Africa Should Beware the Forces of Liberal Imperialism

Thabo Mbeki, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), April 7, 2006

I do not know how many of us remember in any detail the national and global climate generated by the advent of the year 2000, signifying the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. But I would dare say that the most prevalent mood was one of hope and confidence about a better future and a new beginning for all humanity, including its African component.

For many across the world this “new beginning” was viewed as a period of learning from the past, and optimism about renewed prospects of dealing with the challenges confronting all humanity. World leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations’s Millennium Summit and adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration.

Among other things, the declaration said: “We believe that the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalisation becomes a positive force for all the world’s people . . . Only through broad and sustained efforts to create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity, can globalisation be made fully inclusive and equitable. These efforts must include policies and measures, at the global level, which correspond to the needs of developing countries and economies in transition and are formulated and implemented with their effective participation.”

If all this was implemented—towards the creation of a global human society characterised by a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity—it would indeed mark a new beginning for all humanity.

African century

Closer to home, the World Bank published a book boldly entitled Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?.

In response to this we asserted without hesitation that the 21st would indeed by an African century. As a token of its seriousness in this regard, our continent evolved the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union, confident that the new body would be the critical instrument we would use to achieve the goal of making the 21st an African century.

Confident in our assertion that this is the African century, we locate our contribution in the context of challenges we face to make that ideal a reality. We place specific focus on the need for us as Africans to contribute to the consolidation of the continental and global consciousness required for this transformation, but remain mindful of the fact that the effort to achieve that consciousness will necessarily involve a struggle between the Afro-optimists and the Afro-pessimists.

Whose ideas drive our societies? Let us begin with some of the most systematic distortions of African history and the place of Africans in the historical scheme of things.

The European historians of the 19th century were consumed by the cancer of racism and the firm belief that there were no human beings on Earth who were divinely endowed with intelligence, fortitude and wisdom than those who populated the European countries. About blacks, they were sure that these were sub-humans who needed the tutelage of the Europeans.

Thus began a distortion of who was responsible for one of the greatest civilisations in human history, the Egyptian civilisation.

Accordingly, the 19th-century Europeans, who believed that intelligence and wisdom were their god-given gifts, could not contemplate the possibility that blacks could have been responsible for such an outstanding civilisation, began ascribing that civilisation to everyone except black Africans.

In this regard, the historian Basil Davidson has observed that: “None of this rather fruitless argument, as to the skin colour of the ancient Egyptians before the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century AD, would have arisen without the eruption of modern European racism during the 1830s.”

Denying the fact

The scholar Martin Bernal also addressed this issue in his seminal work Black Athena. He wrote about how European scholarship in the 19th century sought to deny the fact reflected in Greek texts that the ancient Greeks had learnt much from the Egyptians. He wrote: “In the long run we can see that [the eminent place of] Egypt was also harmed by the rise of racism and the need to disparage every African culture.”

It was this European racism and attempts to deny Africans any capacity to build great civilisations that led even late-20th century European historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, to declare that Africans had no history.

For instance, he said: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness . . . and darkness is not a subject of history . . . We cannot therefore afford to amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”

I take it that all of us know the irrefutable fact that the Egyptians who built that great civilisation were “black with kinky hair” as the great Greek historian, Herodotus, said.

To disabuse Trevor-Roper and others like him of the notion that from its infancy, the universe of human evolution was made in the image of Europe we shall state a few facts.

Blacks invented the art of writing in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The ancient Egyptians are famous for their mummies. To be able to do mummification, these Africans had to master a number of different disciplines, including physics, chemistry, medicine and surgery.

The Greek Hippocrates, regarded as the father of medicine, studied in the temple of Memphis in Egypt where he learned from the library of a great Egyptian physician, Imhotep.

Ancient Egyptians invented mathematics and divided it into arithmetic, algebra and geometry.

The development of the ancient calendar began in Egypt, initially by observing the behaviour of the Nile river, which had three cycles of four months each.

Egyptians also engaged in engineering, construction, shipbuilding and architecture.

The Egyptians mastered all these disciplines over many years of experience and later taught the Greeks, who in turn spread this knowledge to the rest of Europe.

The great Egyptian civilisation was followed some millennia later, by the civilisations of Nubia, Aksum, Mapungubwe, Ghana, Mali and Great Zimbabwe.

