|Saturday, January 30, 2021|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
n a recent interview video clip that went viral on social media, the Ghanaian author, poet, playwright and academic, Ama ata Aidoo, answered some of the most difficult questions about Africa, posited to her by a European lady journalist that interviewed her. In that interview, Ama ata Aidoo, lamented of the tragedies of over 500 years of European exploitation and plundering of African resources. She wondered why Africa was, and has always been in the business of giving and enriching other continents, but has not been able to do much for its own survival!
Our present article is a reflection on that interview, the answers Ama ata Aidoo gave about Africa. We begin the article, however, with the following passages from Ama ata Aidoo's interview response. This will be followed by a brief reference to few comments of some individuals on the interview!
In the first place, when the journalist asked Ama ata Aidoo about her impression concerning African colonial past in relation to the present-day reality of the continent, the renowned African lady intellectual and author, gave the following response:
"As far as I am concerned, since we met you people five hundred years ago, look at us? We have given everything! You are still taking: It is true. I mean, where would the whole Western world be without Africa? Our cocoa, our timber, our diamond, our platinum, our … whatever, everything you have is ours. I am not saying it, it is a fact. And in return for all of this, what have we got in return? Nothing! Anti-personal indoctrination against ourselves. If you go and cook your horrible diseases like AIDS, you say it is us. You brought us tuberculosis, we didn't have these big cough until White people came here! In exchange for Africa giving Europe 500 sold years of our people; I mean not Europe, the Western world, of our human beings to work your fields, to dig your gold, to taking gold itself, diamonds, palm oils, I mean, you know, … fish, peanuts, palm oil, everything! Name it! In exchange for that, we have got nothing, and you know it! Nothing! It is true, yes, you know it. And you, I mean White folks look upon us like monkeys. … It is true, it is in your literature. You know, some of your best thinkers have said this about us. Have you heard of it? … I mean all these Germans! Have you heard; oh yes, people like Lord Burton, people like that, they said that we don't even have the brain of animals! That is what we got from you people!"
At this point, the journalist intercepted and asked her: "But don't you think that this is over now?" Ama ata Aidoo replied, saying:
"Over where? Is it over? Who said that AIDS came from the green monkey? Is it over? Is it over?"
The journalist once again asked her, "But if this is your impression, do you think that you people can ever forgive us?" Ama ata Aidoo replied as follows:
"It is not a question of forgiveness. I have nothing against you. My point is that you did, and you are doing for your survival what is necessary. We can't blame you for that. The fact that we didn't do enough for our own survival, and we are not still doing enough for our survival, that is not your problem." - Ama ata Aidoo.
When I first shared this Ama ata Aidoo's interview video clip via WhatsApp forum, one person immediately commented thus, "Did we (Africans) give or did the Western world take 500 years of resources from Africa?" To this, another person replied, "No. We did not give. They took by themselves!" Yet another replied, "The answer is simple: Africa is always a free zone because she is blessed with high level of wisdom flowing from Divine Mercy. What we see are attempts to dominate her which are eventually enriching her. Ekene Diri Chukwu (meaning, 'thanks be to God')."
Since most of the people in that WhatsApp group forum are priests, that background is also reflected in their comments. For instance, one of the priests wrote a long comment, which we can only cite some salient aspects of it here, for want of space. He said, inter alia:
"During the 2009 African Synod of Bishops in Rome, the Pope challenged 'Africa to Rise up and walk.' This challenge remains indelible in my mind because I participated at the Holy Mass on October 25, 2009, where the Holy Father, Pope Benedict VI, for four times, encouraged African Bishops and indeed the whole of Africa to have courage, and to rise up! While acknowledging the difficulties of living together, the task of reconciliation, justice and peace is our Christian responsibility. What role is the Church playing in concrete terms in that regard in Africa? Europe is united and there is European Union. England and Scotland, in spite of their differences, are living in peace as a United Kingdom, with each region having its own quasi-independence regional sovereign government. Canada has the French and English speaking parts, but Anglophone and Francophone Cameroun are not in peace? Congo Brazzaville and Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) are not in peace? Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria, especially, among the three major ethnic groups Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba and other minor ethnic groups of the Middle Belt and Old Mid-Western regions are not in peace?"
Continuing, the priest writes:
"The Coronavirus has taught us that we all share a common humanity and a vaccine discovered in America, in England, in Russia, in China are all used for caring for the whole humanity. What investment did Nigerian government and scientists make to eradicate COVID? The governors were hoarding palliative food items such as rice and indommie noodles donated by good spirited wealthy individuals for the masses during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown? Should we blame the Western world for such greed and wickedness? The Christian and Islamic religions are not yet inculturated in Africa? We are too religious in Africa but religion has not permeated our lives and culture. Let us evangelize our people on the importance of justice, peace, reconciliation and good governance as the Holy Father Pope St. John Paul II exhorted us during the First African Synod in 1994. Africa is rich but poorly governed."
Finally, another person commented, "I thought the European colonization of Africa started from the 19th Century? Why speak of 500 years of European plundering of Africa?"
In what follows, I wish to make my own humble contribution to this debate, by highlighting, although, briefly, the intrigues in the African colonial past, which, in my view, in one way or the other, we cannot evade even as we address the present reality of the continent. In the process, it will become clear as we proceed, why the author Ama ata Aidoo, spoke of 500 years of European exploitation of Africa, and the fact that nothing concrete of value as such, has accrued to Africa from that encounter with the Western world.
The Intrigues of Africa's Colonial Past
In speaking of 500 years of African encounter with the Western Europe in particular, there is no doubt that the author Ama ata Aidoo, had in mind, in the first place, of the 15th-18th centuries' European expansionism and exploitation of Africa (Era of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Africa). That is, the 15th Century European encounter with Africa, South of the Sahara, which began from the moment Vasco da Gama, encircled Africa in 1498 for Europe, and Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, encircled the West Indies (Americas), for the same Europe!
The second historical epoch of European invasion of Africa in modern history, which signalled the modern day European colonial plundering of the continent, began with the Berlin Conference of 1885, during which the European nations (and their Arab allies, represented at the Berlin Conference by Turkey), partitioned and divided up African continent on a map, to serve European global political influence and economic interests. This means, that the 15th century European expansionism and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Africa, and their later 19th century colonial activities in the interior cum entire African continent which started with the Berlin Conference of 1885, should not be mixed-up. These are two different historical epochs (although interrelated and had similar motive and interests), in the European expansionism, exploitation and inhuman relationship with Africa.
Following the Papal Patronatus (Portuguese: 'Padroado' - Papal Privileges granted by subsequent Popes to Portugal and Spain over the 'new' found lands and islands (since the 15th Century till early 19th century), the Pope divided the new found lands and islands between these two powerful Catholic countries of the time, Spain and Portugal, the Maritime powers in Europe then.
In the year 1452, Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), in a bull, "Dum diversas", requested King Alfonso of Portugal to take charge of sending missionaries to Africa. The missionaries were to accompany the European Explorers and slave merchants to Africa. However, while the concern in the ecclesiastical circle was the evangelization and salvation of souls of peoples of the 'new found lands', the issue in the political circle in Europe was 'sovereign domination, slave trade and economic exploitation' of the new found lands. In fact, it was precisely, to resolve this problem that the Pope at the time had to intervene, with the famous "Padroado." The primary objective of which was not to involve the Church in the European dirty trade of human merchandise and plundering of African resources. Because to involve the Church in such inhuman trade of slavery, servitude and lust for domination of other races, is to damage the noble mission of evangelization and salvation of souls, for which the Church had been known for over the centuries of its history of evangelization of the world.
Pope Julius II (1503-1513), in a bull, "Quae pro bono pacis", issued in 1506, divided the overseas continents and islands between Spain and Portugal. Spain was given the West Indies (Americas), while Africa, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and their islands went to Portugal. Armed with the Papal "Patronatus" ('padroado'), the Portuguese sailed down the African coasts and established trading posts at the mouth of the great rivers, giving strange names to the peoples and places they found on the way. The names which the Portuguese gave to the places along the African coasts indicate somehow what they were expecting from Africa and why they jealously defended their territorial claim there; for example, Pepper Coast (Liberia), Ivory Coast, Gold Coast (Ghana), Slave Coast (Sierra Leone), etc. The Portuguese explorers, also gave the name 'Lagos' to our Nigerian city, which is from the Portuguese word, 'lago saldos' (which means, "Salt lagoon" (Lagos lagoon).
