Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Africa's Disastrous Existential Philosophy - Complete Version By Abimbola Lagunju

The history and the present state of contemporary Africa and the apparent quagmire that Sub-Sahara Africa has found itself in, in terms of political and social orientation, development and its rightful dignified place among the comity of nations confound the observer and present a challenge to those who honestly believe in the potentials of its un-harnessed unified capacity to improve the conditions of lives of its people and to contribute to world development.

Despite its historical claims to being the birthplace of the human race, Africa in the twenty-first century is still confined to and kept at basic survival levels more than five million years after the first African added reason and logic to instinct. Why is Africa still grappling with survival, when others on the same planet, having taken this level for given are focusing and working untiringly on improving the quality of their existence? Where does the problem lie? Who is to blame? 

It is no secret that the apparently simple task of ensuring basic survival is a daunting task, a near impossibility; natural and mostly man-induced disasters appear to have conspired to limit the survival chances of the African to pre-historic times levels. Any talk of improvement of quality of life in contemporary Africa seems superfluous when mere survival continues to remain at stake.

The primary duty of the collective, under any pretext connoting an organized entity lies in enhancing the chances of its own survival by drawing on the collective effort and resources to provide conducive environment for individual survival. Survival thus becomes a crucial social responsibility of the collective towards individual members. In this situation, the individual, unhampered by inconsequential trivialities of life, feels free to harness his creative resources towards improving the quality of his existence and by extension, the quality of existence of the collective.

In Africa, it appears that the reverse is the case. The struggle for survival appears to have been left on the shoulders of the common man in an environment that does not only limit possibilities, but is also inherently hostile to potentials. The role of the state becomes an ethereal mystery only decipherable by god-politicians while the existence of government in its present form actively counteracts and subjugates the aspirations of the common man. This noxious cloud that hangs over the most basic needs of the African reduces any discussion (by African politicians and their foreign masters) of improvement of quality of life to a puerile daydream in a self-deluding trance of nebulous political discourse.

The question of an African contribution to world development on equal platform with other nations, not as individuals in the service of different institutions of the world or as unconnected independent individuals, becomes distant particles of a dream unintelligible to the visionary eyes of the most politically progressive of telescopes. Africa has to move unaided from basic survival stages in order to give any relevance to its intention of contribution to world development.

It does not suffice to romanticize the role of individual Africans who have excelled in different aspects of human endeavor or the forced, despicable contribution of slavery to the industrial revolution in Europe and North America as African contribution to world development. It is the unified contribution of Africa as a continent of diverse peoples and resources, making a mark predicated on its experience, its context and in its own manner, as per universally acceptable parameters that would liberate Black Africa from prejudices. That Africa has what it takes in terms of its abundant human and natural resources, the bedrocks of any cultural, industrial and technological revolution, is not in doubt even in the mind of the most cynical critic. Africa is not however known in the world to have harnessed any of these resources to the betterment of the conditions of its citizens and the world at large, rather it is known as a compliant profligate source of its human and natural resources.  

Africa as a continent has lived by the principle of a “good native” who turns out his household and puts all his family possessions at the disposal of the foreigner in the name of hospitality, expecting to get his reward either in heaven or be recompensed with the same generosity by the beneficiary of his profligacy.  The African soon faces immense odds and conditions for the smallest of concessions when his beneficiary plays host and is humbled into gratefully accepting a fraction of what he had parted with.

The ease with which Africa parts willfully with its resources or is manipulated into doing so informs the view and the behavior of others towards African resources. African resources have taken the hue of god-given gifts, which should either not be paid for or underpaid for. From cotton prices to African footballers’ fees in Europe, the underlying concept has been the same since the first contact of the African with the foreigner. These gifts, either offered willingly by the African, or spiraled away under manipulation or in some cases by bullying have informed the nature of the relationship of foreigners with Africans. Unlike the African, foreigners recognize the importance of the enormous human and natural resources available in Africa as crucial in their march away from survival level to quality level. Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, lent credence to this view when he said “the safety of the North and its industries is contingent on how it is able to control or manipulate the raw material base which is in …Africa particularly”[i]. It is not difficult for the common man to understand the logic behind WTOisms and trade barriers.

