Before we talk about the perception that Africans have of Europe, let’s first agree on the nature of the object we are referring to: Africa.
Africa is a Western invention. In other words, the Africa we are talking about is a concept that was created based on a perspective and ideology that has existed only since colonial days. To prove this, one can simply deconstruct the idea that there are three distinctive Africas: supposedly “white” North Africa, where, in fact, just as many blacks are; sub-Saharan Africa – everything to the south of the Sahara supposedly forming one homogeneous block; and then you have South Africa, which is presented as being different, but based on what? Based not on the majority but rather on the white minority that ruled the country. Africa really is an invention.
Added to this is the fact that there were no Africans present at the [1884–5] Berlin Conference that divided up Africa. They carved up the continent according to the different styles of the colonising countries, and by advancing ideas that presented their view of the continent’s characteristics, starting with differences such as: they are not Christian, they are exotic, they have strange customs, they are conquerors or submissive, there is decadence, they were important figures in history, etc.
We did not create our countries. Cameroon, for example, is a Western creation, from its territory to its laws. Even the cities –Yaoundé, Douala – are Western creations. The name Cameroon, which we have never dared to change, does not come from us. The whites gave us this name, derived from camaroes (shrimps), and we are very proud of bearing it today.
The Africa we are talking about is not about Africans! By launching the European project of extending borders beyond Europe, countries such as France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany were locked into a common narrative that would bind the destinies of colonialists and colonised forever. With a view of exploiting resources, colonisation introduced the idea of an African Europe and a European Africa.
So the answer to the question posed by Valentin-Yves Mudimbe in L’Odeur du Pere [The Smell of the Father] on whether Africa can get rid of the West is final: no. And the first signs that demonstrate the irreversibility of this approach are religion on the one hand and language on the other. Can the African, who has chosen to pray to the white man’s god and to speak his language, still claim such a different identity? It becomes clear that, if he gets rid of this “smell”, he will surely get rid of a part of himself. The paradox is that, in his absence, the white man is hyper-present. It is a very effective form of imaginary colonialism.
Frantz Fanon, inspired by Freud, developed a clinical discourse in the 1950s on a supposed “mental illness” in the black man. There is no doubt today that Africa’s problems are associated with the encounter with the white man. But when he writes, in Black Skin, White Masks, that the encounter between black and white made the black man sick – a sickness likened to mental illness such as trauma, schizophrenia or something like that – I believe that this encounter has also made the white man sick. Africa has made the white man crazy.
Western narcissism has seriously damaged the world by seeking to refashion the world in its image. The separation with Africa has left the West with a lot of anger and frustration – like a child whose toy was taken away. That’s why the white man needs therapy, just like the black man, to make him drop his “white mask”.
You may ask why we still use the terms “white” and “black” or “African”. This is because they obey the mental representation that we have established for ourselves. It is the symbolic language of Fanon, history, colonialism, slavery, alienation and trauma. I believe in mental language, the language of our thoughts, and prefer to deconstruct what colonialism has created in our minds.
How would you describe African attitudes towards and perceptions of Europe in the post-colonial period?
It can be said that the ambition of the colonial project, which was to turn Africans into “little whites”, did work. It worked so well that Africans are looking to the Western world as the place of their utopia, the place of their future. But they are no longer satisfied like before to wait and see what future Europe has in store for Africa. Today, it is Africa that knows what it wants to do with the white man – in Africa and far beyond, when one thinks of immigration. Africa has plans for the West.
There are, however, two Africas clashing on this issue. On the one hand, there are people who want the white man in order to escape from misery, and on the other hand, an elite that simply wants to enjoy a privileged relationship with the white man from whom it derives all privileges. It’s the elite that in some places has even never struggled for independence but benefits from it and says to the masses, “We will get there on our own”. The masses are saying: “If in a half-century you have not even succeeded in maintaining what the colonist (who did not like us) has left us, how can we believe that it is time you need?” And then the elites paint all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios to the masses in the event that the white man was ever to return: “You will no longer be free. There will be the whip, exploitation, etc.” As if the masses don’t know that it’s these African regimes that are responsible today for exploitation and oppression. African dictatorships must not have any complexes about this compared to the colonial oppressors. All they need are Western or Chinese accomplices as a conduit to strip their countries of all resources that they go and hide in Switzerland.
