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On the Sins of Colonialism and Insurgent Decolonisation

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Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes how war, violence and extractivism defined the legacy of the empire in Africa, and why recent attempts to explore the ‘ethical’ contributions of colonialism is rewriting history.

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In 2017, a professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom proposed a research project. The key thesis: that the empire as a historical phenomenon – distinct from an ideological construct – has made ethical contributions and that its legacy cannot be reduced to that of genocides, exploitations, domination and repression.

Predictably, such a project raised a lot of controversies to the extent that other scholars at Oxford penned an open letter dissociating themselves from such intended revisionism and whitewashing of the crimes of the empire. One leading member of the project resigned from it, citing personal reasons.

Historically, theoretically and empirically, it should be clear that the empire was a “death project” rather than an ethical force outside Europe; that war, violence and extractivism rather than any ethics defined the legacy of the empire in Africa.

But it is the continuation of revisionist thinking that beckons a revisiting of the question of colonialism and its impact on the continent from a decolonial perspective, challenging the colonial and liberal desire to rearticulate the empire as an ethical phenomenon.

The ‘ethics’ of empire?

In the Oxford research project, entitled Ethics and Empire (2017-22), Nigel Biggar, the university’s regius professor of moral and pastoral theology and director of the MacDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, sought to do two important interventions: to measure apologias and critiques of the empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the world; and to challenge the idea that empire is imperialist, imperialism is wicked, and empire is therefore unethical.

In support of its thesis, the description of the research project lists “examples” of the ethics of the empire: the British empire’s suppression of the “Atlantic and African slave trades” after 1807; granting Black Africans the vote at the Cape Colony 17 years before the United States granted it to African Americans; and offering “the only armed centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941”.

But the selective use of such examples does not paint an accurate picture. Any attempt to credit the British empire for the abolition of slavery, for instance, ignores the ongoing resistance of enslaved Africans from the moment of capture right up to the plantations in the Americas. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 still stands as a symbol of this resistance: enslaved African people rose against racism, slavery and colonialism – demonstrating beyond doubt that the European institution of slavery was not sustainable.

The very fact that, in the Oxford research project, the chosen description is “the Atlantic and African slave trades” reveals an attempt to distance itself from the crime of slavery, to attribute it to the “ocean” (the Atlantic), and to the “Africans” as though they enslaved themselves. Where is the British empire in this description of the heinous kidnapping and commodification of the lives of Africans?

The second example, which highlights the very skewed granting of the franchise to a small number of so-called “civilised” Africans at the Cape Colony in South Africa as a gift of the empire, further demonstrates a misunderstanding of how colonialism dismembered and dehumanised African people. The fact is that African struggles were  fought for decolonisation and rehumanisation.

The third example, that the British empire became the nerve centre of armed resistance to fascism during the second world war (1939-45), may be accurate. But it also ignores the fact that fascism became so repugnant to the British mainly because Adolf Hitler practised and applied the racism that was meant for “those people” in the colonies and brought it to the centre of Europe.

Projects like Briggar’s, and others with similar thought trajectories, risk endangering the truth about the crimes of the empire in Africa.

Afro-pessimism: Seeing disorder as the norm

What, fundamentally, is colonialism? Aimé Césaire, the Mantiniquean intellectual and poet, posed this deep and necessary question in his classical treatise Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1955. In it, he argues that the colonial project was never benevolent and always motivated by self-interest and economic exploitation of the colonised.

But without a real comprehension of the true meaning of colonialism, there are all sorts of dangers of developing a complacent if not ahistorical and apologetic view of it, including the one that argues it was a moral evil with economic benefits to its victims. This view of colonialism is re-emerging within a context where some conservative metropolitan-based scholars of the empire are calling for a “balance sheet of the empire”, which weighs up the costs and benefits of colonialism. Meanwhile, some beneficiaries of the empire based in Africa are also adopting a revisionist approach, such as Helen Zille, the white former leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance party, who caused a storm when she said that apartheid colonialism was beneficial – by building the infrastructure and governance systems that Black Africans now use.

