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When Africa is actually a country

It is more helpful, more liberating, for Africans to see themselves from the vantage point of the pugilist on the other side—as a country
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In 2009, South African scholar and activist, Prof. Sean Jacobs of the New School in New York started the online publication Africa is a Country.  Since then, the periodical has grown by leaps and bounds into a major outlet for opinion, analyses, and new writing on and from what they describe as “the African left.” To its deserved credit, Africa is a Country’s publications offer revolutionary and innovative ways of analysing and thinking about Africa, focused on all aspects at the macro and micro levels.

But as a regular reader of the site’s publications for a long time now, I have not stopped mulling over the name of this site especially the point it sought to make through naming itself, “Africa is a country.” Not to be misunderstood for its clearly cheeky and satirical name, the periodical runs a kicker—some form of explainer—which could be read as epic satire: “Not a continent with 55 countries.”

I know, a rose would still smell the same even when it went by another name.  But surely, there is power in a name.  My first reflex to this name is that it was a slap back, ridicule to the scholarship—and especially Western media and travel writing—which tended (and perhaps continues) to treat the African continent as a single homogenous, both geographical and analytical space: one single country.  This slap-back, as I understood it, wasn’t necessarily in response to some explicit colonialist-orientalist portrayals as that which defined colonial literature during the colonial period (such as The Flame Trees of Thika or Heart of Darkness), or the equally disparaging, subtle, and sometimes mild derogatory encounters, newspaper and magazines stories and book titles—oftentimes, with evidence on Africa’s problems—(such as Robert Guest’s 2004 book, The Shackled Continent) which have continued being published to this day.

Indeed, sadly, despite being a continent renowned for its diversity 55 times (at least, going by the number of countries), a great deal of analyses, continued to talk about an Africa that was almost homogenous in all forms—histories, political practices, economies, and cultural traditions, etcetera.  Thus diversity, difference, and sometimes animosities, had all been reduced into one single homogenous entity.  Africa was the same from Cape Town in the South to Alexandria or Bossaso in the North, and from Mombasa in the East to Accra in the Ouest.  So, the often-repeated anecdote was that Euro-Americans continue to tell their African visitors about how they have friends on the continent (like it were a small village):

“You are Ugandan, oh, that is great, I have friends in Nigeria, maybe you might know them…”

It is not that these homogenising chronicles and encounters were in praise of African generosity, but rather an African collective backwardness.  Africans started fighting back—often satirically—and most memorably, Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write about Africa” went viral after its publication in 2005.  Four years later after Wainaina’s essay, a notable outlet, Africa is a Country, was born.

While I fully appreciate the urgency to push back on these caricatured, racialised, orientalised, and homogenising renderings of Africa, I wish Africans saw themselves as a country—and not necessarily as a diverse and differentiated continent.  My intention is not to aspire for a single language or currency, neither is it an aspiration for a singular leadership and ruler or emperor.  My aspiration is rather for a political-economic theoretical position that thrives on what I see as New Colonialism.  Africans ought to appreciate the reality that while we might be undeniably diverse and different, as a continent, we are still trapped in an existential power relation; a contest over our own resources with Euro-America—and Africa is seen and approached as a continent but with several disunited and confused small countries.  With this position, I want to challenge the African elite and politicians to see themselves, not with their own eyes, but with the same eyes through which their nemeses see them.  (This actually could have been Prof. Sean Jacobs’s original idea if the name and site were not read as satirical clap back). While I believe seeing Africa from African vantage points is an important methodological intervention, my position is that it is more helpful, more liberating, for Africans to see themselves from the vantage point of the pugilist on the other side—as a country.

From Berlin Conference to Washington Consensus (1884-1980)

If the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 met to divide the continent amongst European powers for extraction without fighting against each other, as they had been fighting during the slave trade, the 1980s meetings in Washington, which came up with the “Washington Consensus” were about extracting from the continent as one whole—without necessarily dividing it amongst the preying animals.  But while the approaches to extraction as agreed from these two meetings slightly over 100 years apart, extraction from Africa remains real, and perhaps even more perverse.  From the vantage point of the extractors, Africa is Africa—a singular space.  Even when the modes of extraction are diametrically different as is the case with almost continued direct control in West Africa through the CFC, on the one hand, and direct violence and bribery in DRC and South Sudan on the other, Africa remains a singular jungle to Euro-America—and the jungle has to be exploited by those living in the garden.

While emphasising our diversity and difference (which is undeniable), however, we have tended to use the colonial-given borders as the beginning point: these have not only become borders of nationalist pride and identity (calling ourselves Ugandans, Rwandans, or Nigerians) but have also become securitised and distinct markers of difference.  “Securing the borders” is spoken about as a matter of national security, and pride, and from these, more paraphernalia such as national IDs and Passports and border crossing police and dues have become entire departments and institutions.  From there, these borders then become methodologies of generating discourse.  So, for example, one country is seen as democratic and another as autocratic, and the discussion might focus on this singular country’s democratic/autocratic credentials in comparison to another.  It is my contention that keeping countries proud of their distinctive markers especially defined through the borders is one of the ways of being controlled by the international regime of capitalist exploitation. It is the benign version of divide and conquer, which has, ironically, become a loved part of African identity—whilst a core component of collective weakness.

