How far back to go in telling the stories? – A response

By | January 21, 2011

This is a guest post by Keith Hart (cross-posted). It is partly in response to Benson Eluma’s piece here on Achebe and Hart. You can leave your comments here or at Hart’s blog.

Benson’s post refers to my previous one, Africa’s hope, which in turn took off from Chinua Achebe’s NYT oped piece. I will not tackle Benson’s critique point for point. What follows is only indirectly triggered by what he wrote. It matters more to me to make a positive case than to refute his or for that matter Chinua Achebe’s.

I should begin by clarifying my use of history. For me the point is to realise some version of what is possible while starting from the actual present of our moment in history. That vision of possibility should be grounded in what we know of the past, but such historical knowledge is always selective and relative to the forward-looking project. We can pitch rival stories into competition with each other, suggesting that A is not B. I did that for polemical purposes with Achebe’s historical vision and Benson does it with me; but in practice most stories are not mutually exclusive and it is usually futile to treat them as such.

At the end of Talking World War III Blues, Bob sings:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time.
But all the people can’t be all right all the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,”
I said that.

West Africans have been waiting a long time for political emancipation and this is closely tied to slavery, colonialism and recent aspirations to economic development. Each century, as we go back, reveals further layers of the problem and, to come to grips with the sources of the region’s economic backwardness probably requires us to take in the whole of the previous thousand years. I believe that Chinua Achebe’s version of that history was tired, if not lazy. Depending on what we have in mind, the historical significance of all the key terms needs to be interrogated.

Slavery is endemic to West Africa. I have a post on it here. The slave trade was a partnership between Europeans and Africans. It took most of the 19th century to be officially abolished and it has persisted in places until now. Domestic slavery can only be understood in relation to kinship and that too has not been abolished. It is contemporary in one form or another. The abolition of slavery in the West, especially as a result of the American civil war, generated much turbulence in West Africa during the latter decades of the 19th century, a situation exploited by the colonial scramble for Africa. Slavery is living history in Nigeria (as Achebe’s novels pointed out), not just something to be pinned on Europeans and Americans long ago.

Colonialism too needs to be thought about outside the box. As John Peel has demonstrated, many Yoruba intellectuals embraced Christianity, western education and the British empire as a way of taking their nation into the modern world. Ghana had an economy larger than Indonesia’s at the time of independence and per capita income on a par with South Korea. The political and economic failures of the last half-century have cast doubt on how the transition to post-colonial states should be viewed. It is not obvious when in the period from the 1940s to the 70s various colonial regimes started to pull out or how independent the successor regimes often were. What is clear is that political recipes for emancipation lacked an effective understanding of conditions in the world at large and over-estimated local powers of self-determination. The result in the early 21st century is that West Africans, especially Nigerians, are still waiting for political forms adequate to their needs and aspirations as world citizens.

What economic system might underwrite these political aspirations? Rather than invoke “capitalism” as a way of avoiding economic analysis, we need to interrogate this term more than any other. I use it in a way similar to Marx to mean a social complex of people, machines and money that over the last two centuries has driven population growth, urbanization and higher energy use in a very uneven way. It takes many concrete forms and is always combined with other economic forms. Capitalism’s mission is to break down the insularity of traditional communities and bring cheap commodities to the masses. It is not the just society humanity deserves, but a temporary bridge to that society. It is of course highly moot where different parts of the world have reached in this process, where they might want to go next and how.

The present moment is specific in that, for the first time, global capitalism has been diversified beyond its North Atlantic origins. In a book published three decades ago, I argued that modern states were being erected in West Africa on the basis of backward agriculture and that, unless significant progress towards machine industry (in the broadest sense) were made soon, these states would devolve to a level congruent with their economic backwardness. I intend to revisit this argument in the present book.

Once again, I have covered a lot of ground in a very telegraphic way which lends itself to polemical distortion. But what can you do in a blog post? I think the triad — pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial — is a weird periodization of West African history and one that will not serve attempts to improve the region’s political economy well now. Rather than insist on my own highly selective account, I would like to discuss the key relevant terms in an open-ended way. But more than that, I believe there are substantial grounds for hope of significant African development at this time. The politicians and the intellectuals (at home and abroad) will probably be the last to find out about it.

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