The continent, still unsure of the potentials of these resources and not having any social, technical or even political infrastructure in place to put them to use, took the easy route of asking the beneficiaries of its profligacy for all forms of assistance. Assistance in finished products and fractions of GDP, not means of putting their resources to use. As a chosen or imposed policy Africa seems to have sentenced itself to a beggar status, an inveterate recipient of aid, with all attending contempt. Aid to Africa is then conditioned by Africa’s beneficiaries who have now metamorphosed into donors and development experts on a whole bundle of conditions, which benefit them on the long run and undercut Africa’s chances of emerging from its vicious quagmire. The direct consequence of this is a near irreversible damage to the psyche and dignity of the African. Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan president, at the African Union Conference titled “Africa in the 21st Century: Integration and Renaissance”, held in Dakar in October 2004 confessed that “aid has failed to transform Africa. Whatever aid Africa received since independence has been wiped out several times over by the losses we have suffered in trade. The greatest subversion to Africa’s development has been …the protectionism in EU, Canada, USA and Japan”. One is inclined to ask from the point of view of a common man and at the risk of unleashing the fury of pundits, both local and international that if the words of Mr. Museveni were true, why then do African leaders continue to accept solicited and unsolicited aid being conscious of its nefarious effects on Africa? Why have they actively participated in making aid a major industry in Africa? Why have they consciously allowed aid to transform into potent instruments of manipulation as was the case with mirrors, guns, trinkets and alcoholic drinks during the slavery period? African history appears to be going round in circles. The age-old vulnerability of the trusting African is still the same, only the price with which he sells changes with times.

The acceptance of aid and unsolicited concessions in the “forgiveness of debts” has only introduced a new dimension into the perception of Africa’s resources. The donors of aid now impose their legitimate rights to these resources and even dictate the terms and conditions under which these gifts should reach them. There is no doubt that the historical largesse or profligacy of Africans has not brought any advantage to Africa.

The failure of African socio-economic experiment of profligacy in the name of hospitality, whether willingly or under duress demands that Africa should make a calculated and conscious effort to reduce the squandering of its human and natural resources and harness them to improve not only the conditions of its people but also make unquestionable technological contribution to humanity at large. Alpha Oumar Konare, the Chairman of the Commission of the Africa Union  in a speech said “the requisite conditions necessary for Africa to become a force to be reckoned with, a force we can rely upon include.… the optimal use of all our assets, namely the immense human and natural resources…”. This is a re-echo of the preambles of the Organization of African Unity Charter that states Conscious of our responsibility to harness the natural and human resources of our continent for the total advancement of our peoples in all spheres of human endeavor”[ii] These are the echoes of the mind of any black African, but then the question of how far the African leaders are prepared to go in order to begin this process promised in 1963 and revisited in 2003 by Mr. Konare immediately comes to mind. It is not difficult to see that the answer may be “Not too far”, given their “historical ties”, and of course the fear of losing their jobs in case they step on the wrong toe of the international community of beneficiaries of Africa’s largesse.

Some Western scholars and indeed some Africans would argue that Africa is making some progress according to its own calendar, making its own mark in its own way. This view is not only condescending but smacks of a deliberate conspiracy to delude the African that despite being stuck at survival levels of humanity’s pedestal he is making some imaginary progress. The quality of life cannot be relative; therefore human endeavor to improve the quality of life cannot be condemned to “African calendar” or to some other calendar. That Africa has to quickly move up from survival level is a historical obligation that cannot be spread over some spurious calendar. Africa has to know when to call its losses (not that it has much to lose now anyway), accept past mistakes and re-organize itself as articulated by Mr. Konare so as to occupy its rightful and dignified place among nations. Black Africa could only take this place among nations when it consciously makes efforts to put its human and natural resources to useful service in order to continuously generate home-inspired inputs not only to enhance its survival, but to improve the quality of its existence. As a continental goal, these inputs have to be proportional to the inputs of other nations, which have had a head-start that qualifies them as “developed”. The parameters of measurements of these inputs cannot be different from one race to the other; the parameters are universal and are the yardsticks with which groups of peoples are measured and classified as developed or primitive. The lower the inputs of a people as per universally acceptable parameters, the lower they are put on the scale of “development” and the more prejudice is meted out to them.

Africa belongs to the low-input group. Some have tried to console Africans by drawing parallels between contemporary Africa and the medieval times in Europe, arguing that internecine wars, corruption, disease are part of the process which Africa has to go through; “kinder” social analysts prefer to compare Africa with Europe or United States of 200 years ago. They argue that Africa may have to go through the experience of those on the upper part of the inputs scale, and that this is a long process which needs the support of those on top of the scale. The African experience has shown that those on the top of the scale use debts and aid as tools to kick the African off the ladder and to undermine any possibilities of Africa’s meaningful contribution except as a source of cheap raw materials.  Africa is therefore left with no choice but to accept adapting outputs of other cultures to its reality.

