Breaking Down Democracy

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Arch Puddington
Breaking Down Democracy:
The Strategies, Goals, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians
Freedom House, Democracy Studies. June 2017

Contents

Executive Summary
Introduction: Modern Authoritarians: Origins, Anatomy, Outlook
Chapter 1. Validating Autocracy through the Ballot
Chapter 2. Propaganda at Home and Abroad
Chapter 3. The Enemy Within: Civil Society at Bay
Chapter 4. The Ministry of Truth in Peace and War
Chapter 5. The Rise of ‘Illiberal Democracy’
Chapter 6. Flacks and Friends
Chapter 7. Bullying the Neighbors: Frozen Conflicts, the Near Abroad, and Other Innovations
Chapter 8. Back to the Future
Conclusion: Authoritarianism Comes Calling

Executive Summary

The 21st century has been marked by a resurgence of authoritarian rule that has proved resilient despite economic fragility and occasional popular resistance. Modern authoritarianism has succeeded, where previous totalitarian systems failed, due to refined and nuanced strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies, and the spread of illiberal policies in democratic countries themselves. The leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote fulltime attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.

Central to the modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the commanding heights of the economy, and the security forces. With these institutions under the effective if not absolute control of an incumbent leader, changes in government through fair and honest elections become all but impossible. Unlike Soviet-style communism, modern authoritarianism is not animated by an overarching ideology or the messianic notion of an ideal future society. Nor do today’s autocrats seek totalitarian control over people’s everyday lives, movements, or thoughts. The media are more diverse and entertaining under modern authoritarianism, civil society can enjoy an independent existence (as long as it does not pursue political change), citizens can travel around the country or abroad with only occasional interference, and private enterprise can flourish (albeit with rampant corruption and cronyism).

This study explains how modern authoritarianism defends and propagates itself, as regimes from different regions and with diverse socioeconomic foundations copy and borrow techniques of political control. Among its major findings:

  • Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has played an outsized role in the development of modern authoritarian systems. This is particularly true in the areas of media control, propaganda, the smothering of civil society, and the weakening of political pluralism. Russia has also moved aggressively against neighboring states where democratic institutions have emerged or where democratic movements have succeeded in ousting corrupt authoritarian leaders.
  • The rewriting of history for political purposes is common among modern authoritarians. Again, Russia has taken the lead, with the state’s assertion of authority over history textbooks and the process, encouraged by Putin, of reassessing the historical role of Joseph Stalin.
  • The hiring of political consultants and lobbyists from democratic countries to represent the interests of autocracies is a growing phenomenon. China is clearly in the vanguard, with multiple representatives working for the state and for large economic entities closely tied to the state. But there are also K Street representatives for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and practically all of the authoritarian states in the Middle East.
  • The toxic combination of unfair elections and crude majoritarianism is spreading from modern authoritarian regimes to illiberal leaders in what are still partly democratic countries. Increasingly, populist politicians—once in office—claim the right to suppress the media, civil society, and other democratic institutions by citing support from a majority of voters. The resulting changes make it more difficult for the opposition to compete in future elections and can pave the way for a new authoritarian regime.
  • An expanding cadre of politicians in democracies are eager to emulate or cooperate with authoritarian rulers. European parties of the nationalistic right and anticapitalist left have expressed admiration for Putin and aligned their policy goals with his. Others have praised illiberal governments in countries like Hungary for their rejection of international democratic standards in favor of perceived national interests. Even when there is no direct collaboration, such behavior benefits authoritarian powers by breaking down the unity and solidarity of the democratic world.
  • There has been a rise in authoritarian internationalism. Authoritarian powers form loose but effective alliances to block criticism at the United Nations and regional organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States, and to defend embattled allies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. There is also growing replication of what might be called authoritarian best practices, vividly on display in the new Chinese law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and efforts by Russia and others to learn from China’s experience in internet censorship.
  • Modern authoritarians are working to revalidate the concept of the leader-for-life. One of the seeming gains of the postcommunist era was the understanding that some form of term limits should be imposed to prevent incumbents from consolidating power into a dictatorship. In recent years, however, a number of countries have adjusted their constitutions to ease, eliminate, or circumvent executive term limits. The result has been a resurgence of potential leaders-forlife from Latin America to Eurasia.
  • While more subtle and calibrated methods of repression are the defining feature of modern authoritarianism, the past few years have featured a reemergence of older tactics that undermine the illusions of pluralism and openness as well as integration with the global economy. Thus Moscow has pursued its military intervention in Ukraine despite economic sanctions and overseen the assassination of opposition figures; Beijing has revived the practice of coerced public “confessions” and escalated its surveillance of the Tibetan and Uighur minorities to totalitarian levels; and Azerbaijan has made the Aliyev family’s monopoly on political power painfully obvious with the appointment of the president’s wife as “first vice president.”
  • Modern authoritarian systems are employing these blunter methods in a context of increased economic fragility. Venezuela is already in the process of political and economic disintegration. Other states that rely on energy exports have also experienced setbacks due to low oil and gas prices, and China faces rising debt and slower growth after years of misallocated investment and other structural problems. But these regimes also face less international pressure to observe democratic norms, raising their chances of either surviving the current crises or—if they break down—giving way to something even worse.

In subsequent sections, this report will examine the methods employed by authoritarian powers to neutralize precisely those institutions that were thought to be the most potent weapons against a revitalized authoritarianism. The success of the Russian and Chinese regimes in bringing to heel and even harnessing the forces produced by globalization—digital media, civil society, free markets—may be their most impressive and troubling achievement.

Modern authoritarianism is particularly insidious in its exploitation of open societies. Russia and China have both taken advantage of democracies’ commitment to freedom of expression and delivered infusions of propaganda and disinformation. Moscow has effectively prevented foreign broadcasting stations from reaching Russian audiences even as it steadily expands the reach of its own mouthpieces, the television channel RT and the news service Sputnik. China blocks the websites of mainstream foreign media while encouraging its corporations to purchase influence in popular culture abroad through control of Hollywood studios. Similar combinations of obstruction at home and interference abroad can be seen in sectors including civil society, academia, and party politics.

The report draws on examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies, but the focus remains on the two leading authoritarian powers, China and Russia. Much of the report, in fact, deals with Russia, since that country, more than any other, has incubated and refined the ideas and institutions at the foundation of 21st-century authoritarianism.

Finally, a basic assumption behind the report is that modern authoritarianism will be a lasting feature of geopolitics. Since 2012, both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have doubled down on existing efforts to stamp out internal dissent, and both have grown more aggressive on the world stage. All despotic regimes have inherent weaknesses that leave them vulnerable to sudden shocks and individually prone to collapse. However, the past quarter-century has shown that dictatorship in general will not disappear on its own. Authoritarian systems will seek not just to survive, but to weaken and defeat democracy around the world.

The N’ko Alphabet: Then and Now

Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N'ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons.
Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. Cherry Hill, N.J. : Africana Homestead Legacy, 2005, 2007. xiv, 241 p. : ill., map

