Editorial staff
 Table of Contents
 Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief...
 Decentralization, local governance...
 African cinema in the nineties
 Contemporary African film at the...
 Book reviews

Title: African studies quarterly
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Table of Contents
        Page i
    Editorial staff
        Page ii
        Page iii
    Table of Contents
        Page iv
        Page v
    Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief and the theistic problem of evil
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        Page 2
        Page 3
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    Decentralization, local governance and the democratic transition in Southeastern Africa: A comparative analysis
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    African cinema in the nineties
        Page 47
        Page 48
        Page 49
        Page 50
        Page 51
        Page 52
    Contemporary African film at the 13th annual Carter lectures on Africa
        Page 53
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    Book reviews
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Full Text

African Studies Quarterly

Volume 2, Issue 1

Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida

ISSN: 2152-2448

African Studies Quarterly

Editorial Staff

Nanette Barkey
Michael Chege
Maria Grosz-Ngate
Parakh Hoon
Carol Lauriault
Peter Vondoepp
Roos Willems

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for
individuals to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

Table of Contents

Olodumare: God In Yoruba Belief And The Theistic Problem of Evil
John A. I. Bewaji (1-17)

Decentralization, Local Governance and The Democratic Transition in Southern Africa: A
Comparative Analysis
James S. Wunsch (19-45)

At Issue: Reflections on African Cinema

African Cinema In The Nineties
Mbye Cham (47-51)

Contemporary African Film at the 13th Annual Carter Lectures on Africa: Interviews with
Filmmaker Salem Mekuria and Film Critic Sheila Petty
Rebecca Gearhart (53-58)

Book Reviews

Development for Health: Selected ARTICLES from Development in Practice. Deborah Eade,
ed. Published by Oxfam Publications (UK and Ireland), and Humanities Press International,
Baffour Takyi (59-61)

Encyclopedia of Pre-colonial Africa: Archeology, History, Languages, Culture, and
Environments. Joseph 0. Vogel, ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, A Division of Sage
Publication, 1997.
Jon Unruh (61-62)

Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings. Brian Willan, ed. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1997.
R. Hunt Davis (62-65)

Physicians, Colonial Racism, and Diaspora in West Africa. Adell Patton, Jr. Gainesville:
University Press of Florida, 1996.
J.F. Ade Ajayi (65-66)

Picturing Bushmen: The Denver African Expedition of 1925. Robert J. Gordon. Athens OH,
Ohio University Press, 1997.
Cathy Skidmore-Hess (66-68)

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

Transculturation and Resistance in Lusophone African Narrative. Phyllis Peres. Gainesville:
University of Florida Press, 1997.
Mario Azevedo (68-69)

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of




In the pioneering works in African religious scholarship by indigenous and Western
writers, Idowu, Mbiti, Parinder, Ray, Tempels, and others, have shown that Africans are not so
intellectually impoverished as to be lacking in a sophisticated conception of the Supreme Being.
Such a Being is recognized and given a premier position or status in their religions. These
scholars have also identified some of the attributes of the Supreme Being within the indigenous
African religions that they have studied. Some of these attributes have been very similar to
those projected in the Christian religious understandings of the Supreme Being--omnipotence,
omnipresence, omniscience, benevolence, divinity, creator, etc.
Their works have provided starting points for further research and discussion, but most
students of religions have been wont to ignore this aspect of their worthy contribution to
scholarship, and have rather taken their works as definitive and beyond question. Even when
contrary views are aired, the pioneering works of these first African theologians, religious
scholars, and anthropologists are often cited as authorities to uphold a point of view that was
fast losing credibility.
The African, particularly the Yoruba, about whom Idowu, Mbiti and others have written,
unarguably, possess a conception of Supreme Deity. In fact, this Supreme Being has many
superlative attributes, but the possession of these qualities does not lead to the type of impasse
or contradiction that arises within theistic Christian religion; namely, the irreconcilability of the
existence of God and evil in the universe. Staying strictly within Yoruba religion, these writers
present Olodumare as Christian God, Muslim Allah, and Esu as Satan or Devil. That this
interpretation is wrong and misleading in the consequences it produces is argued here.


Supporting the need for his research into Yoruba beliefs in the Supreme Being, Bolaji Idowu

John Ayorunde (Tunde) Isola Bewaji is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in the department of Language, Linguistics,
and Philosophy at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the
University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His recent publications include, "The Certain, the Evident, and the Problem of
Criterion: Perspectives in Roderick M. Chisholm's Response to Sceptical Epistemology" in The Philosophy of Roderick
M. Chisholm. Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 25, edited by Lewis E. Hahn, and "The self as the locus of identity A
preliminary philosophical analysis of Professor Nettleford's discussion of individuality in the Caribbean" in Caribbean
Quarterly (December 1997.

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

2 I Bewaji

In all the previous works which have relevance to the religion of the Yoruba, the Deity has
been assigned a place which makes Him remote, of little account in the Scheme of things. Very
few people who really know the Yoruba can escape the uneasy feeling that there is something
inadequate, to say the least, about such a notion; and it is the "uneasy feeling" that led to my
investigation of what the Yoruba actually believe about the Deity 1.
Such a mistaken conception of the Supreme Being among the Yoruba is consonant with the
general attitude of the European colonialist who, out of ignorance, derided the culture, custom,
religion, political organization, science, commerce, etc., of the so-called "primitive" peoples of
the world. Such an attitude easily excuses and justifies their actions in the subjugation and
forceful appropriation of the colonies. Surely, a people that supposes the Supreme Being to be a
little "higher" than some other being, or puts Him "first among equals" must be inferior to those
people who place Deity above and beyond the level of other beings entirely 2. Such people need
assistance, because
... the native says that he enjoys a life of complete idleness and repose, ... and passes his
time dozing or sleeping. Since he is too lazy or too indifferent to exercise any control over
earthly affairs, man on his side does not waste time in endeavouring to propitiate him, but
reserves his worship and sacrifice for more active agents 3.
And, as Parrinder says, in a rather ambivalent way that exhibits his confusion and the
dilemma of the foreign theologian scholar:
Polytheists who justify their worship of lesser gods, when pressed, may refer to the
remoteness of the sky or at least to the more pressing demands of the other gods. These are
nearer to him, more likely to intervene in his life, and easier of access. They might be annoyed if
they were neglected in favour of one sole deity. Any priest will say that his god is a son of the
Supreme Being, and that God speaks through His sons. But he will argue that he must obtain
the favour of all the spirits, and not please one alone, lest the others withdraw their favour or
power ... He is thought to be more remote from human affairs and needs than the other gods
which are his sons 4.
Further on he says:
On the whole, worship is irregular ... Apart from occasional ejaculations made before a
journey or an undertaking, many people do not seem to give God much place in their life ...
Prayers are offered to Him at any time and place, though generally these are individual prayers
Finally, numerous issues of interest arise from these passages. Remarking on them is only
to elicit how they have made this and similar studies necessary. First is the idea of deus incertus
and deus remotus of Westermann that it echoes 6. Second is the conception of the divinities as the
sons of the Supreme Being--an idea imported, (or smuggled as P'Bitek will say), into the
conception of the relationship between God and the divinities from Christian religion. From all
available data, there is scarcely any suggestion that Olodumare had any sons 7. Other divinities
are his creations; some have been with him and are still messengers to Him and no one knows
or contemplates their origin as such. Finally, the suggestion that God, because of His
remoteness, is seldom worshipped or His peace of mind disturbed by unnecessary worries and
that He is called everywhere and anywhere and at any time by womene, seems to be an issue of

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Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil I 3

self-contradiction. In fact, Idowu has pointed out the error in supposing that Olodumare is not
worshipped 8.
Idowu, Mbiti, Awolalu, and even Parrinder (when the facts cannot be ignored) have the
apparent contradictions in their own works, but these errors have persisted inspite, or because,
of them 9. Kato, for example, as recently as 1975, says:
Most of his (Mbiti's) writings concern the basic philosophy of African Theology. The basic
premise seems to be the presupposition that African traditional religions are well organized
systems. It is assumed that the animist in Africa has not only known God truly, but that he has
worshipped him 10
On the next page he says,
But contradiction is not the worst problem of Mbiti's theology. It is this universalism that
poses a threat to Biblical Christianity in Africa. His great enthusiasm in 'Africanizing'
Christianity, while done in good faith poses a great threat to the faith which was once for all
delivered to the saints 11.
For Kato, traditional concepts of God in Africa are defective, inferior and unworthy of his
Divine Supremacy. Only the gifted Semites of the first century had clear vision. One may ask
what about Islam, and other world religions? His response is an obvious derision. He quotes
Okite as saying of Mbiti's Concepts of God in Africa that:
... (the book) reads like a massive research project of St. Anselm's intended to prove that
even for Africa, God is that than which nothing greater can be conceive 12.
Now, self-contradiction in a rational being at the level found by Kato is surely inexcusable,
but threatening Biblical Christianity as the Pastor is professed to have done is a crime (sin)
against his faith. How can any Christian make such a blasphemous comparison or analogy?
Thus, his effort fails, as his belated attempt at an anthology aimed at showing African God as a
being that which nothing greater can be conceived is doomed ab initio. We must wipe out all
non-Christian beliefs, religions, cultures, ideas and (projected ad absurdum) all non-Christian
peoples, to make the earth safe for the second coming of the saviour--unless they repent. The
transplantation of Christianity (and Islam) and the Middle Eastern, Arabian culture with its
Greco-Roman appendages must be total if humanity in Africa is to see the true light 13. Only the
achievement of this goal would please Kato.
For brevity, one may systematize what has become glaring from the foregoing
considerations. In the first place, the most early writers did not credit the African (the Yoruba)
with any knowledge of God. Secondly, irrepressible facts have negated such a position, so the
scholars now credit Africans (Yoruba) with ideas, concepts, and even, worship--no matter how
minimally--of God. The period is that of development attendant upon the awareness created by
African scholars steeped in Christian theological persuasion. Thirdly, the dispute then shifted
from the ontological issue of the existence of God to people's conception of Him. That is, do
these Africans (Yoruba) really have an adequate idea of this Imago Dei 14? Where and how are
they going to come by it? There is no Mount Sinai or Horeb, no green grazing pasture that
spreads limitlessly, only dense forests! So, the revelations they can have must be of lesser
divinities related to fertility, huge rocks, and trees! That is the position of Kato and those with
similar intellectual pretensions.

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4 I Bewaji

Then, the onus has shifted back on the African scholar who has always been in a position of
weakness. A colonized people need to struggle on all planes to assert their equal humanity with
others. So, they introduced the fourth dimension of intellectual smuggling of their Christian
beliefs into the religious terrain of Africa; they Hellenized and clothed the African God in
borrowed garbs, as if He had always been nude!
In these attempts, some problems have arisen. This has been so because of the conceptual
categories and attributes they have used. In this regard, Kato is right in accusing Idowu, Mbiti,
Awolalu, etc., of Hellenizing African God. While Okot P'Bitek called for demythologizing and
dehellenizing the African God, Kato has called for the eradication of African God, as it amounts
to total falsehood 15. But these calls have not even considered whether such conceptualizations
of the Supreme Being by the writers have been true to the available facts. P'Bitek's work
stemmed from nationalism, while Kato's work stemmed from ecumenism. P'Bitek did show that
intellectual smuggling is an academic crime that should be purged, but the implication of the
cure and the cure itself consists in the elucidation of their mistakes. One of such mistakes was
the absence of a clear discussion of the relationship between God (Olodumare) and evil. As
Kato says:
Another problem in Mbiti's presentation is the absence of hardly any reference to evil
attributed to God in African traditional religions 16.
Now, Kato seems to be saying that Olodumare is partly evil; that is his interpretation of the
understanding of evil by Africans. This needs to be subjected to closer examination. It is this
and related matters that constitute the point of departure of this essay from the works of Mbiti,
Idowu, and others. When the African theologian scholars discuss the attributes of God among
the Africans, they ignore the problem of evil. The attributes they ascribe to Olodumare are,
according to Idowu, that he is creator, king omnipotent, omniscient, judge, immortal, and holy
17. In another work, Olodumare is unique, real, controller and one 18. According to Mbiti, God
(Olodumare) in addition to those attributes listed by Idowu, has other attributes such as
transcendence, immanence, self-existence, pre-eminence, greatness, causal powers,
immateriality, mysteriousness, unity, eternity, plurality, mercifulness, kindness, love,
faithfulness, and goodness 19. All these attributes, when co-present in the Supreme Being to the
maximum, generate the problem of evil in any religion. This problem has remained a cancerous
one in Judaeo-Christian religion (post Old Testament) and has been the source of truculent
atheism, skepticism, and agnosticism. We will briefly examine this problem as it arises in
Christian religion and ask whether this problem is equally or even ever present in the Yoruba
understanding of God (Olodumare).


The theistic problem of evil can be properly appreciated if one apprehends the import of
the following passage from Quinn. Of theistic religions, he says:
According to theists, human persons are called upon to worship God. Theists typically
hold that their reverence and adoration are the appropriate responses to Him. This view
presupposes that God deserves or merits worship. If a being were not worthy of worship, then
surely worship directed at such a being would be widely inappropriate. But what features must

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Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil I 5

a being have to be fitting and deserving object of worship? It seems clear that only a morally
perfect being could be worthy of unqualified devotion typical of theistic worship. Moral
goodness falling short of perfection might earn a being admiration but never adoration. This is
why it is essential to theistic orthodoxy that God be thought of as perfectly good 20.
That Christianity and other theistic religions believe in God is a basic component of these
religions. These religions would not have any further significance and would loose their
followers and devotion if the God-head is detracted from. As such, affirmation of the existence
of a perfect God is a necessity. However, the affirmation of the existence has often sprung from
diverse cognitive directions and sources syncretized into an absolute epistemic criterion. To
support the position that God exists, some would adduce revelation--that God disclosed
Himself in varying degrees appropriate to circumstances to certain people such as Moses,
Mohammed, and the writer of Revelations in the Holy Bible; some others will claim knowledge
of the numinous by direct intuition from the innermost of their being; some will adduce moral
grounds to support such knowledge; some others will use the nature of the cosmos to support
their epistemic affirmation, while others yet claim the knowledge by a leap of faith. By
whatever method of cognitive discovery God is arrived at within all forms of theism, certain
attributes are said to be intrinsic to His nature to deserve the exalted and unparalleled devotion
and worship.
While it could be philosophically interesting to critically analyse the validity or otherwise
of the various epistemic sources and grounds for the existence of Deity, while atheism and
agnosticism, and of course, theism, has been occasioned by this type of philosophical
undertaking, this is not of direct relevance to our discussion of the problem of evil. Our concern
is with the given-ness of Deity in theism. This given-ness also has certain attributes. It is the
consequence of these attributes that brings into focus, against the background of factual and
rational experience and contemplation, the problem of evil. Going back to Quinn in his very
ingenious and lucid essay quoted from above, one clearly sees the ramifications of the issue. He
avers that:
Theists also hold that God created the heavens and the earth. God is, therefore, responsible
for at least some of the good and evil in the cosmos of contingent things. Theists cannot avoid
grappling with the problem of evil. How could a perfectly good being create a cosmos
containing less good than the very best he could have created? And if a being worthy of
worship could create the best cosmos he could, is a theist committed to holding that this is the
best of all possible worlds 21.
Thus, properly understood, the Divine Being, worthy of worship in the great scriptural
religions (and here the reference points are Christian and Islam), has been conceptualized in
such a way that He has all positive attributes in superlative and unlimited degree, and lacks all
negative attributes totally. As the greatest conceivable Being, He is not in want of any positive
attribute, or predicate.
But this is what experience seems to contra-indicate. For, if that being, so conceived and not
otherwise conceivable, created the inhabited world of humans so organized, then one needs to
account for at least the natural disease and evils that have recurrently plagued the universe
created by this being. One may leave aside moral, economic, socio-political evils as being

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6 I Bewaji

dependent upon man, and as such preventable if man so wills. Formulated minimally, the
problem of evil for the theist is this:

If God is omnipotent, omniscient, creator causaa sui or prima causa)
All-loving, all-good, all-merciful, then how can we explain evil?
Does God cause evil?
If God does not cause evil, then who causes it?
Who created this cause of evil?
Was the creator of evil all-knowing, past, present, and future?
Or, is God actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful but unable to stop evil-- which is
patently absurd?
Or, does God not wish to stop evil 22?

This is the dilemma that the theist has to squarely face! Christianity and other monotheistic
religions, conceptualized in this fashion, do not seem to have any easy way of escaping either of
the horns of the dilemma or of passing between. If they choose to say that God did not create
evil, then it would follow that there either is no evil in the world, which is patently false, unless
we redefine our concepts, or that someone else created evil, which means that God did not
create everything. Even with this caveat, there would still remain the problem of accounting for
who created the creator of evil--or else, evil is self-caused, which is equally unconvincing. If
they choose to say that God did not wish to eradicate evil, then it could mean either He lacks
the power to do so, or He is sadistic and malevolent, options which are totally unacceptable to
the theist. There then seems no way of escaping the problem without either redefining and
limiting the attributes of Deity or becoming an atheist, or at least, an agnostic.
The most popular attempt to deal with the problem in Christianity and Islam consists in
saying that Lucifer, or Devil, or Satan, who was formerly God's deputy or right-hand angel, is
the cause or originator of all evils in the universe. That he used to be a good angel charged with
powers second only to that of God, but, that through conceit and conspiracy, he became
demonic and totally evil. Thus, although capable of having appearances of temporary goodness,
whatever schemes he may conceive are ultimately in the pursuance of his diabolical goals of
evil. He is thus the Devil. What a good Christian and Muslim should do then is to bear his/her
coat of armour and join God's salvation army and fight against the evil one--Satan, the prince of
Persuasive and simple as this seems, it cannot escape obvious objections or, at least,
rejoinders. If God had been all-knowing and all-good, He would not have created Satan or
Lucifer. If, par impossible, He did create Satan in error, then it should not have been too difficult
for Him to rectify the error and improve or destroy Satan, unless He is not, contra hypothesis,
Before going further to consider this problem as it relates to Olodumare among the Yoruba
people, it should be emphasized that the problem of evil did not arise within the context of Old
Testament religion. There God could and did exercise His powers to suit the ends He designed
and desired--which desire is coincident with ultimate up-rightness and justice, even though the
justice is from the Jewish perspective. Hence, He caused the destruction of Pharaoh's army and

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Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil I 7

used an earth tremor to destroy the walls of Jericho, while commanding Saul to utterly slay the
Amalekites. There He was the Creator who stood firmly for justice and only forgave the
penitent who makes atonement or remission for sins against Him and His chosen people.
Nowhere was God regarded in the Old Testament as evil or as a weakling for doing these
things that caused people great harm. Even the New Testament episode of sending demons into
swine that later perished in the Sea was interpreted by the gospellers as something good--not
minding the investment of the owners of the swine who were non-Jews.
On the extra-theological plane, one may ask the relevant epistemic questions as to the
source of the knowledge of the creator of evil, Satan or Lucifer. Was it based on eye-witness
experience? Was it based on inference derived from such an account? Was it mere speculation
from the latter phenomenon of apparently inexplicable natural disasters and human suffering?
How are we to fight an enemy about whom in all we know are partisan accounts? How do we
even come to the knowledge that Lucifer is the origin of all evil and not just the fall-guy and
scape-goat used for the deliberate desires and actions of a Theistic God?
Such questions will surely not be entertained by a committed theistic, yet they are relevant
and should not detract from his commitment to his God as it will only further enhance his
understanding of his God. I do not see how man is any worse for his knowledge that God is
disposed to reward or punish with good or evil, depending on human goodness or evilness as
the Old Testament does show.


It is purely an academic issue to start by saying that Yoruba people do have many
divinities through which each group approach Olodumare it follows that one cannot speak of a
Yoruba traditional religion. Such line of reasoning will only assist in detracting from the crucial
task of understanding how the Yoruba conceive of evil before Christianity. As far as it is
rationally possible, it should be stated emphatically that the problem of evil did not, does not,
and need not arise within Yoruba traditional religion. In fact, this initial axiomatic assertion
needs all the emphasis it can elicit; in spite of all efforts to show the contrary, only this
conclusion seems the plausible and defensible one.
Olodumare has all the attributes which Idowu, Mbiti, Awolalu, Dopamu, and other
theological scholars have annotated; that is, Olodumare is the origin of the universe and in the
language of Anselm, He is the Being that which none greater can be conceived.
Let us consider some of these attributes, particularly those that have generated the
dilemma of how to account for evil in Christianity. In this regard, we shall be brief and state the
facts as they have been presented by other scholars and as found in Yoruba traditional religion.

