I had been waiting for a friend to debrief on a matter of mutual interest when I overheard a conversation at a popular café in one of the Kigali neighbourhoods. I simply took it for granted that whatever the young people were discussing was likely to be of little interest to me because, after all, youngsters tend to spend much time discussing such things as hip-hop and the like.
Or so I thought. That was before I overheard one of them, a young woman barely in her 20s, refer to Pan Africanism. At first I thought I had misheard. Rather casually, as if she wasn’t saying anything profound, she went on to say, “Sometimes I wonder what I would be like if we had not been colonised.”
As a student of African political thought, many things raced through my mind. I tried to connect things I have read or heard over the years.
I thought about what had been said during the Meles Zenawi Symposium that I had written about in this column, particularly the statement by Dr Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, who stated that many African leaders continue to accept to be treated as junior partners by their counterparts in the West because there is a lot of “mental slavery” still going on.
I wondered what all this meant and how significant was it, anyways? I quickly connected the fresh thoughts on Meles Zenawi to the observations of Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist, liberation philosopher, and freedom fighter from so-called French-Martinique.
Earlier on in their lives, both were preoccupied with the problem of liberating the African. They were prepared to pay the highest price for the cause, by taking part in armed struggle in Ethiopia and Algeria, respectively.
By virtue of the scientific disciplines they had chosen to use as a lens, however, they had different points of departure. Through the lenses of economics, Zenawi would take advantage of the state at his disposal to show that it is possible to reconstitute the modes of production to work for the benefit of the majority of the citizens, the very raison d’être of the state being to liberate people from poverty and thereby usher in genuine liberation.
By studying the mind, Fanon realised that the problem of the subjugated was, first and foremost, mental. In his opinion, slavery for the descendants of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism for continental Africans had caused self-alienation, which he conceived as a key impediment to genuine liberation.
In other words, the mental reconstitution of the descendants of the colonised and the enslaved was a necessary precondition for genuine liberation. It is in the departure, therefore, that Zenawi and Fanon differed somewhat.
More importantly, however, both believed deeply in the potential for genuine liberation of Africa’s peasants in whom they placed much hope for the future of Africa and of its people who they envisaged as eventually attaining the freedom and dignity to think for themselves, to pursue a future as respected members of the community of nations.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argued that if at all there is to be a liberation of Africa, it would be led by the peasants. He reasoned that the peasants, not the educated elite, were the unadulterated Africans who were less affected by colonial mental emasculation.
It is a psychoanalysis that Fanon began in Black Skin, White Masks and elaborated on through his experience as a fighter for Algerian independence. For him, this limited cultural intercourse between the peasants and the Europeans would be the basis for a genuine African renewal, an organic renaissance without which formerly colonised states would remain in the category of dependent republics, as Fidel Castro liked to say.
What Fanon and Castro are implying is that the urban elites have, at best, kept Africans in this state of intellectual and material dependency. For Fanon, the reason is clear: self-alienation. He portrays them as a selfish group who are interested only in superficial pursuits, which cannot deliver true liberation.
Take democracy. If the objective of democracy is to confer legitimacy on the state, then the first source of legitimacy for the state, according to Meles Zenawi, are the peasants. Moreover, a democratic state is one that is obsessed with freeing its citizens from poverty.
Further, a state with a high degree of citizen involvement so that they own their development is democratic and legitimate because it confers upon them the dignity to determine the kind of future they wish for themselves, a necessary ingredient of true liberation.
Underlying this conception of democracy is the idea that liberal democracy has had little meaning in the lives of the majority of Africans who live in extreme poverty. Which is why in its ritualised ‘democratic elections’ that confer international legitimacy on African governments, poor peasants exchange their votes for money, sugar, paraffin, soap, and cigarettes.
Further, the argument goes, it is a form of democracy that is skewed in favour of the urbanised elites some of whom find value in its potential as a vehicle for accessing political power. It is superficial, therefore, because, without a national project of any kind, it does not stretch beyond aspiring for political power for its own sake.
The common thread that links Fanon, Zenawi, and the young woman at the café, who could easily be the former’s granddaughter or the latter’s daughter, is the perpetual question posed in different ways by different generations: how to achieve true liberation and dignity.
One thing is clear: the young woman was not someone in the wilderness searching for someone to blame for whatever may be her predicament or deficiencies. Rather, she seemed to be reflecting on her ‘situation’ – in the singular and collective sense. Could hers be the conduct that begets a decolonised mind, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o might have suggested? It’s well worth a thought.