Dianne White Oyler
Dianne White Oyler

Dianne White Oyler’s article on the N’ko Alphabet   includes my contextual annotations and corrections. The paper appeared in 2001, four years before the same author’s book named The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. I focus here on the article below, which Dianne wrote based on her fieldwork in Conakry and Kankan, back in 1994. As the saying goes one is entitled to one’s opinion but not to one’s facts, lest they are the “alternative facts”  per Ms. Kellyanne Conway now infamous TV statement. In this case, it is normal and routine  to study and even support cultural activism and language revival efforts around the world. However, does such an activity and commitment permit to publish fabricated facts or falsifications of the historical record? I don’t think so. Dianne correctly points out that “Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible.” However, it is counterproductive to try to fill in that void with superficial documents and inaccurate information. Such a shortcut circumvents academic deontology. Worse, it ends up hurting the cause championed, here the N’ko Alphabet. And it lowers considerably the quality and the value of the output. That explains —but does not justify— why Dianne’s article “A cultural revolution in Africa:  literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence” is replete  with errors and exaggerations. Again, I react contextually below on those shortcomings.
That said, and for the record, my track record in the Guinea national language debate dates back to the mid-1970s. I was then a young faculty in the Linguistics and African Languages department of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I also headed the Pular section of the Academy of National Languages, in close collaboration with a competent and elder deputy in the person of  the late Mamadou Gangue (a survivor of the “Teachers Plot”). The work environment was quite collegial, and I was great professional rapport with the head of the Sosokui section, the late Kanfory Bangoura.
In 1975 I wrote a lengthy descriptive and analytical paper titled “La politique linguistique du Parti démocratique de Guinée,” in Miriya, Revue des Sciences économiques et sociales, of which I was co-publisher with Bailo Teliwel Diallo. My article generated positive verbal comments from my colleagues, Yolande Joseph-Nöelle, for example, and from her husband, Senainon Béhanzin, the de facto intellectual guru of Sékou Touré
During the 2010 presidential election campaign, relying heavily on the Maninka electorate of Haute-Guinée, the RPG candidate, Alpha Condé, vowed his support for the ongoing N’ko campaign. He subsequently “won” the second round. But his regime did little to translate the promises into funded programs. Having managed to gain a second term in 2015, Mr. Condé does not give cultural activities the priority they deserve. His former deputy, the late Ahmed Tidiane Cissé, lamented the lack of governmental support for his ministry of culture.… In sum, N’ko has not fared  well under any of the three Maninka presidents of Guinea: Sékou Touré, Sékouba Konaté and Alpha Condé. Ditto for the heritage of each of the other 15 ethnic cultures of the country.
See also my article “The cultural policy of the PDG.” and “Are Fulɓe Disappearing? And Is Adlam Their Savior?
Overall, I was an active participant-observer of cultural life under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. For instance, I was a prominent member of the National Film Censorship Commission (1971-1981). We screened, discussed, authorized or rejected movies imported for distribution around the country. Given the nature of the police-state the pro-bono function was not risk-free. Thus, in August 1978 Sékou Touré admonished the sub-commission I led was on the air waves of the Voice of the Revolution. For what reason ? We had signed our names for the approval of the film Midnight Cowboy. Unfortunately, the regime’s secrete police filed a report slamming the content of the R-rated movie. Subsequently, when I visited him with the late Zainoul A. Sanoussi, President Sékou Touré somewhat downplayed privately his public communiqué blaming us by name on the radio. It was a meager consolation for us, and particularly for our families and friends. They had been alarmed by the fact that Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique national of the PDG decided to disavow our official action so openly. They did not even watch themselves the incriminated movie, in the first place ! Although a screening session was held after the facts, in presence of Mamadi Keita, member of the Politbureau, and Senainon Behanzin, memer of the Central committee. The two officials acknowledged that despite its implicit sexual content, the film had artistic and substantive quality.… After all, it won the Motion Picture Academy Best Picture award for 1969.
Another record worth mentioning, from 1975 to 1977, I was, first co-host then sole host, of a radio show called “Voyage à travers la Guinée”. Still teaching at the University, I decide to explore radio-broadcasting. My mentor was veteran journalist Odilon Théa. We featured a different region  each week, presenting its history, culture, economy, touristic potential, etc. And we had fun preparing and airing the weekly (every Tuesday) program. For nearby Dubréka, I recall that we rented a cab and visited the town to collect information from residents. Later on, Marcelin Bangoura joined us. And, feeling confident in my performance, Odilon graciously bowed out and let me do the show alone. There too, an incident reminded of the peril involved in living and working under Sékou Touré. Having scheduled the town of Boffa (northwestern coast) I produced the show by going to the archives. There I dug out files about Nyara Gbèli, a mulatto female slave-trader. I aired selections of her biography and historical record. It turned out that Sékou Touré and all members of the Politbureau were tuned in. At the end the show, some were not please to hear about the slavery piece of the show. They suggested that I be summoned for explanations. Luckily, Sékou Touré agreed with those who opposed the idea, arguing that it would not be a boost to my confidence in exploring the country’s past. How did I know what happened in the higher echelon of the government? Well, Léon Maka, National Assembly president attended the meeting. His daughter, Madeleine, was a colleague and a good friend of mine at Voix de la Révolution. He told her about the discussion they had had. And she, in turn, shared with me, saying: “Tierno, careful! Last you were nearly dragged before Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique!”

Tierno S. Bah


Dianne White Oyler
A cultural revolution in Africa:
literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence

The International Journal of African History. Vol. 34, No. 3 (2001), pp. 585-600

Contents

Introduction
Guinea and Decolonization
The N’ko Alphabet
Guinea’s Cultural Revolution
The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution
Souleymane Kante’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy
The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté
Conclusion

Introduction

At independence most African nations attempted a process of decolonization in the three spheres of European imperialism: political, economic, and cultural. While progress in the political and economic arenas is apparent decolonization of the cultural area is much harder to define because European cultural impositions had usurped the areas of language, socialization through education, and technology from simple writing to electronic media. However, the approach of the Republic of Guinea to cultural decolonization can be analyzed in light of the more formal “Cultural Revolution” launched by its independence leader Sékou Touré in 1958 as a policy of the First Republic.

Erratum. — That program’s official name and acronym were “La révolution culturelle socialiste” and RCS, respectively. And it was not launched in 1958. To the contrary, it was declared ten years later at the improvised Conseil national de la révolution held in Kankan in 1968. — T.S. Bah

Touré’s objective was to validate the indigenous cultures that had been denigrated by the Europeans while at the same time creating a Guinean national consciousness 1. In other words, Touré launched a countrywide campaign to recapture indigenous culture by formally focusing on language and education. His specific intent was to validate indigenous culture by using maternal language education to achieve better control of European science and technology. This action, he believed, would lead Guinea into creating global economic partnerships within the modem world’s economy.

An unanticipated consequence of Touré’s campaign, however, was the cultural awakening of the Maninka speakers who consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient empire of Mali. Although dispersed through the countries of West Africa (including Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria), the Maninka speakers constitute roughly 40 percent of Guinea’s population. Many of them live in the region of Haute-Guinée, which makes up about two-fifths of Guinea’s territory.

Errata. — (1) Ms. Oyler shows here the first sign of her sole reliance on verbal informants at the exclusion of available written sources. Thus it is plain wrong for her and her informers to state that Sékou Touré did not anticipate a “Maninka cultural awakening.” Actually, he was an hands-on president who exhausted himself micro-managing every aspect of social and, indeed, family and personal life. Accordingly, it’s just valid to speak of a social movement like the N’ko, that he would not have predicted, and more or less tolerated.
(2) In percentage the Maninka demography comes second to the Fulɓe (Peul, Fula, Fulani) in Guinea. The former stands at approximately 35% of the population while the Fulɓe actually hold 40%. Given their respective size, the two groups weigh heavily in the political sphere. — T.S. Bah

The Maninka cultural revolution that began within Touré’s larger “Cultural Revolultion” continues today in the Second Republic of Lansana Conté, which began in 1984. The cultural revival of the Maninka language, its oral literature, and its connection to the heroic/historic past has been juxtaposed to any official policy of creating a Guinean national consciousness since 1958.

Note. —Guinea’s quest for “national consciousness” in the wake of the independence declaration stemmed from the heritage of all 16 ethnic communities, not that of the Maninka alone, especially in the first decade of the republic. Take for instance, the various musical traditions — either from sizable groups, like the Kisi of Forest Guinea with the Kebendo danse and song (see my review of Sia Tolno’s My Life album, or fom minorities, such the Koniagui (Unyëy) of Koundara with the rhythm Sampacthe. Everyone  contributed and enjoyed the celebration of the birth of the new nation. Alas, the euphoria lasted no more than two years!
— T.S. Bah

This article specifically addresses Guinea’s internal revolt against European cultural imperialism as evidenced in the issues of language and literacy that have dominated the political landscape in post-1958 Guinea 2.

Note. — This passage reads like a militant statement. But it lacks a specific to lend it credence. Where, when, how, and who staged the so-called revolt? How was it actually expressed? — T.S. Bah

It further addresses the concept of maternal language learning that became central to decolonization, and particularly the policy Sékou Touré developed and implemented with the support of UNESCO—the National Language Program (1968-1984) 3.

