Today a majority of Africans face an existential predicament arising from internal as well as external crises brought to the fore by the question of identity. They ask, Who am I? What is it that makes me who I am? What will I become? When will I be it?
Take note that the population of Africa is very youthful, and according to UNCTAD, in 2023, 60 per cent of Africans are under the age of 25 years. In East Africa, practically eight out of every 10 of the estimated 146 million inhabitants were born in or after 1988 and are therefore below the age of 35. This means that only two out of every 10 people in East Africa lived through the Cold War and experienced global political polarisation and its imprint on African domestic politics – how, in order to secure their economic and military interests, superpowers propped up dictatorial autocratic kleptocracies while shouting about neo-liberal democratic principles such as free and fair elections, freedom of the media, good governance and human rights.
This crop of African youth was in nappies when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, marking the symbolic end of apartheid, the last in the series of institutionalised anti-African racist occurrences that began with the slave trade. They did not live through the Western nations’ support of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and by the time they could spell the word “decolonisation”, the idea of coloniality had been literally forgotten until it was resurrected in a manner brilliantly described by Roger Cohen in his recent article in The New York Times very aptly titled, “Who is a ‘Colonizer’? How an Old Word Became a New Weapon. Cohen traces how in Africa and Asia the idea of being ex-colonial and a coloniser had faded from everyday parlance and argues that these labels were resurrected by the Ukrainian war and the conflict in the Middle East. While he focuses on these two major upheavals, there are others that together force a reflection and an interrogation of the meaning and place of the African identity in the global sphere.
The illusion of a global citizenship has led African youth to successively describe themselves as belonging to Generation Y, Z and Alpha, despite the fact that Euro-American happenings that gave rise to such descriptions really have no parallel in Africa and do not accurately define the goings-on on the continent. Other than the collapse of the Soviet Union that we shall return to later, the other significant phase was the emergence of AIDS as a major health challenge. The internet that more poignantly frames this period is only now making its presence felt – with Africa’s share of global internet users at 13 per cent and the internet penetration rate still at 43 per cent in 2021. Events such as the highly publicised police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that came after it, images of the Euro-American police managing street protesters in a manner Africans are all too familiar with, the reality of the Mediterranean graveyard where in 2023 alone 2,500 people are reported to have died or are missing while 186,000 have crossed to flee Africa, the ill-treatment of the African immigrants at the hands of the European authorities contrasted with the frenzied attempts to rescue the Titan submersible vessel.
In the political arena, the invasion of the Capitol Building in Washington by supporters of President Trump in January of 2020 in an attempt to circumvent the declaration of Joe Biden as the United States have led to a re-evaluation of African Identity vis-à-vis its former colonial masters and the rest of the world. This is the tapestry against which recent events such as the multiple coups in former French colonies in Africa – where thousands of youths came out in the streets carrying banners that read, Vous allez quitter, Le Niger ne pas une région de la France – as well as the stringent demands from sections of the Kenyan public for an acknowledgement and a public apology from King Charles for colonial-era brutalities meted out on the local population.
The African disillusionment with things colonial arising from the failure of neoliberal democratic principles of humanity, values and ethics and were summed up by a protester captured by Aljazeera saying, “We are ready to sacrifice ourselves today because we are proud. They plundered our resources and we became aware so they are going to get out.”
The framing of the new wave of decolonisation with cries of “coloniser get out” and “Own up to your past evils” comes with an interrogation of Afro-Euro-American relationships and a sense of self-doubt, ideological doubt and questioning of neo-liberal democracy. This is nothing new, and for the earlier generation, the trauma of colonialism crystallised as movements such as Negritude in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The euphoria of independence brought a brief lull characterised by overwhelming nationalistic confidence and optimism leading to the Pan-African dream. The formation of the OAU in May of 1963 in Addis Ababa was the boldest attempt at establishing an African identity. The excitement was soon erased by the challenges of nationhood where the newly minted nation-states began to suffer from misguided leadership, mismanagement, ethnocentrism, corruption, state repression of dissent, abuse of human rights and undemocratic governance.
An exploitative neocolonial reality cemented itself on the continent as did coups and counter-coups. The statistics on military coups in Africa are staggering. A pair of American researchers, Jonathan M Powell and Clayton L Thyne, have recorded that at least 45 of the 54 nations across the African continent have experienced at least one coup attempt since 1950. Africa has had 214 coup attempts with 106 successes and 108 failures. This is compared to Latin America’s 146, the Middle East’s 44, Europe’s 17 and South Asia’s 16. One does not need a very fertile imagination to see Africa as the coup capital of the globe. This period of coups and counter-coups was also the period of the intensification of the Cold War that saw the superpowers support the mushrooming single-party dictatorships and the establishment of client-states that facilitated the plunder of the continent’s resources while pitting the people against each other in incessant civil wars. The regularity of civil war in Africa has led to arguments that conflict is a distinct characteristic of the continent. To cap it all, there is the African legacy of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 that painted a picture of Africa as mired in blood.
