By Divine Fuh, HUMA – Institute for Humanities, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Vice President, ASAA
This is a provocation, and the resuscitation of a discussion that some will be outdated and simplistic. The idea of a united Africa may have run out its course and therefore in need of a revised framework. A pluriversal Africa is the principle on which we should transplant this idea, once a revolutionary proposition. In order to achieve this, the work on restitution and restoration needs to extend beyond art objects, artefacts, archives, literatures and other epistemic knowledge. A pluriversal Africa requires a painful dislodging of the idea of the economy, and its accessories such as the nation state, development, democracy, good governance, financial flows, etc. that give it life. As the most diverse continents on the planet, an African pluriverse will require acknowledgement and recognition of difference as the foundational basis of constitution.
Advanced by Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, pluriversality is a critique of coloniality that imposes the Eurocentred mode of being as the only, standard and inevitable course for everyone and everything. This Eurocentric form naturalises the violence of coloniality, erasing all other alternative forms of worldmaking (Mignolo 2011 & 2018, Escobar 2018). Pluriversality emphasises the existence of multiple ontologies and plural ways of knowing, being and doing, some of which have survived colonialism. A Pluriversal world is, as described by the Zapatistas, a world in which many worlds fit - un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos. There is however an unresolved tension between articulating pluriversal ontology and modernist forms of politics. Escobar (2020) observes that while there is a possibility for those operating within modernist politics to contribute to pluriversal politics through explicitly embracing ontological political modernist struggles such as economic democratisation, depatriarchalizing, environmental justice, LGBTQI+ rights, the fight against racism, etc, “it is also important to recognize that many modernist forms of politics are counterproductive in relation to pluriversal politics; they reproduce and strengthen, rather than undermine, the modernist ontology of separation from which they stem” (p.xv).
Many African liberation, independence and decolonization struggles were and continue to be caught in this dilemma between on the one hand advocating and fantasising for restitution and restoration, while enchanted by, continuing with and aspiring for modernity whose core episteme is cushioned on the violence of coloniality. Deeply invested in the phantosmia of modernist statehood, even the most radical ideas of decolonization were never really disbudded from the liberal ethos of transmitted territories. The absolute belief and deep desire to participate in and be part of the world system, and where impossible to create alternatives such with the 1995 Bandung Conference were fundamental to post-independence imaginations of progress, dig and the good life. The early calls for continental unity or one Africa were partly framed within this extraversion, raising the question whether the resuscitation of decolonization is chiming for a second liberation.
Next year 2023 will mark sixty years since the founding of the Organisation for African Unity (now African Union). In May 1963, Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, amongst many independence leaders, laid out his vision for a postcolonial continent with unity being its central pillar. In his speech, Nkrumah emphasised that the continent “...must unite or perish” – a vision that he defined as a matter of urgency, as there was “no time to waste”. More than six decades after that legendary speech, we are more divided as a continent and people today (both within and between states) than we even were then. Interestingly, these divisions are the result of diverse reasons, amongst which are resource struggles.
It does appear that by taking the economy seriously, Nkrumah and his contemporaries were not so much invested in a radical decolonial shift in the imperial nature of the transmitted continent and states that had been inherited. In making his case for a united continent, Nkrumah was particularly interested, amongst other things, in autonomy and control over our own economic affairs. He argued, “Our economic advancement demands the end of colonialism and neo-colonialist domination of Africa,” and consequently that “we must recognise that our economic independence resides in our African union and requires the same concentration upon the political achievement.” Africa’s development would not be achieved, he noted, without putting the material resources and human energies to achieving national aspirations. Invited as gatecrashers to the ‘world’ economy through symbolic independence, Nkrumah articulated a vision that required the continent to play a dominant role in the global capitalist accumulation and exploitation system. This, in his view, was particularly urgent and possible because Africa had the resources such as - hydro-electric power, gold, diamonds, uranium, platinum, titanium, copper and iron ore.
As both political and cultural decolonization began to spread across colonised Africa in the early 1960s, the first group of independent states began to mint the idea of a united Africa with a single market and economic zone. This was also meant, in a way, as a second liberation, to begin the process of de-linking independent African states from the toxic economic entanglements that unavoidably accompanied sovereignty. As Kwame Nkrumah noted in his speech during the launch of the OAU, a united Africa was the only way in which postcolonial states could disentangle themselves from existence as underdeveloped minorities in the peripheries of European metropolitan capital.
60 years is an age often associated with autonomy, wisdom, stability and transition to a deserved retirement. Yet, more than sixty years after continent-wide liberation struggles for autonomy and self-determination, Africa is at the cusp of a ferocious second independence quest. Across the continent and in almost every country, the mismanagement of and failure to harness difference and diversity – particularly regional and ethnic identity, frequently projected as beneficial – is drenching the continent into a dark abyss. Post-independence projects of co-mingling, national and continental integration have gradually ceded place to minority rights strives and, sometimes, violent, narrow ethno-nationalist struggles. For several countries, national independence and liberation day celebrations have become anxious moments for violent uprisings by minority groups protesting against exclusion and/or seeking to be included in state citizenship projects.