Human history has shown that prejudices can be reversed against a group of people when their level of inputs becomes significant on the world arena. On the other hand, when the inputs of a previously performing people dwindle for any reasons, the respect and regard for the people are accordingly scaled down. The process of adapting others’ outputs to Africa’s plethora of problems has unsurprisingly become an onerous task, given the one-size-fits-all nature of these outputs and the inability of African leaders to either out-rightly reject those outputs that are prejudicial or cause the few useful ones  to be transformed by Africans into more suitable tools. Africa is consequently regarded as a continent where tested and proven ideas fail.

Africans do know that only a very small fraction of foreign-conceived solutions are useful and are not potentially harmful to the African cause. The inability of African leaders to capitalize on the few workable outputs to begin the process of transformation of the continent is what raises questions and consternation. When these questions are raised, African leaders have their standard plethora of excuses linked to others but themselves. These excuses of debt burden, wars, trade barriers, unresponsive (to their stretched arms) international community are overflogged and nebulous; they smack of lack of vision and courage to seek and provide alternative home-grown solutions. Rather than sift through the mess of solutions (aid, debts, political orientation, etc.) and find the right adaptable output and identify the right partners, African leaders ask for more solutions in aid and debts. Africa is further not helped by placard-carrying activists in other cultures who either put these arguments into the mouth of the African leaders or help them echo these excuses. These arguments engender an acceptance of helplessness and undermine any desire or drive to explore latent potentials.

The “passionate intensity”[iii] of liberal activists in other cultures (who though vote the wrong way when the subject of their activism becomes a threat to their lifestyle and privileges) and shameless appeals of some African leaders to the “conscience” of “international community” to provide crumbs have succeeded in alienating from the mind of the African the conviction that Africa has the potential, can, and should make a bold mark in the course of human endeavor to improve the quality of its existence. Henry Kissinger, the former American Secretary of State declared in a book that it is only the "moral commitment of the American people and the international community"[iv] that could save Africa which he described as "the festering disaster of our age."  Mr. Tony Blair, the British Prime minister (of regime-change fame) in Davos, Switzerland and on numerous other occasions declared Africa to be a “scar” on the conscience of the world in need of major plastic surgery of debt relief and more aid. In order to soothe the festering wound or conduct a keloid-inducing plastic surgery on the scar, Mr. Blair’s Commission for Africa Report released in March 2005 recommended that “….the developed world must increase and improve its aid…...”[v].

The incessant appeals of African leaders to the “international community” constitute a contradiction of the romanticized “bravery and valor” of the African man. In many black African cultures, manliness is first and foremost defined by the ability of a man to put his house in order and to act as a responsible head of his household by providing for, and  protecting his family. It is an abomination to see an African man lamenting the failures of his manliness in the market place. While people may empathize with the consequences of his failures, he has lost the right to be called a man. Western liberal ideology and restless social activism have however taught African leaders that there is a duality to manhood. It has become acceptable and fashionable in the international arena to lament failures, attributing these failures to someone else’s making and playing the helpless victim; and on the other hand use whatever morsels or concessions are bestowed by the “international community” to exercise manliness at home, either as a puppet or as a dictator. The re-echoing of problems of Africa by political and social activists in other cultures and the deliberate and conscious portrayal of apparent helplessness of the continent have in some way institutionalized ineptitude of African governments and peoples. Firstly, it has succeeded in convincing the African peoples and their leaders that their problems are insurmountable and that others are responsible for these problems and solutions have to come from outside in the form of concessions, aid and “development”. Secondly, it has also taught the “international community” to “concede” to handing out morsels of aid with one hand, and with the other hand subvert any attempts by Africa (not that there are any concerted moves to do so by Africa) to liberate itself from these shackles by convincing African leaders to entrench themselves and their citizens in the ever deepening hole of debts and debt servicing. The donors then offer incommensurate gigantic technical support for the management of these debts and their derisive aid. The absurdity of this “aid” becomes more evident when weighed against how much capital leaves Africa in the name of debt servicing. This “aid” blown out of proportion by the Western media represents a fraction of unsung capital robbery committed by “donors” in Africa under the banner of “debt servicing”.