Erratum. — Beginning in the late 1960 UNESCO assisted the cultural policy of the Sékou Touré regime. However, the first illiteracy campaign was supported by the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, in 1964-66. — T.S. Bah

More importantly, however, the article documents one result of Touré’s program that has acquired a life of its own outside government control, a grassroots literacy movement that centers on an alphabet called N’ko. The dissemination of N’ko shows the growth of a literacy movement that is currently spreading across international boundaries throughout West Africa. A salient aspect of the issue of language and literacy was the involvement of Souleymane Kanté (1922-1987), a Maninka-speaking “vernacular intellectual” who invented the N’ko alphabet in 1949. Souleymane Kanté was born in Soumankoyin-Kölönin about thirteen kilometers from Kankan. He was the son of the famous Quranic school teacher Amara Kanté. When Souleymane had finished his Quranic school education, he could read and write Arabic and translate Islamic texts. After his father’s death in 1941, Kanté left Guinea for Côte d’ Ivoire to make his fortune as an entrepreneur in a more cosmopolitan urban setting. Becoming an autodidact there, he read extensively, learned other languages, and became renowned as a scholar.

Guinea and Decolonization

Under Sékou Touré’s leadership, the Republic of Guinea ended political imperialism in 1958 when 95 percent of the voters cast a “No” vote in a referendum addressing the country’s wish to join the “French Community.” Thus began a real struggle for autonomy in the political, economic, and cultural spheres of national life.
At that time the reality of political independence meant indigenous leadership; in Guinea’s case, it also meant an inexperienced leadership. Sékou Touré’s experience offers a salient example of the under-preparation of emerging African leaders.

Note. — There is no such thing leadership preparation for independence. Colonialism meant hegemony, domination, exploitation, racisme, alienation. The colonizer did not —and would never— intend to genuinely associate the colonized in power-sharing. Read Albert Memmi’s Portrait du Colonisateur. — T.S. Bah

Possessing an eighth grade, French-style colonial education, plus a bit of training supplied by French communist trade unionists, and the experience of ten years in governmental service, Touré deliberately created an eclectic form of government that drew upon the strengths of his equally eclectic education. In the Cold War period Touré chose the political path of African Socialism and the diplomatic path of nonalignment. The type of government he called “positive neutralism” allowed him to open Guinea to all manner of foreign investment without committing himself to any specific ideology 4.
Inherent in the political independence of Guinea, however, was the problem of a revenue shortfall; France had withdrawn both its economic aid to Guinea and also its trade partnership. At the same time, Guinea lost its trade connections with many of France’s trading partners, especially among France’s NATO allies.
Guinea’s sister colonies within French West Africa (AOF) continued to trade with her unofficially, however.
As a Third World country producing raw materials to supply the First World industrial complex, Guinea produced many of the same products as other Third World nations that were constantly being encouraged to increase production. One result was a decrease in Guinea’s share of the world market, forcing the new nation to find alternative markets. With its doors closed to Western capitalist markets, Guinea became a trading partner with the Eastern bloc nations. Trade with Second World nations, however, exacerbated Guinea’s economic shortfall, as these nations were unable to purchase Guinea’s raw materials with foreign exchange, substituting instead manufactured goods. They then sold Guinea’s raw materials on the world market, thus gaining foreign exchange that improved their own economies to the detriment of Guinea’s. Although Guinea received Second World technology, she never did receive the support system that would have allowed her to maintain and expand upon that technology.

Today Guinea is one of the poorest nations in West Africa.

In the cultural sphere of Guinea’s national life, Sékou Touré opted to keep the French language; all documents would be written in French in the Roman alphabet, Guinea’s official language. It seems that Touré chose the colonial language with an eye to national unity in order to avoid the conflicts that would arise over choosing one of the twenty ethnic languages as the country’s official language.
French also served Guinea in the international marketplace where buyers and sellers were not likely to learn an African language. Guinea also continued to use the French system of education. However, university training for Guineans was now sought in First and Second World countries. Students received scholarships in the United States as well as a “free” education in the Soviet Union.

Although Touré had earlier implied that Guinea would be an Islamic state after independence, he imposed religious toleration instead in a country of Muslims, Christians, and African traditional religions; this eclecticism became one method of promoting national unity.

Note. — Since the above assertion provides no reference to  written sources, or to verifiable quotes, it appears pretty much groundless.
— T.S. Bah

Nevertheless, in the years following Guinea’s political independence, a large segment of Guinea’s Maninka-speaking population has tried to return the cultural initiative to African hands by utilizing an indigenous alphabet created by an indigenous scholar and cultural leader named Souleymane Kanté. While Sékou Touré, a Maninka-speaker himself, had encouraged Kanté in this initiative, he preferred not to allow the use of the writing system known as N’ko as a national language/writing system. Ultimately, though, Kanté’s research and promotion of learning in the maternal languages may have directly influenced Touré, who had addressed the issues of indigenous languages/writing systems as a way to reclaim African culture by implementing a National Language Program (1968-1984).

Notes. — (1) The above paragraph is too general and vague. How does the expression “large segment” translate numerically, statistically?
(2) It is hypothetical to write Souleymane Kanté “may have directly influenced” Sékou Touré’s language policy. Adverse, one can argue, the former did not inspire the latter. In the absence of any evidence from the author, I am enclined to think that Guinea’s adventurous linguistic initiatives had little to do with the efforts of Souleymane Kanté.
T.S. Bah

The N’ko Alphabet

According to informants, Souleymane Kanté created the N’ko alphabet both in response a media-based challenge 6 that Africans have no culture because they have no indigenous system of writing, and because of his growing realization that foreign writing systems could not fully express the meaning of such tonal languages as Maninka, his maternal language. Kanté responded to the allegation that “Africans have no culture” by creating an alphabet that would transcribe the twenty languages of the Mande language group as well as other tonal languages.
Thus, in his role as a “vernacular intellectual,” 7 Kanté campaigned against ignorance and illiteracy by providing a writing system that would allow his countrymen to acquire knowledge without having to depend upon outside interpretation. According to informants, he expressed the idea that Africans needed to learn their own maternal languages first, because learning in a second or third language often obfuscated the cultural meaning of the text 8. The potential for indigenous literacy would enable illiterates to read and write, even though they had been excluded from the colonial education system. Kanté devoted four years (1945-1949) to research and application, trying to write the Maninka language first in Arabic script and then in the Roman alphabet. In both cases he found that foreign alphabets could not transcribe all the tones produced by the spoken Mande languages. While still living in Cote d’Ivoire, he thus embarked on an entirely new project—the creation of a writing system that would reflect the specific characteristics of Mande languages, especially their tonality. The result was the N’ko alphabet. Having developed the alphabet, he called together children and illiterates and asked them to draw a line in the dirt; he noticed that seven out of ten drew the line from right to left 9. For that reason, he chose a right-to-left orientation. In all Mande languages the pronoun n- means “I” and the verb ko represents the verb “to say.” By choosing the name N’ko, “I say” in all Mande languages, Kanté had united speakers of Mande languages with just one phrase.

Furthermore, all Mande speakers share the heroic past recounted in the tale of Sundiata, an epic of Mande history—reflecting the cultural dominance of men of valor who say “N’ko,” the clear language of Mali (Niane, 1989:87) 10.
After Souleymane Kanté had perfected his alphabet, informants recall his becoming absorbed in creating reading materials in the N’ko script. Kanté’s lifelong passion then became the production of N’ko texts to highlight knowledge that should be written in the maternal language. Kanté worked assiduously after returningt o his native Guineai n 1958. He translated and transcribed Islamic texts and also works of history, sociology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, science, and technology. Then he wrote textbooks for teaching the N’ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster before him, he created a dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language. There are no dates for the translations of any of the above mentioned texts. Other than the fact that religious works were translated and transcribed first, informants are not aware of the order in which other texts were renderedi n N’ko. After hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, Kanté would then create copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N’ko literacy within the Mande community. Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn reproduced additional books by copying them.
Consequently, Kanté directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N’ko, and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism that gave people the pride of sharing a language that could stand in words and script alongside any other.

Guinea’s Cultural Revolution

When Sékou Touré called upon all Guineans to return home to help build the new nation after Guinea achieved independence in 1958, Kanté returned from Côte d’Ivoire to a new social order 11.

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Guinea was in the process of reinventing itself politically and culturally at the local, regional, and national levels 12.

In the midst of this cultural upheaval, nationalist leaders professed a desire to shed colonial trappings and to tap into their heroic/historic African past. Since the ethnic groups within Guinea’s national borders had never before been joined together, a nationalist rhetoric was developed that sent mixed messages about loyalty to the past. Harking back to the grandeur of an African heritage, however, also tempted each group to focus their allegiance internally rather than to a greater Guinean nationalism. At the national level, the Partie Democratique Guineen (PDG) agitated for a Guinean “national consciousness,” 13 while local ethnic groups continued the cultural re-identification process that had begun in the mid-1940s 14.

