactics and strategy and how the failure to resolve these led to national stultification and the attendant problems of marginalization and the aridity of ideological orientation.

These problems have bedeviled the states of Africa since independence and the apparent difficulties in forging viable nation-states out of the multiplicity of nationalities and creating a culture of collective participation--which would be both democratic and popular--have more to do with orientation than with any socio-cultural impediment. In short, African problems of nation-building have to do with the predisposition of a social sector and the chronic limitation of its political horizon which are both the residual of its compromise not with the builders of the nation-states but with those who stand to gain from the debilitating diversity of the various narrow interests of the nationalities.

The paper will be divided into three parts. The first part will look at some issues within the general framework of Africa and deal specifically with the pitfalls of nation-building after independence and how these have impacted on the attempts at creating a democratic culture within multi-ethnic societies. The second part of the paper will address the problematic of transformation and the building of a democratic culture. Here, we will consider the nature of the democratic implantation in Africa. One must always address the issue of democracy in a specific context. Is our conception of democracy defined simply by political pluralism? Is it only synonymous with western liberalism--with its adjuncts of universal adult suffrage, free press, political competition and the freedom of choice? Of what relevance are concepts and methods which do not take into consideration the interests of the vast majority of the people? Can there be a democracy over and above the western variant? The third part of the paper will consider two case studies--Liberia and Sierra Leone in contemporary times--and try to show how the inability to grapple effectively with the issue of multi-ethnicity and democratic participation hamstrung the process of nation-building and led to decay and collapse.


Africa and the forms of independence

The struggle for power and its underlying rationale in Africa took various forms. There were three variants: the "negotiated" variety which left intact the structures of pre-colonial Africa which were used effectively by colonialism and then handed over to that social sector which had been the most vocal in the assertion of African nationalism--that is to say in the demand for political power. The second variety was the "compromised" brand which entailed the granting of political power to that social sector which had been separated from the more militant nationalists. This variety from the outset was consciously divisive and thus repressive as it had to contend with a segment which also had legitimate claims to political power. The final variety was the Jacobin" brand. This variety was revolutionary and populist and invariably ended in the violent destruction of colonialism and the uprooting of those negative tendencies associated with the pre-history of African civilization.

In the first dispensation, what obtained was a truce, not only between the nationalists and the colonialists, but also between the various social sectors which emerged as representatives of the respective nationalities in the country. The defining parameter was the absolute protection of the interests of the various nationalities as opposed to the collective and inseparable interests of the state. As if to underline the tendency toward separatism, it was argued in certain quarters that the emerging states could not be considered nations, but "mere geographical expressions." (1) Thus what emerged in most instances were contending parochial nationalisms within the ambit of a specific state. The independence thus bequeathed took place against the background of desperate centrifugal forces, with negotiations centered on the type of modus vivendi which allowed for the growth and crystallization of regional or ethnic chauvinism.

A few generalizations will suffice to show some identifiable trends in the various social formations in this category. There is invariably a very weak attachment to the nation-state by the various nationalities, thus leading to instability and very often national sclerosis. Against this background, civil wars have resulted as the logical culmination of ethnic irredentism. Secondly, there is always a pattern of ideological obfuscation giving rise to the tendency to develop by improvisation--most often borrowed from cultures which are dissimilar. Thirdly, there is the marginalization of the people who are then forced into conformity either through mystification or chronic dejection. Finally, one can point to the fetishism of pomp and pageantry which caricatured the symbolism of grandeur in the Roman Empire. Within this matrix, the attempt at nation-building always seem Herculean. As regards this category, it has been argued that "the present-day rulers have inherited only unconsolidated nations; as in early America, so in Africa there remain fissiparous social, economic and psychological forces that must be overcome before we can say that the colonial nations have survived the shocks of independence." (2) The reference to surviving "the shocks of independence" has to do with overcoming the forces of disunity which are both traditional and modern. In the context of the nationalism which was germane to this category, the builders of the nation-state were left immobilised in their cocoons of traditional loyalties and regional prejudices. The state was handed to those who were proponents, not of social transformation which would have addressed the cardinal issue of nation-building within the framework of collective advancement, but to those who only wanted power no matter how truncated and vacuous.

