by Kwesi Kwaa Prah
Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS)
Dear Gen. Williams*,
The flurry of emails, I have so far seen, have maintained the pace and heat of the discussions that were initiated and aired during our Johannesburg meeting of early January this year. This is enormously encouraging, because the free exchange of views is crucial to the identification and elaboration of a platform for ideas which could eventually feed into the 8th Congress. As originators of the request to me and Prof. Nabudere to create machinery for the organization of an 8th PAC, you and Mr. Bankie deserve to be prioritized for address in this post-meeting response from me. What I have written here are my personal views. Writing this also forces me to articulate thoughts which have meandered and coursed through my mind in the wake of the meeting. I am doing a sort of extended after-thought in full knowledge of the pitfalls and the sort of challenges one faces in philosophical terms.
Whatever may be the case or the outcome of this present exercise, it is certainly not meant to be merely a playback or flashback. It is more a summary cogitation on the consequences and mplications of the January meeting; brain-storming we called it. I have taken a critical look at the project and asked myself if the approach of a Congress is at this time the most beneficial method for the achievement of our tactical and strategic objectives as Pan-Africanists. The meeting was certainly successful in terms of the aims it had set out in the Agenda. At the start of the meeting, we discussed at some length the thrust and breadth of the Agenda. You missed that. Eventually, we found it only necessary to alter the order of items in the tasks we had set ourselves to cover and went through our day‟s work expeditiously. In the initial stages of our discussions, we were slow and cagy in picking up momentum, but as time went on we moved forward with the Agenda with remarkable speed. I dare say we surprised ourselves.
My greatest pleasure was to note that many of the ideals we share as an older generation are also held with fervour by the younger generation, and that they reveal a diversity of opinion and thought as variegated as those displayed by our generation. Some of these views were passionately articulated with logical dexterity and consummate expression. Others were intellectually roughshod and occasionally hot-headed. All of this mix made the meeting memorable.
However, I came back from the meeting vaguely in two minds; unsure of the value in using the organizational formula of a Congress, as tradition has bequeathed, for rallying Pan-Africanist thought and practice in our times. It seems to me that the advantages of a Congress cannot match the benefits of a smaller, more focused and plumbing exercise where in-depth knowledge over a defined and specified area is deliberately favoured for the more definitive and earthbound answers needed for programmed and planned practice; yes practice; away from rhetorical flightiness and oracular pronouncements which may superficially sound earth-shaking and calculated to strike terror in the hearts of all real and putative detractors of Africans, but which in fact provide little or no practical guidance and realistic prescriptions for the emancipation of African people today. We can repackage the language of the inimitable and indomitable Marcus Garvey, but we cannot bring back the 1920s, the world he lived in, with lynchings, Jim Crow and unvarnished racism. To my mind the greatness of Garvey lies in the fact that, in his times, he enabled people of African descent to face their historical tormentors eyeball to eyeball. His boundless courage and absence of any recognizably stifling inhibitions fired the imagination of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. His remarkable organizational acumen and vision enabled him to set up with his acolytes the most ambitious political and economic structure people of African descent had seen before his time.
I agree that state-led Pan-Africanism is a road to nowhere. This has been the experience of the last 50 years. Too quickly and too easily the leadership of African states subvert the real purposes and agenda of Pan-Africanism to suit their own petty and narrow flag and anthem purposes. Some of us have argued that these states, as we have them today, are more part of the problem than the solution. If our leaderships were more open and more serious about unity they will open the door to more people-to-people engagement, within and across borders; they would welcome democratically sponsored and popularly supported irredentism as a possible route to our collective ideal. But, their entrenched petty interests and hoggish attitudes in maintaining the status quo for the material and non-material benefits these provide eclipse their commitment to more meaningful and earnest efforts at unity. The example of post-Congress Uganda is a classic case in point.
The Museveni regime treated the Secretariat of the Congress as its political property and in the initial period used it as one of its mouthpieces on the African continent. If we have another Congress under the auspices of whichever government or with the blessing of any host government in Africa, I am sure that a similar fate will befall it. I know there are some of us who would say, as we heard in the Johannesburg meeting, "provide these governments or states some space in our midst." I cannot in my own mind agree to this. I suppose it‟s like letting the lion out of the front door and letting the leopard in through the back door.