(a) Olodumare is the Creator, Cause and Origin of all Things:
Here Idowu says:

.. we have learnt that the divinities were brought into being by Olodumare and that the
work of creating the earth was commissioned by Him. Everything in heaven and on earth owes
its origin in Him. In His capacity as Creator He is known as Eleda-- "the Creator", "the Maker".

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8 I Bewaji

He is the Origin and Giver of Life, and in that capacity He is called Elemi-- "the Owner of
Spirit", or "the Owner of Life" 23.
The evidence that Olodumare is the creator of everything is displayed in virtually all
accounts of the relationship between Olodumare and the Universe. Where He did not directly
cause or create, He instructed the divinities to create and He supervised the creation work. So,
He created both the good and the bad, the well-formed and the deformed, the rainy season and
the drought. Through Him must be sought the cause of all things. And everything there is has a
rationale and can be understood and used by the thoughtful and gifted like the herbalists and
medicine men.

(b) Olodumare is the Most Powerful Being for Whom Nothing is too Great or too Small, Below
or Beyond to Accomplish:
Here the powers of obas, ancestors elders, witches, herbalists, medicine men, divinities, etc., are
all derived from Olodumare and are limited and limitable by Him. It is this feature which
transmutes in the language of patristic and scholastic church-men into the concept of
omnipotence, and this cannot be quarreled with, since the Yoruba obviously believe that all
good and bad take their origin from Olodumare 24.
Here, as in the creativity of Olodumare, one should not be surprised that good and evil are
all in the control and dispensation of Olodumare. Ultimately, each proper usage or improper
usage of such power is subject to Olodumare's final pronouncement of judgement. His ways are
such that evil doers never escape punishment.

(c) Olodumare's Knowledge is Incomparable and Hence Has no Equal:
Having avoided the usage of the classical and neo-classical diction of omnipotence, it is also
advisable to avoid the nomenclature of omniscience in the description of the over-arching
knowledge and wisdom of the Supreme Deity among the Yoruba people. This is not because it
has built-in conceptual difficulties and engenders dilemmas. There is no disputing the fact that
Olodumare has the greatest knowledge. However, the fact that some things happen "behind His
back" or "without His direct awareness" has been borne out in the practical aspects of creation,
sustenance, and running of the universe, here, there, and everywhere, including even the
domain of Olodumare (Orun or heaven). He has had recourse to the use of Orunmila and Ifa,
the wise ones and the means of discerning the situation of things past, present, and future.
This suggestion concerning the limitation of the knowledge of Olodumare might seem to
be the one most open to controversy among those too used to the erstwhile tradition originated
by Idowu and enhanced by the cross-pollination of religion. Hence, it is pertinent to buttress it
with concrete examples from extant materials in Yoruba tradition.
In Idowu's works one finds: (i) the account of how solid earth was created reported the
commissioning of some divinities to perform the job, how someone failed and how ultimately
the task was completed by others and the report had to be carried back to Olodumare 25. (ii)
Olodumare once consulted the oracle to find out about His possible death and we hear this Ifa
passage saying:

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Korofo, the cult of the underground
Is the one which consulted the oracle about Olodumare
and declared that his death would never be heard of 26.

Another one says:

Olodumare has rubbed His head with bar-wood dust (lyerosun)
He will never die
(His) whole head is become exceedingly hoary 27.

All these are recorded in Ogbe (0) yeku by Idowu. The English translations provided by
him do not seem to be either the most appropriate or the most accurate and faithful. The second
line of the first Ifa quoted speaks as if it was not Olodumare that Himself consulted Korofo, the
Ifa Priest of the Underground, but Korofo who did the consultation, without any request, about
Olodumare. Also, the second one speaks of the oracle as supporting the immortality of
Olodumare. However, properly understood, it will be obvious that it was Olodumare who
consulted His wise men. In the same vein Okanran Osa says,

The young never hear that cloth is dead
Cloth only wears old to shreds
The old never hear that cloth is dead
Cloth only wears old to shreds
The young never hear that Olodumare is dead
Cloth only wears old to shreds
The old never hear that Olodumare is dead
Cloth only wears old to shreds 28.

Apart from the picturesque and onomatopoeic presentation of the stanza, one must bear in
mind a crucial elucidation made by Idowu himself which is of singular importance in the
consideration of Olodumare's attributes. He says:
The myth connected with this verse also has it that it was Olodumare Himself who sought
the means of immortality. In consequence, he was told to make some sacrifices to provide
Himself with a large piece of white cloth. When the necessary rite had been performed, the
white cloth was spread over Him so that He was completely covered. From that time He
became immortal 29.
Contrary to the earlier misleading translation, one must observe that Idowu was being
faithful to his sources in this passage. Here he was able to purge himself of the shackles of
Christian ontological categories and theological demands. There are multiple instances relating
to the omnipotence, omniscience, and creativeness of Olodumare, but only one more instance
will be cited. Thus, Idowu says:

. .. there is a story which has it that Olodumare Himself was once perplexed over a very
important matter. All the other divinities tried but failed to tell Him the reason for His
perplexity; only Orunmila succeeded in putting his finger on the source of the trouble.. .30.

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This shows that although Olodumare has the supremacy of wisdom, yet He has endowed a
divinity with the task of divining the causes of problems, pronouncing cures or remedies and
advising. To mellow the full implications of this fact Idowu then states:
Obviously, this story was formulated to enhance the importance of Orunmila without any
realization that it might detract from Olodumare's attributes of "all-wiseness" 31
Obviously, contra Idowu, this fact is neither anathemic to the Yoruba, nor does it present
any incongruity in their perception of Olodumare. Also, it does not in any way detract the least
bit from the "all-wiseness" of Olodumare. This is because he mistakenly supposes that since
Olodumare created Orunmila and his wisdom in the first place, so, tapping from the resources
of a created being cannot amount to a reduction in the attribute of the creator. Supporting this
point Wande Abimbola suggests:
According to the myths, there were occasions when there being no physical barrier
between heaven and earth, Ifa was summoned by Olodumare to use his great wisdom to solve
problems for Him 32.
The faithfulness of Abimbola results from the fact that he was concerned with the corpus of
Ifa as the embodiment of the wisdom of Olodumare as bequeathed to Orunmila. He was not
concerned with a definition of the attributes of Olodumare. Later, he recounts a story of a
quarrel between an Ifa priest and Orunmila, and how Olodumare had to ask for both sides to
the dispute 33. The Yoruba do not see anything incongruous in this type of arrangement because
justice demands fairness to all concerned in any dispute. Apart from that, "the child is wise, the
adult is wise, is the foundation of which Ile-Ife is built", as the Yoruba popular saying goes, and
it indicates that nobody should pretend to have all knowledge. We shall return to this and
related issues later. For now, let us consider one other attribute of Olodumare, the Supreme
Being among the Yoruba people.

(d) Olodumare is the Good Judge:
In Yoruba traditional religion many attributes are coincident in the goodness of Olodumare.
These include impartiality of judgement, where a case is brought before Him He listens
attentively to both sides. Others are holiness and benevolence. God dispenses justice with
compassionate fairness, but He does not brook crookedness or pretentious smartness. As the
Supreme King, after His court there is no other court of appeal for redressing wrongs; for this
reason He does not take arbitrary decisions that conflict with the dictates of justice 34.
Now, occasionally, because of the limitation of our understanding of God, man may
impute judgmental defects or actions to Olodumare, whereas, to the Yoruba, this only
underscores the fact that Olodumare is beyond human comprehension. If we had access to all
antecedent factors and future events it would be possible to completely understand
Olodumare's action. Here only Orunmila has access to this type of knowledge and he uses the
knowledge to assist the universe. The inescapability of judgement in Yoruba belief is remarked
by Idowu as follows:
Olodumare is the final disposer of all things. He is the Judge. He controls man's destiny
and each will receive from Him as he deserves. But here on earth judgement has already begun
for every man according to his character ... it is Olodumare who judges character 35.
And Mbiti says:

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In many societies, it is believed that God punishes individuals through illness, misfortune,
barrenness or death. The Yoruba consider God to be judge over all, and when misfortune befalls
a moral offender, people say, "He is under the lashes of God" 36
In a discussion of related matters, I wrote:
There is no doubt that God is the most powerful Being and that He has all the superlative
attributes one can consider, but the Yoruba do no think that such a being cannot do evil or cause
evil. It is part of the attributes of the Supreme Being to be able to utilize all things 37.
The implications of these attributes of Olodumare are that He is the most Powerful Being,
the Creator, the Wise and Impartial Judge who exercises inexorable control over all in the
universe. The problem of evil fails to arise within the context of Yoruba belief in Olodumare
because a being with all the attributes stated above is conceivable as capable of both good and
bad. He uses both for the ultimate good governance of the universe 38. In fact, to say that God
does not or cannot do evil is to unnecessarily circumscribe His power. In this regard I had
earlier stated:
Equally, some of the attributes of Olodumare are diametrically at variance with those of the
Christian God. Consequently, some theoretical and doctrinal problems that arise within
Christianity do not arise for Africans ... The sources of evil are God-devised and help to
maintain high moral standards. The Christian God is ever-merciful, slow to anger but quick to
forgive (in fact He does not desire the death of the sinner but that he repent and be saved),
whereas, the Yoruba Olodumare is a morally upright God who metes out justice here on earth
and not necessarily in the hereafter where we are not sure anybody will witness and learn from
it 39.
All the scholars we have considered have agreed that evil, as such, is not understandable.
Nothing is intrinsically evil. We call something evil because it does not favor us or because it
causes us distress. We may not know or understand the reason for the event or action, but
ultimately it forms part of the overall design of Olodumare. His attributes do not preclude the
device and use of evil for the betterment of society. God is the creator. He created everything,
both positive and negative. Why? We cannot know. His ways are incomprehensible. God is the
most powerful Being, hence, He does and can do anything, including good and evil. It is only
natural that the most powerful Being should not suffer any handicap or hindrance, especially in
the execution of justice. God is all-wise (omniscient) and knows all things. Ifa aids Him in this
regard as the agent He created as the repository of wisdom and knowledge. There is no conflict
in saying this. He still remains the overall controller of this being to whom He has entrusted
wisdom. This is unlike the Christian God, who after having endowed Satan with powers second
only to His own loses control over Satan. Finally, God is Judge; He judges all according to their
deserts; He rewards uprightness and punishes evil.
Thus, Olodumare is more akin to the Old Testament Yahweh in his requirement of honesty
and uprightness. This ensured law and order in the societies involved. When the Christian God
is introduced, it become easy to sin all morning and afternoon and repent in the evening and
have all your sins forgiven through a special dispensation of grace. This introduction created
room for a permissiveness that has never been witnessed in Yoruba society before. A chasm was
created over which no bridge was erected. Hence people swear on the Holy Bible and Holy
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12 I Bewaji

some other divinity. They find a convenient, but dubious, excuse in the denigrating, culturally
enslaving explanation that swearing by Sango or Ogun is idol worshiping. Making a similar
point, about Igbo religion Onuoha says that:
The traditional religion makes no apology for exposing the law of retribution. Every act of
immorality disrupts the balance of the ontological order and God has ordained that the law of
reciprocal effect should restore this order automatically. This law operates blindly like a reflex
or a boomerang. The suffering incurred by every sin must be undergone. God's justice cannot
be compromised 40. This system of justice prevents crime and criminal tendencies in society.
Questions may arise regarding the purely philosophical issues of how we discern the law
ordained by Olodumare and how such a law operates and whether such a divine law is not
weaker than a man-made humanistic scheme. One must, however, acknowledge that these
academic issues do not bear any direct relation to the problems of communal life. These
questions are relevant on the purely academic plane for any theologically based morality, not
just traditional moral systems alone. Anyway, what better justification does one need than that
anarchism and criminality were rare phenomena in traditional African societies--problems now
plaguing so-called civilized societies that embrace theistic religions. This is the fact that some
scholars have celebrated in their reference to a good old African past. This is not saying that
there were no dark spots in this African past; there were wars and criminal activities, but these
were easily controlled. In fact, no one deliberately does evil and gets away with it. Rituals only
appease acts of omission or mistakes, mellows the punishment, and is payment for a crime
committed in error. If the old system of oath making, swearing, and contractual agreements can
be reinstated into the legal system one may witness a better dispensation of justice and a
reduction of crime.
Secondly, one finds that the belief in punishment in the world of man enhances good
behavior more than one that defers it till a time no one knows. Yoruba believe that those who
secretly commit crime suffer secretly in silence. Apart from this, efforts are made to expiate
crimes as it blemishes the offender, his family, his age-group, his clan, and his society.
Grievious offenses call for death and excommunication, and stigmatize future generations. As
unrecorded conventions, they have been more effective than all the legal codes enacted and
which operate on the ability of a smart lawyer to pick loop-holes in the system for exploitation.
Finally, when one considers this system and the understanding of Deity, evil, and justice,
one finds it really has more rational justification and a more humanitarian basis than the
permissiveness that has eroded all norms of decorous behavior in present society. To me it is
more reasonable to use the putative existence of a just Deity whose punishment is here and
now, or visited on direct offspring (up to the fourth generation, as the Old Testament says) than
allow the sinner to go on sinning, hoping that he will (may) one day repent. Thus, the Yoruba
attitude to the new dispensation is that before the evil doer is punished in the hereafter, many
serious and good things would have been spoiled.


The usual understanding and interpretation of Esu is as one of the major divinities among
the Yoruba people. According to Idowu:

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Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil I 13

.. Esu is primarily a "special relations officer" between heaven and earth, the inspector
general who reports regularly to Olodumare on the deeds of the divinities and men, and checks
and makes sure reports on the correctness of worship in general and sacrifices in particular 41.
This clearly shows that as a divinity capable of doing his duties as charged by Olodumare,
Esu occupies a prominent position among the divinities. He discharges these duties without
fear or favor. Thus, Esu is a good minister of God. He is the enforcer who ensures that due
reward and punishment ensues on any action. He is, therefore, courted and even bribed. When
such overtures fail to mitigate punishment, Esu is then given a bad name.
This has even been more so with the advent of Christianity and Islam. The new religions
sought for equivalence of the Devil and Satan and found Esu a convenient one, because all those
who force people to do the right things are always unpopular. Idowu, in spite of the above
statement, was still compelled to champion the ambivalent understanding of Esu, when he said:
There is an unmistakable element of evil in Esu, and for that reason he has been
predominantly associated with evil things. There are those who say that the primary function of
Esu in this world is to spoil things. But even so we cannot call him the Devil . what element of
"evil" there is in Esu can be found also to some degree in most of the other divinities 42.
The indecision echoed in this, and in many other passages in Idowu's works, has provided
material for much fanciful interpretation and reductionism. Misinterpreted, Dopamu, in his
recent book, Esu: the Invisible Foe of Man, labored extensively, but, to my mind, unsuccessfully,
in spite of the intellectual competence and erudition he displayed, to achieve the much desired
Christian and Muslim equivalence of Esu with Satan 43. This tendency was also present to a
lesser degree in an earlier work Dopamu co-authored with Awolalu, as they both echoed the
Idowu ambivalence regarding Esu in Yoruba religion 44. The dissatisfaction which Dopamu had
with the mere confusing indecision exhibited in this jointly written book gave way to the
outright equivalence of Esu with Satan in his own work. Hence he says:
In Yoruba belief, Esu is often associated with the power of evil referred to by Idowu. And it
is in this sense that we shall regard Esu as we go on with our exposition of his figure, nature
and character 45.
Dopamu's project would have served a dual end if it had succeeded: First, it would have
provided an intellectual justification for an initially gratuitous and malicious translation of Esu
as the Devil or Satan and the attendant introduction of the problem of evil into an alien cultural
and religious environment. Secondly, it would have provided the first accurate treatment of an
issue of interest across many disciplinary investigations.
Let us examine his grounds for equating Satan with the Yoruba divinity called Esu. These
are: (a) Esu is Satan, because the Christian and Muslim Scriptures say so; (b) the Yoruba people
seem to have accepted the equivalence by Christians and Muslims; (c) the Yoruba hold that
originally Esu was not intrinsically evil, but he was disobedient and proud and became the
embodiment of evil, always opposing and destroying that which is good; (d) since the Yoruba
put the responsibility for all evil and suffering elsewhere instead of with Olodumare, then Esu
must be the cause, along with his agents; (e) that since Esu is overwhelmingly versatile and
capricious, his evil nature over-shadows his good; (f) Awolalu believes with Idowu that there is
an element of evil in Esu. Hence, Dopamu, concludes that Esu is Satan or the Devil of the New
Testament--an out and out evil being.

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14 I Bewaji

These do not seem to me to be cogent arguments on which to anchor such a critical
conclusion as the religious, metaphysical, moral, cultural, and linguistic one that Esu is Satan
and, in effect, stand Yoruba tradition on its head. In the first place, that the scriptures translate
Satan as Esu does not justify such translation. In the search by the foreign religionists for an
appropriate equivalence of Satan, the nearest divinity was latched upon, regardless of
differences, and without any advance warning that such a translation is totally arbitrary and
one of mere convenience. Many Yoruba words have been similarly translated, leading to the
continued commission of the error of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and confusion
against which Sodipo and Hallen warned in the first chapter of their seminal book, Knowledge,
Belief and Witchcraft 46. There, following Quine, they argued against unguarded word for word
translation of one linguistic term into another because of indeterminacy of meaning between the
first and second language.
Secondly, that the Yoruba have accepted the translation provided by these devotees of the
new faith does not mean that the translation is accurate; a lie repeated often enough easily takes
on a garb of truth. This is more often than not the case since daily the various religious teachers
keep drumming it into the ears of the Yoruba that they were wrong ab initio in their conception
of Esu whereas the scriptures were right. The fear of eternal damnation in hell-fire (also a new
phenomenon in the religious terrain of the Yoruba people) ensures silence even in the face of
blatant falsehood.
Thirdly, nowhere do we find Esu as being willfully and maliciously disobedient or proud
to Olodumare, contrary to the imputation resulting from the Biblical fall from favour of Lucifer.
He might have been boastful because he upholds justice without fear or favor, but neither
Idowunor Awolalu, nor Dopamu himself, have been able to justify this. The passage to which
Dopamu refers in the work of Lijadu shows that, unlike the intractable Satan of the Scriptures,
both Olodumare and Orunmila can and have always been able to overpower Esu 47. Tradition
shows that Esu is an indispensable friend of all the other divinities and an intermediary
between Orun and Aye. Where then is the equivalence that the Yoruba Esu is Satan?
Fourthly, we come to a very crucial issue that deserves very careful attention. This concerns
the belief ascribed to the Yoruba people by Dopamu that, since the Yoruba believe that God
does no evil, it must mean that it is Satan or Esu that is responsible for all evil. As we have
repeatedly said, the Yoruba believe that Olodumare can use both good and bad in the process of
ensuring justice. In doing so, Esu is instrumental in a large measure. He carries out the will of
Olodumare most of the time. He can favor or disfavor one, depending on the moral probity of
the individual concerned. If Olodumare ordains a law, if the divinities, the ancestors, the society
make laws and someone breaks them, what better officer can enforce the law than the legitimate
custodian of the law? This is what Esu does. The absolute polarity of good and evil makes no
sense in the understanding of either Esu or Olodumare.
Fifth, the overwhelming versatility of Esu results from the task entrusted to him, while the
"capriciousness" attributed to him is based on the fact that one may never know whether one
has broken the law or not. It is only when suffering or setback results that the person suspects
the contravention of a law. Finally, the fact that someone believes that some element of evil
exists in Esu as in other divinities, does not make those other divinities to be all evil, nor does it

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Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil I 15

make Esu evil. It needs to be emphasized that the Yoruba believe that both good and bad
always go hand in hand.
As this essay is primarily concerned with an exposition of Olodumare as believed by the
Yoruba people traditionally, the phenomenon of Esu is only of secondary relevance. Because of
its link with the problem of evil one may end this section with some cross-reference of
materials. Of relevance here is Onuoha's discussion of Igbo religion in related matters. He says:
They do not think to assign a separate ultimate cause to evil since they realize that evil is an
imperfection, a not-entity, the absence of good or being. Evil does not require a cause. It is the
Christians who have elevated Ekwensu to the rank of anti-God or Satan. Igbo religion has no
room for such an "evil incarnate" or devil who does nothing but evil.48
Similarly, Mugo Gatheru suggests:
When the missionaries brought the Bible to the Kikuyu, our people understood the Old
Testament right away, for many of the customs of the ancient Jews were very much like ours.
Like the Hebrew people of old, the Kikuyu are God-fearing people ... They had no idea, of
course, about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or the devil ... They had no Devil either 49
These passages represent the situation among many traditional African societies. But the
influence of faith and the need to explain a phenomenon in a new language has affected the
understanding and interpretation of the religion and culture of the Yoruba people. The import
of this socially, economically, politically, culturally, etc., as of other influences, has only begun
to be felt as acutely as possible in the disintegration of the Nigerian and other African societies.
Here, Babayemi's words are extremely relevant. He said:
It is also to be understood that while in Christianity and Islam, there is the structural
opposition between God and the devil, that is, the forces of evil constantly confront God's work
to destroy it. There is no such structural opposition in the African concept. In fact, the Yoruba
Esu could not adequately represent the Christian Devil or the Islamic Satan; Esu in Yoruba is
not opposed to God's work .. .50.