The second variety, that of the "compromised" brand had it most portent aspect in countries where the militant struggle was cut short by duplicity and leaders emerged who were acceptable to the colonialists. The acceptable leaders were those who moderated their demands by prolonging the dialogue for the transfer of power. Those who sought to mobilize the majority of the people for a decisive struggle which would destroy colonial structures and address the issue of popular participation in the process of nation-building were annihilated because the people did not have the time to develop effective organs for popular struggle. Unfortunately, the failure of the militant leaders stymied the progress of the national struggle; for these were the leaders who had gone over and beyond the particularism of the region or the tribe and had embraced the collective movement of the people. Their nationalism was both constructive and destructive. It was constructive in so far as it sought to mobilize the majority of the people and thus break down the inhibitions toward collective transformation. It was destructive of the traditional order as it sought to undermine the old value system of obedience and conformity. In this context, James Coleman has argued persuasively that:

In general, it would seem that where nationalism manifests itself in considerable strength it is evidence that disintegration of the old and social mobilization around the symbols of the new order have occurred on a scale sufficient to weaken or destroy attachments and loyalties of the nationalists to pre-colonial socio-political units, either because they have been crushed and are beyond memory or because they are unattractive or manifestly unsuitable as ‘nations’ in  a modern world of nation-states. (3)

In the case of those who wanted to prolong the dialogue and thus delay the transfer of power, history was generous at that point in time as the colonialists settled for an artificial transfer of power and deposited it in the laps of those who were less inclined to use it for the collective good. It was Frantz Fanon who understood better this phenomenon and saw its tragic consequences at the dawn of African independence. He argued that those who inherited power with the consent of the colonialists "came to power in the name of a narrow nationalism and representing a race; they will prove themselves incapable of triumphantly putting into practice a programme with even a minimum humanist content, in spite of fine-sounding declaration which are devoid of meaning since the speakers bandy about in irresponsible fashion phrases that come straight out of European treatises on morals and political philosophy." (4)

The emergence of this form of nationalism led immediately to authoritarianism which was the defense mechanism used to contain those who had better credentials because of their broad social base. Thus what obtained in those countries where the compromisers were successful was a form of garrison nationalism which barricaded itself from any form of popular participation.

The final variety was the ‘Jacobin’ brand which as we have argued was militant and revolutionary. Here the confrontation was most often violent primarily because the arrogance of the colonialists came up against the total mobilization of a determined people. Those who led the revolt were uncompromising as their objective was the social transformation of the society. In this regard, they went over and above the mere taking of power and addressed the social question which had to do with the collective participation of the people in the building of new social, economic and political relations. In this variety, there was the marginalization not of the people but of that social sector which demonstrated diametrically opposed interests to that of the majority. In this variety, new theories of advancement and development had to be conceived. These revolved around the fundamental issue of collective nation-building. The basic argument here was that:

No real nation can emerged from the amalgamation of disparate or conflicting nationality interests, but only by organizing all elements...on the basis of their specific social interests: by building the nation, that is, upwards from the bottom and not downwards from the top. Once this was undertaken, all elements...could be harmonised within the same overall system because their specific social interests were identical in kind or closely similar. That being so, the social question had to have primacy over the national question. You had to start from the real and immediate needs of the people ‘at the base’: their need for control over their own communities, their need for understanding how to use this control  so as to improve life, their need for means to make this improvement possible. (5) 

The attempts at creating new structures which would accelerate the process of social transformation elicited hostile responses both internally and externally. Internally, those social sectors, both traditional and modern, which wanted to safeguard certain privileges and create rigid social divisions used all methods of sabotage to hinder the process of mobilization and social transformation. Externally, plots and conspiracies were hatched in conjunction with certain circles in Africa to destroy the emergence of new and dynamic social formations. For example, in Southern Africa, it was the apartheid state machine which served as a conduit for aggression and destabilization. It was in this context that UNITA and RENAMO, in Angola and Mozambique respectively, were nurtured and maintained. In Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese employed mercenaries to assist their troops in the process of repression and destabilization. Tanzania had to contend with the remnants of Arabised feudalism and later with that grotesque militarist called Idi Amin. Thus, the states in this category went straggling into the modern world with all the hindrances put in their way by those who fear a genuine alternative for Africa’s growth and development.