However, with the arrival of the Dutch after many years of Portuguese plunder of African continent, and with the arrival of other European nations such as the British, French and Germans, the real scramble for Africa began. Each European nation tried to establish areas of influence for commercial gains. This time both the Africans themselves and their agricultural products, natural and mineral resources from the African soil, became a commodity to be sold in the American plantations which provided raw materials for the newly established industries in Europe and America.
The beginning of the 19th Century European Colonisation of Africa
Therefore, it was not until the 19th century, after the Slave Trade had been officially abolished in the 1860s that European colonialism as we know it, began in earnest in the entire African continent. To stop themselves from fighting over the riches of Africa, these European nations held Conference in Berlin (1884-1885), and later at Brussels (1890). At the Berlin Conference in particular, Europe partitioned and divided up the continent of Africa. Many African peoples or ethnic-groups were spilt as the new and often arbitrary boundaries drawn by the foreign powers came into effect. In most cases, many ethnic-groups sharing the same language and culture were often separated into different countries, and those with different languages were often merged with fractions of dismembered groups.
Thus, began the colonial policies and disorganization of the traditional pattern of societal organization in Africa. The European dispossession of African humanity through slavery, which took place, especially, between 15th and 18th centuries' European expansionism and exploitation of the continent, was to be followed by the 19th century European colonial activities and dispossession of African culture, political and economic organization of traditional African societies.
This was how Europe laid its permanent foundation of colonial domination and control of African people and continent - European attempt which aimed at subduing and 'cancelling' African people (human dignity), culture, languages and civilizations from the world map and history. This is the genesis of the present-day African problem - situations of hopelessness pervading the Black race and many African nations today! Africa is the only continent in the whole world, whose people were subjected through slavery and colonialism, to a calculated dispossession of both their humanity and culture. There are no other people or continent in the modern world that experienced such man's inhumanity to fellow man!
With the backing of the Berlin "Act" of 1885, colonial administrative structures began to emerge. Right across Africa, frontiers were drawn without reference to the ethnic and cultural differences of the people. There was no reference to the people either. Africans were simply ignored. In a short time, tribes and clans and even families found themselves spilt by new boundaries. The new decree issued by the colonial masters meant in principle that henceforth people must beg for permission if they wanted to cross frontiers to visit their relatives.
The colonial boundaries have continued to be a source of tension and fighting in various modern African nation states, and in the actualization of real ecclesial communion and good relationship in African local churches, as well as in peacebuilding and in promoting better understanding and co-existence among followers of different religions in different African states.
The sad example of the colonial partition of Africa is the case of Rwanda and Burundi, where two ethnic groups (Hutus and Tutsis), previously hostile to each other, were dumped together in two small states. The consequences are the endless massacres and genocides as each ethnic group tries to use government machinery to dominate the other. In other countries with similar situation, and which had experienced equally, pogroms or chronic political conflicts because of the arbitrary colonial boundaries, if it is not open-combatant civil war going on in such nations, it is an 'unending' political conflict and instability of government - struggle for domination of political powers by the most favoured ethnic group.
Example of this, is the case of Nigeria, where three large and powerful ethnic groups (Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba), that had been hostile to one another, were merged with other neighbouring minor ethnic groups. The consequences were the Igbo pogroms in Northern Nigeria which has been occurring there since 1945, and in particular, the Igbo pogroms in the same North in July and October 1966, in the build-up to the Nigeria-Biafra genocidal war (1967-1970), that claimed an estimated lives of 3.5 million Biafrans, mostly Igbos! Since then, the country has never known peace.
Nigeria, since independence in 1960, has been moving from one political turmoil or instability of government to another, including military dictatorships and endless political instability and change of governments. Added to these, are the present terrorists activities of Northern Nigeria-based Muslim fundamentalists' groups, such as Boko Haram, ISWAP, Fulani killer-herdsmen and bandits - Muslim terrorism and insurgency, perpetuating various kinds of atrocities and bloodbaths throughout the country. The consequences of which include, endless killings, destruction of villages and farmlands of indigenous ethnic-communities of the Middle Belt and Southern states, ethnic-cleansings, raping of women, kidnappings, corruption, religious persecution of Christians, etc.