In this essay, I have attempted to show that the imposition of foreign interpretations on
Olodumare has created dilemmas which are unresolved, and apparently irresolvable, thereby
generating atheism and agnosticism. I also argued that this has led to deleterious social, moral,
economic, political, and cultural beliefs. Thus, there is the implicit call to a reappraisal of
Yoruba and other African religious traditions and cultural background, but not with a view of
going back into the "dark ages", but one of building a humane, law-abiding, responsible society.
The discussion of some of the attributes of Olodumare only serves to accentuate the fact that the
problem of evil in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is alien to our Yoruba ancestors. The
pioneering works of the first African theologians and scholars should be taken as pathfinders
and not as the finale of all research and investigation, to be repeatedly parroted as the truth 50.

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16 I Bewaji


1. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. London, Longmans, 1962, p. vii.
2. G. Parrinder, West African Religion, London, Epworth Press, 1949, p. 12.
3. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. op. cit. p. 140.
4. G. Parrinder, African Traditional Religion, London, SPCK., 1969, p. 23.
5. G. Parrinder, African Traditional Religion, London, SPCK., 1969, p. 24.
6. Ibid. pp. 24-25.
7. D. Westermann, African and Christianity, Oxford, University Press, 1937, pp. 65ff.
8. Of all extant material, nowhere is it categorically stated that the Yoruba people believe
that Olodumare ever had sons or daughters. In fact, the only material that has suggested
that Olodumare has sons is to be found in the work of Dr. M. Akin Makinde. And it
must be noted that he was discussing Emi, that is the living aspect of man. Thus he says,
The soul we gives body (ara) its life while ori controls human destiny. Emi is regarded
as the offspring of Olodumare (omo Olodumare) which accounts for its spirituality and
immortality." This can be found in his article "Immortality of the Soul and the Yoruba
Theory of Seven Heavens" in Journal of Cultures and Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 1 Dec. 1983, p. 45.
The word "offspring" would be better taken to mean not son or daughter, but as
meaning "originating from" or "issuing from", because, in another place Makinde speaks
of Olodumare breathing life (emi) into the body molded by Orisanla videe p. 50).
9. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, op. cit., pp 140ff.
10. B. H. Kato, Theological Pitfalls in Africa, Kenya: Evangel, 1975. p. 56.
11. Ibid. p. 57 (emphasis mine).
12. Ibid. p.70.
13. Ibid. p. 75.
14. Okot P'Bitek has a chapter devoted to the demythologizing and dehellenizing of the
African God in his seminal volume titled African Religions in Western Scholarship, Kenya,
15. B. H. Kato, op. cit., pp. 77ff.
16. Ibid. p. 71.
17. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, op. cit. pp. 38-47.
18. E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion, London, SCM Press Ltd., 1973, pp. 149-165.
19. J. S. Mbiti, Concept of God in Africa, London, SPCK, 1970, Part One. See also his African
Religions and Philosophy, London, Heinemann, 1969, pp. 36-38 and also J.O. Awolalu and
P.A. Dopamu, West African Traditional Religion, Ibadan, Onibonoje Press Ltd. 1979, pp.
20. F. Sontag and M.D. Bryant (eds) God: A Contemporary Discussion, New York, The Rose
Charon Press, 1982, p. 199.
21. Ibid. p. 199.
22. J.A.I. Bewaji, "African Beliefs" in O.Y. Oyeneye and M.O. Soremi (eds) Nigerian Life and
Culture, OSU, Ago-Iwoye, 1985, pp 343-344.
23. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, op. cit., p. 39 and J. S. Mbiti, African Religions
and Philosophy, op. cit., p. 40 and his Concepts of God in Africa, op. cit., p. 47.

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24. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, op. cit., pp. 40-41.
25. Ibid. pp. 18ff.
26. Ibid. p. 43.
27. Ibid. p. 44.
28. Ibid. p. 44.
29. Ibid. p. 44.
30. Ibid. p. 77.
31. Ibid. p. 77.
32. Wande Abimbola, Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus, Ibadan, O.U.P. 1976, p.5.
33. Ibid. p. 145. See also p. 107.
34. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare, op. cit., pp. 40ff.
35. Ibid. p. 42.
36. J. S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa, op. cit., p. 77.
37. J.A.I. Bewaji, "Human Knowledge and the Existence of God", in C.S. Momoh et. al.
(eds). Nigerian Studies in Religious Tolerance, Vol. IV, Lagos, CBAAS/NARETO, John
West, 1988, p. 243.
38. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare, op. cit., p. 76.
39. J.A.I. Bewaji, "African Beliefs" op. cit., p. 343 and p. 345.
40. E. Onuoha, "The Philosophy of Igbo Religion" in C.S.Momoh et al. (eds.), Nigerian
Studies in ReligiousTolerance, Vol. IV. op. cit. p. 384.
41. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare, op. cit. p. 80.
42. E. B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, op. cit. p. 83.
43. P.A. Dopamu, Esu: The Invisible Foe of Man, Ijebu-ode, Shebiotimo Press, 1986, p.1.
44. J.O. Awolalu and P.A. Dopamu, West African Traditional Religion, Ibadan, Onibonoje
Press Ltd., 1979, pp. 82-83.
45. P.A. Dopamu, Esu, op. cit. p. 13.
46. B. Hallen and J.O. Sodipo, Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft, London, Ethnographica, 1986,
pp. 15-39.
47. Rev. Lijadu, Orunmila, Ijebu-Ode, 1908, pp. 18-21.
48. E. Onuoha, "The Philosophy of Igbo Religion" in C.S. Momoh et al. (eds), Nigerian
Studies in Religious Tolerance, Vol. IV. Lagos, 1988, p. 382.
49. M. E, Gatheru, Child of Two Worlds, London, 1964, pp. 5-6.
50. S.O. Babayemi, "African Concept of God, The Cosmos and Man A Yoruba Example",
Ibadan, Institute of African Studies Seminar Series, February 8, 1984. p. 6.

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African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic

Transition in Southern Africa: A Comparative Analysis



What factors are required for viable, democratic, local governments in Africa? This is an
important question for several reasons. First, in an era of continuing economic problems and
structural adjustment, national governments have been forced to reduce the services they
provide. While the private sector may pick-up some of these, collective and non-profit-earning
social goods must be delivered or funded by sub-national governmental units if they are to be
provided at all (World Bank, 1994). Second, research over the last two decades has suggested
that highly centralized and top-down service delivery is expensive, cumbersome, inflexible,
adapts slowly to new information (if at all), and is prone to political abuse (Esman, 1991). Third,
government collapse and incapacity, with spontaneous patterns of local initiative in education,
sanitation and marketing, suggest there is an untapped local capacity to make collective choices
and take collective action (Green, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990; Fass and Desloovere, 1995).
Finally, a growing body of research suggests that democracy must be rooted in functioning
local, participatory self-governance institutions. This literature emphasizes the importance of
the growth of civil society, development of public "ownership" of political institutions,
mobilization of talents and resources into constructive patterns (positive sum rather than zero-
sum or negative-sum political interaction), and countervailing power vis-a-vis national
institutions (Harbeson, Rothchild and Chazan, 1994; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990). Despite these
compelling reasons, most "experiments" in decentralization and local democratic governance
suggest that African local democracy and governance has failed in virtually everyplace it has
been tried (Olowu, 1990)!
Some important recent research suggests that these problems are rooted in specific policy
choices and strategies pursued by African governments. These policies include deliberate
withholding of resources, whether fiscal or juridical (Mutahaba, 1989), from local entities for
political or ideological reasons; central bureaucratic hostility and weakness (Smoke, 1994);
turbulent economic and policy environments which have undercut local institutions (Olowu
and Wunsch, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1996); absence of complimentary reforms needed in
national administrative law and systems (Ayee, 1997); and underdeveloped local civil society

Dr James Wunsch is currently Professor of Political Science and International Studies and Department Chair at
Creighton University. He is also Director of the African Studies Program at Creighton. He has done field work of
local governance, field administration, democratic reform, civil society and decentralization throughout West and
Southern Africa, as well as in South East Asia. He is currently working on a book on policentric democratic reform
strategies in Africa, with Dr Dele Olowu of the UNDP.

University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

20 I Wunsch

that left local governments "rudderless" as they tried to develop policy and deliver services
(Olowu and Wunsch, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1996).
This paper reports the results of a 1995-1996 comparative analysis of local government in
the context of current political reforms in South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland in an effort to
arrive at the preconditions for efficient and effective local institutions of collective choice and of
service delivery. At a theoretical level, this paper reports the general patterns observed and the
specific findings in each country. Since all countries are in periods of dynamic change, it will
also review relevant contextual aspects.


Much of the debate, and perhaps the policy choices, regarding African local government
has been structured by terminology first developed by James Fesler in the 1950s. Fesler argued
it was important to distinguish between devolution and deconcentration in analyzing local
government systems, and in describing patterns of "decentralization" reforms. Devolution refers
to the distribution (or re-distribution) of authority to make decisions and to take action by local
governments independently of central administrative oversight. Central governments might
retain overall legal control (equal protection under the laws, voting eligibility, allocating
authority to raise revenue, ensuring general law and order, and regulating fraud and
corruption) and the authority to alter local government powers. Within those boundaries,
devolution exists if local entities have substantial authority to hire, fire, tax, contract, expend,
invest, plan, set priorities, and deliver the services they chose. Deconcentration, in contrast,
occurs when local entities act largely as the local agents of central governments, manage
personnel, and expend resources allocated to them by central government authorities.
Deconcentration refers to essentially the redistribution of central resources to localities on the
sufferance of those central authorities. These terms have, since Fesler, been revived, updated
and applied by several scholars of Africa and elsewhere. Cohen and Peterson summarize much
of this discussion in their recent monograph (Cohen and Peterson, 1996).
Debate and discussion about effective local governance in Africa since independence has
often hinged on these as alternative strategies. For example, the operating policy of most
African states has reflected a bias toward deconcentration. Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia
and others have several times trumpeted "decentralization" revolutions. Overtime, however, it
became clear that these were really only modest policies of deconcentration. Scholars, in
contrast, have often argued instead that real improvement in local government performance
(e.g., efficiency, energy, effectiveness, and local participation) could only be expected when
devolution was pursued (Wunsch and Olowu, 1990).
Recently, a third factor has also been found to be important for effective local governance: a
viable local political process. Dele Olowu and Wunsch, for example, found that substantial
decentralization efforts in Nigeria during the later 1980s and early 1990s were weakened by the
absence of viable local political processes to convey information to the public about government
decisions, to organize publics to be attentive to government actions, to mobilize public opinion
regarding local government, and to hold local officials accountable for their performance. The
absence of attentive local publics and of close linkages between officials and citizens appeared

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 21

to explain many of the problems found in local governmental performance in Nigeria (Olowu
and Wunsch, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1996).
In fact, if one considers the arguments implied by all three strategies, they can be seen as
complimentary aspects of a single model rather than as independent or mutually exclusive. For
example, advocates of deconcentration emphasize the fiscal, skill, and personnel poverty of
localities, and their need for central resources to function. They also emphasize the problem of
providing effective direction for local administrators. Advocates of devolution emphasize that
the residents of local governments will be unlikely to participate, invest attention or resources,
or learn many of the lessons of governance unless their local governments can make real
decisions with effective consequences. The same applies to local officials as well, who,
furthermore, are unlikely to invest extra attention and energy in local affairs and programs
unless they are accountable to localities rather than the center. In fact, most African local
authorities are woefully short both of revenues and trained personnel, and have remained
either largely passive or only spasmodically active (in limited areas), in the post-independence
The argument regarding a viable local political process combines both of these
perspectives. Such a process is necessary to provide policy direction for local officials,
information to allow learning and fine-tuning of policies and programs by local officials, and
accountability regarding performance. Resources provide the "raw material" of local
governance, authority provides the structure that allows local political entrepreneurs to
combine resources to produce local services, and a viable political process energizes, directs,
and redirects political entrepreneurs in their activities. Simultaneously, the political process
provides an arena for political entrepreneurs to explain and market their activities, trying to
build support and raise additional resources. When they fail, the political process is the
mechanism that reviews and replaces them. Usually a viable local political process includes an
active civil society, some general political organizations (e.g., factions, parties or their
surrogates), a legislative arena, opinion leaders and their publics, and mechanisms to gather
and spread information. With all this in mind, it may appear reasonable to hypothesize that
effective African local governance requires deconcentration (of resources and personnel),
devolution (of authority) and development of a viable local political process.
This working hypothesis was recently applied during nine-person weeks of exploratory
field research on local government in Southern Africa: Mupmalanga Province of South Africa,
Swaziland, and Botswana. Each research site was assessed for the resources available to selected
localities (deconcentration), the authority devolved to localities (devolution), the health of a
local political process, and the effective functioning of local governments. It was expected that
the more fully developed were the units considered on each of these criteria, the more effective
local government would be. The variables were measured via a multi-indicator, multi-method
strategy. This included interviews with local officials, political personnel, leaders of civil society
organizations, academic and donor personnel, site observation, including of equipment, maps,
meetings, personnel, and business, and review of appropriate documents, including plans,
budgets, personnel systems, audits, minutes of meetings, and the like.

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22 I Wunsch


Although the dramatic events in the Republic of South Africa may be familiar to most
people, the laborious process by which a new structure for local government was hammered-
out in negotiations that continued through 1993 is not as well-known. The Local Government
Negotiating Forum (LGNF) was often overshadowed by the more dramatic national interim
constitutional negotiations, but many believe its results will have as great (or greater) impact on
the new South Africa (Pycroft, 1996). The major players in the LGNF were SANCO (South
African National Civic Organization) and the National Party. SANCO was the national federal
body that grew out of the informal "civics" that arose in the black urban areas of South Africa
during the 1980s. The "civics" drove the apartheid governmental authorities out of the black
urban areas and provided some level of local governance.
The Nationalist Party was, of course, the ruling party of South Africa from 1948 until the
African National Congress (ANC) took power in the free election of 1994. Both were galvanized
into discussions by the obvious conflict and stalemate that existed between Africans and the
minority dominated local governments. Their search for a mutually acceptable solution led to
the Local Government Transition Act of 1993, and relevant provisions of the 1993 Interim
Constitution Act. The major consequences of these acts for local government was the
establishment of varying institutional frameworks for local government (for e.g., metropolitan,
urban, and rural), all of which provided for: non-discriminatory participation in local political
affairs; a partial-proportional representation system for local elections in the former white,
Asian, "Coloured," and black areas; a guaranteed and substantial role for local government; and
a process for amalgamating former white, Asian, "Coloured," and black jurisdictions in an
institutional framework that placed most operational responsibility on the formerly white
executive and managerial structures, the ones which had been best resource and were most
institutionally developed (Cloete, 1994; Pycroft, 1996). The final constitution of 1996 essentially
maintained this structure (Cameron, 1997).
Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province (formerly the Eastern Transvaal) was the first research
site. It is located in the eastern part of Mpumalanga Province, a generally fertile agricultural
region of rolling hills. Only fifty kilometers from the world-famous Kruger Game Park, it has a
diversified economy based on agriculture, services, tourism, and light industry. Formerly a
largely white municipality of 24,000 (22,000 white, 1,000 Asian, 1,000 "Coloured"), it has grown
to an estimated 250,000 with the addition of two former "homeland" townships, Kanyamazane
and Matsulo, each approximately 65,000 people, and various peri-urban areas. Additionally, it
has become more of a regional government, as it now stretches from Nelspruit to Matsulo, a
distance of some 50 kilometers.
Along with substantial growth in population, racial diversity, and size, the new Nelspruit
also faced several other significant changes. These included the recent elections of new
legislative personnel and of the (largely ceremonial) mayor, vastly expanded service
responsibilities for Nelspruit in the former black townships, and an enlarged personnel system
which included personnel from both the former white and black local government units. All
this occurred within continued ambiguity regarding, the role of the new provincial
governments, the status of the former "homeland" areas still under rural council rule, and the

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 23

size of central government revenue subventions to be allocated to upgrade and develop the
former black townships. In this section, we review the four factors outlined in section II
regarding local government in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province.
Resources: Over the long-run, the Nelspruit area has been a resource-rich area. The
personnel staffing local government are highly educated, professionally qualified, and
experienced. Their facilities are modern, spacious, comfortable, and equipped with computers,
software, and personnel able to manage and use them.
The municipality supports generous services (public utilities, roads, economic
development, planning, housing sites, etc.) to the Nelspruit population, which is virtually
entirely white, from a local tax base that has generated typically 130 million Rand (around $45
million US per year). This budget has been adequate to provide services, to staff the local civil
service personnel slots, and to service whatever capital borrowing the locality chose to make.
Future resource adequacy is less clear. The revenue base, which is composed of property
taxes ("rates") and water and electricity service fees, has limited scope for expansion. Rates are
set primarily on site value rather than on improvements, and payroll taxes, sales taxes, income
taxes are practically difficult to implement and not under consideration at the regional and
national levels which would need to authorize them for local use. Revenue allocations from the
national government are uncertain and almost inevitably will be limited in size to a small
portion of local needs. The much awaited grants from the Rural Development Fund (RDF) are
likely to meet only a small portion of the needs (Cameron, 1996). But local needs will grow
enormously with the vast increase in local population caused by municipal amalgamation. The
possible addition of what were called the "traditional area," nearby areas formerly administered
by the defunct African "homelands," will add to Nelspruit's responsibilities (Pycroft, 1996;
Cloete, 1994). Revenue sources in the former black townships are inevitably limited given the
poverty there and the culture of "non-payment," the refusal of Africans to pay water and
electrical charges, and any rates/taxes due in urban areas to protest apartheid. Additionally, the
municipality already experienced a substantial increase in personnel costs with amalgamation
with the former black townships.
The most current budget estimates by Nelspruit's government suggested that capital
investment needs for the former black townships added to Nelspruit is roads, water, sewers,
and street lights were 220 million Rand (approximately 75 million dollars US). The current
capital budget was 35 million Rand (approximately 12 million dollars US), leaving a 185 million
Rand capital budget short-fall. Operating or current costs are estimated to be 150 million Rand
(approximately 52 million dollars US) which leaves a 30 million Rand short-fall from the current
operating budget of 120 million Rand. This was a bare-bones budget proposal, essentially only
to continue those minimal services offered in the townships, not to upgrade the areas to
Nelspruit standards. Overall, then, Nelspruit has been a well-resourced local government.
However, it faces serious challenges in the immediate future given the changed ratios of
resources to needs.
Authority: Historically, Nelspruit, like other white municipalities, was a powerful juridical
body. Working within broad parameters set by central government, it hired personnel, levied
and raised taxes, established budgets, set local service priorities and development strategies,
borrowed funds (with central Ministry of Finance approval) for capital development, and the

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24 I Wunsch

like (Cameron, no date). According to the interim constitution of 1995 (Chapter Ten and Section
245), provincial legislators must not "encroach on local government to such an extent that it
compromises the fundamental status, purpose and character of local government" (Cloete, 1994,
pp 44-45). Broad statutory, regulatory, and executive powers were also established in the
interim constitution for local governments to enable them to provide for local welfare, and to
raise money through various taxes, fees, levees and the like (Cloete, 1994). When one considers
the new constitutional framework, it does not seriously change the authority of local
government. However, the amalgamations that grew from the LGNF process fundamentally
changed the political dynamics at the local level as they brought about black majority control.
The major potential change-agent on the horizon is the newly established Mpumalanga
provincial government. While Nelspruit's civil service personnel are almost 100% white (except
for the generally junior grade personnel absorbed from the black municipalities), the provincial
personnel are virtually 100% black. How the provincial government will relate to Nelspruit
(and other similar cities) over the long-run is unclear, as the agenda of the two groups might
well be expected to diverge, and it might be expected over time to encroach on Nelspruit's
accustomed independence.
In the short-run, however, the provincial government was in confusion stemming from its
recent establishment. It was unclear about its own role and legal authority, preoccupied with
hiring personnel and disagreements over priorities. So far, the provincial government had little
impact on the municipal government, and personnel interviewed in the provincial government
did not aspire to interfere much in the municipal government. Provincial personnel did not
review municipal budgets, personnel decisions, municipal priorities, tax rates, etc. In 1996, the
provincial personnel in Mpumalanga believed these issues were best left to the municipal
political process to decide.
Political Process: The established local political process was largely rendered irrelevant by
the "new dispensation" after 1994. The latter has probably quintupled the electorate, and
introduced many "new" groups and interests to Nelspruit's government. However, the
representative institutions (council) and linkage institutions (political parties and civil society)
between the population and the municipality are still underdeveloped. Furthermore,
institutional arrangements now in-place to facilitate these are flawed in their design, while the
interest groups organized at the "grass-roots" level are still weak and fragmented.
The municipal council is the only representative body at the local level. The effective chief
executive is a civil servant, the town clerk. The mayorship is an honorary office, filled by
election from the council, and without any executive powers. While the council does have full
authority over local budgetary and programatic decisions, in Nelspruit its effectiveness in
encouraging and focusing a local political process remains unclear.
With forty members meeting only monthly, the council is a large, part-time body. It is not
clear how well it will be able to connect public wants and concerns with municipal
administration. It has no staff, and its members have no offices. Its only committee is a fifteen
person "management committee" which meets three or four times monthly, but it also is
without staff or office facilities. Furthermore, the personnel are largely new to public office: in
Nelspruit 36 of the 40 members had never held public office before.

