The denigration of Africans

 

It is hard to disagree with a weighty viewpoint expressed by a concerned Africanist. In an article titled “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis” (quoted in Olaniyan and Quayson, 496-503), renowned Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, contends that Eurocentric racism is Manichaean in that it splits the world along racial lines, then assigns a negative, lower value to the world’s non-Western peoples.

The assumption is that the rest of the world is primitive, savage, barbarian, and underdeveloped, and that the West is civilised and developed. Manichaean stigmatisation is seldom based on knowledge of non-Westerners; it is often based on ignorance reinforced by disingenuous denial disguised in misleading intellectual jargon. Its source is racial prejudice.

Teleologically, stigmatisation cretinises non-Westerners, especially Africans. The result is that Africans start to doubt themselves. Worse still, they begin to buy into the fallacy that African history does not exist; therefore, Africans have nothing to be proud of. This reasoning produces the stereotypical epithet of Africans as a “people without history”, to borrow from Eric Wolf (Quoted in Booker, 25). This reasoning denies African peoples access to a usable past from which they can rely in order to construct a viable future.

For centuries, Western powers have systematically stigmatised Africa as the ‘dark continent’ in dire need of enlightenment as they sought ways to justify the wanton theft of her natural resources through covert activities ranging from their roles in genocides, civil wars, the looting of mineral, forest, and land resources, and the overthrow of governments through mercenary activities.

This Machiavellian spoliation of Africa has not ceased, what with the existence of monstrous contraptions such as Françafrique. As film-maker, Patrick Benquet, notes in his documentary Françafrique (2010):“Il y a 50 ans, en 1960, les 14 colonies françaises d'Afrique noire devenaient indépendantes. Mais indépendance ne signifie pas liberté: le général de Gaulle confie à Jacques Foccart la mise en place d'un système qui vise à garder, par tous les moyens, légaux ou illégaux, le contrôle de nos anciennes colonies dont les matières premières, et le pétrole en particulier, sont vitales pour la France.”

The most convoluted myth about Western conception of Africa is that which brandishes the continent as a free-for-all-zone populated by a divided people, a continent up for grabs on account of the presumed backwardness and inanity of its peoples. No wonder Howard French wonders aloud in his seminal work, ‘A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa’, (2004), whether or not Africa is a no man’s land. It is no surprise that Africa, a geographical sphere inhabited by a plethora of peoples with disparate tongues, cultures and traditions should have her moments of strife. The most homogenous climes on our planet have their instances of misunderstanding and turmoil too. Such moments should not be seen by merchants of half-truths and sharks ferreting for neo-colonies to meddle in the internal affairs of nation-states. As Mudimbe (1988) notes, Western presumptions about Africa justify the process of inventing and conquering a continent and naming its “primitiveness or disorder as well as the subsequent means of its exploitation and methods for its ‘regeneration’ (p.40)”. 

Arguing along similar lines, Lyons (1975) notes the consistency with which nineteenth century European commentators regarded Africans as inferior to Whites on the basis of non-existent scientific evidence, quite often comparing the two peoples along the lines of children versus adults. Though they did agree among themselves about which European “races” were inferior to others, Western racial commentators generally agreed that Blacks were inferior to whites in moral fiber, cultural attainment, and mental ability; the African was, to many eyes, the child in the family of man, modern man in embryo (Quoted in Booker, 10).

This skewed reasoning, he argues, provided a justification for European imperial conquest of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884. History has it that on November 15, 1884 at the request of Portugal, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called together the major Western powers of the world to negotiate the African Question. Bismarck used the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and forced Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory. What ultimately resulted was a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into fifty irregular countries.

This new map of the continent was superimposed over the one thousand indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason because European powers had divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along. Little wonder that post-Berlin Africa has remained a battlefield to date, a balkanisation that has been decried by French writer Rene Dumont in his work L’Afrique noire est mal partie (1962).

It is important to bear in mind that the misrepresentation of Africa constitutes a leitmotif in European colonial literature. Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1960) and Joyce Cary’s ‘Mister Johnson’ (1951) are mind-boggling examples of Western literary hypes and half-truths that ought to be debunked by Africa’s litterati. Conrad’s novel depicts the entire continent as backward and primitive.

As Achebe points out: “Heart of Darkness perhaps more than any other work, is informed by a conventional European tendency to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (Quoted in Booker, 13).

Like ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Mr. Johnson’, many other Western literary works about Africa are overtly contemptuous in their racist depiction of Africans. American readers are probably aware of the portrayal of Africans as savage cannibals in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels. But as Booker points out, these writers simply ignored the reality of Africans altogether. The truth of the matter is that the characterisation of Africans as cannibals and savages; Africa as an uninhabited wilderness where courageous Europeans could go on exciting adventures; served as justification for the European broad daylight theft of Africa's wealth. Africa is truly the richest continent on the planet in terms of natural resources. Any bickering over this truism is disingenuous. The soil of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, abounds in coltan. Coltan is short for Columbite-tantalite ‑ a black tar-like mineral found in major quantities in the Congo.

The Congo possesses 80 percent of the world's coltan. When coltan is refined it becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. The properties of refined coltan is a vital element in creating devices that store energy or capacitors, which are used in a vast array of small electronic devices, especially in mobile phones, laptop computers, pagers, and other electronic devices. Foreign multi-national corporations have been deeply involved in the exploitation of coltan in the Congo. The coltan mined by rebels and foreign forces is sold to foreign corporations. Although, the United Nations in its reports on the Congo do not directly blame the multi-national corporations for the conflict in the Congo, the United Nations does say that these companies serve as “the engine of the conflict in the DRC.” 