Despite having been admitted to the council of nations, sovereignty, economic independence and the integrity of inherited inter-national borders remained the subject of contestations for many post-independent countries seeking to establish their autonomy as global players. It is not surprising that as independence chimed, nationhood and nationalist projects clashed with minority struggles and the fight for equal citizenship and inclusion in nationhood imaginaries. After independence, numerous civil conflicts, internal and cross border displacements, forced migration, coup d’états, and continually contested elections amongst others perturbed any rushed ideals about the postcolonial state as an inclusive consolidated entity. The Mail and Guardian South Africa reports that “In 2020, Africa was the sole continent where political violence rose relative to 2019. More than 17 200 distinct events of political violence were recorded in 2020, resulting in over 37 600 reported fatalities; this represents an increase of more than 4 000 events from 2019, and nearly 9 000 more reported fatalities.”
The failure of postcolonial states to honour the social contract has produced governments without obligations to its people and people without any sense of responsibility or loyalty to the states who’s citizenship they carry. In fact, in some places, party politics is gradually underpinned by regional loyalties, the government surviving through playing the politics of regional balance, with various groups using any representation or participation in government to serve, trickle down and strategically divert national resources to specific regions. Since independence, this parallel politics has remained one of the main cleavages of political stability and sovereignty, as various interest groups link up with external and other non-state actors to undermine state monopoly over violence in their attempt to de-link from national governments. In her acclaimed book Half of a Yellow Sun, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie illustrates this so well as she writes, “that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe. I am a Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came “ (2007, pg.5).
This discourse of allegiance to villages, ethic groups and what is framed as ‘tribal grouping’, even though not very different from the regional, cantonal and village citizenship politics of many modernist states and what is framed as ‘advanced’ democracies, operates in many postcolonial contexts as cantankerous. Fanon (1961) warned about the pitfalls of national consciousness in post-independence states where the nation was passed over for the race, and the tribe preferred over the state. As he wrote “National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.” Particularly driven by the elites, or what he referred to as the failed middle class, this phenomenon is almost single-handedly responsible for the continent’s current state of affairs. Fanon warns us that this bourgeoisie is “not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labour; it is completely channelled into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket. The psychology of the national bourgeoisie is that of the businessman, not that of a captain of industry; and it is only too true that the greed of the settlers and the system of embargoes set up by colonialism has hardly left them any other choice.”
In 2020 as the Corona virus ravaged lives worldwide, bringing the world to a near standstill and disrupting essential supply lines to the African continent, the African Union chose “Silencing the Guns' ' as theme for Africa Day. The theme “Silencing the Guns' ' is symbolic, and an acknowledgement that guns have become the key tool through which citizenship, rights and patriotism are negotiated, in a continent that largely defines itself as the place of love, kindness, celebration, conviviality and interdependency. As over half of the continent commemorates sixty and more years of independence from European colonists, it is clear from the many minority efforts happening across the continent that a second liberation or independence project may very well be on its way.
In a continent defined by diversity and difference, it is clear that the vision of leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda of “one nation, one country” was illusionary and far-fetched; and in a way laid the groundwork for democratic replicas obsessed with monolithic ideals of homogenous polities. This inherited illusionary model of a homogeneous, harmonious, coherent and stable polity is one of the greatest travesties of the postcolonial state, and one of the gravest tragedies of our times. Pluriversality is the basic African condition. For over sixty years, our stubborn obsession with absolutely preserving the integrity and internal coherence of inherited state forms has contributed to the proliferation and sedimentation of minorities. In fact, in several countries across the continent today, rendering minorities even more minor has become the organising principle for governance and politics.
The increasing re-emergence of secessionist, separatist, autonomous groups and movements for self-determination along ethnic identity lines show signs that the idea of a homogeneous/coherent nation is increasingly becoming a liability. Clionadh Raleigh and Roudabeh Kishi observe that “Between 2019 and 2020, an additional 270 identity militias became active in Africa,” with Nigeria, DRC and South Sudan seeing the highest increases in the number of active identity paramilitaries. By the end of June 2021 close to twenty-five African countries had active separatist movements fighting over minority rights and seeking special recognition or hard disentanglement from the nation. Even in newly found countries such as Eritrea and South Sudan untangled from Ethiopia and Sudan respectively where they were minorities, their own minority issues have stood in the way of them attaining the hopes and aspirations of autonomy. In Morocco, the tension over Western Sahara continues to provoke divisions, not only internally, but across the continent and globally. Recently in Ghana, Western Togoland restorationists continue to threaten to breakaway and establish a breakaway state in Ghana’s Volta region. Even the Senegalese philosophy of Teranga has not spared it from separatism with breakaway demands for the proclamation of an autonomous Republic of Casamance. In Nigeria, competing self-determination struggles amongst the Igbo for restoration of the defunct Republic of Biafra, amongst the Yoruba for the proclamation of the Oduduwa Autonomous Nation, and in the Niger Delta for the establishment of the Niger Delta State continue to threaten the integrity of the Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. Just next door in Cameroon, the Bakassi people’s desire to establish a Democratic Republic of Bakassi, and the Anglophone struggle to create the Federal Republic of Ambazonia has given rise to one of the largest humanitarian displacement crises on the African continent. In Southern Africa growing violence in northern Mozambique in the Delgado region where religious-associated militias are operating is worrisome for a region still searching for sustainable models to deal with dispossession and the devastating consequences of settler colonization and racist systems such as Apartheid. In the Sahel region, crossing Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger amongst others violent paramilitary activity has nearly devastated the region, with both intra/inter-community attacks rendering many areas ungovernable and inhabitable. In fact, all regions of the continent have minority identity struggles and active self-determination movements.
At the centre of all these struggles is the question of belongingness, inclusion, exclusion, minority rights, particularly how to participate, be recognized and to co-exist as equal citizens. Or to be valued as humans in societies and communities where gender, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief, class, and political inclination are used as permanent markers to alienate and render people less deserving of citizenship. In many places, states have perfected oppression either through extreme violence and necropolitics, or simply letting people to die by denying basic services, assistance and the infrastructures of governance, narrowing their terms of recognition and narrowing their aspirational nodes or capacity to aspire thus rendering them less liveable. Like in the case of those described as nonhumans in Joao Biehl’s book Vita written on the politics of life and abandonment during the time of AIDS in Brazil, many minorities or majorities treated as minorities as with the case of Blacks in South Africa, experience citizenship as discriminated individuals who lost symbolic support for their existence and who live in such a dead space/language that is traversed by structural readjustment, unemployment, malfunctioning public health system, and infamously unequal distribution of wealth and technology.
Large-scale internal displacements, intra-continental and trans-continental migration, gender-based violence, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, ableism and a continuous rise in Africa’s refugee population, and continual deaths in the Mediterranean sea as well as the new immigration trend to seek greener pastures by conquering the US-Mexico border continue to render many already vulnerable minorities as bare life not worthy of protection and therefore disposable. That many of these groups increasingly establish and turn to private militia and other global paramilitary groups for liberation should not be surprising. As a continent after sixty years, we are beginning to experience the challenges of post-retirement ageing when stable bodies begin to experience what is popularly referred to in parts of the continent as old age sickness. This is a time when even the strongest become highly co-dependent, losing memory, vigour, and mobility. To survive and inhabit the world, ageing bodies require new interventions, new attitudes, and new solidarities. As an ageing continent, Africa requires a new politics of solidarity, new inclusive frameworks of recognition, and new imaginative democratic politics that incorporates and takes its diversity and difference more as a central organising principle rather than a tool for political gimmicking as is currently the case.
The wave of multi-party liberalisation, free speech, freedom of press and new constitutional democratisation accompanying the austerity measures of the 1990s structural adjustment era rapidly shifted to civil unrest, and brutal attempts by governments to consolidate power and quell dissent or opposition. In the process, many constitutions, even those revised to acknowledge and enable inclusivity both threatened and provided autocratic regimes with the tools for instrumentalisation, neglect and further oppression of minorities for political survival. And attempts by global players to absolutely maintain inherited polities along the straight lines handed over at independence, even when it is evident that certain concatenations have woefully failed to produce geographical integrality, national sovereignty, cultural homogeneity, economic prosperity or let alone render life more liveable, is a crucial contributor to furthering marginalisation and precarization of minorities. In fact, it is critical, more than ever before, to rethink the particular ways in the universalization of minorities as an emancipatory concept to render particular experiences visible, like democracy as has been critiqued by many African scholars, contributes to rendering these same lives disposable. A framework that acknowledges every group as equally human is crucial at this moment in which there is an increasing demand for self-determination by identity militias and secessionists. Without new ideologies of inclusivity, citizenship and convivial political community that recognizes every small polity as equal, and new solidarities invested in generously distributing dignified life without favour, our continent will be buried in a continuous wave of struggles by those minorities seeking a second independence. Nkrumah proposed the radical idea of unity as a decolonial strategy. While that idea is still relevant, it is perhaps time to imagine a different articulation. As Africa turns sixty years in 2023, the longstanding, sporadic and other emerging tensions across the continent are chiming for a second liberation. Pluriversal Africa is what we should be musing about. That is, an Africa in which all worlds fit.