During the meeting, I sometimes felt and heard in the sub-text of some participants that the shadow of continentalism was still stalking their minds. If we have a congress in which the issue of continentalism or non-continentalism rears its head, it would be most unfortunate for those amongstus who definitely want to put continentalism behind us. There are some who may think for their purposes it may be tactical not to raise the issue now, but come up with it in a congress.
Equally worrying to my mind is the oftentimes near compulsive vulgarization of the catchword and slogan; "black power." I do not believe that in contemporary Africa this terminology deals with reality. We already have "black power" in Africa. Even in the former settler-colonial areas of Africa, we have been able to gain political power. The pertinent question and problem is what are we doing with the power that we have? I repeat, what are we doing with the power that we have? To talk about "black power" today in societies which are in almost all instances over ninety percent "black" is extravagantly fatuous and only succeeds to obscure our real political colouring. It reduces African politics and power contestation to irrelevancies and distractions. I think also that I read in that tendency an attempt to find blame with extraneous factors when the real culprits should be ourselves, the elites. We have now a half-century of independence, whatever problems we face collectively as Africans can be dealt with if we put our heads together and our shoulders to the task. To talk about our situation as if we are powerless is a lie.
The notion of "black power" in African countries on the continent and the ideology of racial holism is an even bigger myth because it assumes that in African societies colour is or should be a determinant of power. But Africa proper is overwhelmingly black. Furthermore, it does not recognize the primacy of the fact that amongst black skins there are rich and poor, elevated and down-trodden, voluble and voiceless. Indeed, in any society, anywhere, power is within the structure of the society and the state differentially distributed. To believe that the leading societal contradictions we face in Africa, in our everyday lives are due to skin colour is misguided. It is totally wrong. People who say in Africa that our challenge is to install "black power" may be physically in Africa but in their minds living elsewhere (possibly the United States). Even in South Africa, the quintessential erstwhile settler-colonial state in Africa, Africans are now in power, and have been in power for fifteen years. Here Africans form more than three-quarters of the population.
The idea of "black power" was born in the USA. Its first significant usage dates to the 1954 publication by Richard Wright of his reflections on the final stages of the Ghanaian march to independence entitled; Black Power. He had spent six months travelling in the Gold Coast (as Ghana then was). Wright was referring to the fact that Ghana‟s prospective independence represented, in his view, the first African country which had politically travelled that far; and where "black people" were coming to power. Of course, I need to draw attention here to the fact that this idea carries in itself the mistaken notion that Ghana was subsequently the first country in Africa proper to be independent. As I have often argued, this is not correct because the Sudan got its independence in January 1956; ahead of Ghana. The problem is that the Sudan, in the minds of many, is identified as an Arab country. Needless to say, this is not the case because the overwhelming majority of the people of Sudan are Africans not Arabs and incidentally, in the Sudan, you can hardly tell the difference between an African and an Arab on the basis of colour. Both groups are overwhelmingly visibly black.
However, the popularization of the slogan "black power" came into currency through the US civil rights movement, during the tempestuous years of the 1960s. We are told that its political deployment was through the initiative and genius of Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a Kwame Toure). The precise historical location of this was the 1966 Meredith March in the South of the United States when as leading members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) they used the slogan "black power" as a rallying call to galvanize minds and mobilize African-Americans for civil rights, local and community power. Apparently, this was meant also as an attempt to set up a contrastive ideological position to the argument of Martin Luther King and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC). King‟s position was an argument for "equal rights" while Carmichael and his SNCC membership were saying, "what do we want … we want black power." At that time "black power" was often translated to mean Black political and economic empowerment and control of predominantly Black towns, cities and counties in the South, especially in places like Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi. In Carmichael‟s words during that period; "Everybody in this country is for „Freedom Now‟ but not everybody is for Black Power because we have got to get rid of some of the people who have white power. We have got to get us some Black Power. We don‟t control anything but what white people say we can control. We have to be able to smash any political machine in the country that‟s oppressing us and bring it to its knees. We have to be aware that if we keep growing and multiplying the way we do, in ten years all the major cities are going to be ours. We have to know that in Newark, New Jersey, where we are 60% of the population, we went along with their stories about integrating and we got absorbed. All we have to show for it is three councilmen who are speaking for them and not for us.