Independence and Nation-building

The states which emerged into independence reflected to a great extent the nature of the nationalist struggle and the method of the acquisition of political power. The first two varieties mentioned are the norms in modern Africa and we must therefore deal with the inadequacies of nation-building in these social formations. As to the last variant, whatever abortion of the process of social transformation that subsequently occurred had more to do with exogenous forces. The argument here is that the third variant had the necessary ingredients for constructive nation-building and would have evolved into dynamic social formations with popular participation and democratic transformation if external forces had not intervene to abort the process. The form of external intervention had nothing to do with economic or political manipulation. This form was naked aggression and its objective was to subvert and destroy all forms of transformation that were not modeled on western institutions and Anglo-Saxon values.

The "negotiated" and "compromised" variants on the other hand had major pitfalls at the inception of independence. These were endogenous and derived from the orientation of the social sector which was in a dominant position to direct the process of the transfer of power. In the first place, nationalism was built on regional and/or sectional interests. It was based on a vertical hierarchy with rigid structures of division defining the various compartments and the level of participation. It involved the people only at the level of "shock troops" in the process of negotiation. Without the consciousness of a nation imbued in them, they followed those from the regions who were their tribesmen and thus stopped at the level of regional irredentism. The social sector which led only wanted power as an instrument of control and personal gratification. In this regard, the regional base was sufficient and whatever negotiations took place for the acquisition of power were done against the background of a truce worked out between the various regional denizens. 

Basil Davidson has argued convincingly that with this method of negotiation for independence, "nationhood won the day. But it had come as a bastard birth, or rather, out of parents so ill-matched as to make the raising of the infant worse than chancy. Married to colonial attitudes, structures and values, the cultures of Africa brought forth a creature of self-contradiction that mocked the vision of the past. The few were set against the many. Nationalities were counter-posed to nations. Old inequalities from the pre-colonial heritage, whether between man and man or more painfully between man and woman, were enlarged by new inequalities from the colonial heritage; and the outcome was frustration and defeat." (7)

The attempt at building viable nation-states must tackle first and foremost the mobilization of the people. No form of marginalization can address the issue of that necessary consensus which is indispensable for the negation of those tendencies that lead to regional irredentism. The national consensus must invariably address the social issue of political and economic participation. Politically, the issue can never be what form of government is adopted but to what degree the people are involved in the process of decision-making. The fallacy that voting once in every four or five years is sufficient for the involvement of the people has been the bane of independent Africa. Economically, "the marginalization of the masses is the very condition for the integration of the minority into the world system, the guarantee of a growing income for this minority, which encourages it to adopt Europe-type models of consumption." (8)

The grand illusion of nation-building has to do with the inability of the leading social sectors to take stock of the travesty of that nation-building process which is prone to instability and paralysis. The model they have adopted is rigid and exclusivist. Many of the institutions are not relevant for national integration. The concept of surplus generation is barren and thus the dependence on those foreign institutions which see development as the incremental hoarding of wealth by selective social sectors and not the all round diversification of productive activities which takes as its point of departure the peasantry as the foundation of growth and development. Samir Amin, in his analysis of class and nation has pointed out the barrenness of the model adopted by the two variants we mentioned and has argued that in order to move the nation forward, "industrialization must first be used to increase rural productivity. In the same way, those wishing to serve the urban popular masses must stop luxury production for the local market and exportation, both of which are based on the reproduction of a cheap labour force." (9)

A cheap labour force is the sine qua non for an unconscious and immobilized populace. Existence here is harsh and brutish. Torn from the rural communities and deposited in urban centres, the masses of the people exist on the peripheral of the nation. The social divisions which ensue undermine the ethos of national unity. Those in the rural areas suffer neglect and abandonment. Here, what exists is not an all embracing entity but a multi-faceted structure of gradations, regional loyalties and tribal sentiments. The failure to involve the people in a collective effort forces them to fall back on the narrowness of regional loyalties. The state which emerges in this context stands as a behemoth for the protection of certain parochial interests and thus has no relation to the Hegelian state which is seen "as the embodiment and the protector of the whole of society, of its higher reason, and of its permanent interests." (10)

The fragmentation which emerges in the structure of the African state can be resolved not by the policy of appeasement of regional and sectional interests but by negating those interests and identifying the issues which can motivate the vast majority of the people. Against this background, new arrangements are made to involve the people at all levels of discussions. From village committees to urban neighbourhood councils, the issues of political and economic participation are discussed within the context of the development of new structures. Economic and political ideas are debated, not in jargons which make them esoteric, but in simplified language which is comprehensible to the people. The dynamism of popular participation breaks down barriers and focuses attention on the issues which can lead to all round growth and development. But most often it happens that this road is not taken and in the absence of a coherent strategy for development, improvisations are made. One of such improvisations is the one-party state.

