Copyist intellectuals

Interview with Gaston Zossou, Beninese Minister of Culture, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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The former English teacher Gaston Zossou has just published an essay entitled Au nom de l’Afrique* (In Africa’s Name), a fierce indictment of an Africa ridden with corruption, a sterile intelligentsia, and mimesis. His arguments contrast starkly with those in our dossier (c.f., for example, Afan’s article on Beninese democracy). Please do not hesitate to voice your reactions (readers’ letters on or by post). O.B.

Minister, why did you write this book?
I had been thinking about it for years, but I must say that my thoughts kind of accelerated when I held a certain number of posts – posts which I consider to be privileged observation points. I was originally a agricultural entrepreneur. In Africa, or in any case in Benin, agricultural enterprises are a bit like the economy, the country in miniature: with all its difficulties, its blockages, its need for efficiency, and its deficit in competences. I was an advisor to the President of the Republic in charge of relations with the civilian society. That is what I mean by special, particularly rich observation posts. From here I was able to observe a kind of blockage, a kind of way of organizing things so that nothing works! I believe that our countries, the sub-Saharan African countries, are led by public administrations, by leagues of civil servants who through reflex defend the status quo at a time when salvation lies in change. Let’s put it like this: my thoughts on the matter matured during this time when I could see, when I could sense things to such an extent that I had to write them down, to record them.
Precisely, the critical, lampoonist, satirical, even ironic tone of this book is surprising on the part of someone in your position.
It is a healthy criticism that comes from within.
But isn’t the tone a little bit out of line with your position as a minister?
No, not at all. I consider myself to be free as a thinking person, as a citizen. It was my right and duty to exercise my reasoning, my thoughts. I say what I think; that might be out of line with the institutions. I assume that. I am not in an elected political position, I am a government minister. I am thus a kind of subcontractor of the political power that the popular vote entrusted to someone else. He is the one who has to exert his responsibility and to decide whether the worker in his ranks still deserves to be there. Up until now, from my point of view, things are going fine. The most awkward thing is that I am the government’s spokesman, I am not just a minister. I am responsible for speaking in the name of a living reality, in the name of political rights, those of my country, and I feel perfectly at ease.
You are not tender with « intellectuals ». What do you have against them?
I think that I was clear, a bit harsh even. I reproach the people in our country who call themselves « intellectuals » for in fact being master copyists. They have the privilege of being the official distributors, the dealers of a culture which is not our own. And, in my opinion, that makes them incompetent in dealing with our problems. They do not share our scale of values. They do not share our experiences. Given that this is the case, I declare them to be incompetent and I feel free to say so. It tickled me to say that we are perhaps the only sub-Saharan country where people dress up warm so they have to put the air-conditioning on. And that when there is a power-cut, it is like a collective disablement: we stop working because the air-conditioning isn’t on. I don’t understand how the majority can join forces in stupidity, and I say so simply. I am not an outrageous philosopher, I am no Diogenes, I am a citizen, I have political concerns, I hope to belong to society. And in order to belong to society, you have to do your bit of toeing the line. I do, but I also actually live in the house. I don’t mean to dictate my law in the house, but to shout my feelings out loud in my own home.
What do you suggest?
It is quite clear to me. I don’t claim to go into details on a technical level. While being aware is intuitive, resolving problems takes technical know-how. It is thus more sectorial. I do not claim to offer such-and-such a solution, therefore, but I do try to share a certain number of cardinal ideas. The first is that I think that virtue, just like vice, works its way from the top to the bottom of the pyramid. We must be well-led. Some call this elitism. It is not elitism to me, it is simply a question of a group needing to be well-led. I know that a naive criticism of the political class exists which says: « politics is a dirty business », but I say: a mosque is led by the imam, a parish by the vicar, a bakery by the baker. The State, which is the aggregate of all of these, needs to be led. The group has to be led. And I think that the better the quality of the leadership, the better the chance of opting for the best directions.