The Maninka speakers of Haute-Guinée, for example, had established the Union Manden in 1946 as a voluntary mutual aid association organized around a linguistic, ethnic, and regional base 15. That action kindled interest in the glorious Mande past.

This mutual aid association had been founded by such Maninka speaking political activists as Sékou Touré and Framoi Bérété. The association had also served as a regional political party with the ability to launch candidates in national elections, something the Maninka speakers had been unable to do in the 1945 elections.

Despite the desire of the Union Manden to give national expression to Mande discontent, it never developed beyond its regional, cultural base 16.

The conflict between Guinean nationalism and regional, ethnic/cultural nationalism continued to manifest itself throughout the First Republic, particularly in the implementation of the National Language Program (1968-1984).

The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution

Souleymane Kanté introduced Sékou Touré to the idea of maternal language literacy and education in 1958 17. Although Sékou Touré had praised the Mande styled alphabet, he rejected the idea of its becoming the national alphabet of Guinea 18 because he believed it could not improve written communication among Guinea’s ethnic groups, and he knew that it would also obstruct communication with the outside world 19.

Nevertheless, Touré rewarded Kanté’s scholarly achievement by honoring him with a 200,000 CFA gift from the Guinean peoplefor indigenous excellence 20. But he still refused to support or promote the alphabet unless Kanté could prove that more than half the population of Haute-Guinée used the technology 21. Touré further requested that Kanté and his family return to his home country 22.

Answering the call, Kanté went to the area of Treicheville in Abidjan, where he was met by a military truck sent overland by Touré to collect the Kanté family 23.

The Kanté family moved to Kankan where Souleymane Kanté then became a merchant who taught N’ko on the side 24. Interestingly, however, the alphabet preceded Kanté’s arrival in Kankan; many of the initial students of N’ko had been merchants who had carried the new alphabet with them along trade routes throughout Mande-speaking West Africa 25. Informant family members reminisced that Souleymane had visited them in Guinea, and that they had visited him in Côte d’Ivoire. He had taught them the alphabet, and they in turn had taught their neighbors.

Although Sékou Touré had rejected Kanté’s Mande-styled alphabet as the national alphabet, he did eventually accept the concept of maternal language education 26.

Touré is reported to have introduced Kanté to his national education minister, Barry Diawadou, and to his minister of national defense, Fodéba Keita 27.

Touré excluded Kanté from policy making sessions, however, as he worked together with his minister of ideology and information, Senainon Béhanzin, to produce the model for a maternal language program that would accommodate Guinea’s multilingual society 28. Touré’s final proposal was then submitted to the rank and file of the PDG membership at the cell level within villages and urban districts 29.

One informant from Haute-Guinée had participated as a member of the party cell at the village level voting on the proposal for teaching in the maternal language. A teacher who had also been involved in standardization the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet, this informant explained that in 1958 Guinea was struggling to regain its political, economic, and cultural independence. The country chose to free itself culturally through a National Language Program: Congress established a National Education Commission to formulate government policy, and teachers were called upon to contribute to the effort in two ways-to standardize their specific, spoken language in the Roman alphabet and to translate into the national languages modem scientific knowledge that had been written in French. Finally, the government intended to use its publishing house, Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba, to print textbooks for the project 30.

Informants who had participated in implementing these educational reforms reminisced about the rationale behind the new policy. Literacy acquisition in French had been discarded as too complicated a procedure, as students would have had to learn both a new alphabet and a new language. The process would be simplified if people first learned a new alphabet to which they could apply the familiarm aternall anguage 31. The government established two autonomous agencies to deal with the National Language Program, the Institut de Recherche Linguistique Appliquée (IRLA) and the Service National de l’Alphabétisation (SNA) 32.
Eight of the twenty different languages spoken in Guinea were selected on the basis of the numbers of people using them as a primary or secondary language:

Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi, Guerzé (Kpelle), Tome (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.

Each either was or would become a lingua franca in its region or sub-region. Although Mande languages were widely used in all four regions, the Maninka form was selected to be the dominant language to be taught only in Haute-Guinée. According to the National Language Program, an illiterate adult Mande-speaking family in Kankan would be taught the Maninka language written in the Roman alphabet; adults would be taught at work while children would be taught at school. Likewise, a Pular-speaking family living in Kankan would have the same experience; even though they were non-Mande speakers, the language of instruction would be Maninka 33.
Financial constraints delayed the immediate implementation of the National Language Program 34. The regional education directors for Haute-Guinée believed that the infrastructure did not exist for a massive assault on illiteracy; despite the government’s commitment to provide free public primary education, it had failed to anticipate the additional funds necessary to generate materials written in the newly formulated and standardized national languages 35. Teachers themselves had to finance the standardization of the national languages by giving their time to the endeavor. In 1965 Touré applied for and received UNESCO funding for a maternal language education program called “Langue Nationale,” which the government implemented in 1967 36. UNESCO sent experts to assist the Guinean government in standardizing local languages in the Roman alphabet 37. Although the preparation for the National Language Program had begun in 1959, the actual campaign for adults did not begin in 1967, and in 1968 the campaign entered the schools. Both programs were associated with Sdkou Touré’s larger social program, “La Révolution Culturelle Socialiste.” 38
The reforms implemented in 1968 consisted of two coexisting educational tracks—one for schools and one for adults and school leavers. From 1968 to 1984 students in the public elementary schools were taught all subjects in the maternal language 39. During the First Cycle, in grades one through three, the language of instruction was the maternal language 40. At grade four, they were introduced to an academic course in French, which they continued each year through grade six. Academic subjects were still taught in the maternal language. In the Second Cycle, affecting the lower secondary grades seven through nine, students continued the program with an academic course in French and with the maternal language as the language of instruction. To advance to the upper secondary level, students had to pass an exam, the Brevet Elémentaire du Second Cycle Technique. During the Third Cycle, students experienced a change in the language of instruction, and the language of instruction at the lycée gradually became French 41. To be admitted to the university level—the Fourth Cycle—students had to pass the exam for the Baccalauréat Unique.

In 1973 the Ministry of Education added a thirteenth grade that bridged the third and fourth cycles, and exams were administered at the end of the thirteenth level 42. The second track consisted of adults and school leavers who were given the opportunity to acquire literacy (alphabétisation) by attending literacy programs in the maternal language before or after work either at their places of employment or at schools after the normal school day 43.

In preparation for the 1968 implementation of the National Language Program, each ethnic group was charged with standardizing the spoken language into a written form in the Roman alphabet. Educators in Kankan, the capital of Mande-speaking Haute-Guinée, looked for people who possessed a rich vocabulary and who were generally well informed who could participate in translating the diverse curricula into the maternal language.

It was then that the committee invited Souleymane Kanté to participate in the standardization process 44. They considered him an expert because while inventing the N’ko alphabet he had spent years trying to find the best way to write the Mande languages in the Roman alphabet. Kanté agreed to participate unofficially in the project.

Souleymane Kanté’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy

Although Souleymane Kanté assisted the government with the standardization of his maternal language, Maninka, he did not abandon his own literacy program.
Kanté disapproved of Touré’s National Language Program because it depended upon a foreign alphabet and on foreign constructions. In fact, he held that if there were to be a cultural revolution that drew upon the African past, then African cultural forms should be its foundation. Kanté’s goal was to control Mande and modern knowledge through the use of a Mande language and literacy program. He thus offered an indigenous alternative to the official National Language Program. The two literacy initiatives, he believed, were not mutually exclusive.
Touré’s state-funded literacy campaign dominated the formal education scene, drawing upon the existing infrastructure, its curricula and its personnel. Kanté is remembered as having taught N’ko in the marketplace. He had taught the members of his own extended family and had recommended that others do the same 45. The “each one teach one” policy was actually a recommendation for each person to teach at least seven others. Informants recalled that Kanté attracted many followers by demonstrating N’ko at social functions, such as funerals,  where he opened his Qur’an written in N’ko and read the Word of God 46. Kanté suggested that everyone should learn N’ko and that those who refused would later regret their error. Kanté’s literacy movement slowly gained support as it operated on the fringes in an informal educational environment that paralleled Touré’s state system. Kanté’s movement possessed no infrastructure, enjoyed no financial assistance, had no texts except the ones students copied for themselves. The engine that powered the movement was a person’s desire to repossess Mande culture by controlling knowledge through Mande language and literacy.
Teachers were the key to this grassroots movement. Some teachers were drawn from the existing state-funded pool of personnel. Others were businessmen and workers who taught N’ko at their businesses or in their homes. Most in the N’ko teaching force contributed their time without remuneration. In some cases the students’ families gave gifts to their teachers at the end of the service in order to help support the teacher or the school. The process of learning N’ko took about four months. Each N’ko teacher could teach three groups per year. In the beginning,  students were mostly adults, who later saw to it that their children were also educated in N’ko. Armed with a blackboard, a tripod, and a piece of chalk, the N’ko teachers employed a methodology similar to that of Quranic school—memorization, imitation, and utilization. Students would congregate at the compound of a teacher where they would copy the alphabet on slate or paper and then would use oral recitation as a tool for memorization and reinforcement. The teacher conducted the class, but students, regardless of age, had the responsibility for leading the recitations. Students who were quick and adept were recruited as assistants and eventually became teachers themselves. Students copied the texts that Kanté had translated and transcribed to produce personal or family copies. Those who became N’ko literate were well equipped to read the literature Kanté had generated, were able to communicate with others literate in N’ko, and could keep records and accounts for their businesses. Some students undertook the task of recording the oral histories of older members of their families to preserve in writing first-hand knowledge 47.

The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté

An informal competition over the recasting of Mande culture developed as Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté seemed to wrestle with each other for the number of Mande speakers in Haute-Guinée who acquired literacy in the maternal language.

Maternal language literacy was the goal, but the choice of alphabet seemed to become a personal issue. Touré appeared to have the advantage because his program was heir to the already existing state program. His selection of the Roman alphabet was prudent because the alphabet was already used throughout much of the world, and local typesetting existed and was in place. While a few maternal language textbooks were published, the translation and publication of other works in the maternal languages never materialized 48. Kanté worked at a disadvantage. From the standpoint of infrastructure and funding, he lacked resources, and N’ko required an innovation in typesetting that was not locally available. Yet he continued to produce handwritten translated texts in the N’ko alphabet. These translations systematically spread throughoutt he Mande-speaking community as students hand copied them so as to have their personal copies for reading and teaching.

The two Mande-speaking competitors had developed opposing teaching methodologies. Sékou Touré imposed the Roman alphabet upon children and adults through the state-supported literacy program. The concept of a National Language Program had been supported by the PDG rank and file. But some educators observed that the program had a negative effect on learning French as an international language of diplomacy and economics 49. Because the educational system was universal only at the elementary level, students who failed the exams at the end of the Second Cycle never had the opportunity to continue French language instruction. In addition, adults who were acquiring literacy through the program never had the opportunity to learn French because they were limited to the maternal language. The goal was national literacy, and children and adults were becoming literate in the maternal language, limiting them to regional participation. By using the educational process in this manner, the government had effectively restricted the numbers of participants in the national arena, and, by so doing, restricted access to full knowledge of the French language itself.
On the other hand, Souleymane Kanté had attracted students by focusing upon Mande culture. Adults and children learned the alphabet voluntarily because it was culturally important to them. Having learned the alphabet, students used it for correspondence and business, and they amassed handwritten translations of religious, historical, and modem scientific texts. The significance of N’ko literacy led to a personal understanding of a wide variety of knowledge. Learning N’ko became a form of self-improvement because it was not promoted as the acquisition of knowledge for advancement in the political or economic structure of the nation. Touré had clung to a limited vision—that of the European—conceived nation-state that while striving for a Guinean national consciousness could not leave the designated borders of the Guinean nation. Kanté’s arena had been regional; he created a Mande consciousness that eventually drew together Guinea’s resident Mande speakers of Haute-Guinée and Guinée Forestière, and, more importantly, ultimately connected all the Mande speakers in West Africa.
Although Touré’s motives cannot be wholly known 50, in formants have characterized his relationship to Kanté based on conversations with either or both men and through the events the informants themselves witnessed.

It appears that in the 1960s Touré had hoped to isolate Kanté from his work by coopting him into the National Language Program. Kanté would not abandon his own work, however, and continued teaching the N’ko alphabet and translating texts into N’ko. Informants relate that Kanté wrote out texts by hand and used a Renault duplication machine capable of producing books of ten to twenty pages. In 1971 when the machine broke down, he journeyed to Conakry to ask the government for financial assistance in establishing a larger-scale print shop capable of duplicating works such as the N’ko version of the Qur’an 51.

In Conakry, Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané helped Kanté as much as he could by printing small runs at this Arabic printing press 52. Touré did nominate Kanté to the Conseil Islamique National (charged with defending Islam and its principles in Guinea) 53, but Kanté declined the appointment, saying that the committee meetings would interfere with the time he needed to translate texts into N’ko 54. Making his home in Conakry in the early 1970s, Kanté continued to write documents by hand; then he took them to Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané for printing 55. Kanté sold the printed manuscripts for a small sum in order to promote further literacy in N’ko in all segments of the community 56.

His family and friends reported that the relationship between the two men continued to deteriorate until Sékou Touré’s death in 1984. Thus, from the late 1970s through mid-1980’s, Kanté was forced to leave Guinea on several occasions and to reside in neighboring countries under the threat of being arrested or killed by Touré’s government 57.

During this self-imposed exile, Souleymane Kanté continued to translate works into N’ko and to compile a text of Mande healing arts 58.

Sékou Touré’s National Language Program from 1968 to 1984 had produced people who were literate in their spoken maternal language.

Under the leadership of Lansana Conté, the Second Republic implemented a new language program: French became the single national language and the language of literacy.
Although maternal language radio programs occurred during the Touré regime, the new government has systematically supported learning in the maternal languages by producing radio and television programs of cultural and news content spoken in only three of Guinea’s maternal languages—Susu, Maninka, and Pular.

After his return home to Guinea in 1985, Souleymane Kanté lived in Conakry teaching his alphabet until his death from diabetes in 1987 59.

Statistics on the number of adults and children who know how to read and write N’ko have not been established.

Under Kanté’s direction, his disciples established the Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) in 1986. ICRA-N’KO was officially sanctioned by the government in 1991 as a non-governmental organization (NGO) 60. Only since then has the group actively begun to compile statistics based on the current number of students enrolled in N’ko classes. Each teacher turns in a list of students to the local ICRAN’KO association, which records the numbers and sends them on to the Service National d’Alphabétisation to be included in the year’s literacy statistics.

By looking at the numerical fragments, it can be seen that the number of students in N’ko classes had steadily increased from 1989 to 1994; however, it is not possible to say whether or not this was the result of an increase in the number of students or the result of better record-keeping.

A literacy survey of Kankan I conducted in 1994 presents the first literacy statistics for the city 61. Canvassers interviewed each household about the languages spoken and about the alphabets used to transcribe those languages. One would expect a competitive percentage of those who were able to read and write the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet after sixteen years of Touré’s National Language Program.

The results of the survey are enlightening because they show that only 3.1 percent of the 128,000—plus indigenous inhabitants (men, women, and children above the age of five) knew how to read and write in French, while 8.8 percent knew how to read and write N’ko 62.

Other figures show that among the people of Kankan, 8.5 percent could read Arabic and 14.1 percent could read and write French. The “langue nationale” appears to have been discarded, while the N’ko alphabet appears to be blossoming.

Kanté’s N’ko seems to have become more widely accepted in Kankan. Thus the ultimate advantage seems to lie with Kanté’s approach rather than Touré’s.

Conclusion

Since independence the Maninka speakers of Guinea have struggled against what they perceived to be Western cultural imperialism in the area of language and literacy. As a conflict within the nation-state, it reflects the ongoing struggle for autonomy. Being literate in N’ko has become an important part of the current Mande cultural revival because the possession of N’ko signifies the reclaiming of the area’s cultural integrity.

The N’ko alphabet has offered Maninka speakers a renewed capacity to make culturally significant choices, and they seem to have chosen N’ko as an indigenous alternative to the education of language/literacy promoted by the Western-influenced Mande speakers who have controlled government and religion since Touré’s time.

