Africa must free it­self of west­ern im­i­ta­tion

The con­ti­nent’s elites have to re­ject the no­tion that be­ing ‘mod­ern’ and ‘civilised’ means ap­ing the west’s tra­di­tions

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Chigozie Obioma

One of the great­est ironies in the his­tory of the col­lapse of any civil­i­sa­tion must be the ini­tial in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Africans and Euro­peans. The Ig­bos in the east of Nige­ria, for in­stance, ini­tially saw the Euro­peans as mad­men of strange ap­pear­ance and ill-formed ide­olo­gies. On bank­ing, the Ig­bos won­dered how an adult in his right mind could hand over his pos­ses­sions for oth­ers to keep for him. By the end of the 19th cen­tury, the “mad­man” had over­turned their civil­i­sa­tion, and they had adopted his.

The irony is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in these times when, given the rel­a­tive fail­ures of most for­mer west­ern colonies, there have been re­newed calls for re colo­nial is ation. In Septem­ber, US pro­fes­sor Bruce Gil­ley wrote an es­say ar­gu­ing for are colo­nial is at ion of some states, repli­cat­ing colo­nial gov­er­nance of the past“as far as pos­si­ble” and even build­ing new colonies from scratch.

If the very foun­da­tions of his ar­gu­ments are flawed, it is be­cause he, like most peo­ple, has come to ac­cept that the only met­ric for mea­sur­ing moder­nity is through the west­ern lens. This is the heart of the prob­lem.

Colo­nial­ism across most of Africa was so thor­ough – es­pe­cially among the for­mer Bri­tish pro­tec­torates – that in its af­ter­math Africa was es­sen­tially hol­lowed out. The civil­i­sa­tions of the peo­ples, their var­i­ous cul­tures and tra­di­tions, their re­li­gions, po­lit­i­cal philoso­phies and in­sti­tu­tions, were eroded or even de­stroyed.

To­day most of the na­tions in Africa should not even be called African na­tions, but west­ern African na­tions. The lan­guage, po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, so­cio-eco­nomic struc­tures, ed­u­ca­tion and ev­ery­thing that makes up a na­tion, even down to pop­u­lar cul­ture, do not orig­i­nate from within these coun­tries. African na­tions have a to­tal de­pen­dency on for­eign po­lit­i­cal philoso­phies and ideas, and their shifts and move­ments.

It is the fee­blest po­si­tion a state and its peo­ple can be in, be­cause it is a po­si­tion of chronic sub­servience. It also means that what­ever be­comes nor­malised in the west will even­tu­ally be adopted in, say, Uganda or Togo.

This has re­sulted in Africa be­ing slowly emp­tied of its essence, and be­com­ing a relic, no dif­fer­ent in sub­stance from a statue or a mu­seum.

Cel­e­bra­tions of Africa on the in­ter­na­tional scene mostly in­volve danc­ing, mu­sic, tra­di­tional fash­ion and other cul­tural arte­facts – hardly ever show­cas­ing African-orig­i­nated eco­nomic ideas, so­cial ide­olo­gies or in­tel­lec­tual the­o­ries. It is not that these do not ex­ist, but the world has suc­cess­fully con­vinced ev­ery­one – in­clud­ing Africans them­selves – that ev­ery­thing African is in­fe­rior.

Cen­tral to this psy­chol­ogy is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Africans be­ing ed­u­cated in the west. This trend has re­sulted in the rise of an army of west­ern-in­flu­enced elites who con­tinue the colo­nial­ism of their own peo­ple.

Imag­ine what can hap­pen when an African na­tion with a high unem­ploy­ment rate im­bibes a gun cul­ture. Con­sider the po­ten­tial dan­ger of a sit­u­a­tion in Nige­ria, where the Hausa man in­sists his cul­ture is be­ing ap­pro­pri­ated by the Yoruba. Or the Chris­tian Igbo em­brac­ing their iden­tity, re­cruit­ing al­lies and os­tracis­ing any­one who will not ac­qui­esce with their cause.

But this is be­com­ing Africa’s re­al­ity. In­creas­ingly, our elites tell us that the way of the west is “mod­ern” and “civilised”, echo­ing the early colo­nial­ists who dis­missed our civil­i­sa­tions as “bar­baric”, “ar­chaic”, and “un­civilised” to in­stall theirs. They tell us that our in­sti­tu­tions are cor­rupt, that our so­ci­eties are pa­tri­ar­chal, and that the African tra­di­tional re­li­gions are hea­then­ish. As west­ern supremacy en­trenches it­self in our psy­che, we are de­vel­op­ing a com­plex that em­braces west­ern ideas with­out con­sid­er­ing whether or not they are com­pat­i­ble with our own po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, eco­nomic and cul­tural sys­tem.

Al­though Amer­i­cans may be rightly call­ing for “di­ver­sity”, given a his­tory that ex­cluded a ma­jor de­mo­graphic pop­u­la­tion of black peo­ple, Nige­ria’s strug­gle from in­cep­tion has been how to unify its enor­mous di­ver­sity. It was the lack of that unity that re­sulted in the civil war of the late 1960s. This is the same for An­gola, Rwanda and Uganda, to name just a few.

But this is of lit­tle con­cern to Africa’s elites. What mat­ters is to find what the po­lit­i­cal cur­rency is in the US or Europe, and to un­crit­i­cally fol­low it. Whereas peo­ple in the west are de-em­pha­sis­ing pa­tri­o­tism and na­tion­al­ism, Africans need these to build sus­tain­able na­tions.

In fact, the lack of them, in favour of eth­nic al­le­giance, has been the bane of most African na­tions, from Congo to So­ma­lia: the re­sult of the Ber­lin Con­fer­ence of 1884, in which Euro­pean lead­ers divvied up African ter­ri­to­ries among them­selves, ig­nor­ing tra­di­tional eth­nic bor­ders.

With the sud­den un­ex­pected rise in rightwing pop­ulism across the west, it is chal­leng­ing to de­cide what a vi­able fu­ture may look like. One would think African na­tions would take this op­por­tu­nity to think for them­selves, to come up with unique African sys­tems.

How­ever, rather than do this, the African elite class largely in­sists that Africa is not west­ern enough, and is try­ing to drag the con­ti­nent into the west’s evolv­ing post­mod­ernist regime.

The most vi­able path­way would be for Africa’s elite to look within the vast po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal re­sources on which suc­cess­ful civil­i­sa­tions (the Zulu, the Igbo, the Malian dy­nas­ties of Tim­buktu, the Oyo em­pire, etc) were built. In most Igbo states, for in­stance, there was an egal­i­tar­ian sys­tem where an older mem­ber of a clan rep­re­sented his peo­ple in the el­ders’ coun­cil. There were no kings or pres­i­dents. Per­haps there could be a way to adapt this unique po­lit­i­cal struc­ture to re­place the west­ern one that has so far failed.

We need to look into these sys­tems and ex­tract co­her­ent poli­cies that can help form work­able and uniquely African so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems. This is the only vi­able path to pre­vent­ing the con­ti­nent from fully be­com­ing west­ern Africa – and the only way to end­ing the con­ti­nent’s long-term po­lit­i­cal de­cay.

Chigozie Obioma is the au­thor of The Fish­er­men and An Or­ches­tra of Mi­nori­ties

What mat­ters to Africa’s elites is to find what the po­lit­i­cal cur­rency is in the US or Europe, and to un­crit­i­cally fol­low it

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