The problems of decolonisation — pre-state societies

I think the observations of Pruniere which I referred to in an earlier post apply equally to all pre-state societies, including Papua New Guinea. That is, the central difficulty is that decolonisation is predicated upon the right to self-determination which implied freedom of the nation state from colonial domination. But there was no nation-state and, aside from the elites, the people of those societies had no conception of a nation state; that is, of the nation having the exclusive claim to loyalty and of the state having the exclusive claim to authority.

I quote below from an essay I wrote on ‘The introduction of western law into Papua New Guinea‘;

At independence Papua New Guinea was to become a nation state. Before independence it had been neither state nor nation. Decolonisation of Papua New Guinea was not in any strict sense an exercise in self-determination if only because there was no ‘self’ to determine. There was only the state hich had been colonially imposed. This is not to suggest that pre-contact Papua New Guinea was a social void. Traditional social regulation governed the lives of its peoples …

The people of the territories were fragmented into innumerable clans. Except in the Highlands where the Chimbu and the Enga may have numbered in the order of 50,000 to 8o,000 there was nothing approaching tribes in the African sense. There was no chiefly rule as in the case of the Bantu of South Africa or the Polynesians of Tahiti or New Zealand which might be viewed as the beginnings of centralised authority. Even less could Papua New Guinea society be compared with the states of West Afrca  such as the Ashanti of Dahoumy or the Yoruba Kingdoms of Benin. Stateless societies existed in Africa but these were very much larger groupings, such as the Tiv of central Nigeria or the Nuer of Sudan each extending to many thousands and organized on a kinship basis so that within them authority was maintained by a kind of ‘balance of power’ arrangement. In Papua New Guinea social control was maintained through kinship. The clan comprised exogamous descent groups, all members of which were related to each other by descent. In a sense kinship in stateless societies performs functions which in a modern society are carrried out by the state, incuding the resolution of disputes between members and the protection of the group from external violence.

In a recent address on his work ‘Federation in the Seas‘, Alan Kerr was asked whether if Australia had retained its authority over Papua New Guinea for a few more years, some of the post-independence problems might have been avoided. In the course of his answer he commented upon the difficulty in establishing democracy and how long it had taken in Europe. Certainly, I agree, the creation of democracy in Europe was a lengthy historical process. Apart from the notion of popular and representative of government — which most newly independent countries appear to have readily understood — there is the more difficult concept of  a loyal opposition (which the majority is bound to accept and give up power to after electioral defeat); the rule of law involving acceptance of the decisions by Judges who themselves have no actual power and the primacy of the civil power over the armed forces of the state. [Also there is relative freedom of the bureacracies of Europe from corruption, and, more particularly, an ethic that corruption was not merely illegal but highly immoral. This only became established in England in the 19th century.]

But the more basic difficulty, I think, lay in the capacity of the people of the colonised society of a community to belong to a society not bound together by kin or personal relations [except for the nuclear family] and in which authority was vested in an impersonal entity such as the state.

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Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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