At college, our professor assigned us a book by a retired Dutch Diplomat. The book, titled “What Went Wrong With Africa,” was a depressing read. In it, the diplomat paints a bleak continent that is irredeemably hopeless.
Worse still, the undertone with which the diplomat, who had gained extensive experience over long period of service in Africa, writes seems intent on proving the inevitability that is the answer to the question in the book title: the inferiority of the black race that explains its manifest destiny. How quickly times change.
At the time of his writing, no one could have predicted the unravelling currently taking place in Europe and America. Europeans and Americans were cocksure about who they were as a people and their place in the food chain, their destiny assured. As such, they defined the world and perceived themselves in ways that “othered” people who were not of the European extract.
It is from this mental place that the author was writing about Africa. Europe was the place of enlightenment and Africa was the place of darkness where savages, their instincts primordial and keen on violence, roamed around baying for blood; Africans were ready to pounce whenever they came across those, like members of a different tribe, they perceived different from them.
We believed all this. And we were even surprised whenever people of different tribes got along. It was a shock and worth pointing out for praise or ridicule.
And so, whereas Europeans were instinctively reasonable and peaceful, the “other” always existed in a raw state of nature: emotional, primitive, and violent.
Europeans forced collective amnesia on everyone. We forgot the kind of savagery that ravaged Europe and cost millions of innocent lives just as recent as half a century ago; a kind of barbarity on a scale that has never been replicated elsewhere.
Even so, Europeans convinced us that these were world wars, even when in fact it was Europeans fighting amongst themselves. And so, they successfully projected savagery on others.
These and other contradictions mounted. As they piled, they at first eroded and then destroyed any pretence that there existed such a thing as a superior race. This how to understand the rise of ultra-nationalism in Europe and in America. Its mission is to restore the ‘natural’ order of things and to reject a world where a hierarchy of human groups does not exist.
The euphemism for restoring this hierarchy is to make Europe and America “great again.” This means a return to the old order of things.
The success of this movement, seen in its ability to greatly influence politics in those places to the extent that it has been able to capture state power in some of them, has removed the veneer around the issue of race as it relates to the degree to which Europeans and Americans believe in racial superiority and by extension the preservation of social hierarchies.
But here’s the paradox. The greatness of their countries was largely predicated on the ability to hold such groups firmly in the fringe of society, their ideas and behaviour considered shameful, socially corrosive, and undesirable.
In other words, the greatness of those societies is tied to the degree to which such groups, now in control of state power, can be pushed back to the fringe of society. This is no easy task.
And so, thanks to the unmasking brought about by such groups, we know the extent of the problem of racism; they have also helped to precipitate reactions that have left no shadow of doubt that no group of people is inherently superior to another, as well as the conviction that any residual righteous indignation is due to social conditioning and poor upbringing.
An opportunity for Africa
For Africans this is an opportunity to find its voice. While Africa is better positioned now than ever to reject a relationship where Europeans and Americans are lesson givers and Africans are lesson receivers, it will be a missed opportunity if our primary benefit from this historical moment is to remind the Europeans and Americans that they are as bad as we are; that they are as racist as we are ethnic; that they allow poverty to exist amidst plenty just as we do.
On the contrary, our mission ought to be to learn as much as we can from the collapse of the American and European project, to take note of the lessons in their rise to global leadership and their fall from grace.
And from these lessons Africans would wish to avoid a repeat of similar mistakes as Africa pushes for respectability in the global order as well as a civilisation that is not erected on pretence.
If the Dutch Diplomat were to write the same book today, the tone would be very different. It would be more empathic towards the development predicament Africa finds itself in and he’d have to mount off the high horse to write it.
What went wrong with Europe and America?