Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue

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For the most part, civil society in Africa has in recent years been discussed within a European framework. This has created a situation where the construction of theoretical, policy, and practical agendas on civil society in Africa has been dominated by Euro-American thinking and perspectives. This includes the reading of Africa=s past, present and future. The net result of this orientation has been confusion about the relevance of theory and policy with regards to the worsening pathologies of state construction in Africa, which themselves arise out of the inadequacies of governance at the national and international levels.

On the 9th and 10th of April, 1998, the Center for African Studies at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio organized a conference entitled African Perspectives on Civil Society. The meeting, attended by scholars from North America and Africa, was held at the conference facilities of the ultramodern C.J. McLin International Water Resource Building on the CSU Wilberforce campus.

Organized by the Center for African Studies (CAS) at CSU, a key objective of the Wilberforce conference was to enable Africans engage in scholarly debate and discussion about the concept of civil society, particularly with respect to the continuing experiments with democracy, development, peace and good governance in Africa. In examining the issue, CAS asked the participants to reflect on what role Africa=s historical and contemporaneous experiences play in the conception of civil society in Africa.

Reflecting on the theme of the conference, John Amoda of the City University of New York said he was concerned about the framework of the conference=s focus although he acknowledged that the discussion amongst African scholars present at the conference may serve as means for intra-African discourse on the relevance of civil society organizations in Africa (John Amoda, >Civil society: theory, history and policy relevance.=Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Impact of slavery and colonialism

Slavery and colonialism were identified as two debilitating blows that impeded the growth of civil society in Africa. It was argued that both of these phenomena suppressed human dignity, freedom and the exercise of democratic rights and principles. A key argument here is that the concept of civil society means something different to most Africans because they view the originators of the term as oppressors historically.

One participant argued that unfortunately, immediate post-independent leaders in Africa operated the post-colonial African state in the image of their colonial progenitors. Consequently, the political elite who captured the apparatus of state privilege exercised governmental powers in ways that denied their people basic rights to freedom, an essential criterion for the construction of a democratic state.

The adoption of one-party system government in a number of the post-independent states enabled African leaders to accumulate power and exercise absolute control over virtually all facets of every day life. This cumulation of authority in the hands of few political leaders was a major factor that precluded the emergence of civil society in many of the post-independent African states.

A number of the scholars at the Wilberforce conference observed that the cumulation and abuse of authority in post-independent Africa was aided and abetted by Western powers who regarded the anti-democratic regimes of Africa as strategic allies in the Cold War era competition between the Western bloc of capitalist states led by the United States and the Eastern bloc of communist states led by the former Soviet Union. Supporting authoritarian regimes in Africa, even if they were undemocratic, was seen therefore as part of the global campaign to check the spread of communism.

One by-product of the Cold War era competition, argues Adigun Agbaje of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is that Cold War influences remain even today in the civil society arena in Africa. As he puts it, there are hegemonic interventions in the development industry of Africa=s civil society. (Adigun Agbaje, >Civil society and the development industry=. Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Civil society and sub-nationalism

A key concern of some of the participants at the Wilberforce conference involves the issue of sub-national groups and other entities who forge common identities around sub-national interests. What role do these entities play in the politics of state construction, and in what ways are their roles as civil society organizations conceived within African polities. A key argument was that the national level of government in Africa is too limiting as an arena for agitational politics hence sub-national interests see the civil society arena as legitimate means of expressing their alternative discourses. Two papers at the Wilberforce conference specifically addressed this issue, (Pita Ogaba Agbese, >Civil society and democratization=; Chris W. Ogbondah, >Press coverage of the Ogoni=s MOSOP in Nigeria.=Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Using Nigeria as a case in point, Agbese (University of Northern Iowa) presented African perspectives on civil society and showed how civil society B acting in the guise of pro-democracy groups B responded to Nigeria=s abortive transition from a military regime to a democratically elected civilian government in 1993. Similarly, Ogbondah (University of Northern Iowa) examined how press coverage of the Ogoni movement highlights the relationship between the state and civil society organizations.

The Ogoni movement involves the mobilization of the Ogonis under the umbrella of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) Ba peasant organization which confronts the Nigerian state over the exploitation and distribution of revenues from natural resources in Ogoni land. Ogbondah concluded that in general, the Nigerian press is sympathetic to the cause of civil society organizations like the MOSOP. He also said civil society organizations and states under military rule like those of Nigeria are characterized by tenuous relations.

Ethnicity and Other Oppositional Forces

Whereas sub-nationalism assumes unique oppositional tendencies in the arena of state B civil society conflict, a number of scholars at the Wilberforce conference argued that ethnicity represents a different kind of oppositional but no less polarizing factor in examining the role of civil society in Africa. For example, Eghosa Osaghae (University of Transkei, Umtata, South Africa) noted that ethnic associations have historically been involved in processes of state formation and reformation, serving as significant wedges to the overbearing power of the state.

