Redefining Africa

africaWhat people need to know about the African condition

By Baba G. Jallow

When Creighton University’s African Students Association (AFSA) approached me to give a guest lecture at their annual banquet on the topic “Redefining Africa”, I knew exactly where they were coming from. However, I still asked them what they had in mind: Well, they said, we just want people to move away from all the negative stereotypes they associate with Africa; we want people to know that Africa is beautiful, that Africa is not all about the wars, the poverty, the disease and despair that are the common staple of western television and other media. We want people to know that there is more to Africa than meets the eye; we want you to talk about the beautiful side of Africa.

My response to AFSA was that what Africa needs is not so much redefining, but understanding. There is no denying that Africa is a conflict-ridden continent or that Africa is a poor continent. While stereotypes like savage, backward and uncivilized are just that – stereotypes – civil wars, material poverty and disease are indeed rampant in Africa. What those who equate these problems with the essence of Africa need to know is that Africans are not poor and Africa is not experiencing conflicts because Africans are backward savages of primitive mind, or because Africans like killing each other, or because Africans are incapable of generating the kinds of ideas and innovations to overcome these challenges. What these people need to know is that the problems Africa faces today are the bitter fruits of two phenomena. The first is the series of historical encounters with western cultures that introduced and sustained severe socio-cultural, economic and political distortions in the continent. The second is a tragic failure of leadership on the part of those who took over from the colonial authorities after independence and their successors. The challenge for all who wish to improve the image and the condition of Africa is therefore to understand these twin causes of Africa’s undesirable conditions and to do what they can to ameliorate them.

Africa does not need to be redefined because Africa has never been and cannot be defined by stereotypical concepts like Dark Continent, backward peoples, or uncivilized tribes. To define something is to state or to describe its exact nature or scope. To stereotype, on the other hand, is to negatively oversimplify the image of something. Stereotypes are not definitions; they are oversimplified attempts to redefine reality to suit perception. Thus, the stereotypical image of Africa as a Dark Continent, while widely held, can never assume the status of a valid definition because it does not state or describe the essence of Africa or Africans. Conflict, poverty and disease do not define Africa because they are mere symptoms of unfortunate historical circumstances and are alien to the true nature of Africans, just as they are alien to the true nature of all human beings. Like human beings everywhere, Africans do not like war; they would rather live in peace and harmony. Like human beings everywhere, Africans do not like disease or poverty; they would rather live healthy and prosperous lives. Africans are not fighting wars in the two Congos, Sudan, Somalia or Central Africa because they are bloodthirsty and backward savages who enjoy killing each other. Africans are not struggling with epidemics of Ebola, AIDS and persistent hunger and poverty because they are a backward people incapable of thinking through and lifting themselves out of their miseries. This, of course, does not mean that Africans are free of all responsibility for their current plight. What it does mean is that the great majority of Africans are victims of historical processes which they are still to fully understand but whose negative consequences are by no means insurmountable.

For roughly 400 years, between 1450 and 1860, Africa was ravaged by the scourge of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The rise of the plantation system in the New World created a labor demand that was conveniently met through the enslavement of Africans largely through the agency of European slave traders and their African partners. But beyond the lingering stigma of enslavement that follows persons of African descent to this day, the effects of the Atlantic slave trade on present day Africa are almost negligible. Ironically, it was the end of the slave trade that ushered in the single most devastating historical experience Africa has suffered. That most devastating experience was colonial rule.

The slave trade was ended largely because of the growth of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. With the rise of manufacturing industries, European businesses became more interested in raw materials than in physical human labor. Among other factors, the need for raw materials and markets to sell manufactured goods led to the European scramble for African colonies in the 1880s. The scramble threatened war among the European powers and resulted in the convening of the Berlin Conference of November 1884 – January 1885 where European countries laid down rules for the peaceful partition and colonization of Africa. Between 1885 and 1900, almost the entire landmass of sub-Saharan Africa had been divided and occupied by European colonial powers.

Colonialism not only imposed alien rule on African societies but divided Africa into territories that were either too small to ever become viable nation states or too large to be effectively controlled by a central government without adequate infrastructures in place. Thus, we have tiny countries like Gambia with less than two million inhabitants and no natural resources and monster countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo with over 75, 000, 000 people and a weak central government. In addition to breaking up the continent into these geographical anomalies, colonialism disrupted African cultures and traditions, introduced harsh taxation regimes and cash economies that created conditions of extreme poverty, and instituted autocratic regimes whose cultures of oppression and exploitation remain more or less in place to this day. It is perhaps the culture of political impunity and oppression introduced and nurtured by colonial governments and perpetuated by Africa’s post-colonial leadership that represents the single most devastating cause of Africa’s current crises.

Instances of authoritarian leadership pre-dated colonialism in Africa. However, in most African societies, authoritarian leaders could be censured or even removed from power if they broke certain ethical rules of leadership. Colonial rule changed this traditional African leader-led dynamic by shifting the source of political legitimacy and sovereignty from the people to the state and altering the traditional uses of political authority. Colonial administrations claimed “the power to tax, the power to legislate, the power to administer justice, the power to appoint and to dismiss officials, the power to regulate the economy, the power to command labor,” and the power to enforce their will without question (Davis 1987: 267). However, beyond the immediate area of the capital cities, colonial administrations could only survive by depending on the power of the chiefs they tolerated or invented. With the explicit or implicit backing of their colonial masters, some African chiefs gathered unto themselves all moments of power and juridical authority, becoming miniature exceptions within the larger colonial exception to which they were beholden. While maintaining the autocratic aspects of precolonial leadership practices, some colonial-era chiefs – especially in British Africa – abandoned those aspects of African leadership cultures that rendered them accountable to their peoples. Little has changed with time.

