The quest for national Identity in Africa
Article by Peter Sunday
Some fifty years ago, in the sixties; the great era of African liberation arrived. Most African countries were granted autonomy from their colonial masters and became sovereign nations. There was great rejoicing and much hope for the future. Africa was now ready to take her place in the League of Nations. There was much optimism that the new African nations, having digested the heritage of their European colonialists, would develop at an even rate and at least be able to stand up to developed economies in the nearest future. A country like Nigeria was seen as a beacon of hope for the third world; a world that would become a respite from growing tensions in the tired economies of Europe in the future. The people braced themselves for the task ahead, numerous projects were embarked upon by the pioneer governments, and various political reforms were carried out. At first, everything looked good, the African economies managed to sustain stable economic development for a decade. Suddenly, there came a period of political crises, right from the late sixties to the later part of the century. For some countries, the crises started in the early seventies and escalated at the middle of the decade. There were civil uprisings, political reforms were overturned, and economies suffered huge depression. Inflation soared at an alarming rate and sub-Saharan Africa was thrown into a serious economic crisis that she has never recovered from. Since then, it had been a story of economic recession or redundancy, except for South Africa. It was as if the retreating colonialists had set a time bomb that was detonated in the seventies, and it’s chain reactions still manifesting in the 21st century. By then, the once tired economies of Europe and North America’s easy going economy were light years ahead, while that of the East Asian nations, whom the Africans thought were no better, were already far ahead. It became a sad reality to the world that Africa has been automatically left out in the scheme of things on the globe and it was going to take a frantic effort for her to recover and become a player, that’s if the world is not playing a different game entirely by that time. Of course, the rest of the world tried in their best capacity to rescue Africa. There have been several attempts at salvaging the struggling economies of sub Saharan Africa, with the developed nations, always playing their big brother roles. It seems that by the end of the last century, it was clear to them that there was little or nothing they could do, except to benefit more from Africa’s predicament. By this time, the Africans themselves had awakened to the reality that if they don’t help themselves, no one will. Several questions have been asked about why the much promising African states failed despite the efforts of their pioneer leaders. Though, we have examples of struggling economies all around the world, Africa’s case is quite unique, in that it is a crises that has engulfed an entire subcontinent. In the 21st century we have continuously seen African nations engulfed in crisis, either from ethnic and religious problems as is the case in Jos, Nigeria, or a stubborn dictatorship that refuses to accede to the demands of the people as in Zimbabwe and Cote-divoire, or even a complete breakdown of state institutions leading to anarchy as is the case in Somalia. There have been several suggestions regarding what can be done to save Africa from this mess. Many attempts have been made and they have either failed, or resulted into another crisis.
The question remains; why are African states unable to stabilise themselves and achieve meaningful development?
For us to satisfactorily answer this question we must look into the history of our identity as a people and do a proper analysis of our colonial legacy. To understand our problems we have to see Africa as a people and not as a geographical milieu.
According to the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, ‘man is a political animal and the state is the highest unit of humanity’
Wole Soyinka defines a Nation as a group of people bound together by a common ideology.
Therefore, we can fuse the two definitions above to explain the concept of a nation state. The state is artificial, created by political power whereas the nation is the people governed by the state. The state is political, the nation is ideological. For a state to function appropriately and not be seen as tyrannical, it must take its powers from the nation which is the people. In a situation whereby the state does not reflect anything that connotes a nation, then we have no Nation state and that is what is happening in Africa.
Before colonisation, there were institutions; political national entities with a long history of existence and association among themselves. These entities were nation states in the realistic sense of it. When the colonialists came, they destroyed these institutions and set up new, artificial ones. As usual with any occupational force, the Europeans were not really concerned with leaving behind an enduring political legacy; they were more concerned with getting access to the much needed resources. Besides, the idea the colonialists had of Africa was of a backward, primitive race, not naturally disposed to change. Yet our ancient history has proved this idea wrong. It has been confirmed from archaeology that Africans have built some of the grandest civilizations of ancient times. From Egypt to Timbuktu in Mali, from Zimbabwe to Meroe in Ethiopia, the relics of ancient African civilizations still stand today, yet oblivious to the ignorant minds of many Africans. Basil Davidson, in his book, ‘The black man’s burden, ’expresses the opinion of the colonialists in captain Burton’s words: ‘Not only had Africans failed to develop from primitive to less primitive, they have also reached a point of helplessness in which they would not do better if left to themselves.” This was in the early days of colonialism and I believe as time went on, the colonialists began to discover things that proved them wrong. In Sudan and Ethiopia, they discovered the ruins of ancient Cush. In Nigeria they discovered bronze and terracotta artefacts from the Ife, Benin and Nok cultures. Yet most of these glaring evidences of our past heritage were plundered and carried to European museums. The Europeans decided to further hide the truth of their heritage from the Africans by systematically weakening their political structures, which could have served as alternatives to the imperialism they perpetuated in Africa. Today, none of the ancient African nations still exists as a state with the exception of Ethiopia. What we have are artificial political entities, formed by weaving together of various human groups and lands based on some resource sharing agreement among European countries. In the Berlin conference of the 19th century, the geographical boundaries were set for all African countries based on their European administrators without regards for the people occupying these lands. Today, we have people of the same ethnic nationality on either sides of the border in many African countries. The group in one country may be English-speaking, while the group in the other country may be French-speaking, denying them of uniting with their brethren on the other side of the border. That is why it is easier for a young man to be loyal to his tribe than to be loyal to his country in most African countries. This is because the tribe is a natural entity, whereas people see their country as an artificial entity. That is why there is so much distrust between different ethnic groups in African countries.
