We are sitting at exactly sixty two years after Ghana achieved independence from colonialism and a significant twenty five years after South Africa was freed from juridical apartheid. The expectation is therefore legitimate that the continent should by now have a wealth of experiences of development, democracy and human happiness. The misfortune of the story of Africa in the world however, from the time of slavish and colonial encounters to the present, is that the continent has been a stage where history has been repeating itself first as a tragedy and next as a farce to utilise the aphorism of Karl Marx. For that reason, if Africa has a lot to celebrate this month of May 2019, the jubilations must be for the many painful lessons that the people of Africa have learnt through the very hard way. The first painful lesson that Africans have picked up from history has been that political independence from colonialism did not lead to liberation. At the independence of African countries colonialism seems to have changed its name and modified its political structures and economic systems but remained intact and far much stronger than it ever had been. From Ghana to Zimbabwe and from South Africa to South Sudan the ordinary bread eaters and water drinkers of Africa are hostage to poverty, disease, ignorance, fear, pain and historical anxiety. The many black presidents and prime ministers, melodious national anthems and colourful flags that African countries were decorated with after political independence have remained wishful metaphors and aspirational symbols of liberation that is still to be achieved.
Making matters worse is that some African liberation movements did not only fail to deliver the liberation of their countries after independence but actually went on to rule over their people using colonial tendencies, political practices and social logics. In that way, colonialism keeps repeating itself through black governments and military juntas, the story of Africa so far is a story rich in sadness that is cause to much anxiety. It is that historical anxiety and political sadness of the continent that should be the source of the drive towards true liberation in the continent. Political independence was a stage and liberation par excellence should be a destiny of the continent of long suffering peoples.
Coloniality at Large
It is not an exaggeration that the present world system and its economic and political orders were never designed for the political happiness or economic pleasure of Africa. The world political and economic structures and systems, institutions and organisations, are all fundamentally tilted against Africa. The late Samir Amin made a telling point in 2015 when he argued that even such platforms as international trade are used as a cruel kind of war by the west upon the rest, especially Africa. Amin’s formidably researched and artisanally argued thesis brings to life Walter Rodney’s observation that Africa was not poor but impoverished, not undeveloped but underdeveloped by Europe as a colonial and slavish master.
Founded at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 were two monstrous institutions that were to be the undertakers of African economies and polities. The two Washington Consensus institutions, with stick in the right hand and carrot in the left, dragged African countries one after another through Structural Adjustment Programmes that privatised and liberalised economies. Economies were surrendered to the vagaries of the markets forces, states and nations minimised or ended welfare to the poor masses of Africa that were punished by poverty, disease and structural ignorance. What was marketed as the globalisation of the world was in actuality new Euro-American imperialism that ruled Africa through what Kwame Nkrumah famously called “neo-colonialism” in 1965. The impoverished and punished mass of the peoples of Africa turned against their leaders in protest. The now unpopular leaders that were structurally and systemically unable to deliver social justice to their people turned to the strong arm of rule by coercion and became true despots and tyrants. There is thinking in some circles that it is next to impossible to lead a country in Africa without being tyrannical and resorting to coercion. That is how far tyranny has been normalised.
The nation states that African liberation movements inherited from colonial administrations did not become liberating or liberated states but remained colonial inventions that became outposts of tyranny. African leaders, under the neo-liberal global regime that was fronted by the IMF and the World Bank, the two monstrous Bretton Woods creatures, became despotic managers that managed their poor people on behalf of a venal modern and colonial world system. What decolonial scholars call ‘coloniality’ is exactly that political and economic way in which colonialism remained intact after colonial administrations and regimes were overthrown. Coloniality describes the world political and economic system where the Euro-American Empire still reaps the harvests of slavery and colonialism without anymore slave drivers in the plantations and any administrators in the colonies. Like witchcraft itself, coloniality ensures that slavery, colonialism and imperialism remain invisible but real and powerful.
