A conversation on nation, nation state and nationalism in post-colonial Africa

OPINION – Africa with 53 countries is an unwieldy geographic, demographic, cultural and political entity to make the writing of a common identity impossible.

There is no single great tradition to unite the continent’s inhabitants as the nation states that constitute Africa share no common political and cultural heritage.

South Africa, my chosen new African home, is the youngest African child and its founding narratives have still to receive the scholarly attention that it deserves but it is instructive that the social reality that has led to the downfall of Mbeki is far from promising to make the country’s story even more interesting from a historical perspective.

Of all the African countries, South Africa can boast of framing a freedom charter during the heyday of apartheid that remains an important part of the nation’s heritage in so far as it is an integral part of a democratic stream.  It locates its ideas within the context of a negotiated identity that was designed to provide a feeling of security and cultural comfort in a post apartheid dispensation. 

The rise of nationalism and its role in post-colonial Africa’s state building should be understood as a hegemonic conversation that was aimed at producing the factuality of nations and it was meant to condition the modes of domination and resistance. It must be accepted that the national framing of post-colonial Africa’s state building experience and of democratization has become invisible making the state and nation two separate objects that should interest African elites. 

The nation is generally understood to be a people who share common origins and history as indicated by their shared culture, language, and identity.  The nationalist forms of inclusion and exclusion still bind African societies based on a generally accepted notion that nation/state/identity is the natural and political form of post colonial Africa in which the face of an African is racially defined.

The post-colonial African state building processes have fundamentally shaped the ways the state has been perceived, received and linked to political institutions that underpin the constitutional democratic order.  The perceptions have in turn influenced though not necessarily determined the post-colonial democratic experience.

The post-colonial state is generally understood to be a sovereign system of government within a particular territory.  The concept of a state as understood universally but least understood in post-colonial Africa should be a neutral playing ground for different interest groups (that may very well be plural in nature in terms of race, ethnicity, class and other variables). 

Using this approach, one has to exclude from the picture the fact that post-colonial Africa itself entered into a symbiotic relationship with the nationalist political project. There has been an attempt in post-colonial Africa to integrate democracy and nationalism.  The historic and systematic logic tying both together has become marginalized by the unique post colonial experience in the majority of African countries that has resulted in an inability of citizens to remove governments they no longer have confidence in.

Nationalism was a force foreign to colonial state building that was founded on non-national, civil, republican, and liberal experience.  During the colonial era, segregation and dislocation were closely related and the colonial experience transformed African tribesmen with no investment in democratic traditions into nationalists and by default democrats.

Nationalists project their loyalty upon the nation, which in itself is an abstract but absolute political and historical subject not necessarily to toward the state, which was supposed to be an agent of the people (as universally defined) deriving its authority from the ultimate sacredness of the nation.

The form of political struggles in post-colonial Africa has been shaped and determined by nationalist cognition of the world in which each agent tries to gain the right to represent the collective interest of the nation.

As Africans, we must admit that we have failed to provide an appropriate theoretical framework to interpret nationalisms in African states.  The majority of African nationalism theories and practices consciously or unconsciously depend upon the top-down approach deeply founded on a Eurocentric worldview.  Hence no adequate explanation is provided on why African societies in many cases resist against the very state power that the nationalism is supposed to have brought into existence. 

The national identity in post-colonial Africa is largely an outcome of a long and complicated process of the negotiation between modern and traditional identities.  A strong post-colonial African identity does not necessarily mean a vibrant and strong state project of nationalization in which the state assumes the rights and obligations of citizens in the name of nation and nationalism. 

While it can be legitimately argued that colonial state building was faulty, it must be accepted that a constructive and dynamic osmosis between discourses of nationalism as a response to the colonial state and the traditional dynastic identities was necessary even without the state project of nationalization.

The post-colonial construction of an African identity should be treated as a social, political and historical fact through which public discourses should be formed and shaped.  The African nation as an imagined community requires an assumed collectivity and mutuality beyond an individual’s circumstances and political communities are only real when they are collectively imagined. 

Therefore, the new African identity must go beyond the prism and limitations of colonial definitions.  The post-colonial state ought to provide a playing ground for all who live in the relevant nation irrespective of the diversity that challenges Africa. 

Political pluralism is healthy if it does not become antagonistic.  Regrettably, nationalism has been used as a potent weapon to crowd out political competition to the extent that rotation of power has not been part of the post-colonial state building project.

Whimsical democracy has taken root in Africa in which the whims of the head of state and government becomes the order of the day.  State institutions have become subordinated to the interests of the ruling elites with state bureaucrats owing their allegiance to the person of the Presidency and not the office of the Presidency.

Even South Africa has not escaped the African disease of personalizing the state and misconstruing nationalism to mean a license to deconstruct national identities.