It is a natural human instinct that when confronted with immense odds, one puts all his resources to use to overcome these odds. This is also applicable to groups of peoples as nations, as a race, as ethnic or religious groups.  In the case of a race or a nation, it is fundamental that internal differences be put aside and a common front be found to overcome the difficulties.  Appropriate matured political philosophy, whether as a civil religion or ideology is crucial in this regard. The history of persecution of Jews around the world and the seeming un-end to these injustices culminated in the convocation of the first Zionist Congress in 1897. The Congress sought to unite the whole of Jewry in order to put an end to this persecution. Many other focused congresses and meetings with the same objective would follow this first initiative. In other words, conscious collective efforts were made by Jews as a people to overcome the odds facing them in all corners of the world. A direct or indirect consequence of these concerted efforts is the emergence of a powerful nation of Jews (Israel) strong enough to take on any nation that dares to repeat what happened in Nazi Germany. Even if there are still occasional anti-semitic sentiments in some parts of the world, the great lengths to which the political leaders of these countries go to to denounce these sentiments and the magnitude of the state apparatus which they invest in curbing these sentiments are a confirmation of the successful strategy of Jews in affirming their right to self-esteem and dignity, not as a political concession but as a hard-earned right, supported by the might of their tiny nation.

Black African peoples, who have literally and figuratively been victims of atrocities for most of their existence, have not, not at any point of their history, been able to set aside their internal differences to overcome the odds that face them as a race. It is not enough to struggle to get the title of “human beings” or to veer off on some narcissistic mission of exhumations of historical heroism in order to claim a place among other races. These claims have to be backed up with a continuous conscious process of re-inventing the self to meet the challenges of the world and thereby earn dignity and respect as a result of input, not as a political or moral concession. Unfortunately, Africa is synonymous with energy-sapping and time-consuming internal divisions founded on a repertoire of legitimate and illegitimate excuses ranging from ethnic differences, through differences in imported religious to differences in official foreign languages. Democratization of problems rather than solution has become a hallmark of Africa. This medusa of problems naturally attracts ad hoc hydra-headed solutions leaving untouched the fundamental question of what makes Africa so vulnerable to self-destructive tendencies. Ad hoc solutions are by their nature very attractive to all the actors involved in a conflict or its resolution. The parties involved in the conflict, the “problem democrats” feel vindicated as to the legitimacy of their claims (some even get placated with very important government posts); those involved in resolving the conflict have a sense of achievement, their conscience appeased that they have done some good and hopefully would reap more benefits than their initial investments in seminars, hotel costs and travels. It is, in the parlance of development pundits, a win-win situation.

It is a failure of imagination of legitimate and illegitimate African leaders that in “democratizing” problems and seeking external ad hoc solutions, they have in any way advanced the course of the continent and the black race. On the contrary, they have succeeded in conveying to the world a caricature image of Africa as a continent devoid of possibilities of any inputs; and thus fuelled the fires of prejudices against all black peoples of the world.

Africa has to consciously and honestly search for the fundamental problem on which other problems which have become the trademark of Africa are founded. It is a search for the body of the medusa, its very heart. That problems exist in Africa, and have been mutating, multiplying and haunting generations of Africans is a known and accepted fact. Looking beyond the obvious problems and extricating the fundamental from its recesses is where the challenge lies. There cannot be any advancement if the diagnosis of the fundamental is wrong. 

Africa has been an open field for multitudes of studies and social experiments directed at diagnosing the fundamental and proffering solution. It is an absurdity of our helplessness that others who are alien to African culture, traditions and philosophy of life come with different tools and theory to decipher African problems.  It is a known fact that the solutions of these “experts” have not in any way changed the continent. On the contrary, the repertoire of ideas they have proffered and experimented appears to have further muddled up the situation.

The overrated assumption that all problems disappear under the blanket solution of  Western-style development is not only a gross misunderstanding of the underlying fundamental problem but it also highlights the unwillingness of African actors and their foreign development technical advisors to address the issue. The very nature of this problem renders ineffective any imported armchair economic theory or socio-political experiments.

When Africa finally arrives, unaided, at the point of diagnosing the fundamental problem which it faces, and proposes an appropriate solution, development will come from within as a fait accompli, not as an import. Development will come as a collective internal drive of African peoples based on their conviction to improve the chances of their survival by improving the quality of their lives.

This mechanism to kick-start this collective internal drive cannot be imported or exported.

[i] Tariff Reform - Winston Churchill’s Address to Textile Workers. Lancashire, 1909.
[ii] The Organization of African Unity Charter, Addis Ababa, 1963.
[iii] W.B. Yeats: The Second Coming
[iv] Henry Kissinger: Does America Need a Foreign Policy?
[v] The Commission for Africa Report, March 2005

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