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 25

Existing municipal procedures reinforce the powers of the town clerk. The council only
sees the budget as a finished document. The absence of functionally specialized committees
reduces its effectiveness in analyzing the implications of the proposed budget for programs and
services. Miscellaneous other problems also appear likely to hinder the council. Most of the
members live long distances from the Nelspruit city facilities, and must use unreliable and slow
public transport to journey from home to the offices. Furthermore, most must continue
employment elsewhere, further pulling them away from time to learn and follow municipal
government. At an intangible level, councilors face the challenge of constructing new roles both
their own and for a formerly placid, service-oriented city government, and dealing with a
limited budget and with constituents who have increased expectations of, but limited
experience in the process of democratic governance.
The ANC, whose leadership heads Nespruit council, is the strongest single political party
in the area. Nonetheless, ANC's local strength was compromised by a large Nationalist Party
delegation in the Council and by alleged tension between it and SANCO. There was conflict in
the former black townships between elected and defeated ANC council candidates. At the time
of this research, the ANC did not appear to be developing a coherent agenda for local
government, its policies, or activities.
A large number of non-governmental organizations and personnel from the "civics," the
grass-roots organizations of the anti-apartheid era movement, have survived the transition and
are more-or-less active. Though loosely organized, SANCO elected several persons to the
council. Their cohesion and cooperation there, and any coordinating role for SANCO, appeared
questionable at the time of this research. The political interest and capacity of the local
voluntary organizations was also uncertain. Composed of women's groups, sports clubs,
student organizations, anti-AIDS efforts, and the like, these organizations often depended on
the efforts of a single person or a small leadership circle, were financially precarious and at
times dependent on shrinking donor funding. They and the "civics" frequently looked to the
national rather than the local government for their needs. In general, these groups were not yet
emergent "local publics" which could attend to local government policy, nor had they been
major players in the recent local elections. They appeared to be inadequately informed about
local government policies, programs, and resources.
Probably the most coherent and organized component of the black African community was
a number of local business-owners. They had been working for several years with Asian and
some white business firms to increase their access to capital, and expand marketing
opportunities via a local multi-racial chamber of commerce. How their agenda, and the pressing
needs of the largely poor and unemployed or underemployed black population might cohere
into a single political force was also not clear at the time of the research. Thus, a viable local
political process after post-apartheid, 1995 local elections had not yet taken root in Nelspruit.
Local Government Effectiveness: The executive branch of the Nelspruit municipality is a
highly organized and sophisticated governance institution. The planning, programming,
budgeting, managerial, and auditing functions appeared to be well designed and implemented.
Municipal officials were knowledgeable about the details of their budgets, each other's
responsibilities, the general budgetary implications of the spatial reorganization, and the

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26 I Wunsch

challenges of training and working with a town council that has many members entirely new to
Budgeting, planning, and management support services (human resources, property
management, purchasing) functioned well. Budgetary figures (estimates, expenditures,
operating capital, and revenue budgets) were easily available, and estimates and actuals were
very close, reflecting good planning and performance. "Structure Plans" (general land use plans)
and "Town Planning Schemes" (zoning regulations) were available, up-to-date, and of
professional quality. Revised plans were in progress. The Management Service Office had
accurate and timely data on personnel budgets and was trying to solve the management
problems of integrating civil service personnel from the old homelands (black townships) with
the Nelspruit personnel. The town planner was occupied with the challenges of planning for the
"new" areas of responsibility. Offices were well organized, well staffed, and had sufficient
Similarly, the Town Clerk (city manager) was well versed in the conditions and priorities of
the newly added areas. He could discuss the challenges he faced: balancing revenue versus
expenditures; strengthening personnel management; reconciling traditionally European versus
African communication patterns (i.e., formal/Gazette style versus grassroots consultations and
discussion); educating the new town council; and developing working relationships with the
new Mayor and the new Chair of the Council Management Committee (the key legislative-
oversight role). In 1995, the relationships among all three were positive and cordial. All these
patterns are indicators of a stable bureaucracy, with the capacity to identify problems, set
priorities, develop programs and budgets, and implement them in a relatively transparent and
efficient way.
However, beyond the purely managerial and organizational dimension, Nelspruit was not
at all effective in delivering services to its new constituents. It is not even preparing to begin
doing so. Specifically, while local officials were thinking a lot about this "new era," they did not
appear to be engaging in serious reprogramming of resources to meet their new responsibilities.
So far, some personnel had been redeployed, but only from the former black areas to the
Nelspruit office, a 50 km. distance. There was no clear plan to reconfigure those offices to
improve and expand services to the "new" areas, and adjust to becoming, in effect, a regional
government. Similarly, officials appeared to be approaching the coming budgetary process in a
largely incremental way. Existing programs and investments that focused on Nelspruit town
would be marginally modified to reflect the reorganization, but there was no evidence of a
fundamental reconsideration of resource or service flow, or of changed personnel
responsibilities. Officials in Nelspruit repeatedly emphasized the need for revenues to expand
in the new areas before services could be expanded. There were no plans to reconfigure service
priorities to reflect the needs of the new areas.
This lack of plans could be considered in light of the fact that officials had already
"swallowed" a substantial increase in fiscal responsibility in absorbing and achieving salary
parity for the former homeland personnel under a one-time grant from the provincial
government. With the new area-wide council that was to begin functioning in January of 1996,
any specific planning might have been premature. Additionally, ambiguity regarding possible
national development grants and such specific problems as the town's authority in traditional

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 27

areas had also left the civil servants with uncertainty. Nespruit's executive branch personnel
appeared to embrace the status quo.


The research in Swaziland targeted local governments in Mbabane and Manzani, the two
largest cities in the country. Like the South African case, though perhaps less dramatically, these
local governments are entering a new era owing to changes in the larger social and political
Propelled partly by recent rapid urban growth and partly by donor encouragement, a
major conference was held in Swaziland in 1990 on its urban government. This was funded by
the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations
Development Program (UNDP), and the International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (the "World Bank" or IBRD). Among the conference participants were the Prime
Minister of Swaziland, the senior executives of Mbabane and Manzani, the Acting Minister of
Finance, most key urban decision makers, and senior representatives from each major, related
ministry. It was the first major review of urbanization policy in Swaziland since the Urban
Government Act of 1969, the legislation that then guided Swaziland's local government
authorities. In 1969 only 14% of Swaziland's population lived in urban areas, and Mbabane and
Manzani together held only 30,000 people. The 1990 conference participants projected that 45%
of Swaziland's population would be urbanized by the year 2000, and Mbabane and Manzani
would probably increase to at least 200,000 in population. There was widespread concern in
1990 about the ability of urban governments to manage existing growth, including sanitation,
transportation, education, housing, and employment. Participants therefore recommended
substantial revision in the statutory structure of urban government. This would include
establishing a new ministry responsible for urban government, better coordination of housing,
land, infrastructure and urban development by urban authorities, expansion of urban revenue
sources, closer ties between urban councils and local populations, and election of local councils
(USAID, 1990). Many of these changes would require amendment (or replacement of) the 1969
Local Government Act, a structure which established central government control over weak
urban governments.
Swaziland has moved only tentatively toward democratic reform. Parliamentary elections
were held in 1994 (the first since King Sobhuza suspended the constitution in 1973), and local
government ("council") elections occurred in 1995. In neither elections were political parties
allowed to contest. More importantly, the traditional elite's hold on power remains
unchallenged. It controls most land, the monarchy still controls the national development fund,
and it dominates local rural affairs via the traditional chiefly Tinkundla system (Sallinger-
McBride and Picard, 1989). Together, the intangible influence of democracy in South Africa,
burgeoning urban growth, deteriorating urban conditions, donor support for urban political
reform, and resistance to change by a traditional elite, shaped the Government of Swaziland's
program of urban governmental reform in the early 1990s. A new Ministry of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) was established by 1995, and several donors supported projects to
upgrade urban managerial skills. Elections had replaced the formerly appointed urban

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28 I Wunsch

councilors. Within the structure of the 1969 local government statutes, HUD expanded
substantially the effective authority of urban governments. A revised "Urban Government
Policy" which would substantially add to the authority and resources of urban areas, was
presented to the Cabinet in 1995 (Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, 1995).
Resources: Mbabane and Manzini present a mixed resource base picture. Local revenue
systems in Swaziland face several overall problems that restrict their capacity to meet local
service and development needs. These include: (1) administrative practices which hamper
collection of local revenues; (2) high expectations that the national government would "bail-out"
local governments in serious deficits; (3) limited local tax base and authority, and resistance to
raising rates on the existing base; and (4) poor utilization of other revenue sources.
Poor administration and collection of rates in the past led to a significant pattern of non-
payment by 1995. No clear figures on actual collection percentages were available because the
revenue rolls were disorganized and account records were not kept from year to year.
Consensus among officials was that a large proportion of revenues were never collected. The
locally powerful were a real problem. They used their political connections at the center to
evade local collection efforts. Local governments' administrative weakness made them unable
to sell property for taxes, and thus impeded recovery of unpaid rates. Poorer people, when
approached directly by their local councilors, had a better record of paying rates.
Mbabane was particularly lax in its enforcement. Since its accounting system did not "age"
ratepayer accounts, there was no record of accounts in arrears. The city also failed to follow the
prescribed procedures for collection of unpaid taxes, and had taken no action over a six year
period. Since 1995, Mbabane attempted to pursue delinquent ratepayers. The city posted
announcements in the local newspapers to alert ratepayers who were two to three years in
arrears that their property would be put up for auction. Three properties were sold over a two
month period in 1995 with an additional thirty slated for auction in early 1996.
Virtually all local officials and leading citizens interviewed regarded the national
government as the founder of last resort. Indeed, more than once local officials referred to the
national government as likely to "bail-them-out" if they were in real financial difficulty. A
pattern of large recurrent subventions (about 40% of the operating budget on average in the
larger cities), capital grants, and central tolerance for accumulating deficits reinforced this
attitude. Subventions are fairly stable; capital grants are more variable.
Revenue sources at the local level are not extensive. There is intensive resistance to further
increases in property rates. Commercial and industrial ratepayers have organized in Manzini
and Mbabane to contest recent rates increases (which were in the 50% range in 1995).
Residential rates have not been substantially increased much yet, but would encounter
resistance in view of the limited services that many residents receive. Currently, only the central
government may collect revenue from business taxes, licenses, income, and petrol. To local
officials, this is a situation when they feel they are obligated to provide services (street
maintenance, refuse collection), but cannot collect taxes on those persons and businesses using
these services. The amount of non-taxable central government property in Mbabane is also a
matter affecting local revenue potentials.
Rents and fees are the only other sources of urban revenues. These could be greatly
increased in some areas, but even when such increases have been budgeted, they have not been

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 29

collected. The reasons for this are unclear, but lack of political will and administrative weakness
are both likely explanations, and overall these are in severe deficit. Privatization may be the
only answer to resolve these questions if the political will to collect fees that cover costs is
absent. Business license fees, motor fuel tax, auto registration fees, and other new sources of
revenue have potential to increase revenues, but these fees have not yet been authorized by the
national government. Unless such new taxes are imposed, Swaziland's urban governments will
have to cut costs in over-staffed areas, or eliminate subsidies in their services. As table I shows,
revenue shortfalls in Mbabane have in the past been met by central Government subventions.
This may not be possible in the future.



ddYears 1993-94 1994-95 1995-96 (Budget est.)

Revenue Estimates 6,990,000 8,073,000 13,365,000

Government Payment, Grants, 1,877,000 2,335,000 4,734,000
Subventions (recurrent budget

Expenditures 7,839,000 9,408,000 12,916,000

Currency: Emalangeni (1 US$=5.0710 Lilangeni)
Source: City Council of Mbabane: Estimates For The Year, 1995/96.

The human resource base of Swazi local authorities is also weak. A few executives were
clearly well trained. One town clerk, for instance, who held an MPA from Harvard, is familiar
with his responsibilities and quite competent. But overall, personnel of such quality was rare. In
Mbabane, an unqualified person held the position of acting treasurer. Most often, personnel
other than the town clerk lacked appropriate skills, the situation being worst in smaller cities
and towns.
Authority: Some progress toward devolution of authority has been made in Swaziland,
largely because of leadership by HUD. Specifically, the larger urban areas (Mbabane and
Manzini) may now hire and fire their own personnel, establish property tax rates, let contracts,
prepare their annual budgets, and manage their own funds. However, there are important ways
in which this authority is circumscribed. Although used sparingly, HUD retains authority to
approve and disapprove all local budgets. Moreover, local governments cannot raise funds for

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30 I Wunsch

capital investments. Authority to borrow is unclear, and there are currently no markets for
municipal loans (e.g., insurance companies, pension funds, bond markets).
The three key institutions in the Swazi fiscal governance system are the Ministry of
Finance, the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, and the Ministry of Public
Works. These three meet annually to review capital requests from all other ministries. Their
dominant role in capital decisions has important implications for Swazi development as a
whole and for local government. This lack of local autonomy in capital investment greatly
reduces the effectiveness and political ability of urban government and makes forward
planning difficult. Revenue flows from the center are highly variable and appear to be arbitrary
as well. This also has implications for the political process, as the ability of local officials to build
coalitions, to be taken seriously, and to concentrate local political activity in local institutions is
seriously compromised by such arrangements.
Other national agencies are also problems at times. The Tender Board, which approves all
contracts with the private sector, appears to be a bottleneck for the cities' public projects. In
1995, it had not met to review proposed projects for approximately six months. HUD's own
National Housing Board, which is responsible for overseeing public housing projects, also has a
mixed reputation for efficiently completing local projects. The Ministry of Home Affairs has
disputed some urban authority policies like regulation of alcohol sales.
The recommendation to enact revenue-sharing mechanisms created serious inter-
ministerial tensions. HUD supports a formula-driven allocation and a system of direct grants
that would provide local governments with the opportunity to meet broad, national priorities,
but to set their own priorities within them. In contrast, the Ministry of Finance is opposed to the
concept of revenue sharing and supports instead tied transfer payments keyed to its revenue
projections. The Ministry of Finance's proposal would continue the current problems for the
local planning process and local government autonomy. In general, then, some progress has
been made in devolving authority to Swaziland's larger urban areas. However, particularly in
the fiscal area, important strings continue to be held by central ministries.
Political Process: Swaziland's local governments have only recently begun to develop a
viable local political process. While elections were held for municipal councils in March, 1995,
communication channels have not been institutionalized between the public and officials. There
are a number of private, voluntary organizations active in Mbabane and Manzini: charitable
organizations, sports clubs, student groups, trade unions, professional organizations, and
women's groups. However, they have not institutionalized any relationship with local
government that could make them assertive publics against local authorities. A businessman's
association in each city comes closer to this, as do ratepayers groups, which largely duplicate
the businessmen's associations.
Local councilors, in office since the elections of May, 1995, report having made initial direct
contacts with their constituents, as well as attempts to influence municipal government to bring
government services to them. The scale of needs (roads, electricity, water, sewage, housing
sites) is so great while the resources are so limited, that it is not clear that the average urban
dweller will see much improvement from this. Councilors were unclear regarding their roles
vis-a-vis local government administration: they had no clear vision on the separation of powers
between themselves, local executives, and HUD. Representatives of the public seemed equally

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 31

uncertain on these questions. Nor was it evident anywhere that a process to develop this
understanding was underway. The Tikundla system, the structure which organizes the
authority of traditional chiefs, continued in urban areas, producing ambiguous authority and
responsibility for municipal officials in areas nominally under the control of urban councils.
Local Government Effectiveness: Overall, these interviews and several reports recently
completed on urban administration in Swaziland strongly suggested that urban policy-makers
and administrators had not developed effective problem identification, planning, programming,
budgeting, or implementation capacities (Dupuis, and Cooper and Lybrand, 1995; Ernst and
Young, 1995; Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, 1995). The two larger cities seemed
closely to follow previous year budgets instead of considering and consciously planning for
future needs and changing priorities. Financial and personnel management was equally weak.
In the area of budgeting and financial management both Mbabane and Manzini faced
serious problems. First, neither had any programmatic context included in their budgets. These
were simple line item budgets which provided no programmatic direction to city activities, or
goals and benchmarks against which to assess performance. Second, both Mbabane and
Manzini tended to project seriously overly optimistic levels of rate collection and/or to engage
in deficit spending. Neither city "aged" its rate collection accounts and thus made little if any
effort to collect from historic non-payers. Mbabane had serious problems in tracking its
expenditures, with accounts running several months late. In 1994-95 this led to a deficit of
nearly Emalangeni 2.0 million (equal to around 800,000 dollars U.S.). This pattern recurred over
several years, leading to a built up deficit of nearly E 8 million. Mbabane also shows consistent
patterns of wide discrepancies in estimated versus actual tax expenditures, amounting to more
than 50 percent in several areas (City of Mbabane, 1995; Ernst and Young, 1995). While all
governments must adjust for unexpected contingencies, this pattern of wide discrepancies
suggests that budgeting or management may be seriously flawed.
Fiscal management problems included running city commercial services (such as a
slaughter-house) at severe losses. There was severe over-staffing in other service areas (building
inspection), so that their costs exceeded fees by several times. Activities that could be contracted
out (such as maintenance of vehicles) were continued by city departments at costs that seemed
higher than market prices. Though several of these service areas are presumably commercial
they were not financed from the fees they generated. These figures are illustrative of these


MBABANE: 1994-95


Building Inspection 337,215 25,815

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32 I Wunsch

Slaughter-house 87,152 27,141

Nursery School 122,401 33,705

Cemeteries 151,500 2,899

Parks 886,786 700

Sports and Recreation 143,765 3,928

Market costs 183,038 28,981

Currency: Emalangeni (1 US$=5.0710 Lilangeni)
Source: City Council of Mbabane: Estimates for The Year, 1994/95.

