It is hard to disagree with a weighty viewpoint expressed by a concerned Africanist.
In an article titled “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis” (quoted in Olaniyan and Quayson, 496-503), renowned Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, contends that Eurocentric racism is Manichaean in that it splits the world along racial lines, then assigns a negative, lower value to the world’s non-Western peoples. The assumption is that the rest of the world is primitive, savage, barbarian, and underdeveloped, and that the West is civilized and developed. Manichaean stigmatization is seldom based on knowledge of non-Westerners; it is often based on ignorance reinforced by disingenuous denial disguised in misleading intellectual jargon. Its source is racial prejudice. Teleologically, stigmatization cretinizes non-Westerners, especially Africans. The result is that Africans start to doubt themselves. Worse still, they begin to buy into the fallacy that African history does not exist; therefore, Africans have nothing to be proud of. This reasoning produces the stereotypical epithet of Africans as a “people without history,” to borrow from Eric Wolf (Quoted in Booker, 25), denies African peoples access to a usable past from which they can rely in order to construct a viable future.
For centuries, Western powers have systematically stigmatized Africa as the ‘dark continent’ in dire need of enlightenment as they sought ways to justify the wanton theft of her natural resources through covert activities ranging from their roles in genocides, civil wars, the looting of mineral, forest, and land resources, and the overthrow of governments through mercenary activities. Readers may remember the case of Sir Mark Thatcher, son of erstwhile British Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, who escaped a long jail term in South Africa over a coup plot. As reported in the February 2005 edition of Africa Today, Thatcher’s arrest by South Africa’s elite police unit, the Scorpions, came months after the imprisonment of a group of mercenaries in Zimbabwe led by one Simon Mann, acting in collusion with some Westerners based in Equatorial Guinea. It later emerged that the two groups were part of a plot, allegedly backed by foreign governments, to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the controversial president of Equatorial Guinea. Reporting on this incident, John Dludlu, writing for Africa Today observed that Mark Thatcher spoke to the media outside the High Court in Cape Town, “…after pleading guilty to charges of bankrolling an alleged coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea” (op cit, 18).
In a different vein, the arrest of nine French nationals in the Republic of Chad charged with child kidnapping is another evidence of the meddling and evil deeds of Westerners and their accessories in Africa. According to Europe News (2007:1)
Six members of Rescue Children and three French journalists were jailed on Thursday on charges of kidnapping and trafficking in children after being taken into custody at the airport of Abeche, in eastern Chad, as they were preparing to leave the country with the children on a Boeing 757 aircraft.
These foreigners were suspected of wanting to take the children to France to have them adopted by French families. Chadian President, Idriss Deby, called the action of the French NGO Rescue Children “inhuman, unacceptable and unthinkable” (op cit, 5). He said those arrested would be “severely punished”, according to Europe News. Rescue Children is a French NGO created by the association L’Arche de Zoe, which is run by firefighters in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. A spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Véronique Taveau, speaking in Geneva, said what had happened in Chad and the way it had been carried out was illegal and irresponsible and it had breached all international rules. Cases like the aforementioned lend credence to the contention that Africa remains a playground for Western individuals and groups guided by the profit motive.
The biggest Western myth about Africa is that which regards the continent as a free-for- all-zone, a continent for the taking on account of the presumed backwardness of its peoples. As Mudimbe (1988:40) has noted, such racist presumptions speak neither about Africa nor Africans, but rather justify the process of inventing and conquering a continent and naming its “primitiveness” or “disorder” as well as the subsequent means of its exploitation and methods for its “regeneration.” Similarly, Lyons (1975:86-87) notes the consistency with which nineteenth century European commentators regarded Africans as inferior to Whites on the basis of non-existent scientific evidence, quite often comparing the two peoples along the lines of children versus adults:
Though they did agree among themselves about which European “races” were inferior to others, Western racial commentators generally agreed that Blacks were inferior to whites in moral fiber, cultural attainment, and mental ability; the African was, to many eyes, the child in the family of man, modern man in embryo. (Quoted in Booker, 10)
This skewed thinking provided a justification for European imperial conquest of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884. History has it that on November 15, 1884 at the request of Portugal, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called together the major Western powers of the world to negotiate the African Question. Bismarck used the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and forced Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory. What ultimately resulted was a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into fifty irregular countries. This new map of the continent was superimposed over the one thousand indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason because European powers had divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along. Little wonder that post-Berlin Africa has remained a battlefield to date.
