The Gods Are Angry
False narratives hamper Africa's development, while dangerous new ideologies flood in from the outside.
Africa as we know it is a fiction, constructed after the arrival of Arab and European slave traders, at which point the continent had already experienced millennia of cultural and civilizational developments. That history was largely unwritten and therefore lost. Africa in the past century was governed by rulers, both colonial and postcolonial, who didn't know where she came from. Artificial borders and alien political structures were set up to govern her peoples. Rebellion, instability and economic stagnation followed. Though the leaders have changed repeatedly, the results have remained the same.
Consider Nigeria. The country had its borders drawn by the British in 1914, with little regard for ethnic and social cohesion among its hundreds of tribes. After independence in 1960, the Brits rigged the first election to ensure that power went to the conservative elements in the north, who came to believe that it was their natural right to rule Nigeria. In subsequent years, the country was racked by ethnic strife, secession and civil war. No Nigerian statesman was able to reach across to other tribes. And while the country has regained stability in recent years, its path to development today is hampered by corruption, misrule and the rise of radical Islam.
Nigeria stands in for Africa's broader plight, and it is fitting that books by two Nigerian authors—the Nobel-winning playwright and poet Wole Soyinka and the celebrated novelist Chinua Achebe—attempt to confront the historical and spiritual roots of Africa's crisis. The authors—among Africa's greatest intellectual giants—have been consistent and courageous critics of misrule on the continent for decades, stances which put their lives at risk and forced them to flee their native country. Both authors see hope in Africa's indigenous religious and political traditions.
Mr. Soyinka is "frustrated" by the false narratives of the continent, as well by the dangerous new ideologies flooding in from the outside. "Of Africa" is an intellectually robust, book-length essay that attempts to unravel the paradoxes and contradictions plaguing Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. "What is Africa?" the author asks. What we know of the continent is based on mythologies propagated by the early European adventurers, colonialists, postcolonial African leaders and African Americans.
The Arabs and the Europeans were invaders, colonizers and enslavers, who imposed their alien religions on Africa. Neither Islam nor Christianity, as Mr. Soyinka points out, is indigenous to Africa. While the Europeans ran the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Arabs ran its north and east African counterparts. But, says the author, the suppression or denial of the equally ugly history of Arab and Islamic plundering in Africa—perhaps for reasons of political correctness—has allowed a new threat to emerge: "a shadowy but lethal force determined to reenslave a continent with its chains of fundamentalist theology!" Radical Islam has taken root in places like Mali, Somalia and Nigeria. Mr. Soyinka sees it as more dangerous than the corrupt, secular dictatorships. The latter, he says, can be confronted but "the chains placed around the mind through religious absolutism are far more constrictive, tenacious, and implacable." According to Mr. Soyinka, the pre-eminent African issue of the 21st century will be a "crisis of religion," and he warns that if "Africa falls to the will of the fanatic, then the insecurity of the world should be accepted as its future and permanent condition."
Salvation, he thinks, can be found in "the undiscovered—or neglected, indeed, despised—terrain of African spirituality." He discusses "Negritude," a concept first formulated by, among others, the American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois to refute racist claims of black inferiority and spotlight black contributions to civilization. Among African intellectuals, Negritude took hold in the 1930s. To Mr. Soyinka, it is an untapped resource of African humanism. The anti-Apartheid icon Desmond Tutu describes a similar concept when he talks about ubuntu—"the bundle of humanity"—and Mr. Soyinka finds his own version in the traditional religion of his Yoruba culture, Orisa.
Mr. Soyinka's motivation for writing "Of Africa" was his search for an African humanism that could counter the deadly consequences of religious fanaticism. He urges Africans to remember their continent's traditions and recognize that tolerance is at the center of African spirituality.
Mr. Achebe's book is a history and decidedly less ambitious, philosophically speaking. But it, too, is driven by an ideal. "There Was a Country" is a fascinating and gripping memoir of Biafra, the country his Igbo tribe sought to create by seceding from Nigeria. In the first years after Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960, the Igbo, who hail from a region in the country's southeast, were among the most successful of the country's tribes. They had the highest literacy rate, the highest standard of living and the greatest proportion of citizens with postsecondary education among the tribes. They dominated senior positions in government and educational institutions. Igbo success bred resentment
The fateful day was Jan. 15, 1966, when Maj. Chukwuma Nzeogwu, an Igbo, led a group of army officers in an attempt to overthrow the government. It was widely misinterpreted as an "Igbo coup" and caused a backlash throughout Nigeria: "Thirty thousand civilian men, women and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated, their homes and property looted and burned." There was a mass exodus of the Igbo from the north. Mr. Achebe was working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) and had just completed a novel, "A Man of the People," which severely criticized Nigerian politics and climaxed in a coup. Being an Igbo, he was naturally linked to the real coup under way. Drunken soldiers appeared at the NBS to ask him which was more powerful: their gun or his pen. The author wasn't yet at work, and, upon hearing this account, he fled.
On May 30, 1967, the Igbo declared their own independent country, Biafra. (Mr. Achebe would serve as its roving cultural ambassador.) But the Nigerian government reacted savagely to the Igbo secession, blockading the region and starving the rebel tribe into submission. Over three million perished, mostly Igbo, before the end of the civil war in 1970. Mr. Achebe interweaves his own history with a harrowing account of the war.