An exploitative neocolonial reality cemented itself on the continent as did coups and counter-coups.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual establishment of a unipolar world, the global tide for entrenchment of liberal democracy grew, couched as a clamour for the return of multi-party systems of government. African strongmen who had been the darlings of the West suddenly found themselves on the wrong end of the wave of democratisation. This period saw the ascendancy of civil society, with the catchphrases of transparency, accountability and good governance resounding throughout the continent and the existing regimes adjudged as antithetical to the precepts of liberal democracy. Led by the civil society, Africans – and especially the youth – demanded Western-type democracy to replace the corrupt, repressive, human rights-abusing, ethnocentric leaderships and remove economic stagnation and bad governance through constitutional reforms.
African constitutional evolution has had three waves. The first was departing coloniser-driven independence constitution making. The second phase led to autocratic constitutional amendments to consolidate power in the presidency and the executive. The third ongoing wave is a product of global democratisation after the reestablishment of the unipolar world. The African faces a dilemma: perceiving themselves as a citizen of a global village while at the same time feeling marginalised. An image made popular in malaria control communication presents people sleeping under a mosquito net with the message, “Us inside, Mosquito out”, allegorically describing the current position of the African in the global arena. How is it that the world sees Africa and Africans like mosquitoes outside a net?
How is Africa imprinted in the minds of the world?
In 1985, Ethiopia found herself in the clutches of a debilitating drought and famine and an initiative fronted by Sir Bob Geldolf organised a concert dubbed Live Aid that raised more than US$125m for the “starving children of Africa”. In 1993, the iconic picture taken by Kevin Carter titled, the Vulture and the Little Girl appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993 (it turned out later that it was actually a boy and not a girl). This chilling, dying-population-in-Africa picture, calcified on the mind of the world. Conflicts in Africa and the atrocities committed in these wars – use of child soldiers and mutilations – reinforced the old image of the African savage. Then came the disruption of countries such as Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo by Western “democracies” that caused a flood of out-migration of African people through the perilous Mediterranean crossing where thousands of Africans have died. The image of Africans dying as they flee the continent by any means possible paints a picture of rats abandoning a sinking ship and suggests that the risk of death by drowning is better than staying put on the continent.
In his iconic yet sarcastic piece titled “How to Write about Africa”, Binyavanga Wainaina aptly captures the stereotypical view of Africa in the eyes of the non-African. It includes all the negative adjectives used to describe the continent and its people. These stereotypes have shaped the way Africa is viewed and, to some extent, the images have been internalised by Africans themselves. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent handling of the protestors in Europe and America, striking similarities to the STOP SARS protests in Nigeria were noted. Nigerian Armed Forces shot at unarmed citizens and by the time the guns went silent, nine people were dead, four persons were missing and presumed dead while 33 people reported having been assaulted. The eye-opener was that protesters could be treated in such a manner in America and Europe, the citadels of democracy, free speech and political engagement. The notion of civil liberties as sacrosanct took a bashing and African protesters in Kenya and Ethiopia must have watched television screens and experienced a déjà vu. Such police brutality is associated with the security forces of failed dictatorships, not democracies.
In his iconic yet sarcastic piece titled “How to Write about Africa”, Binyavanga Wainaina aptly captures the stereotypical view of Africa in the eyes of the non-African.
The racist treatment of African migrants has raised awareness of the hypocrisy of the neoliberal democracies and the lip service paid to the main tenets of neoliberal democracy. It was perhaps providential that the upsurge in African migration coincided with the influx of other refugees from Syria and Ukraine; the unequal reception and treatment made Africans realise that their plight was accorded a very different response from that reserved for other races. The loudly touted principles of fairness, ethical treatment and respect for human rights were ignored, shattering the idyllic picture of a Europe of democratic principles.
Africans find themselves trying to reconcile the hitherto assumed citizenship of the world and the reality of the ineptitude of the failed African states where the freedom of expression and the freedom of association are being constrained by the enactment of legislation around sexual orientation, legislation seeking to regulate and control the use of digital technologies couched as ICT Bills, and by frustrating free media through overt and covert control of media houses and the intimidation of journalists, and by the absence of free, fair and contested elections due to the capture of the electoral process by dominant political parties that only serve to provide legitimacy to the incumbent.
The racist treatment of African migrants has raised awareness of the hypocrisy of the neoliberal democracies and the lip service paid to the main tenets of neoliberal democracy.
Excepting the European and Asian monarchies, African nations lead in the number of heads of state who bear the description of “long serving” rulers. These no-term-limit heads have been in power for as long as the majority of their nationals have been alive. In Africa the concept of balancing the arms of government or even separation of roles remains a pipe dream. Forced disappearances have become a common tool to deal with political dissent since detention without trial ceased to be a tolerable option. The dream of prosperity, improved lives, opportunities for self-actualisation and equal treatment before the law, merit and integrity, have given way to disillusionment and questioning. African youth are in a state of turmoil; they ponder how to re-imagine themselves and claim a place on the global stage. The question is: how can this be done?
