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Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement

Peter P. Ekeh

Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Jan., 1975), pp. 91-112.

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http://www.jstor.org Sun Jun 10 17:10:57 2007 Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement PETER P. EKEH University of Ibadan, Nigeria This paper argues that the experiences of colonialism in Africa have led to the emergence of a unique historical configuration in modern post- colonial Africa: the existence of two publics instead of one public, as in the West. Many of Africa's political problems are due to the dialectical relationships between the two publics. I shall characterize these two publics and attempt to explain some of Africa's political features within the matrix of these publics. In order to give some empirical content to the distinction drawn here, I shall illustrate the issues raised with examples from Nigeria.



Perhaps the best definition of politics is the oldest one: politics refer to the activities of individuals insofar as they impinge on the public realm made up of the collective interests of the citizenry. As Wolin (1960: 2-3) has pointed out, 'one of the essential qualities of what is political, and one that has powerfully shaped the view of political theorists about their subject-matter, is its relationship to what is "public" '. The distinction between the private realm and the public realm delimits the scope of politics. Not all the everyday activities of an individual are political. To the extent that he acts in his household or practices his religion in his home, he is acting in the private realm. Furthermore, the distinction tells us when changes do take place and may define the characteristics of political regimes. The publicization of the private realm-that is, the conversion of private activities and resources into material for the public realm-is characteristic of absolutist regimes. On the other hand, the privatization of the public realm-that is, the 'sublimation' of politics in which what is traditionally private swallows up the public realm-may This paper has benefitted from comments by Professor Ronald Cohen, Northwestern University, Dr. James L. Wood, University of California, Riverside, and Sam E. Oyovbaire, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and Clement E. Tobi, University of Ibadan.

well, as Wolin (1960) contends, be a major characteristic of the age of organization.

But the distinction between the public and private realms as used over the centuries has acquired a peculiar Western connotation, which may be identified as follows: the private realm and the public realm have a common moral foundation. Generalized morality in society informs both the private realm and the public realm. That is, what is considered morally wrong in the private realm is also considered morally wrong in the public realm. Similarly, what is considered morally right in the private realm is also considered morally right in the public realm. For centuries, generalized Christian beliefs have provided a common moral fountain for the private and the public realms in Western society. There are anomic exceptions, of course. For instance, the strong appeal of Banfield's The Moral Basis of a Backward Society is that it provides a striking case of an exception in which the same morality does not govern the private and the public realms. But this is a case where the exception proves the rule. Banfield's (1958) observation of amoral politics in the southern Italian village has drawn so much attention precisely because it violates the Western norm of politics without reproach.

When one moves across Western society to Africa, at least, one sees that the total extension of the Western conception of politics in terms of a monolithic public realm morally bound to the private realm can only be made at conceptual and theoretical peril. There is a private realm in Africa. But this private realm is differentially associated with the public realm in terms of morality. In fact there are two public realms in postcolonial Africa, with different types of moral linkages to the private realm.

At one level is the public realm in which primordial groupings, ties, and sentiments influence and determine the individual's public behavior. I shall call this the primordial public because it is closely identified with primordial groupings, sentiments, and activities, which nevertheless impinge on the public interest. The primordial public is moral and operates on the same moral imperatives as the private realm. On the other hand, there is a public realm which is historically associated with the colonial administration and which has become identified with popular politics in post-colonial Africa. It is based on civil structures: the military, the civil service, the police, etc. Its chief characteristic is that it has no moral linkages with the private realm. I shall call this the civic public. The civic public in Africa is amoral and lacks the generalized moral imperatives operative in the private realm and in the primordial public.1 The most 1 This distinction borrows from a parent distinction between 'civil' and 'primordial' realms in individual behavior, introduced into sociological analysis by Shils (1957) and popularized and strengthened by Geertz (1963). Ultimately of course, it dates back to Toennies' classic distinction between association-type GeZZeschaft and community-type Geimschaft.



outstanding characteristic of African politics is that the same political actors simultaneously operate in the primordial and the civic publics.

The dialectical relationship between the two publics foments the unique political issues that have come to characterize African politics. The two publics are amenable to observation. But they will gain their full meaning in the context of a theory of African politics. Having identified the two publics, there are two lines of theoretical approach that one can attempt.

The first is politico-historical: how did this unique political configuration emerge in Africa? The second is sociological: how does the operation of the publics affect African politics? I shall discuss both theories in this paper.



