By Obadiah Mailafia
THE French President Emmanuel Macron was recently quoted as saying that the problem with Africa is “civilizational”. In his words: “With a family that has seven or eight children in Africa, even if you invest billions, nothing will change, because the challenge of Africa is civilizational.” A decade ago, his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a well-packed hall at the venerable Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar opined that Africa is stagnating because its collective mindset is rooted in “circles and circles” of thinking. Nothing moves, everything is in “endless circles”, hence no progress is possible. The audience in that sweltering summer in Dakar felt both stupefied and humiliated.
Times have changed. The grandees that once occupied the Elysée Palace – Charles de Gaulle, Pompidou and François Mitterrand – would never have talked such nonsense. One academic who did not allow Emmanuel Macron to get away with it was the sociologist Amadou Douno of Conakry, Guinea. He minced no words: “Africans do not need your debauchery civilization. Because, with your (so-called) civilization a woman can sleep with a woman….with her dog; a child can insult his father and mother without problem….a young man can live with a woman who is his mother’s age or his grandma without problem….Africans have no civilization lesson to learn from people like you….What is delaying this continent is the large-scale pillage of its resources by the great powers, France in the lead….The challenge for Africa is to get rid of France. Because the latter is not the solution to its underdevelopment; it is at the heart of the problem!”
Europe and Africa are condemned to live in cocoons of mutual incomprehension. One of the oldest views is of an Africa imprisoned in the womb of medieval myth and superstition; a civilization caught in the circular chains of nature and the seasons. Classical Greece is presented as a unilinear civilization anchored on continuous progress while Africa is a continent condemned to repeat its misfortunes in endless cycles. The myths of Homer present a heroic drama that has a beginning and climaxes in a denouement of hope and progress. Whereas Africa is contrasted as doomed to reproduce only poverty and degradation.
But this is a false narrative. The work of the late Isidore Okpewho, myths of Ozidi as retold by the poet J. P. Clark Bekederomo and the ancient tales of Sundiata Keita of Mali also speak of a straight even if tortuous path from suffering and deprivation to greatness, hope and redemption. One of my teenage heroes was the Franco-German doctor, missionary, theologian and philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was one of the most learned savants of the twentieth century, with doctorates in medicine, philosophy, theology and music. A man of science and culture, he was the world’s leading authority on the music of Bach – a close friend to such progressive post-war intellectuals as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Bertrand Russell. He was a cousin of the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Schweitzer gave up the pursuit of worldly fame to work as a missionary doctor in the primeval forest of “darkest Africa” in Lambarene, Gabon.
When I was in Gabon recently I was talking about his legacy to a friend and he exclaimed, “When I was a child my mother would take me to his hospital. Schweitzer would give me an injection and then console me with some sweets – a kindly old man!” Despite his great humanitarian work, Schweitzer suffered from the European disease of racial condescension. He famously proclaimed that “the black man is our brother – albeit a younger one!” That infamous remark alone has virtually destroyed his entire legacy in Africa.
Africa is the cradle of human civilization. Although homo sapiens first reached its settled mode in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Meroe and Kush were the first high civilisations recorded in the annals of human history. There is no civilization of antiquity that rivals the Egypt of Imhotep and Ramses II. The Europeans and the Arabs have colluded in wickedly denying that Pharaonic Egypt was an African civilization. Africa is the only continent where a civilization found on its soil is denied to be part of that continent. It is the stupidest and most pernicious intellectual racism known in the annals of world science.
When Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal presented his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne conclusively proving that ancient Egypt was a black civilization, his thesis was rejected. He resubmitted it at London University and was awarded a doctorate. Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, Director-General of UNESCO during the years 1974-1987, sponsored a major research project on rewriting the history of Africa. The Americans were so incensed that they pulled out of the organization. Other Western powers starved UNESCO of much-needed funds until M’Bow was forced out. I met him in Dakar in 2003, still looking svelte and dapper – a great and brave man of uncommon erudition!
The later work of the Anglo-Jewish historian Martin Bernal at Cornell opened up whole new vista in Egyptology. Before embarking on his Black Athena project, Bernal already had a well established reputation at Cambridge University as a classical scholar and historian of science with a focus on ancient China. Nobody could doubt his credentials. And he had no axe to grind with anyone.
Bernal’s thesis is that classical Greece borrowed most of its science and philosophy from ancient Egypt. For taking this view, he came under an avalanche of relentless attacks. Entire books were written in an attempt to discredit him. While Afrocentric intellectuals celebrated, racist academics who felt that the Western canon was being assaulted cried blue murder.
The greatest challenge we face in Africa today is what the late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui termed “Global Apartheid”. It is a pernicious system that seeks to exclude our continent from the mainstream of world civilisation. Nothing good is supposed to come from Africa. And if any good still oozes through the frightful welter of racist bigotry, it is greeted with condescension and indifference.
We will never be welcome at the dinner table as equals with those who have arrogated to themselves the status of masters of the universe. It is foolhardy even to try. Rather, we should behave like the Chinese who decided long ago that they would never aspire to be second-class Europeans or Americans. Rather, they will be themselves. They will reinvent themselves as an advanced technological-industrial society based on their own genius and ingenuity.
We must be true to ourselves. We can build a technological-industrial democracy and still remain Africans in heart and mind. We can embrace Western science and Western democracy while rejecting everything else. Europe itself, as far as I am concerned, has become anti-civilisation. Even at their very worst, the ancient Greeks never embraced the heresy that a mother could marry her own son and that an old man could marry a boy. The Europe of today is a temple devoted to the cruel god Jupiter – an anthill without the ramparts of faith.
But both Sarkozy and Macron have a point, though. The mediocrity, venality and sheer lack of vision of our leaders is inexcusable. Our generation of leaders owes it to our people to be more disciplined and more focused. The mission of our generation is to build a new inner-directed and self-confident civilisaiton anchored on African values of Ubuntu – of love and faith. Chinua Achebe, late doyen of African letters, famously declared that unless the lion learns to tell his story, his story will always be told by the hunter. If we don’t learn to tell our own story others will write it for us. And they will paint it in colours of ignominy. We must assert ourselves or die!