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Palestine and Africa’s political-intellectual quagmire

What we are witnessing in Palestine—in both Gazza and the West Bank—is a more contemporary replay of colonialism and its manifestations: apartheid, violence, ethnic cleansing, and genocide
(Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many lessons to take from the ongoing settler colonial violence in Palestine. One of these lessons—especially for the African intelligentsia and political elite—is the reiteration that the analytical anchors and conceptual tools we often deploy in understanding our political-economic reality—and setting our aspirations—are nothing but distractions from the reality of the limitlessness power of the extractive colonial machinery. Once again, it has been profoundly demonstrated that the current frames and language games in which we negotiate our politics and economics are distractions from raw power and violence of the so-called exemplars—the superpowers: concepts such as democracy, human rights, international law, and private property, endearing terms through which we have continued to discuss and imagine an Africa’s postcolonial present, and aspire for a “brighter future” have all been exposed as empty as Israel continues to pound Palestinians—people from whom they have slowly, steadily, violently, grabbed land for the last 75 years, and on whom they have imposed a system of apartheid for the last two decades.

What we are witnessing in Palestine—in both Gaza and the West Bank—is a more contemporary replay of colonialism and its manifestations: apartheid, violence, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Indeed, Jewish economic theorist, Karl Marx was right: historical events are bound to happen twice (Maybe, more times, actually!) The first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce. But this second (and subsequent) happening—as theorist Herbert Marcuse added—is often more frightening than the first. Israel in Palestine today is the British in Kenya, India, Zimbabwe/ Rhodesia, and several parts of the colonised world. Israel is the Germans in Namibia, the Boers and British in South Africa; French in Algeria and Haiti; the Belgians in Congo-Zaire, and the Portuguese and Spanish in Latin America. There was no social media then to relay these crimes in record time, but as scattered and censored records show, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder were the order of the day.

Even supposedly negative terms such as “fake news”, autocracy, and Africa’s “monsters” that are commonly used to describe the supposed failings of our leaderships have, once again, got exposed as useful and more valuable terms to the Western world, yet meaningless at the same time. Ironically, these terms—fake news, autocracy, violence, racism, dichotomies such as “us” and “them”—are on full display as the absolute ingredients of Euro-American moral locus and domination: “We are more important than them.”  “Our violence against them is justified, theirs against us is just evil.” This is the design of the so-called international law. As Siba Grovogui has written, the Europeans and Americans are the complete “sovereigns”, and there are some “quasi-sovereigns,” and then the lowest rung composed of Africans. This means, the lives of the quasi sovereigns and “the Africans” are useless, and their quasi-sovereign brethren cannot therefore own anything. What seems like their property—their land and gas and marine resources—are actually ours in the Western world and are free to take them whenever we feel like it. While I wrote about Africa’s coup-democracy dilemma, to underscore the meaninglessness of these language games and power-plays, journalist Richard Medhurst gave us a compelling analysis of how the scramble for resources (in the form of the proposed Ben Gurion canal) is driving a ‘textbook case of genocide’ in Gaza.

As we witness raw power at an industrial scale—war crimes, genocide, clan cleansing, apartheid—unfolding on our television and smart-phone screens, I cannot imagine how useless and helpless decolonial scholars, democracy activists, and human rights enthusiasts, among others, find themselves. I know, our silence is deafening. I cannot imagine the feeling of uselessness especially if one crafted their entire career imagining and pointing at the United States, or Western Europe (Germany, France, and the UK) as examples of these idealisms. It should be an even more disturbing feeling for beneficiaries of Western European “benevolence”—often in the form of project cash—to intellectualise and work to promote these idealisms. What appears true is that, with the interest to grab land or resources, all these idealisms are thrown out through the window. These idealisms are exactly and precisely, the ‘useful deception’ and liberal lullabies for Africa’s sprawling elite as their resources are quietly, methodically looted.