In recent years, Africa has become economically and politically quite engaged with emerging powers, China in particular. Do you think that this has come at the expense to the West? And do you foresee a similar reconfiguration taking place on a cultural and social level?
The Western world refuses to acknowledge that the ties being forged today between Africans and China, Africans and India, Africans and Brazil are primarily ideological. Despite the horrors of colonisation, Africans have followed the Western model as a model for development, sometimes even at the very costly expense of their previous ways of life which were not necessarily less good. Yet the West has always refused to give them the development they were expecting. The West exploited them without ever keeping their promise.
In return, the West has turned Africa into the place of all its fantasies, taking advantage of its obvious differences to denigrate it by promoting its uniqueness. If Africa is unique, it can thus be excluded from humanity – which is what happened to the Jewish people in Europe, and we know what happened after that. Europe and even America have never had any relationships with Africa that were void of complexes. Each time, they imposed conditions in a very paternalistic way, and even when the Africans had succeeded in satisfying them, they found a way to impose others. That is what the IMF and World Bank have done all these years. They are the instruments of this new form of colonialism.
You need to understand that the Africans know all of that, that the Chinese know it, too, and the Indians and the Brazilians. They know it because they were the victims of the same Western ideology and have managed to break away from it so much so that China, for example, has been able to reverse the relationship based on the master-slave dialectic. Only the Western world does not seem to know that we know. This is the very essence of the relationship between China and the Africans. We are very comfortable together. We talk about the things that we want to do together, without a hidden agenda, without ideology, without supremacist ideas, without racism. And we do it. What the Chinese offer us is not Chinese culture, but Western technology and modernity that the West has denied us. China is the solution Africans have found as a response to the West. But again: isn’t it another consequence of that Western ideal that our countries are chasing after?
The EPAs [economic partnership agreements] that the European Union has proposed to Africa, just like the Védrine Report on Africa1, harbour within them the wounds of this Western sickness caused by its encounter with Africa. Unlike the Chinese, the West remains blinded by ideology and seems to lose all rationality when it comes to Africa.
France, which opens a Sorbonne or Louvre Museum in Dubai, believes that Africans do not notice this. This is because of a lack of ambition for the continent, while at the same time the Chinese are proposing a railway line that will cross the continent from north to south and from east to west. Africa sees this Western sickness that blinds it. This was expressed so well by the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who reminded members of the European Parliament in 2008, who were on the verge of voting the law on the “Return Directive”, that tens of millions of people had left [Europe] to go to the Americas to colonise and to escape the famines, financial crises, wars or totalitarian regimes and persecution of ethnic minorities. The Europeans arrived in their droves in the countries of Latin America and North America without a visa or conditions imposed by authorities. They were always welcome, and they remain welcome in countries on the American continent which have absorbed the economic misery and political crises of Europe! The insensitivity and blindness of the European members of parliament can be highlighted when they ended up voting for this law on 18 June 2008, in violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, only six years later, history has shown that Evo Morales was right, because thousands of Portuguese landed in Angola in search of work. The crisis that has struck Europe today is therefore imposing the white man’s re-entry, as can be seen in countries such as Angola where Europeans are welcomed as part of a new plan. In Nigeria, too, the white farmers who were driven out of Zimbabwe were welcomed as part of this new re-entry. It is no longer Europe that has a plan for Africa, but Africa that has a plan for Europe.
So are you suggesting that Africa uses the white man to rescue itself?
When rereading Fanon’s appeal to the Africans – Let’s go, comrades. The European game has finally ended. We must find something else. We can do everything today provided we do not mimic Europe, provided we are not obsessed with the desire to catch up with Europe – we can say that Africa today has actually preferred to mimic Europe. Even when China came along, Africa has continued to have this default obsession to catch up with and follow Europe. It is clear that Fanon has not been heard.