The Malian civilisation reached its pinnacle when Timbuktu became the intellectual and trading hub between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Today we are working in partnership with the government of Mali to preserve and restore the thousands of ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu, which tell a story of a great civilisation and centre of learning.

Context

To put this in context one needs to juxtapose the civilisation of Timbuktu to Europe’s state of development during the same period. Much of European society was characterised by high levels of illiteracy, acute poverty and violence.

However, this period was also particularly a time of great expansion for the Islamic empire that by the eight century included much of North Africa, parts of West Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, India and Indonesia. With Baghdad as its intellectual capital, this empire regarded information so highly that it offered traders a book’s weight in gold for every book put on sale.

At the time when rats spread the plague, or “Black Death”, Africa was part of a global order in which literacy, intellectualism and trade flourished.

With Timbuktu as a major trading and intellectual centre within the Malian empire, it is clear that Africa was not only a repository of knowledge from ancient civilisations across the world, but evidence indicates that Africa should also be regarded as an important conduit for knowledge to Europe during its Renaissance in the late 15th century.

When it became morally and otherwise impossible to continue with slavery, Europe colonised Africa and practised slave labour.

Indeed, during the long period of colonialism, there are many examples of how African resources helped the development of Europe, even paying their war costs during the two world wars. For instance, from 1943, Britain and the United States had an agreement on what was called “reverse lend lease”. This meant that US loans to Britain during the war would be repaid in raw materials. Britain repaid with tin and rubber from Malaysia, cocoa from West Africa and diamonds from South Africa.

Further, at the end of the 1950s, the sterling reserves of a small colony like Sierra Leone had reached £60-million, which went into the coffers of Britain. In 1955, the British government was holding £120-million derived from cocoa and mineral sales from Ghana. Africa’s total contribution to Britain’s sterling balances in 1945 was £446-million, which went up to £1 446-million by 1955, more than half the total gold and dollar reserves of Britain and the commonwealth, which amounted to £2 120-million.

Poverty

Over centuries, African resources, human and material, ensured that Europeans lived a good life while the countries of Africa were pushed deeper into the mire of poverty and underdevelopment.

Today, the gross domestic product (GDP) of Belgium is about $302-billion with a population of 10-million people. The GDP of the Democratic Republic of Congo is estimated at $10-billion with a population of 60-million people.

The combined GDP of France and Britain, two countries that achieved the largest colonial presence in Africa, is about $3,5-trillion, while Africa has a combined GDP of about $600-billion.

And yet, despite the adoption of this goal by the governments of all countries, because of the stubborn persistence of perspectives about Africa that are centuries old, even today we are told that Africa does not exist.

“Does Africa exist?” This was the question posed in the lead article of an influential American foreign policy journal, American Diplomacy, on July 26 2001. Appearing barely a week after African leaders took the step to transform the OAU into the AU, this article gave a rare glimpse into the thinking of a section of the US foreign policy establishment.

The author, Michael Radu, started by rubbishing Africa’s efforts towards greater pan-African unity as being as useful as “the reshuffling of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic”. He went on to state that, “There is no such thing as ‘Africa’ in any meaningful political and cultural sense . . . [and] . . . beyond accidents of geography, there is no such thing as ‘Africa’. “

In what have become the common ingredients of Afro-pessimism, Radu goes on to portray Africa as being incapable of plotting her own future owing, on the one hand, to her diversity in terms of language and religion and on the other, allegedly endemic “tribalism, corruption, genocide, failing states, poverty, and HIV/Aids”.

He then advises that, to advance, Africa should engage in “self-criticism and [take] steps toward more honesty, free markets and elite accountability”.

Phenomena

While one is tempted to write off Radu’s comments as simplifications of Africa’s complex challenges, it is important to place it in the context of two powerful phenomena impacting on Africa and the world.

These are, firstly, the deeply entrenched tradition of “otherisation” of Africa, to borrow a word from Ali Mazrui, and secondly the renewed vigour among Western scholars to assert that African states are ineluctably unable to bring about the kind of change required to improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

Gordon Frisch suggests that: “Before any political solution can work, law and order, almost totally lacking in sub-Saharan Africa, must prevail. To accomplish this, as history has proven time and again in Africa, the most effective means is by the use of mercenaries. Neither the UN nor civilised governments have the mandate or the will to do the job. Once peace has been ‘made’, then perhaps the UN could participate in ‘keeping’ it. Then, African governments should invite former colonists back as partners in running their countries, developing their economies and educating their people.”