Modern African politics are in large measure a product of the colonial experience. Pre-colonial political structures were important in determining the response of various traditional political structures to colonial interference. But the colonial experience itself has had a massive impact on modern Africa. It is to the colonial experience that any valid conceptualization of the unique nature of African politics must look.2 In fact, we can still narrow the issue and focus on the two critical bourgeois groups that influenced colonial Africa and continue to influence post-colonial African politics. These are the cadre of colonial administrators, mostly drawn from the rising bourgeois class in Europe, and the African bourgeois class born out of the colonial experience itself. It is my contention that the emergence and the structures of the two publics owe their origin first and foremost to these two groups, especially to their ideological formulations intended to legitimate their rule of the ordinary African. This is not to say that the ordinary African had nothing to do with the emergence of the two publics. He was the target of the intellectual workmanship of the two bourgeois groups in their formulation of ideologies.

It is chiefly to emphasize the lack of firm legitimacy on their part that I have used the term 'bourgeois' to characterize these groups. The term connotes the newness of a privileged class which may wield much power, but have little authority; which may have a lot of economic influence, but enjoy little political acceptance. I have not, unlike Hodgkin (1956), preferred the term middle class because it connotes (a) that those thus referred to have established value linkages with the other layers of their society, and (b) that the class thus referred to occupies a middle layer in a social stratification system. In my view, the European colonial rulers 2 Cf. Ekeh (1972:93): 'Colonialism is to Africa what feudalism is to Europe. They form the historical background from which Africa and Europe advance to modernity. As such, they have determined the peculiar characteristics of modernity in each of these areas.' 94 PETER P. EKEH of Africa and their African successors in the post-colonial period do not fit readily into the same social stratification system with other segments of the societies they ruled and now rule. The African bourgeois class especially does not have an upper class, an aristocracy, over and above it, although it does have a defeated traditional aristocracy whose bases of power have been weakened by the importation of foreign techniques of governance. Nor have I used the term African 'elites' because it connotes to me a class of men who enjoy autonomy in the formation of their values and in their decision-making processes, independent of external sources. The emergent ruling class in Africa clearly lacks such autonomy.

Because of the repeated use of the term 'ideologies' in this essay, it would seem fair to the reader to explain as clearly as possible the use of the term, and the context of that use. By 'ideologies' I refer to unconscious distortions or perversions of truth by intellectuals in advancing points of view that favor or benefit the interests of particular groups for which the intellectuals act as spokesmen. That is, ideologies are interest-begotten theories. The invention of aesthetically appealing interest-begotten theories, or ideologies, that detract from scientific truth is, as Werner Stark (1958) has emphasized, different from socially determined thought in which the writer's cultural world view and his more immediate social background condition and define his perception of social reality. It is when bias in favor of an identifiable group is introduced into theories that I refer to them as ideologies. Needless to add, this specialized usage leans on a tradition of the conceptualization of ideology as an abnormal element in social theory construction-so fully expounded by Werner Stark (1958)-rather than on Mannheim's broad view of ideologies as constituting essential elements in social theories.

My view of ideologies does not then imply a Marxist or Paretean assumption of pan-ideologism-that is, the assertion that all ideas and theories in society are biased in favor of either the ruling class or the emerging class. My position does imply that the particular groups that benefit from ideological distortions of truth must be identified in any analysis that claims perversion and abuse of scientific truth. My assumption-that is, the unexamined hypothesis in this analysis-is that ideological distortions and abuse of truth usually indicate a degree of insecurity on the part of the group promoting such ideologies. This is the case with the European bourgeoisie, not only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, but also in the colonial administration of Africa.

A sense of insecurity also dominates the emergent African bourgeoisie.

The European bourgeois class of course has a well known history in domestic European economic and political life. Not so well known is its influence in the European expansion to Africa. Although the history of the 'scramble' for Africa is filled with the names of nobility, the motive


force of the expansion must ultimately be traced to the rise of the bourgeoisie in Europe:

The central inner-European event of the imperialist period [between 1884 and 1914 and ending with the scramble for Africa] was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which up to then had been the first class in history to achieve economic preeminence without aspiring to political rule. The bourgeoisie had developed within, and together with the nation-state (Arendt, 1951 :123).

Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limitations to its economic expansion. The bourgeois turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be a n ultimate political goal of foreign policy (Arendt, 1951:126).

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