We have to organize ourselves to speak for each other. That‟s Black Power. We have to move to control the economics and politics of our community." This is how the person who popularized the term meant it to be. Carmichael frequently returned to this thesis. In the book he wrote with Charles Hamilton (Black Power: The Politics of Liberation – 1967) they exhorted and prodded African-Americans to take pride in their heritage, culture, institutions and descent, to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity and community-spirit in order to create, own and direct a singularly Black economic and political base that would augment the political bargaining position of African-Americans in their bid for equality in American society.
In Simon Hall‟s insightful piece, The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966 – 1969, he writes that; "On the evening of 17 June 1966, Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), addressed a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. The SNCC leader had been released from jail minutes before and acknowledged the „roar‟ of the angry crowd with a „raised arm and a clenched fist‟ as he moved forward to speak. „This is the 27th time I have been arrested – and I ain‟t going to jail no more, I ain‟t going to jail no more,‟ he told the several hundred mostly local African Americans. „The only way we gonna stop them white men from
whuppin‟ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain‟t got nothin‟. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!‟ Carmichael proclaimed that „every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned tomorrow to get rid of the dirt … from now on when they ask what you want, you know what to tell „em. What do you want?‟ The crowd thundered back „Black Power!‟ " Even more telling are the observations he made on July the 28th, 1966 when he said that; "There is a psychological war going on in this country and it‟s whether or not Black people are going to be able to use the terms they want about their movement without white peoples‟ blessing. We have to tell them we are going to use the term „Black Power‟ and we are going to define it because Black Power speaks to us. We can‟t let them project Black Power because they can only project it from white power and we know what white power has done to us. We have to organize ourselves to speak from a position of strength and stop begging people to look kindly upon us. We are going to build a movement in this country based on the colour of our skins that is going to free us from our oppressors and we have to do that ourselves." Carmichael‟s views are further elaborated in; Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism (1971).
The point to be remembered here is that in the USA and many other places in the Western world the cultural denationalization of Africans has proceeded to such a thorough or near-thorough extent that colour has become the only badge and reference point of historical difference. It is therefore understandable that Africans in the Western Diaspora use colour as the marker of the different histories, different experiences between themselves and their fellow citizens. Furthermore, the oppressor has historically consistently used colour to set apart people of African descent and identify them for racist, exploitative and oppressive treatment.
Racism is about power relations in which physical attributes and/or culture are used to justify and practise discrimination, exploitation and oppression. Philosophically it belongs to the political right. As a socio-political feature its fundamental and frequently masked object is almost always economic. Certainly, to take the term "black power" out of its historical and social context and use it in a blanket fashion to cover all Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora is not only to distort its meaning, but also to open ourselves up to serious misinterpretation.
Equally perplexing for me is the frequent race talk that I hear and read from some of our colleagues. I can very well see the relevance of race pre-occupations in societies where, to different degrees, clearly anti-African racism both on the continent and in the Diaspora constitutes an everyday issue and haunting problem for people. I mean, for example in South Africa, the United States or many parts of Europe and some parts of South America. But we must remember that racism is not unique to the black-white context. Hitlerian racism as we all know was directed principally, but not exclusively, against European Jewry who are of the same colour as Germans. It was also immediately directed against the Roma people (Gypsies) and Slavs. Hitler regarded Africans as half-apes. As I earlier said, in the Sudan the contradiction between Arab and African does not lie along the colour line. Israeli Jews and Arab Israelis do not physically differ, neither do the Koreans, Japanese and the Chinese differ by look and yet there have been historically racist and violent tensions and expressions between all these groups.
