Review: African Anarchism:
The history of a movement


by Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey
See Sharp Press £6.95

Few people would associate anarchism with Africa. However, it is certainly beginning to take root in there. This book is written by two members of the Awareness League, a 1000-strong anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Nigeria. Starting with a good introduction to anarchism, the authors outline its relationship with Africa in an attempt to "enrich anarchism and anarchist principles with an African perspective and to carve a place for Africa within the framework of the worldwide anarchist movement".

Although anarchism as a conscious social movement is relatively new in Africa, pre-colonial African societies contained many "anarchic elements". This book presents a very interesting study of anarchist tendencies in traditional African societies. While certainly not anarchist, these societies, based on communalism, were self-governing and independent where "every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly in the running of community affairs at all levels."

Mbah and Igariwey go on to illustrate their point by giving three case studies of stateless societies in pre-colonial Africa: the Igbo, the Niger Delta people and the Tallensi. Some common characteristics in the structure of such societies were the lack of centralisation, the communal mode of production, and the general absence of social stratification.

Capitalism arrives

Capitalist influences were first introduced to Africa during the push for economic expansion that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The slave trade and other European foreign business interests along the coastal regions of Africa facilitated the gradual breakdown of the communal mode of production in Africa. Then the Berlin conference and the subsequent partition of Africa ensured the "enthronement of imperial interests over those of traditional societies".

Wage labour, taxation, the introduction of money, trade, investment and the social institutions and bureaucracy built to maintain the imperialist system are cited as some of the weapons used to incorporate Africa into the world capitalist economy.

The authors discuss how Africa's incorporation into the global economy was peripheral in that it "did not give rise to a fully capitalist economy; the end result was, rather, a distorted, unbalanced capitalist structure". This created Africa's culture of dependence on the advanced capitalist countries so that profits were (and still are) constantly being transferred from Africa to the advanced capitalist countries.

Another major effect of colonialism was the formation of new social classes. For example, due to the new taxation laws imposed on the indigenous people, a new group of migrant wage-earners emerged.

In response to the inferior socio-political and economic status imposed on the vast majority of Africans, trade unions began to emerge. Mbah and Igariwey offer a detailed analysis of the trade union movements in Nigeria and South Africa, criticising their hierarchical structures. The lack of a revolutionary perspective and the self-serving political ambitions of the leadership are some of the reasons why the trade union movement has failed to maximise its potential.

An African road to socialism?

Nor did "African socialism" - for the most part based on the Soviet/Eastern European model - succeed in changing the status quo. Most post-colonial African states see strong governments as of vital importance. Rather than believing the African people capable of organising their own lives, the ruling party or government must lead the people. "Some of the most backward, most reactionary regimes that ever set foot on African soil were socialist ones, some led by military officers who shot their way to power."

Mbah and Igariwey go on to discuss the present crises in Africa: the abject poverty of about 90% of African people side by side with the vast wealth and decadence of the political leaders, the appalling human rights records of the ruling elite, the huge foreign debt of underdeveloped and dependent African economies and the political corruption and social instability throughout Africa. The authors come to the conclusion that the only way out of Africa's crises is anarchism.

"For Africa in particular, long-term development is possible only if there is a radical break with both capitalism and the state system - the principal instruments of our arrested development and stagnation". They see a return to the traditional "anarchic elements" in African communalism as the inevitable next step. "The goal of a self-managed society born out of the free will of its people and devoid of authoritarian control and regimentation is as attractive as it is feasible in the long run".

This well-structured and informative book provides a unique anarchist analysis of Africa. The authors give an in-depth study of the causes of Africa's current crises, outlining clearly the revolutionary potential of Africa and the many reasons why anarchism is indeed Africa's only way out.

Deirdre Hogan


This article is from Workers Solidarity No 55 published in October 1998