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Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013
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Messay Kebede


Messay Kebede is the author of five books: Meaning and Development (1994), Survival and Modernization—Ethiopia’s Enigmatic Present (1999), Africa’s Quest for a Philosophy of Decolonization (2004), Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974 (2008), and Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution (2011). He has also published numerous articles in professional and nonprofessional journals.

Following the deeply destructive experience of colonialism, Africans must rethink their approach to modernization. Notably, they must engage in a serious critical review of the prevailing colonial model and creatively find grassroots forms of modernization What is wrong with Africa? Save for a few promising exceptions, why has Africa become the land where dictatorships, disrespect for elementary human rights, economic mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, ethnic confrontations etc., proliferate and endure? This total and systematic failure requires an explanation that goes beyond circumstantial causes and unravels the trend of a whole continent that is decidedly moving on the wrong track. Africa looks increasingly like a derailed train moving aimlessly into the unknown.

Seeing the extent of the failure, one is tempted to concede that a racist explanation of the African predicament would not be a foolish assumption after all. What else could fully account for the colossal failure to modernize but the savage, barbaric nature of the black soul? Modern methods and values seem congenitally opposed to the primitive and untamed ways of Africa’s deep psyche. To say so is to imply not only that the colonizers were right when they stigmatized the black person as a savage, but also that independence came too soon so that Africa remains in need of a new civilizing mission.

The trouble with the racist explanation is that those who wanted to civilize Africa were no less, if not more, barbaric than the so-called savages of Africa. European history is saturated with untold devastations and crimes against humanity. Brutal regimes having no parallel with African tyranny, like the Nazi and other fascistic governments, are part of the recent history of Europe. Even as Europe was conquering the world in the name of a civilizing mission, modern technology was turning the European scene into so vast a butchery that eminent Western thinkers seriously reconsidered the alleged superiority of the ‘white man.’ Indeed, the hard fact is that the West is not entitled to give moral lessons to Africans.

Instead of ascribing the African savagery to racial specifics, the perennial conflict between good and evil in all human beings better explains the moral shortcomings that Africans and Westerners equally exhibit. As the French writer Pascal said a long time ago: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.” People belong to different races and ethnic groups; more importantly, however, they share a common human nature defined by this hybrid character. The key to African failure is likely to emerge if, transcending races, we focus on the duality of human nature, more specifically on the reasons why the evil side gets the upper hand over the benevolent tendency.

Let us first cope with the question of why human nature evolved in the West toward a sustained respect for human rights and democratic institutions, while in African countries said nature did not progress in the same direction. Here the temptation is to assume that human nature has changed in Europe. Alas, nature does not change, otherwise we would be dealing with a new type of human beings. Make no mistake: the sustained respect for democracy and human rights in the West would disintegrate in no time if adverse circumstances were to disrupt its socio-economic stability.

Accordingly, we should talk less about changed nature and more about the presence of mechanisms preventing or countering the expression of evil tendencies. Rather than evolutionary change, what we have is a careful and fragile containment of the savage component of human nature. It is as though the evil part has been put in a temporary cage or muzzled like an aggressive dog. In short, civilized behaviours in modern societies are the outcomes of mechanisms of containment.

What is meant by ‘containment’ transpires as soon as we ask the question of knowing why Africans are less successful in refraining the aggressive side of their nature. For sure they had the ability, as attested by the fact that Africans had established viable societies in the past. Evidently, the ability was lost, most probably as a result of the encounter with the savagery of colonization. The most enduring and deep-seated effect of colonization was the destruction of the parapet that Africans had erected to contain the evil component of their nature. When people blame colonialism for destroying native traditions and customs, they directly allude to the stripping of African soul of inhibitory mechanisms.

The truth about colonization is that, as a violent and externally induced change, it propelled a form of modernization grounded in a tabula rasa approach, following the indiscriminate description of African traditions and customs as savage and unfit for modern life. Unlike the evolutionary path of the modernization of the West, Africans were subjected to a distressing form of change that had no continuity with their past. Whereas western countries either conserved a large aspect of their past culture or created substitutes, the colonial policy of clean slate removed all the protections that Africans had built to ward off malefic temptations, thereby unleashing evil forces.