Persons seeking to learn N’ko have steadily created enthusiasm and support for learning the alphabet, which has spread from Mande-speaking Kankan both to other Mande speakers throughout Guinea and also to Mande speakers residing in neighboring states.

* This article is based on the research in Kankan, Republic of Guinea in 1991, 1992-1993, and 1994, with the assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for 1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the summer of 1994.

Notes
1. In the same year in the British colony of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe also validated indigenous culture by writing his classic novel, Things Fall Apart (1958).
2. It is difficult to divorce the broader issues of Guinea’s “Cultural Revolution” from ethnic ones, however, particularly the view that during the Touré and Conté periods (1958-1984 and 1984 to the present, respectively), Maninka speakers may have been progressively disfranchised from the nation’s political process. Touré did not empower all Maninka speakers but gave preference to the ones from his own area of Faranah. Conté is a Susu speaker who has systematically alienated the Maninka speakers since taking power in 1984. However, his support of the Maninka based grassroots literacy movement might be an attempt to change this.
3. Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible. With regard to the personal relationship between Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté, interviews provide some insights.
4. André Lewin, La Guinée: [Que Sais-je?] (Paris, 1984), 67.
5. By 1990 there were approximately 16 million speakers of the 20 languages classified as Mande, radiating out from the Mande heartland across the borders of ten West African countries. The Maninka speakers of Guinea reside in the region of Upper Guinea adjacent to the Mande heartland, which lies just across Guinea’s border with Mali.
6. Informants explained that Kanté accepted a 1944 challenge posed by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We Are in Africa]. Marwa argued that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication. His statement that “African voices [languages] are like those of the birds, impossible to transcribe” reflected the prevailing views of many colonial Europeans. Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete. Personal Interviews 08 in Karifamoriah, 46 in Kankan, and 70 in Conakry, 1993. To protect the identity of the informant or informants, interview citations include only the interview number, date, and location. The informants are equally divided between N’ko practitioners and those outside the N’ko community, some of whom have never heard of the alphabet. All interviews took place with the author and research assistant in in Guinea unless otherwise indicated. Interviews were conducted randomly as informants were available, or as travel arrangements could be made I have in my possession the audiotapes in Maninka and the written translations in French.
7. See Steven Feierman’s stimulating use of the term in Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, 1990).
8. Group Interview 18, 5 April 1993, Balandou, Guinea. Kanté emphasizes the integration of local knowledge with foreign knowledge by preserving both in the maternal language in a script that he himself creates. For that reason, one should characterize him as a vernacular intellectual.
9. Interviews 62 (14 July 1993) and 70 (18 July 1993), in Conakry, and Interview 09, 11 March 1993, Kankan. Souleymane Kanté’s experiments, reinforced by his acquisition of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, were responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation. It might also have been a political statement rejecting African deculturation by Europeans.
10. Interview 70, 8 July 1993, Conakry. It is evident that this informant associates Kanté with his own ethnic pride in the heroic/historic Mande past as descendants of the ancient kingdom of Mali.
11. Odile Goerg, “La Guinée,” in Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch with Odile Goerg, L’Afrique Occidentale au temps des Français Colonisateurs et Colonisé (c. 1860-1960) (Paris, 1992), 365.
12. R.W. Johnson, “Guinea,” in John Dunn, ed., West Africa States, Failure and Promise A Study in Comparative Politics (Cambridge, 1978), 38.
13. Defined by Victor Du Bois as “a feeling among the citizens of the young republic that their destiny is somehow linked to that of other peoples with whom in the past they have never shared a sense of kinship or identity.” Du Bois, “Guinea,” in James S. Coleman and Carl. Rosberg, Jr.,e ds., Political Parties and National Integration in Tropical Africa (Berkeley, 1964), 199.
14. Ibid., 186.
15. Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (Oxford, 1964), 224.
16. Jean Suret-Canale, La République de Guinée (Paris, 1970), 144.
17. In Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant said that as a Mande speaker himself, Sékou Touré sincerely admired Kanté’s invention but that he was a political man wanting to promote national unity. In Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, a personal friend of Touré said that the latter wanted to support N’ko but that the other members of the Political Bureau, and his cabinet, did not.
18. Choosing Mande as the national language or even institutionalizing the Mande-styled alphabet for orthography would have caused dissension between Mande speakers and the other ethnic groups in Guinea. Furthermore, while Mande speakers could write the Mande language in N’ko, Susu speakers could write the Susu language in N’ko, and Pular speakers could write the Pular language in N’ko, they would not be able to read each other’s texts; although the script was the same, the languages would not be mutually intelligible. The former regional director of education in Kankan commented that the rejection of Kanté’s alphabet was divisive among the leaders of Touré’s government. Interview 64, 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
19. Interview 09, 11 March 1993, in Kankan; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 68, 7 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; and Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
20. In Group Interview 43, 18 May 1993, in Kankan, one informant stated that Sékou Touré had promised Souleymane Kanté that he would build a school for N’ko.
21. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 59, 28, June 1993, in Kankan.
22. There is some confusion about the manner in which this occurred. Some informants have said that Sékou Touré sought out Souleymane Kantd in Abidjan after hearing about the alphabet through the grapevine. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana. Others insisted that Souleymane Kanté went on his own to Conakry to present the alphabet to Touré. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. One informant claimed to have taught Sékou Touré N’ko, after which Touré told the informant to invite Kanté to visit him in Conakry. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry. Regardless of who initiated the interview, informants concur on the rest of the story. In Interview 81, 9 August 1994, in Conakry, the informant reasserted the claim that the informant in Interview 80 had in fact taught N’ko to Sékou Touré, but that Sékou abandoned his studies when the political arena heated up. In Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, we visited the house where the Kanté family shared a room and spoke with neighbors who witnessed the military truck moving the family back to Guinea.
23. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.
24. According to the informants in Group Interview 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah, at the time only Maninka-speaking long-distance traders were merchants in Abidjan. When the exploitation of the Sefadou diamond mines in Sierra Leone began, many of these merchants carried the ability to write and teach N’ko with them into the new marketplace.
25. Prior to independence, many Guineans were dispersed throughout West Africa. Some were employed by the French as bureaucrats, teachers, or as railroad transportation workers. Others, such as a large number of Maninka speakers, were dispersed along West African trade routes. For example one informant’s father had been the railroad station-master at Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in 1944. Interview 07, 6 March 1993, Kankan; Niane, Sundiata, 93.
26. Sékou Touré, “Débat culturel: Le Chef de l’Etat sur les langues africaines,” Horoya 2889, 25-31 Octobre 1981, 13-16.
27. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
28. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
29. Johnson, “Guinea,” 55. In Touré’s attempt to reconnect to the African past, he organized the party structure to imitate the organization of village councils. The system appeared to consult the common man on every major government decision. Ideally, the idea originated at the cell level and gained acceptance as it moved to the high-ranking leaders of the Bureau Politique National (BPN). In this case the idea originated at the top and was presented for approval to the Comités d’Unité de l’Education. Du Bois describes the organization of the PDG in his political commentary, “Guinea,” 200-205. UNESCO, The Experimental World Literacy Programme: A Critical Assessment (Paris, 1976), 26-30.
30. Interview 34, 10 May 1993, in Kankan, and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.
31. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; and Interview 55, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.
32. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry. The informant was a Directeur Régional de l’Education in Kankan.
33. Mohamed Lamine Sano, “Aperçu Historique sur l’Utilisation des Langues Nationales en République de Guinée,” unpublished paper (1992), 3-4.
34. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
35. UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42.
36. Interview 64, 15, July 1993, in Conakry.
37. UNESCO considered its program separate from the government’s national campaign. Interestingly enough, the UNESCO funds were not used for a pilot project in Haute-Guinée. The program targeted 3,500 illiterate and newly literate industrial workers in Conakry and 75,000 illiterate farmers living in lower Guinea (the Susu language), middle Guinea (the Pular language), and the forest region (the Kissi, Guerzé, and Toma languages). UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42-43.
38. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan; and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan. See Ministère du Domaine de l’Education et de la Culture, La Reforme de l’Enseignement en Republique de Guinée Novembre 1958-Mai 1977 (Conakry, 1977), 6-8.
39. Kamori Traoré, “Guinée,” in Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow, ed., Langues et Politiques de Langues en Afrique Noire: l’Experience de l’UNESCO (Paris, 1976), 265.
40. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
41. Ministry of Education and Culture, Cultural Policy in the Revolutionary People’s Republic of Guinea (Paris, 1979), 36.
42. Ibid., 9-10.
43. Interviews 34 and 55, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in Kankan were with one informant.
44. Interviews 34 (10 May 1993) and 55 (24 June 1993), in Kankan.
45. Souleymane Kante’s recommendations were that each person should teach seven other people. Group Interview, 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah. In Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan, the informant said that the instructions were to teach the family, so he taught all of his children.
46. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
47. Those who were literate in N’ko were spoken of as preserving for posterity the oral histories of elders. Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan.
48. Secretariat d’Etat à l’Idéologie-Service National d’Alphabétisation, Sori ni Mariama (Teheran, n.d.) and Académie des Langues Conakry, Maninkakan Sariya, Grammaire Maninka 2e et 3e cycle (Conakry, 1980) are examples of texts produced for the literacy program.
49. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.
50. According to this informant, the government could not fight the N’ko alphabet directly. It was necessary to formulate a political strategy to eliminate N’ko, either to isolate the creator so that he would abandon it or to exile him so that the population would forget about it. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. In Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that the government used Kanté in the National Language Program because he was the only one who could translate all of the necessary terminologies.
51. A local merchant, Sékou Diané, is remembered as having given Souleymane Kanté money to buy this machine in Abidjan. Interview 29, 3 May 1993, and Interview 49, 20 June 1993, in Kankan; Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
52. Interview 82, 10 August 1994, in Conakry. El Hadj Kabiné Diané was a prominent businessman from Kankan who also owned a business in Conakry and was a part of the National Islamic Council.
53. In Interview 09, 11 March1 993, in Kankan, the informant established the date as 1973.
54. Interview 62, 14 July1 993, in Conakry.
55. Ibid.; and Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
56. Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
57. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, the informants described Touré as being troubled by leadership problems he was experiencing with Guinea’s intellectuals. In Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan, the informant told a story he heard from Souleymane Kanté: The government had supplied Kanté with transportation to Romania for treatment of his diabetes in 1974. Assisting the Guinean government, th e Romanian government institutionalized Kanté in a psychiatric facility, where an attempt was made on his life by lethal injection. Kanté refused the treatment and escaped death. Kanté convinced the doctors to release him, since, in the end, his condition itself was a death sentence. Later in Conakry he met the person who had been the Guinean ambassador to Romania at the time of his incarceration, wh o thought that Kanté was deceased. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry and Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan.
58. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; Group Interview 30, 4 May 1993, in Bamako. Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, the informants recalled that Kanté told them that he had returned to Côte d’Ivoire in political exile and said that Touré was jealous of his invention. Theye estimated that he spent eight years with them in Côte d’Ivoire, two years in Bouake and six in Abidjan, interspersed with trips to Bamako.
59. Interview 62, 14, July 1993, in Conakry.
60. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, and Interview 69, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.
61. Literacy Survey of Kankan, 4 August 1994. There are no complete literacy statistics at any level. The numbers represented in the survey offer a beginning point at which literacy statistics can be assessed and can be later measured in percentages. I conducted another Literacy Survey of Kankan in July 2000. When I have finished entering the data, I will be able to determine growth in the numbers who are literate in N’ko over the last six years.
62. The literacy survey showed that 14.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write French, 8.5 percent of the population knew how to read and write Arabic, 8.8 percent of the population knew how to read and write [the Maninka language] in N’ko, and 3.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write [Maninka] in the Roman alphabet [Langue Nationale].

