Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing
Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!
Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon
(This keynote lecture was initially delivered as part of the opening session plenary addresses at the Fourth Annual African Renaissance for Unity Conference convened by the Africa Institute of South Africa and The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, on May 22, 2014. A modified version of it was subsequently delivered as Professor Pius Adesanmi’s valedictory lecture at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, on May 29, 2014, in conclusion of his tenure as a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Scholar.)
Your Excellency President Thabo Mbeki, organizers, sponsors and co-sponsors of this conference, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for the peculiar title of this lecture. It is true that the organizers of this timely conference gave me an unambiguous mandate about what they wanted me to do: share some reflections with you on the subject of finding African solutions for African problems. Specifically, they wanted me to engage the subject from the perspective of culture. Let me state from the onset that the singular, culture, is not my making. That is how it appears in my letter of invitation. Coming from a disciplinary background where the producer of knowledge must constantly watch out for traffic cops eager to hand out tickets for the offences of monolithization and essentialism, I probably wouldn’t have dared to speak of an African culture in the singular purporting to solve African problems in the plural.
However, not even the most audacious enforcers in all the humanistic and artistic disciplines with which we engage Africa would dare to hand out a traffic ticket to the scholar who drags the hashtag into the arena of serious scholarly reflection on the unending dilemmas of the African condition in the 21st century. These, indeed, are great times to be a hashtag. In my second life, I’d prefer to come back not as a bird or a flower as is the wont of nature lovers but as the world’s most recognizable symbol, the hashtag, previously only known to Americans and the English as the pound key on their phones but catapulted to planetary celebrity status in a little under a decade by Twitter. The hashtag is the only subject that can legitimately claim to be more famous than Kimye – that conjugal combination of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the hashtag as the highest stage of globalization, what with its ability to go viral within seconds, crisscross geographical borders and ideological boundaries, connect cultures and peoples in defiance of difference, break down walls between causes and create a common village square for actors as far apart as gay rights activists of the global north and anti-gay cultural fundamentalists of the global south in Nigeria and Uganda, animal rights activists in Scandinavia and the whale and shark hunters of Japan, gender rights activists in the global north and the bearded guys preventing women from driving in parts of the Arab world. Every time I reflect on this singular capacity of the hashtag to unite the world’s largest community of strange bedfellows, I am almost always tempted to conclude that more than three decades of intense theorizing in the humanities and the social sciences have been reduced into a tiny symbol.
The intellection which yielded world systems theory, globalization, and everything in between, and gave us illustrious cross-disciplinary thinkers of global flows, fluxes, and linkages such as Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Adebayo Olukoshi, Thandika Mkandawire, Ato Quayson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said, Arjun Appadurai, Gloria Anzaldua, and so many usual suspects in the arena of contemporary global thought now all boils down to the performative power of just one symbol: the hashtag. For the hashtag is world system, borderlessness, and globalization on steroids.
Some of you are already probably thinking that you know the reason why a Nigerian public intellectual would start an exercise such as this by singing the praise of the hashtag. Folks, don’t blame me. My country, already a famous subject of all kinds of fair and unfair stereotyping here in Africa and the rest of the world, has seen her notoriety attain stratospheric heights courtesy of the hashtag. Doubtless some of you have already participated in what may now rightfully be termed a global hashtag movement. Perhaps some of you will take selfies in the course of this conference, brandishing a cardboard on which you would have inscribed the reigning marker of collective global activism: #BringBackOurGirls.
The phenomenal career of this particular hashtag – #BringBackOurGirls – has very obvious theoretical implications for those who have been thinking and theorizing the borderlessness of our postcolonial and postmodern world and the modes of Africa’s insertion into it in the last three decades or so. But, more importantly, this conference will have to zoom in on the possessive adjective, “our”, map its trajectory and modes of articulation, listen intently to its politics in order to determine who is speaking – or more appropriately, who has acquired the agency to speak – every time you encounter this celebrity hashtag.
In essence, this conference must ask the question: who is the “our” in #BringBackOurGirls? I don’t know the answer but how you, esteemed colleagues, answer this thorny question will have very serious implications for the aims and goals of our gathering. For when I saw the theme of our conference, “African Solutions for African Problems”, and the rider stating that more than a hundred scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America would gather here to find “African Solutions” to whatever we eventually agree – or agree to disagree – are “African Problems”, my mind immediately went to #BringBackOurGirls (and even the Joseph Kony campaign before it) and I asked: who owns the problem? Or, more appropriately, when was the last time Africa possessed the critical agency to own problems that are defined and narrativized as African? What are the possibilities of localizing the ownership of problems in the age of the hashtag? To make the inevitable allusion to Gayatri Spivak, can the subaltern own her problems?