The one-party state is an admission that new social relations have not developed after independence and that the numerous centrifugal forces must be contained by censure and intimidation. In the final analysis, this state is kept afloat by the threat of the use of force to elicit compliance. Here, the army is seen not as an extension of a conscious and armed people who together are seen as builders of the new society but as the protector of a fragile polity kept intact by fear. From this point to the coup d’ etat is a very short distance.

It is obvious that the forces of disunity in these one-party states are numerous. However, the political sterility that pervades these states stems from the absence of an ideology and thus there is hardly any framework in which the disunity can be mitigated. No nation in history has developed without an ideology. Suffice it to say that African nationalism is not an ideology. The ahistorical posture in Africa of trying to create nation-states without an ideology is one of those aberrations that must be given serious attention by scholars of the African experience.

In the absence of an ideology for social transformation and popular mobilization, Africa has co-opted both the western capitalist model and the socialist arrangements with dastardly consequences. Both these arrangements emerged against the background of developments which were unique to Europe. They are outgrowth of social relations in Europe that cannot be duplicated in Africa. The fallacy that an ideology can be borrowed and applied to a different cultural milieu has plagued most of the new nations of Africa since independence.


The problematic

Nearly forty years after the independence of most of the states in Africa, the search goes on for formulae that would underpin the building of stable nation-states. In a world of vigorous competition between states and economic entities, internal structures and institutions must provide the necessary ingredients for the stability that would allow the state to interact effectively within the world system.

Undoubtedly, there have been some successes in certain cases where national mobilisation has led to social transformation with the attendant consequences of popular participation and national integration. In this context, it can be argued that the process of nation-building has involved the dynamic development of structures and institutions which has positive implications for unity and stability. In other cases, there has been rapid disintegration due to the absence of any constructive framework for amalgamating the various nationalities. Here, in some instances, we have witnessed the total collapse of states as the result of national atrophy leading to civil wars. In recent times, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Liberia were designated as "failed states." The failure was both structural and institutional and was a consequence of the inability of the dominant social sectors to identify and address the social question. In most of Africa, the fragility of national structures and institutions is the result of the postponement of the resolution of that fundamental issue which revolves around the welfare of the vast majority. The question that was posed at the dawn of independence about the involvement of the people in the economic and political transformation of the state still stands.

What in essence was the debate about nation-building and democratisation in the context of Africa’s advancement? What were the issues about social transformation and the democratic participation of the people in the new nations? Few of the nationalist leaders grappled with these questions. They emphasized the central role of the "common man" in the new political and economic dispensation in Africa. For them, the success of any nationalist movement in its nation-building efforts must take as its point of departure the awareness that "a nation is the transformation of people, or of several ethnic elements, in the process of social mobilisation."14

The fallacy with regard to the form of nationalism that was pervasive in the variants of "negotiation" and "compromise" was that it was possible to build viable new nation-states with rigid stratification which marginalised the people. In this context, the concept of democracy that emerged was the one which took its point of departure from the interest of that social sector whose definition of the nation and of democracy was limited to its narrow interests. Integrated into the world system with its model of development patterned after Europe, it sought to create a society of rigid social barriers. It concentrated on the over-development of the cities to the neglect of the rural areas. It abandoned the peasantry to the constraints and taboos of the countryside. Those who managed to escape to the cities found themselves in dysfunctional urban settings with mass poverty, crime and misery. In the absence of all egalitarian tendencies, the state became a foreign imposition with its menacing presence suffocating the people.

For the privileged social sectors, agreement is reached between various tendencies as to the kind of political framework that should evolve. They most often settle for pluralism within the context of liberalism. There is a fixation on "freedom of the press," when the major news organs are owned by millionaires and about ninety percent of the people cannot read or write. There is the intoxication with "freedom of movement" when the vast majority of the people are consigned to the rural wasteland and the urban slums. There is the fetishism of "freedom of expression" when the masses of the people cannot even understand the jargons with which economic and political issues are debated. In the case of "freedom of choice," the chosen ones are already designated by the position they occupy on the apex of the social ladder. Against this background, politics becomes a game of deciding which faction among the privileged social sector should be allowed to preside over the interests of the entire sector. Thus, we have a fantasy of democratic participation. Like all fantasies, this one is kept going because it assuages various political hangovers. Is there an alternative?