Hasn’t Africa’s so-called democratic period signalled the defeat of the intellectuals? Intellectuals criticized the regimes in place for many years, arguing that the right man was lacking in the right place. Then, a certain number of the top intellectuals became Heads of States, but the experience turned out to be a bitter one…
You are not talking about intellectuals, but about highly-educated people. By intellectual, I mean the person whose job it is to think, to go to seek the word, to seek the truth in a constant and passionate, almost monomaniacal way. I do not consider those who make a career out of having been to university, those who live off their diplomas, to be intellectuals. They have ingested knowledge, know-how, which in many cases has no relation to reality. They call themselves intellectuals, which is an abuse of the term. They are educated, they are executives, but being an intellectual is to think as a function. You cannot have thought as a function and be as consistently wrong as they are.
Let’s take the example of someone like Edem Kodjo or Paulin J. Houtondji.
Houtondji is a great intellectual. I would like to pay my respects to him as an intellectual of great quality. And that is not demagoguery. I gave him a manuscript of this book, and I implored him to agree to present it. Because for me, just talking about it is a consecration. I don’t confuse real intellectuals with those who have learnt the metric system.
We are in the so-called democratic era, and you contest this in a way, as its mode of functioning is not what you would have wished for. What is the alternative?
As far as politics is concerned, the heritage of the human community is so great that almost no one can innovate. But we can allow ourselves to draw the group’s attention to solutions which, from my point of view, are closer to being effective. If it is true that elections are meant to choose the best directions possible for our community! I spoke about the democratic trap: I said that it is the last trap we are going to fall into. It is the net in which the bird-catcher’s son will catch us. Because, in a country such as France, such as Great Britain, in the developed countries if I can call them that, it is one man, one way. Given the population’s level of schooling, and thus of their ability to synthesize information and to make judgements, what point is there in inviting a farmer from Louomé to give his opinion on a structural adjustment programme, on social democracy, on the left-wing, on the right. He knows nothing about it at all. I wrote that asking an illiterate farmer to vote is the same as inviting me to a medical seminar on laser eye operations. I know nothing about it at all. If I go all the same, I will exert a right to folly. If I take a chair, it is a wasted chair. Why not let the citizen act within his or her circle of competence? Here is just one example: the villager who chooses the village chief knows the village’s criteria of performance. If it is the size of the granary, he knows so; if the field is clean, he knows so; if it is the half-dozen wives, he knows so; he chooses his chief in relation to the community’s criteria. But when you ask him to take a stance on the Other from the capital, who has a big diploma from somewhere, and who comes to give a speech in a language he doesn’t speak, who uses concepts he isn’t familiar with, you are asking him to make a misjudgment. And it is precisely because everyone knows that our rural folk who we get to vote have no competence that we turn to them. That is the tribalistic, regionalist discourse. Everyone comes up with a stock of natural partisans whose contours he outlines. You realize that there is a serious risk in leading the People on such instincts.
Development needs to come before democracy then. Could the traditional village decision-making consultations be a palliative for the kind of democracy you denounce?
No, I am not romantic about our local things. I believe in formal, rational democracy, but I don’t want anyone to be made to intervene outside their field of competence, their area of understanding.
Ought we consider parliamentary democracy?
I think that the people in the village should choose their chief. The chief should then come together in a college to choose a mayor. They will not all be illiterate anymore. It might be the local school teacher, the village nurse, a farmer who has made it who becomes mayor of the commune. And the higher one goes, the level improves. At any rate, the people who make the decisions at each level know the criteria of performance of the level in question. And we shouldn’t go glibly about getting them to decide on things they know nothing about.
I appreciated the comparison you make in your book between the West’s aggressive voluntarist approach and Africa’s. Does Africa have its share of responsibility for its current status that it doesn’t want to assume?
