African nations have not emerged successfully from their colonial pasts, in part because they adopted western models of government, according to a United Nations diplomat who spoke on April 29 at Fordham. “The models that Africans used to govern themselves after independence were derived from European origins in form and content,” said Francis M. Deng, United Nations under-secretary-general and special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

Francis Deng Photo by Gina Vergel

“Ironically, the ideals of western constitutionalism were not applied by colonial powers. They did not practice the ideals of western democracy and respect for human rights and minorities,” Deng explained. “In fact, they were very authoritarian regimes.

“When independence came, you had a dual problem of constitutions being of foreign origin, and at the same time, not applied during the colonial period. [Africans] had no relevant experience to emulate,” he said.

This combination rendered these constitutions dysfunctional and inapplicable, Deng said, and no one shed tears when they were thrown out.

Deng discussed his new book, Identity, Diversity and Constitutionalism in Africa (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008) at an event hosted by Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs and International Studies program. The talk was co-sponsored by several other University programs.

Deng said the constitutional models adopted by African states did not take the diversity of African societies into account.

“The fundamental challenge of managing diversity that Africans faced was not a major issue,” he said. “Also, they didn’t at all look into the African value system to see how they could build on those values in devising systems of government that were relevant.”

Identity conflicts that arose during modernization of these states led to crises still experienced in many of these states today. As the world has seen, such identity conflicts can lead to genocide, Deng said.

Long ago, before most African states gained independence, it was tribal leaders like Deng’s father, Deng Majok, the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei from 1949 to 1969, who kept a peaceful co-existence between tribes. Later, colonial powers were able to keep a degree of parity. But independence changed all that, he said.

“Peaceful co-existence was no longer attractive,” Deng said. “What we have in Darfur is exactly that situation. The balance is tipped in favor of the Arab tribes.”

The challenge of preventing genocide is successfully managing identity so that everyone gets a sense of having equal footing as a citizen, Deng said.

“Every society, however small, has their own norms for regulating social relations and differences. By and large, societies that are internally harmonious succeed in constructively managing diversities,” Deng said.

To prevent genocide, Deng said, state and world leaders must look to the prevention of conflict.

“Genocidal conflicts are primarily identity-related, often in the form of a national identity crisis—how a nation is described and how people relate to the nation in terms of belonging,” said Deng.


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.