Both conservative and liberal revisionism in the studies of the empire and the impact of colonialism reflect shared pessimistic views about African development. The economic failures, and indeed elusive development, in Africa get blamed on the victims. The disorder is said to be the norm in Africa. Eating, that is, filling the “belly” is said to be the characteristic of African politics. African leadership is roundly blamed for the mismanagement of economies in Africa.

While it is true that African leaders contribute to economic and development challenges through things like corruption, the key problems on the continent are structural, systemic and institutional. That is why even leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who were not corrupt, did not succeed in changing the character of inherited colonial economies so as to benefit the majority of African peoples.

Today, what exacerbates these ahistorical, apologetic and patronising views of the impact of colonialism on Africa is the return of crude right-wing politics – the kind embodied by former US President Donald Trump. It is the strong belief in inherent white supremacy and in the inherent inferiority of the rest.

But right-wing politics is also locking horns with resurgent and insurgent decolonisation of the 21st century, symbolised by global movements such as Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. However, to mount a credible critique to apologias for the empire, the starting point is to clearly define colonialism.

On colonisation, colonialism, coloniality

Three terms – colonisation, colonialism and coloniality – if correctly clarified, help in gaining a deeper understanding of the empire and the damage colonialism has had on African economies and indeed on African lives.

Colonisation names the event of conquest and administration of the conquered. It can be dated in the case of South Africa from 1652 to 1994; in the case of Zimbabwe from 1890 to 1980; and in the case of Western and Eastern Africa from 1884 to 1960. Those who confused colonisation and colonialism conceptually, ended up pushing forward a very complacent view of colonialism which define it as a mere “episode in African history” (a short interlude: 1884-1960). While this intervention from the Ibadan African Nationalist School of History was informed by the noble desire to dethrone imperialist/colonialist historiography which denied the existence of African history prior to the continent’s encounter with Europeans, it ended up minimising the epochal impact of colonialism on Africa.

It was Peter Ekeh of the University of Ibadan, in his Professorial Inaugural Lecture: Colonialism and Social Structure of 1980, who directly challenged the notion that colonialism was an episode in African history. He posited that colonialism was epochal in its impact as it was and is a system of power that is multifaceted in character. It is a power structure that subverts, destroys, reinvents, appropriates, and replaces anything it deems an obstacle to the agenda of colonial domination and exploitation.

Eke’s definition of colonialism resonated with that of Frantz Fanon who explained, in The Wretched of the Earth, that colonialism was never satisfied with the conquest of the colonised, it also worked to steal the colonised people’s history and to epistemically intervene in their psyche.

Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe is also correct in positing that the fundamental question in colonialism was a planetary one: to whom does the earth belong? Thus, as a planetary phenomenon, its storm troopers, the European colonialists, were driven by the imperial idea of the earth as belonging to them. This is why at the centre of colonialism is the “coloniality of being”, that is, the colonisation of the very idea and meaning of being human.

This was achieved through two processes: first, the social classification of the human population; and second, the racial hierarchisation of the classified human population. This was a necessary colonial process to distinguish those who had to be subjected to enslavement, genocide and colonisation.

The third important concept is that of coloniality. It was developed by Latin American decolonial theorists, particularly Anibal Quijano. Coloniality names the transhistoric expansion of colonial domination and its replication in contemporary times. It links very well with the African epic school of colonialism articulated by Ekeh and dovetails well with Kwame Nkrumah’s concept of neo-colonialism. All this speaks to the epochal impact of colonialism. One therefore wonders how Africa could develop economically under this structure of power and how could colonialism be of benefit to Africa. To understand the negative economic impact of colonialism on Africa, there is a need to appreciate the four journeys of capital and its implications for Africa.

Four journeys of colonial capital and entrapment

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe, distilled the four journeys of capital from its mercantile period to its current financial form and in each of the journeys, he plotted the fate of Africa.

