Pick up a newspaper; whether it’s national -like the New York Times – or local, or listen to CNN or Network news; if there is coverage on Africa, the story is almost certain to address yet another crisis facing the continent. Recently, the focus has been on HIV-AIDS and civil wars in the Congo, Sierra Leone, or Angola. When the U.S. or international press presents specific political stories from Africa, the focus tends to be on the decay of the African state, collapsing governments, endemic corruption at all levels of government, and chronic human rights abuse. Unfortunately, U.S. textbooks and curricula on contemporary Africa offer similar foci and interpretations.
Of course these stories are not mere fabrications, as many African countries confront very real and severe political problems. However, the problem with U.S. and international news coverage is two-fold. First the exclusive cover of crisis masks the social, economic and political realities in many African countries. Most of Africa’s 54 nation-states, in spite of real political problems, are not in the throes of political disintegration and decay. The decade of the 1990s has witnessed what some political scientists have called Africa’s Second Liberation (or Second Independence) as more than 20 African states moved away from authoritarian one-party or military governments to more democratic and participatory regimes. By working through the seven learning activities in this module (activities four through six particularly focus on the post-colonial era), students will gain a more comprehensive understanding of political issues in contemporary Africa. Moreover, they will develop analytic skills that will allow them to be critical consumers of press coverage of events in Africa.
Second, U.S. and international news coverage of political issues in Africa is most often ahistorical –there is no attempt to provide the historical context or antecedents of the issue covered. Almost all political issues in contemporary Africa have deep roots in the colonial and immediate post-colonial experience (like the impact of the Cold War and Globalization). The capacity and reach of the African state, the absence of democratic structures and practice, and the ethnic, religious, and regional rivalry that have plagued post-colonial Africa reflect the legacy of the practice and structure of politics and governance in the colonial era. In completing the seven learning activities in this module, students will develop a clearer understanding of legacy of colonialism and the Cold War on African politics and governance.
Emphasis on the colonial and Cold War legacy, however, should not be used as an excuse for human rights abuses, authoritarianism, and corruption by African leaders and regimes. African leaders and regimes who have abused their power and committed crimes against their citizens must be held accountable. Nor can they simply use colonialism or neo-colonialism as an excuse for their abuses. However, we must guard against the tendency to present these leaders and political practices as typically African, removing the historical culpability of Europe and the West.
The second learning activity in this module addresses another set of stereotypes about African political systems. Pre-colonial African political systems have often been ignored or taught only from the perspective of great kingdoms. The focus of this section of the module is a demonstration of the rich diversity and sophistication of various types of political systems and practice in pre-colonial Africa.
Finally, throughout this module we have attempted to draw on student’s knowledge of government and politics in the U.S. However, we do not stress the normative aspects that are understandably present in the study of US government and civics. Rather our emphasis is on developing skills of comparison and critical analysis of African politics, governance, and international relationships within a global and historical context.
We have prepared a bibliography of suggested readings for teachers interested in learning more about the issues covered in this module.