Serving a False Nationalism
The French Revolution has been credited with spawning nationalism as we know it today.
Oddly though, considering the centrality of nationalist ideologies to shaping Africa into what it is today, there appears to be very little scholarship on the links between the French Revolution and African history.
At the centre of the socialist and nationalist beliefs that drove that revolution were the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Hans Kohn has defined the brand of nationalism inspired by Rousseau as “a state of mind, in which supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state”.
Today it may seem like a passé concept, but in 18th century Europe, which had only recently accepted that the world was indeed round, it was heretic to think of men being equal and placing love for their land above loyalty to their largely hereditary rulers.
Which is why it was quite bold for the French revolutionaries to declare: “The citizen is born, lives and dies for the fatherland.”
What the slave-owning French did not realise at the time was that their newly-expressed belief in “liberty, equality, fraternity” would start whittling away at Empire. Even though it took 200 more years to officially end both slavery and colonialism, the seeds for our own revolutions in Africa were planted by the French Commune.
And though it did take two centuries for a general acceptance that the ideals of the French Revolution applied to all mankind regardless of colour, there was an immediate impact in one tiny slave colony. Across the Atlantic Ocean in little Haiti, François-Dominique Toussaint, a brilliant politician and military tactician, took the ideals of the French Revolution and used them to drive out French, British and Spanish slaveholders. In 1793, four years after the revolution started in France, Toussaint started his own in Haiti; a movement that would result in the establishment of the world’s first-ever independent black republic.
People started calling him Toussaint L'Ouverture, The Saviour. As the slaves revolted, a British general appealed to The Saviour to stop the attacks on slaveholders. In reply he said: “… behold this land which we have watered with our sweat or rather, with our blood, – those edifices which we have raised, and that in the hope of a just reward! Have we obtained it? … (you) have been tyrants, monsters unworthy of the fruits of our labours: and do you, brave general, desire that as sheep we should throw ourselves into the jaws of the wolf?
“No! It is too late. God, who fights for the innocent is our guide; He will never abandon us. Accordingly, this is our motto – Death or Victory!”
What conviction! What courage! What clarity! And what a sharp contrast with the leaders we have today!
Where people like Toussaint L'Ouverture drew inspiration from the French Revolution to do their utmost to give their fellowman a better life, today we see the fruits of an unedifying nationalism that places loyalty to leaders above love for our land.
That is why our leaders take us for granted, and us like sheep continue to vote them into power as they hide behind a false nationalism that does not serve the majority. We get thieving leaders who loot with impunity and connive with the former colonisers to strip Africa of its natural resources while squeezing out every last drop of our sweat and blood in the service of those who are already rich.
And that thieving habit has become a culture so engrained in our societies that we excel in corruption to the point where our countries each lose an average US$25 billion yearly to graft.
US$25 billion each on average when we need just US$100 billion in one year to develop energy infrastructure for the whole of Africa! L'Ouverture would have said “death!” to such leaders. But we applaud them. And indulge ourselves in our own petty thieving at whatever level we can manage: public servants who charge “extra” so that they process a document they are already being paid to process; police officers who want to be paid by victims of crime so that they write up a docket; nurses who will watch you moan in agony on a hospital floor unless you are prepared to pay a little something to be allocated a bed.
The “Terror” of the French Revolution is nothing compared to the terror that corruption has brought.
And through it all the poor go on starving while the rich get fatter.
Remember the words of Rousseau to the French Commune, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” The onus is on the ordinary citizenry to deal with the corruption they see around them.
It should not be tolerated, in dealing with the vices that are contributing to Africa’s continued under-development, our motto, like L'Ouverture’s, should be “victory or death!”