By Baba Galleh Jallow
With the exception of Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent Liberia, all African countries are creations of colonialism. And they are creations for which little planning was done, except in the imperial and boardrooms and champers of Europe. Both during and after the Berlin Conference of 1884 – 1885, European imperialism haphazardly partitioned the African land mass into a series of what were clearly seen as extractive conclaves for the sake of Empire. Parcels of territory were grabbed and mutually assured boundaries that had no historical precedents imposed, cutting apart indigenous political, social and ethnic formations regardless of the consequences for the affected communities. These African colonies, as they were called, were extensions of colonial metropoles to which the “rule of colonial difference” was applied: Rights and privileges enjoyed by citizens of the colonizing countries were denied the people of the colonies, who were regarded as subjects of Empire. Unlikely political creatures, African colonies nevertheless struggled for and attained independence in the decades following the end of the Second World War.
But African independence did not bring the benefits that nationalist leaders promised their followers – the mass of ordinary Africans who voted for independence, or in some cases, shed blood for independence. Over sixty years since Ghana’s independence in 1957, the great majority of African countries remain mired in poverty and underdevelopment and actual or latent conflict. Poverty has been growing worse on the continent since independence even as goods get more expensive and services in many areas of national life poorer. The introduction of life presidencies and the one-party state from the 1960s triggered a hydra-headed epidemic of inept and kleptocratic civilian governments, military coups and tin pot dictatorships that have kept reproducing themselves to this day. Where “democratic” civilian rule existed, it was democratic rule of the sort in which the incumbent always wins elections and in which the voters vote on anything but policy. In these “democracies” and other less “democratic” countries, governments have repeatedly failed to actualize the promises of independence.
The unlikely but thought-provoking suggestion is often made that some African countries were better off at independence than they are now. At independence, African countries certainly did not carry the mountains of debt they have today and there were not so many conflicts and so much abject poverty on the continent. Times have certainly changed since independence, but African governments have not been able to adapt to the challenges that come with changing times largely because the pool of national creativity from which they could draw remains severely limited by a politics of exclusion and an obsession with perpetually enjoying more than a piece of the mythical “national cake” that everyone knows about but only a few ever see.
African countries’ incapacity to overcome the challenges of independent nation-statehood could be attributed to any number of reasons, including formidable extraneous factors beyond African control. But one reason that is crucially important but often overlooked is the repeated failure by African governments to fulfil their promises of freedom, equality and empowerment to their citizens. On the campaign trail for independence, African nationalist leaders made beautiful promises of a free and empowered citizenry that would take its destiny in its own hands and develop its country to the highest possible standards of peace and prosperity. The imagined vista of independence was a large, vibrant space of liberated, happy and industrious peoples making great strides towards the fulfilment of their day to day needs without fear or favor, affection or ill will. Immediately after independence however, the idea of an empowered citizenry and all related promises lost their appeal to the new governments and their successors. Increasingly, the creative politics of liberty and popular empowerment that nationalist leaders promised to practice after independence was relegated to the background as the new leaders rapidly developed a sweet tooth for power, a penchant for self-glorifying spectacles, and unrestrained access to the so-called “national cake.”
In essence, the new postcolonial governments started doing exactly the opposite of everything they had promised to do after independence. Where they had bitterly ranted against the colonial exceptionalism that Africans were incapable of practicing democracy and properly ruling themselves, the new African governments now adopted the neo-exceptional position that democracy was not suitable for Africa. They got heads nodding to that or simply indifferent to it in the West, and so even made philosophies of it with which they ceaselessly harangued their local audiences, often to the sounds of rapturous applause, drumming and dancing. The rights and freedoms for which Africans voted or fought for were now branded damaging vestiges of imperialism and neocolonialism and ruthlessly trampled upon by the new governments. The fact that the great majority of Africans saw nothing wrong with these neo-exceptional tactics at self-perpetuation and despotism only encouraged a strange “new Africanitè” that now agreed with all that the former colonial powers said Africa was, including the practice of holding cow tails and wearing leopard skins on public occasions to demonstrate just how African they were.
The most popular bogey of African political neo-exceptionalism was “the security of the state” in whose name the freedoms of the people were progressively expropriated and curtailed, often using colonial era laws and tactics. Life presidencies were declared, one party states imposed, military coups committed, and civil wars ignited as a hostile politics of exclusion and repression mushroomed around the continent. The sociopolitical and economic environment in each country rapidly grew moribund as the creativity, innovation, and mental energies of the people were squeezed out of action by the new governments. Where a million heads were needed to do the work of independent nationhood, only a few dozen heads were allowed to participate, and those only that agreed with whatever the leaders said and wanted done. The promise of true freedom suffered a stillbirth in independent Africa, and with it, all true potential for meaningful human progress. And so today, sixty years later, the potentially richest continent in the world kneels prostrate, tired and dusty at the bottom of the world’s poverty index, still the object of Western and more recently, Eastern pity.
But however bleak postcolonial Africa’s developmental trajectory has been, one dares to hope that the continent’s socio-economic and political trajectories may effectively be reversed by a practice of creative politics – the politics that was promised at independence but never delivered: a politics capable of identifying and defining the challenges cropping up in a country and implementing the practical solutions required to overcome them; a politics that recognizes that development simply means the capacity to rise up to, adapt, and overcome the challenges that emerge in our national environments. It is not some strange and incomprehensible mystery to be solved in policy papers and conference halls. It is simply a society’s capacity to address and solve most of the basic problems that confront it on a daily basis – such as street potholes, water shortages, poor health facilities, perennial power outages, rising youth unemployment and inadequate roads. Development manifests as practical improvements in the lives of the people brought about by the people’s own creative energies enhanced by the state.
The key challenge that African governments have consistently failed to meet is to enable the whole society, or large segments of it, to think and act in innovative ways that would transform both their individual lives and society at large. This can only happen when citizens are practically empowered, and their power to freely think, act and innovate is deliberately nurtured and supported. But as some writers on the subject of creative politics and leadership put it, “the truth is that unleashing the power of the masses to act on their own ideas is deeply troubling” to governments, especially African governments. It should not be. A government should be willing to enhance the capacity of the people – all of the people – to manifest their creative energies in all possible ways, including in ways that would ensure state accountability to nation and in ways that enhance peace, order, and sustained social growth and productivity. This simply means that there must be a deliberate policy and practice of literally investing in Africa’s most important and ironically most neglected resources – its people, especially its young people who may be put to gainful employment with some thoughtful reordering of funding priorities in national budgets.
The practice of creative politics means where thousands of young people were without employment yesterday, they would be gainfully employed today; that where we had massive potholes and mini lakes on our streets yesterday, there would be paved streets today; that where there was a lack yesterday, there would be availability today; and that, among many other things, where our service delivery was poor yesterday, it would be excellent today. It also means all hands and minds on deck, regardless of partisan political or other divisive reasons for exclusion from the national effort. In the practice of creative politics, genius is recognized, supported and rewarded with the capacity to constructively contribute to national welfare. Every citizen having good ideas on how to improve the living conditions of the people is encouraged and enabled to do so.
There is no doubt that creative politics may have to temper need with reality; but it may never be complacent in the face of a growing pile of unresolved challenges that keep getting more and more complicated, more and more energy-sapping, and more and more stifling of human dignity from day to day, year to year; much like our streets in the rainy season and the traffic nightmare we witness on our roads, among other normalized abnormalities we suffer on a daily basis. Creative politics must be able to deliver a society to the next level; always to the next level of a capacity to rise, adapt to, and overcome challenges in all spheres of its national environment. Creative politics must be able to generate noticeable and practical positive transformations in the lives of the people in a society. It must be able to generate and enact transformative processes that see societies successfully rising to and adapting to the challenges in their environment, overcoming them, and improving their lives and living conditions in the process.
In the final analysis, it is possible to reverse the debilitating trends of national incapacity by practicing a creative politics of enlightened liberty and constructive popular empowerment – the unfulfilled promise of African independence.