Some of you may have noticed that no sooner had the #BringBackOurGirls handle gone viral than conflict over its origin and ownership arose, with CNN and the Wall Street Journal devoting time and space to clearing the air. And this war over ownership and narrative raged even as the girls were still in captivity. Who started it? Is it an offshoot of President Goodluck Jonathan’s bring back the book campaign? Or is it more directly linked to Wole Soyinka’s variation – with acknowledgment – on that presidential buzz with his own bring back the pupils retort? Or is it Oby Ezekwesili’s making? Or is it the making of the American woman who immediately claimed ownership of it and rushed to edit her Wikipedia biography to include ownership of #BringBackOurGirls?
In the context of the politics – for there is always politics involved – of owning problems that are defined as African, it does seem to me that the advent of the hashtag and social media has introduced the dimension of separating the localized reality of problems from their modes of articulation, representation, and, I daresay, marketing. It seems to me that Africa is being told: you may own the scrawny children with countable ribs and mucus-soaked nostrils studying under baobab trees with chalkboards donated by UNICEF, we reserve the right to adopt those malnourished children with full media fanfare and scold you if you grumble – even if you are the President of a country like Malawi; you may own the lives and limbs being blown up in Kenya, in Congo, in Mali, and in the ungoverned Boko Haram Territories of Nigeria, we own the glamour, glitz, and razzmatazz attendant upon the global dissemination and narrativization of those horrors.
This leads me to a second set of questions that must detain this conference. You may have noticed that I have been using the passive voice when talking about “African problems”. In fact, I have avoided that particular phraseology employed by the conveners of the conference. Instead, I have been talking about “problems that are defined and narrativized as African”. This mode of address is deliberate on my part. Apart from wondering whether Africa has the agency to own problems and their modes of articulation, the theme of this conference also made me wonder if we didn’t need to problematize the problems before finding African solutions for them. Perhaps my unease is further heightened by the suspicion that a certain neoliberal sleight of the hand underwrites the expression, “African Problems”. I believe the ability to smell neoliberal modes of framing, of naming, of engaging the actualities of Africa from a thousand miles come with the territory of what we do as the thinkers and writers of this continent. Hence, we must ask: what exactly are these African problems? How do problems acquire African citizenship? Who does the designation? When is an African problem?
For anybody familiar with the usual laundry list, these questions may appear to be no brainers. African problems? Oh, that’s poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger, comatose infrastructure, tribalism, bad governance, wobbly democracy and allied problems of leadership, crises and conflict, corruption, environmental degradation, the familiar tableau of human misery associated with the girl child , human trafficking and, above all, the failures of the postcolonial state – some would say her complete demission. This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems that have acquired African citizenship in global imaginaries of discourse. Each participant in this conference could draw up his or her own list but I am sure we would have considerable overlaps. Consider, for instance, Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s list and see how close it is to mine:
“raging genocides, mass movements of refugees, tortures and mutilations, random destruction of the environment and bio-diversity, hostage-taking of the young generation as cannon fodder for warlords, the decimation of whole populations by pandemics, the stranglehold of the republican army, the giving away and eradication of age-old cultures and distinct knowledge.”
Professor Ki-Zerbo’s list of the pressing challenges of the continent obviously devolves from the register of wars, conflict, and crises. It is easy to run through the said list and think of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, and all the ongoing hotspots in the continent – if one wasn’t in the mood for immediate past spectres of bloodletting in Rwanda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, if you leave out any geographical referents, it is also quite possible for observers in other parts of the global south to run through this generic list of problems that has acquired the tag, African, and assume that one was describing those places and spaces. What is there in my own list, for instance, that is not part of the politics of everyday life in significant parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Arab World?
Consider poverty. You’ll be amazed by how comparable the indicators and the statistics are if you looked at, say, the situation in Peru, Honduras, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the very black deep south of the USA, the First Nations reservations of Canada, and Cameroon. Yet, only Africa becomes a synonym for these problems. The same applies to infrastructure. I’ve been reading that decrepit infrastructure is going to be one of the major headaches of the new Indian Prime Minister. The New York Times recently framed this problem, drawing on the capacity of Indians for self-deprecating humour. Indians, the newspaper claims, have a saying that while the English drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road. Booker Prize winner and activist, Arundhati Roy, also paints a grave picture of poverty and infrastructure in India in a post-election interview. Yet, that part of the register of underdevelopment that deals with dilapidated infrastructure is also almost always framed as an African problem.
