Today is Africa day. Viva Afrika!
Sometimes it’s hard to remain positive about Africa as a broad construct, and more specifically about the prospects of African unity. When we look at how far we still have to go, in terms of peace, progress, or unity – it’s easy to buy into the cynicism and just give up. Celebrations like Africa Day, commemorating the founding of the African Union, are an important opportunity to gain context on the promise of independence, separately from the hot air blowing in Addis Ababa. It is a chance to take stock of where we came from, in order to keep sight of where we are going.
The reality of many African countries is that the visionaries who led the charge to independence did not live to see it started, let alone fulfilled; instead, they were cut down by their own contemporaries, often with the collusion of the colonial state. In most states, African independence came soon after World War II, and with good reason. Many of the soldiers who fought in the frontlines for the Allies were in fact African. Indeed, the BBC confirmed that the battalion that led the march to liberate Paris comprised a significant number of African soldiers from present day Senegal. But because de Gaulle and Eisenhower did not think that it would be right to have black faces associated with the liberation of l’Hexagone, he replaced them with white, mostly American soldiers to create the iconic pictures that we see today.
Still, having witnessed the weaknesses of the colonial powers in Europe and in Asia, many conscripted African soldiers came home to demand equality and freedom in their own countries. The illusion of superiority that had been so carefully crafted through colonial cultural hegemony was shattered by the War; the African soldiers had peered behind the veil and mastered the mystery behind the gun and other weapons that had been used to break their societies down.
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Alongside them was a generation of intellectuals educated at home and abroad, ostensibly with the aim of creating a class of assimilados – people who would embrace and love the “mother culture” with the same ardour as the colonisers. Once again, this strategy failed. True, it did create a class of blindly loyal stooges who served at the pleasure of their colonising countries, but it also created a class of insightful leaders who rejected the basic tenets of cultural hegemony. Steve Biko the doctor was as much a product of the Afrikaner education system as F W de Klerk, the only difference being that through introspection and reflection he came to reject the cultural inferiority that was prescribed for him. Sankara in Burkina Faso, Cabral in Guinea Bissau, Lumumba in the DRC, Nyerere in Tanzania – there was a whole generation who took that education and ran with it, in the opposite direction to which the colonial government hoped they would.
It was the combination of these forces that led to African independence, a war that was fought on two main fronts. The soldiers who later became the Mau Mau and the Mai Mai, who fought in the streets and in the bushes, and the intellectuals who wrote against the propaganda of the British, French and Portuguese machine. Recognising that mere military strength could not make up for a feeling of inferiority or intimidation, the latter wrote to inspire hope and to set out a vision for independent nations.
In most African countries, the march towards independence was relatively swift, at least in the context of millennia of world history (Southern Africa was the exception – Namibia and South Africa have the dubious honour of coming last in the race towards independence, finishing in 1990 and 1994 respectively). In the meantime, the intellectuals who were drafting the master plan were assassinated, tragically, by their own compatriots. Indeed, Nyerere and Mandela have the unusual honour of being perhaps the two African visionaries that lived to hand over power peacefully.
What happened to lead to this outcome is still the subject of intense speculation. There is good reason to believe that for many African countries, independence was actually a negotiated process, where specific figureheads were chosen or at least allowed to take over the various countries as colonial countries realised they could no longer afford to keep restive colonies. Certainly the pattern of assassinations and disappearances raises many questions as to why Communists and moderates were taken out in favour of capitalist, political neophytes like Kenyatta. It’s that same unsettling question mark that hangs over the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr and even JFK – were they intolerable because of their relatively radical shifts?
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As we commemorate Africa day therefore, we try to keep perspective. The struggle for independence came with a promise – unity, peace, brotherhood – but most of the architects of that promise never lived to see us take those first tentative steps towards it. Subsequently, I believe that our contemporary history is chequered (at best) in part because we have had a generation of leaders with no sense of direction, or orientation in relation to the past. As our freedom fighters got sidelined and short-changed, our writers and artists became our intellectuals – the keepers of the dream as it were – and they too were victimised but fortunately, not destroyed. As long as we had Achebe, Makeba, Masekela, Soyinka and Saadawi, we had reasons to believe. These griots wrote and sung us through the darkest times when our own governments muzzled us into submission.
Today, the generation that stole the promise of independence is passing away, and in its place we have a revitalised and hopeful youth that is embracing Biko’s dream of Black Consciousness – dignity and self worth, in work and in life. The legacy of music and art as guiding forces continues; an intellectual class is re-emerging, reclaiming academia and writing back against the stereotype of persistent African failure. We have no illusions about the long path ahead, and when we commemorate Africa day, we commemorate it all – struggle, success, failure and above all, hope.
For Biko. For Sankara. For Cabral. For Africa. A luta continua.
Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.