In the Western world it is not only people of African descent who suffer from Western racism. Pakistanis and Indians in Britain, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands, Spanish settlers and Amerindians in South America, Indians in Australia, Aboriginals in Australia, Native Americans, Mexicans and Hispanics in the United States all face racism on a daily basis. Therefore to talk about racism as if it is the particular preserve of the relationship between Westerners and people of African descent is at best ill-informed and at worst disingenuous. Racist attitudes have existed between Chinese and Malays, Indians and Malays, Indians and Chinese in South Asia and on the African continent racial tensions and feelings have been present in the relations between Lebanese and Africans, Indians and Africans. The Japanese (Wajin) have for ages despised the Okinawans and Ainu of Hokkaido. Japanese treatment of Burakumin is more or less the same as general Indian treatment of Dalits/Harijans (Scheduled Castes). In both societies, the Indian and the Japanese, these fellow citizens are regarded as "untouchables." It is interesting to note that, in the Indian caste system, the Dalits who technically fall out of the caste system proper are historically derived from the Aboriginal peoples of India, the Dravidians. Many Russians have regarded Central Asians as racial inferiors. The list is much longer than this.
Racism is an evil which has for ages bedevilled inter-group relations within the human race. Sometimes, in practical effect, its objectives are genocidal. The studied beastliness and perversities of institutionalized racism are beyond all known animal behaviour. It is acquired; learnt behaviour. It is a condition which has to be fought as ruthlessly as it is ruthless. As the world globalizes and we all geographically and culturally pack-in like sardines, the urgency of this fight becomes by the day more pressing.
My argument here should also extend to the record of slavery. The African holocaust, in particular the consequences of the Atlantic slave trade, in evil effect and horror, is second to none in the history of the human race. In space, intensity, time and scope, its dimensions cannot be equalled. But we must be careful not to talk about it as if we are the only people who have historically been enslaved. For a start, Arabs systematically traded in black skins a thousand years before the Westerners. This practice has continued to the present day. Equally telling has been the comprehensiveness of their pattern of cultural denationalization. Their mode of denationalization was geared towards removing all memory of Africaness within the shortest possible time. This is why in spite of the fact that in time span and absolute numbers they possibly eclipse the Atlantic slave trade, the existence of Africans in the Arab world is today hardly visible.
Let‟s remind ourselves about the extent and experience of slavery in human history with a few examples. The Code of Hammurabi (1760 BC) from Babylon in the 18th century BC provides vivid 7
details on slave life in the period. Slaves or the so-called helots of Greece were strongly in evidence from the 7th century BC. Both the principal states of Greece, Sparta and Athens, were driven largely on slave labour. In his time, Julius Caesar brought over a million slaves from routed armies from all corners of the empire back to Rome. As the Roman Empire expanded entire communities were enslaved, to create a steady supply of labour. The slaves of the Romans came from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. These included Berbers, Greeks, Britons, Germans, Thracians, Gauls, Jews, Arabs etc. Slavery was part and parcel of Genghis Khan‟s 13th century imperial order. The Mamlukes, a warrior caste of slaves were dominant in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East for over 700 years. Islamic rulers created this warrior caste by pressing into service non-Muslim slave boys and training them as cavalry soldiers. Mamlukes were first used in Muslim armies in Syria by the Abbasid caliphate in the 9th century. They served as cavalry of the Ayyubid sultans from the 12th century onwards and later challenged their rulers for power. There were historically two dynasties of Mamluke sultans; the Bahris (1250-1382), mainly Turks and Mongols, and the Burjis (1382-1517), who were principally Circassians.
The road to Irish subjugation by the English runs through Irish slavery. In the beginning of the 17th century, the English banished 30,000 Irish prisoners of war. This solution was however, for their purposes and intentions inadequate so James II, the last Catholic king of England, urged the selling of the Irish as slaves to planters and settlers in the Americas. The first lot of Irish slaves were sold to a colonial outpost on the Amazon River in 1612. A Proclamation in 1625 ordered that Irish political prisoners be shipped overseas and sold to English planters, who were then colonizing the West Indies. In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were shipped off to Guyana. By 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. A 1637 census revealed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves. Irish slave labour was in such demand that, for the most inconsequential misdemeanour in colonised Ireland the culprit was shipped off. Slaving squads went round the Irish countryside lifting people to make up their quotas. In the 12 year period from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves. The Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. In 1649, when under instructions of the Rump Parliament Oliver Cromwell and his Roundhead army landed in Ireland, they laid a siege around Drogheda and put some 30,000 Irish in the city to the sword. Cromwell is reported to have observed that; "I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbados." A few months later, in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters in St. Kitts. During the 1650s over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total of the then existing "free" population of the Americas. After the "Bloody Assizes" of 1685 a good number of the English prisoners were sent to the West Indies as slaves.
