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01.09.2007

France-Afrique: the idiocies that divide us 

Recently, in response to the controversial speech the French Head of State Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, Le Messager newspaper and Africultures published Achille Mbembe´s text entitled "Nicolas Sarkozy´s Africa" (n°6816 on the Africultures website). This article has been given a very wide circulation in French-speaking Africa and Europe. Reproduced by several press organs and in the alternative media, it has sparked vigorous debates on several websites. It has also provoked numerous reactions and new questions that have forced its author to clarify his thoughts, which he has kindly accepted to do here in the following text. In the meantime, we have learned that the Dakar speech will shortly be published

Achille Mbembe
publié le 05/09/2007


The question has been put to me why, in my mind, Nicolas Sarkozy´s Dakar speech is unacceptable, or even bordering on the incredible.
It is so for four reasons.

First of all in its desire, several times evoked by Nicolas Sarkozy during the recent election campaign, to instrumentalize French history, or at any rate to rally the French around an aggressive vision of the national signifier.

The manipulation of national history manifests itself in French neo-conservatism in several forms, including the co-opting of certain emblematic figures of the left (Jaurès, Blum, Moquet), the levelling of attacks at so-called "May 68" culture and thought, and, coming to what specifically concerns us here, the rehabilitation of colonialism (which goes hand-in-hand with a rooting out of illegal immigrants in France).

Indulgence for the thieves

Colonialism is now presented not as the crime it was from the wars of conquest to the struggles for independence and decolonization, but as a simple "error" that should now be wiped from the slate: massacres perhaps, but bridges and railway too; institutionalized racial discrimination maybe, but also clinics; the Code de l´Indigénat (1) indeed, but schools to; conscription to serve as canon fodder in Europe´s First and Second World Wars against France´s "civilizing mission" in general.

Worse still, the new legend has it that colonization was a benevolent and humanitarian undertaking. Prostrate in self-hatred and a hatred of France, trapped in their ingratitude even, the former colonial subjects, we are told, are sadly ultimately incapable of appreciating its benefits given that, left to their own devices, they would never have found the path to progress and freedom.

In addition to this revisionist project, in the name of the refusal to repent comes the disqualification of any critical vision of the colonial system and the refusal of any responsibility concerning the atrocities committed at the time, as if self-awareness were one thing, and awareness of injustice or the harm caused to others were another that we can simply separate from our human conscience.

This was quite clear during the French election campaign, and again more recently in Dakar. Each time the method is the same. First, those who "blush at French history" or who "blacken" it - the "advocates of repentance" - are denounced and stigmatized.

Then, in the name of national pride, of love of the country, of sincerity and good faith, the colonists are exalted in due form. We are supposed to be led to believe that such humble servants of the "civilizing mission" earned their living in all honesty. Colonizing in complete innocence, we are meant to believe that they never exploited anyone. After all, their sole purpose was to "give love" to these tribes enslaved by centuries of obscurantism and superstition. In a cruel twist of fate, they ultimately only reaped the hatred and contempt of those for whose salvation they had nonetheless sacrificed all.

Colonization was a terrible ordeal for the colonized societies. Potentate if there ever was, it comprised a "cursed element" whose origin lies in racial terror and corruption, as Alexis de Tocqueville so aptly analyzed. But it is true that its history cannot be resumed to just massacres. It was also a prodigious machine producing fantasies and desires. Moreover, many Africans were its zealous auxiliaries. Without their efforts, it would have been bound to fail. Objective beneficiaries of the colonial system, of its discipline and arrangements, a certain number of colonists showed humanity to the Africans, who they strove to protect from abuses and who they treated with dignity. In the name of a common humanity, others still went as far as politically espousing the cause of the colonized. In most of the countries where such fraternal experiences took place, their memory remains alive.
But for Nicolas Sarkozy and his kind, the losses suffered by the French colonizers weigh more in the balance of memory than the devastation and destruction suffered by those who, at the cost of countless privations, incessant humiliations and at times their lives, brought this night of human suffering that was colonization to an end. For, in the political theology of the French neo-conservatives, indulgence for the thieves always triumphs over pity for those crucified.

