A Nobel laureate offers a keen, thought-provoking analysis of Africa's current crises and points the way to cultural and political renewal
"Of Africa is an intellectually robust, book-length essay that attempts to unravel the paradoxes and contradictions plaguing Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. . . . Soyinka’s motivation for writing Of Africa was his search for an African humanism that could counter the deadly consequences of religious fanaticism. He urges Africans to remember their continent’s traditions and recognize that tolerance is at the center of African spirituality.”—George Ayittey, Wall Street Journal
“The playwright and human rights activist defends Africa against its condescending critics, offering both sweeping reflections and clear-eyed assessments.”—Editors’ Choice, New York Times Book Review
“Soyinka does not deceive himself about the profound problems that Africa faces today. But [the book’s] overall tenor . . . is optimistic, emphasizing Africa’s capacity to inspire authentic spirituality (the continent, he reminds us, is ‘filled with religions that point the way to the harmonization of faiths’) and resilient, life-embracing humanity.”—Booklist
"An intellectually robust, book-length essay that attempts to unravel the paradoxes and contradictions plaguing Nigeria and, by extension, Africa.”—George Ayittey, Wall Street Journal
“Among the Africans who deserve some kind of secular sainthood is Wole Soyinka. . . . Vast injustices remain [in Africa], but the continent is lucky to have fearless men and women of conscience, like Soyinka, who are so acutely aware of them.”—Adam Hochschild, New York Times Book Review
“Of Africa offers a well-conceived vision for the potential healing of the continent. . . . Soyinka's inquiry arrives at one impassioned pleatolerance. Africa's various sects, he tells us, must come to the collective bargaining table with an embrace of its tradition and innate differences in order to truly become whole.”—Nancy Powell, Shelf Awareness
Soyinka's perspective “is helpful in guiding readers to a different way of looking at much that is Africa, and, as such, Of Africa is an eloquent and useful starting point for readers.”—M. A. Orthofer, The Complete Review
“The Nobel laureate and Nigerian playwright tries to rescue Africa from racism, ignorance, and stereotype in this forceful manifesto.”—The Daily Beast
“A wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s cultures, religions, history and identity.”—Ihsan Taylor, New York Times Book Review
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By Wole Soyinka
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Wole Soyinka
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Dark Continent? Or Beholder's Cataract?
The euphoria and optimism that accompanied the independence of African nations have evaporated, often in the most brutal manner, leaving the continent not only in a situation of unprecedented poverty but also [in] a frightening level of socio-economic decay. Millennium Commission report, 2001
THUS COMMENCES THE PREAMBLE to the document that emerged from a brainstorming caravan launched by the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, in collaboration with Professor Albert Tedjevore of the Republic of Benin. Its visitations lasted over a year and traveled through several African capitals, culminating in the capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, under the hospitality of its head of state, Laurent Gbagbo. With an unwelcome fortuitousness, that nation has leapt to the fore as a sobering exemplar of the deep malaise that continues to eviscerate the African continentand from within.
"Such initiatives are not new," warn the authors of the Millennium document, listing a number of its predecessors and stressing their intention to build on past efforts: "The Commission has taken note of other efforts such as the Lagos Plan of Action, the Arusha Declaration, UNESCO's Audience Africa, MAP, OMEGA, plus a number of other encounters, some of which have crystallized into The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), whose principles were adopted by African Heads of State at Lusaka."
The participants were under no illusion that a magical transformation would result from their laborsif anything, they were prey to the discouraging legacy of repetitiousness and to a niggling warning of futility. Nonetheless, it is in the nature of hope that some events, especially attainments that constitute a measure of advance, nudge us toward an assessment that amounts to a quantifiable breakthrough from a state of stagnation or, indeed, from a reversal of a history of retrogression, such assessments attaining even hyperbolic dimensions. Certainly, in some circles of African leadership, they promoted the annunciation of a Renaissance long before its advent. Principal among such achievements would definitely rank the seeming miracle of South Africa, where the dead weight of the past on the umbilical cord of a fragile birthmajority rulewas exorcized in a manner that took even the most optimistic of the entire world by surprise. Even more recent was the resolution of the decades-old conflict in the Sudan. It was the former, however, that impressed upon the world a unique lesson on the possible routes to the resolution of seemingly intractable conflicts.
Africa appears doomed to oscillate between the polarities of hope and despair, a condition that is perhaps best illustrated by two events, two variations on one theme in stark contrast to each other and a true reflection of the realities of a continent. One took place in a subdued, quite minor key, far more deserving of exposure than was accorded it and still lacking in popular awareness in most parts of the continent till today. I refer to the parturition of a new voice for the continent, an independent communication and information access across borders, one that would operate resolutely outside governmental control even though powered by governmental will, in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, andto some extentsustained by governmental resources. With an infectious confidence in its permanence, it was named West African Democracy Radio. Launched in August 2005, not long after the cessation of the serial bloodletting in Liberia, that seemingly interminable phase of negativity was ultimately sealed off with the election of the first-ever female president of an African nation, who, in 2011, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. It was this affirmation of confidence in the resolution of that protracted war that made it possible for such a leader, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, together with three other West African heads of statea loose consortium of the Mano River Basin Statesto launch such a potent symbol and role-player in the quest for inclusive governance on the continent.
The launch took place in Dakar, Senegal, when four democratically elected leaders committed to the mission of giving permanence to a potent tool of democracy on a continent that both European and African voices had declared, when and as convenientwhich was almost all the timehistorically and temperamentally unsuited to the democratic option of governance. Unfortunately, at the very last moment, the new Liberian president could not attend. She sent a representative, however, and, through her, a message which, despite its banter, encapsulated much of Africa's contemporary travails even as it constituted a challenge to the host country, Senegal, as well as the other partners in that venture.
The radio station had been conceived several years before, and its original home should have been Monrovia, capital of Liberia. The civil war prevented the actualization of that dream. In her message, President Johnson-Sirleaf regretted that the station had to be installed outside her own country, adding, tongue-in-cheek, that if ever the Senegalese government wearied of the presence of that democratic voice on its soil, Liberia was more than ready to resume her original designation as host. Delivered, as it was meant, as a tease between colleagues, the message signaled for all who were present a genuine turning point, a note of optimism, a symbol and portent for the future of a continent.
Assailing the minds of more than a handful of those present on that occasion must have been memories of the other event, the twinned potential of that communication facility whose Rwandan version was the very antithesis of the Mano River Basin collaboration. Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, the instrument of that other polarity, was used with a brutal efficacy that resulted in the massacre of three quarters of a million people in under three weeks. After such a depressing recollection, and a succession of allied news of harrowing dimensions in one corner of Africa after another, the Mano occasion was a bracing augury. And then, as if to expunge the toxicity of the past years, and to set a seal on the full import of this collaboration between four leaders, news emerged of the arrest of the warlord Charles Taylor, butcher of Liberia and, later, her president. Taylor was packaged to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity, encouraging the people of the West African subregion to hope that this was indeed the end of a nightmare, and that it signaled the end of the toleration of leadership impunity, a deterrent to other alienated leaders of a continent.
Would it? Taylor's arrest took place, after all, after the lesson of the pitiable, sadistic end of his predecessor Sergeant Doeliterally killed piecemeal, forced to drink a child's urine. It did not appear to have served as a lesson for Charles Taylor, not even after he had climbed to power on the rickety rungs of a war-weary democratic ladder. His rule went beyond accustomed brutality and, in any case, so deeply mired in blood was the path of his ascent that the opposition forces could not be expected to acquiesce for long in his leadership. The collective memory of victims of his "loyal subjects" pronounced his very presence a mockery of political legitimacy.
And then, Ivory Coast! Was the earlier debacle of the Ivory Coast in 2002 unexpected? Of course not! If anything, it was predicted! Even if, as the participants gathered in Abidjan for the Millennial Commission, they had been totally ignorant of the discontent that simmered beneath the surface, once they had set foot on the soil of Ivory Coast very few were long denied knowledge of the fact that this futuristic conference had been plunged right into a cauldron from the past. The so-called democracy of Ivory Coast was a sham. For decades that nation, under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was lauded as a model of positive development and stable democracy. Yet it was nothing more than a patriarchal one-party dictatorship whose political success was built upon the very principle of exclusion, masquerading under the seemingly innocuous label of ivoirité. The outsider may be forgiven for thinking that ivoirité was an expression of nationalismCote d'Ivoire by Ivorians for Ivorians (as opposed to "for the French," etc.)but the Ivorians knew better.
The wealth of Ivory Coast, its very success in self-reliance, was built on the labor of such so-called foreigners, andimportant to notethese "foreigners" were fellow West Africans from neighboring countries, most notably from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). A large number of these "immigrants" had lived in Ivory Coast for generations, occupied high-level positionsgovernmental and political, including premiershipcarried Ivorian passports, and neither knew any other country nor claimed any other nationality. Yet, purely for reasons of convenient electoral numbers, they were excluded from exercising their voice in the very land that had achieved its economic reputation from their sweat. This was a boil that was set to burst, and burst it did! Member states of the West African subregion in particular must have found the Ivory Coast eruption especially excruciating, given the fact that their concerted efforts had just begun to stabilize two other membersLiberia and then Sierra Leonewhose internecine conflicts had cost that region unquantifiable lives and resources, not to mention the ethical ruination of a young generation, a generation that grew up as child soldiers with a catalogue of atrocities behind them. Those atrocities were of a nature that would surely have landed the perpetrators, were they older, in the international tribunals for crimes against humanity.
We shall insist, however, on placing the African continent in a global context, so let us note that the problem of exclusivity is not peculiar to the African continent. The European, American, and Asian worlds, the Middle Eastall the way southward to Australasiaare themselves riddled with the affliction. Can one ever forget the deployment of the Australian navy to ward off from its shores a boatload of fugitives from the Talibanic scourge? The rise of extreme nationalism, often developing into outright xenophobia, barely disguised under legislative formalisms that never name their real goalexclusionis a symptom of the increase, not decrease, of the we-or-they mentality that appears to be sweeping across the globe. It has resulted in wars of varying degrees of bloodiness and duration, of which perhaps the most notorious was the prolonged low-intensity yet vicious Irish civil war that appears at long last to be in genuine remission, despite violent instances of recidivism occurring as recently as 2009. The final decommissioning of weapons in that murder arena took place, significantly, under the supervision of an African statesmanCyril Ramaphosa. Even more bloodied and exclusionist were the ethnic cleansing fields of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which eventually forced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into armed intervention. These are wars whose roots, however traceable to histories of repression and competition for resources, are nonetheless products of the exclusivist narrowness of vision among peoples, and Africa cannot be held to be exceptional.
However, the diary of conflicts of exclusion that closed the twentieth century for Africa and launched the twenty-firstin Liberia, Ivory Coast, Congo, Rwanda, etc.makes that continent a case for extreme concern and urgent strategies, even as the Bosnian eruption was recognized, almost belatedly, as a challenge to modern Europe. It is for this reason that the dismal example offered by Ivory Coastwith its complication of broad divisions between the north (Islamic) and south (Christian)in the repeated negation of the Renaissance dream comes in so handily to illustrate the foundational flaw in the edifice of the African nation-state, and the role that a strict adherence to democratic justice must play in cementing the cracks in such an edifice.
Allied to exclusivity is another bugbear of a continent: boundaries. Boundaries imply exclusion, and it is undeniable that this tainted seed of guaranteed future conflicts on the continent was sown at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884. It was there that Africa, a continent of so many cultures, precolonial trade patterns, and development traditions, was shared piecemeal among the western powers, with no consideration for their histories, languages, and economic linkages. What African leaders have so far failed to tackle in a systematic way is this: What are the consequences of this quilt work? Again, that is a question whose answer demands of leadership a very special kind of couragemoral and self-sacrificial: the readiness to yield divisions of power and control, if needed. Africa has never herself delineated her constituent national boundaries, those boundaries being humiliatingly inflicted on her by others. Is it really possible to deny the origins of some of her internecine conflicts to that carving out in the history of the continent? If the probability, at the very least, exists, is it then unthinkable that other conflicts presently "in denial," and perhaps of far more catastrophic potential for the continent, will erupt even as the present onesCongo, the Sudan, Ethiopia, etc.are doused?