Finally, the fee collection system is also plagued by great discrepancies between revenue
budgeted (i.e., fees anticipated to be collected) and actual collections. The 1994-95 estimates
were generally 100-300 percent higher than the actuals collected. While 100 percent cost
recovery is not likely in all areas (parks, sports and recreation), deficits in other areas could be
reduced or eliminated either by raising fees or reducing personnel (Ernst and Young, 1995).
Personnel systems and practices were perhaps in even worse condition than financial
systems in both the leading cities. In a recent report compiled by H.T. Dupuis and Associates
and Coopers and Lybrand of Swaziland, personnel system deficiencies were discovered in
virtually every area (Dupuis and Coopers and Lybrand, 1995). The current system lacked
overall policy guidelines regarding the use of human resources, a medium-or long-term plan to
meet human resource needs, a policy on in-service training or development, descriptions of
positions or criteria for evaluating performance, industrial (labor) relations policies, and a
performance appraisal and salary increase system. Also personnel records were absent or
incomplete, discrepancies existed between many employees' grades and pay, and over-staffing
was severe. There were no management information systems or internal managerial assessment
and analysis (audit) functions. At least in Mbabane, the town clerk is aware of these problems
but feels prevented from resolving them by insufficient personnel resources and a non-
supportive council.


In October of 1994 Botswana marked its sixth open and competitive election since
independence, a record unmatched throughout Africa (Danevad, 1995). With an equally
impressive economic growth rate, the highest in the developing world from 1965-1989 (World
Bank, 1989), Botswana offered an environment which was to prove very supportive for local
democratic governance.

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 33

While observers debate the nature and extent of "democracy" in Botswana (Picard, 1987; Holm,
1987; Tordoff, 1988; Parson, 1991; Danevad, 1995; Good, 1996), none deny that Botswana has
been exceptional in its political openness, competition and adherence to law (Africa Today,
1993). It is particularly notable and unusual in its acceptance of political competition at the local
level, and has established a climate where a local political process has been unusually viable.
Even given the elite's capture of a disproportionate share of Botswana's growth proceeds, it has
offered an equally unusually high flow of resources to local governments.
As Picard (1987) and Tordoff (1988) note, local government has a long history in Botswana.
While it suffered in the early post-independence era from many of the same problems local
government faced elsewhere in Africa, strategic choices made by the political center avoided the
centralization seen in most of Africa. In 1970, with central government confidence in local
councils at a low point, and with a bureaucratic battle raging over the future of local
government between the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and the Ministry of
Local Government and Lands, the Tordoff Commission recommended that Council staffing and
finance be substantially improved. Its recommendations were adopted, and since then local
government has been a major component of Botswana's political system (Picard, 1987).
However, as this case study will indicate, local government there still faces challenges, and has
room for improvement.
Local Resources: While overall resources are higher than found in most of Africa, local
revenue sources are currently very limited. Rural districts raise funds primarily through fees for
services, small business licenses, and rents for council-owned housing. Urban districts also have
these sources, but their primary source of funding is property rates. Urban authorities cover
their budgets better than rural districts do, mainly because of their use of property rates.
Nonetheless, if Gaborone is typical of Botswana's urban authorities, even urban revenue
collection is weak (Peters-Berries, 1995).
A serious problem is the failure to levy service fees comparable to service costs. One of the
causes of this failure is the absence of an effective system to determine the actual costs of these
services. Another is the limited authority that local government has to set fees, as the Ministry
of Local Government Land and Housing (MLGLH) or other central ministries control fee levels
for most local services. Another problem is a tendency of local personnel to assume that
national government will cover their financial shortfalls (Peters-Berries, 1995). The Local
Government Tax, an income tax, was previously in place but was rescinded at the height of the
diamond mining boom. A new Local Government Tax and the extension of rate authority to the
district councils appear to be the most viable options for new local revenue. For the moment,
national revenue transfers are substantial and cover extensive local programs. Botswana's
ability to sustain these in the future, through, may be a problem.
The quality of local government staff is quite impressive with regard to diversity of
personnel slots authorized and filled at the local level (medical officer, planner, attorney,
economist, chief of staff, etc.), their paper qualifications, and their demonstrated competence
and professionalism. With the exception of "industrial class" employees (primarily laborers and
other unskilled personnel), all local government personnel have been hired and managed by the
Unified Local Government Service (ULGS) since 1973. ULGS is managed by an Establishment
Secretary and Secretariat, housed in MLGLH. The salaries of these personnel (about 23-35

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34 I Wunsch

percent of local government personnel) are also paid by the national ULGS, which eases the
local budget burden. Other personnel are the responsibility of local councils (SIDA, 1993;
Dahlgren, 1993).
One concern regarding personnel and administrative systems is the breadth of coverage of
qualified personnel. Other researchers have noted that less competent personnel are in-place in
the remote areas, and that many intermediate posts are vacant throughout the ULGS. If these
vacancies are widespread, they will weaken local governance (SIDA, 1993; Dahlgren, 1995).
Local Authority: This case requires more detailed attention than the other two, because the
success and challenges of local government in Botswana are relevant to local government in
Southern Africa in general. Botswana's unique pattern also offers much enlightenment on the
general issue of decentralization and local democratic governance: it shows how apparent
"authority" can be illusory, and its consequences.
The Ministry of Local Government, Land and Housing (MLGLH) is the "parent" ministry of
all local government in Botswana. As Botswana is a unitary state, local government has no
constitutional status and is a purely statutory creation. Within these statutes, MLGLH plays key
roles in virtually every aspect of local government. These include controlling or supervising
most key decisions regarding local personnel, budgeting, development planning, self-help
projects; ensuring conformity with national policies and priorities; providing training;
developing new revenue sources; and developing new managerial systems and procedures.
Even when local governments seek greater autonomy, their primary spokesperson and
advocate (and occasionally, foe) is MLGLH. Thus, this ministry is critical for all aspects of local
governance in Botswana.
The ULGS hires, assigns, promotes, disciplines, discharges and transfers all non-industrial
personnel. This system is responsible for ensuring that all areas have adequate personnel and
discouraging any tendencies toward ethnic concentration of personnel. However, there are
numerous criticisms of the system's appropriateness for local governance. Specific problems are
the l.ack of control that local governments believe they have over selecting congenial and
committed personnel, and the disruptive impact that the transfer system has on local affairs and
on the lives of local personnel, particularly of women.
In interviews at three local government site visits located in different areas, the same
complaints were made by legislative and administrative personnel: arbitrary and abrupt
transfers of personnel were disruptive to local projects and programs, they hurt smooth
administrative functioning, team-building, morale, and the employees' personal lives. Town
secretaries and councilors in particular complained about being unable to ensure that they were
assigned personnel committed to their goals and familiar with their particular needs and
problems. These patterns were also noted by Picard (1987). Since ULGS' control extends to
personnel training, development, and performance appraisals, local authorities rely on
government training centers that are managed by MLGLH. Supervisors must receive
permission from the ULGS to send employees to training workshops. The result is that a
request for training must compete against similar requests made by all other local authorities.
Limited resources led many requests for training to be denied or delayed.
Recent changes however are gradually expanding local control over junior appointments.
By the end of the current national development plan, 85 percent of local government posts will

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 35

be filled and administered by local authorities. However, this does not address the most
pressing concern of local officials: the senior staff. Some type of national-local civil service
system may be needed to give security and homogeneity of service, to help ensure professional
competency, and to maintain links between sector ministries (i.e., health and education) and
local officials. However, an end to arbitrary and rigid transfers, greater deference to hiring
choices of localities and personnel, and improved status vis-a-vis the national civil service are
also needed.
From one perspective, local governments already largely control their budgeting. Localities
are entirely responsible for preparing their annual estimates. MLGLH reviews budgets
primarily for arithmetic accuracy, to ensure that none are in deficit, and for conformity with
national policies regarding personnel (that certain posts are filled, certain teacher-pupil ratios
are followed, certain health facilities are staffed, etc.). Of course, pay levels must be met along
with other benefits. Emergency conditions, like the recent drought, may require certain extra
activities and funding by local governments. And, new and existing centrally directed capital
investments (schools, bore-holes, sewage systems, clinics, roads) must be staffed and
maintained. Still, within these guidelines, local governments prepare their own budgets.
But what does this local government control over their budgets really amount to? At every
site visit, local officials (both professional/administrative and political) agreed that MLGLH's
oversight actually left them with little autonomy. In fact, recurrent commitments are so high
and so driven by policy decisions made in Gaborone, that local officials believed they had
virtually no latitude at all to identify and respond to their own unique priorities and problems.
Local needs that they deemed to be particularly pressing, like absence of storm drains to solve
flooding problems in one area, health initiatives in another, low-cost housing in a third, were
ignored because all revenues were already committed elsewhere. Salary and vehicle costs alone
were so high that little was left over for any local initiatives (Peters-Berries, 1995). If a problem
was not on the agenda of a national ministry with the ability to channel funds to meet the need,
it was not addressed. If such ministries felt that something should be done, it was usually
accomplished, regardless of local priorities (Briscoe, 1995; Channaux-Repond and Kanengoni,
1995). Local professional personnel felt discouraged by this pressure. Local political leaders felt
that their work was futile and that they were unable to respond to their constituents.
In contrast to recurrent budgets, the status of capital budgets was unambiguous. These
were clearly determined through a top-down process, with the Ministry of Finance and
Development Planning (MFDP) telling the MLGLH how much was available in each sector area
(health, education, roads, etc.). for local projects. MLGLH then apportioned it to the local
governments. They, in turn, reported that most of these grants were consumed by investments
required by national ministry norms. In any case, MLGLH decided which projects would be
funded, so that local governments were uninvolved in policy-making, despite the fact that these
decisions also had significant implications for local governments' recurrent budgets (Picard
Central regulation and oversight also impede the timely completion of capital projects.
Before starting a project, local authorities must submit a project memorandum to the MLGLH.
The ministry then forwards the memorandum to the MFDP for approval. There is no assurance
that the project will be funded in a timely manner or in its entirety. For example, in Kweneng,

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20 million Pula (approximately 8 million dollars, US) was requested for an approved capital
project, but the district received half that amount. Lobatse often experiences a six to seven
month delay in the receipt of capital funds after it submits project memoranda. Once a project
memorandum has been approved, ceilings are provided for each capital project. The limits are
often incompatible with the financial requirements of the proposed project. The central
government also requires authorization and appropriation for each certificate of payment to
release funds. Thus, projects with multiple contractors often force local authorities to make
repeated requests and trips to the center for payment of invoices. The tedious and time-
consuming process can be costly to local authorities, since contractors who have not been paid
within 21 days of the execution of a contract may assess interest against the amount they are
owed. Delays in the receipt of funds or the payment of invoices for contractors often cause
problems for development projects. This, of course, follows the "repetitive budgeting" model
noted by Caiden and Wildavsky (1974).
Thus, capital projects have remained a cumbersome, centralized process for local
governments. A local process ostensibly designed to register, assess, and encourage local
development (i.e., each locality has a senior economic development officer and engages in a
grassroots development process) has in effect been prevented from fulfilling this promise,
making local government appear rather irrelevant to any critical eyes.
In the past, district and urban planning were not at all coordinated with the national
development plan. The district and national plans covered different periods and were prepared
at different times. The consensus is that district plans rarely affected national plans, which
ultimately controlled all investment decisions (Chanaux-Repond and Kanengoni, 1995). Indeed,
local planning was mostly ignored (Briscoe, 1995). One highly placed respondent reported that
local development projects essentially were approved when they fit into the national ministry
plans. However, national and district plans (in 1995) were being prepared simultaneously for
the National Development Plan 8, and it appeared that efforts were being made to incorporate
some local priorities via what they are calling "matrix planning." It was too early to predict how
well this might work at the time of this research, but strengthened input for localities in the
capital investments of sectoral ministries is desirable if local governance and decentralization
are to progress in Botswana.
As noted above, the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) plays a major
role in local government. Because of local governments' overwhelming dependence on the
central level for subventions to cover recurrent budgets, MFDP's role in determining the
amount to be allocated to these grants (subventions) is extremely important. MFDP, of course,
determines the amount of the capital development budget. While MLGLH allocates the shares
to go to each local government, MFDP retains final authority to approve or deny any specific
project (through the project memorandum requirement) and controls disbursement of revenues
for each invoice as projects are implemented. In virtually every respect, local governments are
subject to decisions made at the central level, through a complex and often cumbersome
process. Other ministries with major impact on local government include Health and Education.
Unlike most African countries, Botswana's local governments are responsible for elementary
education and primary health care. Personnel involved in delivering these services are

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 37

employees of the local governments. Day-to-day management is provided by the local authority
which appears to discharge it rather competently.
There is, nonetheless, a strong ongoing role for the "parent" ministries in the areas of health
and education. They set staffing levels and standards, determine minimum equipment levels,
provide ongoing training and professional support, and set conditions of service. In the case of
the most professionally qualified service-sector employees (medical doctors), their
subordination to the local government "chain of command" is not entirely clear to the parties
concerned. Much of the redundancy of this situation is desirable. When primary health care was
essentially separated from the national Ministry of Health in Nigeria, standards and morale
were severely reduced in the field, and local government support was often inadequate (Olowu
and Wunsch, 1995).
Local Political Process: The local political process is far more developed in Botswana than
in either Swaziland or South Africa. Botswana has had uninterrupted democracy and civilian
rule since independence even though a single party has dominated until recently. Nonetheless,
the local political process is unevenly developed.
Municipal (urban) councils are the most developed institutions involved in the local
political process. Councilors interviewed at three research sites seemed well-informed and
interested in local administration. Nonetheless, they face challenges (as part time officials) in
keeping abreast of and contending effectively with full-time, professional administrators whom
they do not hire nor fire, nor over whose programs have they really much control. The three
councils visited utilize a similar committee structure to conduct business. Committees focusing
on education, health care, social services, trades and licenses, and finance exist in Lobatse,
Goborone, and Kweneng. Committee members select the chairperson, and in Lobatse and
Gaborone the mayor sits as an ex-officio member of all committees. The frequency of committee
meetings varies. In Gaborone council committees meet once per month, while in Kweneng the
district council's committees meet in conjunction with the formal council sessions. The position
of mayor currently has little authority in Botswana.
In Kweneng District councilors were articulate and clear as to their roles in local
government. The district councilors identified the following functions as their primary
responsibilities: meeting constituents and seeking feedback, informing the council of the needs
of constituents, defending the council's decisions before constituents, advising constituents of
council actions, meeting with village committees and village extension teams to determine
needs, encouraging self-help among the constituents to avoid dependence on the council,
increasing knowledge of government policy, and supporting each other as councilors.
Councilors employed several strategies to keep attuned to constituents. In Lobatse, they
sponsored meetings in their wards to exchange information with constituents. Councilors also
held membership in civic organizations and reported they used these affiliations to stay
informed of the concerns of the community. The Lobatse town council is attempting to develop
a newsletter on local government that will be widely circulated in the community. Councilors in
Gaborone sponsored forums in their wards. The mayor of Gaborone also toured the city with
members of Parliament and visited each ward. In total, the mayor convened 25 meetings and
used the occasions as an opportunity to gauge public sentiment on a variety of issues. Kweneng

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District councilors met with constituents in conjunction with regular sessions of the council.
There is little coordination of effort between district councilors and members of Parliament.
Councilors, however, are not as well prepared as administrators to discharge their duties.
The separation of powers is unclear, and councilors do not have a command of pertinent public
policy issues. The fact that citizens do not have a direct financial stake in local government may
force councilors to develop innovative means by which to engage constituents. Citizens who do
not see a direct link to local government may simply discount the importance of local
authorities. Councilors must simultaneously seek to solidify their position in local government
and increase confidence in their representation among constituents.
Presently a number of civic and voluntary organizations function in Botswana. Civic
organizations such as the Lions Club, Rotary Club, Youth Council, and church-affiliated
organizations encourage self-help and provide some limited local assistance. In Lobatse, the
town council awarded grants up to P 18,000 to these small, community-based organizations.
The Gaborone City Council recently received permission from the Ministry of Local
Government, Land and Housing also to provide small grants to civic organizations. Some of the
larger organizations have offices, but most do not. It is not clear that these organizations, in
1995, were serving as serious linkage mechanisms between citizen, elected official, and
administrator. Some were dependent on donor grants to survive. However, a base is there on
which such a process might develop.
Political parties were quite active at the local level at the time of this research. Indeed, in
each of the two urban sites visited, the majority of the council was composed of the national
opposition party. However, it is not clear from our interviews that this was energizing
governmental-grass-roots interaction, or leading to any new policy directions. There appear to
be few ideological and only nascent class differences between the two major parties (Danevad,
1995). Like civic and voluntary organizations, it appears as more a latent structure that might
become vitalized, perhaps if local governments were to have more programatic and policy
Local Government Effectiveness: Local governance in Botswana presents a complex and
mixed picture of local personnel and institutional capacity. On the positive side, a workable and
working administrative structure is in place, and, at least in the more accessible areas, is
generally filled with competent personnel. In the governance of city, town, and district council
affairs, this structure has been able to prepare and execute budgets dealing with the personnel,
supply, and maintenance functions of several large, complex departments and activities. For the
most part, they appear to manage these functions well, although often requiring supplemental
payments and allocations to complete each year. Several written studies validated these field
findings (Peters-Berries, 1995; Picard, 1987; Tordoff, 1988; SIDA, 1993; Dahlgren, 1993).
Local authorities, furthermore, engage in local physical planning, prepare development
plans with specific project proposals, and manage the implementation of a large number of
capital projects on an annual basis. In doing this they must, among other things, deal with a
slow, cumbersome bureaucratic process to obtain funds from MFDP, and balance the
requirements of contractors, MLGLH, and MFDP. Achieving this balance in itself reflects
substantial institutional and personnel capacity. In general, personnel interviewed were
professional, knowledgeable about their responsibilities, and articulate about the problems of

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 39

the local governance system. As a result, perhaps, local governments in Botswana have an
excellent record of delivering such key services as water, education, and health (Tordoff, 1988;
Holm, 1987).
Another area of local activity is implementing relatively small, labor-intensive projects
connected with the drought relief effort. According to several interviews and one study (Meyer,
1995), local authorities exhibited some skill in doing this and in resolving personnel, fiscal,
managerial, and technical problems in the process.
Consensus exists among written sources (Peters-Berries, 1995; Chanaux-Repond and
Kanengoni, 1995; SIDA, 1993) and local respondents that financial administration is the weakest
point in local governance. Budget projections are frequently inaccurate, audits often as much as
three years behind, and funds sometimes misallocated (i.e., capital funds into recurrent
expenditures). In 1989-90, only three of fourteen urban and district councils produced their final
accounts on time. Only two received unqualified approval by auditors. Also, district councils
have exerted few cost-saving measures, probably in part because of absence of incentives as
well as shortfalls in capacity (Briscoe, 1995). Other problems include minimal capacity to collect
local revenues and little evidence of ability to analyze expenditure efficiency. The extremely
poor cost-recovery system for local services is an example of this. Also, estimates and actuals
regarding locally collected revenues often differ by 100-200 percent (Briscoe, 1995).
Local governments regularly apply for supplementary grants. Since these appear to be
regularly approved, this may be as much a financial strategy as a problem of competent
budgeting and expenditure control. Also, the need for grants often results from unpredictable
natural events such as drought (Briscoe, 1995).
The second area of weakness is personnel management. Respondents agreed that local
governments were able to accomplish some routine tasks but believed them incapable of the
range of personnel functions that complex personnel departments pursue. Personnel
development, discipline to resolve difficult personnel problems, efficiency studies,
reconfiguration of personnel assignments, and the like exceed present local capacity (SIDA,
1993; Dahlgren, 1993). If there were to be a phased increase in local personnel responsibilities,
such capacities would need to be enhanced.
A final concern at the local level is weak management information systems and a lack of
programmatic focus at the local level in the various sectors. Local personnel, one key study
found, did not conceptualize their areas in a strategic, problem-focused, and systematic sense.
This may stem from the habit of expecting direction from the center and the reality of central
dominance over planning and capital investment decision. Regardless of the cause (central
preemption or local passivity), there is little local strategic or programmatic initiative (Langlo
and Molutsi, 1994; SIDA, 1993). These, however, are relatively sophisticated functions, and
many local governments in the developed world could be similarly criticized.


