Africa’s hope

There is a lot more to be said about what has happened as a result of Africa’s urban revolution in the twentieth century. But let’s fast forward a bit and consider the prospects for the coming half-century. The publication of an oped piece by Chinua Achebe in today’s New York Times, Nigeria’s promise, Africa’s hope, prompted me to indicate how I approach the question of Africa’s future.

What did he say? We need “to examine the story of African people”; and what is happening in Africa today is the result of the last 500 years, when Africa was dominated by Europe, first through the slave trade and then colonialism. If Africans are going to get out of the mess they are in now, the West has a duty to help them. Before independence all Africans thought about was freedom. But they didn’t know what to do with it. Cue in Nigeria’s post-colonial history: corruption and incompetence; the Biafra war (equating ‘Biafrans’ with Igbo nationalism as a democratic people); oil, plutocracy, disorder; some recipes for a democratic future, such as proper elections, freedom of public information etc.; finally what is needed is “a new patriotic consciousness”. I didn’t get much idea of where hope might come from, for Nigeria or Africa, unless it was from following the author’s recommendations.

This is old school nationalist history of the sort that misled Africans at the time of independence; Achebe’s vision of world history is narrow and backward-looking; the programme advocated, such as it is, takes no account of contemporary world society or of the forces within it that might support African emancipation at whatever level of association; he repeats the mistake of focusing exclusively on politics and law (“seek ye first the political kingdom”); and deals with the economic conditions of democracy only through their negation as excessive ill-begotten wealth. The thinking behind this piece, in other words, has not moved on since the mid-twentieth century.

Independence from colonial empire was motivated by Panafricanism, the united aspiration of Africans and the New World diaspora to regain control of their own land. This was the most inclusive political movement of the first half of the twentieth century. But it soon succumbed to what Frantz Fanon presciently referred to, 50 years ago, as “the pitfalls of national consciousness”. The desire for freedom was the fuel of the anti-colonial revolution; but any conception of the new society was vitiated by a complete failure to take into account the contours of the world that it was being born into. The United Nations was already in place. The Cold War had been fought for a decade or more. New African states were not free to chose their political form or the economic conditions that would shape their chance of making a living in the world. It is the same now. But global conditions today are not the same as they were then. Therein lies a major difference. Harping on about slavery, colonialism and the Nigerian civil war will not help us to understand Africa half a century after independence.

In recent decades, China, India and Brazil have emerged as major capitalist powers. The grip of North Atlantic society on world history has been seriously weakened: it is not obvious that the world will grant Europe and America for much longer unearned income on the scale they have come to expect. Two-thirds of the largest economic entities on the planet are business corporations, three-dozen of them with a turnover higher than all but eight countries. The digital revolution of communications has transformed global commerce and finance, with Kenya leading the way in mobile phone banking and recycling of old computers for use by the poor. Everywhere large trading blocs (the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, Mercosul) have come together to combat globalization; Africa’s efforts in this regard are backward and ineffectual.

Africa itself will become by mid-century a quarter of the world’s population, already with six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world over the next decade (including Nigeria whose film industry has just overtaken Bollywood as the second largest in the world). Unlike the Americans and the Europeans, the Asian manufacturers understand the significance of Africa’s growing market demand; and everyone recognizes the value of the continent’s minerals. The US recently established an African military command for the first time, from the Sahara to the Horn. China’s rapidly escalating presence in the continent is palpable. South Africa under black majority rule stands ready to assume a sub-imperial role in Africa, partly in its own right as the only fully-fledged capitalist economy, partly as a conduit for foreign capital. Nigeria has 1 in 6 of Africa’s people. It will only begin to realise its promise when domestic political projects coalesce into appropriate forms of political and economic leadership at the continental level.

Some of Africa’s political leaders and activist intellectuals must come to grips with what has been going on in the last century and is going on now. ‘Africa’ a century ago included the New World diaspora created by the slave trade; but it now includes a second diaspora created since 1945 by voluntary migration to Europe, America and increasingly Asia. At a time when India’s hi-tech entrepreneurs are returning home from Silicon Valley in droves, the question of African development must hinge on how this new expatriate population could take part in the continent’s growth. Above all, if Africans are to win some measure of equality for themselves in world society, they must ask how multiple forms of political association at more and less inclusive levels might help them to address the development question. There is little point in waiting for the West’s benevolent intervention.

Regional integration, even Panafricanism, has a better chance in this multi-polar, convergent world than it did half a century ago and that, for me, is where Africa’s hope lies.

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Category: APE