IN SEARCH OF A NEW AFRICA
On the way to Sinya there is a hill that you keep on your right as you head east. I call it the ‘sacred hill of directions’. Past a small water-hole and an acacia tree and the hill shifts to your left until you reach a big Maasai boma (homestead). The route goes on from landmark to landmark until you finally reach the village. The open savannah is marked by cattle trails that disappear whenever a strong gust of wind stirs up the dust.
On this particular day a Tanzanian police officer who recognized me asked for a ride to the police post on the way. As we drove across the savannah we saw a herd of swalla (gazelles). My passenger asked me to turn the vehicle towards the animals so that he could hunt some. The police post is very remote and they often supplement their diet of maize and beans with game meat.
After driving around for some time with no success I decided that I must get on my way. It was then that I realized that I had forgotten to take note of any landmarks en route. I searched the horizon but could not see the hill I used for navigation. Being midday, it was also difficult to use the sun to figure out direction. I had a feeling that we were no longer in Tanzania but had crossed the border into Kenya. My companion, however, insisted that we were still in Tanzania.
As we drove zigzagging around, a young Maasai moran (warrior) appeared, striding across the plains with his spear over his shoulder. When we told him we were on our way to Sinya, he smiled and told us we had lost the way some distance. I asked him if we were in Kenya or Tanzania. He looked at me and then at my companion and asked: ‘Why? Are you Kenyans or Tanzanians?’ We replied: ‘Tanzanian’. The young man then said with a laugh and a sidelong glance at the police officer: ‘You are in Tanzania but you are lost!’
When we finally got back on track I located my sacred hill of directions. I was still convinced that we had been at least three kilometres inside Kenya. It eventually dawned on me that the young moran and the police officer had known all along where we were. But it made no difference to them which country we were in; whether we were on one side or the other of an imaginary line.
It is only by chance that we are called Tanzanians, Kenyans, Senegalese, Zimbabweans or Zambians.
This story illustrates the absurdities of the nation-state in Africa. Most of the time ordinary people simply ignore the borders. They cross them to go to market, to visit relatives and to work. Occasionally a family’s home is in one country and their farmland in another.
The borders between countries are lines that were drawn on a map by the Europeans in order to establish the boundaries of their various colonial possessions. Most borders divided families or communities that shared the same socio-cultural history, spoke the same language and were often socio-political entities until they became subjects of different European monarchies. It is only by chance, by the legacy of the Berlin Conference of 1884, that we are called Tanzanians, Kenyans, Senegalese, Zimbabweans or Zambians.
In 1963 the Organization of African Unity (OAU) established nation-states based on colonial boundaries in its founding charter. This locked the new Africa into the task of building nations and national identities on a colonial foundation that by its very nature was inherently divisive and contradictory.
Then came the anti-colonial nationalism of the African liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s which was concerned with human rights, dignity and self-determination. The nationalist leaders were given a mandate – either by vote or by support for armed struggle and civil disobedience – to secure a situation that would restore cultural, social and economic freedom.
On those glorious nights at the midnight hour the various imperial representatives from Europe hauled down the flags of Britain, France or wherever, and presided over the raising of the flags of new African states. On those evenings football stadiums and meeting-grounds were filled beyond capacity with all the people waiting to experience the collective catharsis of Uhuru (freedom).
During colonial rule the people and the leaders had struggled together as one. But once the ceremony was complete the leaders went with the colonial dignitaries to the Governor’s mansion to celebrate. They drank champagne and danced to European music. Meanwhile, the masses remained in the stadium, drank local brew, played drums, and sang the songs and rhythms that they and their ancestors had sung for centuries.
Those nights were an omen, an early warning of what the future would become. On the one hand there were those people and organizations that advocated remaining part of the colonial empire with an élite sharing the privileges of their colonial masters, and on the other were militant nationalists who advocated sentiments of separation, self-determination and independence.
This dichotomy was not just confined to Africa; in the United States there was a growing social movement which also had two strands – a conservative integrationist philosophy and a Black Nationalist movement which expressed solidarity with African liberation struggles and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world. Some black nationalists believed the solution to lie in a national homeland in the southern states of America; others proposed a return to Africa for part of the black population of America. Their objective was to build a pan-African movement which would be able to demand that the US and Europe respect the human and civil rights of black people.
