Monday, August 13, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy's Africa

Achille Mbembe's commentary (thankfully translated by my former African Studies prof) is an insightful critique of Nicolas Sarkozy's (and extends to France's elite ruling class in general) skewed view/language regarding Africa. It is chilling to think that this is the man who will rule France possibly for the next 10 years. Mbembe asks some thought-provoking questions such as: What credibility can we afford such gloomy words that portray Africans as fundamentally traumatized beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests? How is it possible to come to promise us a fanciful Eurafrica without even mentioning the internal efforts to build a unitary African economic framework? But the article is rather long so keep in mind that the excerpts below only make up about a quarter of the whole commentary.

Nicolas Sarkozy's Africa - by Achille Mbembe

If they'd had the chance, the majority of French-speaking Africans would have no doubt voted against Nicolas Sarkozy at the last French presidential elections...a high price for his attitude to immigration when he was Jacques Chirac's Minister of the Interior, his alleged collusion with the racist extreme right-wing and his role in sparking the riots in France's deprived suburbs in 2005.

Violation by language
On his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa, he thus arrived in Dakar preceded by a terribly negative reputation: that of a hyper-active and dangerous politician, cynical and brutal, power-crazy, who doesn't listen, speaks his mind and more, doesn't skimp on the means and who, with regard to Africa and its people, shows nothing but condescension and contempt.

For those who expect nothing from France, the words pronounced at the University of Dakar were nonetheless highly revealing. Indeed, the speech written by Henri Guaino (special advisor) and delivered by Nicolas Sarkozy in the Senegalese capital offer an excellent illumination into the power to harm - conscious or unconscious, passive or active - which, over the next ten years, might well arise from the paternalistic and hackneyed vision that some of the new French ruling elite (on both the left and right) continue to project onto a continent which has nonetheless constantly undergone radical changes, especially during the second half of the 20th century.

The new French president's speech shows how, trapped in a frivolous and exotic vision of the continent, the new French ruling elites claim to shed light on realities that they consider their worst fears or their fantasies (race) but which, in reality, they know nothing about. To address "the elite of African youth", then, Henri Guaino contented himself to lifting, almost word for word, passages from the chapter Hegel devotes to Africa in his work Reason in History, which I again, after many others, recently criticized in my book On the Postcolony.
According to Hegel, Africa is a land of unchanging substance and dazzling disorder, the joyful and tragic country in Creation. Black people, as we see them today, are as they have always been. In the immense energy of the natural arbitrariness that dominates them, neither the moral moment, nor ideas of freedom, justice and progress have any place or particular status. Whoever wants to discover the most appalling manifestations of human nature can find them in Africa. Strictly speaking, this part of the world has no history. What we understand, in short, going by the name of Africa, is an ahistoric, undeveloped world, entirely prisoner of its natural spirit and whose place remains on the threshold of universal history.
The new French elites do not believe anything different. They share this Hegelian prejudice. They now consider that one can only address societies so deeply plunged into the night of childhood by speaking unguardedly, with a sort of virgin energy. And that is indeed what they have in mind when they now openly defend the idea of a nation no longer "hung-up" about its colonial past.
In their eyes, it is only possible to speak of Africa and to Africans by following the path of sense and reason in reverse. It doesn't matter if this is done so in a context in which each word spoken is so in a blanket of ignorance. It suffices to pile on the words, to employ a kind of verbal plethora, to advance in a suffocating wealth of images - all the things that give Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech its abrupt, faltering, and blunt character.

How then, can one be surprised that his definition of the continent and its people is ultimately purely negative? Indeed, our ethno-philosopher president's "African man" is above all characterized either by what he hasn't got, what he isn't or by what he has never managed to achieve (the dialectic of lack and incompletion), or by his opposition to "modern man" (read "white man"), an opposition which apparently results from his irrational attachment to the kingdom of childhood, the world of night, to simple pleasures and a golden age that never existed.
For the rest, the new French ruling elite's Africa is essentially a rural, magical, phantom Africa, partly bucolic, partly nightmarish, inhabited by peasant folk, composed of a community of sufferers who have nothing in common other than their common position on the margins of history, prostrate as they are in a outer-world - that of sorcerers and griots, of magical beings who keep fountains, sing in rivers and hide in the trees, of the village dead and ancestors whose voices can be heard, of masks and forests full of symbols, of the clich├ęs that are so-called "African solidarity", "community spirit", "warmth" and respect for elders and chiefs.

Today, the cultural and intellectual prism through which the new French ruling elites consider Africa, judge it, or doll it out lessons isn't just obsolete. It leaves no place for the amicable relationships that would be a sign of freedom because coextensive with relationships of justice and respect. For the time being, when it comes to Africa, France simply lacks the moral credit that would allow it to speak with certitude and authority.
That is why Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech will not be heard, and even less taken seriously by those he was supposed to be addressing.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He has written extensively in African history and politics, and is the winner of the 2006 Bill Venter/Altron Award for his book On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001).


Nnamdi said...

Ok for once, this Afro Beat article is lacking in concise information. It is overly analytical and does not give us any insight into the speech itself for us to decide whether the persona is vindicated in vilifying the French and especially Sarkozy's position on Africa.

Misan said...

Hi Nnamdi! Unfortunately, due to the length of Mbembe's speech and my poor editing, it may seem that his commentary is lacking in insight as to Sarkozy's true position on Africa. However, this is Mbembe's critical analysis and interpretation of Sarkozy's words, which he addresses to people who heard Sarkozy's speech in Dakar. Here is just a snippet of this speech (unfortunately, I do not have the link to the full transcript, but hopefully when you get to read it, you will have a clearer sense of the persona that is Mr. Sarkozy and his skewed view of the African continent):

The difficulty for Africa is that Africans have never really entered History (…). They have never really launched themselves into the future […]. In a world where nature controls everything, man has remained immobile in the middle of an unshakeable order where everything is determined, there is room neither for human endeavour, nor for the idea of progress.” “[The European legacy] is the fruit of the West’s shameful arrogance but it is not unworthy (…), because it is a call to freedom, emancipation and justice.

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