Perfidious friendships

The second reason for my stupefaction is the insolence and above all the arrogance and brutality that such a lack of recognition authorizes. To hide the truth and hoodwink those who are only half paying attention comes the resorting to a "reasoning by noble sentiments", whose perversity Françoise Vergès recently demonstrated (cf. Abolir l´esclavage. Les ambitguités d´une politique humaintaire).

This incoherent discourse (at fault, yes; repentance, no) is indeed decrepit, but still well and truly alive. It is, after all, the registered trademark of new French conservatism. It just so happens that, with Nicolas Sarkozy, this conservatism is taking on an increasingly racy appearance, in the same overtly flashy vein as our tropical satraps. How, otherwise, does one explain his penchant for provocation, his wielding of invectives dressed up as exhortations, the whole lot peppered with trenchant declarations in which he says everything and its opposite?

For, what President Sarkozy seeks to dissimulate behind conventional formulae such as "sincerity" or "truth" is above all an unbearable arrogance dressed up as generosity and frankness. The friendship he loudly proclaims doesn´t just inflict a perfidious arrow wound to the flank. And the new Head of State isn´t only seeking to manipulate French history. He also wants to falsify ours and the human significance that it bears. In so doing, and in the name of god only knows what authority, he permits himself to speak about Africa and Africans like a master who has got into the bad habit of mistreating his slave and degrading his belonging, and who cannot manage to shake off attitudes inherited from a sinister past we no longer want.
Colo-nostalgia

He claimed to be addressing the African elite. In reality, he constantly flatters the most obscurantist fringe of the French electorate: the extreme right-wing, the colo-nostalgic sorts, all those who, ridden with postcolonial melancholy, think that four or five million immigrants and French citizens of Black and Arabic origin in a country of over fifty-five million souls are a threat to French identity.

Worse still, it is not as if President Sarkozy was expecting a response on our part. For it´s already been more than twenty years since Jean-Marc Ela wrote the most beautiful book on the inventiveness of African rural farmers (L´Afrique des villages). Prior to that, Cheick Anta Diop, Théophile Obenga, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Abdoulaye Bathily, Bethuel Ogot, Ade Ajayi, Adu Boahen, Joseph Inikori, Toyin Falola, Kwame Arhin and dozens of others had laid the foundations of a solid and documented African historiography. This establishes, amongst other things, how, Africa has always been part of the world, has actively played its role and contributed in the process to the development of techniques, trade and spiritual life.

None of that counts for much in the eyes of our new friend. For one good reason. He doesn´t address us in a face-on relationship in which we might count as interlocutors. He doesn´t indeed look at or see our face. For him, "the Black man" is an abstract being, endowed with a "soul" of course, but faceless for plunged into the depths of the unnamed. When he claims to hold a dialogue with us, it is not within the bounds of a moral relationship of equality and thus of justice. It is in the register of the desire for power; a certain narcissistic je ne sais quoi that is all the more triumphalist as it is marked by the seal of voluntary and assumed ignorance.

The insolence of ignorance

The third reason for my incredulity is the tired old vision that the new French Head of State has, at present, chosen to convey of Africa and its people. As I pointed out in a previous article, this vision descends directly from 19th century racist dogma.

The President delves copiously into this mire, without the slightest distance or irony. He repeats entire pages of the wild imaginings of Hegel, Lévy-Bruhl, Leo Frobenius, Placide Temples and other inventors of the "African soul", in the process constructing his "truth" from the off-shoots of yesterday´s ethno-philosophy, just as others before him invested in ethno-zoology in the hope of discovering the "fundamentally animal essence of the negro".

But doesn´t he realize that the narrow-mindedness that characterizes colonial racism - that terrorism before the word was invented - has been the object of sustained criticism on the part of African intellectuals themselves since the second half of the 19th century? Doesn´t he know that respecting a friend also means referring honestly to his/her opinions?
Yet there indeed exists a long tradition of home-grown criticism of African societies and cultures that could have helped our theoretician to develop a somewhat more plausible argument. Wouldn´t it have been better to start by removing the beam in his own eye before worrying about the one clogging up his neighbour´s?

