The African Union (AU) set a very ambitious theme for 2021: “The Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want.” If one did not know any better, they would be excited at such a bold, evocative and necessary theme being integrated into AU’s programme for the year. For the ingenous, we should not be talking about “building the Africa we want” nearly 65 years after the first independence moment in Africa—South of the Sahara. Instead, we should be furiously interrogating why, so many years later, the Africa we wanted at independence has not fully come into being. This is the real tragedy of our time.
After all, it was upon the very same basis that much of Africa’s liberation was fought. As Amilcar Cabral, the Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau revolutionary, accurately observed, from the subjectivity of the liberation struggle, “the [colonised] people are only able to create and develop the liberation movement because they keep their culture alive despite the continually organised repression of their cultural life, continuing to resist culturally, even when their political and military resistance is destroyed. It is cultural resistance which at any given moment can take on new forms – political, economic, military – to fight foreign domination.”
As neo-colonialism and westernisation ravage Africa, those who seek to build “the Africa we want” should clearly articulate what this means in real terms. Is it a call to wage a coordinated resistance to neo-colonialism and thus begin to assert Africa’s independence in the emerging new world order? Or this is, perhaps, another empty sloganeering that does not seek to fundamentally alter and improve Africa’s position in the world? If the former, then there are significant lessons to learn from the past, as ever.
Standing in imperialism’s way
“Imperialism is everywhere,” once said the Burkinabe revolutionary, Captain Thomas Sankara, adding, “through the culture that it spreads, through its misinformation, it gets us to think like it does, it gets us to submit to it, and to go with all its manoeuvres. For goodness’ sake, we must stand in imperialism’s way.” One of the major limitations of institutions such as the AU has been their failure to stand in imperialism’s way. Of course, what transpires at AU is, itself, an indication of the extent to which most African countries have become subordinate to imperial interests, perpetuating a neo-colonial model that continuously negates any shift towards real African independence. For Sankara, as an example, standing in ‘imperialism’s way’ meant that the Burkinabè imagination had to be challenged, and citizens must be encouraged and challenged to think everything anew. “As I’ve already told you,” Sankara said in one of his public addresses, “it [imperialism] will move on to a violent phase. It is imperialism that has organised troop landings in certain countries that we know. It is imperialism that has armed those who are killing our brothers in [apartheid] South Africa. It is imperialism that assassinated the [Patrice] Lumumbas, the [Amilcar] Cabrals and the [Kwame] Nkrumahs.”
The reference to Lumumba (Congo), Cabral (Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau) and Nkrumah (Ghana) is significant because of the link Sankara made between neo-colonialism and the fall of Lumumba’s government in 1960; Cabral’s assassination in 1973, two years before most Portuguese colonies won independence; and the 1966 coup plot against Kwame Nkrumah, which forced him into exile in Guinea.
Moise Tshombe’s secession in the Congo’s mineral-rich province of Katanga, supported by Belgium, France and the United States of America, shows how neo-colonial interests mobilised and amplified ethnic differences against one another with the aim of creating division. It was a clear case of the divide-and-rule tactics often deployed by colonialists. Lumumba was assassinated by his compatriots, who were assisted in capturing him by Belgium, France and the USA. Likewise, Cabral was assassinated by his own comrades because some in the party wanted to build a nation based on ethnic interests, while Cabral was nationalistic. In this case, too, the assassins were supported by the Portuguese. “For four years,” Cabral said, “one of the fundamental aims of the Portuguese has been to kill not only myself, but also other leaders of the party. Because they believe that if they kill me, it is finished for our fight.” And, the coup against Nkrumah was executed by Ghanaians with the support and backing of Western powers, the USA especially. After the coup, a memorandum addressed to the then USA president, Lyndon Johnson, stated: “the coup in Ghana is another example of a fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African. In reaction to his strongly pro-Communist leanings, the new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western.” Needless to say, most of the governments across Africa today are ‘pathetically pro-Western,’ having been whipped into line since independence.
Masses standing against imperialism?
Significantly, all these three major developments, which show the extent of neo-colonial intervention in parts of Africa, were met with muted reactions from the masses. It must be asked, therefore, why the masses in these countries did not rise and protest against Lumumba’s assassination in the Congo, Cabral’s assassination in Guinea or Nkrumah’s ouster in Ghana? Although Lumumba and Nkrumah had successfully managed to acquire state power and Cabral was also on the verge of doing the same, popular masses were still not organised independently, outside the state, for them to be able to exercise and express their power. Hence, once the state power was usurped through the removal of the popular leader, it proved difficult for the masses to lead an organised protest or resistance because the source of their power had become the state, not necessarily themselves. An example of a coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002, however, provides us with a counter-narrative to the fate that befell Cabral, Lumumba and Nkrumah, and illustrates the emancipatory potential held by masses who are independently organised outside the limitation of statist politics, through a popular leader.
On 11 April 2002, then Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, was ousted from power for 47 hours. Having been elected in 2000, Chavez was confronted with a strike called by the National Federation of Trade Unions (CTV). When the protests by the striking workers turned towards the presidential palace, Miraflores, the reactionary wing of the military, called for Chavez to resign, but he refused. However, the military went ahead and installed Pedro Carmona from the Venezuela Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecámaras), who immediately suspended the Constitution and dissolved both the Parliament and the Supreme Court. By the second day of the coup, however, as Carmona attempted to undo everything Chavez had put in place since coming into power, the progressive masses, certain trade unions, other movements and some elements within the military started fighting back against Carmona and demanded that he, in fact, resign. These groups organised protests outside the presidential palace. Soon, in the capital, Caracas, pro-Chavez supporters took over media outlets, eventually forcing Carmano to yield to pressure, especially after Chavez’s presidential guard at Miraflores took back command of the presidential palace and resigned, fleeing into exile. The main lesson here is that independently organised masses do not necessarily need state power behind them in order to become effective in resisting neo-colonialism – to make their own history, so to speak. It is the kind of independent support that Cabral, Lumumba, Nkrumah and Sankara (in 1987) lacked when they were confronted with neo-colonial threats to their power. For Sankara, his assassination and its aftermath were an overwhelming contradiction to the way he came into power.
Why did the masses in Burkina Faso not rise up in defence of the revolution on 15 October 1987 in the aftermath of Sankara’s assassination? There are many reasons, but primarily, there was a failure by Sankara – much like Nkrumah, and, to some extent, Cabral before him – to imagine and create forms of politics that did not rely on the appropriation of popular agency by the state – or a popular leader – in order to meet popular aspirations for freedom. The mere claim that Sankara derived his power from ‘popular masses’ was clearly not enough to protect him from neo-colonial machinations.
Africa, post-neocolonialism: Culture as the basis for Pan-Africanism
What Sankara inherited in August 1983, twenty-three years after independence, was a fragile neo-colonial state that could not be allowed by imperialist interests to set an example of what true independence means. Therefore, any attempt that was made to redeem Burkina Faso from the clutches of neo-colonialism was resisted by reactionaries, both local and foreign. Hence, the example of Burkina Faso and Sankara’s brief moment in power – between 1983 and 1987 – shows the limitations of the postcolonial state when politics with an emancipatory content are introduced but are not led by or founded upon independently organised popular organisations which resist local and foreign reaction by asserting their collective power outside the state. The tragedy of Sankara was the tragedy of all those attempts at revolution which occur before mass movements have had the opportunity to develop themselves independently of the state.
But can Africa rid itself of neo-colonialism without relying on state-driven interventions? Is the existence of independently organised masses sufficient? Yes, in an ideal world. At this juncture in African politics, it is nearly impossible to see how change can happen outside of the state. Hence, it is imperative that attention be directed at how the African state is organised and how it relates to others.
When then French president, Francois Mitterrand, visited Burkina Faso in November 1986, Sankara expressed his opposition to France’s imperialism. This included a protest against the supply of arms to Iraq during its war with Iran; France’s support of the occupation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic by Morocco; France’s military interventions in Chad, which saw at least 1,200 soldiers being permanently stationed there; and the April 1986 bombing of Libya through which France sought to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. Sankara also protested against the warm reception, in France, of Jonas Savimbi (an Angolan militant) and Pik Botha (one of the architects of apartheid in South Africa). Contrast this with the recent visit, to the continent, of current France president, Emmanuel Macron, and how he was well received by the countries he visited to fully understand the weaknesses and subservience of Africa to imperialism. Macron was received with pomp and fanfare despite the growing concerns about the role France is playing in the political and economic instability of countries such as Mali and Mozambique, to name but two.
Some of Sankara’s practical actions in power had an intrinsic link to culture and counter-culture – from national dressing to women’s emancipation to the whole idea of freedom, independence and dignity, symbolised by the country name change from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso – Land of Upright People. Hence, Burkina Faso’s pan-Africanism and internationalism, under Sankara, were initiated as an attempt at recovering and emphasising a national culture. Thus, the country’s very international engagements commonly became the expression of and informed by its own cultural (r)evolution.
“If culture is the expression of national consciousness,” wrote the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, “I will not hesitate to affirm that in the case with which we are dealing, it is the national consciousness which is the most elaborate form of culture.” Hence, the re-invention of Burkina Faso necessitated the creation of new values and institutions – ‘new consciousness’ – arising from thinking ‘everything anew’. After all, “it is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness [pan-Africanism] lives and grows,” as Fanon would say.
Other theorists, Leela Gandhi, for example, have observed that colonialism “marks the historical process whereby the ‘West’ attempts systematically to cancel or negate the cultural difference and value of the ‘non-West’.” In this regard, therefore, any attempt at self-invention in the aftermath of (neo-)colonialism needs to be aimed at a recovery of a culture that has been negated, disabused and appropriated. So, within this realm, it is worth noting that “colonialism does not end with the end of colonial occupation” because the end of colonialism does not signify the restoration of culture in itself. Rather, as Fanon eloquently states, “in the colonial situation, culture, which is doubly deprived of the support of the nation and of the state, falls away and dies. The condition for its existence is therefore national liberation and the renaissance of the state.” As such, the dividend of independence should be “the leap [which] consists in introducing invention into existence,” adds Fanon. In other words, the gains that come with independence or revolution must be visible, experienced and shared in order to build a new society crafted on a new humanity that is itself inspired by culture. Is this, therefore, what we want for Africa? Is this the line of thought the AU is encouraging us to follow as it centres on “Arts, Culture and Heritage” in its theme for the year? Is the AU saying it is now ready to fight foreign domination using Arts, Culture and Heritage? As Cabral, again, informs us: “It is cultural resistance which at any given moment can take on new forms – political, economic, military – to fight foreign domination.”
Interestingly, Sankara’s most passionate intervention on culture came in Harlem, New York, on the margins of a United Nations (UN) General Assembly. He was inaugurating an exhibition on Burkinabè art at the Third World Trade Centre when he spoke. “We want to be left free, free to give our culture and magic full meaning.” Here, Sankara echoed – in both speech and accompanying action – Fanon: “the responsibility of the African as regards national culture is also a responsibility with regard to African-Negro culture. This joint responsibility is not the fact of a metaphysical principle but the awareness of a simple rule which wills that every independent nation in an Africa where colonialism is still entrenched is an encircled nation, a nation which is fragile and in permanent danger.”
This ‘permanent danger’ is most apparent when it is not met with resistance anchored on practical pan-African and international solidarity because “pan-Africanism, in its purest form, inspired great hopes not only for Africans but for Blacks of the diaspora as well,” as Sankara believed. It is precisely because of his awareness of the ‘permanent danger’ – the same danger faced by Cabral, Lumumba and Nkrumah etc. – that Burkina Faso’s pan-Africanism and internationalism evolved in the manner it did. Moreover, such resistance began with a psychological shift in understanding that those who have colonised us and continue to do so are motivated by their interest in subjugating us as Africans. It is precisely for this reason, then, that theorists like Bantu Stephen Biko have warned us that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Possession of someone’s mind comes with the power to alter memory and imagination and therefore alienate one from their culture, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o would say.
Justifying Harlem, New York, as the first choice for exhibiting Burkina Faso culture, Sankara was unequivocal: “it’s because we feel that the fight we’re waging in Africa, principally in Burkina Faso, is the same fight you’re waging in Harlem. We feel that we in Africa must give our brothers in Harlem all the support they need so that their fight too becomes known… Every African head of state who comes to New York should first stop in Harlem. Because we consider our White House to be Black Harlem.” This, one can say, was ‘Black Lives Matter’ long before the slogan became a block in the building of resistance against attacks on Black lives across the world. And that is a powerful testimony of how culture can be used to advance pan-Africanism and connect the struggles of those fighting against neo-colonialism, with its imperialist tendencies.
Whose Africa is it anyway?
To fight for freedom under colonialism is, primarily, to fight the unjust act of being collectively denied “civilisation, culture and history,” as the late Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba often reminded us. Therefore, the collective production of civilisation, culture and history in the aftermath of neo-colonialism cannot be a passive, individualistic act. It requires that those who gain freedom by achieving independence become makers of their own history and shapers of their own destinies as they decolonise. As the philosopher Peter Hallward once remarked, for example, “decolonisation is precisely this, the conversion of an involuntary passivity into a possessed or assumed activity.”
Fanon persuasively argued that if the attainment of freedom does not produce a consciousness requisite for the building of the nation, then the freedom that comes with independence is worthless, and the sacrifices made in the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism are vain. His assertion, for example, that “the living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people…[and] the coherent, enlightened action of men and women” implies the requirement, if not demand, of continuous actions in the production of civilisation, culture and history – the nation. This is so precisely because these three are products of the “collective building up of a destiny” whose action is “the assumption of responsibility on a historical scale.” ‘Historical’ because to be a free and independent nation is to be in control of your destiny as peoples become makers of history within the nation.
As such, the ‘collective building up of a destiny’ means there should be – a common understanding of what path should be charted in building the nation after independence or in the aftermath of neo-colonialism. It also means that the partial freedom gained that came with independence should be treated not as an end in itself but as the creation of conditions necessary for negating (neo-)colonialism, completely doing away with its ideological apparatus by developing new concepts, generating and implementing new ideas and discovering new practices that make it possible for the emergence of an emancipated, just and equal society.
Hence, the exercise of freedom cannot be passive but should be treated as the condition which enables the ‘living expression of the nation,’ the coming into being of a new society. For Fanon, then, the individual who elects to be passive – the ‘onlooker[s]’ – betrays the historical demand of collective nation-building and, in doing so, undermines the liberation struggle. In the process of nation-building, therefore, “every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor,” says Fanon. In constructing a nation sustained by the dreams, hopes and aspirations of the pre-independence liberation struggle, ideas (ideologies) are given shape, content and form by the physical and mental labour (practice) that is deployed to meet the construction needs of the nation. Fanon’s idea of an independent nation, therefore, is a nation that is birthed through “the muscles and the brains of the citizens.” Hence, initiatives that do not contribute to the development and advancement of these citizens’ awareness and national consciousness (political and cultural education) are better ignored, if not rejected altogether, because they neither develop nor reinforce the sanctity of independence that brings real freedom.
Here, Fanon means that every action taken in an effort to build the nation must be deliberate. Such actions must result in people becoming more aware and conscious of their duty towards the nation. In so doing, the people are able to continuously (re)affirm their independence and freedom. Thus, if popular activities in the nation do not inspire the affirmation of freedom, then it is pointless at best, Fanon argues, to have waged the liberation struggle in the first place; or it may simply be wasteful, at worst, for the state to dispense finances, time and other resources in constructing infrastructure that does not enhance national consciousness. To buttress this point, Fanon gives an example of the construction of a bridge. He says, “if the building of a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then that bridge ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat.” The point is that the participation of masses in the construction of the nation should not only reinforce ownership, national consciousness and belonging; it must also reveal the level of effort required to completely dismantle colonialism, neo-colonialism and their ideological apparatus so that everything can be started anew.
In Burkina Faso, for example, Sankara appeared to have slightly followed a line of thinking similar to Fanon’s, with reference to the building of the nation. In a 1983 public address, Sankara spoke about self-reliance in constructing the country’s physical infrastructure. He said: “you are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live. You don’t need us to go looking for foreign financial backers, you only need us to give the people their freedom and their rights.”
When the need later emerged, for example, to build a railway line that linked southern and northern parts of Burkina Faso in order to facilitate the movement of people and goods, multilateral donors and international finance institutions described the programme as unfeasible. But, determined to pursue the railway construction, the government succeeded in mobilising the masses to build the railway line with their bare hands, literally, in what came to be famously known as the ‘Battle of the Railroad’ (La Bataille du Rail). “Through this initiative,” author Guy Martin has written, “the revolutionary regime meant to dramatically emphasize the fact that it will not be dictated to, even by such powerful international financial institutions as the IMF and the World Bank, and that it is intent upon keeping firm control over its national strategy of development.” This was one of Sankara’s earliest actions against the threat of neo-colonialism, posed by international finance institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.
Identity and dignity in Africa’s new liberation struggle
If the AU’s theme for 2021 is a call to ‘arms,’ a call for Africans to use Arts, Culture and Heritage to build “the Africa we want,” then we must begin to imagine the type of nations that must emerge in each territory and how, collectively, these nations will transform institutions such as the AU itself. In short, the pursuit of Identity and Dignity in Africa’s New Liberation Struggle will have to transcend identity and territorial boundaries and become unapologetically pan-African, popularly backed by the masses. We will have to overcome our shallow differences as Africans and pursue common realisation that we all want the same thing (freedom and prosperity), which cannot be achieved until everyone else is free and prosperous. Besides, we will also have to acknowledge the pain we have suffered as Africans and as the Black race. Lumumba’s words, delivered on the occasion of Congolese independence, are instructive: “We have been subjected to insults and sarcasms, to the blows we had to endure from morning to night just because we are Africans… We learnt that the Law was never the same, according to whether it was applied to whites or Blacks… Who will ever forget the shootings, or the barbarous jail cells awaiting those who refused to submit to this regime of injustice and exploitation?”
Africa cannot afford to continue to tread along a path of subservience, which gives life to imperialism. Recent acknowledgements of complicity in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda by France and of the Nama and Herero in Namibia by Germany prove how dangerous and destructive imperialism is and can be. Our rediscovery of Identity and Dignity through Arts, Culture and Heritage, as we seek to build an independent Africa, should guide us and help us guard against the re-appropriation of who we are as a people. We need to be free! We must be free from neo-colonialism. It is really hard to give up on Africa. This is all some of us have and what we have known since birth. So we can’t give up! As Sankara often declared, “Homeland or Death, We will Triumph!”