Here we must focus on the nature of power, given that the main source of the African predicament is the struggle to control state power. There is no doubt that the exercise of power finds a natural support in the dimorphic composition of each individual, that is, in the natural tendency of each individual to command and obey. This dimorphism flows from the natural attribute of human beings as social beings. Society is an organization and there is no organization without leaders and followers. However, as each individual feels an equal pressure to command and obey, no stable order could spring from the dimorphism of human nature. On the contrary, competition for power was inevitable and, with it, instability, conflicts and the use of violent means to prevail over opponents.

Since incessant conflicts for power entailed nothing but anarchy and violent confrontations, societies have devised various means to prevent this state of constant ‘war of all against all.’ One such means was, for instance, the establishment of monarchy. In abiding by the criterion of heredity, power and its transmission acquired the aura of legitimacy, which significantly reduced the destructive outcomes of power struggle. This does not mean that societies found good leaders in monarchs, but that they avoided the worst by preventing a state of constant war. Another means designed to curtail the brutality of power struggle was religion: the passion for domination was moderated by the fear of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal bliss for compassionate rule.

In Europe, the evolution from monarchy to republic was realized through the establishment of substitute institutions which, while allowing the pursuit of political competition, delegitimized the use of violent means. The accepted normativity of the electoral system and democratic institutions civilized, so to speak, competition for power. The democratic way of resolving conflicts even changed into an incentive, as it became clear that it was also a path to achieving economic prosperity.

In Africa, by contrast, the implementation of the clean slate policy resulted in the destruction of all the stratagems that Africans had used to control the brutality of power struggle. The grant of independence and the departure of the colonial rulers plunged Africans into a Hobbesian condition, that is, a condition devoid of any legitimate power structure, the far-reaching consequence of which was the unleashing of a raw, untamed, unmediated struggle for power. No sooner was a power structure established through the electoral procedure than its legitimacy was rejected by rival groups.

From this state of things stemmed the African litany of military coups d’état, themselves followed by personalized dictatorships. Even governments still in civilian hands could see no other way of lasting than by turning into dictatorships, often by changing into systems headed by presidents for life. Another expression of a power system lacking in legitimacy was the proliferation of ethnic conflicts, the latter being the manner by which excluded elites not only contest existing ruling elites, but also claim legitimacy as representatives of mistreated ethnic groups. Of course, the purpose of the ethnicization of politics is not so much to liberate ill-treated peoples as to use the mobilizing power of group resentment for the establishment of another form of sectarian rule.

The Hobbesian consequence of the clean slate ideology has another detrimental implication, which is the empowerment of dictators with narcissistic tendency. The list of African dictators is unusually long, the most notorious being Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Idi Amin Dada, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Sekou Toure, Charles Taylor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Isaias Afwerki et al. When established norms are repudiated, not only people and elites lose their moral compass, but also conditions facilitating the rise of narcissistic individuals to absolute power emerge. When an all-out struggle for power is unleashed, those groups and individuals not bothered by moral concerns, those maintaining that all means are justified, including crime, deceit and betrayal, are liable to prevail.

Under normal circumstances, narcissists are less likely to succeed because their immorality is of little use in situations governed by legitimate and established norms. However, when these norms are discredited, immorality provides multiple opportunities. The fact that narcissists have no respect for what is already established easily marks them out as the champions of a new order. Moreover, their resolute and tranquil recourse to violence, shrewdness, deceit, cruelty and betrayal, combined with their usual eloquence and a propensity to hide their meanness behind grandiose ideas, propels them to leadership positions.

Whatever narcissists dissimulate will fully manifest itself once they have conquered the top position. Their evil nature becomes then the ruling norm of the country and all dissent is called crime, regardless of its intention. Since they design everything from the vantage point of eliminating rivalry and protecting their absolute power, what they have built crumbles quickly when accumulated mistakes caused by their own narcissism inevitably ignite mass uprisings. What follows is often another round of raw conflicts for power control with unpredictable consequences.

