How post-independence failures have helped the West change an image of who Africa’s heroes are
At the time of independence, Africa was basking with self-discovery and self-confidence. There was hope and confidence that Africans would shape their destiny independently. We were supposed to cooperate with others as equals. The first crop of post-independence leaders – Kwame Nkrumah (consciencism), Julius Nyerere (Ujamaa), Kenneth Kaunda (Humanism), Leopold Sedar Senghor (Negritude), Milton Obote (The Common Man’s Charter) even attempted to develop distinct ideologies for their countries. Even Mobutu Sese Seko had “Authenticity.” Many of these philosophies were ill conceived and generated failure. But they were an important effort to create a distinct view of who we are and how others should view us.
As a teenager growing up in an intellectually curious home, I was educated in the heroes of Africa to be Shaka Zulu, Omukama Kabalega, Kwame Nkrumah, Milton Obote, Ahmed Ben Bella, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela. Our freedom fighters included Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Sam Nujoma and Yoweri Museveni. Our struggle for freedom and dignity was organised under the ANC, NRA, PAIGC, UPC, CCM, CCP etc. At home and at school we read novels, poems and plays by Bethwell Ogot, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Camara Laye, David Rubadiri, Mongo Beti, Cyprian Ekwesi, Okot P’Bitek, and Alechi Amadi.
This did not exclude western texts. I read ancient Greek and Roman civilisation beginning at age 10 – focusing on philosophy, literature and art. I admired Socrates. My heroes included John Stuart Mill (for his ideas on liberty), Thomas Jefferson (for his defence of press freedom) and I dared write a letter to Ronald Reagan at age 12. Although I was a proud African, I saw myself as a human being first.
Today, it seems the obvious and the perceived economic and political failures of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Africa destroyed that intellectual tradition that made our leaders try to think independently. These failures are an attempt at a one-sided view of post-independence Africa. Perhaps our leaders and elites lost faith in locally developed solutions and turned to the West for answers. It is also possible this sense of defeat undermined our self-confidence. However, this development has given vent to outside intrusions to regain control over our sovereignty that was hard-won through wars of national independence.
Across most of Africa, we see a growing effort to usurp our sovereignty. Increasingly, Western intellectuals and activists have taken on the role of becoming our liberators. Secular missionaries have succeeded Christian missionaries. The latter dressed their mission in religion – to emancipate our souls; the secular missionaries use the language of ending poverty, democracy and human rights – to emancipate our political being. The old colonialism proclaimed its desire to liberate Africans from the tyranny of custom and the despotism of chiefs. The new colonialism promises to liberate Africans from material poverty and brutality of our leaders.
In this new era, Africa has new heroes – celebrities like Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie, Bono and George Clooney; academics like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier; journalists like Anderson Cooper and Nicolas Kristof; humanitarian activists like John Prendergast; liberators like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy (did you see how they “liberated” Libya?); philanthropists like Bill Gates etc.
As the Kony 2010 U-Tube documentary shows, we are not supposed to be active participants in our own emancipation. We are supposed to be passive spectators in the struggles that are shaping our destiny.
Thus, our human rights are defended by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; our press freedom is fought for by Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists; our democracy is promoted by the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House; our lives are saved by Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross; our diseases are fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Fund; our economic policies are shaped by the IMF and World Bank; our struggle to overcome poverty is led by Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie; our hungry are fed by WFP; our refugees are cared for by UNHCR; our trade negotiations are led by Oxfam and Action Aid; our leaders’ crimes are tried by the ICC – the list is endless.
How did we come to this? One needs look at the main news about Africa in the mass media to see how our inherent inability to manage our affairs has been played and replayed. The news is about civil conflict, poverty, famine or disease. If it is about famine and hunger, for example, there will be an impoverished mother in dirty clothes, carrying a malnourished child on her back, stretching out her frail hand towards a white aid worker who is presented as an altruistic saviour.
Colonial attitudes have been recreated through the reporting of Africa today. Many of the promoters of colonialism were high minded Europeans like David Livingstone seeking to end slave trade, spread Christianity and “civilization.” Yet behind this seeming altruism also lay Western cultural hubris captured in Gen. Ian Smuts comment: “The African has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook.”
The imagery of Africa as a continent in need for Western help has not changed.
Visit an aid project in Africa. There will be a white aid worker in his 20s teaching an army of middle aged Africans how to use a condom, how many babies to produce, how to plant rice etc – as if they are children. In government ministries there will be an aid project with a 25-year old college grad from the USA working with an African PhD civil servant. He is paid 12 times better than his African counterpart. The African has to feed his family. Knowing the aid project serves interests of the donor than the recipient, he leaves office to attend to his private business, leaving the college grad to do all the work. In the evening, the “technical expert” retreats to a largely white drinking club and gossips to his friends how “Africans are lazy.”