Kenya’s legal colonial paradox

In 2007-08 Kenya experienced bloody post-electoral violence that claimed more than 1,300 lives and displaced 600,000 people. The conflict pit against each others the partisans of political formations, including the Kenya African Union (KANU) led by Uhuru Kenyatta, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Raila Odinga, etc.

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the International Criminal Court indicted the winner of the presidential election, Mr. Kenyatta. The charges alleged “crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation or forcible transfer of population, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.” However, faced with the Kenyan authorities refusal to turn over “evidence vital to the case,” the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, asked the Court to withdraw the case in 2013.  Regardless, Mr. Kenyatta has ever since been resentful about his indictment. As a result, he has spent a great deal of energy, state resources and political pressure to weaken the ICC. First, he ended Kenya’s membership in the court. Then, he lobbied heavily among heads of state and at the African Union’s meetings for a global continental departure from the ICC. It appears though that his efforts were in vain. In an editorial piece, titled “In Africa, Seeking a License to Kill,” Rev. Desmond Tutu rebuked and condemned Mr. Kenyatta’s maneuver.
Low and behold, it turns out that today colonial era laws still deny Kenyan citizens some of their fundamental rights. Such are the facts laid out in Mercy Muendo‘s, article below, titled “Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws.”
Upon reading the article, I am more than ever convinced that, instead of waging a loosing anti-ICC crusade —it got even lonelier following The Gambia’s recent return to the court —, Mr. Kenyatta ought to clean up his own yard, first.

Tierno S. Bah


Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws

It’s been 54 years since Kenya got her independence and yet there are still a number of archaic, colonial and discriminatory laws on the statute books. From archival research I have done it’s clear that these laws are used to exploit, frustrate and intimidate Kenyans by restricting their right to movement, association and the use of private property.

They also make it difficult for ordinary Kenyans to make a living by imposing steep permit fees on informal businesses.

These laws were inherited from the colonial British government and used to be within the purview of local government municipalities under the Local Government Act. This act was repealed when municipalities were replaced by counties after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

Currently, these laws are contained in county rules and regulations, criminalizing a good number of activities, including making any kind of noise on the streets, committing acts contrary to public decency, washing, repairing or dismantling any vehicle in non-designated areas (unless in an emergency) and loitering aimlessly at night.

The colonial laws served a central purpose – segregation. Africans and Asians could be prosecuted for doing anything that the white settlers deemed to be a breach of public order, public health or security.

Violating human rights

Many of these archaic laws also restrict citizens’ use of shared or public space. Some of them grant the police powers to arrest offenders without warrant, and to prosecute them under the Penal Code.

Offences like the ones mentioned above are classified as petty crimes that can attract fines and prison terms.

Some have argued that these laws are being abused because they restrict freedom of movement and the right to a fair hearing.

A few of them also hinder the growth of the economy. For example, hawking without a permit is against the law. To get a permit, traders must pay steep fees to various government authorities. This requirement is a deterrent to trade and infringes on the social economic rights of citizens.

Another example is the law that makes it a crime to loiter at night. This law was initially put on the books to deter people from soliciting for sexual favours, or visiting unlicensed establishments. It has however become a means for state agents to harass anyone walking on the streets at night.

Genesis of archaic laws

The laws can be traced back to legal ordinances that were passed by the colonial government between 1923 and 1934.

The 1925 Vagrancy (Amendment) Ordinance restricted movement of Africans after 6pm, especially if they did not have a registered address.

Post-independence, the ordinance became the Vagrancy Act, which was repealed in 1997. The Vagrancy Act inspired the Public Order Act, which restricts movement of Africans during the day, but only in the special circumstances that are outlined in the Public Security (Control of Movement) Regulations.

This legislation is similar to the Sundown Town rules under the Jim Crow discrimination law in the United States. A California-posted sign in the 1930s said it all: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne.” — T.S. Bah

The Witchcraft Ordinance of 1925, which formed the basis for the Witchcraft Act, outlawed any practices that were deemed uncivilised by colonial standards. The provisions of the Act are ambiguous and a clear definition of witchcraft is not given. This has made it easy for authorities to prosecute a wide range of cultural practices under the banner of witchcraft.

Rationale behind punitive laws

The idea behind most of the targeted legislation enacted by the colonialists was to separate whites from people of other races, including Asians. For example, in 1929 settlers in the white suburbs of Muthaiga in Nairobi raised an objection when the Governor announced plans to merge their suburban township with greater Nairobi.

That would have meant that they would have had to mingle with locals from Eastleigh and other native townships, which were mostly black. As a caveat to joining the greater Nairobi Township, the Muthaiga Township committee developed standard rules and regulations to govern small townships.

These rules and regulations were applied to other administrative townships such as Mombasa and Eldoret.

White townships would only join larger municipalities if the Muthaiga rules applied across the board.

The Muthaiga rules allowed white townships to control and police public space, which was a clever way to restrict the presence and movement of Asians and Africans in the suburbs.