For centuries, till the early part of the 20th century, Circassian and Georgian women slaves (from the North Caucasus) were invaluable commodities in Turkish homes, harems and seraglios. Mark Twain noted in 1869 in The Innocents Abroad that "Circassian and Georgian girls are still sold in Constantinople by their parents, but not publicly." Slavery in China dates back to the earliest period of Chinese civilization. In his book; A History of Chinese Civilization, (1996), Jacques Gernet points out that Chinese agricultural slaves were intensively utilized in the fifteenth century, and by the late sixteenth century it was observed that all the Manchu military officers had both field and house slaves. Between 1645 and 1647, Manchu rulers enslaved large numbers of local people on previously Han Chinese-owned estates in North China, eastern Mongolia and the Peking area. For cultivation, they used a slave-labour force of former landowners and prisoners of war. Slavery in China was technically abolished in 1910, but transformed and lingered on right into the 20th century until the emergence of modern China.
Slavery was abolished in Nepal in 1924. Yet in 1997, human rights observers reported that 40,000 Nepalese workers were being subjected to near-slave conditions and 200,000 kept as bondsmen and women. The Nepalese Maoist-led government has only recently in 2008 abolished the slavery-likeHaliya system. A large slave –labour class was present in the old Khmer Empire (present day Cambodia). These slaves built the monuments in Angkor Wat. Between the 17th and the early 20th centuries one-quarter to one-third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves. In Thailand, Siam as it then was, the prisoners of war became the property of the king. During the reign of King Rama the 3rd (1824-1851), there were an estimated 46,000 war slaves. Slavery was not abolished in Siam until 1905. Slavery in Japan was for most of its history indigenous. This is probably because for centuries before the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan was a closed society. However in the 16th century, Koreans were shipped to Japan as slaves during the Japanese raids in the peninsula. In the late 16th century slavery was officially outlawed in Japan; but forms of unfree labour persisted. In the making of South African society Western settlers brought into the Cape slaves from West Africa, East Africa, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. So let us regard slavery for what it is, indeed, a universal historical phenomenon with no exceptions among victims and perpetrators in humanity. But when that has been said, we must also say that, although the reality of slavery has been historically ubiquitous, without doubt, the extent and depth of its infliction on us, as Africans, is without parallel.
I think what is important at this stage for us to get off the ground and going is a cultural movement, a cultural movement which will provide in effect confidence and affirmation for our people with regard to our historical heritage and cultural patrimony. This is what we have, together with many other people thought of as a Sankofa Movement. In other words, the reclamation of values, tenets and institutions of our African heritage. Without reclaiming and repositioning ourselves with these bequeathments, in my estimation, there is no hope for our sustained advancement. By this, I do not mean rigging ourselves with the externals or superficialities of our heritage; I do not mean the outer finery of African culture; I mean the central institutions – religious, social, and cultural – of our belongings. I do not mean a fluffy, contrived or colourful ritual celebration of our nativeness to emphasize the fact that our nativeness is losing ground in a Western dominated world.
When we plead for a Sankofa approach we are saying that we want a selective and judicious reclamation of our substantial cultural patrimony not an infantile and wholesale reappropriation of every cultural habit from the past. To give a concrete example, I think we need to be able to put our religious and ritual traditions on the same level as the received cultures of Islam and Christianity. Let us treat our own as equal in all respects to the foreign borrowings of Christianity and Islam and allow our people to choose freely, selecting what they like and what suits them best in any situation. The Japanese managed to achieve a good blend of their indigenous Shintoism and imported Buddhism. If we dismiss our traditions and treat them as backward, heathen, primitive, we will never be able to hold our own or our heads up within the human community. I am not saying that we must, fired by sentiments of naive atavism and blind tenacity hold on to age-old practices which may be developmentally unhelpful, defunct or backward. I mean we should be able to discard and reject what is obviously decrepit or modify what we consider to be needful in order to meet the challenges of the present without compromising the core values of our cultural heritage.
