Connect with us

Ideas

The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms and a History of Resource Plunder

8 min read.

Since colonization, Africa has provided its best raw materials for the global North. Can countries finally break this pattern?

Published

on

The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms and a History of Resource Plunder
Download PDFPrint Article

The struggle for control over Africa’s natural resources has raged since the colonization of the continent. It continues today as the forces that undermine Africa shift from the former colonizers to transnational corporations, and the ideology that underpins the global economic order morphs from blunt “flag” colonialism to the hegemony of neoliberalism. The effect is still the same: the underdevelopment of African economies and undermining of state capacity to meet peoples’ needs. The following unpacks the roots of this persisting problem and offers some lessons from the early post-independence era, when governments across Africa recognized these issues clearly and enacted revolutionary policies to confront them.

Prior to colonialism, the countries of Africa were economically, politically, and sociologically structured organically around their internal needs and demands, meeting internal material and social challenges. This is not to say these societies were devoid of internal contradictions, conflicts between them, or engagement with the wider world––indeed, trade routes certainly extended beyond the continent. But on the whole, the economic structures and relationships that developed were shaped by dynamics and demands within African societies.

This was forcefully upended with the onset of colonialism, as African economies were extroverted, destroyed, and fragmented. A new structure was put in place in which African economies were inserted in the global economic order as providers of raw materials for the development of other countries––basically for imperial Europe. This has relegated the vast majority of the continent to a political economy structure of primary commodity export dependence.

Within this structure, African countries became dependent on the export of a small basket of barely processed minerals, timber, and agricultural products (cocoa, coffee, bananas, etc.) as raw materials to feed the industries of the global North. In return, Africa became dependent for their consumption needs on the import of the goods manufactured in the North, most often made using African raw materials.

This enforced “unequal exchange” of unprocessed so-called “low-value” raw materials for “high-value” processed goods has become the basic mechanism of unequal economic relationships between Africa and the advanced industrial capitalist North, and the means of continued appropriation of the wealth created in Africa by the North. This undermines the accumulation of wealth in Africa and its reinvestment for renewing, upgrading, and expanding productive capabilities of the societies on the continent, and therefore of their ability to meet the changing needs of the people. On the contrary, African countries and opportunities for their people have become trapped in the vicissitudes of the global market for their commodities over which they have little control.

The colonial restructuring of Africa’s economies and their orientation to the external needs of European industrialization have devastating consequences for the internal dynamics of the economies and the societies, marked by two key features:

First, as products which were before used and processed for an internal economy came to serve merely as unprocessed raw materials for Europe, the internal usage of these products was subverted. Iron, which was processed into agricultural tools and other mechanical tools, was now mined only to be carted out in raw form. Agricultural products which before were processed in wide-ranging forms for food, clothes, shoes, were now only exported in their raw forms. As a result, the chain of processes, skills, and knowledge of these products and their uses through the domestic economy was broken. Instead of being maintained and upgraded over time, the capabilities and capacity have become degraded.

Second, the relationships that existed between different types of economic activity and “sectors” of the economy were fragmented. The chain of mining, smelting, and crafting iron to supply the technological need of agriculture, such as tools for farmers, was fragmented during the colonial economy. Agricultural supplies to iron crafters were also equally disrupted. This shifted the overall nature of African economies so that these sectors no longer met the needs of and reinforced one another, helped each other grow, or evolved according to African needs.

As different sectors of the economy were no longer “speaking to each other,” the range of internal exchanges became limited and the overall economy became more shallow and weaker. For instance, farmers who now only sold their products to an external (North) market didn’t necessarily have an internal market for their products so that they could also expand their production and opportunities for livelihood. This led to a common belief that African countries have small markets, erroneously attributed to small national populations, and that there is simply nothing that can be done about it. But contrast this with global North countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark: their populations are smaller than many African countries, but because of the coherence in their economies they are able to have a deeper domestic market which allows for expanded production. Their economies were not fragmented and reoriented in the same way.

Such internal fragmentation and consequent shallowness of the African economy is aggravated by the artificial borders inherited from colonialism. Before colonialism, what now constitutes the national border between Ghana and Togo was a common space of economic interaction among societies. By being forced to operate behind new artificial borders also limits the range of exchange and economic depth.

Historically, the mining sector has been the focal as well as entry point for the construction of the primary commodity export dependent political economy. From South Africa to Zimbabwe to Ghana, colonization was consolidated as a process of European companies, supported by their governments, exercising possession and ownership of Africa’s minerals and expropriating the locals. This was replicated as more minerals were discovered in addition to gold, diamond, coal, and oil, and every time a new mineral is demanded by the global North, this dynamic is asserted anew.

However, primary commodity export dependence is not simply a reduction to the specific mineral or agricultural or other natural resources involved. Rather, it is the totality of relationships and dynamics of the appropriation of wealth, the extroversion of the economic dynamics, and fragmentation of African economies. This allows us to see how these dynamics extend beyond natural resources to other economic sectors, such as tourism, telecommunications, and finance. In tourism, for example, it is widely known that the higher end of the value-chain is dominated by a handful of transnational operators, who then appropriate the overwhelming bulk of the wealth generated, leaving Africans little out of it.

In this neoliberal era, the problem of primary commodity export dependence has been ignored at best and celebrated at worst. Promoted first by neoliberal economists and North policy institutions, an insidious narrative has proliferated that African countries should rely on their “comparative advantage,” recommending that they make better and more efficient use of their export of primary commodities. The power of this narrative has ensured that the transformation of primary commodity export dependence and its attendant problems as outlined above has ceased to be a central aspect of African policy making in the neoliberal period.

