Continents, it seems, enjoy thinking about and talking about themselves in century-long timeframes. Take the well-worn slogan “The American Century”, a reflection of the 20th century-dominance of the United States in world affairs. For the past two decades, an analogous phrase has been doing the rounds: “The African Century”, with reference to this, the 21st century. But whereas the American version is something of a statement of fact – however much one might dislike that – the African Century variously has been a declaration of intent, an aspirational call, and, finally, a wistful and wishful sentiment when set against the realities that the continent faces.
To assert or acknowledge this is not to succumb to the kneejerk Afro-pessimism that assails neoliberal thinking, and is propagated by its agents: governments, think tanks, universities, NGOs, civil society, economists and capitalists in the West or, more accurately, in the Global North. Rather, it is to be honest about how the people of Africa comprehensively have been let down by many of their leaders since the continent was freed (formally) from the shackles of imperialism and colonialism.
Africa and her nations and peoples now might be independent and postcolonial, but the exploitation of the past continues unabated, under the gaze and the guise of late capitalism. To invert Marx and Engels: A spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of Capitalism. What is to be done? And especially in Africa?
It is not overly dramatic to suggest that the continent stands closer than ever to the cusp between peril and potential. Events in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan emphasise the urgency of the situation. People in those countries are protesting vociferously against the collapse of governance and with it the obligations to render non-negotiable basic services to all inhabitants (including non-nationals, refugees and immigrants). In each of those three, behind present crises lie past butchery on the part of colonial and imperialist occupiers.
In Zimbabwe, it was the appearance of the profiteering and racketeering Cecil John Rhodes, who held perhaps the most grotesque imperialist vision of all: a British dominion in Africa stretching from the Cape to Cairo. The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy, its agricultural sector, and its continuing structural problems stretch back to and begin in the 19th century, and not with the country’s independence in the 20th.
Equally with Sudan, a civilization devastated by British military savagery directed by Lord Kitchener at the very end of the 19th century. South Africa, where concentration camps were first devised and deployed by Kitchener and other British generals, will have more empathy than most with the bitter experience of Sudan in the 1890s. Acknowledging the roots of present trauma, which seems almost to be unresolvable, in no way exonerates the genocidal actions of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. But both he and whoever succeeds him – an inevitability that grows closer by the day – have to contend with the ruinous legacy of the past.
And then there is the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country, hoping for its first-ever peaceful transition of democratic governments. Here, again, the past clouds – even denies – the possibility of a rational and feasible present and future. History and the DRC would have been very different if its first president, Patrice Lumumba, had not been murdered on 17 January 1961 by the Belgian state and Congolese counter-revolutionaries in league with their former colonial masters.
“The imperialists have decided to kill Lumumba. They did. They decided to form legions of volunteers. They are already in place … Let us never forget: it is our fate, to all, that is being played in Congo.” Thus wrote Frantz Fanon a few weeks after Lumumba’s killing.
Lumumba had led the new nation from its day of independence on 30 June 1960 to 5 September of that year, when President Kasa-Vubu dismissed him. The remaining months of Lumumba’s life were those of a man on the run, an internally displaced person, a refugee in and then from the country of his birth. It took the Congolese henchmen of General Mobutu Sese Seko and their Belgian helpmates months before they finally carried out Sese Seko’s threat, on 14 September 1960, that he was “neutralising” Lumumba. That declaration, incidentally, also applied to Kasa-Vubu who, having sacked Lumumba, was no longer of any use to the upstart general.
Lumumba slipped his house arrest in Léopoldville (of which more below) in late November, heading for Stanleyville, where one of his loyalists, Antoine Gizenga, held a base. He was intercepted and arrested on the Sankuru river on 30 November and then, two days later, shamefully denied help by United Nations soldiers in Mweka. Thereafter he was bundled on a plane back to Léopoldville, from which he was transferred to Katanga with Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito on 17 January. It was to be the last day of their lives.
Katanga state strongman, Moïse Tshombe, a pawn of the Belgians, decided to have the men shot in a forest near the Belgian-owned villa where they had been held. A Belgian officer summoned troops to make up three firing squads. The assassination site was made ready by yet another Belgian. Lumumba, it should be pointed out, was not even 36 when he was killed; his birthday was 2 July 1925.
After the executions, a Belgian policeman, Gerard Soete, dug up the bodies from the makeshift shallow graves into which they had been thrown, and chopped them up into pieces that could be dropped into the canisters of acid that he had brought along for their disposal by disappearance. Soete was very thorough: whatever the acid couldn’t consume, he burnt.
This brutality should be no surprise given the way that the Belgian state and its Belgian overseers behaved under the command of King Leopold II (1835 to 1909). Wild rubber was a very lucrative business, especially when harvested by Congolese working and living under appalling conditions and with inhumane productivity demands placed on them. The Belgians kept production going by chopping off the hands of those workers who did not match the desired output. Given that, what wonder that the postcolonial story of the DRC (with an interval as Zaire under Mobutu) is fractured, violent and an unprincipled grasping for control of resources by the few at the expense of the many? Those natural resources include elements without which the world’s mobile phones would not work, so the stakes today are higher still than even in the preceding centuries.
So, what chances of and hopes for the African Century? If the courage and principles of the protesters in Zimbabwe, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo take hold elsewhere on the continent – and recently we have seen significant change in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and the freedom of the people being called for in other countries – then the prospects are not quite as gloomy as Afro-pessimists would have them.
It is possible that the buds of an African Spring are about to flower. Perhaps we should be thinking and talking about and acting on the notion that a spectre is haunting the continent – the spectre of a just society for the ordinary people of Africa, a society that they are bringing to birth by their own sweat and blood, shed in opposition to unjust, unethical and often murderous regimes.
Seamus Heaney, the great poet and Nobel laureate, translated Philoctetes, the 5th century BCE play by Sophocles, as The Cure at Troy. Among its most ringing lines are the following, which express an aspirational call for people everywhere; may it serve, also, as a declaration of intent and an inspiration for Africa and its peoples.
History says, ‘Don’t hope
On this side of the grave …’
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.