Africans must never lose sight of the fact that the connection between leaders and followers being natural is little prone to democratization. The way to democracy is never achieved by giving more power to self-proclaimed liberators. Instead, the objective must be the division and spreading of power. As forcefully illustrated by the American Constitution, power is tamed, civilized when it is spread in such a way that it rises up against its own unhealthy expansion. Unfortunately, instead of fragmenting power, Africa opted for power concentration in the name of rapid modernization. Far from accelerating development, power centralization unleashed a severe form of elite conflicts for the control of scarce resources by the violent exclusion of rival elites. In many countries, the outcome was and still is uninterrupted civil wars, dictatorial rules and disregard for elementary rights; in a word, savagery.

To get out of the present predicament, Africans must rethink their approach to modernization. Notably, they must engage in a serious critical review of the prevailing colonial model and in a creative effort to find grassroots forms of modernization. The colonial model advocates the idea of modernization as an imposition from above, the consequence of which is that it promotes power concentration and a form of development benefiting exclusively those who control power and their clients. That the model attracts African educated elites must not be a surprise: the attraction is inscribed in the very attitude of African elites drawing from their Western education the entitlement to be heirs to the civilizing mission of colonialism. Above all, Africans must give primacy to the issue of power: prior to designing economic reforms and projecting ambitious rates of growth, they must reduce the corrosive effect of power struggle by finding ways and means of civilizing the seizure and exercise of power.



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Fine piece. Education remains the key to liberation. Education will help Africans accept the past, confront the present and engage the future. Democratic or not, the survival of the fittest holds true in this milleu more than ever before in a global interdependent world. China is not democratic but she can produce goods from tooth picks to spacecrafts. The right kind of education, the right kind of skills; thats all there is to it.
A very interesting analysis, more for its psychological than political implications. You argue that the template imposed by the savage colonialist has informed (for the worse) the equally savage post-colonial mindset. According to psychology and/or epigenetics, the abused (sexual, physically, emotionally etc) will predictably (70-90%) become the abuser. Which leads you, by inference, to conclude the abused African predictably (but not in all instances-Mandela) becomes the post-colonial abuser. As you would have it, he’s caught (by inference exculpated) in a vicious circle not of his own making.

Should we not, therefore, have expected the same to hold true of Europe, since throughout its history, it has been invaded by savage hordes, from Ostrogoths, Visagoths, Attila et al? But in point of fact (granted by your article) the abused European did not become the abuser. After lengthy trial and error and bloodbath, Europe successfully establish those all important "inhibitory mechanisms."

So the question is perhaps not What’s Wrong with Africa, but rather what went wrong. I think Europe succeeded in taming the inner savage thanks to the huge and formidable presence of monotheism, which concentrated the power of the many gods into one. The European was more God-fearing than his African counterpart, meaning he would be more like to obey the Ten Commandments for fear of the theological consequences. If true, we would expect the West, for whom secularism has become the 11th commandment, to be significantly more savage than it was a century ago. Is it? In the US, one of every 100 males is in prison. The Middle Class has disappeared, replaced by the working poor.

From the Grand Inquisitor (Dostoievsky), When God is dead, everything is permitted. Once you get past style, I frankly don’t see much of a difference between the Mugabes and Bushes of the world. Mugabe assumes power, the corporations buy it; it's one and the same, voter be damned, or, more to the point, the voter (the vote) is a fiction, a masquerade.

If the species is to survive its nature (worst instincts), it will have to be 15% more rational and empathetic than it is currently configured. Bio-geneticists of the world unite.

Messay Kebede
Thank you for the email and the comments about my article.

Clearly, you have understood my analysis of African predicament. However, your raise two issues that require answers on my part.

1. It is true that Europe has been invaded by "barbarians." But the invasions did not have the same effect as in Africa, because the barbarians did not come with the mission to civilize. They actually adopted the cultures of the people they had conquered. It led to assimilation.

2. Yes, Christianity has certainly contributed to the taming of the savage nature of Europeans. I say "contributed" to indicate that it is not enough. Take the case of Ethiopia: it is most probably the oldest Christian country in the world and its culture is entirely dominated by the fear of God, in addition to Ethiopians having a profound messianic mentality. Moreover, Ethiopia was never colonized. Even so, today's Ethiopia is the prototype of savagery. One explanation is that the modern educated elite became culturally colonized and alien to its own tradition, in the name of modernization. This uprootedness had actually the same effect as direct political colonization.



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