There is also the case of Kissi ethnic group in West Africa, once a fairly large and powerful ethnic group. But after the colonial partition they found themselves divided into three countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), where they constitute only a minority. There is also the case of the Massai of East Africa, a warrior-like, and most cultural conscious ethnic group in the whole of African continent. But after the colonial partition they found themselves separated into Tanzania and Kenya where they remained minority group, devoid of any political influence or power. There are many other examples of this colonial dismemberment of various African ethnic-nationalities. It is found in across the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa - African nation states created through the European colonial fiat.
As the partition was going on, traditional chiefs who opposed the new set-up or colonial policies were replaced without reference to the natives and tradition that put them. In British colonies, such as Nigeria, the colonialists adopted the system of indirect-rule. In societies with dispersal authority, that is, authority at the hands of many, the colonialist introduced the so-called "warrant-chief" system in utter disregard to the existing traditional pattern of societal organization they met in the area.
The traditional African societies with dispersal authority, that is, authority at the hands of many, this way of societal organization is found mainly among those ethnic groups that practice village-system of societal organization or small autonomous groups. What in modern terminology could be called, "republican system of political structure or governance."
This pattern of societal organization is also found mainly among people in fairly populous ethnic groups which are not receptive to a strong centralized authority. An example is the Igbo of Nigeria. The organized pattern among the Igbos is the village-group. The village-group is the federation of clans. The clan is composed of the kindred, and the kindred is made up of extended families. The head of the eldest or principal clan presides over the assemblies of the village-group attended by other heads. But the decisions that affect the life of the clans constituting the village-group necessarily involve consultation on family, kindred, and clan levels. Orders which come from the top without prior discussion or negotiation are ignored. Hence, the people say, "Igbo enweghi eze" (Igbo have no king).
However, in those societies which follow centralized authority or pattern of societal organization, they are structured in form of monarchies which are either autocratic or oligarchic. In the autocratic situation, the ruler directly appoints and removes from office his representatives as he likes. This type of societal organization was prevalent in those kingdoms as Mali, Songhai, which were however, under the influence of Arab-Muslim culture.
With regard to the monarchies which are oligarchies, the monarch rules with council of chiefs. The exercise of authority is collegial. Though the person of the monarch is sacred, in the sense that he is seen to have an intimate relationship with God and divinities. Nevertheless, he works very closely on daily basis with his chiefs. A good example is the Oyo kingdom of Yorubaland.
The colonial masters, however, had no problem in using monarchs or kings as their go-between and collaborators for their system of 'indirect-rule', in those African societies with feudal and monarchical system of societal organization. The African monarchs and kings became the instrument used in enforcing the colonial policies by the Europeans. But for the African societies, for example, the Igbo in Nigeria, with the political system of 'republicanism', the colonialists disregarded the existing traditional societal structure, and introduced the infamous "warrant-chiefs" system, which began to function as new channels of colonial government's relationship with the local people. That is it!
Till date, modern African leaders who challenge any of these inherited colonial boundaries, patterns of governance, as well as the neo-colonial structures or policies in his state, may not live to see the next day in office. In fact, since Independence in 1960s, African heads of states as a body (OAU, now African Union), have not been able to agree among themselves, with one voice, and summon the courage to challenge and address these colonial trappings and injustice on which modern African nation states were founded by the Western European countries? This is the crux of the matter!
The inability of today's African ruling-class (politicians, religious, cultural and traditional rulers, as well as African elites and intellectuals), to address and correct, once and for all, with steadfastness and single-mindedness, the evils of the colonial partition of Africa - inherited colonial political structure and neo-colonial project in the continent, is the bane of many African nations today, including Nigerian State.
The European Dispossessions of African Humanity and Culture
The consequence of what we have discussed so far, is that nobody should confuse the 15th century's European expansionism and exploitation of Africa (Era of European Slave Trade in Africa), with that of the 19th century's European colonial partition of the African continent into façade of 'nation states' that were never in the first place, created to succeed or serve the interest of African people, but rather of the former colonial powers. Even as that, however, one thing remained constant in each of the two epochs: that is, the victim, which is Africa and its people.
