Global change is creating a new Africa. Whether it will become the indispensable continent depends on it reinventing itself and not remaining a land created by the imagination of others. Let me explain.
Africa is home to the Nile, arguably the longest river in the world, and the Sahara, the world’s largest desert. If we treat these two geographical realities as metaphors, we could say that they embody two global views of our continent. The first is the benign riverine view: Africa as the fertile cradle of humanity, the ancient soil of wisdom, and the provenance of amazing mythological diversity that flourishes to this day.
The second is the parched desert view: Africa as the continent of too many humans living in squalor and misery because of corruption, nepotism, tribalism, despotism and terrorism (hopefully with only cannibalism having been taken off the menu of allegedly ingrained African habits).
For Africans however, these caricatures play no part in the daily organisation of our economic, political, social and moral lives. The truth for us is that Africa enjoys both the bounty of a deeply resilient indigenous history and the malevolent legacy of disruption produced through the foreign onslaughts of slavery, colonialism and the Cold War.
Unfortunately, Africans are seen more by the world than they see the world. The rest of the world defines us more than we define it – and even ourselves.
If Africa is to inherit its global domain, it must not be the object of world history but one of its subjects, such as the West, India and China are.
I admit that this is an old hope. It motivated some of the best thinkers of post-colonial Africa. It culminated in the quest for an African renaissance that could replicate the flowering of popular and elite energies in the renaissances of 16th-century Europe, 19th century India and 20th-century China.
But such visions amounted to little. That is because the material conditions of Africa did not permit as yet the transformation of cultural heritage and progressive thinking into a concrete programme for the immediate future.
Today, the vision is less forlorn, change more tangible. The reason is that the rest of the world is moving towards Africa. We Africans can take our place in contemporary history if we understand the underlying logic of that movement.
Africa attracts the Chinese because of its vast natural resources, which are necessary to fuel China’s economic boom. China’s Belt and Road Initiative would reconnect Asia, Africa and Europe while complementing the African Union’s Agenda 2063, particularly by creating the infrastructure for a modern Africa.
At the same time, Africa is important to a West that feels threatened by the rise of a global order emerging in a politically autocratic China. The West considers African democracy to be necessary for the global effort to fend off Chinese authoritarianism as the new international norm.
More than anything else, the European Union, weakened after Brexit, would want Africa to keep its millions home and not send them over as refugees or illegal immigrants.
Look at the map of change, Africa lies inextricably between the boundaries of today and tomorrow. It is the global contest of power, between the West and the East, what Latin America once was to the competition between capitalism and socialism.
If we Africans pass by this window of ideological opportunity, we shall have only ourselves to blame.
When I speak of opportunity, I have in mind the young Africans in particular. Bill Gates referred to them in his Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Pretoria last year. In the next 35 years, he said, two billion babies will be born on the continent. Instead of treating births as a liability — an idea which runs counter in any case to the religious convictions of most people — he emphasised the potential of Young Africa. “The most important thing about young people is the way their minds work,” he observed. “Young people are better at driving innovation because they are not locked in by the limits of the past.”
Innovation means not just the economic and technological aspect of change but also the political and social dimensions. Young Africans are the best placed to create a new self-perception for the continent.
Take me as an example; when I was growing up, apartheid was the single most divisive force in Africa, severing the continent into two grossly unequal parts through the racial economy of colour. As a Nigerian, I found it intolerable that such a regime should exist, particularly because black Africans had never used colour to subordinate the rest of the world.
Today, young Nigerians, Ghanaians, South Africans and Kenyans can mingle and dream together regardless of colour and are beginning to accept Africa as a multi racial continent, a fact that was hardly discernible let alone acceptable three decades back, thanks largely to Nelson Mandela — old in years perhaps but forever young in mind — who peacefully destroyed a status quo that the world had come to take for granted. He succeeded because he knew that history was on his side.
Today, history remains on Africa’s side: It is the young Africans who have to decide whether they want to be on history’s side. I said recently that Nigerians, particularly the youths, behave like tenants in their own country. They chase after the present. For example, in the form of jobs that are simply not there, instead of demanding of their leaders, yes, demanding, to create the economic opportunities which will contour the employment landscape of the future. The result is unemployment and underemployment, especially among the youths.
It is difficult to see how a country can even speak of success when its youths face such a dire and bleak future. For things to change, they have to stop behaving like tenants and start being owners of their nation.
In doing so, let Africans – whether Nigerians or others — be inspired by the words of the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel laureate who in his rousing 1937 poem, “Africa”, dramatised the colonial ravaging of the continent as an act of unbridled barbarity carried out against a rich habitat but helpless civilisation. Tagore invokes the aspirations of youths of this new age, demanding that they take their stand with the vulnerable of their violated Africa. This great poem — African in spirit — embodies the solidarity which the best minds of a generation display towards the dispossessed of the earth.
On its 80th anniversary, we could show gratitude to lovers of Africa, such as Tagore, no greater favour than to say that we have made their love for us, our own, their hopes, our destiny. Let us be the Africa we ought to be.