Nations are not merely multicolored patches in the atlas, they answer to some internal logic and historic coherence, and an evolved tradition of managing incompatibilities. We all know the history of Eritrea and Ethiopia long before the intrusion of the colonial powerslargely Italy and Britain. We know how the foundations of present-day Liberia were laid. Those periods differ drastically from today's realities of international politics, commerce, and, indeed, the trend toward what is now called globalization. The hard questions are not being asked: In the context of present realities, are those national entities on the continent still viable? Is there cause for their reexamination?
Now, when such questions are posed, there is a tendency to suggest that one is already implying one answer, and one answer onlythe disintegration of the present national entities, accompanied or unaccompanied by a reversion to the precolonial conditions of the rudimentary state. I have always found this response an unnecessarily negative preconditioning. Why should such an exercise not result in its opposite, the amalgamation of existing national entities? One response to this might be that it has been tried unsuccessfullythe Ghana-Guinea-Mali federation, or the Egyptian-Libyan shotgun marriage that was never consummated. Yet the fact that such projects recorded failures in the sixties does not mean that they will do so in the vastly changed socioeconomic realities of the twenty-first century.
By the same tokenthat is, for the reason of these very changesone must concede that such a project of boundary reconsideration could end in just another debacle. It is clear, therefore, that engagement in such an exercise, even if only theoretically, arises because some of the current civil conflictssuch as that of the Sudanare legitimately traceable to a fusion that was forced upon peoples, not one that proceeded from their political will and self-ordering. Where this is seen clearly to be the case, and internal instability of a costly dimension evidently derives from such impositions, common sense urges that, at the very least, the basis for such amalgamations be revisited with a view to ascertaining where precisely lies the will of the people themselves, acting in freedom. The Ethiopia-Eritrea fires, no sooner doused than threatening new flare-upseven as recently as 2008indicate that there is unfinished business in the functionality of those boundaries that African leadership and the rest of the world treat as sacrosanct. The consequences of refugee flow on the economy of African nations, even the most internally stable nations, can no longer be ignored. It had already escalated beyond manageable proportions in the upheavals of the final decades of the last century. And now Darfur has brutally challenged a continent in a way that it has not been challenged since the genocide of Rwanda. Taken together with the thirty-year civil war in southern Sudan that has even more rigorously questioned the primacy of boundaries in political association, the boundary factor has yet again manifested itself as a candidate for new positioning.
There is indeed one unsuspected benefit in the pursuit of this exercise, were it to be undertaken. It is contingent upon and will surely lead to a reexamination of the problem of exclusivity. In considering what the imperial powers chose to include within or exclude from the artificial nations that were created, African leaders may come to ask why. Why was this distinct nationality, and not that other, included in or excluded from a current nation space? The circumstantial answers should not interest ussuch as treaties signed with a local chieftain, the arrival of one nation's exploration party seconds ahead of another, or the planting of an imperial flag. Of more relevant interest is one factor that is common to all such appropriations of other people's lands and resources: self-interest.
Africa's self-interest? Is it truly in the interest of the occupants of that continent that the present boundaries are being consolidated, defended, held so inviolate that the population is routinely decimated, millions maimed and incapacitated for life, vast hectares of farmland rendered useless by liberally sown antipersonnel mines? Once unheard-of diseases have now become daily currencyAIDS at a most alarming raterobbing entire villages of their adult population as the dogs of war carry its virus across zones of conflict and even into neighboring nations at peace. Youths are robbed of their innocence and their humanity as the continent becomes the corrupted playground of boy soldiers. In short, what price is worth paying for the illusion of boundaries and "sovereignty"? In what order of priorities is placed the interest of the people who inhabit the continent over whose spoils aliens have fought and still fight both directly or through surrogatesthe surrogates being, alas, Africans themselves, their leadership selectively targeted? And what characterizes these surrogates? What makes them available in the first place and guarantees the ease of their replacement once their usefulness is expended?
Excerpted from Of Africa by Wole Soyinka Copyright © 2012 by Wole Soyinka. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Wole Soyinka, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a Nigerian writer, poet, and playwright. For his implacable resistance to political tyranny he has been imprisoned, threatened with assassination, and at times forced to live in exile.
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