|The Courier N° 134 - July - Aug 1992 - Dossier A fresh look at Africa? - Country Reports Grenada- Seychelles (EC Courier, 1992, 104 p.)|
|Dossier: A fresh look at Africa?|
by Axelle KABOU
French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa is on the move. Since 1990, vast social movements have emerged through people from in and around the cities who have been hit by the economic crisis going on the march.
Everywhere angry crowds are trying to head off yet another lost decade and set up national conferences, where the problems of talking about the future are heightened by the problem of the past, so scarred with gloom and resentment is the time since independence.
These exercises in catharsis may sometimes be thought to be pointlessly costly, but they are necessary nonetheless. Africa today needs to grasp what has happened to it over the past 30 years. It knows it is condemned to discuss the future and talk about creative plans for a society, civilisation even, in which innovation is bound to be more important than the mirage of catching up with the industrialised nations of today.
But what the people in the streets of Africa want is first and foremost a change in political leadership and structures. They want the right to elect governments and to dislodge them, without violence, if the majority deems them incompetent. They want the right to a means of making an effective contribution to building a genuine democracy. They want, in fact, to see an end to the arbitrariness and authoritarianism which are the stamp of everyday life in most States in post colonial Africa today.
The African and non-African media have, fortunately, done a lot to spread the image of a rebellious Africa thirsting for freedom. But recent developments on the French-speaking literary scene, although they offer immense hope, are still unfamiliar to the public at large. Yet in this field, possibly more than others, ideas and above all outlooks are on the move.
This article describes trends in African thought, outlining the contributions and limitations, without losing sight of the general ideological context in which they occur.
From cultural rehabilitation to a critique of post-colonial ideology
Back in the 1930s, African intellectuals living in Paris took up the ideology of Negritude which the black American and Caribbean school, reacting against colour prejudice, had devised in the 1920s to assert the rich and original black African culture then denied by the white establishment. On the eve of independence, just a few years after the African Culture Society was formed, African intellectuals met successively in Paris and Rome to lay the foundations of a militant African movement taking in things as diverse as political and cultural ideology, sociology, history, education, economics and more.
It was directly aimed at rehabilitating African cultures which the French colonialists declined to recognise and it was to be the basis for a post-colonial ideology dominated by the 'colonial yoke model'. Africa was projected as a victim of history, which was a coherent whole before the slave trade and colonisation brought European intrusion to upset its balance and trigger decline. The fact that the choices made on its territory for the previous four centuries had been those of foreigners, not Africans, made it even less accountable for its history- hence the refusal to shoulder the responsibilities of that period. Hence too the idea that the past entitled Africa to a special place in international society.
In 1960-70, the colonial yoke model was only rarely held up to question- witness the vast supply of black-consciousness and rehabilitationist literature produced over that period - but from 1970 onwards, a jarring note crept in. The post-colonial African State was ten years old. The euphoria of independence had worn off and there was increasing evidence of the contradictions of single party systems. The targets were often the critical intellectual elites whose only choice was between being coopted to the single party or going into exile - in the former colonials' country. Writing at this stage, typically, criticised African heads of State. Condemnation of the neocolonial understanding began even before independence, but it became an everyday exercise in the 1970s, in an intellectual universe dominated by theories of dependence and extroversion, and the blame for Africa's not very brilliant situation was put on the 'imperialist lackeys' and their Western accomplices. Then the theory that Africa and the coloniser were jointly responsible came flowing from African pens - a remarkable development in comparison with the previous decade, when every ill was deemed to have sprung from the former coloniser. The record of the first ten years of independence is a mixed one. The elites in power were pilloried, while African societies, the people themselves, were deemed to have the seeds of dynamic societies within them. Rural society especially was seen as housing efficient traditional knowledge which would come into its own in development if it were not generally gagged by authoritarian and predatory policies - a cosmology in which the heart of Africa was beautiful and the heart of Africa was good and only the leaders were bad and corrupted by the West. African societies, as African intellectuals of the period saw them, were made up of watertight social classes with no communication between them.