As stated already, during the 15th century European expansionism in Africa, backed with the Papal Patronatus (Padroado), Papal Privileges, the new found lands were divided between two European (Catholic) powerful nations at the time. The Americas (West Indies) were given to Spain, and Africa and Asia to Portugal. It was during the 15th century European expansionism, that the European powers began to engage in the inhuman merchandise of Africans, which lasted until 19th century. But by 19th century, Slave Trade was no longer fashionable, and so European powers had to switch over from that human dispossession of Africa to cultural dispossession of the continent through their new colonial policies and partition of the continent into façades of nation states that lacks in purpose and content, the real meaning of nation state.
Because by now, Europe had penetrated the interior of the continent and so began to amass and appropriate for themselves the land and territories of African peoples. This means that, when Europeans discovered how vastness the continent is, and also its rich abundant natural and mineral resources, they changed from Slave Trade to 'new' form of colonial policies. Various European countries got interested in amassing Africa's rich abundant natural and mineral recourses, and so began the scramble for Africa. Europe began its scramble for Africa for political and economic influence and interests.
To stop killing themselves over Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium, who by now, had claimed personal ownership of the Congos (because of Congo's rich agricultural, natural and mineral resources), met with the German Chancellor, Otto Bismark. From there, the infamous Berlin Conference of 1805 was convoked. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, Europe divided and partitioned the continent of Africa among themselves, for their selfish political and economic interests. This is the genesis of the present day African political instability and its other concomitant problems!
In all this, however, one question remains to be asked: "Will Africa and Africans ever be liberated from the shackles of its past history of European Slave Trade and Colonial dispossessions, as well as from the present-day, Western powers' 'neo-colonial' agenda in the continent?" Your guess is as good as mine!
However, whatever happens, it is our hope in this short write-up, that the curiosity the response of the renowned Ghanaian author, Ama ata Aidoo, has aroused in many of our young Africans of today, is a promise that gives much hope for the future. It is a promise of optimism for the future, and not pessimism. If there is anything Africans need today, it is optimism and courage to take their destiny by their own hands, and know that 'God help those who help themselves.'
Nobody will build your continent or society for you, if you do not do it yourself. God will not send his Angels from heavens to do that for you. Because it will amount to insulting God himself, who in his infinite wisdom, has blessed you with both intelligence and freedom, and with myriads of good talents, to help you transform your lives and society yourselves!
The task of liberating Africa from the shackles and trappings of its colonial past and Western neo-colonial agenda in the continent, is a task that awaits Africans themselves. Nobody will do that for you. As the saying goes, "You must work out your salvation by yourself."
This is why Ama ata Aidoo, in that her interview cited at the beginning of this article, spoke of 500 years of European exploitation and plundering of African resources. And concluded it rhetorically, thus:
"It is not a question of forgiveness. I have nothing against you. My point is that you did, and you are doing for your survival what is necessary. We can't blame you for that. The fact that we didn't do enough for our own survival, and we are not still doing enough for our survival, that is not your problem."
Yes, much of the problem with Africa today have their origins in European colonial history with the continent. But after many years of political independence, the problem with Africa is NOT the Whiteman as such, but the African politician, FEAR, and the way an average African still reasons.
The Kenyan pan-Africanist, human rights advocate and law Professor, PLO Lumumba, once said, "The African politician is Africa's curse!" Added to it is the way an average African still reasons. An average African is yet to develop the mental attitude, mental capacity and toughness of mind, to know that the greatest value in life is freedom. And that freedom itself is not an Ocean where you easily walk into. It demands sacrifices and total dedication, to achieve your freedom and that of your people!
Until there is mental liberation, an average African can hardly recognize that the struggle for liberation of his people is a 'divine' task that beckons on every conscientious African today. He will come to know that Africa is not yet free, and that the 'African politician' is the biggest obstacle in the struggle for African liberation and development. The African politician who chooses to serve as agent of 'neo-colonialism' at the expense of his own people and country, is the bane of modern African society.
Not until Africans come to this realization and begin to do something about it, they should stop blaming the Whiteman as the cause of Africa's woes!