Dulwich, Democracy and Africa by Gardner Thompson, reviewed by Michael Twaddle
Woodwarde Road must be one of the coolest roads on the Dulwich Estate, but its residents have included some of the most knowledgeable experts on the hottest parts of the world.
The great West Indian sociologist, M.G.Smith, lived for many years in the road with his wife Mary. Michael wrote a seminal study of government and society in northern Nigeria after earlier pioneering work on Rastafarianism in Kingston, Jamaica, while Mary used her time in West Africa to compose one of the classics of women’s history: “Baba of Karo, a woman of the Muslim Hausa” (Faber&Faber 1954; Yale UP 1981 ISBN 0-300-02741-9).
M.G.Smith struck me as one of the most frighteningly intelligent people I have ever met. I first encountered him as head of the anthropology department at UCL where I gave a paper on Uganda to one of his seminars. Other experts on Africa I met first informally through having children of similar ages in local schools - these included several officials working in the Treasury or Overseas Development in Whitehall who would regale one with accounts of sometimes dramatic changes - or continuities - in British policy towards different parts of Africa during and after the Cold War. Huw Evans was one such, both before and after his secondment to be an executive director of the IMF in Washington.
Gardner Thompson is another resident of Woodward Road, and together with his wife Elizabeth a distinguished authority on Africa during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I met both when I was on SOAS’s staff as a ‘trouble spots teacher’ teaching MA courses and funded by the then UK Department of Technical Cooperation. Elizabeth went on to research and publish an important study of “Ghana during the First World War: The colonial administration of Sir Hugh Clifford” (Elizabeth Wrangham, Carolina Academic Press 2013, ISBN 978-1-61163-360-3) and Gardner an account of Uganda during the Second World War. Gardner has now published a timely study of “African Democracy: its origins and development in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania” with Fountain Press in Uganda, available in UK through the African Books Collective in Oxford and Amazon worldwide (ISBN 978-9970-25-311-1).
This study has been written during Gardner’s retirement from the post of head of history at Dulwich College and his involvement in a number of NGOs ranging from smallish charities running schools in the Uganda-Kenya borderlands to the Anglican church in Zimbabwe. This particular account of democracy and its problematic development in East Africa since the advent of independence from British colonial rule in the 1960s, concentrates mostly upon the divisiveness of multi-party systems of government in some of the poorer parts of Africa. These were previously subjected to highly authoritarian rule by foreigners in the face of dramatic changing Western and Eastern foreign and developmental policies during and after the Cold War.
Gardner Thompson’s view of political change in this part of the world is relentlessly historical and comparative, the principal heroes being Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and, more surprisingly, Yoweri Museveni, as ‘exceptional leaders’ in Uganda. Both countries were well governed during their earliest years in power, in his view. Both African leaders may also have ‘genuinely .. aimed to transcend short-term interests in favour of longer-term developmental goals’, but they were ultimately frustrated ‘by their inability to engineer a political substitute for patron-client networks at the core of political legitimacy’ (p.412). Additionally, there are frequent references to Athenian democracy, French Revolution and successive constitutions of the infant United States of America in this book - references more familiar to former history pupils at Dulwich College perhaps than in other accounts of Africa’s traumas during the post-colonial era. Nonetheless, these references may not be entirely irrelevant to other readers in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump.