Most African political commentators wonder why the African state has continued to pander to external interests rather than serve the interests of Africans. It is apparent that aid is central to the calculations of African leaders as they choose the benefactors rather than their people – African (in)dependence. However, it seems that the leaders also find themselves in this straight jacket that they can’t seem to get out of. In other words, the oft-said false start in Africa since the 1960s has to do with a single fact: the decision by different nationalist leaders to “experiment” by importing foreign governance models.
In Western Africa, Nkrumah and Sekou Toure experimented with “scientific socialism.” In Lusophone Africa, Samora Machel and his comrades tried out its variant, Leninism. Kenya and other “capitalist” states claimed to practice liberal democracy that was neither liberal nor democratic. Only Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania attempted to mix socialism with organic aspects of traditional society, something he called “communalism.” All these attempts would succumb to liberalism (economic and political) at the end of the cold war with the West’s triumph. Since then, African leaders, under the pressure of western powers, committed Africa to liberal democracy – and economy – without ordinary Africans themselves committing to it. Just like the nationalist leaders before them, most of the leaders that emerged after the end of the cold failed to realise that their mission was to transform from a colonial to a sovereign state. Had they realised what their mission was, they would have addressed both the political and economic questions while preserving the African way of life and its value systems. And there are compelling reasons why this was – and still is – crucial.
First, the objective of every sovereign state is to preserve the way of life of the people it governs. For instance, western political thought traces itself to Greek civilization and the emerging ideas of the prominence of the individual in society. “I think, therefore, I am,” reflects the view that left alone, the individual is capable of charting his own path with little to no support from the community. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s most famous words are her declaration that “there is no society, only individuals.” Thatcher’s ability to channel the aspirations of the people for their state shaped her place in history. The point being that the idea of individual freedom remains central to the political (liberal democracy) and economic (capitalism) organization of western societies. The system of governance in the west is crafted around preserving this way of life where the individual is supreme. Indeed, liberal democracy is a system of political organization where the individual is at liberty to do as they desire, express this desire as they so wish, and rely on a single vote as the only tool for the changes in society he or she would like to see. Similarly, the “invisible hand” of the market will determine the opportunities for socioeconomic mobility. At least, this is the theory because lobbyists, systematic racism, corruption, and nepotism often alter this aspiration for western society.
Institutionalizing the African way of life
For African states to become sovereign in their own right, they ought to preserve their people’s way of life, along with crafting a political and economic organization that reflects African value systems. In this regard, “I am because we are,” speaks to the significance of the community in the individual’s life as well as for the prominence of shared aspirations, and mutual support towards a common destiny. In other words, Africans recognize Ubuntu when they see it and encourage those who practice it while castigating those who lack it as having “lost their Africanness.” The vast majority of Africans recognize that they are “one” with their compatriots spread across the continent and insist that they share similar values along the lines, but this consciousness of being one people, hasn’t been matched with practical meaning. An identity at any level aims to offer security, in its different forms. Instead, the shared identity of a sense of Africanness has been hollow. The balloon has simply lacked the air to allow it to fly; a theory (Pan Africanism) without practice has translated into a plethora of vulnerabilities and generalized sense of insecurity that in some cases has led young people to risky adventures in the Mediterranean among other expressions of uncertainty.
Evidently, if the objective is to put into practice the theory, Africans ought to ask themselves: we are one people, so what? And how does being one people translate into improving the life of the African? Until recently, with the emerging pan-African initiatives addressing key challenges facing Africans, one would be hard pressed to find systematic approaches that answer this question, whether at the level of social organization of the ethnic group, the state, regional groupings, or even at the continental level. This is because Africans have so far failed to organise politically and economically in ways that reflect their value systems. This statecraft is the responsibility to society that African leaders have given up, a dereliction of duty that suggests treason, by mimicking foreign models of governance.
Secondly, the political and the economic questions are intertwined. Indeed, the harmful effects of Africa’s economic dependence include the external orientation of the state away from its people towards an external non-voting constituency. We all ought to agree that a state that serves foreign interests and is therefore externally accountable cannot by definition be a democracy for its people or a sovereign state in any meaningful way. Therefore, there cannot be any meaningful democratization or liberation struggle that does not address the issue of economic dependence.