Variations of these rules remain on the books to date. The current Nairobi county rules and regulations require residents to pay different rates to the county administration depending on their location.

In addition, the county rules demand that dog owners must be licensed, a requirement that limits the number of city dwellers who can own dogs. This rule can be read as discriminatory because the vast majority of lower-income earners now find themselves unable to keep a dog in the city. Indeed, discrimination was the basis of the colonial legal framework.

Can oppressive laws be legal?

Strictly speaking, these discriminatory rules and regulations were unlawful because they were not grounded in statutory or common law. Indeed, they were quasi-criminal and would have been unacceptable in Great Britain.

Ironically, because such rules and regulations didn’t exist in Great Britain, criminal charges could not be brought against white settlers for enforcing them.

To curtail freedom of movement and enjoyment of public space by non-whites the settlers created categories of persons known as “vagrants”, “vagabonds”, “barbarians”, “savages” and “Asians”.

These were the persons targeted by the loitering, noisemaking, defilement of public space, defacing of property, and anti-hawking laws. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment.

Anyone found loitering, anyone who was homeless or found in the wrong abode, making noise on the wrong streets, sleeping in public or hawking superstitious material or paraphernalia would be detained after trial.

Police had the powers to arrest and detain offenders in a concentration camp, detention or rehabilitation center, or prison without a warrant.

This is the same legal framework that was inherited by the independence government and the very same one that has been passed down to the county governments.

The Public Order Act allows police powers to arrest without warrant anyone found in a public gathering, meeting or procession which is likely to breach the peace or cause public disorder. This is the current position under sections 5 and 8 of the Act.

This law, which was used by the colonial government to deter or disband uprisings or rebellions, has been regularly abused in independent Kenya.

At the end of the day Kenyans must ask themselves why successive governments have allowed the oppression of citizens to continue by allowing colonial laws to remain on the books.


The Conversation

In Memoriam D. W. Arnott (1915-2004)

D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula
D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula

This article creates the webAfriqa homage and tribute to the memory of Professor David W. Arnott (1915-2004), foremost linguist, researcher, teacher and publisher on Pular/Fulfulde, the language of the Fulbe/Halpular of West and Central Africa. It is reproduces the obituary written in 2004 par Philip J. Jaggar. David Arnott belonged in the category of colonial administrators who managed to balance their official duties with in-depth social and cultural investigation of the societies their countries ruled. I publish quite a log of them throughout the webAfriqa Portal: Vieillard, Dieterlen, Delafosse, Person, Francis-Lacroix, Germain, etc.
The plan is to contributed to disseminate as much as possible the intellectual legacy of Arnott’s. Therefore, the links below are just part of the initial batch :

Tierno S. Bah


D. W. Arnott was a distinguished scholar and teacher of West African languages, principally Fulani (also known as Fula, Fulfulde and Pulaar) and Tiv, David Whitehorn Arnott, Africanist: born London 23 June 1915; Lecturer, then Reader, Africa Department, School of Oriental and African Studies 1951-66, Professor of West African Languages 1966-77 (Emeritus); married 1942 Kathleen Coulson (two daughters); died Bedale, North Yorkshire 10 March 2004.

He was one of the last members of a generation of internationally renowned British Africanists/linguists whose early and formative experience of Africa, with its immense and complex variety of peoples and languages, derived from the late colonial era.

Born in London in 1915, the elder son of a Scottish father, Robert, and mother, Nora, David Whitehorn Arnott was educated at Sheringham House School and St Paul’s School in London, before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and won a “half-blue” for water polo. He received his PhD from London University in 1961, writing his dissertation on “The Tense System in Gombe Fula”.

Following graduation in 1939 Arnott joined the Colonial Administrative Service as a district officer in northern Nigeria, where he was posted to Bauchi, Benue and Zaria Provinces, often touring rural areas on a horse or by push bike. His (classical) language background helped him to learn some of the major languages in the area — Fulani, Tiv, and Hausa — and the first two in particular were to become his languages of published scientific investigation.

It was on board ship in a wartime convoy to Cape Town that Arnott met his wife-to-be, Kathleen Coulson, who was at the time a Methodist missionary in Ibadan, Nigeria. They married in Ibadan in 1942, and Kathleen became his constant companion on most of his subsequent postings in Benue and Zaria provinces, together with their two small daughters, Margaret and Rosemary.

From 1951 to 1977, David Arnott was a member of the Africa Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), London University, as Lecturer, then Reader, and was appointed Professor of West African Languages in 1966. He spent 1955-56 on research leave in West Africa, conducting a detailed linguistic survey of the many diverse dialects of Fulani, travelling from Nigeria across the southern Saharan edges of Niger, Dahomey (now Benin), Upper Volta, French Sudan (Burkina Faso and Mali), and eventually to Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. Many of his research notes from this period are deposited in the Soas library (along with other notes, documents and teaching materials relating mainly to Tiv and Hausa poetry and songs).

He was Visiting Professor at University College, Ibadan (1961) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1963), and attended various African language and Unesco congresses in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Between 1970 and 1972 he made a number of visits to Kano, Nigeria, to teach at Abdullahi Bayero College (now Bayero University, Kano), where he also supervised (as Acting Director) the setting up of the Centre for the Study of Nigerian Languages, and I remember a mutual colleague once expressing genuine astonishment that “David never seemed to have made any real enemies”. This was a measure of his integrity, patience and even-handed professionalism, and the high regard in which he was held.

Arnott established his international reputation with his research on Fula(ni), a widely used language of the massive Niger-Congo family which is spoken (as a first language) by an estimated eight million people scattered throughout much of West and Central Africa, from Mauritania and Senegal to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad (as well as the Sudan), many of them nomadic cattle herders.

Between 1956 and 1998 he produced almost 30 (mainly linguistic) publications on Fulani and in 1970 published his magnum opus, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula (an expansion of his PhD dissertation), supplementing earlier works by his predecessors, the leading British and German scholars F.W. Taylor and August Klingenheben. In this major study of the Gombe (north-east Nigeria) dialect, he described, in clear and succinct terms, the complex system of 20 or more so-called “noun classes” (a classificatory system widespread throughout the Niger-Congo family which marks singular/plural pairs, often distinguishing humans, animals, plants, mass nouns and liquids). The book also advanced our understanding of the (verbal) tense- aspect and conjugational system of Fulani. His published research encompassed, too, Fulani literature and music.

In addition to Fulani, Arnott also worked on Tiv, another Niger-Congo language mainly spoken in east/central Nigeria, and from the late 1950s onwards he wrote more than 10 articles, including several innovative treatments of Tiv tone and verbal conjugations, in addition to a paper comparing the noun-class systems of Fulani and Tiv (“Some Reflections on the Content of Individual Classes in Fula and Tiv”, La Classification Nominale dans les Langues Négro-Africaines, 1967). Some of his carefully transcribed Tiv data and insightful analyses were subsequently used by theoretical linguists following the generative (“autosegmental”) approach to sound systems. (His colleague at Soas the renowned Africanist R.C. Abraham had already published grammars and a dictionary of Tiv in the 1930s and 1940s.)

In addition to Fulani and Tiv, Arnott taught undergraduate Hausa-language classes at Soas for many years, together with F.W. (“Freddie”) Parsons, the pre-eminent Hausa scholar of his era, and Jack Carnochan and Courtenay Gidley. He also pioneered the academic study of Hausa poetry at Soas, publishing several articles on the subject, and encouraged the establishment of an academic pathway in African oral literature.

The early 1960s were a time when the available language-teaching materials were relatively sparse (we had basically to make do with cyclostyled handouts), but he overcame these resource problems by organising class lessons with great care and attention, displaying a welcome ability to synthesise and explain language facts and patterns in a simple and coherent manner. He supervised a number of PhD dissertations on West African languages (and literature), including the first linguistic study of the Hausa language written by a native Hausa speaker, M.K.M. Galadanci (1969). He was genuinely liked and admired by his students.

David Arnott was a quiet man of deep faith who was devoted to his family. Following his retirement he and Kathleen moved to Moffat in Dumfriesshire (his father had been born in the county). In 1992 they moved again, to Bedale in North Yorkshire (where he joined the local church and golf club), in order to be nearer to their two daughters, and grandchildren.

Philip J. Jaggar
The Independent

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah


In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker