History as Guide: Thinking Abour Human Rights in Africa

By Kilson, Martin L., Jr. | Harvard International Review, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

History as Guide: Thinking Abour Human Rights in Africa


Kilson, Martin L., Jr., Harvard International Review


MARTIN L. KILSON, JR. is Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard University.

From our current vantage point, the general status of human rights, which I define as the base-line rights of freedom from capricious individual harm and freedom to participate fairly in one's country's governance, in the states of sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps better than it has been since the early 1960s. While today there is great potential for a major expansion of the status of human rights for African citizens, the historical road that has finally led to these new possibilities was a treacherous one.

For analytical purposes, we can divide the life-cycle of the modern African state into four relatively distinct phases: the imperialist or colonial phase, from the 1860s to the early 1960s; the nationalist independence phase, from 1956 to 1966; the autocracy phase, from 1966 to 1992; and the transition to democracy phase, from 1992 to the present. During the imperialist or colonial phase, the status of human rights was extremely bad in general, and in some colonial territories in Africa, such as the Belgian Congo, South Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Southern Rhodesia, and Kenya, human rights were continually abused.

However, international laws based on a universal principle of human rights were not laid down by a juridically valid international body until the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. This articulation of a doctrine of global human rights was a direct consequence of the Nuremberg Trials that convicted German Nazi officials for the worst human rights violations of the twentieth century. Thus, an intellectually rigorous comparison of the status of human rights in African colonial territories can only be made with the post-World War II era. The period during which human rights were accorded the most respect was perhaps the nationalist independence phase.

Nationalist Independence Era

During this brief time span (1956-1966), the citizen-empowering ideals and norms of African nationalist decolonizing elites and organizations were most prominent. These ideals were prominent in two ways. First, they were uttered by serious political figures bidding for leadership and governing roles in the decolonized African countries (the first two of which were Sudan, established in 1956, and Ghana, established in 1957). In other words, the brief nationalist independence phase was one in which citizen-empowering ideals (a useful operational way to characterize human rights concerns) were given "legitimating currency." This was the major enduring legacy of the nationalist independence phase, and reviving this attitude is one of the challenges facing the current transition to democracy.

Second, many institutions and organizations helped to foster these citizen-empowering ideals during the African nationalist phase. Civil society agencies (such as agrarian cooperatives and savings groups, workers' trade unions, churches and mosques, and middle class associations) facilitated the expansion of these ideals. The most viable nationalist political parties in any given new African state during the first stage of independence were typically fashioned through linkages with grassroots civil society agencies. However, the nationalist independence phase (the era during which nearly all sub-Saharan states gained independence) failed to resolve the contradictory situation of citizen-empowering ideals.

That contradictory situation can be summarized as follows: during the nationalist independence era, citizen-empowering ideals gained broad currency, but they lacked institutional authority. Civil society agencies among the agrarian class, workers, and the middle class were still too embryonic in regard to their institutional capacity to deepen the legitimacy of these ideals.

The systemic weakness of African society was also hindered by the politics of the period. That politics--often referred to as the "politics of Nkrumahism" or the "politics of Toureism," after the post-independence leaders of Ghana and Guinea--was shaped by the low-accountability mindset of the African elite and political class. …

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