It is coloniality at large in Africa that ensures that the Cold War, in other ways, remains alive and punitive inspite of the myth that it ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. In the present Africa is a stadium upon which the West and the East are in a titanic economic and political war. Led by China the East is in a political and economic Armageddon with the Euro-America Empire. As the two gladiators remain largely invisible protected by their power and wealth, it is the African polities and economies that suffer, and which in turn punish the mass of the people. Most of what are called African problems in form of civil wars, coups, terrorism, economic meltdowns; state captures and mega-corruption, are actually world problems and systems that are only playing out, tragically, in Africa. To gain access to and control of African polities and economies world powers from the East and the West sponsor political factions, economic cliques, militias and mercenaries that are presently destabilising almost every country in Africa. Every other country in Africa has business people and politicians that are richer than their countries and more powerful than elected governments. These underworld political and economic entities are connected to global political and economic networks whose agenda is to continue to milk Africa, this time around using some black and African fronts and hirelings. Coloniality is real in Africa. As during slavery and colonialism, in world history Africa remains a continent that is more acted upon than it acts in itself for itself.
When the Saints go Marching in Africa
It is perhaps another painful historical lesson for Africa that the continent is in this condition of economic and political disrepair mainly because of its heroes. Tired of colonialism and long years of slavery Africans became hungry for heroes and messiahs and got themselves caught up in Nietzschean monstrosities. Friedrich Nietzsche is the nihilist German philosopher who warned that those who fight against monsters should be careful that they do not become monsters in their own right because gazing at monstrosities for a long time can quickly turn one into a monster. Somehow the African political leaders that led their people in the fight against colonialism seem to have fought colonialism with such a gaze that turned them into ready colonisers in their own capacities.
Early in Ghana’s Independence, the legendary Kwame Nkrumah introduced the Preventive Detention Act of 1958. Under this colonial law Nkrumah detained those who opposed his one-party state and life presidency. At some point, Ghana under Nkrumah had more political prisoners than apartheid South Africa, and this happened while a cult of Nkrumahists was growing in Ghana and in greater Africa. He answered to such names as “show-boy, the Wise Guide and the Redeemer.” Sycophants and flatterers formed choirs around Nkrumah and sang hymns fit for messiahs and saints to his ears, until he was deposed in a CIA led coup in 1966.
The same happened with Robert Mugabe who entered Rhodesian anti-colonial politics in 1961 as a travelled and learned school teacher that was based in Nkrumah’s Ghana. Mugabe spoke English with an accent and a tone much loftier than that of the British themselves. He was a fire-eating orator that promised the poor black masses of Rhodesia a paradise and offered terrified white setters much unexpected forgiveness and reconciliation at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The black and white Zimbabweans were to learn a hard and bleeding lesson when the monster that was hidden in Mugabe emerged when his power was threatened. As I write, Zimbabweans are exhuming bodies from many mass graves with which Mugabe decorated the country. The not so disguised military junta that has taken over from Mugabe after the coup of November in 2017 is outdoing Mugabe in Mugabeism. The economy is in decay and the polity in decline in Zimbabwe.
Nkrumah and Mugabe are just two examples of how after political independence from colonialism Africans turned their leaders into saints that turned out to be monsters, monsters that turned around to eat the people and the freedom that they were supposed to have fought for. Every African country has a story to tell about how a trusted leader and gallant son of the soil turned around to eat freedom and consume the people. A multiplicity of African heroes tragically turned around from saints to suspects that literally colonised their countries. Zimbabweans, in particular are the Africans that must once again fight another liberation struggle to free themselves from a kind of colonialism levied upon the country by a group of soldiers and politicians that boast of having liberated the country.
Africa’s Idi Amin Moments
There is no easy clarity as to whether Africans should be laughing or crying about themselves and their condition. On the first of May in 2019, on a televised national event commemorating workers and other labourers, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi gave his dimpled and giggling twelve year old daughter a prize for being a good girl that is well-behaved at home. Under normal circumstances, we would all be forgiven for imagining Burundi a paradise of a country where good girls and good boys are rewarded for their good behaviour. But Burundians are suffering under a tyranny and are dying of poverty and starvation, many boys and girls, men and women, live in fear for their lives and do not even have the privilege to behave well at home in a country that mirrors hell itself. Certainly, Africa should not be laughing, even as leaders are behaving like comedians as the continent burns.
