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Whose Slave Plantation is it Anyway?

Discussion in 'Jukwaa la Siasa' started by MziziMkavu, May 17, 2010.

  1. MziziMkavu

    MziziMkavu JF-Expert Member

    May 17, 2010
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    Whose Slave Plantation is it Anyway? A Critical Reading of Wole Soyinka’s Distinguished Nyerere Lecture on ‘New Imperialisms’
    “My observation – which I fully expect will be strongly contested, is that there has ever been one major direction in the motion of human history – empire building” – Wole Soyinka

    Professor Wole Soyinka’s inaugural Nyerere Annual Lecturesdemands a critical review, belated as it may be. Now his contentious observations has, at last, been made available in a printed format one can engage – without the risk of misquoting – this great man of letters. These lectures on New Imperialisms were delivered during the first Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival Week at the University of Dar es Salaam on the 13th and 14th of April 2009 respectively. They were accordingly subtitled Whose Empire is it Anyway? and Anything to do with Slavery? This review critiques Soyinka’s observations on the “empire building impulse” that emerged in his lectures.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of the champions of a ‘Yoruba-Igbo divide’, Soyinka opens his lecture with a contentious general claim in the epigraph above and goes on to offer a disclaimer:

    Human history, in short, appears to be – if I may apply a somewhat old-fashioned usage – a narrative of the rise and fall of empires. It leads to a quite plausible conclusion that one constant consciousness has driven, and still drives social man even in the fundamental mission of ensuring his own survival of his kind – expansion and domination. A close examination of some societies in their pre-colonial phase, such as the Igbo, or some newly encountered but ancient societies in, for instance, Papua New Guinea, or the Amazon, makes a strong case for some exceptions (Soyinka 2010: 1).

    The Nobel Laureate for Literature further elaborates on this claim and disclaimer in a way that the famous essayist of Igbo aversion to cultural imperialism, Chinua Achebe, would agree less:

    Unlike societies right next to the Igbo for instance – more famously the Benin, or further West, the Yoruba or, all the way southwards of the continent, the Kwazulu of the legendary Shaka – the Igbo, with their strong social formation rooted in republicanism, would appear to belie my general claim. The Igbo have no history of expansionism, being content with a strong organization around autonomous clan entities that made contact – friendly or unfriendly with one another as the need arose (Soyinka 2010: 1).

    Then the first Distinguished Nyerere Lecturer throws in a universalising definition of history bordering historicism: “History, however, is not made of exceptions” (Soyinka 2010: 1). In other words, he is asserting that, generally, the history of humankind is linear, as one that is always moving uniformly toward one goal – imperialism. He seems to be asserting, by default, that if it were not for the tragic colonial and imperial encounter between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, the pre-colonial societies would have, ultimately, expanded and dominated others. After all that is what ‘Emperor’ Shaka and his Zulu warriors were already doing let alone the Benin and Yoruba! Lest one be accused of putting words in the lecturer’s mouth let’s hear from horse’s mouth:

    The broad sweep of the human narrative that constitutes history argues persuasively for the view that, what has driven mankind in the progression of its societies has been a motion towards unified control, even of the most disparate cultures, social systems and beliefs – an impulse that is governed by the very concept of society as one which implicates, ab initio, the validation of its existence only in its capacity for expansion, and enrolment of others into its own territorial identity, even if only of the loosest kind (Soyinka 2010: 2).

    What is so problematic in Soyinka’s observation is that it renders “modern empire building”, and ‘imperialism” for that matter, a simple matter of a human – or societal – impulse. It stems from Soyinka’s rejection of a worldview that is so dear to his lecture’s host, the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies
    , Issa Shivji – the view that the locomotive of history is class struggle. By deliberately locating the history of imperialism outside of class – and other related – analyses, Soyinka, probably advertently, divorces capitalism from what Vladimir Lenin regarded as its highest stage, that is, imperialism. In fact Soyinka lump capitalism – alongside colonialism and neo-colonialism as a troika which he regards as those “familiar and justly target enemies” that “had served their purpose” as we are no longer confronted of “the ghosts of past wrongs” – in the rubric of “fading imperialisms”, which we routinely and rhetorically castigate by way of camouflaging “internal imperialisms”. For sure, to his credit, he talks about the crisis “that first emanated from the commercial nerve-centre known as Wall Street” but he starts and ends there. His rationale for his stance in anticipation of his critics’ offensive is thus presented:

    Now, I fully expect that anyone who has read or heard me dispute the Marxist theory of history as a product of the class struggle, its motoring force, offering in its place the axial contest between Power and Freedom, will complain that I have contradicted myself. However, examined no matter how loosely, we soon recognize that there is no contradiction whatsoever. The history of empires is merely a palpable manifestation of that most fundamental and propulsive opposition between power and freedom, between domination and resistance. Empires merely constitute the geographical expression of that impulse, one that may also be expressed as an internal, not outwardly directed exigence (Soyinka 2010: 2).

    But, loosely speaking, the struggle between power and freedom does not occur in a class vacuum. Nor does the contest between domination and resistance. Those dominating and resisting are positioned in antagonistic class relations, whether global or local. It is not an accident, then, in this regard, that those who seized power in their quest for more freedom during the French Revolution (1798-1799) and proclaimed ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ did nothing to free Sarah Baartman (1789-1815) from the surgeon’s knife that imprisoned her in the ‘Museum of Man’ in Paris, France. She did not belong to what they considered to be their class, gender and race or, more precisely, their human family. It is not surprising then that the land that provided the world with the ‘Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen’ went on to colonize people in Africa and elsewhere. It is capitalism and its quest for ever greater profits, rather than a mere imperial impulse to assimilate these societies into the French Empire that drove them. In this case, as in many others, there was no such thing as an “imperial imperative” as Soyinka would want us to believe as he claims, without providing sufficient qualification, that it “is sufficient to recognize for now that the earlier named ‘imperial imperative’ goes beyond mere instinct and constitute historic motions”. The “motion of the political man” in that age of merchant capitalism was not “towards the ideal of a unified social existence.” Even the thesis of the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) had nothing to do with creating such a global unity, rather, it was about fragmenting zones of capitalist influence. Thus the premises that Soyinka’s employs to build his tantalizing argument on what he calls ‘New Imperialisms’ is historically faulty.

    After a convoluted critique of various empires - theocratic, pantheistic, secularist etc. - Soyinka winds up his first part of the lecture by acknowledging that the continent of Africa is “buffeted from all sides” by these “contending empires.” In a rather agile move from his earlier assertion of ‘Igbo Exceptionalism’ when it comes to ‘Imperial Expansionism’, he then asserts that the continent “is remarkably situated to make and actualize” an “anti-imperial” claim – to provide the world that alternative “humanist charter” which is “non-doctrinaire, non-exclusionist, non-discriminatory and non-subservient”. Why the whole of Africa is now the exception, we may ask Soyinka. Surely, he will simply answer, because “the African continent, from its historic trials and their lessons, is most qualified to offer – a political model of human co-habitation that is truly without empires”. Probably unaware, Soyinka is echoing the following claim made by his lecture’s Celebrant, Julius K. Nyerere – and reverberated in the Pan-Africanist circles – when asked to talk about Africa’s Place in the World in the dawn of the year of African Independence:

    I suggest that the world today needs a champion for democracy and personal freedom, a champion who must be free from ties of history, or ties of alliance, which might embarrass her stand. Today it seems that Africa is in the best position to take that role – to speak to the world from moral strength, in fact, to continue in the world the moral struggle in which she has already engaged herself on the African continent. To my thinking, no other continent, as a continent, has either the common sentiment or the unblemished moral standing, which is Africa’s (The Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation 2000: 8).

    That today was February 1960. Today Soyinka’s celebrated mentee, Henry Louis Gates Jr., is continuing his mission, once publicly defended in the West Africa Review
    by the famed mentor, of blemishing Africa’s moral standing in regard to slavery. In many ironic ways Soyinka’s second part of the lecture resonates with Gates Jr.’s (2010) recent Op-Ed on Ending the Slavery Blame-Game
    . The only main difference is that Soyinka is talking about the 21st century ‘leaders’.

    The hypocrites are the more dangerous, those rulers who, strutting nowadays on the platform of democracy, turn their nations into slave plantations but imagine that they bestride empires that are tailored to their own self regarding. The paradigm of new imperial holdings on the African continent is, let us face it, the slave plantation, the pathetic contraction of the much envied imperial sway supposedly gone out of fashion. The slave of yester-year was given the choice to liberate the former slave stockade and let its captive out but no. He substitutes himself for the banished imperator (Soyinka 2010: 38).