Worse, the white man has parted, he has left us – but we stayed without moving from the place where he left us behind. When the white man came to us, he started to dominate us, and he saw that we did not want his domination. He decided to eliminate our leaders and to replace them with some of our people who were going to collaborate. He created a state with puppet leaders so that he could continue to pull the strings. He put in place a kind of administration that does not emancipate us, but an administration that enslaves us. Why is it that today we keep this same administration? Why do we stay where the white man has left us?
Given that the black and white are both sick from their encounter, can they also be each other’s medicine?
If the bad news is that Africa is an invention, the good news is that reinvention is possible. As there can be no doubt that Africa’s problems are associated with this encounter, how does Africa today hope to succeed without using the “white man” matrix, which defines all the contours of its identity today? If it would indeed be possible to detect the “sick” actions that are referred to by Fanon in behaviours towards the white man, it should be recognised that other behaviours could be considered pragmatic or even utilitarian – just as the refrigerator was able to better meet the demands by the feminists in the 1930s than any other discourse. The white man is used to solve Africa’s problems.
For the elite, it’s all about deceiving oneself to better deceive the others. The African elite, which is rather pleased to have replaced the whites, not to serve but – through mimicry, another form of disease – to better subjugate the people and benefit from the status of the whites. This elite will therefore take everything from the white man: his methods, systems, references. It will copy the white man in order to legitimise its position. The African elite castigates the white man to whom it owes everything: the diplomas they obtain, the decision-making positions in government that serve as a means to personal enrichment, even the cars in which they strut around, the suits they wear, their children abroad, etc.
Africa and its traditions are almost invisible in the state apparatus, which is designed like a cake and not like a plantation where all hands would be welcome. What Fanon did not take into account is this degree of sickness, where the absence of whites would mean poor acting, or where the African would cast him with all his faults, which he would use to excel in looting and oppressing. After some hard-fought struggles to take over the state from the whites, it has now become the tool of exploitation of the African by the African.
The white man’s re-entry would therefore enable the African to cast aside his dishonesty and hypocrisy towards his own people. Because today, more than ever, these people require help from foreigners, half a century later, to solve the many problems which they are facing in the areas of health and education, areas that have been neglected today by the ruling elite.
Are you not afraid of criticism that you expect too-easy solutions from the whites?
If we consider that white people were the disease, how do you expect a cure without manipulating that virus that is at the origin of the problem? Given that the black man and white man are both sick from their encounter, how then can the sick African and Western brains heal?
There is a necessity for Africans to create modern democratic states that are able to meet the many needs of the citizens. Nobody can say otherwise. There is no longer room for hypocrisy. It is time to move ahead.
I am like all those Africans who try to understand and explain, very plainly, without ideology or pre-conditions, what is happening to us in order to find a solution once and for all.
I don’t feel emotional anymore about what the Western world is saying about Africa. History teaches us that we’ve seen worse. We know that our historical defeats were due to our mistakes and our weaknesses first, even if we acknowledge how powerful our enemies were. Hence the passion for politics in all African countries. And, once more, Europe does not seem to notice this popular interest in politics and democratic vitality.
There is a debate happening right now on the continent. This debate is not happening in the conventional media. It’s a debate that can be observed between two different forms of behaviours that are opposed to each other.
Behaviour is also a kind of language. From the behaviour of the masses, we can see that if we opened up the borders in some African countries, the whole country would run empty – and for good reason! It will not be the Congo where people run to.
How can we explain why the African elites find it necessary to inflict so much pain on their people? Just to be able to say that we govern our own country? There is no longer room for such hypocrisy, but we need to move ahead. So what the people are saying is: “We want to get out of this place.” Besides emigration, there are many signs that you can read in people’s behaviour which show that Africans want something from the West. In response, the ruling elite proposes the old nationalistic discourse of “we can do it ourselves”. In the meantime, many sectors such as education, health, are so much in ruins that the ruling elite itself prefers to travel for treatment of their health problems and to school their children abroad.