Effects of the commodity boom
In the 1970s, the African intellectual classes began to interiorise the concept of responsibility, in contrast with the previous decade, but the trend was stifled by the commodity boom - Zaire had its copper boom, Nigeria its oil boom, Côte d'Ivoire its coffee and cocoa boom, Senegal its groundnut boom (despite years of drought) and so on. What this in fact meant was that the post-colonial State had, possibly more than ever before, the means of strengthening its evolutionist strategies and ensuring political longevity by financing the rotation of its 'modern' elites through expanding the civil service, setting up so-called inter-African cooperation organisations, opening State companies and mixed companies and so on.
Everywhere the idea of Africanising the cadres gained ground again, but nationalisation was to the detriment of other Africans this time, and Gabonisation, Cameroonisation, Zairisation and so on were the order of the day. The cultural rehabilitation model swept the economic board from Mali to Zaire, through Gabon and Côte d'Ivoire, to become the watchword of a vast operation in which modern elites took over national wealth. The frontiers left over from the colonial era fulfilled their promise at last and supplied a territorial framework for stockpiling. Cadres were Africanised, as indeed were school syllabuses, and subsequently an attempt was made to produce a black African management theory too.
The modern Africa of the 1970s was happy to consume and spend- and waste and run up debts
In the 1970s, African States were convinced that they could manage, probably more so than in the previous decade, despite the already visible cracks in what was only a facade of economic prosperity. The Economic Community of West African States was set up in 1976, but there was no urgency about either integration or democracy. The most fervent supporters of the single parties were mainly recruited from the intellectual classes which had not gone into exile. Authenticity and a return to the past and to the ancestors were even more popular in Africa now that the West, in the throes of flower power, was praising the idea of going back to nature and proclaiming the death of a consumer society responsible for pollution and environmental destruction. The intellectual elites of Africa reacted by digging up the old back-to-thevillage myth of black consciousness, without giving up the advantages of modern society themselves. The fact that the consumer society was first and foremost one of investment and production did not bother anybody. The modern Africa of the 1970s was happy to consume and spend and waste and run up debts.
In complete contrast to the previous decade, 1980-90 were years during which structural adjustment policies sounded the knell of post-colonial States and single-party systems. The record was poor, but there was plenty to learn from it. The African States had applied a whole range of political and economic ideologies, but, after 30 years of independence, they were all, rich and poor alike, the same, with minimally processed commodities dominating exports, stagnating and uncompetitive industries, unproductive small businesses, an overgrown informal sector, production systems persistently ill-adapted to population growth, bad agricultural policies, no tie-up between scientific capital and financial capital, a brain drain, extensive rural depopulation, shanty towns burgeoning on the outskirts of cities, declining middle classes, polarisation and growing antagonism between poor and rich classes, turmoil in the universities, a breakdown of the school system, increasing illiteracy, marginalisation of women and young people and so on.
Faced with what has to be called an all round disaster, generations which had no experience of colonisation but had borne the brunt of the economic failure of the post-colonial State reacted in two ways. Those, essentially young citizens, who went on the march in Algiers, Bamako, Niamey, Port Gentil, Abidjan and Dakar in October 1988 clearly blamed their leaders and the so-called modern elites for their deteriorating situation. In other words, they interiorised the concept of responsibility, thereby breaking with the deep-seated tradition of systematically blaming the colonisers.
This was echoed later in the 1990s in the crisis literature developed by that handful of African intellectuals who not only elected to hold country or, indeed, continent up to question from within, but to do so from top to bottom. Gone was the idea of corrupt leaders on the one hand and innocent masses on the other. Instead, there was a united mass whose social reflexes, habits, behaviour and outlook combined to create and perpetuate a specific state of civilisation, a rationale of obligation.
The dangers of cultural rehabilitation
Contrary to what this might suggest, there has not always been unanimous agreement about rehabilitating African identity or culture. At a fairly early stage, many intellectuals pointed out the dangers of insisting on a special identity and stood apart from Negritude and its various philosophical manifestations.