The metaphor of new wine in old bottles adequately captures the paradox of the African nation state at independence: western political structures and institutions were super-imposed on African political cultures characterized by notions and perceptions of leadership at complete odds with the new political dispensation. The immediate post-colonial situation demanded a transformation of the authoritarian culture of the colonial state into a political culture of tolerance, inclusiveness and collective responsibility for the new nations. The situation also demanded a transformative-servant leadership that empowered the citizens of the new nations, encouraged them to actively question their government’s policies and actions, motivated them to assume leadership of the national project, and allowed them to contribute ideas towards the development of their countries. Unfortunately, most African leaders misread or deliberately ignored the demands of the post-colonial situation and did little to change the autocratic colonial political culture within which their new nation states were forged. Having justified their struggles against colonialism by appealing to rights of political inclusion, human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, Africa’s new leaders now branded these values and practices vestiges of colonialism and symbols of neocolonialism that were unsuitable for African conditions. Draconian colonial laws were resuscitated and redeployed to muzzle the freedoms Africans struggled for and to perpetuate the injustices they struggled against. What were expected to be spaces of freedom during the anticolonial struggle morphed into spaces of oppression and fear policed by independent regimes often more tyrannical than the departed colonialists.

Colonial despotism morphed into post-colonial despotism after independence. For this reason, the intellectual energy and the ideas needed to develop Africa and deal with her many challenges were excluded. The leadership and political aspirations of citizens were delegitimized; unquestioning subjecthood was routinized; citizens were denied the right to question the actions of their government or to freely support the political movements of their choice. Oppression became the preferred mode of governance. An imposed political uniformity smothered constructive dissent, stifled political creativity and generated a culture of silent cynicism or intellectual defection of knowledgeable and creative Africans into other parts of the world – the now notorious brain-drain syndrome. Africa’s nation states are failing because the doctrines of citizen rights and obligations binding leaders and followers that characterize the western nation-state system have no comparable presence in Africa. Among other damaging consequences, this doctrinal absence and its attendant imposed uniformity in African politics leads to the eruption of civil conflicts and instabilities – military coups, assassinations and assassination attempts, and in some cases, bloody civil wars that continue to exact heavy tolls on the continent’s human and material resources, and helps perpetuate the stereotype of Africa as a continent of wild savages. To parody J. F. Kennedy’s famous dictum, by making peaceful change impossible, African leaders made violent change inevitable.

Before wrapping up this conversation, I would like to highlight another damaging historical experience whose consequences were as devastating as the consequences of colonial rule. African countries gained independence just as the ideological cold war between western capitalism and eastern communism was heating up. Within the context of the cold war, Africa was a proxy battleground. The priorities of the United States and her capitalist allies on the one hand and the former Soviet Union and her communist allies on the other did not include the prevention of dictatorship or the promotion of human rights. Their chief priority was to keep enemy ideology from spreading into what they considered their spheres of influence. The west conducted a war against communism; the east conducted a war against capitalism. Whichever African government or leader supported one ideology or the other received the blanket support of that ideology’s patron. Thus, the United States and her western allies supported the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa from 1948 until the middle of the 1980s; they also supported kleptocrats like Mobutu of the former Belgian Congo, bloody despots like Samuel Doe of Liberia and so-called single party democracies in Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Uganda in the name of the war against communism. In Somalia, the so-called super powers supported the notoriously brutal regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, thus laying the groundwork for the brutal and almost intractable civil war that has afflicted that country for two decades now. In Ethiopia, the communists engineered the overthrow of western ally Emperor Haile Selassie and propped up the brutal military despotism of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who then proceeded to execute what has gone down in Ethiopian history as the “Red Terror”. Both ideological camps supplied their African puppets with money and arms which they used to oppress and kill their peoples, plunder their countries’ human and material resources and prevent the growth of an enlightened citizenry that could hold its leaders accountable and participate in the constructive transformations of their nations into viable political, economic and social entities. In essence, lack of political empowerment explains why Africa and Africans remain prostrate at the foot of the ladder of development, however defined.

In conclusion, I would just repeat that Africa is not defined by poverty and conflict. European colonizers and writers tried to redefine Africa as a dark continent because they mistook difference for inferiority. Africa is not conflict-ridden or poor because Africans are incapable of enlightened thought and constructive action. The African condition is a consequence of a series of unfortunate historical encounters with western and eastern imperialism whose negative consequences are perpetuated by a history of bad and irresponsible leadership. In spite of all of the wars and diseases and poverty however, Africans remain a beautiful and happy people. Those in this audience who have visited the continent can attest to the fact that Africans are generally a happy people. Perhaps because of the limited intrusion of capitalism and its tendency to dehumanize, Africans remain connected to their humanity. The damaging culture of extreme individualism characteristic of western societies is alien to African societies. Yes in Africa, people are poor; but yes, in Africa people are also happy. So what Africa needs is not redefinition but understanding.


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