Echoing the neoliberal suppression of policies aimed at dismantling primary commodity export dependence, at the onset of neoliberalism the World Bank told African governments to abandon any notion to use mineral resources to serve social priorities or developmental priorities, and give up their running and management of minerals and mineral wealth to transnational companies. As the Bank stated:

The recovery of the mining sector in Africa will require a shift in government objectives towards a primary objective of maximizing tax revenues from mining over the long term, rather than pursuing other economic or political objectives such as control of resources or enhancement of employment. This objective will be best achieved by a new policy emphasis whereby governments focus on industry regulation and promotion and private companies take the lead in operating, managing and owning mineral enterprises.

Paradoxically, even the revenue from the export of primary commodities has been undercut through World Bank-promoted programs of lowering corporate taxes and royalties, and giving many concessions and incentives to transnational mining companies in the name of attracting foreign investment.

Many of the best tools to fight against dependency, such as development planning and import-substitution-industrialization, have either been actively repressed by programs like structural adjustment, or pushed into the margins by the dominance of neoliberal thought and “free market” policymaking practices. These tools were widely deployed by early post-independence governments to assert sovereignty over natural resources, before they were truncated by neoliberalism, which has reasserted extractive colonial dynamics.

In the early post-independence period, after formal decolonization, there was wide recognition from governments, across Africa and across ideologies, that the key task for development was to confront primary commodity dependence and its binding economic constraints. Kwame Nkrumah recognized the problem clearly in stating: “Africa is a paradox which illustrates and highlights neo-colonialism. Her earth is rich, yet the products that come from above and below the soil continue to enrich, not Africans predominantly, but groups and individuals who operate to Africa’s impoverishment.”

This recognition across the continent and the global South reverberated into mainstream policy institutions established in this era, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development Planning or the African Institute for Development Planning. A key lesson from this era is the critical importance of restoring this recognition of the structure of African economies as a starting point for policy and activism.

Early post-independence governments worked to ensure that their economies accumulated for themselves by taking over the commanding heights of the economy strategically. This required asserting sovereignty, and therefore control, over their natural resources. The key mechanism for this was vesting the mineral wealth of their economies in the state. In Ghana, for instance, laws were implemented to declare that the mineral wealth or the wealth under the soil is vested in the Republic of Ghana and, it is the president who has custodianship.

Crucially, this nationalization extended beyond minerals to the mines themselves, even those already constructed. Taxation and royalties were also implemented to fund development and social programs, and the transfer of skills and technology was carefully facilitated.

Early post-independence leaders also saw beyond the hard economics of natural resource sovereignty to recognize its social dimensions. For instance, Kwame Nkrumah bought British mineral mines, which the UK had wanted to close as they did not make any profit. It came as a surprise to many that Nkrumah would purchase unprofitable mines, but his goal was not simple profit, but to create jobs as a social act to expand employment opportunities for the people.

This understanding of the social dimensions of dependency is key for the Post-Colonialisms Today project, as feminist politics is a central pillar. The basic recognition of dependency and its social dimensions, and the need to assert African agency over resources, provides a stronger basis to ensure power and agency for African women. At the same time, post-independence leaders must be critiqued for their patriarchal policies and tendency to sideline African women after independence despite their prominent role in anti-colonial struggles.

The early post-independence era also offers lessons on confronting the fragmentation of African economies. Their approach centered on industrialization: building African capacity to meet Africa’s needs rather than rely on the North to import high-value products.The key challenge many governments faced was generating the resources to support industrialization. Profits from exports from producing primary commodities were leveraged to support building factories, establishing institutional mechanisms, and funding social policies. The widespread use of tools such as the taxation of transnational corporations, protective tariffs, and royalties also generated resources.

However, a deeper problem often remained even as important efforts towards transformation were funded and planned: restoring internal linkages to African economies and making different sectors “speak” to each other once again. This challenge is particularly difficult and one many post-independence governments did not tackle sufficiently. As Post-Colonialisms Today researcher Akua Britum details, post-independence governments had to explore methods for funding development beyond taxation, such as reinforcing social programs to meet workers’ needs without reliance on large cash incomes.

Some countries paid particular attention to restoring these linkages. Post-independence Botswana, for instance, enacted policies to ensure the processing of minerals mined in the country must take place, at least in part, domestically. They also insisted that the procurement of inputs for mining must be sourced in Botswana. This meant that while the economy was temporarily reliant on producing minerals, they could still build up their industrial capacity and promote structural transformation.

There are limitations and layers of complexity to approaches in the post-independence era though: as Post-Colonialisms Today researchers Kareem Megahed and Omar Ghannam point out, post-independence land distribution in Egypt from landowning elite to the peasant class was reversed as peasants only received flimsy usufruct ownership. Under Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia nationalized their mines but still remained deeply controlled by international mineral value chains, meaning that even though they owned the copper mines outright, transnational copper companies managed to undermine their capacity.

Both the strengths and limitations of early post-independence policies offer a wealth of lessons for today’s struggles for control over Africa’s resources. Critically, the clarity in that period around the importance of African state control over natural resources offers a path forward for contemporary efforts––it must be wrestled away from transnational corporations today just as it was wrestled from colonial forces. With basic policies such as nationalization being halted outright, as seen recently in Zambia, this task remains as urgent as ever.

This article is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent, working to recapture progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. It is adapted from a recent webinar on natural resource sovereignty which you can listen to here. Sign up for updates on the project here.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Tetteh Hormeku-Ajei is Head of Programs at Third World Network-Africa and on the Post-Colonialisms Today Working Group. Camden Goetz is a Coordinator at Regions Refocus and part of the Post-Colonialisms Today secretariat.

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.

Published

on

Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Ideas

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.

Published

on

Re-Reading History Without the Colour Line: When Egypt Was Black
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Ideas

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.

Published

on

Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Download PDFPrint Article

“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.

Continue Reading

Trending