« Africa needs to develop its own vision of globalisation »

Interview with Doctor Elikia M'Bokolo, by Ayoko Mensah

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Why do people consider Africa to be behind in terms of globalisation? How does its own history relate to this process? How can it make a specifically African voice be heard in what is more often a cacophony than a concert of nations? Africultures speaks to the Congolese historian Elikia M’Bokolo, who insists that it is up to culture to invent an alternative model of globalisation…

What does the current process of globalisation mean for Africa?
The thing that bothers me with the globalisation concept, which dates back some twenty years now, is that people behave as if the phenomena it describes was recent too. A lot of people get the impression that Africa is dragging its heels on the globalisation front. In reality, however, long before people recognised it for what it is – the rapid development on an international level of an economic space that revolves around the United States – a world economy had already established itself progressively. As this economy is dominated by the Western countries, the Atlantic Ocean is its main centre. From our point of view, Africa has been a part of this process since the end of the fifteenth century.
How does Africa’s history relate to this process?
Roughly speaking, we can distinguish three phases. The first is indisputably the trans-Atlantic economy that was born out of slavery and the slave trade. By deporting African slaves to the Americas, this trade generated activity both in Europe and Africa, where a military system emerged specifically to provide slaves. As for the Americas, they became major trading centres. The slaves produced sugar there, which was a bit like oil today, and also tobacco, cotton, and later coffee and tropical products. In those days, therefore, Africa was already completely integrated into this globalisation process.
When the slave trade came to an end, a second phase started with the emergence of the industrial economy. From a cultural point of view, outlooks broadened at this time. As people discovered populations of incredibly heterogeneous colours and cultures, they began to become aware of the diversity in the world. This process partly took place with Africa and, in my opinion, at the Africans’ expense, as the then-emerging world intellectuality, which constructed Man with a capital ‘M’, turned out to be a hierarchical knowledge. With his Traité sur l’inégalité des races (The Inequality of the Human Races), Gobineau theorised this hierarchy. A certain, still existent, racist conception of Africans indeed goes back to this nineteenth-century classification. In its own way, the intellectual construction of the modern world thus totally integrates us.
Finally, colonisation represents the third phase. It only ended just ten or so years ago in South Africa, a little over twenty-five years ago in the Portuguese colonies, and forty years ago in the rest of Africa. Today, Africa is present in the globalisation process thanks to its natural resources (oil, wood, uranium, copper, diamonds, gas, etc.) and its music and fashions. The problem is the way in which the continent has been integrated and the place that has been imposed upon it in what is referred to as globalisation.
Isn’t that place precisely still that of a colonised continent?
We have to remember that the Africans were dominated in their own land during colonisation. This domination at home produced all the necessary mechanisms to control the Other, notably through the education system, which truly brainwashed African kids, and religion. These phenomena are heavy burdens to bear. It’s not the same thing being dominated elsewhere as in the land of one’s ancestors. Many Africans lost themselves in this affair, especially the elites. Some started to reproduce the ideology of colonial domination. As the Burkinabè historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo once put it, they began to think it was normal to « sleep on someone else’s mat », without thinking that they had their own mat and that if they no longer had theirs, that they could make a new one.
Moreover, the major powers entirely carved up Africa, unlike any other continent, without anybody questioning the legitimacy of this division.
Colonisation is said to have ended forty years ago. That is true from a political point of view, but not from a military or economic point of view. Take the different armies’ interventions in Africa, for example, and notably France’s role. Raw material exports still continue today too. One of the cruxes of the problem is indeed that the major « globalising » countries import raw materials. African countries are « globalised » countries. They have been integrated; they have been assigned a place, and remain within this system by force. That is why Africa has a minor statute in this globalisation process. First comes the hard core formed by the triad nations: North America, Europe and Japan. Around them is the circle of more slowly advancing States: certain Asian countries and South America, but also Portugal and Spain. Last of all come those left out in the cold: the struggling countries. But people need to realise that globalisation wouldn’t work if Africa wasn’t there. That’s the injustice of the system…
How can Africa forge itself a new place in the globalisation process today?
There is a globalisation discourse, an ideology that tends to position people in this system. But it is the dominators who produce this discourse and tell us: « Africa represents less than 5% of world trade so no one would even notice if it disappeared. » It’s easy to see that this is not true. Everyone is interested in African oil. If there are so many local wars in Africa, it’s notably because these wars fuel an economy in which groups exploit resources to buy arms. All that saying Africa represents less than 5% of world trade signifies is that African products only fetch very low prices. But who fixes the prices? They aren’t negotiated in an equitable relationship. They are imposed by the buyers. As the Presidents Senghor and Nyerere said, the core of the system that dominates Africa lies in the unfair fixing of prices.