The search for an alternative to the political and social dislocation must begin with the definition of new forms of democratic participation which allows for the germination of positive social relations as the basis for collective advancement. Ahmed Sekou Toure, like Nyerere, realised the absolute necessity for this. He starts off by defining the form of nationalism which was necessary and sufficient for nation-building and democratic participation after independence. He averred that:

To us, the departure of the colonialists corresponded to the conquest of political power, but this conquest was not sufficient...the existing state had to be annihilated, because of its colonial structures and methods. Even in its notion...there was only a minority which understood the contours and bases of the nation; all the others had no notion of the nation, than that of micro-nations represented by the regionalist groups, the tribes and diverse retrogressive formations, to which they belonged, and they often determined their attitude on the basis of biological and tribal affinities.15

What was interesting about the Guinean experience was that these ideas were not only expressed as a declaration of intent, but were operationalised in a society which involved the people in the building of new structures and institutions. Popular participation became the basis of a political system that placed the social issue at the top of the national agenda. The diverse regional and sectional tendencies were neutralised because the development of the nation was undertaken together with the social and political struggle for economic emancipation and democratic participation. Politics thus became a pastime for all and not a form of cultism in which the rituals are understood by only a few. Development--what little existed--was spread evenly throughout the country. A cultural revolution took place which transformed the various languages into national languages. Every local culture was elevated to the position of a national culture and presented to all the people with its rich symbolism. A national ideology emerged which had its basis in the egalitarianism of traditional African society. 

The Fulah, Sousou, Mandingo and the other nationalities embarked on the building of the Guinean nation because only within this nation could they defined and identify their interests. And then there were the armed people, auxiliaries to the men in arms who had dedicated themselves to the defence of the nation. There was no instance when arms were used in the furtherance of regional or sectional interests. These tendencies had been eliminated in a frontal assault that wiped out anti-national sentiments.

The liberation of man and his transformation into a new social species with a high level of political consciousness became the raison d’ etat of the various political organs of the party-state. The emancipation of women was placed on the same level as the abolition of exploitation. A party emerged drawing cadres from the most conscious elements in the society. Many critics have argued that this was a dictatorship because certain rights and privileges were denied to selective social sectors. But no dictatorship in an underdeveloped country--lacking the sophistication and refinement of terror as witnessed in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy--can survive when guns are given to the people.

The regime in Guinea was stern because the process of nation-building had at first to contend with obnoxious particularisms magnified by colonialism. The regime was uncompromising because the process of social transformation must first and foremost abolish all forms of obscurantism which retard the people’s vision. But there was democratic participation as the people negated all tendencies towards irredentism and with arms in hand debated in the national languages the issues of justice, equality and national unity. The only mishap in this experiment was that the Guinean people believed so implicitly in Ahmed Sekou Toure--in his courage, his vision and his indispensability--that his departure sapped them of all energy and left them forlorn.

Democracy, to be germane to the African condition, must extricate itself from the political shibboleths expatiated by certain social sectors for whom democracy is another label for political chicanery and national manipulation. The priority in the implantation of democracy in a multi-ethnic society is the resolution of the nationality question. This is resolved not by the political appeasement of certain social sectors and perfunctory voting once every four or five years but by addressing the primary issues of the economic and political empowerment of the broad masses of the people. The question of empowerment has to be tackled not at the regional but at the national level. First and foremost, the peasants, irrespective of ethnic origins are confronted by the same phenomena of low productivity, high cost of fertilizers and relegation to the rural wasteland without a modicum of modern conveniences. Thus, a priority ought to be the bridging of the communication gap between different sectors of the peasantry through an organization which addresses the problems confronting the peasantry at the national level.

What was done in Guinea under Ahmed Sekou Toure with the transformation of major indigenous languages into national languages and then their utilization in all official and non-official undertakings, followed by the carrying out of a cultural revolution which put emphasis on the relevance of indigenous languages to the modernisation and development of Guinea are pertinent examples. In most countries in Africa, the peasants are affected the most by the process of modernisation. They suffer from serious complexes which undermine their sense of dignity. However, they are the custodians of indigenous cultures in an age of westernisation through unfettered consumerism. By elevating indigenous cultures to national prominence, the peasants are made aware of their importance in the development of the nation. Here, we are not referring to the sporadic display of culture for the entertainment of visiting tourists but to its dynamic presentation on a regular basis to the people and its integration within the framework of historical interpretation.

