Something’s got to give

There is an interesting hypothesis many students of Philosophy encounter that is called the “irresistible force paradox”, which some people prefer to refer to as the “dilemma of omnipotence”.
The question is asked, “Can an omnipotent god create a stone so heavy that the god cannot lift it?”
A more interesting expression of this paradox is found in an old Chinese tale in a philosophical book called “Han Feizi”, dating to around the third century BC.
The story tells of a salesman who is merchandising a spear and a shield.
He tells a potential customer that the spear is so powerful it can pierce any shield, and that the shield is strong enough to repel any spear.
The potential buyer asks what would happen if that very spear was thrown at that very shield. The salesman has no answer.
In occidental thought, the question is posed as: “What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?”
But if there exists a force that is irresistible, then there cannot exist in the same universe an immovable object; and the converse is true.
This makes the question a purely philosophical and metaphysical one, but an interesting one nonetheless.
That does not mean that in our physical world we do not from time to time encounter situations where we feel that an irresistible force is bearing down on an immovable object.
The first Africans to take up arms against colonialism probably felt that they were dealing with the irresistible force paradox.
On the one hand were the genuine, unstoppable aspirations of millions of oppressed people who believed that because they were right they would prevail; and before them stood a mighty and unyielding edifice that was convinced it had a pre-ordained right to rule over the peoples of this continent.
On one side were people who had never engaged in such huge wars requiring use of technologies they had never been acquainted with but knew that by sheer dint of their immense numbers they would prevail; and on the other was a small, well-knit and highly equipped phalanx of oppressors who believed that might is right.
In a nutshell, the irresistible force of the liberation struggle was up against an immovable object called colonialism.
Little by little, the edifice was chipped and soon we had our own flags, national anthems and constitutions.
The victory appeared to have been won, but the flag-and-anthem independence was just a victory in a battle – a key victory mind you – in an ongoing war.
Colonialism remains immovable.
Fifty years after the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union, much of the colonial superstructure remains firmly in place.
Let’s take a very rudimentary example: Africans still need visas to enter Ethiopia, which hosts the AU headquarters and is ostensibly at the forefront of continental unity and integration.
We all know where those “national” borders came from, and we all know that we had no say in their creation.
The irony becomes even larger when one considers that Ethiopia was the one bastion of resistance to colonialism, repeatedly repelling Italy’s attempts to make that historically important country its colony.
Our leaders will tell us that it is difficult to have seamless travel between the different countries of Africa, they will talk of the national security risks, they will put on grave faces as they explain that crime will easily flow across borders.
So let’s give that to them, let’s accept their excuse for maintaining crude remnants of colonialism.
But what excuse do they have for shipping Africa’s raw minerals to other continents for peanut payments? What excuse is there for importing processed goods at great cost, many times even borrowing money from those same foreign isles so that they can facilitate the importation of that which they exported at very low prices?
Is there an explanation why Africa has not done much by way of industrialisation in the 50 years since Kwame Nkrumah and his visionary colleagues embarked on the first baby steps to continental development through integration?
Has the irresistible force of liberation discovered that it is not so irresistible after all and that it cannot move colonialism?
Has it accepted piecemeal liberation that entails getting your own flag and anthem but steering clear of the banks, the mines and the farms?
The claim that Africa presently lacks the sophistication to manage its economic affairs better is as old as the OAU: in 50 years we surely should have advanced much further in making the lives of our people more bearable.
Ways have to be found to empower Africans so that they do not just wave their flags on empty stomachs and sing their anthems through parched lips.
Colonialism is movable, and liberation is unstoppable.
We may have stagnated for some decades, but today is the day to get the engine running again and complete the independence project.
We cannot wait for another 50 years watching our children starve while Africa’s resources enrich people in faraway lands.
When I think of the irresistible force paradox, I always think of a very old song by Ella Fitzgerald called “Something’s Gotta Give” (though I think she did it as a cover of an even older original.)
She is singing about what happens when a woman who knows what she wants meets up with a weary man who is no longer interested in relationships. But her conclusion, and that’s the beauty of all inspired art, is applicable to any range of specific situations.
Ella Fitzgerald sings, “When an irresistible force such as you/ Meets an old immovable object like me/ You can bet as sure as you live/ Something's gotta give.”

May 2013
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