Best of times, the worst of times

Current Affairs

Best of times, the worst of times

Africans across the globe are nominally free, but the structures that used to dominate us still exist. We need a new honest conversation about where we are before we can move forward, argues Onyekachi Wambu.

August 1st is Emancipation Day in the English-speaking Caribbean and African Remembrance Day in the UK. It is used to commemorate the victims of slavery, to celebrate achievements of emancipated Africans, and to reflect on where things stand for Africans across the world now. 

Barack Obama’s election as US president in 2008 caused euphoria in the African world; perhaps anything was now possible. At the time of his election, conditions were improving across the continent: economies were growing, and conflict was less frequent. 

Sadly, this appears to have been a false dawn. From Ferguson to Baltimore, police brutalise African-Americans, who continue to be considered second-class citizens. The Dominican Republic has removed citizenship from Haitians. In Israel, African Jews have been protesting the open racism they face. Even the African continent is not a place of safety for Africans. From the killings in Garissa in Kenya, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in Nigeria, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the violence and disorder in Mali, Libya, South Sudan and the Central African Republic and the continuing mayhem in the Great Lakes region, many ordinary Africans find their lives upended.

However, as things deteriorated, Africans have fought back and created mass movements using social media such as “I Can’t Breathe”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Bring Back our Girls”, and “I Am An African”. The slogans used by the new movements also reflect the complexity of this new current of anti-African attacks. Twenty years ago the slogans would have been directed against white racism and white power structures but increasingly the movements behind the slogans are more nuanced, recognising that even newly liberated, nominally black-controlled power structures can reproduce the worst of the old colonial and slave order. Obama is president, but US police forces continue to behave appallingly. Africans are in government in South Africa, but Afrophobia persists.

Perhaps the most pitiful example is what has been happening with the thousands fleeing the continent to cross the Mediterranean for the European “promised land”.  Three hundred years ago a similar group of young Africans would have been captured, manacled and transported against their will in the most horrendous conditions to the slave plantations of the Americas. Today, they submit themselves to hazardous journeys, but this time paying for the privilege, and sometimes dying in their thousands as they search for a better life. The possibility of death and destruction, or the slim possibility of getting papers and finding work in Europe, is preferable to staying at home and creating a life for themselves.

Where should our reflection on this new state of unease begin and end? We understand that Africa for the last 500 years has been and continues to be the victim of globalisation. We also understand now that the main beneficiary of liberation in South Africa is not the ordinary African. While we might understand all of this, how do we begin a conversation that will enable us to cease being the victims of global forces but become the beneficiaries of our own liberation. A nuanced discourse that should avoid easy slogans and romantic mythologising is badly needed. It should recognise that for over 400 years Africans globally have been treated as an inferior caste. Most caste systems are economically, socially, psychologically and structurally institutionalised. Talking glibly about “rainbow nations” or “post-racial societies” does not erase these structures. The states that we inherited at independence maintained most of them. Our states’ positions in the global order is barely changed.

Perhaps it is time for an annual “State of African Globality” lecture to drive such a conversation.


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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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