With the cultural revolution, the process of social mobilisation becomes a dynamic facet of development. The bringing of the great majority of the people into the mainstream of development portends rapid transformation in social and political awareness. From this stage to that of democratic participation is a short leap. Participation in this context does not limit itself to voting. The ahistorical proposition that because a people can vote for leaders therefore they are involved in democratic pursuits is one of those fallacies that is a by-product of cable TV and western talk-shows. Former President Kaunda of Zambia alluded to the deficiency of this kind of democracy recently in an address to the Oxford Union. He averred that "a deficient conception of democracy is dangerous for democracy. The mere existence of political parties, or the right to form them, or periodically holding free and fair elections, is not enough. Democracy can only survive by means of increasing the efforts to protect its values against the ever-present dangers of tokenism."16 We must assume that the democratic values President Kaunda is referring to are people’s participation in decision-making at all levels and the positing of their economic interests as the fundamental basis of development and growth.

The focus on the peasantry in the building of democratic culture is not the result of any romantic fascination with rural simplicity, but a realistic conclusion that emanates from an awareness that democracy has failed to take roots in most parts of Africa because its basic premise has been founded on an erroneous conception. With the involvement of the broad masses of peasants allied to other subordinate social groups in the urban centres, democracy can have meaning in its only pertinent historical conception--government for, by, and with the people. It is in this sense that Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau added to our knowledge of the prerequisites for the transformation of man and society. The liberation war, which can be defined as the conscious making of history by the people , especially the peasants, encompasses all the ingredients necessary for the building of a democratic society. The war liberates not only the land, but also the mental obscurantism that entraps the peasants in stagnation and backwardness. By the logic of historical determinism, it makes subjects of those who are the determining factors in the transformation of the nation-state. Reflecting on the liberation war in Guinea-Bissau and how the transformation in the consciousness of the people led to the conception of the necessity for new structures to enhance the democratic participation of the people, an observer of the process comments:

For the leaders, unavoidably, this meant accepting that the solving of the ‘national question,’ the problem of building a  national consciousness or individualist divergence, must always depend on solving the ‘social question,’ the problem of meeting the material and cultural needs of everyday life. Out of this necessary acceptance(and those who refused it were lost) there came the practice of their revolutionary theory: the immensely difficult promotion, in liberated zones, of a new social-cultural system based on the democracy of village committees.... A new type of state could thus emerge in embryo even while the wars continued.17 

In actuality, the defining components of democracy in a multi-ethnic society should be social justice and popular participation. The framework for national integration must embrace first and foremost the mobilisation of the people through an identification of their interests and how these interests are intrinsically bound up with the modernisation and development of the nation-state.


Two case studies--Liberia and Sierra Leone

Liberia and Sierra Leone are relevant case studies in the light of recent developments in those states. Both nations have been ravaged by civil wars initiated by men who are from that category of déclassé elements so common in Africa because of the stagnation and paralysis of many of the new states. It is common knowledge that in the absence of coherent social, economic and political tenets for transformation, societal dislocation ensues and thus fertile grounds are provided for elements with dysfunctional social behaviour which is criminal by nature.

The brutality of the civil wars in both countries and the total lack of remorse for the kind of methodical genocide carried out point to one defining characteristic: both civil wars are the result of criminal banditry and the key perpetrators are men who suffer from chronic neurosis which manifests itself in a perverted obsession. What is tragic is not that these elements exist in society but that because of the inability of certain social sectors to involve the people in genuine democratic transformation, these men with their pathological deliriums are allowed to destroy society.

In Liberia, the manipulation of ethnic differences and the social snobbery which was endemic to the stratification of an ascriptive hierarchical structure, bedeviled the state for many decades. Between 1971-1979, the Tolbert administration tried a half-hearted process of social mobilisation by appealing to the disaffected sectors of the society with mere slogans. There was the "mat to mattresses" exhortations; the total involvement for higher heights" incantations; and the "wholesome functioning society" acclamations; but these were empty phrases in a society chronically lethargic and immobilised by deep social cleavages. Added to this fantasy was the attempt to define an ideology for development. It became known as "humanistic capitalism," which in reality was the expression of the ultimate contempt the ruling social sector had for the vast majority of the people. Tolbert’s "humanistic capitalism" was conveyed as the giving of charity to those who were the most exploited and dehumanised by the process of social and political exclusion. After decades of political suffocation and economic deprivation, made all the more offensive by the high surplus exported by the Firestone Rubber Company and the two Mining companies (under American, Swedish and German control), the partial reformism of the Tolbert years appeared as mere chimera.