These scenarios lead to some pressing questions. Do problems and human tragedies which also exist elsewhere become African because of perceived differences of spread and intensity? Do these problems become African because of imagined or real differences in the readiness of the institutions and opportunities of African modernity to rise up and solve them using critical human intelligence and innovation? Are these problems African because the websites of global actors in what I have previously theorized as the Mercy Industrial Complex (donor agencies, humanitarian organizations, aid and charity organizations, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, career saviours of African children through adoption such as Madonna) almost always label them as African? More questions: do these problems become African because the continent is powerless against the modes of representation so powerfully captured by Binyavanga Wainaina in his classic piece, “How to Write about Africa”? There is even a latest variation of this problem of discursive and epistemological violence. I am told that there are particular ways to design the cover of the African novel, the African book, if you are a serious publisher looking for serious buyers of books about Africa in the global north.
The acknowledgement by the organizers of this conference that culture has a role to play in finding African solutions for African problems is perhaps a conscious admission on their part that despite contemporary pressures to the contrary, history has a huge role to play in solving many of the said problems. To solve a problem is to understand it in all its manifestations and ramifications and this includes its origins and modes of perpetuation. Yet, mentioning the colonial origin of many of the afflictions of the continent has become unfashionable in many of our disciplines. In my own discipline, it is taboo and could earn you a citation by the essentialism police.
As if Latin American thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo never theorized coloniality (the persistence in our present of the fault lines and effects of colonialism), you are told that the recourse to colonial paradigms to explain the benumbing dilemmas of the African present amounts to disciplinary laziness and an attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify the self-imposed woes and tragedies of Africa. Yet, how could Mahmood Mamdani have explained Rwanda without going back to the colonial origins of the problem? How can I explain Boko Haram, how can I propose solutions to Boko Haram, without going back to 1914 in order to understand and map the errors of the rendering that have inevitably produced this gory Nigerian present? The search for more than 200 school girls is only the latest stop in a journey programmed for tragedy and disaster by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914. The Igbo genocide and the attendant civil war are also significant stops in that journey.
To recall Chinua Achebe, how do you begin the process of drying yourself when you are told that it is no longer fashionable to try and understand when, where, and why the rain began to beat you? How do you solve a problem when you are told that the ordained discursive procedure is to acknowledge and focus on your own contribution in making the rain that is beating you today and leave well enough alone with regard to yesterday’s rain made by foreign rainmakers? Do these two epistemological propositions have to be mutually exclusive?
If history helps us to understand the origins and trajectory of many of the problems blighting the African present, culture is what explains why the problems became African or why outsiders of the neoliberal bent have been able to attach a fixed African identity to problems that are transcendentally human, even where we make allowances for differences of intensity. Culture is the location of the original injury of modernity. Culture was the first target of the discourses and the institutions of modernity at the moment of encounter. Many of the problems that Africa still has with the orders and institutions of modernity – democracy, governance, corruption, etc – devolve from the unresolved contradictions of the original injury of modernity.
Let us not forget that modernity was imposed on the African largely through institutions of discipline and punish, to borrow from Michel Foucault. The prison, the Christian mission, and the school did not stop at inflicting corporal punishment on the “African native” while scrupulously pursuing the civilizing mission, they equally all had very specific ideas about the cultures and worldviews of the African that we do not need to repeat here. If we need any reminder about this discipline and punish approach to the introduction of the structures of modernity in Africa, we need not look beyond the workings of the said institutions in Ferdinand Oyono’s famous novel, Houseboy.
Thus, the African was culturally alienated from the institutions, protocols, and orders of modernity from the very start. This cultural alienation explains in large part the apathy to institutions, especially public institutions, in the continent. Institutions of modernity evolved as alienating structures of discipline and punish under colonialism and have retained that identity in the postcolonial phase of African life. The postcolonial state has failed woefully in detaching itself and its institutions from the colonial socius of violence that birthed it.
Hence corruption! Hence the impunity with which the public till is plundered in so many African states, especially in my own Nigeria. As Kwame Gyekye reminds us in his book, Philosophy, Culture, and Vision, the cultural relationship of the African subject to his precolonial cultural and political community conduced to a collective ownership of institutions and modes of cultural citizenship which enhanced the notion of the common good. The communal stream, communal farm lands, communal institutions of governance and public order, were not just in sync with the psychic world of the African subject, you took care of them because they commanded your loyalty and were not structures of violence and alienation.
