Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Historicising Civil Society in Africa: An Analysis of the State, Democracy and the Third Sector

Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Historicising Civil Society in Africa: An Analysis of the State, Democracy and the Third Sector

Article excerpt


This paper discusses civil society as both a social value and as a set of institutions. However, whichever way we discuss the idea of civil society (as social value or as a set of institutions) in Africa, we are faced with some challenges because the idea of civil society poses a unique problematic. For example, to what extent is civil society a relevant idea in Africa, or does the idea of civil society any history in Africa, or does the third sector play any meaningful role, so as to be relevant in constitutionalism? Civil society as institutions derives its relevance from being between the state (government) and the people (society) to prevent the state from tyrannical and authoritarian rule and protect the citizen's rights (democracy). In Africa, the state is either non-existent or it is in serious crisis, because it is fragmented and also lacks the peace to grow democracy while the African societies are more like communities as Africans are really more in communities than in societies. Again, in Africa, the liberal democracy that makes civil society institutions relevant is a charm. What do we then have in Africa, to make politics and liberal democracy (state/ society relations) a meaningful project?

Key words: Historicizing; Civil society; Africa; State; Democracy; Third sector; Social value


The concept of civil society has an enviably rich history which is long and resides in Europe. Even now that it is assuming global status; its origin continues to remind us of the context that threw it into relevance. In spite of the rich heritage that endears civil society to contemporary scholars, the concept, not just being problematic to operationalise, challenges scholars when it is applied to Africa. Thus, can we really agree that the idea of civil society as it is being operationalis, a third sector, is meaningful in Africa, when state-society relationship is fraught with hostility arising from the immensity and brutality of the state? Or can we say that in terms of civil society as social value, Africa is in the civil society, when the African society is primordial, tribal and is marked by mechanical solidarity? Indeed, can be the association of groups of people with ideas that are aimed at checking the excesses of the state be allowed to operate in an environment where the state does not brook opposition or tolerate opposing views?

However, the contemporary revival of the concept of civil society, according to (Pietrzyk, 2003), raises questions about its current conditions particularly in this instance, i.e., in Africa, about its relevance and usefulness. We are therefore faced with the usefulness of a political idea with regard to changing the social and political conditions in Africa, especially as these conditions are different from where the current idea of civil society has its origin. Perhaps, it is against this background that (Lewis, 2002, p.572) says "that if the concept of civil society is arguably historically specific to particular time(s), and place(s), then it may be sensitive to differences of history, culture and economy". Be that as it may, what does that mean to and in Africa against the background of the "conventional view" of civil society"?

Consequently, in an attempt to relate civil society in Africa, it is pertinent to historicize it. That precisely is what this paper attempts to do. And in doing so, the paper begins with some conceptual notes, which, not only provides some definitions but clarifies civil society; first as a social value and then as a buffer between the state and society, thereby creating what is popularly called the third sector. A brief account of civil society as it originated in Europe followed, culminating in our inquiry into whether we should be talking about civil society in Africa, in view of her past and present circumstances? That idea is followed by a description of the nature and character of the African state and the kind of civil society that will emerge in an environment of hostile state- society relations. …

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