Positioning African youth for the future in globalism and globalisation
Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote a book which shares a title with a self-coined term, “Globalectics” in which he tackles the existential dilemma that was alluded to in the opening section of this essay. Ngugi describes the way forward for ex-colonials, and indeed Africans, as the world moves towards globalisation. Ngugi explains Globalectics thus:
Globalectics is derived from the shape of the globe. On its surface, there is no one centre; at any point is equally the centre. As for the internal centre of the globe, all points on the surface are equidistant to it – like the spokes of a bicycle wheel that meet at the hub. Globalectics combines the global and the dialectical to describe a mutually affecting dialogue or multi-logue, in the phenomena of nature and nurture in the global space that is rapidly transcending that of the artificially bounded, as nation and region… Globalectics embraces wholeness, interconnectedness, equality of potentiality of parts, tension and motion. It is a way of thinking and relating to the world, particularly in the era of globalism and globalisation.
Ngugi says that a paradigm shift is needed in the world and more so among those who have in the past been considered peripheral to the globe. Ngugi challenges the notion that there is a centre – or centres – of the globe, meaning that no one, no nation, no culture has the monopoly of ideas regarding politics, economic, cultural, or belief systems, and therefore, there is no authority on the most democratic, or most this or that system, that is most appropriate for global interconnectedness. The second premise is that all people or nations are equal and, therefore, the politics of alignment are untenable in this era; there is no “Look to the East” or the “Look to the West” notion. Instead, Ngugi seems to suggest a “Look to the Self” as an approach for the future. Ngugi’s proposed approach to global interaction is not defined by the monologue/dialogue binary; he proposes a third way based on a multi-logue, where Africa must not only gain its voice but assert it. Africa must engage in global discourses unapologetically while also engaging in its internal dialectics. To do so, Africans must understand and embrace their identity. What is this new identity?
At a crucial time that needed re-imagining of identity, President Thabo Mbeki provided for me what the cornerstone of Globalectics is. He eloquently stated in his famous “I am an African” speech that African identity is derived from spatial location that allows one to identify as his/her home – “the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land”. The African must identify with Africa in its totality. There is herein a connection and a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the history of that landscape. Mbeki pays homage to African history in its totality, saying,
“I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanse of the beautiful cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and independence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.”
Mbeki articulates and essentialises the nexus between identity and history, the long thread of identity and decolonisation. He mentions the indigenous Khoi and San people who were decimated by the colonialists, and defines their struggle as part of the struggle for freedom and independence. In the same breath, Mbeki acknowledges the complicated multiple heritage that conquest, colonialism, and slavery brought to Africa and the ancient warriors and kingdoms that the de-historicisation of modern neo-colonial education thrives on. He describes the racial and ethnic mishmash that is his identity and proclaims that “Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion. I shall claim that I am an African!”
Africa must engage in global discourses unapologetically while also engaging in its internal dialectics.
In describing this heritage, Mbeki encapsulates the complexity of identity and more so the identity of people who survived imperialist conquest, slavery, colonialism. And because he was speaking while framing the reality of the newly independent Rainbow Nation of South Africa, he included the neocolonial challenge. Mbeki explains the complex African identity because, in the neo-colonial context, the understanding, appreciation and acknowledgement of identity is an integral part of decoloniality. Mbeki argues, and I concur, that Africanness today cannot be defined merely by race, colour, gender or historical origins. His definition of what constitutes Africanisms stretches what I prefer to refer to as the ideafication of Africa that is more comprehensive. The alternative restrictive idea of Africa is defined by V.Y. Mudimbe’s and limits the conceptualisation of Africa to notions primarily proffered by non-Africans influenced by what he describes as monstrosities, such as the slave trade and its politics since the fifteenth century, colonialism and imperialism at the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, and fascism and Nazism in the twentieth. Had Mudimbe been writing more recently, he would have added the neocolonialism and pro-Semitism of the 21st century.
The African will only gain their voice with an understanding of their rich and complex history and be able to speak to it. Africans must familiarise themselves with these historical epochs and how these define their identity, and also how the rest of the globe identifies them as they attempt to occupy a place as global citizens on equal terms. Mudimbe makes a powerful assertion that is central to the understanding of a distinctness of Africa that tends to escape the regular discourse about the role to be played by the sons and daughters of this continent that, “there are natural features, cultural characteristics and probably, values that contribute to the reality of Africa as a continent and its civilisations as constituting a totality different from those of, say, Asia and Europe”. This is the same position that is advanced by Gabriel Idang where he breaks down those definitive elements that make up the Africentric identity as derived from culture and values. He lists social, moral, religious, political, aesthetic, and economic values as the things that Africa must grapple with. All these elements are ensconced in the concept of Utu and Ubuntu.
The African idea of life and existence is derived from the idea of humanness and the actualisation of this sense of belonging to a wider humanity. An individual acting within an Utu framework submits their individuality to humanity and recognises that one is an integral part of a large whole and, therefore, the individual is not whole when not part of the larger body. This worldview, therefore, means that there is no space for accepting the oppression of another. It is unacceptable to desire to dominate and subjugate any other human when one is bound by the ethics of utu and ubuntu. As long as Africans embrace and live by this, the space the African will occupy on the global arena will be that of the conscience of the globe that is consumed by individualism.