Failing to address the national question which in Liberia specifically centred on the exclusion of the majority of the people from any meaningful role in the State and their domination by a social caste still welded to the anachronistic values of the plantation aristocracy of the southern United States before and during the period of the Confederacy, the Tolbert administration engaged in political chicanery. As for the social question, it was nowhere on any agenda. Then followed a period of rapid decline as the world market for rubber and iron ore shrunk. Addicted to that form of development that marginalises the rural areas and thus the peasantry, the Tolbert administration stagnated in contradictions of its own making. This marginalisation of the peasantry and the neglect of the rural areas, coupled with the downturn in the sale of rubber and iron ore accelerated the mass exodus from the countryside. Here was the scenario for the eruption of the crisis of April 1979. This was followed a year later by a coup d’ etat.

In the case of Sierra Lone, the negotiations for independence ended with a truce between the three dominant social sectors in the state: the Northern chiefly elements composed of the Temnes, the Limbas and the Korankos; the Southern chiefly elements composed of the Mendes and the Sherbros; and the westernised Creoles of the Western area (where the capital Freetown is located). The truce between the three social sectors necessitated a political arrangement whereby the Creoles would serve as the ballast. The North and the South being equally matched, the Creoles, although in the minority, became the final arbiters of which region held power at any point in time.

From 1961 to 1967, the Western area cast its lot with the chiefly elements from the South who were dominant in the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The politics of ethnicity was upgraded to an act. At no time in its history did this Party address the social question which would have disentangled the people of Sierra Leone from the firm grips of the tribalised social sectors. By 1967, the impotency of the SLPP in the face of mounting economic problems (which are endemic to societies entrapped in the vortex of neo-colonialism), coupled with the marginalisation of the people and the absence of any form of ideological rationale which could justify the difficulties, led to the rejection of the SLPP by the Western area. Interestingly, the Party won overwhelmingly in the South which was its ethnic base. With power about to fall to the North, southern elements in the army seized power. This was followed by a counter-coup led by elements from the North and the Western area. A subsequent counter-coup led by Northern elements gave power to the northern based All People’s Congress (APC). From 1968 to 1992, the APC held power. The political reality was that the North dominated the political arena. 

The country was saddled with ethnic animosity as various groups of southern politicians and a few of their northern allies were disposed of by the APC. By 1992, the economy of Sierra Leone was in shambles. From a self-sufficient rice producing country (rice is the staple food) with diamonds, rutile and bauxite, it declined and was classified as the second least developed country in the world.18 The same pattern of neglect of the rural areas and the marginalisation of the people led to general disillusionment. The nervous reforms of the government carried out from 1990-1992 with the help of the World Bank were too little and too late. In April 1992, there was a coup d’ etat led by elements from the South. In continuation of the ethnic politics carried out by their civilian predecessors, the southern elements co-opted a Creole from the western area to head the new military government.

In Liberia, the military coup attempted to address the national question but could not place the social question on the agenda as the leadership lacked an understanding of this issue and the US government was inclined to oppose any social transformation that would bring into question the brazen exploitation of the country by American multi-national corporations. Without addressing the social question, the military regime could find no justification for its long stay in power. Thus caught in the same contradictions as the Tolbert administration, the military government turned to terror and tribalism for survival.

The limitation of the Liberian people’s outlook and the crudity of the methods used to elicit conformity prompted them to accept that the old order was preferable despite its negative tendencies. This was a typical reaction of people who accept repression and exploitation from those they perceive as their "superiors," but automatically reject the same from those they consider their social equals. This psychology no doubt explains the durability of colonialism in the pre-history of Africa. In the context of the paralysis of the state under the military regime and the tribalisation of politics, a rebel war was unleashed by déclassé elements who now saw an opportunity to plunder on their way to state power. Thus, in Liberia, the terror of the military regime was opposed by the banditry of lumpen elements.