Let’s say that it is responsibility, the aptitude to shoulder responsibility, to say it is me not someone else, to say it is me not the environment, that distinguishes man from animals. I believe in responsibility. I don’t like people situating problems beyond themselves. And personally, I situate the problem within. I said: the people of the world are not cut off from one another. Every time they have come together, the encounter has been virile, if not inhuman. The Others came here with a higher level of technology. Having crossed the oceans was already impressive. If people cast off their fetishes to adopt Christianity, it was simply because the fetish was not as elaborate. The whole celestial administration referred to in the holy books does not exist in our tribal pantheons. When this came into contact with something more elaborate, it collapsed. When it collapsed, there were consequences, and not just cultural consequences, but economic ones too. When I abandon my god, when I give up my name, my language to adopt other people’s, I effectively sell myself to the Other. The Other takes control of me, makes me a prisoner, and trusts me to guard myself because my new state of mind has control over me. There’s no need for chains anymore, that has become very clear. It initially seemed necessary to take the African slaves to the Americas; and then that seemed too spectacular, too forceful, and the decision was made to leave them where they were, in their nativeness, and to bring good administration to them. And on site, the pressure was put on. And then the time came when it was understood that the state of advancement of the work done on the Africans’ minds no longer necessitated a physical presence, a grass-roots intervention; the African was left alone but only after having done a magnificent job on his mind. This was a far-cry from the deported slave: he was at home, but under control. I continue to dream that we will get over this defect completely the day we decide to trust in our own intelligence, in our own pride, in our own culture. This book ends with a spiritual aside in which I declare that things will be better tomorrow.
People often point to our ancient kingdoms which were as strong as the White people’s.
Oh dear… that is the romantic intellectuals’ discourse. If those kingdoms were robust, had organized armies, war machinery, ballistics, if they had known how to read maps or to make arches they would have survived. I want us to accept our share of the responsibility, our share of the muck. But then we need to wash ourselves. Anyone can tell, for example, that it is hot in this room, but to control the room’s temperature is a matter of competences. If you present a corked bottle of wine in a village and ask the villagers how to get the liquid out, the majority will say break the bottle and let it run out the bottom; a small minority will say push the cork into the bottle, and one person out of a million will invent the cork-screw! And once it has been invented, ten billion people will be able to use it. I am convinced that not any old body holds the truth. That is what other people call elitism. But neither God nor nature reveal the truth and wisdom to the masses.
Your allusion to architecture is interesting. Marc Ferro also mentions this in his book on colonization.
I believe that the climate played a fundamental trick on us. Let’s say that the changes in temperature in the cold countries helped out. The need to control both hot and cold focused attention on architecture. The change in temperature in Africa is very slight, when not inexistent. Nature’s hostility forced the others to think and to work on two main fronts: architecture and energy control. We, as it is more or less constant, did nothing. Now to come back to today, don’t tell me that a windowless round thatched hut is a cultural specificity. It is a technological poor-performance as far as house-building goes. In my mind, the tap is better than the pond. The neon light better than a skin lamp. But I believe that culture exists. We have things of our own. We have our tales, our songs, our dances, our rhythms, our choreographies, they are exceptional, all the more so as they have survived the passage of time without having been rejected, put on ice, thanks to their intrinsic qualities. It seems to me that, beyond the technical, beyond all that aims to resolve man’s material problems, our populations have a spirit and can speak even when they are in a dilapidated condition. In that respect, the cultures, the proverbs, the litanies, the incantations in my country are worth Racine or Molière’s alexandrines. Our proverbs are concentrated intelligence, ultimate truths. That has to be conserved. It is an intangible heritage.
The book begins in a highly critical manner and ends lyrically.
I refer to the quality of the political class. I say that when the rural world awakens, it will wake up the whole world. I am convinced that our educational system, which is a disaster, is a sprinkling of ten thousand condiments for guaranteed constipation. I make a proposal for educational reform that focuses on the fact that education and satisfying the needs for competence are related. That is, the poorer a community, the closer its schools have to be to resolving its wealth-creation problems. School ought to open people’s eyes with regard to their economy, and to ask where masons, carpenters, car mechanics, rural sociologists are needed. In our country, school cannot afford to be a fantasy, a luxury, to be indifferent to the state of the economy and the disparity that exists between requirements in competence and the problems which need to be resolved. 95% of the hundred secondary schools in our country offer general education and a small 5% so-called technical education. I think that we should reverse this ratio. What we call general education is about contemplation, whereas the technical is about resolving problems. And once we have resolved our problems, we can start looking at more elaborate matters.

* Gaston Zossou, Au nom de l’Afrique, Preface by Emile Derlin Zinsou, former president of the Republic of Benin, Paris 2000, L’Harmattan.///Article N° : 5465


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