Here then is the dilemma. Precolonial institutions, with all their warts and weaknesses, worked to a great extent and corruption was minimal – and punished adequately whenever it occurred – because those institutions acquired legitimacy and hegemony (as opposed to exercising only dominance and violence) through an historically developed sense of collective ownership. Postcolonial institutions have trouble working or functioning properly in Africa because they are orphans. Everybody steals from them; everybody leaves them to rot precisely because nobody owns them. The precolonial cultural attitudes of ownership of institutions and the collective good were never carried over because the new institutions destroyed or looked down upon the cultural values and worldviews that would have aided their insertion into the African space and psyche. These are contradictions that the modern African state is yet to resolve. She still hasn’t been able to sell herself culturally to the African.
The story is told – and it is a true story – of the late Alhaji Barkin Zuwo, a Governor of Kano state during the Second Republic in Nigeria which lasted from 1979-1983. The task of making the daily trip to the public treasury to steal money became too cumbersome for this Governor. To solve the problem, he introduced the practice of home delivery of stolen public funds into the lexicon of corruption in Nigeria. He simply had raw cash delivered to him in large quantities in his official residence which we call Government House in Nigeria. When the coup happened in 1983 and soldiers stormed Government House to arrest him, they were astounded by the quantity of raw cash they found in his bedroom. When queried, Barkin Zuwo famously quipped: “Government money in Government House, what is the problem?” This sums up the story of the African subject’s conceptualization of the institutions of the postcolonial state. Would Alhaji Barkin Zuwo have had the same attitude to public office and to public property in the precolonial Emirate of Kano? Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as mine.
Like corruption and institutions, most of the problems and challenges that postcolonial Africa has encountered in the arena of democracy and governance can be explained on the ground of our radical departure from the economic and political cultures of precolonial Africa. All over the continent today, the state and her economy are hyper-centralized because they were carried over unmodified from the hyper-centralization of the political and economic structures of the colonial state. We are all familiar with the consequences of the hyper-centralization of political and economic power at the centre all over the continent. It foreclosed the possibility of good governance and genuine democracy and facilitated the emergence of authoritarianism, supervised by the big man and his cronies.
Because the big man’s cronies are almost always from his ethnic neck of the woods, tribalism enters the picture as the handmaiden of political and economic hyper-centralization. This has particularly been the case in much of Francophone Africa’s postcolonial history, a period bloodied by the Father of the Nation and his single party monolithism. This spectre of hyper-centralized authoritarianism haunted the Francophone African novel of the 1970s and the 1980s with novelists like Alioum Fantoure, Williams Sassine, Henri Lopes, Aminata Sow Fall, and Sony Labou Tansi leading the guard in the production of dictatorship novels. Wole Soyinka would respond in Anglophone Africa with A Play of Giants.
What sort of political and economic cultures did Africa evolve before the moment of colonial truncation? The case of the Igbo in eastern Nigeria is too well known to bear repeating here. Those of you who don’t know Igbo republicanism in real life have encountered it in the political life of the six villages making up Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Gyekye has also explored what he describes as “consensual democracy” among the Ashanti and other ethnic groups in precolonial Ghana. I will therefore illustrate this part of my submissions with the precolonial political and economic cultures of my own people: the Okun people in the present Kogi state in Nigeria. Okun land is made up of a number of major towns around which gravitated hamlets and villages. Some of the major towns include Kabba, Mopa, Egbe, and my own Isanlu. Although the major traditional ruling stool was located in Isanlu, all the satellite villages and hamlets also had their own stools which related in a traditional confederal fashion with the central stool in Isanlu.
Complementing this political confederacy was the fact that all the villages were economically autonomous and had their own independent markets and other economic structures. Colonialism destroyed this intricately decentralized political and economic culture and replaced it with the model with which we are all familiar. The postcolonial state completed the rout of Okun political and economic confederacy. Isanlu and all the adjoining villages and hamlets now had to start looking up to the local government, the state government, and the Federal government in that order. I don’t believe that we need to rehash the consequences of the collapse of the culture of confederacy and consensual democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere around the continent.