The failure of the integrationists to become a successful part of mainstream America has spawned an adapted black nationalism which has sought to control local community economics, social services and politics without breaking from or revolting against capitalism and the dominant national power structure.
I used to describe myself as a ‘revolutionary pan-African Nationalist’. I thought that a strong socialist state was an absolute necessity for African freedom. Further, I believed that a union of those strong socialist states, a United States of Africa, was essential for the freedom and prosperity for all African peoples worldwide.
I no longer think the nation-state in Africa is viable – economically, politically or culturally.
My belief and hope that the post-colonial African nation could become a liberating institution for African people has been sobered by the reality of dependency. Today, finance and economic policy are controlled and managed directly by the World Bank and the IMF. Political parties, governments and leaders in Africa solicit Western support in order to secure a power-base.
The international creditors control all the assets. The workers and peasants toil and sweat to service debts owed to the international bankers and multilateral agencies. So-called national budgets in many countries are more than 50-per-cent dependent on external financing. Development budgets are at least 90-per-cent dependent on donor funding. In other words, the African state is in receivership and cannot operate unless it gets money to do so from Western donors and financiers.
In Africa today only the symbols of sovereignty exist. There are flags, seats on the UN General Assembly, heads of state (sometimes more than one), armies, national currencies, ambassadors and Mercedes Benzes.
The chain that imprisons African governments and consequently African people in this disempowering relationship is ‘developmentalism’. Developmentalism is the ideology that believes the state is responsible for organizing society in such a way as to accelerate its progress into a free-market industrial society. This includes a parliament, a stock exchange, shopping malls, highways, automobile factories, pollution and increased crime. The idea of development is married to the idea of the nation-state. It is no wonder that the nation-state in Africa, having failed to replicate the Western socio-economic saga, is crumbling.
After 30 years I think African leaders, politicians, and business people, together with the international community, have a moral obligation to come to terms with the fundamental mistake that was made. Millions of men, women and children have withstood repression, torture, deprivation, suffering and death in uprisings, civil wars, border disputes and coups all in the name of nation-building and developing African states in the image and likeness of the industrialized Northern nations. It is too high a price to pay.
That said, do the failure and collapse of the nation-state (in Somalia, Liberia, Zaire and Rwanda) and the general failure of national development plans throughout the continent also mean the end of Pan-African nationalism?
I think not. I think there can still be a Pan-African unity – but of peoples not of states. This unity already exists in its potential form in the customs and cultures of the people, though the institutions and rulers of those nation-states keep the people divided and exploitable. Just as they were in colonial times.
Pan-Africanism is undergoing a resurgence in Africa, America, Latin America and Europe. Young people are exposed to popular culture that synthesizes African, African-American and Caribbean experiences. Many young Africans are travelling and experiencing racism in Europe and America. Emerging from these shared experiences and global communications is a global consciousness of African political and cultural solidarity that transcends the concept of the nation-state.
Transnational Pan-African solidarity is what can liberate Africa from the scourge and burden of perpetual ‘Developing Nationhood’. The new Africa must be able to accommodate multiculturalism and the global reality of the twenty-first century. It must be able to create an environment that enables indigenous communities in villages and small towns to run their own affairs, control their own resources and benefit directly from the products of their own labour; and determine their own agenda for prosperity and peace.
Countries like Rwanda have a chance to lead the way, to do something different. That chance has been paid for in too much blood and suffering to be wasted in rebuilding the same structures that precipitated the implosion of the nation-state on its citizens in the first place.
So what will rise out of the ashes of the post-colonial nation-state in Africa? For an answer let us emulate the attitude and adaptability of the young Maasai who gave me directions to Sinya. If you need to go someplace it doesn’t matter what nation-state you claim as identity or which border there is to cross. The object of a journey is to get where you are going. The object of anti-imperialist nationalism and Pan-Africanism was not the nation-state but rather justice, equality, dignity, prosperity and freedom from domination.
We have lost the way and it is time to find our bearings, to relocate the ‘sacred hill of directions’ and get back on track. This would be the living tribute to those millions of African people who perished or are suffering in the name of nation-building and development.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996