Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue

Return to preceding page


With the publication of this volume, Central State University's Center for African Studies continues its commitment to foster ground-breaking thought and dialogue about Africa and its diaspora.

Few contemporary subjects of research and scholarship contain as much import and urgency as this one. For the insights emerging from this work can affect the future direction of a continent and of the extended world community that traces its roots to this continent. Because past perceptions of Africa have been so often skewed by assorted intellectual, political and social agendas, the work represented here is vitally important in building a body of thought that can undo the distortions, correct the imbalances, and free the subject to live as it should.

Good research assumes that more must be said, that our understanding is yet incomplete, that further exploring may change the way we think and act, and that this change will promote good. Healing is the ultimate purpose of good research-and not just in medicine. Science, engineering, philosophy, literature, art, history. ...much contemporary scholarship and creative activity in these disciplines amounts to a sustained effort to repair the damage of past excesses, to ring dichotomies of thinking back together, to restore wholeness to the subject and ultimately to human life itself.

In the work of the scholars represented here, as well as in other CAS publications, one senses a continuing effort to restore wholeness to the split and distorted picture of Africa wh have witnessed for too long. It is a pleasure for the College of Arts and Sciences at Central State to serve as a home for this kind of scholarship. Our mission statement stresses the commitment to prepare students for the exciting and challenging emergence of a global community. To help give substance to that claim, the Center for African Studies has built an energetic, diverse and intellectually challenging program. Our students can now pursue a curriculum in African Studies. Our faculty and students have participated INCAS forums, classes and conferences. Many of the best scholars in African Studies have come here to speak. The Center has developed outreach efforts in the community, and is currently working with two other local universities to create a joint regional program in African Studies that has great potential benefits.

Much has been accomplished, and much remains to be done. The scholarly territory is rich wit h achievements and work done well, and rich with needs still unmet. This volume helps document both sides of that unique wealth in our midst.

Terrence Glass
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
Central State University

Welcoming Remarks
John W. Garland
President, Central State University

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I am happy to join you this evening, and to welcome you to this important conference on civil society and development in Africa. It makes sense to explore the perspectives of African scholars on associational life, which, as we have seen in the case of the United States, plays an important part in maintaining and sustaining democratic governance, and in fostering the level of democracy necessary for political stability. Central State University has hosted the heads-of-state for several African nations. Our student body has been enriched by the presence of many students from various African nations for whom we have provided financial support through our Presidential Scholarship Program. Even though we are less able to financially sustain that scholarship program today, our interest in Africa, the ancestral land of over 30 million African-Americans, remains. In this regard, we are happy to have on campus one of the three Undergraduate National Resource Centers for the Study of Africa in this country.

I have been informed by Dr. Onwudiwe, our CAS Director, that this conference is the first phase of a larger project on civil society which will involve participants from Central State University, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, the University of Transkei in South Africa, and the Nordic African Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The larger project involves a five-year plan to commence a new phase of creative work on civil society in the service of development and democracy in Africa. The main objectives of the plan for which we are seeking the support of the funding agencies are:

I wish you luck in this important project.

Welcoming Remarks
Dr. Bonita Ewers
V.P. Academic Affairs
Central State University

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to welcome you to Central State University. I understand that many of you gathered here today are at the forefront of scholarship on civil society in the development of Africa. I am, therefore, particularly pleased that you have gathered here on our campus to deliberate on the issue of an African perspective on civil society.

It is quite appropriate that African scholars should lead the way in the academic interpretation of major concepts used to analyze the continent in the academy. As one who in my teaching years has used literature from African studies, and works by African writers, I can particularly appreciate the importance and influence of dominant paradigms, and how when not filtered through African evaluations they have come to distort the external image of that great continent. Therefore, I wholly support a contextual approach to African related discourses, one constructed around the perspective of Africans themselves.

Central State University, although a small institution, has shown over the years that in scholarship and international affairs, African perspectives are important not just to Africans in the continent, but to the millions of African descendants in the United States, and indeed, to the entire human family. This is why our global awareness investments have given due attention to Africa through the interaction of our university with African governments, through linkages with African universities and scholars, and through positive outreach to our larger community here in the great state of Ohio. While financial constraints have limited our investments in these activities, the enthusiasm is still there, and our efforts are still alive with productive possibilities.