What needs to detain us here is the price that the continent continues to pay by stubbornly holding on to the machineries and institutions of political and economic centralization inherited from the colonial state instead of retracing her steps back to the precolonial cultural template in order to adapt, modify, and modernize it for contemporary usage. The first and perhaps most significant casualty of political and economic centralization is African innovation. The contest for resources at the centre has stunted African innovation because we have evolved a culture in which an entire nation is fixated on just that one source of prebendal patronage. A rapacious political elite very often enlists the help of a confused intellectual class to think and theorize programs aimed at the consolidation of the current arrangement. For instance, Nigeria’s erstwhile military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, was notorious for his generous use of Professors to theorize and legitimize his policies.
Yet, recent developments in the continent point to the continued relevance of culture to any idea of renaissance and innovation. It is no longer a secret that Nigeria recently rebased her economy and announced her new status as the Africa’s largest economy, a distinction which promptly earned her the hosting rights for the recently-concluded World Economic Forum Africa (WEFA). I am a man with an ear to the ground here in South Africa so I was made to understand that the news of being overtaken by Nigeria – with her pre-medieval infrastructure and epileptic power supply – was considered a huge joke in this country. I am told that you received that news like a rude slap in the face. You are not alone. Those of us who are consistent critics of the Nigerian establishment also took the same tack. However, reality is reality: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and culture played a significant role in the attainment of that feat.
What went into Nigeria’s rebased economy were the IT revolution and the cultural innovation represented by Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry. Just two decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, the party scene, the dance floor scene, in this continent was dominated by American rap and R & B. On University campuses all over the continent, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, R Kelly, 112, Next, Changing Faces, Joe, and Boyz II Men reigned supreme. I particularly liked rocking in the nightclubs to the tune of 112’s “Only You”. Some of you may remember the lyrics. Sing along with me if you do:
Ohhhh I, need to know, where we stand
Do we share this special thing called love *
I know I do, what about you
I just can’t get enough of your love *
I need you in my life
Where do we go, what do I do
I can’t live without your love
Thinkin of you * makes me feel
Like I’m the only one for you
And how about this one from Boyz II Men? I am sure you still remember? Let me hear you:
Although we’ve come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
Come to the End of the Road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
These are great memories of the ancient times of the 1990s on the dance floors of Africa. Today, there has been a cultural revolution on dance floors and party halls across Africa. Whether you are in Belle Aroma night club where I unwind most weekends in Accra or you are checking out Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Monrovia, or Cotonou by night, the new cultural gospel is called azonto, skelewu, eminado, and dorobucci. Let me treat you to a youtube clip of dorobucci so you can have a taste of what we are talking about. Ladies and gentlemen, these Anglophone African musical styles, along with Francophone African offerings such as “couper decaler”, “mapouka”, and “sagacite”, have checkmated American musical imperialism on the African dance floor. And this cultural revolution has had such a seismic consequence in the arena of political economy that Nigeria quite almost literally danced her way to the top spot as Africa’s largest economy. I guess you can tell from my familiarity with the latest grooves from the nightclubs of the capital cities of the continent that some of us are deconstructing and funkifying the image of the Professor.
There are two lessons to be drawn from these scenarios. Culture is where Africa was written out of modernity; culture is where her development, genius, and innovative spirit were discounted. Culture is where her path to self- recovery is located. Cultural innovation is where Nigeria came into its own as Africa’s largest economy and also joined Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey in the MINT economies. Nigeria has no infrastructure fit for the 19th century, she can hardly generate a week’s supply of electricity, and corruption is stratospheric. Yet, cultural innovation intervened and saved Nigeria’s behind when it mattered most.
Secondly, you are nothing if you cannot even own and narrate your own problems. You are nothingif you are a fringe player in the global theatre of naming and ascription. Those who name your problems for you will prescribe neoliberal solutions that fly in the face of your realities. As we have seen, the instruments for a global narrativizing of what constitutes African problems are cultural: social media – that is, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Myspace etcetera; and, of course, print and broadcast media.. Problems are essentially African and not human problems because global culture names them so. It does not mean that Africa does not have and suffer disproportionally from the said problems.
However, losing the means to own, narrativize, and engage your problems on your own terms is a double jeopardy. I am also not proposing Africa’s isolation from the arena of bilateral and multilateral solutions to problems in this age of globalization and inter-dependence. Solutions would be skewed if problems are owned, narrativized, and skewed on your behalf. It is only through a conscious ‘re-basing’ of culture, that is, a re-creation and owning of culture in the 21st century that Africa will be able to identify, name, and engage her own problems on her own terms.