From this point of view, some petty black kings did indeed participate in the slave trade, just like the cartel of satraps today - most of whom enjoy France´s active backing - who partakes in the destruction of their own people.

But what ought one say, then, about French collaboration during Nazi occupation? What about the Vichy regime whose fall would have not been possible without the decisive contribution of people of African origin (as the historian Siba Grouvogui demonstrates in Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy. Memories of International Order and Institutions), but whose methods of classification and discrimination are copied and reproduced today in the Ministry of Identity and Immigration?

How is it that the person who, in France, promotes a correlation between questions of identity and the State so close to Vichy ideology and who doesn´t resist the temptation to stir anti-Arab and African xenophobia against "immigrants" and youths from the housing estates, is the same one who comes to administer us lessons on universalism within the walls of a university named after a scholar who spent all his entire life defending the African cause?

If one were to remain logical with oneself, shouldn´t one go and tell the Israelis that, deep down, the perpetrators of Nazism were, like our colonists of the past, just poor innocent souls, honest folk who only wanted the Jews´ wellbeing? Shouldn´t one tell Nelson Mandela that, deep down, the torturers and beneficiaries of the last racist State in the world -the apartheid State of South Africa - only wanted his own good?

It is perfectly clear; this little revisionist game is morally repulsive. And Césaire understood this well, he who in his Discourse on Colonialism, already back in 1952 denounced "the sadistic delights, the unspeakable pleasures that rustle Loti´s carcass when, through his officer´s binoculars, he contemplates a fine Annamite massacre".

A critical tradition

In French-language African thought, Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Mask) is undoubtedly the person who carried out the most convincing deconstruction of racist stupidity while at the same time proposing the lineaments of a fraternal humanity.

From W.E.B. Dubois to C.L.R. James via Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, from Stuart Hall to Paul Gilroy, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga and all the others, the best of black thought has always been delivered in the form of the dream of a new humanism, of a renaissance of the world beyond race, of a universal polis in which everyone has the right to inherit the world in its entirety. The Africa to which they proclaim to belong - this word and this name - is a living multiplicity which, like the word "Jew", is linked right from its origins to the future of the universal.

At the heart of this thought, the questions of memory are first and foremost questions of responsibility to oneself and to a heritage. In this thought, one only truly becomes "human" insofar as one is capable of answering to that of which one is not the direct perpetrator, to those with whom one apparently shares nothing - a summons to responsibility. It is because of this principial summons to responsibility that our critical tradition is fundamentally opposed to the anti-humanism and policy of nihilism that characterizes French-style neo-conservatism.

Nicolas Sarkozy resorts to Senghor to substantiate theses that are inadmissible because historically false and morally corrupt, marked as they are by the oppressive anti-humanism which has always lain at the heart of all racist ideology.

Firstly, he feigns to forget that at the time when Césaire, Senghor et al. launched the Negritude movement, black people´s humanity was contested. Black people at that time didn´t just constitute an oppressed race. Like the Jews, there was practically not a single place in the world at the time where they enjoyed peace, calm and dignity. The struggle, in those days, was literally a struggle to assert the right to exist.

The insurrectional dimension of this cultural criticism isn´t only found in the works of African scholars. It is also present in the works of African-American and diaspora thinkers, the descendants of slaves and survivors of the days of captivity on the plantations of the New World. To ignore this today in order to retain only the poetics of the kingdom of childhood, of the supernatural, and of singing forests is a falsification.

It is true that when one fights to assert one´s right to exist, one tends to use fixed and binary figures of style, and short-cuts that may well be mobilizing, but which unquestionably prove to be somewhat insufficient in the long run.

Senghor in particular rarely skimped on them, he who, in keeping with the most racist vocabularies of his time, declared that "emotion is black as reason is Hellenic". Yet he nonetheless opened the way to a surpassing of race and to the possibility of a reconciliation of worlds, as we can read in his Chants d´ombre.

