Review: Uhuru Revisited by Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964-67)

The following review, written by David Strain (Nigeria 1963–65), of Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders by Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964–67) was first published in the Friends of Nigeria quarterly newsletter.

uhuru-revisitedReaders of Ron Singer’s many articles in this quarterly over the years will be greatly interested in his 2011-2012 interviews with 18 African “pro-democracy leaders.” I should emphasize that the range of people who fall within this rubric is quite wide. For examples, Puleng Matsoeneng, who as a daughter of a rural farmer in South Africa, struggled even to obtain an education, has led the fight to bring teachers and education to rural farm children. Kan Dapaah, abandoned by his father, has proceeded through the efforts of his mother and mother’s village to a career in accounting which led to multiple head of ministry posts in the Ghanaian government – he now leads an anti-corruption non-governmental organization in Ghana.

The book covers three major topics: disparity of incomes and closing the economic gap in South Africa and Botswana; press freedom in Ethiopia and Kenya; and corruption and governance in Nigeria and Ghana. The Nigeria section is broken down between generations: the old democrats (and favorites of the author) Anthony Enahoro and Wole Soyinka; and the new democrats: Jibrim Ibrahim; John Kayode Fayemi; Nuhu Ribadu; and Clement Nwankwo.

The format is that of describing how the interview was obtained. This is followed often by a basically unedited transcript of Singer’s interview, interspersed with Singer’s commentary by which he gives context and his reactions. It is like being there in the room, with the answers sometimes at odds with the questions (anyone who has watched the presidential candidate debates will be all too familiar with this . .. although here the cause seems to be misunderstanding, not deflection. Many of the interviewees do not speak English as a first language). I think the unedited quality of the interviews is a plus. First it makes you realize how unreal are most of the “interviews” we read, how heavily edited and “corrected” they are. Singer’s interviews being unedited, a real person emerges. With some you realize the difficulty of working in English; and you also realize that many of these persons advancing the cause of democracy are not geniuses but hardworking, ordinary people who have a drive to make things better. Singer’s interviews help to tease out where that drive comes from. As some commentators have suggested, these interviews are a historical resource, made better, if sometimes more difficult, by their not being strongly filtered.

One of Singer’s interests is to explore how these people got to their position of fighting for democratic rights, in South Africa for example both against the apartheid regime, and now the ANC successor. “We are not interested in the previous oppressor. We are interested in the present oppressor” says Orlean Naidoo, an advocate for government services whom Singer interviews. In one case it’s lucky advice – Kan Dapaah returns to Ghana after getting his accounting degree in Britain to a take a job in the Ghanaian government, a requirement of Ghana’s support of his education. But a senior government supervisor figures out a way for him to go into private practice, because he knows how Dapaah’s elite education would cause resentment among his Ghanaian government co-workers, and sabotage his career.

The corruption chapters bring nuance to the general view that Ghana has solved its corruption problems while Nigeria remains the corruption capital. In both countries those interviewed seem to think that the central government has consolidated too much power but has not established a national culture. The result, in the words of Anthony Enahoro is that the national government is seen as the enemy whose assets it is perfectly proper to steal. The prescription is that devolution of government money and duties to lower levels will bring a reduction in corruption. Enahoro says:
“When you go down to the villages, you don’t hear of money being stolen, because if it happens the thief’s family is in disgrace forever. But the government is something else. If you can rob people and come home to build a church or a school, it’s like going to war and getting booty! Heavens, you’re a hero! The whole concept of government is so distant from ethnic communities. What made the eastern and western regions successful in the past days was that you had a cultural base.”

There’s a logic to the argument, but it gives further credence to the jibe that “Nigeria” is only a geographical expression. One wonders what it will take to create a sense of Nigerian identity (as Paul Kagame is trying to create in Rwanda). If the Nigerian national government continues to be seen as the enemy, its leaders will feel entitled to rob it with impunity. All the worse for ending corruption.

As usual Ron Singer has brought a lot of information and ideas to ponder. Assembling this cast of characters and their stories is an act of optimism for Africa. There are people there working to make things right. Uhuru Revisited is a refreshing and interesting antidote to the general despair that we read elsewhere.

Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders
Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964–67)
Africa World Press 2015
281 pages
$34.95 (paperback)

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