This paper began by positing three variables to explain the performance of local
governance. Drawing from the diverse literature which has accumulated on decentralization
and local government in Africa, it argued that three factors were necessary for effective local

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40 I Wunsch

government: resources, authority, and a working, grassroots-based political process. Greater
levels of each of these were expected to be positively associated with improved local
government performance, with the latter including internal operations and delivery of services
appropriate for local needs.
Local governance in the Republic of South Africa is entering a dynamic era. In applying
this paper's analytical framework, one finds it characterized by high levels of resources and
authority, but with a political process undergoing rapid change. Historically, the political
process was viable, but only for the enfranchised and empowered white minority. That political
process is obsolete, though remnants of it are still visible. The current post-apartheid political
process is weak at the local level in all respects: civil society, political parties, the legislative
arena, information flows, and informed and active publics.
Local government performance in Nelspruit reflects this transitional pattern. It has, for the
moment, retained the managerial and organizational capacity of the old resource-rich system,
but it has yet to begin redirecting its services and activities to the populations for which it is
now responsible. In these regards, our analysis of Nelspruit validates the model offered in this
paper. Its performance, at least in delivering services, must be regarded as weak.
Our second case, Swaziland, is at the very beginning of the process of building viable local,
democratic governance, and not surprisingly it is a work "in progress." While indicators of
performance were, at the time of this research, quite discouraging, it must be remembered that
the reforms that established this system were recent, with some (elections) less than a year old.
As the model used in this paper would predict, Swaziland does not now have anything like
effective local governance.
In our last case, Botswana, local government displays unusually high levels of
performance, both in its internal management and its record of delivering services (e.g., schools,
water, roads, relief, and health care) throughout most of the country. In each respect, it is
unusual for Africa, and indeed for most of the developing world.
Contributing to Botswana's success are several key factors: a substantial and sustained flow
of fiscal and personnel resources; a national climate which has remained open to local party
politics; an open and critical media; and activity by diverse voluntary and civic organizations; a
stable legal environment and a sustained commitment from the center to maintaining real local
government; and significant responsibilities though, limited authority, for local governments.
The outcome of these factors is that local governments are able to perform many activities and
functions, but personnel (both political and professional) are frustrated by the encumbrances
which prevent them from doing more. As a result of this last problem, it is not clear that the
"time and place" information, which is the relative advantage of local governance units, is being
used by the national ministries in their policy pronouncements. Nor is it clear that national
ministries are inspiring localities to take initiative. It appears there is little or no flexibility for
unique local problems, needs, and priorities, whether in diverging from national guidelines or
in shifting resources from health or education into other areas. For example, health or education
might be better served in an area by upgrading transportation rather than by building
additional facilities or hiring more staff. Under the current system, recurrent budgets are largely
prescribed by national policy, and capital budgets are entirely under national control.
Nonetheless, while local autonomy is limited, and while there are still personnel and

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 41

operational weaknesses in Botswana's local government, it clearly has made vast strides and
appears the best of the three cases studies in providing quality local governance which
responds to local needs.
With only three case studies, it is of course impossible to test all logically possible
combinations of these variables. However, each of the three case studies offered a different
pattern, and did allow a preliminary test of the general hypothesis: the higher the levels on
these three variables, the better the performance of local government. They also offered a
possibility to explore specific configurations of the three variables, how each uniquely affected
local government effectiveness, and what their theoretical implications might be. Table 3
summarizes the paper's findings.


Country Resource Authority Local Performance: Performance:
Availability Political Management Service
Process and Delivery

South Africa very strong strong weak very strong weak

Swaziland very weak weak very weak very weak very weak

Botswana Strong moderate moderate moderate strong

Note: Evaluations range from: very weak, weak, moderate, strong, very strong.

The table clearly supports the paper's working hypothesis.

Beyond the general hypothesis, the three cases offer insight into several sub-patterns. In
South Africa, for example, strong resources and authority, in a technocratic and legalistic
political community, led to local governments which were highly efficient but de-coupled from
the majority of their constituents. At the time of this research, 1995, the city surveyed in South
Africa seemed almost robot-like in its continual attention to doing what it had historically done
in the way it had historically done it! Professional city personnel seemed aware of the need to
change direction, even anxious at times, but no real redirection had occurred. Perhaps the
momentum of any large bureaucracy (e.g., habits, policies, standard operating procedures,
existing clientele) explained this. It is unclear, however, what, if anything, will emerge to create
the new political process for Nelspruit's local government. Without an external "push" from an
active, sustained political process its technical and organizational excellence could be destroyed
by public frustration and political rancor.

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42 I Wunsch

Decentralization in Swaziland is only a few years "old" and lacks resources, authority, and
a local political process, and is performing poorly. In terms of the model presented in the
introduction to this paper, Swaziland is deficient on all three key variables: authority, resources,
and political process. As a result, its local governance performance is currently rather poor.
Local management is weak and few services are being delivered. However, local governments
are in place and functioning, and if nurtured may be expected over time to improve in their
performance. For those who would abandon the policy, it would be well to consider that many
similar criticisms were made of local governance in Botswana in the late 1960s and early 1970s
(Picard, 1987), and it has traveled a long distance since then. What the Swaziland case should
tell us, in conjunction with other cases, is not that decentralization and effective local
governance are not possible, but that they are not easily achieved.
Much progress is needed in Swaziland: revenues must be expanded, personnel upgraded,
fiscal and personnel management systems strengthened, town councils developed, ties to
communities enhanced, services rationalized and upgraded, and the like. But a framework for
local governance has been put in place by electing local officials, by outlining some limited local
responsibilities, and by establishing at least a basic cadre of professional personnel. This is the
minimum framework necessary to build on for future progress. Key investments need to be
made now in developing local cadres and administrative systems in order to carry on
decentralization. Without these investments, stagnation and regression may ensue.

The proposed national policy on urban government may resolve many questions of the legal
status and clarify the role of local government in Swaziland. Key issues addressed by that
policy include: (1) authorizing local governments to use revenue sources currently controlled by
the central government; (2) releasing HUD and local governments from control over local
capital improvements held by the key national ministries (Finance, Planning and Development,
and Public Works); (3) clarifying the boundaries and role to be played by the Tikundla system
in local governance. Improving the quality of local personnel (already a focus of several donor
programs) paired with these expansions in authority and resources should enhance local
governance. As local governments currently hire and discharge their own personnel and have
control over their recurrent budgets, these are not issues. An eventual fourth issue might be the
expansion of local authority to cover additional areas such as housing, primary and
intermediate health services, and primary education. National control over these areas
necessarily limits the impact that decentralization/localization can have on energizing
grassroots involvement in capital development and enhancing service delivery.
Botswana, overall ranks the highest on our three independent variables, and has the
strongest overall performance by local government. Nonetheless, its relative weakness in local
authority seems closely related to serious discontent expressed by local officials (both
professional and political) regarding their ability to fine-tune national programs to local needs.
Weaknesses in planning and local initiatives may also be related to this. Also, the still low level
of local resources mobilized in Botswana for local government may at least in part be explained
by the still incompletely developed local political process. As for continued short-falls in
management and operations, they can be explained by the relative youth of Botswana's local
government systems, and overall continual weakness of the nation's personnel base. For

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Decentralization, Local Governance and the Democratic Transition in Southern Africa I 43

Botswana's local government to reach the next plateau of performance, locally raised resources
and local authority must be expanded. These might empower local administration at the same
time that they energize local political process.
In summary, local governments in Southern Africa present a mixed but not discouraging
picture. The variance among them can be explained by their respective environments and policy
choices, and tend to confirm the model as hypothesized. At the theoretical level, South Africa
must develop a viable political process. Swaziland must continue down the road it recently
started, enhancing local resources, sustaining local democracy, and gradually expanding local
authority proportionality. Botswana has the "easiest" challenge, gradually to enhance the
authority and responsibility its localities already have. Of course, translating theory into policy
is often difficult, as it involves such unknowns as political will, good luck, and astute
leadership. These are rare in any political system.


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African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

African Cinema in the Nineties


For African cinema, the final decade of this century has been a mixed bag of promises,
hopes, achievements, and continued struggle and frustration with the same set of issues and
challenges that have always confronted filmmakers throughout the continent. Hopes and
projections of political and economic renewal and transformation under the aegis of World
Bank-mandated adjustment programs, and other liberalization measures, and the positive fall-
out that these were expected to have, especially on the cultural sector, actually turned out to be
disastrous. African filmmakers began to experience the painful effects of budget cuts and the
gradual loss of both external and internal funding for production. At the same time, the slow
but orchestrated disappearance of movie houses, one of the sad occurrences of the 90's, began
as privatization made purchase possible by local entrepreneurs who, in time, converted these
into warehouses for sugar, rice, cement, and other commodities. These conditions contributed
to intensifying the perennial crisis of production, distribution, and exhibition of African cinema
on African soil, so that barely three years to the end of the century the lingering shadows of this
crisis continue to hover and obscure the few notable achievements of the last decade.
Responses to this crisis on the part of African filmmakers ranged from the usual
accusations of ignorance and neglect of culture industries by African states and entrepreneurs,
to indictment of the marginalization of African cinema by countries of the North, and to the
deployment of various individual as well as collective efforts to reverse this crisis in more
durable fashion. Notable in the latter category are the recent efforts to refashion the Panafrican
Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) into a more active body and voice for African cinema, the
establishment of Union des Createurs et Entrepreneurs Culturels de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (UCECAO),
on the initiative of veteran Malian filmmaker Souleyemane Ciss6 and others. Developments in
Southern Africa, particularly with the dismantling of formal apartheid in South Africa and the
end of the RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique, have opened up new opportunities for
production, distribution, exhibition, partnerships including other forms of networking and
capacity building. New production houses and other film-related ventures have sprung up in
Zimbabwe (The African Script Development Fund, The Film Training School in Harare,
Framework International, Media for Development Trust, Zimmedia, Africa Film and TV) and in
Mozambique (Ebano Multimedia, under the direction of veteran filmmaker Pedro Pimenta).
Some of these have been instrumental in enabling productions by new and young filmmakers
such as the first feature by Zimbabwean writer-turned-filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga's,
Everyone's Child (1997), Isaac Mabhikwa's More Time (1993), and many others. They have also

Mbye Cham is Associate Professor of African Studies at Howard University. He has published numerous articles on
African film and co-edited Black Frames: Critical Perspectives On Black Independent Cinema (MIT Press, 1988) and Ex-Iles:
Essays On Caribbean Cinema (Africa World Press, 1992).


University of Florida Board of Trustees, a public corporation of the State of Florida; permission is hereby granted for individuals
to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448

48 I Cham

enabled filmmakers from other parts of Africa to film in Southern Africa. The Southern African
Film Festival (SAFF), under the direction of Zimbabwean filmmaker Isaac Mabhikwa, is fast
emerging as a prominent venue for filmmakers from the region and elsewhere on the continent,
as well as for filmmakers from the African Diaspora. SAFF, by holding its fourth festival in
October 1998 in Harare, along with the Cape Town Southern African Film and TV Market, now
joins Carthage and FESPACO as one of the major film festivals on the continent.
South Africa holds a great deal of promise for African cinema. This past year has witnessed
what, perhaps, is a sign of things to come. The first major feature film directed by a black South
African was released this year. Titled Fools (1998), the film is directed by Ramadan Suleman,
who was associated with Souleyemane Ciss6. Produced by the South African production house,
Natives At Large, Ebano Multi-Media from Mozambique, and others, the film is an adaptation
of a short story by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele.
Furthermore, South Africa film industry's leader, Interleisure (recently acquired by
Primedia, owner of the Ster-Kinekor theater chain in the sub-region) has recently entered into
partnership with the Black South African investment group, Thebe Investment Trust. This
alliance will create the Ster-Moribo chain to operate cinema theaters primarily in the black
townships. Will African films eventually wind their way into this giant empire whose mainstay
at the moment is primarily Hollywood films? Will this be the start of more investment in
African film production? This is the challenge for African cinema in the "New" South Africa.
Co-productions and other forms of production partnerships between African filmmakers
and film companies from different parts of the continent have registered some encouraging
developments in the 90's. One witnesses an increasing turn toward South Africa. There is a
gradual trend for filmmakers to cross various kinds of borders to shoot their films in locations
and languages outside of their countries of origin and, at the same time, use technicians, actors,
actresses, and other resources and facilities available in these countries. This has been the case
with Souleyemane Ciss6, who ventured from Mali into Zimbabwe to film his epic Waati, a story
set in Southern and West Africa with a multi-lingual set of characters. Similalry, Cameroonian
Jean-Pierre Bekolo's film, Aristotle's Plot (1995), benefited from co-production arrangements
with the Zimbabwe-based Framework International, and the film, which is in English, also
features South African actors. More recently, Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, shot his latest
feature, Kini And Adams (1997), on location in Domboshawa, Zimbabwe, again with the
collaboration of Framework International, and a Zimbabwean and South African crew and cast.
The fact that this film was done entirely in English hints of a more pronounced and interesting
shift toward a polyglot African film practice, evidence of the readiness or resolve of filmmakers
to make full use of the available languages of the continent over and beyond their own, no
matter what their level of competence or performance.
In opting for a narrative marked by a pronounced geo-cultural indeterminacy and using
English instead of More or French, thelanguage of his previous films, is Ouedraogo positing
new and different imperatives for African cinema enabling it to break out of its present crisis of
perennial struggle and marginalization in the industry? Is it a turn toward or a desire for greater
"diversality" (some would say universality) make African films more appealing and marketable
to broader audiences? If, so what are the costs and benefit of this presumed "diversality"?

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African Cinema in the Nineties I 49

For Merzak Allouache of Algeria, director of Omar Gatlato (1976), Bab El-Owed City (1994),
and Salut Cousin (1996), the issue is one of integrity. He asks his fellow African filmmakers: "...
are we losing a sense of our own reality, are we compromising cinematic content for 'northern'
funding?" This sentiment has been echoed by many other filmmakers who voice concern about
the sometimes blatant tendency of funders to dictate the content and form of African films.
Cheik Oumar Cissoko, the Malian filmmaker whose film Gumba (1995) won the Grand Prize at
FESPACO in 1995, and who is currently finishing his latest film, La Genese (Genesis), suggests:
"Universal themes are the compulsory path that our cinema has to take to make a name for
These issues and many others about the narrative content, form, style, technique and
execution will continue to fuel much of the debate and commentary on the future of African
cinema and, surely, more informed analyses will emerge in the years to come. In the meantime,
a cursory glance at some of the recent productions in African cinema reveals a trend toward
greater diversity and plurality of stories, styles, techniques, themes, and ideologies. Some
filmmakers are attracted or pushed toward stories presumed to be universal either in content,
reference, inference, or implication, while others opt for the local and the particular. In a way,
these trends are not mutually exclusive, for few things are universal that are not anchored in
some specificity, so that many who claim the universal label still find themselves departing
from defined geo-cultural, political, and historical contexts. For example, the film Guimba (1995)
is about tyranny, the abuse of power and privilege, and the resistance to such excesses. These
are themes and experiences that are shared by all societies around the world. Similarly, Gaston
Kabore's 1997 FESPACO Grand Prize winning film, Buud Yam, is about universal features such
as love, duty, obligation, struggle, pain, and attachment to family and community. However, it
is only through the specificities of their narrative modes, inscriptions of their cultures, the
gestures, the languages, the costumes, the music, etc., that any such universal features emerge.
So obvious is this fact that it becomes nonproductive most of the time to speak in terms of
universal this or universal that!
Many filmmakers are increasingly showing interest in subjects hitherto relatively
undeveloped in the past. The muffled allusions to romance, sexuality, and desire characteristic
of quite a sizable segment of earlier African cinema have become more pronounced and
developed in a few of the recent productions, to the point of even constituting the narrative
vehicle of some. Interpersonal relations, romance, bold assertions of sexual and other identities
and desires, and the cultural, religious, and other impediments and sanctions to these, the
myriad exigencies of a problematic modernity and the formidable challenges of a restless young
population now in the tentacles of "devaluation" (devalisation), MTV, and a poorly digested
African American hip-hop popular culture--these constitute the focus, in one way or another, of
films such as Dakan (1997) by Mohamed Camara of Guinea, Essaida (1996) by Tunisian
filmmaker Mohamed Zran, the elegant and somewhat tragic Machaho (1996) by Algerian
Belcachem Hadjaj, Mossane (1996) by Senegalese Safi Faye, The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1995) by Flora
Gomes of Guinea-Bissau, and Bab El-Owed City (1994) and Salut Cousin (1996 by Algerian
Merzak Allouache, to name just a few. The latter film is a remarkable achievement in its skillful
blend of comedy, spectacle, and romance to project a poignant commentary on African
immigration to France as well as offer a new vision of African Arab romance and solidarity in

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50 I Cham

the persons of the Algerian fellow and the Senegalese woman. Another equally compelling
achievement is the new film of Jilali Ferhati from Morocco, Chevaux De Fortune, a refreshing
retake of the perennial theme of the pull and push factors of emigration.
Recent productions also feature a number of works that in some ways continue and build
on trends and orientations that were the hallmarks of the 70's and 80's. The socio-political
commentary, the interrogations of cultural practices and customs, especially their exploitation
and abuse for individual profit, and the indictment of inequity and repression are themes that
resurface in some of the new films. Tableau Feraille (1996) by Senegalese Moussa Sene Absa looks
at the question of culture, politics, and gender in the context of contemporary post-devaluation
urban Senegal, while Adama Drabo of Mali uses reversal as a narrative and structuring device
in his new film Taafe Fanga (1997) to interrogate the issue of gender in a highly amusing and
effective fashion. Drabo's film provokes a rethinking of gender roles as natural, and instead
teases us to consider them as social constructs. The film immerses us in certain aspects of Dogon
culture in similar ways that Gaston Kabore's latest film, Buud Yam, deploys a quest motif as a
structuring device to chronicle the eco-cultural diversity of Burkina Faso within the framework
of Wend Kuuni's search for the medical practitioner to cure her adopted sister, Pognere. This
"sequel" to Kabore's first film is evidence of a certain continuity in African film subjects and
styles. In fact, one can draw parallels between Buud Yam, Safi Faye's Mossane, and Flora Gomes'
Po Di Sangio (1996) to the extent to which all three mine their respective societies' repertoire of
myths and narrative styles to inform their films.
The subject of African history continues to command the attention of African filmmakers as
they continue the task of making sense of the distant and recent past in ways that speak to the
present and the future in significant ways. In addition to Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatl's
elegant Les Silences Du Palais, set in the time of the last Tunisian monarchs, and Haile Gerima's
record-setting film Sankofa on slavery, two young Ethiopian filmmakers have recently
contributed two technically refined and analytically sophisticated reappraisals of the last two
decades of the Ethiopian experience with a dying feudal monarchy and a repressive military
dictatorship. Yemane Demissie's Tumult (1996) and Salem Mekuria's Deluge (1996) engage these
aspects of the Ethiopian experience with a great deal of invention, imagination, and nuance.
Also worth noting is the recent "re-vision" of the Algerian war of independence by Rachida
Krim in her acclaimed film Sous Les Pieds Des Femmes (Where Women Tread).
Like Demissie, Mekuria, and Krirn, Cameroonian Jean-Marie Teno and Balutu Kanyinda
from the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire) also detail their perspectives on dictatorship,
violence, repression, and struggle in their countries in the post-independence moment. Teno's
first long feature, Clando (1996), builds on the foundation of his impressive documentary work
on various aspects of life in Cameroon under former President Ahmadou Ahidjo and current
president Paul Biya. In Clando, Teno delves further into the geography and operations of
repression and the strategies deployed by people to resist and negotiate such forces both in
Cameroon and among Cameroonian immigrants in Germany. BaluLu's Le Damier (1997) is,
without doubt, one of the most inventive films to come out of African cinema in recent years. A
fine blend of play, power, and politics, the film ingeniously exploits the liberating aspect of the
popular game of draught (a version of chess), a leveling device, and a space where boundaries
crumble, as a vehicle through which the oppressed talk back, insult, and humiliate the

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African Cinema in the Nineties I 51

oppressor. The defeat of the head of state (figured as Mobutu Sese Seko) at the hands of the
lowly champion from the ghetto is somewhat prophetic of what was in store for Mobutu.