It is important to bear in mind that the misrepresentation of Africa constitutes a leitmotif in European colonial literature. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1960) and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1951) are good examples of Western literary texts that dehumanized Africans, and served as justification for the so-called ‘civilizing mission. Conrad’s novel depicts the entire continent as backward and primitive. As Achebe has pointed out:
Heart of Darkness perhaps more than any other work, is informed by a conventional European tendency to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest(Quoted in Booker, 13).
Like Heart of Darkness and Mr. Johnson, many other Western literary works about Africa are overtly contemptuous in their racist depiction of Africans. American readers are probably aware of the portrayal of Africans as savage cannibals in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels. But as Booker points out, these writers simply ignored the reality of Africans altogether. The truth of the matter is that the characterization of Africans as cannibals and savages; Africa as an uninhabited wilderness where courageous Europeans could go on exciting adventures, served as justification for the European misappropriation of Africa’s wealth.
As can be seen, Africa has been the object of Western manipulation for a very long time. Innumerable incidents, including the transportation of millions of Africans across both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans as slaves, the colonial swoop on Africa, and more have produced disastrous effects on the cohesion and productive capacity of African economies. There’s an urgent need, I believe, for Africa’s historians to assess the situation and write about the horrors suffered by Africans as a result of the nefarious trio--- racism, slavery, colonialism. We need these records in order to institute legal proceedings for the payment of reparations to Africa! Memmi (1965) points out that “the most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history” (91).
It is critically important for Africans to understand the impact of the continent’s past relations with the West in order to empower ourselves to deal effectively with the present. The onus is on African intellectuals and literati to educate the peoples of Africa about the consequences of Western imperialistic meddling in Africa. Europeans and other Western powers continue to mislead and misinform Africans about their own history. Trevor Roper, an eminent English historian at Oxford claims that “prior to European adventure in Africa, there was only darkness, and darkness was not a subject for history” (Quoted in Obiechina, op cit, 9). Our historians have the task of debunking these myths by educating Westerners about the glorious history of Africa prior to the advent of colonizers.
It is time to call into question the condescending Eurocentric interrogations such as: where would Africa be without Europe? Would African peoples not be half-starving warring tribes eternally at each other’s throat fighting for land without the benevolence of Westerners? We have to desist from feeling permanently injured by a sense of inadequacy about our won achievements. African scholars must be courageous enough to unravel the myth about Africa’s collective amnesia. In the words of Ngugi (1986):
“The classes fighting against imperialism even in its neo-colonial stage and form have to confront this threat with the higher and more creative culture of resolute struggle” (3).
In the capitalist world, imperialism has become a monopolistic parasite, a veritable bugbear of the African people. Western capitalists employ all foul means to superimpose their hegemony on the African continent. The debilitating effects of imperialism on the lives of Africans are real and deep. Africa’s economic paradigms have been rendered dysfunctional on account of the strangle-hold of Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who continue to sing spurious Hosannas of foreign aid for Africa to the detriment of our home industries. In the words of Ngugi (op cit, 2):
“Imperialism is total: it has economic, political, military, cultural and psychological consequences for the people of the world today. It could even lead to a holocaust.”
In this essay, I have argued that the Manichaean stigmatization of Africa is not benign. It is a calculated Western contraption intended to provide a reason for the economic rape of Africa by Westerners. To inveigle Africans into believing that the West is overly concerned about economic growth on our continent, Westerners throw hollow around buzzwords such as “foreign aid,” “humanitarian aid,” “structural adjustment”, and other loud-sounding lexemes. Foreign aid is one deceitful word that has been used to hoodwink all African countries, without exception, into chronic indebtedness. In her recent book titled Dead Aid Dambisa Moyo argues that “The net result of aid-dependency is that instead of having a functioning Africa, managed by Africans, for Africans, what is left is one where outsiders attempt to map its destiny and call the shots”(66). Moyo’s book is an economic blueprint intended to serve as a paradigm for weaning Africa off the debilitating aid-dependency syndrome that has kept the continent in perpetual economic stagnancy for decades.
Booker, Keith, M. The African Novel in English, Oxford: James Curry, 1998.
Cary, Joyce. Mister Johnson. New York: Harper, 1951.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1960.
Europe News. “Nine French Arrested in Chad for
Kidnapping 103 Children” retrieved April 23, 2007 from
King, Martin Luther. (2005). ‘Togo: Land of Contrasts’,
Africa Today, 11.8: 22-24.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the colonized, Translated by Howard Greenfield.
New York: Orion Press, 1965.
Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How there is a Better
Way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Mudimbe, V.Y. Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Ngugi, wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature,
Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1986.
Obiechina, Emmanuel. Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel, New
York: Cambridge University press, 1975.
Olaniyan, T. and Quayson, A. African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory,
Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.