Africans should not be crying as well even as leaders perform tragedies. The tragic-condition of Africa is beyond laughter and tears, we must think. For instance, standing on two feet before an ululating crowd of party loyalists in May 2019; an African president boasted of tyranny. “We must be respected, we are the majority, we are the people, we are the government, we are the army, we are the police, we are the air force, and we are everything you can think of.” President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe ended his poetry to tyranny with a stern declaration: “We determine who can construct a railway line in Zimbabwe, we determine who can build a road in Zimbabwe, and no other party can do so.” In tragic actuality there are no new railway lines that are being built in Zimbabwe or are there any roads that are being constructed. Hospitals have run out of medicines and factories are closed. Prices of basic commodities have become impossible in a country run by a military junta that keeps trying and failing to rig the economy in the same way it has rigged elections. Zimbabwe’s is a failed state because a political party has turned itself into the people, colonised the institutions of the army, police, air force and even the judiciary, making the country a totalitarian enclave of evil that makes colonialism a joke.
Combined, such examples of African leaders as Nkurunziza and Mnangagwa prove that African is still trapped in some Idi Amin historical moments where an entire head of state can turn idiocy into an arm of government. The modern colonial world system that is led by the Euro-American Empire and that is going through the crisis of the Armageddon between the East and the West prefers exactly such leaders in Africa as Nkurunziza and Mnangagwa that can perform spectacles of tyranny, keep their people terrified while Empire thrives. The political idiocy of some African leaders is what Empire feeds on.
There is reasonable doubt that Nkurunziza and Mnangagwa are aware of the tragi-comic evil that they have brought to life in their countries. Tyrants are frequently naïve and simplistic small people that unfortunately for everyone, tend to hold and exercise power. In every despotic strong man, deep inside, there is a pathetic silly little boy from whom the world must be protected and who needs strong political institutions and systems that can liberate him from himself. Whilst we observe Africa’s Idi Aminis, we must not dare forget that as Nkurunziza honoured his toddling daughter in a national event and as Mnangagwa boatsed about despotism, thousands of African men and women whistled, clapped hands and ululated. These tragi-comic leaders have armies of advisors, among them learned men and women who get paid for daily endorsing tyranny and giving the nod to tragedies.
A big part of Africa’s problem is the problem not only of leadership but also that of followership. Clubs and choirs of flatterers and sycophants give support and offer acceptability to the madness of African tyrants and tin-pot dictators that are presently advancing black on black colonialism in the continent. As black on black colonialism proceeds in the continent, African resources and public money are siphoned through global black market networks that feed into the Euro-American and East European economic and political forces. In that way colonialism is still alive and getting stronger.
On Heroic Institutions
Heroes, Africans must have learned by now, are impossible people. Heroes do not exist except in the imagination of their hangers-on and supporters that benefit from their power. To make a man or woman a hero is in other ways to dehumanise them by taking away their human fallibility and imperfection that are their fundamental nature. To build a hero out of a leader, Africa must understand after so many tragedies, is to prepare to be betrayed. Heroism should not be given to individuals but to working democratic institutions, parliaments, the courts, media houses, communities and independent academies that can keep the power and excesses of leaders in check. George Orwell warned us in 1945 that whenever saints are announced, thinking people must question the saintliness and suspect the agenda of the saint makers. It is thanks to some heroes, saints and political messiahs, that Africa finds itself still trapped in this dark corner. Africans have not questioned the heroism of their leaders enough nor have they suspected the agenda of those that have made heroes out of freedom fighters, turning them into despots. That political independence did not lead to liberation in Africa is, in my view, the capital lesson that Africa must commemorate and use as an inspiration to build heroic and working democratic institutions that will check coloniality of the world system and the tyranny of African leaders and their political parties. Liberation itself means, not just the absence of tyranny and domination, but the presence of institutions that press the truth upon power, hold leaders to account and protect minorities and other vulnerable peoples of the continent.
Dinizulu Mbikokayise Macaphulana writes from Pretoria. firstname.lastname@example.org