    But, as the Kongi himself is very much aware, that imperator was not really banished. And the substitute was a mere comprador – in a neo-colonial setup. Yet this is the point Soyinka evades, may I dare say, deliberately. Why? Well, simply because he doesn’t want to shift the blame from Africa(ns). Of course there is a moment his old self betrays him when he thus categorically chastises Euro-America’s obsessive query about "Chinese incursion into Africa": “That such question should arise in the first place is a clear pointer to the western perception of what I have earlier referred to as a presumption of permanently established, eternal ‘zones of influence.’ They operate in the minds of the West as protected fields of interest and operations, based on a strict bilateralism – the West and Africa – into which even tentative probes of a third party amounted to hostile aggression” (Soyinka 2010: 8). Nevertheless the main point that Soyinka want to drive home in his lecture is that ‘we’, in Africa, must take responsibility. How? Yes, by moving beyond the rhetorical language of ‘we’ versus ‘they’ that has been used by the likes of “Emperor Mugabe” and “dictator Omar Bashir” to defend the “slave plantation” that Africa is.

    One can sense Soyinka’s anger and frustration at the way Africa has been handling what these “murdering imperator of African misfortunes” in his critique of Mugabe’s following claim: “They cannot come here and tell us what to do. They are trying to re-colonise us and we say No!” To that, Soyinka retorts: “Re-colonise? Just who are ‘we’? And who are ‘they’? Who is truly doing the re-colonization? Who are the new enslavers, the new imperators of the continent?” (Soyinka 2010: 53). To him the answer is clear: internal imperators within Africa.

    This brings us to a profound understanding of Soyinka’s intention in this lecture. Here the intellectual activist is not simply trying to provide a sound theoretical and methodological – or even a factual – account of the history of imperialism in Africa. Rather, he is attempting to use his intellectual power and moral authority by any scholarly means necessary – even by propaganda – to ensure ‘we’ take action if we think ‘they’ are re-colonizing us when they act:

    Those who choose to deny this actuality have a choice: set up your own tribunal within this continent on neutral grounds. Summon Omar Bashir, with his fellow accused, to testify before his peers. Openly! Bring in witnesses under protection to confront him with their accusations. Attestations are not lacking – even without the indictment of the International Court – internal organizations of this continent are more than subsumed under material for Bashir’s arraignment. Lacking such interest, lacking the will to summon one of your own to judgement at the bar of humanity, YOU – and I address directly both the African Union and the Arab League – YOU have abandoned all moral grounds for protestations at ‘they’, in relation to ‘we’. We know who we are, and what we are, rejects all notion of solidarity with you (Soyinka 2010: 58).

    One cannot help but empathise with this indefatigable ‘leader of thought’ who admits elsewhere in the lecture of having found himself “inhibited by a sense of a Sisyphean curse” when dealing with Africa’s recurring problems that are “so obvious, the solutions sometimes equally so”. Incidentally, a few months before Soyinka’s lecture, Mahmood Mamdani delivered a special lecture on Darfur: The Problem and Way Forward
    in the same venue. He warned against imbibing a narrative of history that erroneously reduces a big problem to a single cause or source, in this case, Omar al-Bashir. As a person who attended both lectures claimed, and I then agreed, their proposed solutions to the Darfur crisis were so in contrast. But, in hindsight, I think they unwittingly share a profound view of our main problem in Africa that is thus summed up:

    Yes, we [in AUDIENCE AFRICA] recognized [dictatorship] as one of the problems. No one said it was the only problem, or the most profound. What I must stress here, and continue to stress anywhere, is that it is a problem, one which millions of sentient beings find singularly obstructive to their grasp of the human collective, or their ability to function as a productive part of the overall entity. No one ever claimed that the end of dictatorship would be the trampoline that would catapult the African continent into the twenty-first century. No, we merely remain adamant that this is one of the malignant imperial retentions of incontinent and alienated leadership, and one that must be eliminated from human history (Soyinka 2010: 49).

    It is the force that sustains malignant imperial retentions that we need to undo. Emperors will always rise again as long as the old empire remains. New imperialisms may just be its disguise.

    © Chambi Chachage