Aristotle's Plot

(1996) by Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo deals with the subject of cinema
itself, more particularly, cinema in Africa and cinema by Africans. A meta-discourse on cinema,
this film also uses play to deploy a cast of characters with names like Van Danune,
Schwartznegger, Bruce Lee, cinema, cineaste and references to specific African filmmakers such
as Safi Faye, Ousmane Sembene, and Souleyemane Ciss6. The film interrogates the state and
direction of cinema in Africa, the prevalence of non-African films on African screens, and the
absence and presumed unpopularity of African films with African audiences. Underneath the
playful surface of this film, which uses English and a South African cast of actors, is a
compelling set of challenges and provocations from a young filmmaker to African filmmakers
and observers, and it is done using an approach and style generally associated with avant-
gardist and post-modernist tendencies.
Recent activity in the "New" South Africa will no doubt bring new dimensions to the
already complex situation and questions of race and belonging, in particular. The work by
white, anglo and Afrikaaner filmmakers from South Africa, such as Michael Harmon's noire
Wheels and Deal (1991), the late Manie van Rensberg's comedy Taxi To Soweto (1995), Ian
Kerkoff's bold and explicitly gay Nice To Meet You, Please Don't Rape Me (formerly titled
Confessions of A Yeoville Rapist (1995), David Lister's comedy Soweto Green (1963), and Jump
The Gun (1997) by Les Blair of Britain, the M-NET supported productions like Letting Go (1997)
and The Sexy Girls (1997) will most likely rekindle debates on the place of white filmmakers in
African cinema.
No doubt, as we draw closer to the fin de siecle, many of the seminal questions and themes
raised in Bekolo's film and similar ones in the numerous other fore and outlets dedicated to
African cinema will be debated and discussed with more urgency and purpose. For many are tje
vpoces that are sincerely and persistently calling for imaginative and sustainable responses to
the multi-faceted challenges to African cinema in a coming age of technological hegemony and
an increasingly savage global competition. The mixed bag that has been the lot of African
cinema in the 90's could very well turn out to be a catalyst for different and more productive
Note: I would like to acknowledge the support of the Howard University Sponsored
Research Program in the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Education which provided a
generous grant for me to travel to Zimbabwe and South Africa in July and August, 1997. A
previous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1994-1995) also helped me to
gather materials and undertake interviews that inform this article.

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African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998

Contemporary African Film at the 13th Annual Carter Lectures
on Africa: Interviews with Filmmaker Salem Mekuria and Film

Critic Sheila Petty


The University of Florida's Center for African Studies hosted its thirteenth annual
Gwendolen M. Carter Lectures on Africa from March 22-25 on the Florida campus. This year's
conference, "Africa on Film and Video", was organized by Mark Reid, Associate Professor of
English, and featured presentations by film scholars Mbye Cham (Howard University), Samba
Gadjigo (Mount Holyoke College), Jennifer Machiorlatti (University of Michigan, Flint), Sheila
Petty (University of Regina), Nokwenza Plaatjies (Howard University and Friends World
College), and Frank Ukadike (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor). Cham's overview of
contemporary trends in African cinema appears in this issue.
Salem Mekuria was present both as a critic and a filmmaker. In addition to her films Ye
Wonz Maibel (Deluge) and As I Remember It: A Portrait of Dorothy West, other films screened
during the conference included Taafe Fanga (Adama Drabo, Mali, 1997), Dakan (Mohamed
Camara, Guinea, 1997), Flame (Ingrid Sinclair, Zimbabwe, 1996), Clando (Jean-Marie Teno,
Cameroon, 1996), Everyone's Child (Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe, 1996), Daughters of the Dust
(Julie Dash, USA, 1991), and Camp de Thiaroye (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 1989).
Among the new African films screened at the conference, Deluge, written and directed by
Salem Mekuria stands out as the only one that does not use fictionalized characters to carry the
narrative. Mekuria appears as herself to recount the story of Ethiopia's "Red Terror" through
personal interviews with her immediate family and close friends. She presents an outpouring of
sorrow and confusion that extends beyond personal or familial grief to encompass a national
sense of remorse.
I interviewed Salem Mekuria and film critic Sheila Petty. Excerpts from these interviews
are reprinted below. Salem Mekuria agreed to discuss her film with me even as she mourned
the death of her father, who passed away shortly after her arrival in Gainesville. The interview
is presented in his memory.

Rebecca Gearhart is a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida, completing a
dissertation on the history of competitive music and dance (ngoma) groups on the East African coast. One of her areas
of specialization is ethnographic film and video production.


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54 I Gearhart

RG: Your daughter's interest in Ethiopian history and in your brother Selomon's death pushed
you to deal with the painful experiences that your family went through in Ethiopia during the
1970's and 1980's. How did making Deluge help you to work out some of your sorrow and
confusion about the Ethiopian Revolution?

SM: Well, it made me look very closely at what happened, at what we were responsible
for, at what we thought we were doing in those days when we felt like we were at the helm of a
revolution, although we didn't really know what the revolution was. It made me look back at all
those things. It made me look back at a lot of assumptions about what we were capable of
doing. It also made me look at what it meant to lose my brother, because I had not really
confronted that issue. Deep down it was always there but there was this fear that if I named it, if
I said I lost my brother, then I really would lose him by acknowledging his death. I knew he
wasn't going to walk into my living room one day and say, "You know I just came out of
someplace." It also made me understand the tragedies--the extent of the tragedies--that
Ethiopians suffered. In many different ways it made me face a lot of things that all of us, I think,
collectively are trying not to face because it is so horrible.

RG: I recently watched Deluge with a Kenyan, who was impressed with your film because it
offered a personal entire into a very confusing political situation. He was surprised that you
were given permission to make such a film, which so openly opposes the Ethiopian
government. Are you able to publicly screen Deluge in Ethiopia? If so, how have Ethiopians
reacted to the film?

SM: Well, its ... lets see.... Its explicitly opposing the previous government. See we had a nice
thing that the Kenyans had, we had the fall of the military regime. So I went home right after
the fall of the military regime and was given access to a lot of things by the new transitional
government. So it doesn't explicitly oppose the present government. Although, implicitly, any
government that is narrow-minded and bent on maintaining a single party system that's sort of
very much interested in confining power to a small group of people, would feel a message from
this film.

Yes, I did have an opportunity to screen Deluge at home. I have a version that is in
Amharic, the official language at home, and the reception was unbelievable. Of course, its not
being shown on television, which means that the government does understand that it has a
certain amount of power in bringing people together. But, people have the tapes; people see
them; and every opportunity I get I show it to whatever small groups I can find. So, in that
sense, yes, I do have access to showing it.

RG: Do you believe Deluge provides people who do not know much about Ethiopian political
history with a "fair" assessment of how the revolution affected most Ethiopians?

SM: Well, it's hard to claim such authority. But, I believe I give a very sort of considerate view.
It's my view. It's my story, and I chose to say the things I said in the film. But there is a lot of
shared knowledge in there. So, in fact, this is one film for which I have not yet had any criticism

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Contemporary African Film at the 13th Annual Carter Lectures on Africa I 55

about either point of view, or what's in it. In terms of facts or other content, it does give an
overview. It's not an in-depth view. It's not really history. It does give an overview from a
personal standpoint of what happened. So for people who have really not seen what the human
impact of the big story was, it provides an entire into it. And it also makes people more curious
about what happened and about the history of Ethiopians. You can't tell the history of anything
in an hour or in a series. You can't. So I'm aware of that. But I tried to give a fairly rounded
overview of that particular period, and I hope people get that sense and want more and get
more curious.

RG: What would you like viewers to come away with from this film? And what do you wish for
in American versus Ethiopian responses?

SM: That's very hard. I mean, I want people to understand that every disaster, every tragedy
has gone through a process. That is really also what I was working with. That we didn't
just one day get up and say, "Bye Haile Selassie!" and then start killing each other. We
went through a process that all political changes go through. A process. And that doesn't
necessarily make it any easier. But we were not mad people; we are not deranged people
that just go around killing each other. There is a background to it and I hope people will come
away sensing that everybody is entitled to a process. That there are differences within us, that
there are various issues that divide us. But people think about these issues and people act
basically, some people, but most people, particularly in this case, I think most of the young
people are genuinely interested in the kind of changes that they wished socialism would bring
us and they gave their lives for that. So there is ideology. There is political process, and also
there is idealism. I want people to see that.

And of course I also want people to share that the tragedy was not just this group of people
or that group of people. Everybody was involved. I also want people to see that the
responsibility was shared. That we can't just blame one person or another person. Everybody
owns that responsibility. So these are some of the things that I want. It's also a human story. It's
not just a political story. It's not just a mass tragedy. It's very human and those individuals who
died touched everyone, my own family included. So those are the things I hope people will take
away from it.

RG: In the film your close friends and immediate family members and you yourself all appear
as yourselves, without fictionalization of any kind. Most African filmmakers do not take this
approach and prefer to deal with complex social and political issues by creating fictional
characters to tell their stories for them. Please talk a bit about how you decided to put you and
your family's real life experiences at the center of your film.

SM: That's the story I know best, basically. I didn't start out with this film, actually. I started out
with a grand documentary history of what happened. And history is very unyielding. You can't
really put history on film. I also wasn't a historian, or in any way an authority on what
happened. I wasn't there. For me, eventually, after a couple of years of trying to mold this big

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56 I Gearhart

giant into a documentary, I had to abandon it and go to the story that I knew best, that is a part
of the big history, part of what happened. It's illuminated for me that big mass, huge non-
human story and transformed it into a human story. So, for me, fictionalizing it would be
removing it one step further. This story was as much a personal story as a big political and
official story. So it worked better. I knew the story better. I could say "Hey this is my view; you
can go do your own." So it liberated me from having to answer that this happened and not this.
For me it was more a sense of writing the story and not having to answer everybody. As I know
our people are very conscientious. Everybody has their own take on the story. So, I decided I'll
do my own take. That's why I did it.

Fictionalizing? I think about that a lot. I hope to do that because it does give you a lot more
room to provide vision, which is not really possible to do in documentary story telling. So, yes; I
think it would work as fiction too. And boy do I have great characters for that!

RG: How did you convince your friends and family that your approach was the best way to
unveil the horrors of Ethiopia's "Red Terror"?

SM: I don't think they thought about the approach. I think they were just ready to tell their
story. I think that they had been silent for so long. First of all they know me. I grew up in their
eyes, under their eyes. I was their daughter's best friend, and it was easy for them to sit down
and share with me what happened. But more than that I think they were ready to tell their story
to anybody, anybody who would listen and value and use it in the way that they feel is

In an interview with critic Sheila Petty, I asked her to reflect on Salem Mekuria's new film.

RG: The paper you are presenting this week at the Carter Lectures discusses African film as a
"borderless cinema" because it seems to articulate identity issues for Africans living in and
out of Africa. Does Salem Mekuria's film Deluge typify this characteristic, or defy it?

SP: It probably does both at the same time. This is an interesting case because of her decided
position as an Ethiopian film maker living and working in the U.S. So, what she's done is use
distance as a factor of identity, and she's questioning this in terms of nation and identity at the
same time, and how change can be effective in African cinema. So definitely, you can argue that
it falls into the category of borderless cinema in terms of Africa because she is making an
African film but living in the U.S. What's interesting about this is that it gives her a different
perspective, you could say, on the issues that she is dealing with because she is both inside and
outside of the issues. Inside because she is Ethiopian, outside because of the distance that she
has to the geographical location she is dealing with.

RG: In Deluge Salem Mekuria appears as herself, an Ethiopian filmmaker who uses the medium
to explore her own family's struggle to survive during the Ethiopian revolution. We see her at

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Contemporary African Film at the 13th Annual Carter Lectures on Africa I 57

the editing table literally fitting her personal narrative into the history of her country. Why are
these shots important to this film? Does Mekuria break new ground, as an African filmmaker,
by inserting herself into her work in this way?

SP: I think that what she is doing actually is creating a performative documentary that's very
self-reflexive. So she is putting herself literally into the film, and she is questioning her own role
in the issues she is dealing with and the role of responsibility, as well. That's what is important.
And, as a performative documentary, it is self-reflexive, while history is not; historical fact is not
more important in performative documentaries than an evocation of history, which is what she
does in the film.

RG: Why do you think that so many different African filmmakers choose to tell their history
through ficitionalized characters?

SP: I think that fiction film making is one of the first things that got going on the Continent. You
look at the so-called forefathers of African cinema (now they are called the grandfathers of
African cinema) and they chose to work in fiction film making. It transpired that more and
more film makers became interested in working in kind of the same genre, so to speak. It's
almost like a tradition. Some are doing documentaries, but I would have to say the emphasis
has to be on fiction film making; whether there is more of a market for that could be a plausible
reason. People are going to watch fiction films especially if they have relevance to their
everyday living, or if people think they are going to see their friends in the film or whatever.

RG: What direction do you think contemporary African filmmakers are taking? Do you think
African filmmakers are making films that have the potential of serving as a kind of bridge
between Africa and the Diaspora?

SP: Yes, I believe so. Especially now given this kind of important question, "What makes an
African film African?" Is it the fact that it's a person from Africa that makes the film, or is it
because it's made on the continent, or is it African financing that makes it African film? What
about Africans living outside of Africa? There are a lot of Africans living in France who go back
to Africa to make their films and then go back to France to distribute them there, and exhibit
them worldwide. And what about African Americans who claim sometimes to be making
African films or films with African content because there is an evocation of Africa? I think we
saw that quite well in Jennifer Machiorlatti's paper on Daughters of the Dust. There is a constant
reference to Africa through oral tradition, through memories, even through the aesthetics that
Julie Dash uses in the film; they are constantly referring to Africa and the ancestors.

RG: Are African films currently being watched in African American community fora? What has
to happen for them to reach wider, less specialized audiences?

SP: It certainly is my impression that in the States African Americans definitely want to see
African films. When these films come to Canada there is definitely an audience for them. One of
the problems I believe is distribution. Certainly in Canada we've got a pretty specific situation,

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58 I Gearhart

where Quebec has its own system and Anglophone Canada has its own system of distribution
and exhibition. So you can have Francophone films that would not get distributed in English
Canada and that would include a lot of African films. If you want to see a lot of African films,
the place to go is Montreal for the View d'Afrique African film festival. The Toronto International
Film Festival has some work in it, but again, it can be subtitled. So there are lots of barriers;
there are lots of things that need to be done. And the filmmaker has to agree to have a
distributor in North America and it's not always the case that they will accept the terms of

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African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998


Development for Health: Selected Articles from Development in Practice. Deborah Eade, ed.
Published by Oxfam Publications (UK and Ireland), and Humanities Press International,
1997, 111 pp., paper $15.

Health related behavior is defined broadly to encompass all activities that have a
significant effect on health care utilization and health care delivery (including culture, social
behavior, expenditures, and health policies). This Oxfam publication is based on material
originally published in Development and Health, a journal devoted to health and developmental
Practitioners and policy makers involved in health promotion or interested in the study of
health behavior will find this book very helpful as it provides useful information about the
pitfalls and constraints to be taken into account in health promotion policies, especially in
developing societies. At the same time, the book offers the reader sufficient information about
the social, cultural, and behavioral determinants of the health of women in developing societies.
Most importantly, the book presents several aspects of health as seen through the lens of the
social and health worker.
The book begins with a survey of the methodological issues relevant to the study of
women's health and moves to a discussion of the factors that constrain or inhibit health
utilization. Throughout the book, the articles draw the reader's attention to how macro level
issues (such as Structural Adjustment Policies) can affect the cost of care as well as the
utilization of health care services among poor women.
Another interesting aspect of the book is its concern with mental and psychosocial health
issues, a subject infrequently discussed in the discourse about health care in developing
societies. For instance, in the article "The Psychosocial Effects of Conflict in the Third World",
Derek Summerfield asks a few interesting questions about the relationship between population
processes such as migration (forced or voluntary) and mental health. What are the health
consequences of post-traumatic stress syndrome on people from the third world? How have the
various wars and conflicts prevalent in the developing world for the past three decades affected
the lives of these people? Similar issues are articulated by Patel et al. who argue that mental
health issues are genuine areas for research, and for intervention programs.
Sundari Ravindran's chapter on "Methodological Issues in Women's Health Research"
provides a framework that considers the interaction between social, economic, political, and
cultural factors in applied health status research, and in health utilization.
Anne LaFond's piece, "Deterrents to Immunization in Somalia: A Mother's Attitudes", is an
important contribution to the literature on child survivorship. The question asked here revolves


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to download articles for their own personal use. Published by the Center for African Studies, University of Florida.
ISSN: 2152-2448


around the best way to provide intervention strategies aimed at the health needs of young
children. In this regard, LaFond draws on her experience in Somalia to alert program
administrators in the developing world of the need to consider the structural and social
constraints in existence in these societies since they can impede the acceptance of new
One of the interesting chapters in the book is Betsy Hartman's "Population Control in the
New World Order." Hartman examines the population control movement and how its activities
can affect basic human rights, especially the rights of women. She argues interestingly that with
the end of the Cold War, there has been a shift in ideology from military expenditures to
population control. The latter, she argues, has been refurbished and polished with feminist and
environmental themes and marketed with the latest means of communication. In the North, the
current emphasis is on immigration control, while in the South, efforts are geared to using what
she refers to as "double-speak" (choice, female empowerment, environmental concerns, etc.) in
discussing the population question in the developing world. Yet, in their attempts to reduce
high birth rates in the developing world, Hartman argues that the advocates of population
control have failed to consider the factors that determine the demand for children in the first
place: increased infant mortality levels, the labor needs of agrarian societies, as well as the
limited economic opportunities in these societies. While Hartman does not negate the need for
contraception, she argues that the way planning is implemented undermines the health systems
and targets women unfairly. Thus, to her, blaming poverty and environmental degradation, a
typical Malthusian conception of population vis-a-vis development, obscures the real cause of
the global population crisis--the inequities inherent in the socio-economic systems whereby
resources are concentrated in the hands of a few.
The impact of AIDS is considered from the perspectives of changing gender and social
relations. In "Widowhood and Orphans: Property Disputes in Rakai District, Uganda", Chris
Roys informs the reader of some of the consequences of Africa's AIDS epidemic in relation to
property and inheritance rights. While the issue of property rights and succession is one of the
social problems facing many African societies, Roys argues that in the case of Rakai, the
problems have been accentuated by the AIDS virus in that region of Uganda. In part, the
problems derive from the early morbidity and mortality linked to the AIDS epidemic. Yet Roys
suggests that there is the need to look at the main cause of the conflict between family members
on property rights. The clan system, which is patrilineal and makes it difficult for women to
inherit property, is seen as at the root of the "inheritance debacle" in Rakai. The empowerment
of women, especially economic self sufficiency and changes in the laws of inheritance, are
expected to help women in this regard.
Hillary Hughes's article on "Evaluating HIV/AIDS Programs" examines ways to assess a
successful intervention program. She argues that a successful program often depends on the
level of organization already in existence in the community as well as the involvement of the
community. In this way, not only would knowledge of the existence of the disease be beneficial,
but it would encourage "local content" and participation.
The list of references and the annotated bibliography is extensive and should be useful for
a wide range of people--absolute beginners, health care workers involved in capacity building,
and people with experience but little formal training in health promotion planning or

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evaluation. I would not hesitate in recommending this book to anybody with an interest in
health evaluation and program planning in the developing world.

Baffour Takyi
Department of Sociology
The University of Akron

Encyclopedia of Pre-colonial Africa: Archeology, History, Languages, Culture, and
Environments. Joseph o. Vogel, ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, A Division of Sage
Publication, 1997, 605 pp., cloth $124.95.