In effect, what the securitization and the newly found joys and institutions of nationalist pride in the borders took away from us is the solidity to fight as a singular block—seeing ourselves as blessed and favoured “single country” the way the new coloniser sees us.   Take for example, when the Washington Consensus was being pushed onto the African continent, several economists and ministers of finance and trade on the African continent rightly rejected them in meetings held in Addis Ababa, Accra, and Europe.  Most countries in East Asia simply rejected them solidly and would not budge whatever the circumstances.  But for Africa, the IMF and the WB put individual countries under immense stress and harassed them independently.  They demanded that to qualify for aid and other grants from the WB, countries had to have a certificate of compliance from the IMF indicating that they were implementing privatisation. Something remarkable happened in East Asia that these countries collectively rejected structural adjustment. There is not enough evidence as to why even when approached individually, East Asian economies refused to oblige. In Africa, for example, countries such as Libya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia refused to open up their economies to foreign players.  For a long time, these countries had to brave hostility from the Western world of corporations. It took years for Ethiopia to budge, and under the Meles Zenawi presidency, Ethiopia remained protected from the scourge of privatisation. I have noted elsewhere that Zenawi spoke for the continent that was not willing to listen).  Libya finally crumbled under the weight of hostility; Eritrea still lives under sanctions; and Ethiopia is holding on.  I have it on good authority, that Ethiopia almost got ruined recently by a markets-fuelled war exploiting local ethnic cleavages.

Sadly, for most parts of the continent, the ruins were meticulous and deliberate. Political economist Jörg Wiegratz has shown in his book, IMF auditors were under explicit instructions to forge accountabilities to show that state-run parastatals were not profitable. I recently listened to a story from one of the attendees of an OAU ministers of finance meetings in Addis in the early 1990s that after the Ghana Minister of Finance had meticulously articulated his resistance to privatisation, he then remarked that he had to balance the books of his country and was going to painfully budge to privatisation. The ruins are still new and continue to deepen every single day.

Drinking Africa in one gulp

The images of African presidents being bussed around in the UK at the funeral of their colonising queen, Elizabeth II have never left me. It seemed these African leaders made peace with their colonisers so quickly, even when the ruins of colonialism are still in their midst.  Nor the images of the same African leaders in Washington during the “Africa Puppets summit of 2022,” as Ugandan activist Mary Serumaga described it.  There is very little respect for these folks from the African continent (because many of them are modern-day compradors presiding over their own countries on behalf of London, Paris, or Washington).  Like school children, they could be bussed around from one corner of London to another.  They do not need specialised security or red carpets.  And since they come from the same continent, they are assumed—and they never refute this—to represent a singular set of interests, and can therefore meet and discuss these interests in one single village meeting, normally called a “summit” without clear interests defined, except extracting from the periphery to the centre. Thus, Euro-America sees the continent as one single geography and intellectual space. Just as old-school 1800 colonialism did.

However, it is important to stress that while these events I have cited above often ignominiously bring all African leaders together and treat them as coming from a singular homogenous space, the magic of looting the continent is not in approach, but rather a design (of the template).  Here, a singular policy designed in Washington or Paris—such as what came to be called the Washington Consensus in 1989 or what Guillaume Blanc has termed Green Colonialism—is designed and to be applied to all of Africa at once.  But because Africa is diverse—yes, here it becomes important to acknowledge diversity and difference—the policy is adapted, packaged, and applied differently in these “diverse” and “different” countries. This diversity and difference in packaging and application is informed by many factors ranging from (a) servility and greed of the leaders in charge of the targeted country—the greedier, easier, and simple packaging of the policy; (b) the confidence and legitimacy of leaders especially in terms of their connections with the governed. If the leader is confident enough, before him, the approach is different. It has to be more measured, detailed and technocratized.  In the face of insecure leaders who solely depend on serving Western interests for their presidencies, the approach and vulgarity of application might be even open and deeper.  No need for much discretion. Other reasons for the difference in approach and packaging are (c) the nature of government: for fully-fledged capitalist democracies (meaning, leaders are periodically changed through elections) such as South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, or Zambia, the application is different from autocratic-democracies such Uganda, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, which organise elections but return the incumbent as president at every round.  Under almost one-party states such as Tanzania, the policies would follow a different methodology.  For others, the same policies are best applied and secured under conditions of violence such as the extraction in DRC, South Sudan, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, and currently, Libya. In all these cases, Africa is subjected to a singular extractive machine, only applied and packaged differently.

Interestingly, these different approaches and packaging in application—of the same extractive policies—actually bamboozle both the discourse-makers and the political elite. Thus, endless chronicles, indices, and ethnographies are produced theorising and celebrating these differences. In effect, emphasizing the uniqueness of these 55 countries blurs the non-exclusiveness of the extractive policies pushed by Euro-America. This explains why almost all countries on the African continent, from so-called full democracies (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, etc.), semi-democracies (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda), autocracies (Eritrea, Sudan, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) and almost-failed states (South Sudan, Somalia, CAR, etc.) with minimal variations, are afflicted by the same problems: poverty, high unemployment rates, inflation, profit repatriation, debt crises, etcetera.  At the end of the day, these problems actually blur any claims of uniqueness and diversity to the point that even these countries get ranked at almost the same levels on the indicators of growth. (Doesn’t this explain why for 27 countries on the African continent, applicants for the United Kingdom visa have to have their passports shipped to South Africa for processing? For the UK, at least these 27 countries have the same significance in their worldview).

My intention is not to downplay the diversity and uniqueness of the African continent. In fact, this (mostly cultural and geographical) uniqueness is important in understanding each other.  My contention is simply that (a) seen from the vantage point of the coloniser, Africa is seen as one single item of prey, and emphasis on diversity is good for the ways in which it enables extraction, and disables collective resistance, and (b) for efforts towards a better understanding of the task ahead and fighting back—in the spirit of the Bandung Conference of 1955—Africans will have to adjust their spectacles, and see themselves through the eyes the new colonisers. While acknowledging their difference and diversity—sadly, often built around the colonial borders—they might have to see themselves as a single beautiful belle coveted by a single monster that deftly uses its many heads to eat away the different body parts—because these body parts insist they are different and unique.

 

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