AFRICA has endured a tortured history of political instability and religious, racial and ethnic strife. In order to understand this bewildering, beautiful continent — and to grasp the complexity that is my home country, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation — I think it is absolutely important that we examine the story of African people.
In my mind, there are two parts to the story of the African peoples ... the rain beating us obviously goes back at least half a millennium. And what is happening in Africa today is a result of what has been going on for 400 or 500 years, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the period of darkness that engulfed the continent during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and through the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the leading European powers, which precipitated the “scramble for Africa,” we all know took place without African consultation or representation. It created new boundaries in ancient kingdoms, and nation-states resulting in disjointed, inexplicable, tension-prone countries today.
During the colonial period, struggles were fought, exhaustingly, on so many fronts — for equality, for justice, for freedom — by politicians, intellectuals and common folk alike. At the end of the day, when the liberty was won, we found that we had not sufficiently reckoned with one incredibly important fact: If you take someone who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years and tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.
This is how I see the chaos in Africa today and the absence of logic in what we’re doing. Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves, forgotten their traditional way of thinking, embracing and engaging the world without sufficient preparation. We have also had difficulty running the systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our colonial masters. We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body.
People don’t like this particular analysis, because it looks as if we want to place the blame on someone else. Let me be clear, because I have inadvertently developed a reputation (some of my friends say one I relish) as a provocateur: because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with Africa, it is imperative that it also play an important role in forging solutions to Africa’s myriad problems. This will require good will and concerted effort on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical albatross.