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RE-STORYING AFRICA: A NOTE ON IDENTITY AND TRANSFORMATION

 

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RE-STORYING AFRICA: A NOTE ON IDENTITY AND TRANSFORMATION

Respected Nigerian Political scientist, the late Claude Ake, argued in his 1995 book, ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’, that the major problem responsible for much of the chaos and underdevelopment in Africa is the foreign-made political system imposed on Africa by the Western colonial powers with no consideration for existing traditional social and political structures. For Ake, colonialism in Africa was markedly different from the Americas, Europe, and Asia’s colonial experiences.

To begin with, he says, it was unusually statist. The colonial state redistributed land and determined who should produce what and how. It churned out administrative instruments and legislated taxes to induce the break-up of traditional social relations of production, the atomization of society and the process of proletarianization. It built roads, railways, and ports to facilitate the collection and export of commodities and the import of manufactured goods. It sold commodities through commodity boards. Indeed, it controlled every aspect of the colonial economy tightly to maintain power and domination and realize colonization’s economic objectives. 

The power of the colonial state was not only absolute but arbitrary. For instance, the colonial governments made the colonies produce the commodities they needed. When the Gold Coast (now Ghana) was colonized, it did not cultivate cocoa. The colonial government decided that the country would be suitable ground for farming cocoa and duly introduced the crop. By 1939 cocoa accounted for 80% of the value of its exports.

As Ake has argued, the result is that the African elite who took over power from the colonial administrators were too superficial and shallow and diverged from society’s traditional structures.   Although political independence brought some change to the composition of the state managers, the state’s character remained much as it was in the colonial era. It continued to be totalistic in scope, constituting a statist economy. It presented itself as an apparatus of violence, had a narrow social base, and relied for compliance on coercion rather than authority.

The political intensity was further reinforced by the tendency to use state power for accumulation. This practice was associated with the new political leaders’ weak material base, who had been economically marginalized by the colonial regime’s discriminatory economic policies. Even when they came to power, they had little experience of entrepreneurial activity and little or no capital. Invariably they were obliged to explore the one leverage they had: control of state power to strengthen their material base.

 The need for a more secure material base drove the indigenous elite to increase the economy’s statism. An increasing range of economic activities was brought under the state’s control, notably by nationalization, to facilitate the appropriation of wealth by state power.  Coercion was used to constrain the masses’ political expression, now disillusioned with their leaders’ performance. Coercion was also used to impose “political unity” amid considerable social pluralism, which had become very divisive for being politicized and exploited by competing elites.

The political elite’s dominant faction found itself utterly isolated, increasingly relying on violence, at war with the rest of society and with rival factions among its own ranks.  It was not the military that caused military rule in Africa, Ake argued, by intervening in politics; rather, it was the character of politics that engendered military rule.

The first part of the African liberation story was the ‘successful’ struggle for political independence from the colonial powers. The second part was the era of independence when power ‘successfully’ shifted to the African Nationalists. Commitment to development was already implicit in the ideology of the nationalist movement. The writings of such leaders as Leopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah expressed the urgent need for African societies to become more competitive in the modern state system, a need often crudely expressed in terms of “catching up with the West”.  African leaders adopted the ideology of development to replace that of independence. African leaders then insisted that development needs unity of purpose and the utmost discipline that oppositional attitudes do not serve the common interest. It was easy to move from there to the criminalization of political opposition and the establishment of single-party systems.  Therefore, the ideology of development was exploited to reproduce political hegemony; it got limited attention and served hardly any purpose as a framework for social transformation.

The conflict is apparent in the African leaders’ actions who proclaimed the need for development without necessarily translating the ideology into a social transformation program. They did so not because they were interested in such but because the struggle for power and survival absorbed their minds.

 In the end, it fell to the West to supply a development paradigm. What was supplied was a more specific form of a broader Western social transformation model, namely the modernization theory. 

American President Harry Truman in January 1949 opened a new era, a uniquely American one, with the declaration of his development agenda: ‘… we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas’.

Underdevelopment began then on 20 January 1949. On that same day, two billion people became underdeveloped. In a sense, from that time on, they ceased being what they were, in all their diversity and were transmogrified into an inverted mirror of others’ reality: a mirror that belittles them and sends them off to the end of the queue, a mirror that defines their identity, that of a heterogeneous and diverse majority, in terms of a homogenizing and strict minority. For two-thirds of the people on earth then, this positive meaning of the word ‘development’ – profoundly rooted after two centuries of the social construction – is a reminder of what they are not. It is a reminder of an undesirable, undignified condition. To escape from it, they need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams.

In the most common form, modernization theory posts an original state of backwardness or underdevelopment, characterized by, amongst other things, a low rate of economic growth that is at least potentially amenable to alteration through the normal processes of capital.  This original state of backwardness is initially universal. According to the theory, the industrialized countries have managed to overcome it. All the other countries too could conceivably overcome it if they adopted appropriate strategies.

Modernization theory assumes that progress tends to be spatially diffused, a process by which more and more countries evolve from the state of backwardness, capitalizing on the experience of those that developed before them.  Thus, uneven development is a transitional phenomenon that can be removed sooner or later by creating certain favorable conditions within the underdeveloped regions and by ensuring the appropriate interactions between them and the developed regions.

Without exception, modernization used an evolutionary schema that regarded the West’s ideal characteristics as the end of social evolution. That meant that reduced to essentials, the development of the world’s backward parts was implicitly a matter of becoming Western.  When the theorists encountered cultural resistance, they proclaimed the need for modernization of attitudes. As a result, the theory did not come to terms with the historical specificities of backward countries. Strangely, the neoclassical paradigm prevailed and was not seriously questioned even as African economies continued to deteriorate.

For Zimbabwean scholar, Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a more fundamental and sustainable revolution that is urgently needed in 21st century Africa is a knowledge revolution, the revolution of the mind. Philosophically, under coloniality, the principle of Cartesian doubt – I think therefore I am – underwent a quick metamorphosis, to I conquer therefore I am.  The right of conquest became a significant legitimizing value that authorized all sorts of violence deployed against the colonized.

For Africans, economic and social freedom is not enough. Contrary to what Ake opined, political freedom is not even enough. The most important freedom, in my view, is cognitive freedom. Cognitive freedom is the freedom of Africans to tell their own stories based on their own experiences, so as to understand the present in light of the past. Africans must ‘own’ the story they tell and take control of telling it in their own language and metaphors, to avoid being ‘story-o-typed’ (origin of the stereotype) again.

Africa, it is time to RE-STORY yourself. 

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