He argued that this is precisely why ethnic associations should be given far more credit than they were given in the past because overall the activities of ethnic associations have been far more positive for civil society. (Eghosa Osaghae, >Ethnicity and Civil Society in Africa.= Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Similarly, Tandeka Nkiwane (SAIS, John Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.) says the breach of contract between civil society and the state can exacerbate tension, thereby heightening the activity of civil society. Using Zimbabwe as a case study, Nkiwane argued that the institutionalization of the one-party state, and the practice of the politics of exclusion were key reasons for the heightening of the activities of civil society in Zimbabwe. (Tendeka Nkiwane, >Civil Society in Zimbabwe.= Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Whereas acknowledging that similar processes of exclusion were at play in Kenya, Machara Munene (United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya) said a significant factor for civil society=s disaffection with the state involved the state=s employment of its judicial power against opponents in ways that made it impossible for real opposition politics. According to Munene, the result of this politics of repression was protracted conflict between the state and civil society. This conflict created a political vacuum which hindered the delivery of goods, creating an opportunity for civil society to temporarily displace the state as legitimate authority and a viable alternative center of power in the public domain.

Political-economy of welfare

Aside from core political issues, a number of participants said corporatism, the role of private enterprise, and state involvement in the economy also pose fundamental problems for the survival and independence of civil society in Africa. For example, Julius Nyang=oro (the University North Carolina, Chapel Hill) said the expectation for a more liberal economy on the part of Africa=s civil society demands that an ideological consensus needs to be forged between the state and Africa=s civil society. Such an ideological consensus will serve as a social contract that would ensure a liberalized economy. (Julius Nyang=oro, >Corporation and civil society.=Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

As for the role of private enterprise, Patrick Utomi (The Lagos Business School, Nigeria) said assumptions about the homogeneity of Africa=s business community are misplaced. He argues that whereas the relationship between the business community and the state is at variance with the relationship of business to civil society, the emerging trend favors horizontal linkages that will be powerful enough to influence state policy for the common good. (Patrick Utomi, >Business and civil society in Africa. Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Unlike business B state B civil society relations, Ron Kassimir (Social Science Research Council, Washington, D.C.) argues that the role of religious institutions need to be conceived differently from those of civil society organizations. Using the Catholic Church in Uganda as a case study, Kassimir says the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Ugandan affairs cannot simply be understood by applying the framework of civil society analysis to uncovering the nature of that influence. (Ron Kassimir, >The Social power of Religious Organizations and Civil Society: The Catholic Churches in Uganda.= Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Whereas many of the Wilberforce conference scholars engaged in spirited debate about the legitimacy and prospects for the resiliency of civil society in Africa, some cautious optimism was expressed by some scholars who argued that the media represent key institutions that could be used for purposive communication with the objective of creating harmonious relationships between the state and civil society, in the hope that such stable state relationships would lead to progress and development.

For example, Charles Okigbo (North Dakota State University) said media=s role in African societies in this regard was dependent on how well they address the problems facing African states, in the hope that by so doing the media would help create social capital. (Charles Okigbo, >Media and civil society in Africa=. Wilberforce Conference on Civil Society in Africa: forthcoming.)

Invited Scholars and Participants

Bishop Michael Adesua, Akure, Nigeria

Adigun Agbaje, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria

Pita Agbese, University of Northern Iowa

Tunde Aiyeru, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

John Amoda, City University of New York, NY, NY

Emeka Aniagolu, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Kunle Awotokun, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile ife, Nigeria

Olukoshi Bayo, Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala Sweden

Leyland Bell, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Sally Booker, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.

Lovette Chinwa, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Jim Cleveland, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Jefferey Crawford, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Aaron Dungey, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Peter P. Ekeh, State University of New York at Buffallo, NY

Frank Eguaroje, national Afro-American Museum, Wilberforce, OH

Bonita Ewers, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

John Garland, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Julius Ihonvbere, The Ford Foundation, New York

Imani Johnson, Central State University

Ruth Iyob, University of Missouri

Ron Kassimir, Social Science Research Council, Washington, D.C.

Moraks Kuti, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Angelique Mutombo, Central State University

Sam Laki, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Isaac Mowoe, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Marchara Munene, United States International Univeristy, Nairobi, Kenya

Tandeka Nkiwane, SAIS John Hopkins University, Washington, DC

Elone Nwabuzor, University of Benin, Benin, Nigeria

Julius Nyan=goro, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Charles Okigbo, North Dakota State University

Chris Ogbonda, University of Northern Iowa

Folu Ogundimu, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Ebere Onwudiwe, Central State University, Wilberforce

Eghosa Osaghae, University of Transkai, Umtata, S Africa

Lois Pelekoudas, Central State Unversity, Wilberforce, OH

Pat Utomi, Lagos Business School, Lagos, Nigeria

Femi Vaughn, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY

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