Do Africans have to continue to put up with this system?
Africa’s weakness comes from the fact that we didn’t understand that with all the resources we have, we should have set up other economic systems based on the local use of our raw materials rather than on exports. In the modern world economy, it is not so much gross value that counts as know-how, or added value. Yet the only path possible to achieve that is African integration. That is the second major hurdle. Only integration will enable us to create an African market and to define a strategy to encourage economic growth and development.
But African integration isn’t in the major powers’ interest…
People today think that globalisation is a « gentle » phenomenon. You turn on your computer or listen to music. But we all know that there are extremely acute inequalities in the world behind this, which are a reflection of the historic process. Globalisation is not and has never been an innocent business. It has always been, and remains, a violent process.
We have to realise that all people who have tried to oppose this system have been destroyed in order for it to function. Africa’s problem was never communism, as people claimed, but rather the Africans’ desire to construct their own model. All those who have tried to do so have been either politically or physically eliminated. If you consider the question from an African point of view, the history of globalisation from World War II to today is a history in which all attempts to construct an independent Africa have been systematically crushed. Few Africans realise in their naivety and ignorance that Europe’s unification process started after Africa’s. The Africans got together in Manchester in 1945 to speak about unity. The Europeans started to concert one another in 1947. What went wrong exactly? Following the adage « divide and conquer », the Africans were led to believe that they couldn’t get on, as some were French-speakers, others English-speakers, etc. In Europe, however, the secular enemies Germany and France united.
When the freshly independent African countries met in Addis Ababa in 1963 and launched the OAU, they planned to start with political union and to work towards economic union later. The major powers had the political means to destroy this effort. All kinds of rumours were started, notably that Halie Selassie and N’Krumah wanted to be the dictators of Africa.
We have to recognise that the French-speaking Africans were largely responsible for the failure of these efforts to unite. Indeed France, one of the States that needed Africa the most to fulfil its ambitions, did all it could to make sure that African unity never happened. It relied on the support of Félix Houphouët Boigny, on Senegal and Gabon. All the Francophone organisations were anti-OAU.
It’s so paradoxical today! The Africans now look to the European Union as a model for African Union when they had their own conception before Europe. There is still considerable political leverage in Africa’s present neo-colonial situation. It could be used to create a common political will to build the economy, but is lacking at the moment.
What role should African intellectuals play with regard to globalisation and its problems?
The African intelligentsia has a problem. All the different players in the globalisation question clearly have their own conception. The Japanese aren’t entirely favourable. The Chinese aren’t yes-men either. As for the South Americans, they are at the heart of the anti-globalisation movement and defend their own ideas. Africa, on the other hand, does not have its own coherent thoughts on globalisation. We have set up the NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development), but without the prerequisite thought, and thus political will, being clearly established first. There is a leadership crisis in Africa. We lack personalities such as Mandela, exemplary figures who adhere to the major human values, who can make the continent’s voice be heard.
The second African social forum was held in Addis Ababa last January. Is African civil society beginning to organise itself?
Things started to change in the period between the collapse of the communist block and the Rwandan genocide. People realised that if Africa didn’t look after itself, no one would do it for them. The politicians are taking their actions. But we believe that the voice that unites creators – whether they are people of culture, science or are intellectuals – has a greater impact. If we get together, we can say things and take a stance. Intellectuals must not make concessions to the politicians. We have to be totally independent.
African artists won their freedom more quickly than the intellectuals. It has to be said that the African states were led to believe, particularly under the injunctions of the IMF and the World Bank, that intellectual production serves no purpose because it doesn’t generate revenues. African universities have thus been reduced to such a decrepit state that our brainpower has fled, thereby reinforcing the Northern countries.
But this trend may well be reversing. South Africa is in the throes of becoming the sub-pole of the continent. For the trend really to change, other poles are needed throughout Africa, maybe ex-Zaire in the centre, for example, Nigeria in the west and Egypt or Algeria in the north.
In your opinion, therefore, Africa can forge itself a new place through culture. But which government backs its artists and intellectuals?
Artists have a considerable impact on their populations even when no one backs them. Look at Fela. He had a lot of difficulties, but he marked Nigeria. Just like the writer Wole Soyinka. Alpha Blondy warned people about certain events in Côte d’Ivoire. The African intelligentsia is currently forming, and intellectuals, artists, etc. are meeting together. It’s a real hotbed of activity. During the Ivoirian crisis, for example, a group of intellectuals that I belong to got together in Cotonou to launch a peace manifesto. (1) We made suggestions to the Ivoirians that were taken up at Marcoussis. The network still exists today and has managed to unite Ivoirians of opposing camps around the idea of « living together ».
