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Africa: Are we going nowhere very fast?

It looks like a truism that Africa exists in world history as a ‘thing’ that has never acted on its own but has always been acted upon by global powers
Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meet to discuss the political situation in Niger, in Abuja, Nigeria, on August 10, 2023

Many decades after African countries, one after another, achieved political independence from administrative colonialism, Africa has failed to shake off its captivity to coloniality: the enduring systemic and structural control of African economies, polities, academies, and cultural landscapes by the Euro-America empire. The few African liberation movements that remain in power and the former opposition political parties that have assumed state power have failed to liberate the continent. Historical narratives of the liberation struggle against colonialism and the glorious biographies of gallant liberation leaders, the valiant founding fathers, no longer appeal to the African youths who have lost political patience and want liberation here and now. The challenge ahead of Africans is to cultivate leadership that can successfully confront coloniality and set Africa up on a path towards true liberation.

The African condition of coloniality

Today, it looks like a truism that Africa exists in world history as a ‘thing’ that has never acted on its own but has always been acted upon by global powers. It might be true that Africa is more of an artefact of world history driven by the empire than it is a continent of its own history and agency. Some cynical historians have even argued that what Africa has is not its own history but the history of Europe imposed upon it. It is no accident that African history is punctuated with colonialism. As such, it is described in terms of precolonial Africa, colonial Africa, and post-colonial Africa. African time and life were captured by the colonial system to the extent that the history of the continent has colonialism as its unique analytical framework.

Not only was African history sliced up and named after colonialism, but also the geography of the continent. Like a cake, Africa was sliced up by the European powers (in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85) into portions of geographic spaces that have continued to be mapped and bordered that way to date. Like in Berlin, the continent and its natural resources remain on the menu of Western powers.

Decolonial thinkers such as Professor Everisto Benyera of the University of South Africa believe that Africa is still being parcelled out amongst Western powers today and being consumed metaphorically and materially. The natural resources of the continent, such as raw materials and the cheap labour, as it was in plantation slavery, are being siphoned to the West and to the new emerging powers from the East. The powers that be, from the West and the East, see in Africa a pile of resources populated by some human objects to be managed, if not disposed of. Africans have circulated in world history and world geography as exploitable and dispensable beings who are in reality refugees even in their own continent.

That Africa is an object rather than a subject of world history and world geopolitics is an observation that we can respect even if it may not be easily acceptable to our Afrocentric pride as Africans of political consciousness and decolonial sensibility. The objectification of Africa and the dehumanisation of Africans are not new at all. However, defending Africa and being African have, over the centuries, come naturally to African intellectuals; it may be considered an essential part of being African and decolonial. It is, therefore, natural to defend the existence of Africa and the full humanity of Africans as legitimate citizens of the world.

The continental question

Because of coloniality, Africa is yet to take its place as a power in the world, as Africans are yet to assert their humanity and citizenship of the world. What I call the continental question is beyond uniting African countries under the emblem of being and belonging to one continent, which is the Pan-African ideal. Before the Pan-African ideal, the African continent was defined by two stubborn political and philosophical dilemmas that have become what Ali Mazrui called the ‘African condition’ within the world system. The first of these is that Africa is the richest continent in natural and human resources, but that bounty of wealth has never translated to the prosperity of Africans.

The second philosophical and political dilemma is that the many long and bloody African struggles for liberation from colonialism only achieved political independence, new colourful flags, melodious national anthems, and black African leaders, but not true liberation.

Political independence from colonialism as a false start in Africa remains palpable. Such African countries as South Africa even achieved world-celebrated constitutions and constitutionalism, and robust multi-party and parliamentary democracy but never arrived at what can be named and experienced as liberation. The South African constitutional and democratic experiment that was celebrated as a miracle in 1994 has, after almost four decades of the political independence of the country, failed to solve the problem of apartheid-instituted social inequality and the economic unfreedom of the majority of its people. The South African case is only a vivid synecdoche of all African countries that remain trapped in power relations and human socialities and economic structures that were shaped by colonialism. While the sense in the view by many Africans to stop blaming colonialism for their problems must be acknowledged, it must also be recognised that Africa has continued to suffer from colonialism, systemically and structurally.

Africa’s failed transitions

In his inaugural professorial lecture at the University of South Africa in December 2023, the professor of African politics, Everisto Benyera, described the African condition as a condition of ‘troubled transitions’ where the continent is ‘going nowhere very fast.’ Benyera began his lecture by professing the importance of reading world politics through African lens based on the African historical experience, which is on its own a decolonial political attitude. To Benyera, what appeared as the transition of Africa from colonialism to political independence was a troubling shift from systemic and juridical colonialism to structural coloniality that remains alive and well in a continent that does not fully govern its affairs but is managed as a political and economic periphery by the Euro-American centre.

The imposition of the free market economy on Africa based on the Washington Consensus that is enforced by the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) has kept Africa in financial subjection to the West and fortified coloniality. In other words, Benyera highlighted the African historical paradox where political independence from colonialism did not lead to liberation in Africa, as Africans cannot be free without economic freedom.

That Africa continues to be defined by lacks and deficits is a reality that Benyera decried because “along its history, Africa is presented as having lacked history, independence, democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, credible elections, and even table manners.” Africa as lacking, deficit, and vacant is a forceful colonial metaphor that has been used to justify the subjection of the continent that continues to be infantilised in the world system and, as such, needs the care and the control of adults from the West and the East of the world.  Benyera concluded that as what remains a Western economic and political sphere of influence, Africa has not transitioned at all but remains stagnant, and seems to be ‘going nowhere very fast.’

Troubled attempts at transitioning Africa

Africans have experimented with a number of attempts at transitioning the continent from subjection to liberation, but these have thus far proven to be limited and limiting to the continent’s progress. Benyera counted the African experiments with multipartyism, one-party states, life presidencies, family dynasties, and military coups d’état.  These experiments have proven to be part of the problem of the troubling African condition rather than any solution. The experiment with democratic elections, for instance, has several times become a cause of conflict rather than a solution to it in Africa, where almost every election produces disputed results and illegitimate leadership. Most civil wars that erupt in Africa are connected to disputed election results and problematic presidential successions.

The military coup seems to be in return as a mode of negotiating power in Africa. The coups that have paradoxically become popular and are celebrated by African masses are, lately, led by young, well-read and articulate soldiers who claim to be defending national constitutions from tyrants that continue to work with former colonisers in keeping African countries in economic and political subjection. Not in so many words, the soldiers are claiming to be revolutionaries who have come to finish the unfinished assignment of liberating African countries from coloniality and the tyranny and corruption of tired liberation movements.

The fact that civilian regimes have failed to be the custodians of constitutionalism, champions of democracy and liberators shows that the African condition remains a troubling one. African thinkers and political activists who can think and act Africa out of its troubling condition towards liberation are urgently needed. These are political activists, thinkers, and leaders that Max Weber described as passionate individuals who are called to politics as a vocation and not a profitable profession. Only then can Africa ‘go somewhere very fast.’ As the world is getting enveloped in wars, and civilisational and geopolitical conflicts that spell a dark future for life on earth, convincing answers are needed for the destiny-defining questions that confront the continent. Out of their youths, African countries should grow, cultivate and irrigate leaders who would guide more than command Africans, and that would put decolonising the polities and the economies of the continent at the forefront of their political agendas.


(This article is derived from the writer’s response to an Inaugural Lecture by Everisto Benyera, Professor of African Politics at the University of South Africa (UNISA)

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