What is happening is a conflict of two wills: the one of the people who want the West and the one of the elite who want to enjoy the privileges of positions without delivering. What do we do? Do we put our ego aside and open up to help our people improve their conditions by bringing white people, based on my “re-entry” concept mentioned earlier, or do we continue making our people suffer?
We Africans also need to get out of this psychological mindset and move on from that reactionary attitude towards colonialism. We should get rid of our duplicity in relation to the West. As I said in the beginning, our countries are Western inventions. I prefer to analyse what the language of our thoughts is, and deconstruct what colonialism has built in our minds and what is not always real. How do we get out of the mental language that colonialism inflicted on us by producing a reactionary attitude that is now a burden for us?
Let’s take the case of Zimbabwe and the land issue as an example. The semantic definition of the land has evolved from the time it was taken by the British during colonial times to the agro-business it represents now in the independent country called Zimbabwe. Although President Mugabe took the land back from many white farmers, the mental idea of land linked to the heritage, the culture and the ancestors which the black Zimbabweans are claiming will never been given back to them. Instead of acknowledging this fact in order to find another form of compensation, Mugabe decided to take back something that, with changes in time and in this world, was simply not the same anymore.
What makes you so sure that a second encounter or re-entry would not deliver more of the same old results?
The first encounter was a discovery; the second one is a recognition. This phenomenon is clearly explained in physiology. This is the way the brain and the immune system function. The first time the white man came, he appeared in the same way a virus does. The body has no information about the virus and cannot fight it. This was the first encounter with the white man, when the discovery of one another was marked by misunderstandings and prejudices – not to mention brutality, oppression and exploitation. But when the virus comes a second time, because of all the information and knowledge now collected in the body, it will develop an antidote and be able to organise its own protection. That’s what I see in that second encounter between the West and Africa. In this postcolonial period, Africans will want to protect themselves from their past experience.
We can characterise the current period of Africa as the second step – in other words, the rejection of whites after the experience of colonialism. If it is around this rejection that the project of self-determination was built, which produced independence, it is also, paradoxically, around this same rejection that postcolonial Africa is imitating Europe, against the wishes of Fanon, according to whom this should be avoided. Unfortunately today, more than half a century later, this relationship to the whites is deadlocked. Our previous experience begins to play tricks on us and we find ourselves frozen around the ideology of liberation and resistance that was a natural development from step one to step two. When, however, does step three arrive: that of re-entry?
Today many Cameroonian women are seeking marriages with older European men. Do you really believe they are being manipulated? They know exactly what that old white man will offer to them, and what they can offer him in return. The way people understand the Western model implemented in African countries today is problematic. It seems like we are running a machine without knowing the operating manual. People understand modernisation as something strange, Western. Don’t forget: Africa is a Western invention. It is difficult to manage that invention without the inventor himself. And sometimes updates are needed.
For example, in Cameroon, the way we are implementing economic liberalism at a local level is problematic. Everyone is given the license to open any business and believes he will be rich. In the end, however, too many people are running the same businesses, and they end up only surviving and remaining poor. The way the government is implementing democracy at a local level is problematic, too. Every village has a mayor and they all want to have a nice city hall, a high school, a university, a hospital, while there are no resources for them. I don’t know whether it is political cynicism that the regime uses these Western models to give people what they want – on paper – but there is no real development plan.
On another note, emigration has turned many Africans into Europeans, Americans, etc. While our brothers, sisters and children are becoming French, German and British, why can’t we turn people of these nationalities into Cameroonians? Because of colonialism? But those countries wouldn’t be doing it if it was not benefiting them. Don’t you think our countries could benefit from being mixed with Western and Asian populations, too? There is a trend of globalisation at that level and I am afraid that Africa is losing out on something important here.
This article has been published here courtesy of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.