As a lecturer, I tell the young people I teach that they have to speak out, to tell the truth, to propose, to back, and to criticise when necessary. If it’s true that artists and intellectuals need notoriety, it’s precisely by talking that they can acquire it, not by repeating what everybody else says. Africans absolutely have to develop their own vision of globalisation. We didn’t produce the single discourse that exists today. We have to be capable of proposing a discourse on an alternative globalisation whose forms correspond to history and the sate of Africa today.
You are involved in different undertakings that try to help this discourse emerge. You were notably in charge of Unesco’s « Demos Afrique » project on African cultural and development perspectives in the third millennium. What conclusions were drawn?
There are still a lot of blockages with regard to integration, particularly on the political front, but we have to keep on advancing. The Africans must first of all learn to conserve and manage their capital. We didn’t come into the world empty-handed. Our elders thought about things before us. The Senghors, the Nyereres, the N’Krumahs, all of these men said things in their time. Africans need to take possession of this capital because it constitutes our future. Take Présence Africaine, a journal started in a little street in Paris, but which said and proposed things. It made a considerable contribution. We need a forum of that type today. With its technological advances, globalisation can paradoxically help us on that front.
Today we can rapidly tap into the entire African intelligentsia by linking up our different networks. We thus have to capitalise on what we have inherited from the past, on the one hand, and to encourage our young intellectuals to be audacious on the other. They have to invent their thought, to give us a prod. We need creators more than we need people with degrees. It is this new intelligentsia that needs encouraging today. We talk a lot about the brain drain, but I believe that one of the surprises of this millennium will be the emergence of a new local intelligentsia that often has fewer university qualifications that the former one, but which is producing its own knowledge within the scope of the country’s conditions. These people are going to surprise us – just give then ten to fifteen years.
What do you think that the Ivoirian crisis reveals?
A lot of things are going on in Côte d’Ivoire which in broader terms reflect the different issues concerning contemporary Africa and globalisation. First of all is the decolonisation process. The forms of Francophobia we have witnessed translate a very deep-lying sentiment. The young Ivoirian generations consider that their country has never been decolonised and that it needs to be.
The second thing is the challenging of the Houphouët Boigny model. People have realised today that a number of problems that should have been raised and resolved in his day were not. They are now finally being resolved, but through bloodshed.
The third thing being played out in Côte d’Ivoire, and which will be played out in a lot of other African countries, is the difficult question of « Who are we? » The Ivoirians answer that they are both African – which is why the rejected French mediation – and Ivoirian. This double identity is contradictory. But Africa will be built out of this contradiction.
On the other hand, what does it mean, « to be Ivoirian »? The quarrel around people’s birthplace is senseless because Côte d’Ivoire’s borders have been modified several times. Deep down, Félix Houphouët Boigny built his country into an open State, but with Baoulé rules, methods, and techniques. But there aren’t just Baoulés or Akans in Côte d’Ivoire… There are thus other questions that people don’t dare discuss clearly yet and which are much more complicated than just the north-south divide. How are all these local cultures going to be distributed to integrate them? What should be done with French values? How is all that going to hang together in a globalised economy that the Ivoirians do not control? It isn’t immigrants who pose a problem in Côte d’Ivoire, it is the cocoa buyers. All these questions are rising to the surface. That is why I fear that the crisis, even if it is no longer violent, may well be long. The « living together » that I was talking about isn’t something you inherit. You have to build it on a day-to-day basis.
If the Ivoirian and African intelligentsia manages to handle these problems, African will emerge victorious from this crisis. The stake isn’t to chase people away. It is to make sure that the power relations between the different players change. Skin colour is so insignificant. It is what individuals do in a given space that matters.
For all of these reasons, the Ivoirian crisis strikes me as a truly major crisis of the third millennium in Africa. If we come out of it victorious, Africa will be on the path to progress.

(1) Appel des intellectuels africains pour la paix, launched on the initiative of Doctor Elikia M’Bokolo and Albert Tévoédjré.Born in Kinshasa, Elikia M’Bokolo completed his higher education in Paris where he studied at the Ecole normale supérieure. After receiving his Agrégation in history in 1971, he lectured principally at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences socials in Paris. He is currently head of studies at the Centre d’études africaines. He also teaches at the Institut d’études politique in Paris, the Institut des relations internationales, and in several non-French-speaking universities, notably in New York, Lisbon, and Porto. Elikia M’Bokolo also produces the programme « Mémoire d’un continent » on Radio France Internationale. He is chairman of the Congolese Diaspora Coordination and has published a dozen works, including:
– « L’Afrique au xxe siècle : le continent convoité », Paris, Le Seuil, 1985.
– « L’Afrique noire. Histoire et civilisation », 2 vol., Paris, Hatier, 1992.
– « L’Afrique entre l’Europe et l’Amérique, la place de l’Afrique dans la rencontre des deux mondes », Paris, UNESCO, 1995.
– With Jean-Loup Amselle, « Au cœur de l’ethnie », Paris, La Découverte, 1999.///Article N° : 5679


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