But it took the decade of structural adjustment and urban riots to produce hard-hitting African thinking about African attitudes, the false values of Africanity and the dangers of blaming the outside world for everything.
The self-awareness school- Africa seen from within
In 1986, Tudiane Diakite published a pamphlet holding our everyday inconsistencies up to the light. (2) That same year, Edem Kodjo warned Africans of the danger of rejecting development, although restricting the phenomenon to one or two tiny, marginal groups. (3) Two years later, Alain Hazoume and Edgard Hazoume condemned the 'extraordinary obliviousness' of a 'spineless' Africa disinclined to take clear-cut decisions and take a salutary look at its own roots'. (4) In 1991, the concept of rejecting development spread to the whole of African society. The ideology of the marginalisation of Africa as devised by the post colonial elites was analysed. At a time when everyone was still in agreement as to the relevance of structural adjustment, Daniel Etounga Manguelle claimed that what Africa in fact needed most was a cultural adjustment programme. As he saw it, the continent's poor economic record was a reflexion of serious cultural shortcomings indicative of anti-evolutionary attitudes unwilling to take on board the notion of permanent change which would make for ongoing adaptation to the demands of the contemporary world. Lastly, Ka Mana, the theologian and philosopher, wrote an essay in 1991 wondering whether Africa would die of its inability to tackle its problems lucidly and scientifically. (5) He blamed the myth of the black African identity, frozen, eternal and omnipotent. He suggested:
- sometimes doing away with the West without doing away with
- sometimes doing away with Africa without doing away with the West;
- sometimes doing away with both;
- sometimes doing away with neither.
He thus reminded African minds petrified in the unbending post-colonial identity that the past alone had never been basis enough for settling the problems of a civilisation and insisted on the inevitable part played by borrowing from other civilisations and on inventiveness in the development of cultures.
There is a generation of Africans in French-speaking Africa today who not only intend to set up a tradition of self criticism and critical analysis, but to strive to get Africans to take back to themselves the full history of Africa, so as to identify and repair the structural and conceptual shortcomings-which are probably centuries old. The reform of education, and especially the spirit in which education is provided in our countries, is very much to the fore here. Another major concern of these writers is that the fantasy of catching up with the West should give way to projects which take account of Africa's place in the world today and its actual abilities. In other words, Africans must be made to realise that they are condemned either to change or to disappear from the map of a creative, inventive humanity. This sort of argument does not appeal to everyone, of course; in fact it is already getting negative reactions which could well nullify the writers' efforts at righting the situation from within.
The self-awareness school- where will it lead?
If revolution is to be judged by the amount of upheaval it causes, then the efforts of these Africans militating for a change in African outlook will have fallen like bombs on an ideological landscape which is almost pathological in accusing the outside world and complaining of the yoke of colonialism and a Western conspiracy against Africa. This occurs in an intellectual context in which there is no encouragement whatever for introspection and even less for the idea that, in the first and the final analysis, every nation is in charge of its own destiny.
The Africa of emerging democracy, including that now demonstrating against our political tyrants in the streets, still sees itself as a victim of history who will never thrive unless the debts left by the colonial period are paid off. In an atmosphere where the notion of national conferences, sovereign or not, prevails, social criticism rarely goes further than criticism of political leaders. Society, perceived as a group of individuals who interact to create a state of civilisation, is not a concept which is well-received in an intellectual environment in which the prime causes of failure are still almost invariably seen as being abroad.
But the self-awareness school could be a great help with the time-consumingjob of regaining our lost historical dignity, neither more nor less.
However, if the writers of this school are to gain credibility once the stage of hard-line diagnosis is past, they must get down to the job of defusing the facile but dangerous criticism (accusations of self flagellation, anti-black racism by self oppressed Africans, culturalism, globalism and an attempt to bail out the former coloniser) levelled at them by their detractors, come up with communication strategies, suggest ways of changing the conceptual models used for solving problems in Africa, be familiar with forward looking studies of the future of Africa, attend serious discussions of the future of Africa as often as possible and-most important of all-carry on writing and bearing witness. A.B.