Another example; in South Africa ever since I came here in 1992, every year during the period when the passage of the circumcision rite is in season, countless hapless youngsters are either grievously mutilated, genitally amputated, or killed in the process of botched surgeries. We insist on circumcision taking place in obviously unsanitary and uncongenial circumstances in the bush and on the ground with little by way of protection from the elements. Such conditions are assumed to be the "genuine conditions" which the institution has lived with from time immemorial. But I ask you, what is more important with respect to this institution; is it the rite of passage; the values that are instilled in the youth, the commitments that are contracted for social and cultural purposes from the youth or the external trappings of the bush, scant clothes, old-fashioned blades and knives. Is it the core values and social commitments, or the epiphenomenal nuances of ambiance, dance and ritual? If it is the former, then obviously we do not need to keep the unhygienic and unsanitary conditions which surround the circumcision rite. Try explaining this to many of our people.
I have often explained that circumcision is not restricted to Africans or any group of Africans. As a tradition, circumcision is fairly common on the African continent and beyond. It is common to large parts of Asia and the Middle East. Jews practice circumcision and have done so from time immemorial. Muslims likewise also practice circumcision. But in both these instances, today circumcision is carried out mainly by qualified medical doctors in hygienic and comfortable conditions. This does not detract from the rite of passage it comes with as an institution. The fact that the circumstances in which circumcision is carried out can keep abreast with modernity does not undermine the institution. I would argue that it only goes to strengthen it. It only goes to show that the institution is evolving with time and discarding aspects which are unhelpful. We do not have to be caught in a time-warp of backwardness through wilful, irrational and uninformed stubborn attitudes. We only discredit our tradition and make ourselves the laughing stock of the world.
What goes without saying is the fact that without our cultures there is little or no hope for meaningful change for Africans. I mean change which will ensure that we developmentally advance and do not culturally disappear. Please remember, it is not our colour which will guarantee our continued existence. It is our culture. If we allow ourselves to be assimilated by Arab or Western culture, we shall as Africans disappear. This point cannot be over-emphasized. For our historical salvation as a people, the more we understand the importance of the culture question, the less important skin colour and so-called racial factors appear to be.
For the present, the Sankofa Movement is most crucial. We have got to convince and engage the minds and activities of all our creative people; artists, writers, musicians etc, to remind our people about the vitality and saliency of our cultural belongings in any drive towards modernity and societal advancement. Development is ultimately a cultural construction. Once this message and its import win the hearts and minds of our people the political implications and requirements will become easily perceptible and a natural evolution towards a political movement will be within our grasp. I am saying that the road to a political movement for unity and African advancement must start in our times with an Africanist cultural and intellectual movement.
The cultural route to democracy and unity assumes the use of our languages as instruments for the empowerment of people. We transact all our social interaction on the basis of language and indeed language itself is a record of the history of the people who use the language. Language is also a register of the extent of our perceptible world. Without doubt, it is the central area of culture and carries culture in its entirety. If we want to make progress we cannot achieve this without the use of our languages. These languages which are spoken by the overwhelming majorities of our people are the instruments for deepening the culture of democracy. I am in my mind convinced that when we start using and developing our languages, the road to unity would be put on firmer ground. I ask, would it not be better, if a congress is the way forward for us, to restrict its focus to cultural considerations? Please give this serious thought because a congress which in ideas is here and there and everywhere and therefore nowhere would be a repeat performance of all the weaknesses of the last one.
Also, we cannot have democracy in any societally meaningful way if the pursuit and exercise of democracy is not grounded on cultural usages understood, recognized, appreciated and shared by the broad masses of African society. Too often, too many people want to suggest that democracy is foreign to Africans. There is of course the classic saying of General Mobutu to justify his dictatorship; "where have you ever seen two chiefs in an African village?" I also heard someone once remark that; "leave Rawlings alone to get on with his job. When the chief has spoken, it should be last word on the matter." Such sentiments are obviously unhelpful in modern African societies attempting to build democracy. But such sentiments cannot be uprooted or enforced by decree. With time the sentiments die out in the face of evolving realities and more suitable practice.