Nevertheless, it is comfortable to blame the origin of the African Nation state problem on colonialism, but it becomes ridiculous for Africans to continue to blame the outcome of that problem on the problem itself. This is because history has provided ample opportunity for African leaders to provide solutions to this problem and yet they have wasted it, leading to the common cliché that the problem of Africa is leadership. Yes, I must agree, the problem right from the onset is not colonialism, but the ignorant selfishness of successive African leadership. Colonialism started in Africa in an era of intense social upheavals, when the tribal states rose up against one another and fought long, deadly wars like the Yoruba civil war that ended the Oyo Empire. The conflict situation provided the perfect scenario for slave trade and the Europeans willingly took the opportunity. This condition was not limited to Africa as the Europeans were just emerging from their own revolutions and Napoleonic wars which had led to the birth of many Nation states. The difference is that, while the Europeans were able to solve their problem and broker peace among themselves by themselves, the African states were not afforded that opportunity. A foreign power became involved and many tribes willingly accepted European support against opposing tribes. To me, this was the first mistake made by African leaders, leading to colonialism itself. The second mistake occurred in the years after the independence. As expected, the Europeans did not relinquish control of the African states without setting up a mechanism that would allow them to continue to have at least an indirect access to the resources of their former colonies. This they achieved by sowing seeds of distrust and creating a power imbalance in favour of elements that would co-operate with them. In Nigeria, which probably has the highest tribal diversity in Africa, the land was divided in such a way that political representation favoured the North, leading to 19 states in the North and 17 in the South today. The first generation of leaders were sincere initially in their quest for development. But the seeds of discord sown by the retreating Europeans soon started manifesting, feeding on the latent selfish interests harboured by the leaders from the beginning. In Nigeria, a regional, federal system was practiced and it was a success initially, until misplaced ambitions and mistrust caused the regional leaders to focus more on winning supremacy for their regions rather than National development. This eventually led to the civil war between 1967 and 1970. The regional system was good because it represents true federalism that enables each region to develop at its own pace by its own resources. The subsequent takeover by the military in Nigeria brought an end to true federalism and entrenched corruption in the system because of the total reliance on oil. Now we have a situation in which the oil from the Niger delta is used to fund the pockets of some corrupt politicians in the North while the vast resources of the North remain under-utilized. Politicians and government officials do not need to embark on any meaningful developmental projects, they just need to have access to the money from this black gold and they continue to stay relevant by funding a network of patronage and sponsorships. That is the major way wealth is distributed in Nigeria, leading to a wide gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unemployment in Nigeria is skyrocketing; the power sector is in decay while transportation has become an arduous, hazardous exercise in the country. The same trend has occurred in many other African countries although Ghana seemed set to retrace its steps.
Haven analysed the genesis of the problem, it is only natural to suggest solutions. It is obvious that the major crisis in Africa that has bred all other ugly problems is that the people seemed not to be represented by the government. Leaders prefer to loot the treasury and amass power to counter opposing forces than to develop the economy and provide better life for their people. The current system does not allow any kind of reform from the government. The only way that things can change is if the people are allowed to determine the basis of their own existence by themselves. As revolutions spread like wildfire across North Africa and the Middle East, there is a serious warning for African leaders; give back power to the people or else they revolt violently and stubbornly against you. It is time for independent referendums in African countries. In the 21st century, globalization has changed the way information is disseminated. Social media networks and cable channels have connected people across the world and Africans now know what is going on in other parts of the world, they have an idea of what it looks like to be free in a truly democratic country like USA or Brazil. Governments cannot continue to deceive their people; the people now have yearnings, yearnings for change. In Nigeria and other ethnically diverse countries, the fear of political leaders is that if freedom of expression is permitted too far, the country will disintegrate. This fear is understandable but not necessary because it is the people that should determine whether they want to be together and not the government who benefit from the state. Even when a country disintegrates, it may become beneficial to the people. In Sudan and Ethiopia, the splitting of the country has brought relative peace and stability to the region after decades of conflict. The absence of war does not indicate the presence of peace, lack of justice and freedom is a perfect recipe for a future disaster. Instead of silencing dissenting voices, what African governments should do is to organize sincere and effective referendums on basic issues like the unity of the country, the system of government, revenue sharing format, the role of the armed forces and so on. The referendum must be independent of government influence and the results must reflect the true desires and aspirations of the people. The results should not only be fair and true, but they must also be implemented, even if it means removing structures that had protected the leaders. Only then can we embark on any meaningful development and change the course of our history. If African leaders are sincere in their quest for a better life for their people, then they should yield to the voice of the people. The only alternative to this, I believe is a mass revolution by a people that must have been pushed to the wall. This is not a palatable option as we have seen the mayhem and loss of lives in North Africa and the Middle East in recent times. If we want to avoid violent revolution then we must make peaceful change, otherwise we are only postponing the evil day.
Peter Sunday was born as Ayodele Peter Arowosegbe in the mid-eighties in Southwest Nigeria. Growing up in a society that is always at conflict with itself, he developed a consciousness and imagination to express his ideas and perception of his environment. In 2006, he got a Diploma followed by a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Physics from Covenant University, one of the nation’s foremost religion-oriented universities. He is currently a journalist and a freelance writer of fiction. He lives in Akure, a quiet Southwest city close to Lagos. He hosts the blog Ideology’s corner: www.ideologyera.blogspot.com