The end of Biafra didn't bring an end to the pogroms against the Igbo, nor to Nigeria's problems. The country became plagued with "a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class," as Mr. Achebe writes. To resolve these problems, Mr. Achebe also invokes the Negritude embedded in the mbari of his own Igbo culture, which emphasizes mutual respect and coexistence. "The Igbo believe that art, religion, everything, the whole of life are embodied in the art of the masquerade," Mr. Achebe says. It is the cosmic masquerade that upholds the "virtues of African tolerance and accommodation."
It is astonishing that two authors writing from such different perspectives should conclude that the solutions to Africa's problems can be found in Africa—her bosom, her humanity—and that Africans must rebuild their own indigenous institutions.
But Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe's focus on Negritude is problematic. It is an idea that failed miserably. Its first African proponent, the late president of Senegal Leopold Senghor, thoroughly discredited the concept by using it to develop an "African socialism" as an alternative to Marxism. Socialism is fundamentally antithetical to Africa's economic heritage, which explains why it was a disaster wherever it was implemented in Africa—in countries as varied as Ghana, Guinea and Tanzania, for example—producing one economic crisis after another. (When Senghor retired as president in 1980, he settled in France with his French wife to focus on helping improve the French language—some Negritude!)
Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe fail to adequately explain the genesis of African spirituality. It stems from the belief that man doesn't live alone in the universe, which Africans divided into three elements: the sky, the world and the earth. Each person has a specific place and function in this universe. Human action corresponds to the animation of nature, and each gesture correlates with some aspect of the universe. African art, dance, music and other human activities are a reflection of the rhythms of the universe.
The three cosmological elements—each represented by a god—must be in perfect harmony or balance. The sky god is the supreme among them, and each must be propitiated. If the sky god is "angry," there will be thunder, floods, etc. If the world god is angry, there will be conflict, war and state collapse. If the earth god is angry, there will be poor harvest, famine, barren women and the like. The gods may take human, inanimate or spiritual forms, and there are many intercessors—dead or alive—between man and the gods: ancestors, kings, chiefs, priests, medicine men. All are arranged in a hierarchical order. Among some tribes, harmony among the cosmological elements, called kiet, requires corresponding human behavior: tolerance, accommodation, etc. (Mr. Achebe's Igbo, for instance, have no gods, since any individual person is the union of the three elements.) Religious intolerance and fanaticism thus have no place in the highest ideals of the African soul, something noted by both Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe. They wouldn't coexist in a religious system that seeks harmony among the cosmological elements.
There are more than 2,000 African ethnic groups but despite the incredible diversity there are striking commonalities among them. Whereas Western jurisprudence emphasizes punishing the guilty, the widespread African tradition stresses restitution and reconciliation or "restorative justice"—the basis of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions established after the dismantling of Apartheid. Africa's economic heritage featured free village markets. There were rudimentary free markets in Timbuktu, Kano, Salaga, Onitsa, Mombasa and elsewhere before the advent of the colonial era. Whereas the West practiced majoritarian, or representative, democracy, ancient Africans practiced participatory democracy, where decisions were taken by consensus at village meetings variously called asetena kese by the Ashanti, ama-ala by the Igbo, guurti by the Somali, dare by the Shona, ndaba by the Zulu or kgotla by the Tswana.
More important, the traditional system of governance was inclusive. In Senegal, slaves could send the representatives to the king's court. There was also foreign representation: The kings and chiefs of Angola and Asante, for example, allowed European merchants to send their representatives to their courts. Many empires in pre-colonial Africa—Ghana, Mali, Songhai—were confederacies, characterized by decentralization of power and devolution of authority.
But much of this knowledge, as Mr. Soyinka rightly complains, has been hidden. Myths about Africa came to replace these truths, and the problem was compounded by the failure on all sides to distinguish between form and substance. The institutions of democracy, free markets, money, marriage, justice, can take many forms. Just because there were no ballot boxes or supermarkets or white-wigged judges in pre-colonial African villages doesn't mean Africans had no conception of those institutions. African tribal cultures aren't in conflict with the Western; only the forms of institutions are different.
In fact, there is one area where the two share exactly the same political philosophy. Both see the state as a necessary evil. The American founding fathers chose to deal with this particular threat constitutionally by limiting the powers of the state. Africans found two unique ways to accomplish the same. The first was to abolish the state altogether and dispense with centralized authority. Such acephalous, or stateless, societies included the Ga, the Igbo, the Gikuyu, the Somali and the Tallensi. These tribes have no chiefs or kings and took the concept of freedom to its most radical limit.
Other tribes chose to have states and centralized authority but surrounded them with councils upon councils to prevent them from abusing their powers. Such kings had no political powers; their role was spiritual or supernatural (to mediate among the cosmological elements). For this role, they were mostly secluded in their palaces and kept their royal fingers out of people's business. The Yoruba Oona, for example, could only venture out of his palace under the cover of darkness. Such indigenous democratic forms were eroded during the colonial age and decimated in the post-colonial one.
So what makes up Africa's soul? Tolerance, consensus-building, inclusion, restorative justice, decentralization of power, free village markets and free enterprise. The gods are angry because Africa's soul has been denigrated and trashed. As Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe warn us, Africa is doomed unless her rulers discover her soul. Without this knowledge, we cannot traverse the path to development. An African proverb says, "He who does not know where he came from does not know where he is going."
—Mr. Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is president of the Free Africa Foundation and the author of "Indigenous African Institutions" (2006).