Furthermore, Sarkozy forgets that, in the eyes of many African intellectuals, the same Senghor remains a polemical figure. An acclaimed, recognized poet, the greater part of his philosophical reflection has been widely refuted. As Marcien Towa (Léopold Sédar Senghor: négritude ou servitude?) and Stanislas Adotevi´s generation (Négritude et négrologues) clearly demonstrated, the latter didn´t just conceive of culture as something biological and innate. For many English-speaking African scholars, throughout his career Senghor contented himself with promoting French politics in Africa. They consider, rightly or wrongly, that in the pantheon of African heroes, it is this which distinguishes him from Kwame Nkrumah (Africa Must Unite), Amilcar Cabral (Unity and Struggle), Cheikh Anta Diop (Nations nègres et culture) and Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom).
In more recent times, contemporary African thought has repeatedly demonstrated that, whilst a local existence well and truly exists, meaningless categorizations such as "the African soul" do not reflect it.
Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic), Édouard Glissant (Poétique de la relation), Maryse Condé, Françoise Vergès, Raphael Confiant and many others have widely pointed out that identity is not fixed. For the entire new generation of French-language African novelists, from Alain Mabanckou to Efoui Kossi, from Abdurahman Waberi, Ken Bugul, Véronique Tadjo, Samy Tchack to Patrice Nganang and others, identities can only be identities of relations and not of roots. African film, from Ousmane Sembène to Basseck Ba Kobhio, and African music, have constantly shown that a fixed identity is the source of cultural death; or again that the present and the future will necessarily be hybrid. In the domain of arts and aesthetics, the problematics of difference is being demolished, as testified the recent international "Africa Remix" exhibition curated by Simon Njami (cf. Africa Remix. Contemporary Art of a Continent).

Furthermore, the ethno-philosophy that Nicolas Sarkozy draws from so abundantly has been the object of vigorous criticism. Paulin Hountondji (Sur la philosophie africaine), Valentin Mudimbe (The Invention of Africa) and Fabien Éboussi Boulaga (La crise du Muntu) in particular have continuously denounced the kind of identitarianism that can only be achieved by erecting the multiple belongings we have inherited into a single exclusive trait.
Following the Ghanaian philosopher Anthony Appiah (In My Father´s House), I too have severely criticized the ideology of victimization (De la postcolonie) whilst at the same time proposing the concept of "Afropolitanism" as an antidote to Negritude and nativism.

After all, who still ignores today that the recourse to clichés such as "the black soul" or "African authenticity" is, above all, a part of the tactics corrupt regimes and their political and intellectual elites use to promote "cultural difference" in the effort to legitimate their brutality and venality? Isn´t it true, moreover, that, since decolonization, many French networks have unashamedly "cooperated" with this spirit of venality, networks which, for the occasion, hardly trouble themselves with skin colour?
For the rest, many of us, from Frantz Fanon to Françoise Vergès (La république coloniale) have always said that repentance and reparations produce victims. The vulgate of repentance perpetuates the image of the Other as a non-articulate body, as an unenergetic, lifeless body. And that is not us. For we are not just the victims of our own tragedy. We are also its actors and witnesses.

A harmful force

More than ever, Franco-African relations will be consciously desired rather than imposed ties. At their root will lie moral and ethical values, or they will not be ties at all, but rather simply a harmful force.

If France persists in its autism, that is in its refusal to understand the world and to show a degree of genius in its relationship with Africa, then it will be perceived as a harmful influence with respect to the African project of emancipation.

At present, the French neo-conservative agenda for Africa as Nicolas Sarkozy spelled it out in Dakar is not an invitation to build a free and democratic Africa. Because it contents itself with reproducing idiocies that divide us, this agenda is not an invitation to share the experience of freedom together, and even less a common world.

That is why we must immediately oppose it, fearlessly, and with courage, intelligence and firmness. For if we just stand by, the economic, military and human price to pay in return for this kind of representation of our history will, let there be no mistake, be very high.

Achille Mbembe

@ Le Messager and Africultures, August 2007

1. Translator´s note: a set of laws creating, in practice, an inferior legal status for natives of French Colonies from 1887 until 1944-1947.
 

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