Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Living the colonial legacy - African common man's response

The feeling of anonymity of the African common man within the abstract structure of governance and public administration left by the colonialists and adopted by African leaders engenders his potential disregard for system-imposed civic duties or norms. He deregulates his behavior as a form of silent protest against the system and as a means of survival in an unfamiliar environment. In the words of Wole Soyinka, “abstract...fetters…make passionate revolutionaries of the most cosseted life”. The defacement of major African cities, crime, and systematic destruction of scarce public infrastructures are all symptoms of estrangement of the common man with the system of governance. There cannot be a sense of ownership of an abstract alien system and its structures.

It goes without saying that the same African would behave quite differently in his own village or community where he readily identifies with the traditional community form of governance. He lives within the norms of his environment, respects the tradition and culture even when he is convinced that these might be based on superstitions. In the same manner, he would behave differently in other cultures. Most black African professionals who have left Africa to work in Western countries are known to be very hardworking, assiduous and competent. This attitude sometimes surprises their Western colleagues who are inclined to think that if Africa has such hard working and competent professionals, why is it that the continent continues to face the enormous problems which it faces.

The black African working in this environment does not necessarily form any opinion on the abstract form or otherwise of the system in which he works, nor does he worry about anonymity or not within it. He is simply part of a system that works for its creators. And he has other concerns too. He feels constantly challenged to prove his ability to his colleagues; and he contents himself by doing much more than is expected of him. Contrary to what people like to think, financial remunerations, though important occupy a secondary place in his mind.

The African professionals working in Africa are not less competent than those working abroad. Their presence is however unfelt because they fall into the African society mentality trap; the team becomes abstract and they function as independent individuals within this intangible nebula.

The new era of pseudo-democracy in Africa provides a thriving environment for further entrenchment of deregulated behavior and its consequent social ills. The ruling party irrespective of how it gets to be the ruling party wants to stay in the good books of the electorate, not by doing good for the society, but by allowing the electorate to do, in the name of civil liberties what it chooses within the framework of deregulated behavior. The ruling party employs a deliberate confusion of civil liberties with civic norms as a strategy. This strategy is useful both on the home front and the international arena. On the home front, it serves to obfuscate the common man’s potential demand by revolt for a favorable and decent environment for the legitimate pursuit of means of survival. In the international arena, it serves to convince the international community of the ruling party’s commitment to “human rights”. Under this smokescreen, the ruling party puts his colonial inheritance of instruments and structures of plunder into use.

Like the common man on the street, the civil service workers perceive the civil service as an enormous and abstract system, the role of which is questionable in their minds vis-à-vis their concept of a society. They adopt an indifferent attitude to their work. It is common knowledge that the civil service system is Africa is fraught with ineptitude and disorganization. Many cases have been reported in Africa where occasionally, the government in power makes a show of attempting to put the civil service “on track” by actively tracking punctuality of civil service workers at their posts. The show goes on for a week or two and soon everyone tires of the game and returns to business of lackadaisicality as usual.

The public office holder also sees the public service as an abstract structure towards which he feels no responsibility or sense of being there to serve. Like his common man compatriot, he feels also anonymous and estranged within this abstract situation and at a higher level shows complete disregard not only for the responsibilities conferred on him by his position but also on the direct consequences of his attitude. Under this situation, he gives no second thought to diverting into his pocket, funds which are meant to deliver public goods and services. He sees no link between his action and children dying from preventable diseases, the decaying infrastructure and the squalor that surrounds him in his opulence.

Behavior deregulation eventually leads to the known African trademarks of social disorder, corruption, wars, ineffective public services, non-functional public utilities. These problems of attitude later result in dire economic situations, that lead African leaders to Bretton Woods institutions, who in their “wisdom” and “knowledge of Africa” interpret the situation as an economic one and prescribe among other things further deregulations which translate into more social disorder.

Rudolf Julius Emmanuel, a German physicist, described entropy in his second law of Thermodynamics as a tendency of natural processes to move from order to disorder. In the case of Africa, this process was actively assisted by the incursion of foreigners on African soil and the subsequent occupation of the lands and minds of the people. It is an unfortunate course of African history that post-independence Africa still continues along this process. This same law also states that the greater the entropy in a given system, the less the available energy for useful work. Increasing entropy has consumed useful energy that could bring about any meaningful development of Africa inspired by Africans despite enormous human and natural resources in the continent.

One may ask the question that if the black African were indifferent to and felt anonymous within the imposed system, why then would Africans engage each other in wars which at times are senseless in order to take control of this same system? It would appear logical that there should be a general unwillingness to spill blood over an abstract concept.

It is generally assumed, based on alien economic theories, that most wars in Africa can be linked to access to and control of resources. This is true for the engineers of these rebellions, who in most cases are foreign interests and their local agents. The common man, the foot soldier in these wars does not engage in these conflicts for this reason. According to Wole Soyinka, the common man represents “…a people misled into making sacrifices for.…. the entrenchment of an exploitative socio-economic mutuality”. He sees his participation in these conflicts as a probable means of substituting the abstract system in which he has been reduced to an anonymous status with a more concrete system in which he will have a tangible and recognizable role to play. If the side on which he has fought wins, he soon becomes disillusioned in the post-war period when the abstract concept which he fought to do away with reinvents itself. If his side of the conflict loses, he remains with the thoughts and hopes of overturning the tables one day. In both cases, he remains a latent tool to be manipulated at any time into another conflict with the promise of his desired change.

It is always assumed that all Africans who migrate out of Africa have either done so under the pretext of economic or political reasons. This assumption is not entirely correct. There is a large unsung number of Africans who choose to leave Africa not for those two reasons but to escape the hopelessness of chaos that reigns in Africa.
Faced with enormous and apparently insurmountable odds, they choose to escape from the anarchy of their environment, the lack of vision of their leaders and from the absence of serious political will to address the problems facing the African continent. They look for some semblance of sanity in a potentially hostile environment, where they are often obliged to overlook in W.E.B du Bois’ words, “personal disrespect and mockery……. ridicule and systematic humiliation” because they stand on the other side of the color line.

The obsession of some Africans to desperately escape the problems of Africa for menial and humiliating jobs in Western countries should be a cause of concern for African leaders who understand what their role is supposed to be. It is claimed that more than 60’000 African professionals leave African shores every year. The shame of standing on long queues to obtain visas and the humiliation meted out to Africans in Western embassies should be a source of concern to responsible governments. They could as a minimum insist on a dignified treatment of their citizens applying for visas; unfortunately, these governments watch as their citizens, which the society has enormously invested in training, are humiliated just to obtain visas to go and enslave themselves in Western countries. It is common knowledge that skilled Africans (doctors, lawyers, engineers) offer themselves for humiliating jobs in Western countries. Dignity becomes a price they have to pay on their own soil and in a foreign land for the lack of vision and the ineptitude of the leaders of their homelands.

At home or abroad, for the past 1000 years, the fate of the black African has been the sacrifice of his dignity, his hopes and aspirations, his life.

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