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Africa, Past and Future: A Conversation with Toyin Falola

Members of the Scholars Council are appointed by the Librarian of Congress to advise on matters related to scholarship at the Library, with special attention to the Kluge Center and the Kluge Prize. The Council includes distinguished scholars, writers, researchers and scientists. “Insights” is featuring some of the work of this highly-accomplished group of thinkers. Dan Turello continues the series interviewing Toyin Falola.

Toyin Falola is Professor, Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria. His full bio is on our website.

On December 15, Falola will host a Kluge Center conference titled “Contemporary African Immigrants in the U.S.”

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Toyin Falola, historian and member of the Library of Congress Scholars Council.

Toyin, thanks for being with us. Let’s begin with African identity. The idea of African Renaissance was popularized by Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop in the 40s and 50s, and adopted by the Second President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, in the late 90s. Does the concept still have traction with African leaders?

Dan, allow me to start with an important correction to a view that has gained currency: the notion that ideologies of African Renaissance, broadly defined, have their origins in mid-twentieth century efforts to challenge Eurocentricism and colonization and reclaim Africa’s instrumental agency. Contrary to this common perception, the idea of an African Renaissance or renewal predated Cheikh Anta Diop and Thabo Mbeki. On the 5th of April, 1906, a South African national, Pixley Seme, gave a speech at Columbia University, New York, in which he spoke about the “Regeneration of Africa.” Seme went into the history of civilization and the great achievements of ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and other civilizations of Africa, and expressed his hope for a renascent Africa in what he called “the rise of the sun on the bright continent,” as well as the renewed consciousness of the people to fight for their liberation, and the repositioning of the continent in the emerging global systems of modernity. Pixley theorized Africans as catalytic agents in this new civilizational universe. His idea reinforced and fed into the Pan-Africanist movement that started in the early 1900s and continued through the struggle for decolonization.

Former President Thabo Mbeki rekindled and popularized the idea in the 1990s. Like Seme, he situated the hope of a renascent Africa in the context of a new euphoria of globalization—thus, the inter-linkages of the global economy, the new wave of democratization, and a rising middle class. In order to realize the African Renaissance he envisioned, he worked with other African leaders like Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and the late Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria to put in place such programs as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APR). He also worked with the late Libyan President, Moammar Gaddhafi, to change the continental organization, the Organisation of African Unity, into a new structure known as the African Union, a gesture designed to foster more integrative, coordinated developmental flows within the continent.

Unfortunately when this set of leaders left office, the idea of an African Renaissance took a back seat as key African leaders such as Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria were too engrossed in domestic challenges to pursue a continental vision. Today, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has started a process that may lead to the resuscitation of this idea with his commitment to re-invigorate the African Union. Outside the official circles, there are many ongoing conversations among continental civil society organizations on the need for an African Renaissance.

More recently we’ve been hearing the word “Afropolitanism.” Can you tell us about this movement?

Sure, although I am not a part of it! Afropolitanism is a concept that has been used to describe Africans in the Diaspora who harbor a consciously expansive sense of identity that enables them to simultaneously embrace their cosmopolitan sensibilities and their continental Africa-consciousness. This identity resists the familiar Pan-Africanist and Afrocentric binaries of alienation and double consciousness. Instead, it impels a sense of commitment to the progress of the continent through remittances, facilitation of inward investment, exchange programs and so on, even while they continue to identify their displacement from the continental homeland as a source of freedom and as a strategy of self-empowerment.

In her 2005 book, titled “Bye-Bye Babar,” Taiye Selasi, of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent, defines Afropolitans as not citizens—but Africans—of the world, where they are not bound together by any specific language, mother tongue, religion, or culture. The idea has also received sustained philosophical reflection from Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher and political scientist. While some believe that the concept is innovative and has the capacity to facilitate development in Africa, others dismiss it as an idea contrived in the West to aid a new ideational scramble for Africa through the support of Africans in the Diaspora.

What are the continuing challenges for economic development in Africa?  

