The state and civil society in Africa: conceptual and theoretical framework

The concept ot civil society has varying interpretations, and as such, it is not easy to discuss its evolution without clearly defining the idea behind its origin. A clear definition of civil society' will help tremendously in discussing its development. In discussing the transition, the nature and substance of the relationship between the “individual” space and the “community” space are very vital. Ibeanu (2000) posits that the individual interstice is regarded as one of freedom, choice, and private material pursuits, while the community space is one ot collective action, solidarity and public (state) power. As such, the community space is one that potentially or constrains individual space. The evolution of civil society in the west has been one in which the individual space progressively became “liberated” and separated from the community space. Civil society is considered an integral part of the development of the west, as is either market or state (Hyden, Court, & Mease, 2003 and Ibeanu, 2000). Ibeanu (2000) maintains that emergence of theories of civil society is traceable to the earlier western political thinkers ot the Greek city-states like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc., who wrote about how to overturn the moral and social disorder of their society into an ideal version to ensure a better livelihood tor its people. For instance, Aristotle sees civil society as a “civilised and rational society” that was conterminous with the state. Aristotle’s definition reflects the social transition from “rude” forms of life to a “polished” and or a “civilised” society, hence the “civilised society” or “civil society”. Most (if not all) the earlier political thinkers (as demonstrated in their works) suggested a separation between the spheres ot politics and economics and between the public and private spheres. The classical philosophical period witnessed “emphasis on individual rights; moral restraint on public power; the responsibility of rulers to the people they ruled; and the subordination of government to law. The only probable addition was the contention between the church and the state” (Ibeanu, 2000:6). The aftermath of the Greek city-states resulted in the medieval period, which also witnessed the crystallising of civil society within the context ot a liberal paradigm.

The distinction between civil society and the state was traced to the late 18th century by John Keane, Adam Ferguson and Thomas Paine. They see civil society as “a precondition and an arena tor the creation of a free and natural interaction among free individuals” (Ahrne, 1996:111). Both Locke and Hobbes concur in their argument that the state arises from society and is needed to restrain conflict between individuals. They argue that the government cannot have unlimited sovereignty since that would pose a threat to individual freedoms derived from natural law. Thus, there must be a social contract between rulers and ruled that guarantees these rights but also gives the state the authority to protect civil society from destructive conflict. There is a need for a constitutional arrangement that both state and civil society respect (Hyden et al., 2003).

Antonio Gramsci (1971), an Italian Philosopher, view civil society from a neo-Marxist angle. He argues that the potentially oppositional role ot civil society is a “public room” or “public sphere” separate from state and market, in which ideological hegemony is contested. Gramsci (1971) further opines that civil society includes a wide range ot organisations and ideologies, which both challenge and maintain the existing order. The political and cultural supremacy ot the ruling classes and societal accord is formed within civil society. Gramsci’s ideas influenced the resistance to totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Diamond (1994:5) captures this by noting that civil society is the:

realm of organised social life that is voluntary, self-generating, largely self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of rules. It is distinct from society in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands, and hold state officials accountable.

The concept was applied to Africa in the mid-1980s and beyond and the point of discussion include the character of the state and economy (Ake, 1981), the African peasantry (Beckmam, 1988; Hyden, 1986; Williams, 1987), ethnicity (Nnoli, 1978), social movements (Mamdani & Wammba-dia-Wamba, 1995) and most recently democracy and participatory security. The focus of its applicability in Africa has been on characterising civil society in Africa which raised recent debate on democracy and democratisation in Africa.

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