Civil Society: A Definition and an African Perspective
Ebere Onwudiwe

American government text books rarely mention the concept of civil society. At the outset, therefore, I should explore this omission in order to put the definition of civil society in a proper context. Alexis de Tocqueville, the oft quoted astute observer of American political culture in the 1800s(1), emphasized and praised the role of voluntary associations that are autonomous of the American state in preserving individual liberties. What Tocqueville had to say then about civil society (voluntary associations) is still directly or indirectly referenced in sections of many text books on American government that discuss American democracy, interest groups, lobbying and other related topics. But in the decade that I have taught American government at the university level in the United States, I have yet to come across the term civil society in popular texts on American government and politics except when used to mean civilized society.(2)

The absence of the term is not limited to texts on American government. In general, the term is no longer part of the "active discipline of comparative politics and was, for instance, only available to graduate students in political science and political sociology in the 1950s through the 1970s from the history of political thought".(3)

Civil society used in the sense of autonomous associations and organizations of individuals that engage the state in favor of individual liberty is in neither the glossary nor the subject index of one of the most popular current U.S. texts -- Thomas Patterson's The American Democracy (McGraw-Hill, 1993), a book used in over 280 colleges and universities across the country. Another popular introductory American government text, Government by the People by J.M. Burns et. al., (Prentice Hall, 1993)- now in 15th edition, is equally mute on civil society. This lacuna in American social science has not gone unnoticed by American government.

In 1994, eighty five scholars from the U.S. and other countries were assembled at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Conference Center in Washington D.C. The occasion was a unique workshop on Civil Society, Democracy and Development organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)(4). During this two-day ad hoc think tank, we were asked to provide among other things, a definition for civil society.

The workshop moderator, Edmond Keller of UCLA, charged us with the responsibility to define and describe the term so that we will be able to know it "when we see it"(5). Much of our time was spent in debate over conceptional versus operational definition of the term civil society. Indeed, there was little agreement on the underlying contours of civil society, making it necessary for us to explore the possibility of differences between African and American conceptions of the term. It was quite revealing to watch scholars who are products of the same Eurocentric education system reflexively coalescing geographically over the definition of civil society.(6)

Dr. Peter Ekeh of SUNY, Buffalo; Mamadou Diouf of CODESRIA and myself providing definitions that you may call "African", while Dwyne Woods' of Purdue, and to some extent, Ali Tripp of the University of Wisconsin were relatively Western in the associations they included in civil society. However, we were all agreed that civil society includes a normative dimension, one rooted in western reactions against authoritarianism and which emphasizes freedoms, civil rights and other values including tolerance, trust and inclusiveness. We settled, in large part, on the following definition of civil society: "A sphere of social interaction between the household and the institutions of formal government which is characterized by voluntary associations and the pursuit of interest through the norms of community cooperation." An organization or association qualifies as civil society if it is non-governmental and meets the following additional criteria: it is voluntary, independent and self-governing, non-profit, participatory, formal and legal.(7)

For our project, this definition hardly solves the problem of identifying African associations and organizations to include in civil society. Where for instance do we place those organizations that are autonomous of government but non-participatory? Can we decide a priori that every trade union is part of civil society?(8) Most labor unions do not allow open participation. And should we include those that meet all the criteria listed above even if they do not engage the state in behalf of individual liberties? For example, where exactly do some single issue groups fit in the above definition of civil society? In the past two decades, the number of such groups organized to influence policy in one area has increased in many African states. The case of Mosop in Nigeria is a subject of one of the papers to be presented here today. But, our project goes beyond definition.

The main objectives of the plan for which we are seeking funding support are:

I am happy to report that we have written the proposal. We conceived this project at Niagara Falls with the justification summarized by Adigun Agbaje. Much of that summary including the the observation that there appears to have emerged since the mid-1980s some regional and international consensus on the crucial role of civil society in Africa's long march to democracy, peace and development is included in this introduction.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it has since attracted unto itself much intellectual attention, the concept of civil society remains in the African context basically a "buzz word", as it were, about which there has been much discussion and relatively little understanding a fashionable trademark of the international development, academic and human rights industries whose meaning and contents are more often than not taken for granted. A major problem with the manner in which civil society has been approached and directed in the African context, therefore, is that this has been done largely against the background of European experiences of its evolution and contemporary praxis. Essentially, therefore, this has created a situation in which the construction of the theoretical, policy and practical agendas on civil society in Africa has been dominated by Euro-American perspectives and their reading of the Africa. The net result in the last deader or so has been a certain level of confusion in theoretical and policy discourse combined with the worsening in instances of perceived pathologies arising from both national and international institutions of governance.

Against this background, there is the obvious need for a project that revisits the idea of civil society as it relates to the quest for democracy and development with peace and good governance while emphasizing two things. One, such a project would include research, action, and feedback features and offer a multi-national, regional and international platform for major stakeholders to revisit the idea of civil society in Africa. Second, such a platform would have to be constructed in a manner that enables Africans, African interests and extra-African groups and institutions with long-term experience and interests in African affairs to dominate discourse on civil society in their communities with the ultimate purpose of bringing theory, policy and practice in line with the goal of a democratic, developed and peaceful environment for good governance in Africa.

The general objective of the proposed project is to enable Africans and institutions within and outside Africa with deep knowledge of the continent to contextualize the idea of civil society in Africa so that it can impact in a more positive and relevant manner with the search for democracy, development, and good governance in the continent. Specifically, the project seeks to:

(A). Critically assess the relevance of dominant perspectives on civil society in Africa to the continent's historical and contemporary experiences.

(B). Provide an African perspective on civil society and its role in democracy, development, peace and good governance in Africa.

(C). Coordinate a series of research projects that would audit society in Africa for institutions, resources and processes that facilitate and/or hinder the attainment and consolidation of democracy and development with peace and good governance in regard of

(i). Peculiarities of civil society in Lussophone, Anglophone and Francophobe Africa and in South Africa;

(ii). The rational, regional and international political economies of civil society in Africa.

(iii). The socio-cultural and spatial dimensions of civil society;

(D). Identify for institutions of governance at the sub-national, national, regional, international (including non-governmental) levels the opportunities, openings, dilemmas, stumbling blocks and dangers for democracy and development in Africa's civil society;

(E). Suggest ways of boosting developmental and pro-democratic elements of civil society while arresting those toxic to democratic and developmental aspirations;

(F). Make available to the managers of policy and practice as well as the intellectual community findings emanating from the project.

We plan to hold a Methodology Workshop which will explore the methodological aspects of proposed research projects. Participants are to be drawn not only from the academic community but more importantly from institutions of governance at the sub-national, rational and international (including non-governmental) levels.

Then, there will be Workshop on Research Findings followed by a Propagation Stage in which the findings of the project will be disseminated in a manner that they get to practitioners, grassroots organizations and the policy and intellectual communities. Finally, there will be an Assessment Workshop. This workshop will provide an assessment of the project with a view to exploring options for the future in the form of capacity-Siloing, feedbacks, follow-ups, and new openings for research , action, reaction, practice and policy. A first step would come in the form of a center for the Study of Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa, to be located in an African country, for the systematic study of these crucial issues.

This is a long and worthy project that puts us at the driving seat. This conference is the beginning, a necessary first step.

1. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Mayer and Also, Gellner(1991:495)includes among others the view that civil society once referred to the opposite of "savagery and or anarchy". Both citations are from Ekeh (1994:A23).

2. Before the French Revolution, civil society meant "high society" Bendix et. all, (1987:12).

3. See Ekeh(1994: A-21).

4. Africa was the focus of the workshop entitled "Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa". However, the definition of the term civil society was not Africa specific.

5. A U.S. congressman popularized this phrase when he was referring to pornography.

6. See the papers of some of the scholars named in the next paragraph in USAID, (1994). African scholars in the group warned against exclusive attention to the elite controlled cosmopolitan groups that enjoyed communication links and proximity with foreign donor agencies. They argued for the recognition of traditional ethnic organizations that promote civic values as legitimate members of Africa's civil society. There is nothing extraordinary about this debate. Even among Western scholars, the concept of civil society has been under contest since the French revolution. See Ekeh (1994).

7. Primary (local) associations with neither formalized structures nor legal status were also included as actors in civil society.

8. Consult Prof. Tripp's contribution in ibid, P.a-47.


Bendix, Reinhard, John Bendix and Norman Furniss. (1987). "Reflections on Modern Western States and Civil Societies." in Richard G. Braugard, ed. Research in Political .Sociology, v.3. Greenwich, Conn. JAI Press.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. ed. Mayer, J.P. and Lerner, Max (1966), New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.(Translation by George Lawrence).

Ekeh, Peter P. (1994). "Historical and Cross Cultural Contexts of Civil Society in Africa, "in USAID, ed.. Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa: Proceedings of a Workshop for Development Practitioners. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development. p. A-21

Gellener, Earnest. (1991). "Civil Society in Historical Context". International Social Science Journal. 129:495-510.

Onwudiwe, Ebere. (1994). "Civil Society in Africa: A Comment." in USAID, ED.. Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa: Proceedings of a Workshop for Development Practitioners. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development. p.A17

Tripp, Aili Mari. (1994). "The Universe of Civil Society: The Heterogeneity of Associations in Africa." in USAID, ed. Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa: Proceedings of a Workshop for Development Practitioners. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development. p. A-47.

Woods, Dwayne. (1994). "The Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions of Associational Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa" in USAID, ED.. Civil Society, Democracy and Development in Africa: Proceedings of a Workshop for Development Practitioners. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development. p. A-91.

Continue to next page....

Return to Main Page