Years ago, during my spell as a Visiting Professor in China (1980), one day on a journey to Sian, the ancient capital of China, driving through miles of spectacular ancient monuments in the approach to the city, I asked my host the Director of the Institute for West Asian and African Studies, why in the wake of the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four, Chinese opinion seemed to have discovered suddenly that their regard for Mao had been inordinately elevated. His response was that, I should never forget that China is a country which for 3000 years has had emperors; it is unrealistic to expect that suddenly, however sweeping the changes of modernity may have been since 1949, for such sentiments of the lofty supremacy of the leader to be altogether devoid of past notions of imperial status and aura. I of course immediately understood what he meant. In similar fashion many tradition-bound Africans may have sentiments of excessive admiration and elevated status for our contemporary heads of state. But with time and experience, in the eyes of the people, such leaders will be brought down to ordinary human levels. This cannot be decreed. Only experience and evolutionary or revolutionary practice will alter this.
Let‟s also remember that, democracy in its operations and conceptualization is not cast in stone for all societies at all times in the same way. What democracy meant in practice in the United States in 1900 is very different from what it means now. In the 1950s, an African-American was not tolerated as a student in the University of Mississippi. In 2008 Obama debated McCain in the same institution for the presidency of the country. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland did not have the same civil rights until the 1960s and 70s. Women had the vote in England less than 100 years ago and long after the franchise had been extended universally to the male of the species. Democracy in Britain still includes a place called the House of Lords for people specially elevated to the status of Lords or those who have inherited these titles. Such an institution would be today unacceptable to the French. What I am saying is that democracy is not only historically specific, but societally also so. In all these societies democratic practice and institutions are adapted to the specificities of history and culture. We can simply not borrow wholesale in a one-size-fits-all approach, democracy from anywhere and implant it in Africa. We need to make democratic institutionalization fit cultural and historical relevancies.
Another point I can make with conviction is that part of the reason for our blindness and inability to move forward towards unity in a systematic way, with a clear road map, is because we lack a strong and all-embracing African national consciousness. This also partly explains the continued adherence of so many people to continentalism. I must warn immediately that my understanding of national consciousness goes beyond neo-colonialism or the nationalism tailor-made for the ersatz states created under Western tutelage, sponsorship and blessing. In fact, neo-colonial nationalism throws a fog before us in terms of our ability to see our way forward. It makes us creatures of Western intent and drives us into a conceptual cul-de-sac with respect to a positive and creative rendition of nationalism which identifies the unities and diversities of African cultures and histories whilst recognizing the overriding unifying characteristics within these diversities. How can a Tswana in Botswana regard him/herself as culturally, historically and nationally separate from a Tswana in South Africa or a Sotho in Lesotho?
It is interesting to note that during the colonial interlude and the end of colonialism we started manufacturing historical narratives to rationalize and justify our handed-down post-colonial states, which we call nations, and which are supposed to be the practicalization and ultimate repositories of our nationalism. We wrote; "A History of Zambia"; "A History of Ghana"; "A History of Namibia"; A History of Uganda", etc., etc. to make real what a few years before did not exist and was in actual fact unreal. We tuned our politics into the realities of these ersatz states and behaved as if these states had been handed down from Adam. These states are not viable and will in the end prove to be so. I am sure in my life-time I shall not see this unity, but I am equally sure that the slow decomposition of these states in favour of greater African unity will in due course come to pass.
African unity does not have to mean one single heavily centralized entity. That is unlikely to work and I dare say, undesirable. African unity can only be achieved on the basis of the recognition of cultural differentiation, diversity and decentralization of rule. People have to be able to rule themselves in their own little corners in their different ways and different forms of order. But all this can best and easily be accommodated under a wide umbrella which unifies us all and our common interests.
To close, I must say clearly that I do not subscribe to the idea of "the whole world is against us." This is simply misguided and untrue. In all communities and amongst all people around the world there will always be some who support us in the name of justice, fairness, democracy, freedom and emancipation. It is very true that only Africans can save Africa and we must fight by all means necessary to uplift and unite our people. But we are not alone in our wish to uplift our people and end the injustice, exploitation and oppression that we have suffered for hundreds of years. All truly democratic and freedom loving people support us.
Sudan Sensitisation Project (SSP)