In the case of Sierra Leone, the rebel war was started as an act of revenge for some Northern elements who had been physically eliminated in the power struggle. It soon developed into banditry because it had no social base. Terror was unleashed to elicit conformity. The elections conducted in 1996 to undermine the rebel war took the same pattern of ethnic alliances as in the past. The Southern based SLPP won with help from the Western area. The North was defeated, not so much from internal division, but because those who presided over the conduct of the elections were Southern elements from the military. The results were accepted because the people were determined to undermine the ruthless and unpopular rebels.

The rebel wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone were both non-ideological simply because they had nothing to do with the transformation of society. They were both conducted for plunder. They both destroyed the fragile institutions of moribund states. They both were led by men with no history of engagement in mass political activities. Tragically, both of these men were given some semblance of respectability because the international community could not distinguish between wars of national liberation and banditry.

What is clear in both countries is that the people want democratic participation which can only come with the ending of anarchy and lawlessness. The defeat of the bandits in Sierra Leone by ECOMOG in 1998 led to the establishment of the rule of law. The building of democracy in that multi-ethnic society will come with the solving of the social question. Democracy cannot be an imposition. It has to be willed, called for and enthroned by the people and those who lead them. What happened in Sierra Leone recently was the decisive enthronement of the rule of law. In the case of Liberia, there has been a tragic mishap wherein criminality was legitimised through an electoral farce that saw victims of mayhem, brutality, and terror being threatened with serious consequences if they did not vote for a rebel leader. In Liberia, an entire people were held hostage and the end result was the rewarding of evil.

Both Sierra Leone and Liberia are linked by history. For them peace is indivisible. There cannot be peace in Sierra Leone as long as there is no peace in Liberia and vice versa. Interestingly, the rebel leaders understand this all too well and thus they have assisted each other in the tragic occurrences in their respective countries. It is the responsibility of those who believe in democracy and popular participation in both countries to ensure that the factors of destabilisation must be neutralised. After this must come the social mobilisation of the people in both countries and their united efforts in building institutions which negate the factors of ethnicity and thus place before history the social question of the attainment of justice, equality and an end to crude exploitation.


Note: The Evolution of Democracy in Multi-Racial Societies is a  paper presented at the International Seminar on Democracy and Democratisation in Africa, organised by the Sani Abacha Foundation for Peace and Unity, Abuja, Nigeria, 15th--17th April 1998. The author is a former Foreign Minister and ex-Minister of Education of Liberia.


1. Quoted in Colin Legum, ‘The Nature of Pan-Africanism’ in P.J.M. McEwan(Ed.)

Twenty Century Africa, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970),


2. The analysis of social formations in Africa which is germane to an understanding

of the roles of various social forces in the international configuration of power

can be found in Samir Amin, Class and Nation, Historically and in

the current crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980).

3. This is an apt description given by Stanislav Andreski in The African

Predicament (New York: Atherton Press, 1968), p.65.

4. The assertion of Chief Awolowo was that "Nigeria is not a nation; it is a mere

geographical expression," Quoted in Jimi Peters, The Nigerian Military

and the State (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1997), p.49.

5. Robert I. Rotberg, "African Nationalism: Concept or Confusion," in Peter J.M.

McEwan and Robert B. Sutchliffe, The Study of Africa (London: Methuen

& Co. Ltd., 1965), p.423.

6. James Coleman, ‘Nationalism in Tropical Africa’ in Peter J.M. McEwan &

Robert B. Sutcliffe, Op. Cit., p.181.

7. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Paris: Francisco Maspero,

1961), p. 131.

8. Basil Davidson, Africa in Modern History (London: Penguin Books,

1978), p.378.

9. For a study of the foreign forces which created Idi Amin, see Mahmood

Mamdani, Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda (Africa World Press,

Trenton, New Jersey, 1984).

10. Basil Davidson, Op. Cit., p.374.

11. Samir Amin, Op. Cit., p.138.

12. Ibid.

13. Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: Basic

Books, Inc. 1969), p.73.

14. The quotation is Karl Deutsch’s. See James Coleman, ‘Nationalism in Tropical

Africa’ in Peter J.M. McEwan and Robert B. Sutcliffe, Op. Cit., p.180.

15. Ahmed Sekou Toure, Strategy and Tactics of the Revolution

(Conakry: Patrick Lumumba National Printing Press, 1978), p.67.

16. West Africa Magazine (19-25 January 1998), p.60.

17. Basil Davidson, Op. Cit., p.354