G. W. Bekele: Africa in the Twenty-First Century

Africa in the Twenty-First Century. The Promise of Development and Democratization

Bekele, Gashawbeza W.; Oyebade, Adebayo
African governance and development
238 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Universität Leipzig

The edited volume Africa in the Twenty-First Century is raising intellectual expectations, but then fails to deliver on these promises. The editors claim to systematically revisit trends in democratization and development on the African continent and offer perspectives in these important fields for the 21st century. Neither is really done.

The book is edited by Gashawbeza W. Bekele who is associate professor of geography at Tennessee State University in Nashville TN and Adebayo Oyebade, a professor of history at the same university. Together they have co-edited The Long Struggle: Discourses on Human and Civil Rights in Africa and the African Diaspora (Pan African University Press, 2017). And, among others, Oyebade has co-authored and co-edited with Toyin Falola two volumes on Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa (Greenwood, 2010) and The New African Diaspora in the United States: Identities and Homeland Connections (Routledge, 2017), respectively. The contributors to Africa in the Twenty-First Century are “African scholars from both sides of the Atlantic” (vii), predominantly of Nigerian origin. As a group, they are a mix of seasoned and emerging scholars, mainly – but not only – with a background in political science or history.

The volume is structured into three parts and 12 chapters. Part I on Governance, Democracy and Development comes in six chapters. In chapter 1 the editors discuss “African Development and Democratization Trajectories”. This is followed by chapters on “The Political Ecology of Sustainable Development in Africa” (Tadesse Kidane-Mariam, an emeritus with Edinboro University of Pennsylvania), a rereading of democracy and development in Africa (Phillip E. Agbebaku et al., Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Nigeria), reflections on the MDGs in Nigeria (the late Funmi Adewumi, Elizade University, Ilara-Mokin, Nigeria), more reflections on “The Fallacy of Development in Africa” (Sunday Layi Oladipupo, Adekunle Ajasin University, Ondo State, Nigeria) and a chapter on the political economy of post-colonial rail transportation management (Tokunbo A. Ayoola, Elizade University).

Part II on Democratization, Democratic Institutions and Uneven Regional Development offers three chapters on presidential third-term debates in Malawi and Nigeria on the one hand and Burundi and Rwanda on the other (Joseph Yinka Fashagba and Rotimi Ajayi, both with the Federal University of Lokoja, Kogi State, Nigeria), the 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria and the Nigeria diaspora (Udida A. Unidyaundeye, University of Uyo, Uyo, Nigeria) and a proposal on a bill of rights for African indigenous people (Rufus T. Akinyele, University of Lagos, Nigeria).

And part III on Gender Relations, Health Care, and Development again has three chapters on Nigerian women’s political participation (Ngozi U. Emeka-Nwobia, Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, Nigeria), women, conflict and development in Nigeria (Adaora Osondu-Oti, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria) and health care in Gabon (Biale Zua, Tennessee State University, Nashville TN).

In this volume “democracy” refers to the cumbersome struggle of moving from minimalist, procedural versions of democracy to substantive liberal democracy. Although African traditions and cultures are of course acknowledged, the notion of democracy entertained in this volume closely follows universal (i.e., Western) concepts. The editors make reference to debates within Africa on alternative conceptualisation of democracy (p. 18, FN 8), but this thread is not developed systematically. However, they also argue that liberal democracy in Africa “is at its infancy at best” (p. 11). Furthermore, the notion of “development” is discussed in various forms, with the editors defining it with reference “to the existence of opportunities in which economic, political, and social advancement can be achieved” (ibid.). The common denominator for most contributions to this volume seems to be “sustainable development” along the lines of the United Nations’ thrive for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000–2015) and, more recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs, 2015–2030).

The selection of topics covered in this volume is highly arbitrary and in no way representative of Africa in the Twenty-First Century. Many chapters are heavy on case studies from Nigeria. They are also not representative of the broad fields of “democracy” and “development”. Granted, to translate the editors’ agenda into a coherent volume is a daunting task. But in this case more modesty with regards to the scope and breadth of what could be achieved within such a volume would have helped in terms of expectation management. In addition, some chapters are disappointing for their own reasons. The interesting topic of the political economy of rail transportation management, to mention but one example (chapter 6), comes with data that talks about the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is a missed opportunity to develop a relevant topic and relate it to the prospects of Africa’s infrastructures in the 21st century. And more generally, there is other data presented in this volume which would have deserved more care and up-date. For instance, the editors discuss long-term time-series data from Polity IV on governance – but only for the years 1979 to 2011 (p. 7). Although they also present aggregated Freedom House scores for the period 1979 to 2016, they do not discuss the “democratic recession” of the mid-2000s and its variations in Africa.[1] Thus, the editors manage to develop a narrative in which “there is indeed genuine ground for optimism regarding Africa’s transition towards democracy …” (p. 16).

But what is most disturbing with this volume is how the contributors treat previous academic debates. Across the chapters there is a common style of developing claims and making statements as to “how things are”, but these claims are not embedded in proper references. Of course, there are many references in the text, but more often than not they miss or ignore important contributions to the academic debate (and prevalently they are also slightly outdated). Many paragraphs are simply not referenced at all. Discussing the democratic transformations on the African continent in the 1990s the editors state in the introduction that “some have argued that a ‘third wave’ of democratization has been taking place in Africa” (p. xi). No, Huntington referred to a global trend of which Africa then became part.[2] Unfortunately, it’s this kind of glossing over established knowledge and slightly missing the point that is characteristic for the volume as a whole.

[1] See Larry Diamond, Facing up to the democratic recession, in: Journal of Democracy 26 (2015) 1, pp. 141–155.
[2] See Samuel P. Huntington, Democracy’s Third Wave, in: Journal of Democracy 2 (1991) 2, pp. 12–34.

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