Very gargantuan! While progress has been made on several levels, ongoing challenges range from governance deficits, infrastructure gaps, the structure of the varied economies and the nature of global capitalism that edges Africa to a peripheral position. At the level of governance, institutions remain weak in their capacity to rein in corruption. Many political leaders continue to use the state as a means of private accumulation, thereby denying their countries the much needed capital to fund development. In the end, it becomes very obvious that kleptocrats, to say the least, cannot vizualize or manage development!

Furthermore, there is a huge infrastructure gap, especially in the areas of electricity, transportation networks and modern communications. Although there is a high level of internet penetration and access, as well as mobile telecommunications, their potential to galvanize the service sector has been constrained by the challenge of low levels of energy supply.

The structure of African economies continues to hinder economic development. For instance, raw materials and commodities constitute the bulk of economic activities in many of the countries on the continent, exposing their economies to the volatilities and vulnerabilities associated with dependence on global commodity markets. The direction of exports also shows that African countries trade more with Europe, China and the United States of America, along with new partners such as India and Brazil, than they do among themselves. In fact, intra-Africa trade is the lowest of all regions in the world at barely 13 percent.

How do governance and security impact these directions?  

From Nigeria to Kenya, there has been an increase of terrorist and subversive activities on the continent, often by disaffected armed groups like Somalia-based Al Shabab and Nigeria-based Boko Haram. The challenge of terrorism is a global one. However, the weak security architecture of affected African states has compounded the problem. The high rate of youth unemployment in various countries of Africa also makes it easier for terrorist groups to recruit jobless youth into their nefarious activities. Most of the jobless youngsters are well-educated college graduates who cannot find jobs and are desperate to survive. In an atmosphere of insecurity, it is very difficult to plan for sustainable economic development. Economic insecurity has fostered and exacerbated the threat to lives and property on the continent. 

Climate change, food production, mass migrations: what patterns do you see?  

What a great question! There is an intractable link among the three issues. Climate change is affecting agriculture in its various dimensions, and this has implications for food security. Given that agriculture provides income for more than 70 percent of households in different parts of Africa, income is impacted when agriculture is affected. This in turn has implications for the capacity of parents to send their children to school. The search for a better life has worsened the crisis that mass migration from the continent has come to typify. However, the responses of many EU countries to this hardship-induced migratory flow leave much to be desired. In fact, it is a contradiction to the idea of civilization that Europe so often claims. The three interrelated problems call for global action to address the scourge of climate change, ensure food security, and take a more humanistic approach to the management of migration. 

To what degree are countries in Africa achieving agency? Are they creating their own futures? Or are they still at the mercy of international interests, multinational corporations and powerful financial players?

The global economic system continues to exert pressure on the capacity of African countries. The International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have intruded in a manner that has bound the continent to economic principles and practices that limit the capacity of the state to innovatively design and adopt policies that can create jobs and enhance sustainable development. Besides, regional trade deals that African countries are being made to sign provide little or no space for African countries to industrialize let alone create jobs for their teeming jobless youths. Apart from this, there is a new regime of debt accumulation on the continent. After the debt forgiveness of the 2000s, many African countries have started to accumulate new debts, which may further limit their development potentials by preventing important social investments.

To a great extent, the majority of African countries are still at the mercy of international interests, multinational corporations and powerful financial players. The nature of the state and its weak capacity are partly responsible for this. Most African states are neither viable nor capable of fostering any meaningful development. This is why the program of regional integration, which is at the core agenda of the African Union, is very important. Regional integration will help to foster pooling of resources—both financial and human—as well as ensure that no one is left behind. This will require a return to the human values of Ubuntu—which means “humanness” or “kindness”—for which Africa is known. It will also require a re-organization of the various societies in terms of the configuration of political elites, redefinition of state-market relations, and the negotiation of better trade and investment deals between developed and emerging economies.

Dan, the journey ahead will be pleasant, with a great destiny, indeed following a sweet dream. Africa will defintitely be great again, as in its glorious historical past of enduring values, market institutions and political societies. Here, of course, is a continent that has survived the destructive slave trade, global injustices, colonization, AIDS, Ebola and much more. For utter protection, it wears its teflon all year round!

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