Joseph Vogel's edited volume is a welcome compendium of topics on pre-colonial Africa. It
brings together an impressive array of authors, topics, and ideas that will allow the book to
serve as a reference for those needing to venture outside their specializations on Africa. African
history can suffer from the same problem that other colonized areas experience in the minds of
many, that is the assumption that its history starts with colonialism because a comparative
abundance of records from that era exists. This volume, then, serves the wider purpose of
bringing, in an easily accessible way, some balance to this problem. The encyclopedia format is
useful, not so much for ease of reference, but for the shorter pieces contained in the volume,
allowing a much more amplified breadth than would otherwise be possible.
After a fairly comprehensive introduction, the book is organized into five sections dealing
with African environments, histories of research, technology, people and agriculture, and the
prehistory of Africa. Regrettably, the shortest section is on African environments. It covers an
enormous range of time and space in too few pages. Given the large interest in various
disciplinary communities with the type and extent of vegetation zones existing prior to
recorded history, it is surprising that this topic is given such short treatment.
The section on histories of research contains, among others, pieces on the history of
archeology in several regions, historiography in Africa, and a history of the search for human
origins. It is largely about the individuals, institutions, and trends involved in African
archeology, and seems a bit out of place with the other largely descriptive sections. Apart from
those specifically interested in the discipline of archeology and the popular ramifications of
archeological finds, this section may be of limited interest to the general reader. The subsequent
sections on archeology itself, however, are the real meat and utility of the volume. With
extremely limited existing documentation on pre-colonial Africa, it is archeology that must
locate and interpret the available evidence on a wide range of topics--and this appears to be the
driving idea behind the book.
The section on technology is quite good and is a very informative introduction to the ways
in which human groups come to utilize aspects of the environment to make a living. The
presentation style in a number of the pieces of mixing specific information regarding place,
dates, and finds together with interpretations is especially appealing. Figure 14 in the section on

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copper metallurgy could have been done with a little more care, however, as some of the
political boundaries appear problematic, e.g., Somali-land, Western Sahara, Eritrea, Namibia.
The section on people and culture is longer than the previous sections and contains sub-
sections on languages, forager lifeways, pastoral lifeways, farming lifeways, and ethno-
archeology. While these topics are spatially distinct, both between and within lifeways, the only
two maps in this section pertain to West African languages. Nevertheless, this section provides
the reader with an important glimpse into the use of the environment by different groups in
different regions.
The final section on the prehistory of Africa is the largest, comprising almost half of the
book. It contains sub-sections on the emergence of humanity, first footsteps in Africa, advanced
foragers, rock art, the ceramic late stone age, beginnings of food production, iron age, social
complexity, trade and commerce, and historical archeology. The detail here is quite good,
descriptive, and explanatory without being overly technical. In fact, the introductory,
explanatory tone of the book is one of its hallmarks, and reveals a well thought-out-project.
With a book of this breadth, it would be the rare reader who would be able to wade through
technical language on so many fronts. The utility of this section is twofold: (1) as a treatment of
humans in pre-colonial Africa; and (2) as a treatment of the early evolution of humans in
general. In this regard, this final section will make the volume of interest to classes and scholars
of human evolution, in addition to Africanists.
Graphically, there is a good selection of maps and charts, but most impressive is the large
array of "rock art" reproductions. The analysis and interpretation of this art, in various sub-
sections, is quite intriguing, with effective linkages made between culture and environment.
This is a vast part of the book, virtually a volume on its own; its treatment of land use, political,
economic, and cultural aspects of African development will be of wide interest.
Each of the ninety-four entries in the book (by almost as many authors) includes a short
bibliography to get the interested reader started. The index is large and well done, enhancing
the reference function of the volume. While the volume will be a significant addition to the
shelves of Africanists, ecologists, and anthropologists, the price is fairly intimidating for the
undergraduate, which clearly many, if not most, of the pieces were written for.

Jon Unruh
Department of Geography
University of Arizona

Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings. Brian Willan, ed. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1997,
483pp., paper $29.95.

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876-1932) was one of the foremost African leaders of his
generation in South Africa. As the first general secretary of the African National Congress
(ANC), founded in 1912, Plaatje was a prominent political spokesperson, interacting regularly
with government officials and other leading whites in both South Africa and Great Britain.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998


Plaatje was much more than a political figure, however. Prior to the formation of the ANC, he
was a court interpreter at Mafeking, where he became caught up in the famous siege during the
Anglo-Boer War (1). After the war he became editor of two successive newspapers, Koranta ea
Becoana (Bechuana Gazette) and Tsala ea Becoana (The Friend of the Bechuana), both published in
Setswana and English. As one of the band of pioneering African newspaper editors, he viewed
his role as that of a "mouthpiece" for his people. It was this role that brought him to prominence
and led to his selection as ANC general secretary.
Plaatje was a significant writer. His political tract, Native Life in South Africa (2), was an
angry denunciation of the 1913 Natives' Land Act. The first sentence is perhaps one of the
hardest hitting political statements in South African history: "Awaking on Friday morning, June
20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of
his birth" (Document 52, p. 186). His writing was not limited to political developments,
however, for in the same year he published Native Life, he also published a book of Tswana
proverbs in both the original language and in translation (3). Later in life, Plaatje increasingly
turned his attention to literary pursuits, translating Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar,
and Much Ado about Nothing into Tswana (4). Plaatje also wrote the first novel in English by a
black South African, Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (5). It is not
surprising, then, that such a wealth of written material by such an important early political and
literary figure in the history of African nationalism in South Africa would lead to an edition of
his Selected Writings within three years of the electoral triumph of the party which he helped
Brian Willan is the natural editor for Plaatje's work, since he has not only written the
authoritative biography of Plaatje (6), but also assisted in editing Plaatje's Mafeking Diary. The
organization of Selected Writings is very much along the lines of the biography. Indeed, Willan
utilized most of the material in the Selected Writings in preparing the biography. Part One deals
with the Mafeking siege and Plaatje's editorship up to the creation of the Union of South Africa
in 1910, which is covered in Chapters Four through Six of the biography. As the title for Part
One implies ("All we claim is our just dues"), this was an era when African political leaders
were seeking, in the words of a Plaatje editorial in the 20 April 1904 issue of the Bechuana
Gazette, "equal rights for all civilized men" (Document 27, pp. 86-87).
Part Two, 1910-1923, covers the same ground as Chapters Seven through Twelve of the
biography. Here the emphasis is on Plaatje as a political leader, as suggested by the section's
title, "Champion for the cause of our peoples." Among the key themes are the fight against the
1913 Natives' Land Act, Plaatje's representation of African interests in England during the First
World War, and his 1920-22 trip to Canada and the United States to foster ties with African-
Americans. The third and final part of the book covers the period 1924-32 (Chapters Thirteen
through Sixteen in the biography) and focuses on Plaatje's career as "A pioneer in literature."
While documents relating to the Sechuana Proverbs (Document 54) and to his A Sechuana Reader
in International Phonetic Orthography (7) (Document 55) appear in part Two, Part Three is where
the bulk of the material for this facet of Plaatje's life is to be found.
As one would expect, Selected Writings contains excerpts from Plaatje's major published
works, including the Mafeking Diary (Document One), Native Life in South Africa (Document 52),
Mhudi (Document 98), Diphosho-posho (Comedy of Errors) (Document 95), and others, including

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publications noted above, for a total of nine documents. Since these excerpts are readily
available elsewhere, they are not as unique and useful as are the remaining ninety-five
selections. The most numerous of these are forty-eight articles and editorials from the
newspapers Plaatje edited and articles published principally in the English-language press over
the course of his life. That newspapers such as the Cape Argus, the Cape Times, and the Diamond
Fields Advertiser regularly published pieces by Plaatje suggests the respect accorded to his views
by at least some leading English-speaking white South Africans. There are also thirty-three
letters in the collection written to white officials and politicians, business leaders, personal
contacts, fellow Africans, and others. Four manuscripts are also part of this collection, including
a 1908/09 piece entitled "The Essential Interpreter" (Document 10). Willan drew heavily on this
document in his biography (8) to illustrate the critical role of African court interpreters to the
functioning of colonial administration and also to show Plaatje's implicit belief in the fairness of
the Cape Colony's judicial system. Rounding off the collection are two pamphlets, two
transcripts of interviews, three speeches/addresses, and three documents categorized as "other."
All of these documents are English-language originals. If there is a significant shortcoming to
the book, it is that Willan does not provide translations of any documents that originally
appeared in Setswana, although the columns of Plaatje's newspapers contain plenty of this type
of material.
Sol Plaatje today is the best known member of the founding generation of the African
National Congress. In large part this is due to his prolific writing. John L. Dube, the first
president of the ANC, was also a newspaper editor, but the range, scope, and diversity of his
writing was far more limited than that of Plaatje. Plaatje had an original and fertile mind, and
was able to express himself extremely well in both English and Setswana, as his highly capable
translations of Shakespeare demonstrate. The appearance of his Selected Writings serves further
to enhance his well-deserved reputation as one of the foremost South Africans of his era.

1. He kept a diary during the siege, which was published more than seven decades later.
Sol T. Plaatje, Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War, edited by John
Comoroff (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1973).
2. London: P.S. King and Co., 1916; new edition, (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1995)
3. Sol T. Plaatje, Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and their European Equivalents
(London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, 1916).
4. Two of the translated plays were published: Diposho-phoso (Comedy of Errors) (Morija:
Morija Printing Works, 1930), and Dintshontsho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara (Julius Caesar)
(Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1937).
5. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1930; new edition, with an Introduction by T.J. Couzens,
London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978; new edition, with an Introduction by
Tony Voss, Johannesburg: Ad. Donder, 1989).
6. Brian Willan, Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932 (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984).
7. D. Jones and S.T. Plaatje, A Sechuana Reader in International Phonetic Orthography (with
English translations) (London: University of London Press, 1916; repub. Farnborough,
Hants: Gregg International Publishers, 1970).

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998


8. Willan, Sol Plaatje, pp. 68-70.

R. Hunt Davis, Jr.
Department of History and Center for African Studies
University of Florida

Physicians, Colonial Racism, and Diaspora in West Africa. Adell Patton, Jr. Gainesville:
University Press of Florida, 1996. 343pp., cloth $49.95.

The author is a medical doctor with Pan-Africanist concerns for the development of
medical science and practice in Africa. He decided to write a social history of medicine in West
Africa during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It appears that his initial aim was to employ the
theory of professionalization--training and certification, corporate patronage, inter- and intra-
professional conflicts, code of ethics, unionization--to analyze the growth of the profession. The
bulk of the material that came his way, however, was biographical, and the dominant issue was
colonial racism as a factor in the training and professional careers of generations of modern
scientific doctors in West Africa. Patton has documented examples rather than analyze the
history and nature of colonial racism. Moreover, he has not dealt with the history, let alone the
social history, of the profession as such. As a result, many interesting issues have been raised
but not followed up in-depth which would be too formidable a task within the scope of a single
After an overview of "African Physicians in Time Perspective", Patton has a chapter
entitled "The Medical Profession in Africa from Ancient Times to 1800" touching on medical
practice in Ancient Egypt and in Islamic West Africa (Timbuktu and Songhai), but no material
on medical practice in non-Islamic West Africa. For example, in a later chapter he points out
without explanation that while some Europeans claimed they could not allow African doctors
(all male at the time) to examine their wives, African women initiated into Poro Society in the
Sierra Leone hinterland also refused to allow African doctors to examine them unless they also
had been initiated. Patton touches once or twice on the role of "the scientific public" in the
advancement of science. He concludes that "Traditional institutions whose authority rested on
claims of a privileged access to secret knowledge lost their stature in the judgement of an
enlightened public informed by the rise of professionalism" (p. 253), but this is an issue he
cannot explore without going into the practice of medicine in non-Islamic West Africa.
Thus, the volume has the flavor of an amateur, with a love for anecdotal history,
attempting to include every bit of available information. The copy-editing and proof-reading
leave a lot to be desired, but this should not be allowed to obscure the serious intention and
achievement of the book. Patton's book achieves some focus on the African physicians "who
pioneered the constantly changing frontiers in the modern medical profession", at least in Sierra
Leone. In particular, he assembled information on the remarkable Easmon family: their Nova
Scotian origins; their partial descent from the MaCormacks of Ireland and the Smiths of
Yorkshire; their Creole network of intermarriages with "the Smiths, the Spilsburys, the Hebrons,

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the Awooner-Renners, Coleridge-Taylors, the Lumpkins, the Wrights, the Hunters, the Randalls
and Casely-Hayfords--in Sierra Leone, Gambia, the Gold Coast and Nigeria" (p.162), not to
mention their "common-law relatives in the Sierra Leone hinterland" (p193). Training doctors
involved a diaspora in itself as they had to go abroad, seeking opportunities wherever the
prevalent racism would allow--in England, Scotland, the US, Canada, Germany and, later,
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It is the diaspora of the Easmons, however, that receives
systematic attention.
Patton attempt to categorize the contribution of the different schools of medicine to the
evolving pattern of medical education in West Africa. In particular, the medical schools at
Ibadan and Accra followed the British pattern of general medicine and surgery, with
specialization, controlled by professional groups outside the universities, coming at the post-
graduate level. It was the impact of the products of the Soviet system that encouraged
specialization as part of the basic training.
The racism that dominated the professional careers and struggles of the physicians was not
a colonial invention. It was there at the beginning when William Ferguson arrived in Freetown
from the West Indies. The high rate of European mortality, however, made it possible for him--
in spite of the racism--to rise to the top and become Governor of the colony. Racism also
encouraged the development of the Freetown Grammar School and Fourah Bay College, in
addition to the training of medical students at government expense. It made possible such
careers as that of John Farrell Easmon who qualified MRCS in 1879, went to practice medicine
in the Gold Coast in 1880, and became Chief Medical Officer in 1896 at the age of 40. That was
why, when the more general use of quinine had reduced the mortality rate, racism became
institutionalized in the West African Medical Staff which specifically excluded those of African
descent, even the Easmons who claimed to be partially of European descent. The experience
was traumatic. John Farrell Easmon was removed in 1897 and ordered out of his residence,
which probably contributed to his early death in 1900 at the age of 44.

J. F. Ade Ajayi
Emeritus Professor of History
University of Ibadan

Picturing Bushmen: The Denver African Expedition of 1925. Robert J. Gordon. Athens OH,
Ohio University Press, 1997, 325pp., cloth $44.95, paper $24.95.

With clear, readable prose, Robert Gordon pierces the smug detachment of academics who
hold themselves blameless in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. He maintains that
anthropologists, environmentalists, and other academics have a vested interest in perpetuating
images of bushmen that play to middle class fantasies. Underlining that academics are as much
products of their "environment" as any charter flight pleasure seeker, he notes that much
research arises from the preconceived theories and needs of the researcher. Moreover, to remain
viable, most academics define their results in ways that hold the interest of a larger audience.

African Studies Quarterly I Volume 2, Issue 1 I 1998


Breaking down the division between traveler and tourist, consumer and scientist, Gordon
demonstrates that many commonly held conceptions of bushmen grew out of the needs of the
highly industrialized populations of the United States and Europe. He does this by analyzing
the success of the Denver African expedition of 1925. Hoping to bring renown and fame to their
city, Denver businessmen financed the expedition in the midst of a public fascination with
human origins. In addition, then, as now, the American public had a particular fascination with
technology. For the Denver expedition, one of the most important components of this new
technology was the camera.
The photographs, films, articles, and well placed academic road shows of the Denver
African Expedition helped to transform the European image of bushmen from "the lowest type
of human being" to noble savage (p.61). At the heart of the creation of the new wild bushmen
were questions of technology, knowledge, and power. Photographs and films made it possible
to "picture bushmen" and sell the image to the more affluent. Through them, bushmen became a
focus for the fantasies of the more mechanized and urbanized parts of the world. Gordon
emphasizes the link between bushmen and nature for both the white South African soldiers of
the 1990's and the white men of the 1920's. As these groups felt more and more ensnared by
machines and unsure of their role in a rapidly changing society, bushman fantasies allowed
them to dream of a time of freedom in which hunter/warriors had the power to take action and
reshape their own relatively simple world (p.131).
While aesthetically appealing photos and films allowed the audience to consider their
fantasies fact rather than fiction, burgeoning consumerism created a market for "exotic" people
and their products. This, in turn, caught the attention of the colonial authorities within Namibia.
Besides the income generated by the sale of curios to foreigners, interest in bushmen also
attracted tourists and potential settlers from nearby South Africa. Furthermore, the new image
of bushmen served to pacify the local settler population. According to Gordon, the new "tamer"
image of the wild bushman alteredd the imaginations of the rather unsettled settlers--those
who believed that bushmen were cannibals and other nightmarish ghouls; it contributed to the
self-pacification of the settlers by visually claiming a potentially troublesome environment" (p.
116). Ultimately, the image of the peaceful simple bushman became so entrenched that
apartheid authorities of the 1950's and 1960's used it to receive good international publicity even
as they forcibly removed the Hei/omn bushmen from their land.
In Namibia, control of technology allowed those in positions of economic dominance to
perpetuate interpretations of reality that helped them maintain their position. Within this
context, it is not the photos and films themselves that are troublesome. In fact, the Denver
expedition could not have taken these photographs without the collaboration of the Hei/omn
bushmen who, in exchange, often used them to gain access to international assistance (p.138). It
is the inability of those who posed for the photographs to shape their interpretation in the larger
world that poses an important ethical question for Gordon. He states, "Fairy tales almost always
have happy endings, but the Denver expedition case demonstrates how we can impose our
fairy tales upon people and force them, for their survival to conform to our story line .... My
concern is to question the ethicality of the spectator having the power to define the structure of
remembrance and the voyeuristic quality of much of what is defined as 'knowledge of the past'"

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During the 1920's, efforts to popularize knowledge brought "scientific" information to the
masses and carried them away to far off places. At the same time, improved transport and
greater affluence made pleasure travel more possible for Europeans and Americans. The
Denver African Expedition took place at a moment in time when western consumer society had
acquired the technological power to visualize and place demands on the "others" that they have
imagined. In Picturing Bushmen, Robert Gordon asks what that means for them and for us.

Cathy Skidmore-Hess
Department of History
Georgia Southern University

Transculturation and Resistance in Lusophone African Narrative. Phyllis Peres. Gainesville:
University of Florida Press, 1997, 168pp., cloth $39.95.

As a result of the turmoil that has engulfed the former Portuguese territories of Angola and
Mozambique, both prior to and following independence, and the recent efforts to forge a major
bond that would include Portugal and Brazil among them, scholarly interest in Lusophone
Africa has heightened over the last decade. Phyllis Peres's work underscores this recent trend
and adds to the emerging literature of the area.
Centered primarily on four Angolan literary giants of the 1960's-1990's--Luandino Vieira,
Uanhenga Xitu, Pepetela (Artur Mauricio Carlos Pestana dos Santos), and Manuel Rui--this
work brings into focus the tradition of resistance to colonialism among the most distinguished
Angolan humanists, and their ideas (or "imaginations") regarding what liberated and
independent Angola ought to have been socially, culturally, and politically. The underlying
theme shared by the four was their hope that Angola would emerge democratic, free of strife,
and capable of creating a unique identity. Peres states, "Writers ... who emerged from the
nationalist struggle in Angola produced both poetry and fiction that did indeed negate colonial
identity, but more relevant to this study, they also participated in the textualization of an
Angolan nation, or perhaps more aptly phrased, Angolan nationness" (p.vii).
As such, therefore, this work is a political and social history of Angola during the last three
decades as viewed and expressed by some of the most important Angolan writers. Yet, the
enthusiastic "imagining" of a peaceful, proud, democratic, and culturally unique Angola was
flawed with ethnic misunderstandings, poisoned by contradictory theoretical underpinnings
and practical realities (e.g., Marxism versus capitalism), and retarded by the personal ambitions
of the country's leaders. As a result, this uneven national panorama led to dispute and civil war,
undemocratic governance, and despair--the nemesis of the nationalistic hope of most Angolan
poets and fiction writers.
In spite of its clearly market-driven deceiving title (which gives the impression that the
focus is Lusophone Africa when, in fact, it is narrowly Angolan--comparable to a drop of water
in the sea of Lusophone African literary creation), Peres's work nonetheless is outstanding as it
attests to the author's penetrating insights and her superb analytical skills regarding the

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Angolan literary movement. Indeed, Peres succeeds in placing the four Angolan writers
squarely in the context of the Angolan nationalist movement.
I hope Professor Peres will continue her work along these lines and venture into
comparative studies of Lusophone African literature to discern either a common or a diverse
but unique thread within the textualized aspirations of the pre- and post-nationalist
independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome
e Principe. As it stands, the work at hand is of great importance to those scholars interested in
understanding the nature of the former Portuguese colonies and the obstacles they faced during
their journey toward liberation and nationhood.

Mario J. Azevedo
African-American and African Studies
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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