The other tendency, referred to earlier as the “otherisation” of Africa, has an even longer history. This phenomenon of defining “the other” as the antithesis of what is the norm, was often used to justify actions of an inhumane nature. Under the guise of “saving” or “bringing civilisation” to “the other”, policies and practices such as colonialism and apartheid could be sanctioned.

By denying people the cultural or social traits of the “civilised”, the powerful could denigrate a people’s history. Coupled with a continued process of indoctrination this would eventually also erode the self-worth of “the other”.

The African continent and her people have suffered this fate. Peoples’ identities were destroyed, whether by replacing their indigenous names with foreign ones or wiping away place names through to the destruction of cultures and traditions.

Sadly, the impact of these phenomena persists, and if allowed to continue, poses the risk of leading to a world in which “might is right” and diversity and self-determination are seen as constituting a menace to “order”. It is in this context that Africa’s quest for renewal needs to be understood.

‘Shared future’

This mammoth task confronts us as a responsibility to achieve the “shared future” of which the Millennium Declaration spoke. The Brazilian writer and pedagogue, Paulo Freire, says: “It is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well [because] only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”

This task cannot be achieved as long as we defer to our former colonisers the important matters that affect our countries and people.

Ngugi wa Thiongo says in his book Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary: “Obedience of the oppressed to the oppressor; peace and harmony between the exploited and the exploiter; the slave to love his master and pray that God grant that the master may long reign over us: these were the ultimate aesthetic goals of colonial culture carefully nurtured by nailed boots, police truncheons and military bayonets and by the carrot of a personal heaven for a select few. The end was to school Kenyans in the aesthetic of submission and blind obedience to authority reflected in that Christian refrain, trust and obey.”

Africans have long battled with this demand to trust and obey those who have destroyed our continent. The question is whether some of us still, quietly, trust and obey because we cannot free ourselves from the political, social and economic stranglehold of our erstwhile colonisers.

We transformed the OAU into the AU because the former had accomplished its mandate to free our continent. We needed the structures and mandates of the AU to steer us through the waters of the 21st century and deliver us into an Africa that is developed and prosperous.

We are confident that working together, as Africans, trusting and obeying ourselves as Africans, listening to our own voices and responding to the dictates of our people, it is possible to ensure, through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the development and prosperity of our countries, individually and collectively.

Challenges

Through the AU and Nepad it is possible to address the main challenges facing us. These include:

  • The challenge of fiscal independence. We have to work out programmes that would deliver Africa from this stranglehold of donor money.

  • We need to build capacity in policy-making processes and build strong and viable policy-making institutions.

  • We need to consolidate our work on peace and security for all our people.

  • We have a duty to accelerate and strengthen the development agenda of the continent and work together to increase the effectiveness of Nepad programmes. We are proceeding with our efforts to create an African Infrastructure Fund, financed by accessing African institutional funds.

  • There is an urgent need to answer the question—what forces constitute the African progressive movement in Africa and how should we mobilise these?

“Meanwhile, the US remains mired in history, exercising power in a world where international laws and rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defence and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. They agree on little and understand one another less and less.

“The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defence policies, the US and Europe have parted ways.”

I have quoted this passage, by Robert Kagaan from his book Paradise and Power, at length because I would like us to reflect on what this obvious celebration of power and force means to us as Africans. In reality, for us it coincides with the call made in the aftermath of September 11 2001 for the developed North to institute a so-called “liberal imperialism”.

Regardless of the noble vision contained in the Millennium Declaration about a shared future for all humanity, including ourselves, we have to contend with the reality that there are important voices in the countries that sought to deny the fact that the Egyptian civilisation was African, the countries that asserted that Africa has no history outside its subjugation by Europe, the countries that viewed it as their natural right to enrich themselves at the expense of Africa and the Africans—powerful voices that are arguing for the denial of our right to self-determination.

These are the same countries that dominate and benefit most from the process of globalisation, which provide the basis for the argument that the political should match the socio-economic—that global socio-economic domination should be matched by global political domination.

It is only if we confront these and other realities in a manner that empowers us to deal effectively with the many problems that are a legacy of many centuries of subjugation, that we can and will build a continent that is free, independent, peaceful, democratic, developed and prosperous.

Within this perspective, we must continue to claim the 21st as the African century, ready to engage in serious, protracted and popular struggle to transform this noble dream into reality. For us the new millennium must continue to communicate the unequivocal message that—Africa shall be free!

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