As can be seen from the foregoing, Africa has been the object of Western manipulation for a very long time. Innumerable incidents, including the transportation of millions of Africans across both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans as slaves, the colonial swoop on Africa, and neo-colonisation have produced disastrous effects on the cohesion and productive capacity of African economies. Yesterday it was the French, British, Portuguese and Spaniards. Today, it is the Chinese. The Chinese are our neo-colonisers, as noted in Howard French’s new book ‘China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa’ (2013).

This book is a trenchant, immersive account of the burgeoning Chinese presence in Africa ‑ a developing empire already shaping the future of the world's incipient superpower and its fastest growing continent. French draws a nuanced portrait of China's economic, political, and human presence across the African continent. In today’s Sino-African new-colonies we meet a broad spectrum of China's dogged emigrant population, from those singlehandedly reshaping African infrastructure, commerce, and even geography (a timber entrepreneur determined to harvest the entirety of Liberia's old-growth redwoods) to those barely scraping by but still convinced of Africa's opportunities.

French's acute observations offer illuminating insight into the most pressing unknowns of modern Sino-African relations: Why China is making these cultural and economic incursions into the continent and how extensive they are; what Africa's role is in this equation; and what the ramifications for both parties and their people ‑ and the watching world ‑ will be in the foreseeable future.

There’s an urgent need, I believe, for Africa’s intelligentsia to re-assess the current conundrum in which Africa finds itself and address the horrors suffered by Africans as a result of the cancerous trio ‑ racism, colonialism, neo-colonialism. Many sons and daughters of Africa are smart and have a clear vision of where they want Africa to be down the line. But paranoia and egocentrism have bred African inertia and paralysis that have become our own very undoing.

To fight the good fight Africans need to know their own history. Current events are shaped by events of the past. That is why Memmi (1965) points out that “the most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history”. It is of critical importance for Africans to understand the impact of the continent’s past relations with the West in order to empower themselves to deal effectively with the present. The onus is on all African intellectuals to educate the peoples of Africa about the consequences of Western imperialistic parasitism in Africa. Europeans and other Western powers continue to mislead and misinform Africans about their own history. Half-truths are shoved down the throats of Africans and we swallow them. Trevor Roper, an eminent English historian at Oxford, for example, claims that “prior to European adventure in Africa, there was only darkness, and darkness was not a subject for history” (Quoted in Obiechina, 1975, p. 9).

Our historians need to descend from their ivory towers and do the tedious but vital job of debunking these myths about Africa. They must educate misinformed Westerners about the glorious history that Africa had prior to the advent of our grave-diggers (colonisers). 

It is time to unmask the sanctimonious hypocrisy of benighted Westerners who thrive on deliberate falsehood conceived to veil their handiwork in the underdevelopment of Africa. The deconstruction of the continent of Africa is the leitmotiv in Walther Rodney’s masterpiece, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ (1973).

The younger generation of Africans seems too comfortable in their comfort zones. The onus is ours to call into question the condescending Eurocentric interrogations about Africa such as: where would Africa be without Europe? Would African peoples not be half-naked, half-starving warring tribes eternally at each other’s throat fighting for land without the benevolence of Westerners? We have heard enough of these hollow comments. Africans have to be strategic in their deals with both Westerners and Easterners. Africans have to desist from feeling permanently injured by a sense of inadequacy about their won achievements. African scholars must be courageous enough to unravel the myth about Africa’s collective amnesia.

In the words of an illustrious son of the soil, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986): “The classes fighting against imperialism even in its neo-colonial stage and form have to confront this threat with the higher and more creative culture of resolute struggle”. 

In today’s global economy, imperialism has become a monopolistic parasite, a veritable bugbear of the African people. Western capitalists employ all means, often unholy, to superimpose their hegemony on Africans. The debilitating effects of imperialism on the lives of Africans are real and deep.

Africa’s economic paradigms have been rendered dysfunctional on account of the strangle-hold of Western institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who continue to sing spurious Hosannas of foreign aid for Africa to the detriment of our domestic industries. The cry of the disenchanted sons and daughters of Africa resonates in Dambisa Moyo’s book titled, ‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa’ (2009).

Moyo argues that, “The net result of aid-dependency is that instead of having a functioning Africa, managed by Africans, for Africans, what is left is one where outsiders attempt to map its destiny and call the shots”. Moyo’s book is an economic blueprint intended to serve as a paradigm for weaning Africa off the debilitating aid-dependency syndrome that has kept the continent in perpetual economic stagnancy for decades. 

In this essay, I have argued that the Manichaean stigmatisation of Africa is not benign. It is pregnant with socio-economic ramifications. Slavery did irreparable damage to the psyche and fibre of the black man; colonialism added salt to injury. And now neo-colonisation has been hashed to deal Africans a death blow. The denigration of Africans and their way of life is a calculated Western contraption intended to provide a reason for the economic rape of Africa. To inveigle Africans into believing that the West is overly concerned about the collective survival of Africans, Westerners bounce around hollow buzzwords such as “civilising mission”, “foreign aid”, “humanitarian aid”, “structural adjustment”, and other loud-sounding nothings. Africans are not big babies; they are resilient grown-ups endowed with a sense of discernment. – Pambazuka News

December 2013
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