Thirdly, Africa’s economic dependence alone could not have produced the stunted democracy observed throughout the continent without the existence of another form of dependence, which is intellectual. This intellectual dependence is a consequence of Africa’s loss of its cultural references as well as the rejection of its value systems (and by extension, its way of life) by both western and African (mis)educated intellectuals. The (mis)education and the subsequent acculturation of the African elite have led us to embrace alien patterns of thought and practice that still stand in the way of Africans’ aspirations for independence, economic prosperity, and genuine democracy. In other words, the decision to experiment with outside models has come at the cost of the very independence that Africans have struggled for and hampered any efforts to reorient the state towards serving the interests of its people and preserving their way of life.
That being said, the emerging geo-strategic environment provides an opportunity for African leaders to wean themselves from this arrangement. The American-Sino rivalry on the one hand and the war in Ukraine on the other constitute key factors that are shaping a new global order. As this shift takes place, it offers Africa an opportunity to “negotiate” a new arrangement that allows it also to make a strategic shift from the semi-independent status to claim sovereign rights – the promises not kept – that was supposed to have taken place half a century ago. But the independence that Africans need is not the kind that relies on alien models of governance, the false start that African leaders made. It is perhaps this display of lack of self-confidence that emboldened colonisers to the possibility that could feign departure but continue to dictate African matters remotely. The emasculated African leaders could therefore not be expected to deliver independence and found utility in sustaining rather than dismantling colonial institutions. This means that only the confident African leader will grasp the opportunity of a lifetime that the changing global environment provides. Such leaders would recognize central tenets in this reorganization.
One, a sovereign people have a way of life that they desire to preserve and perpetuate through future generations. Two, this way of life is theorized and codified into laws, institutions, and school curriculums.
Western political thought traces the evolution of aspirations for society from which the prevailing liberal order emanates. Sovereignty in the western world is understood as protecting this “way of life.” The rise of the Chinese is underpinned by the desire to preserve at home and export abroad the Confucian way of life. In fact, when Putin speaks about the current war in Ukraine the reference to the way of life of the Great Russia never escapes him. This begs the question: around what grand idea do Africans imagine the evolution of their societies such that any changes that take place in society as a result of engaging with the outside world leave intact the African way of life?
Ironically, Africans believe they are “one people” with the same value system – more or less. Normally, translating this consciousness into practice is the difficult task; however, for Africans it is a settled question. Its theory is “pan Africanism,” the idea that we can only succeed if we work collectively and support each other both at the national and continental levels: “I am because we are”. However, the rigor of this theory lies in its ability to drive solutions to common challenges, especially those of strategic importance to the African people. Ubuntu theory without Ubuntu practice has left a vacuum that has been filled by foreigners – Europeans, Americans, and most recently the Chinese – and this has in turn discredited the theory, even as Africans remain convinced that they are one and have shared aspirations for their “way of life.”
If liberal democracy speaks to the aspirations for democracy and freedom for the West, then practical pan-Africanism, the practice of Ubuntu values, speaks to the aspirations for democracy and freedom for the Africans. It follows that in both societies, the thought and practice would move along in tandem, with the latter getting inspiration from the former and for institutions, laws, and education to preserve this way of life. If Africans pursue democracy and sovereignty in the manner that the western way of life imagines them, it will get neither and the double consciousness will nurture a bipolar disorder in society. Indeed, such cognitive dissonance means crises of identity and leadership as well as perpetual instability. In other words, a replay of the last half century of “independence.”
Western practice cannot be imposed on African thought, especially in regard to how Africans conceive life and the aspirations they have given that conception. The mistakes Africa made when the world was searching for itself in the 1960s cannot be repeated now as the world searches for itself once again. Otherwise, future generations will not judge us kindly. But if genuine democracy and freedom – a project of a people’s way of life – are too valuable to come to the cowardly, then courage is the cost. Indeed, current tensions and violence in the global system suggest this to be a truism.