The first is the epoch of enslavement of Africans and their shipment as cargo out of the continent. This drained Africa of its most robust labour needed for its economic development. The second was the exploitation of African labour in the plantations and mines in the Americas without any payment so as to enable the very project of Euro-modernity and its coloniality. The third is the colonial moment where Africa was scrambled for and partitioned among seven European colonial powers (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and its resources (both natural and human) were exploited for the benefit of Europe. The fourth moment is the current one characterised by “debt slavery” whereby a poor continent finances the developed countries of the world. Overseeing this debt slavery is the global financial republic constituted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other financial institutions. All these exploitative journeys of capital were enabled by colonialism and coloniality.

Empirically and concretely, colonialism radically ordered Africa into economic zones of exploitation. This reality is well expressed by Samir Amin who identified three main colonial zones. The first is the “cash crops zone” covering Western and Eastern Africa, where colonialism inaugurated “peasant trade colonies” whereby Africans were forced to abandon cultivation of food crops and instead produce cash crops for an industrialising Europe.

The second zone was that of extractive colonial plantations symbolised by the Congo Free State which was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium; Africans were forced to produce rubber, and extreme violence including the removal of limbs was used to enforce this colonial system.

The third zone was that of “labour reserves” inaugurated by settler colonialism. The Southern Africa region was the central space of settler colonies, where Africans were physically removed from their lands and the lands taken over by the white settlers. Those African who survived the wars of conquest were pushed into crowded reserves where they existed as a source of cheap labour for mines, farms, plantations, factories, and even domestic work.

This colonial ordering of economies in Africa has remained intact even after more than 60 years of decolonisation. This is because achieving political independence did not include attaining economic decolonisation. At the moment of political decolonisation, Europe actively worked to develop strategies such as Eurafrica, Françafrique, Lomé Conventions, the Commonwealth and others to maintain its economic domination over Africa.

Roadblocks to development

Like all human beings, Africans were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems which enabled them to survive as a people, to benefit from their environment, to invent tools, and to organise themselves socially on their own terms.

The success story of the people of Egypt to utilise the resources of the Nile River to build the Egyptian civilisation, which is older than the birth of modern Europe, is a testimony of how the people and the continent were self-developing and self-improving on their own terms.

The invention of stone tools and the revolutionary shift to the iron tools prior to colonialism is another indication of African people making their own history. The domestication of plants and animals is another evidence of African revolutions. This is what colonialism destroyed as it created a colonial order and economy that had no African interests at its centre.

Flourishing pre-colonial African economies and societies of the Kingdom of Kongo, Songhai, Mali, Ancient Ghana, Dahomey were first of all exposed to the devastating impact of the slave trade and later subjected to violent colonialism. What this birthed were economies in Africa rather than African economies – economies that were outside-looking-in in orientation – to sustain the development of Europe.

Fundamentally, the economies in Africa became extractive in nature. By the time direct colonialism was rolled back after 1945, African leaders inherited colonial economies where Africans participated as providers of cheap labour rather than owners of the economies. These externally oriented economies could not survive as anything else but providers of cheap raw materials. They were and are entrapped in well-crafted colonial matrices of power with a well-planned division of labour.

Today, the economies in Africa remain artificial and fragile to the extent that any attempt to reorient them to serve the majority of African people, sees them flounder and collapse. This is because their scaffold and pivot are colonial relations of exploitation, not decolonial relations of empowerment and equitable distribution of resources.

For real future development and a successful move from economies in Africa towards true African economies, there is a need to revolutionise the asymmetrical colonial power structures that still govern the fate of the continent.

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by Al Jazeera English. It is republished here as part of our partnership with the Review of African Political Economy.

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Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Professor and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is a leading decolonial theorist in the fields of African history, African politics, African development and decolonial theory.

Ideas

Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.

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Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.

Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.

Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.

Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”

But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators. 

Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.

Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.

The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.

This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.

The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.

You can find Lords of Impunity at Nuria Bookshop in Nairobi and on Amazon.

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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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