Our challenge

It should be disappointing that years after colonialism, we have failed to reclaim the agency to define notions that capture our reality:  Consider, for example, Ubuntu among the Bantu people; Xeer among the Somalis, or the Ummah in the Islamic tradition. These and many other useful concepts and systems of African humanity—and fair resource sharing and governance—remain secondary to the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a declaration, which is often shamelessly selectively applied (and oftentimes, completely discarded). While these home-grown notions have attracted some scholarship (most memorably, Uganda’s Dani Nabudere, Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey), they have remained largely marginal as driving notions of Africa’s postcolonial present. We still talk about Africa’s knowledge systems, philosophical traditions, notions of governance, and (herbal) medicine hypothetically—oftentimes, like beautiful museum pieces—without actually seeking to name them and integrate them into our daily political and economic ecosystems.

I have not stopped wondering why is it so absolutely necessary to change leaders periodically—so-called hallmark of democracy—instead of developing an intellectual and political infrastructure that ensures leaderships actually work for the people.  (By the way, despite being designed to benefit selfish interests, especially arms dealers and extractive capitalists, Europe and North America are run by non-changing structures. They may change presidents for the sake of public relations, but domestic and foreign policies remain unchanged).  Consider this puzzle as another example: How does the Islamic tradition manage to connect the Ummah, feeling each other’s pain including Muslims with whom they have no blood connections and have never, and may never meet? What sets of belief systems enable these connections and how can we harness some of these to ensure that our communities have different talking points—different from the democracy-chanting chorus—about building humane futures and political systems? What does Ubuntu mean for the economy; how does Ubuntu translate into a justice system? How does Islam imagine economies and economics; a banking regime, insurance, etcetera.

Navigating conscription

As a student of David Scott—Conscripts of Modernity—I am fully aware that we are conscripts to this continuing exploitative colonial modernity, where the reach of our imagination is already circumscribed. We are products of the colonial school, which is bent on simply keeping us in bondage. And since we are in the weaker positions—militarily, and financially—it might appear difficult to imagine ourselves dreaming and developing an entirely new language, and system of doing things. While I appreciate these constraining limits and conscription, it is my sobering contention that we have even failed to exploit the limited space available to exercise our agency. There is always legroom in these small spaces. Consider, for example, Rwanda’s decision to scrap all visa requirements for Africans entering Rwanda in 2018. Why haven’t all other African countries followed the example? (It should be shameful that Europeans and Americans enjoy relatively free travel across the African continent, while fellow Africans are systematically hindered from journeying across the continent). While I respect the ideas of nationalism and borders—often problematically articulated in the language of security—we ought to understand that it is our poverty (mostly, sadly, perpetrated by the Western world) that makes borders appear absolutely necessary. Borders in Europe are only enforced for poor countries within and outside Europe but are generally absent in the European world. Have we not seen ‘EU Passports Only’ or ‘Europe Residents’ signposts at airports and other border crossings indicating easier entry and exit for fellow Europeans!

Dear Africans, if it was not Iraq and Afghanistan to open our eyes; if the carpet bombing of Libya, Africa’s then richest and debt-free country—for democracy—which effectively turned it into a slave market; if the coup against a democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi didn’t open our eyes; then Palestine should awaken us from this deep slumber.  The language of democracy, or the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights (without anything universal about them) is not only alien, but outrightly insufficient to capture our collective humanity. They use these claims explicitly and shamelessly for their interests – and we are stupidly beholden to them. The so-called competitive democracy and multiparty politics will never answer our governance challenges unless we find a uniting thread—a common and resilient humanity that answers the question of why we need leadership in the first place. As we spend entire lifetimes building parties and competing against each other—to the point of killing each other for democracy—the coloniser is here exploiting these rifts for their own benefit. If we could learn anything from the ongoing Palestine ethnic cleansing and the intent to commit genocide expressed by the highest-ranking Israelis officials, it is that what constitutes international law is simply raw power (financial and military) and control over the media.

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