The East African - - OPINION - Pic: File Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based po­lit­i­cal co­men­ta­tor

Tee Ngugi on how old Africa was conned by im­po­tent sym­bols.

Wil­liam Shake­speare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the case of the change of name of the in­de­pen­dent en­clave within the boundaries of South Africa from the King­dom of Swazi­land to the King­dom of eswa­tini, the ap­pro­pri­ate phrase would be: “A poor coun­try by any other name would be just as poor.”

The late dic­ta­tor Mobutu Sese Seko changed his coun­try’s name from the Congo to Zaire. The for­mer name has a lyri­cal beauty. It em­bod­ies the dance rhythms of Africa. The name evokes the mighty Congo River snaking through the jun­gles where Kurtz, a char­ac­ter in Joseph Con­rad’s novel, Heart of Dark­ness, came face-to-face with him­self. The Congo also evokes the tragic pre­colo­nial and colo­nial his­tory of Africa.

Zaire, on the other hand, lacks po­etic and his­tor­i­cal res­o­nance. Rather, it re­minds us of the tragic delu­sions of mega­lo­ma­nia. So there is a sense in which a name is not just a name. But as we shall see be­low, Shake­speare was also right about the tragic im­po­tence of ob­sess­ing over im­age at the ex­pense of sub­stance.

Two schools of thought have con­tested the def­i­ni­tion of an African world­view since the ad­vent of na­tion­al­ism in the 1930s. One view pro­posed that emerg­ing African na­tion-states could only achieve so­cio-eco­nomic progress if they re­claimed the tra­di­tions of democ­racy and so­cial­ism that sup­pos­edly ex­isted in our pre­colo­nial so­ci­eties.

In the heat of the anti-colo­nial strug­gle, this idyl­lic pre­sen­ta­tion of old Africa res­onated with peo­ple. Soon af­ter In­de­pen­dence, there be­gan a process of graft­ing tra­di­tional val­ues and prac­tices onto the body-politic of the new states. Ren­hold Niebuhr’s de­scrip­tion of Nkrumah as pres­i­dent is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this process. Niebuhr writes: “The cult of per­son­al­ity that Nkrumah built up around him­self was at least in part an at­tempt to bor­row the trap­pings of a tra­di­tional chief…”

This re­mak­ing of “mod­ern pres­i­dents into an­cient kings,” as Ali Mazrui mem­o­rably put it, was hap­pen­ing in a con­text of fre­netic ef­forts to “de­colonise” ev­ery as­pect of life. Flags bear­ing sym­bols of a glo­ri­ous African past be­came om­nipresent. Coun­tries’ names changed to re­flect an African ethos. Roads and lakes were named af­ter pre­colo­nial and post­colo­nial tyrants, now glo­ri­fied as great hu­man­ists.

In the then Zaire, Mobutu de­creed Authen­tic­ité the state ide­ol­ogy, claim­ing it would re­con­nect Africans to the her­itage of their an­ces­tors. Ac­cord­ingly, ci­ti­zens clothed them­selves in a new na­tional dress in­vented by Mobutu. Then they, like Mobutu, de­nounced their Euro­pean names. African cap­i­tals be­came a kalei­do­scope of flow­ing Kente and Ag­bada robes. Films were made fea­tur­ing idyl­lic vil­lages and wise old men. Songs ex­tolled the utopia of yes­ter­year.

The myth of “Hakuna matata” in Africa was hatched. At In­de­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tions, we sang and danced long into the night, prais­ing Africa’s glo­ri­ous past and the new dawn of free­dom and pros­per­ity.

In the early 1980s, some African schol­ars, most no­tably Abi­ola Irele, be­gan to say loudly that the Em­peror had no clothes, Kente or oth­er­wise. All the philoso­phies pro­posed by Nkrumah or Mobutu or Sekou Toure that were sup­posed to re­con­nect us to our “tra­di­tional hu­man­ist past” were Tro­jan horses used to sneak in the dic­ta­tor­ship and mon­u­men­tal plun­der from which Africa has never quite re­cov­ered. All the so-called de­coloni­sa­tion – re­nam­ing of roads, chang­ing of fashion, etc – were a clever pan­tomime orches­trated from fab­u­lous palaces in our cap­i­tals and holiday homes in Europe. The pan­tomime was de­signed to keep the pop­u­la­tion ex­cited about im­agery, sym­bols and myths while the sub­stan­tive work of amass­ing great personal wealth by the elites was go­ing on be­hind the scenes.

In op­po­si­tion to the na­tion­al­ist school

Coun­tries’ names changed to re­flect an African ethos. Roads and lakes were named af­ter tyrants pos­ing as hu­man­ists.”

of thought that ar­gued that Africa could only progress by bor­row­ing from the pre­colo­nial tra­di­tional society, this new wave of schol­ars, now joined by Kwame Anthony Ap­piah, said we needed first to de­ter­mine what it meant to be African. This schol­ar­ship dis­pensed with myths of egal­i­tar­ian and a hu­man­ist past, and ad­vo­cated a rein­ven­tion of Africa in the con­text of our na­tional democ­racy and eco­nomic am­bi­tions. The old Africa danced fever­ishly around im­po­tent sym­bols. The Africa of the fu­ture must be de­fined by progress, tech­nol­ogy and free­dom.

So it is dou­bly dis­heart­en­ing to see King Mswati at­tempt­ing to pull off a “Mobutu.” Swazi­land is one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world, with a ter­ri­fy­ing HIV preva­lence rate. Chang­ing the county’s name will not im­prove its for­tunes. Name is only im­age. Only strate­gic plan­ning and op­ti­mal use of re­sources will. That is sub­stance. Mswati’s ac­tion is re­ally de­signed to dis­tract peo­ple while he in­dulges in his favourite pas­time – ac­cu­mu­lat­ing wealth and vir­gins.

The old Africa danced fever­ishly around im­po­tent sym­bols. The Africa of the fu­ture must be de­fined by progress, tech­nol­ogy and free­dom

King Mswati of Swazi­land.

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