Factual Errors And Faulty Generalizations In Charles Sunwabe's Speech To Liberian Youths
William E. Allen
December 27, 2002
The speech delivered by Mr. Charles Kwanulo Sunwabe on November 2, 2002 to Liberian youths in Philadelphia, which was subsequently published by The Perspective on December 25, represents a gross distortion of African history. I wrote this rebuttal because I was astonished by the level of factual errors and faulty generalizations in the speech. Moreover, Sunwabe's speech was directed at the most impressionable segment of the Liberian population, i.e., the youth. Therefore, it is only fair to these young people that they are aware that the remark of their Guest Speaker was full of errors and faulty generalizations. Furthermore, the speech was placed in the public domain (i.e., The Perspective news organ) for public consumption; it is normal that the speech is subject to public scrutiny.
In this article, I will focus on Sunwabe's discussion of "Traditional African Institutions" to demonstrate his misleading generalizations and factual errors. From his remarks on this subject, I became immediately aware that Sunwabe has neither the academic training in African history nor the analytical skills to evaluate the works of the scholars he cited and on which he subsequently based his conclusions. For example, he quoted Claude Ake and George B. N. Ayittey to support his sweeping generalization that "Prior to the imposition of colonialism, Africa had flourishing political institutions, systems and method of leadership selection that mirror modern Western Democracy." Before the imposition of colonial rule, which began in the late nineteenth century, there were numerous political units, almost entirely structured on ethnic affiliations, which ultimately influenced their respective political cultures (e.g., the Mandinka or Mandingo Empire of ancient Mali and the Zulu Kingdom in southern Africa). Some of these political entities were highly centralized and ruled by hereditary dynasties (e.g., the Kieta clan in Mali). In others, political power was centered around powerful autocratic figures ( e.g., Shaka's reign in the Zulu Kingdom, 1818-1828). Yet still, a large majority of the precolonial societies were fragmented (commonly referred to as "stateless"), with no clearly defined leader and political tradition (e.g., the Vai- and Dei-spekers of the immediate pre-Liberia era). In these stateless societies leadership was usually based on kinship ties or the acquisition of power by a forceful individual (the latter example is the famous King Sao Boso or Boatswan of the Bopolu Confederation in northwestern Liberia). In short, the precolonial political landscape was vastly diverse. Contrary to Sunwabe's suggestion, it was not monolithic; some of the societies had a long history of political traditions, others had none and many were just beginning to set up political institutions.
So, which of these diverse groups or "Africas" was Mr. Sunwabe talking about that "had flourishing political traditions"? Which of the many "Africas" was Sunwabe referring to when he said that Africa "had systems and method of leadership selection that mirror modern Western Democracy?" While some political practices in precolonial societies are similar in several respects to modern Western democracy (e.g., decisions based on consensus), many of these societies were governed by autocratic rulers. How can anyone sufficiently familiar with the history of the arbitrary rule of Shaka, the Zulu King (r. 1818 to 1828) - not only the Hollywood version - state that an African "chief could never force his people to do what they did not want to do?" Or how can any student of African history, who has studied the eyewitness accounts of how kings and princes in precolonial Africa encouraged raids and warfare to capture innocent women, men and children to be sold into slavery in the New World, say that an African "chief could never force his people to do what they did not want to do?" (Read any of the narratives by some of the victims in Philip Curtin's Africa Remembered.)
Mr. Sunwabe even naively suggested that the presence of a "council of elders" in many of the precolonial societies amounts to the modern checks and balance in Western democracy. The histories of many of the early societies showed that the council of elders did intervene to halt the excesses of autocratic leaders. However, there is just as much evidence that the councils of elders were ineffectual in preventing rulers from becoming bloodthirsty tyrants. (The literature here is vast. See, Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, eds. Slavery in Africa, 133-154, 287-303.) Does Sunwabe need to be reminded that the checks and balance in Liberia (i.e., the legislative and judicial branches), which are the rough equivalents of the council of elders do not prevent President Charles Taylor from terrorizing innocent Liberians?
Another distortion in Sunwabe's speech to the youths is his allegation that "the founding fathers of modern Africa" shunned "the traditional African system of government." This blatant inaccuracy demeans the reputation of some of the great sons of Africa, who at the time of independence fought to incorporate some of the tested wisdom from the African past. These early leaders developed a pragmatic approach to the problems of Africa, eclectically adopting from the past, what they truly believed was useful in the newly independent states. The varying philosophical ideals known as African socialism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s was a mixture of Western ideas and African political thoughts. For example, the African socialism of the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, that venerable and incorrigible son of Africa, speaks loudly to Sunwabe's misleading characterization. Nyerere's Ujamaa (Familyhood in Swahili), which attempted - among other things - to establish an egalitarian society in Tanzania by installing institutional checks on the accumulation of wealth, was based on his profound knowledge of the communal tradition of sharing which is practiced in many African cultures. Kwame Nkrumah's scientific socialism, with its focus on industrial development, drew considerable input from the African cooperative labor arrangement. Even procapitalist and pro-Western leaders like Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia tried to infuse some aspect of African ideals of compassion into the cold heart of the capitalist economy that he inherited from the British. (See Kenneth Kaunda, A Humanist in Africa; Carl G. Rosberg and William Friedland, eds., African Socialism.) One may question the practicability of some of these policies and the commitment of the founding fathers to the basic tenets of Western democracy. But the devotion of many of these early post-colonial era leaders to their heritage was unquestionable. (Read, for example, Jomo Kenyetta's excellent ethnography of the Kikuyu in Facing Mount Kenya or Léopold Senghor's Négritude.)
Finally, I thought Sunwabe's comments, "some educated people and some Ph.D. holders... oppress, suppress... the African masses..." was a cheap shot, an insinuation that the elite were responsible for Liberia's current woes. I found it particularly intriguing that Sunwabe would accuse the educated elite of oppressing Liberians and contributing to the Ainchoate and dysfunctional" political condition in Liberia. Did the name of semi-literate Samuel Doe, the president that history will easily blame for initiating the destruction of the Liberian society, raise a red-flag? President Samuel Doe, who was perennially insecure and intimidated by the educated elite, blamed the "book-people" for the problems in Liberia to divert attention from his failed policy and ruthless autocracy. Did the name of the quasi-educated Charles Taylor, who cannot disclose which American college conferred a Master degree on him, but masquerades as an "American-trained economist," ring any bell? Taylor, probably a college dropout or an average bachelor-degree holder, continues to destroy the foundation of Liberia while demonizing the educated class; he is also using the educated elite as a scapegoat to cover his appalling inefficiency and vicious dictatorship.
One can only wonder about the underlying motive of Sunwabe's message to the youths of Liberia. For example, he appears to extol the virtues of education but goes on to blame the educated class for the problems in Liberia without providing any corroborating evidence. His message was, in this regard, divisive -a sort of frivolous class warfare. I do hope, however, that Sunwabe's errors and faulty generalizations about African history were just innocuous mistakes.