Africa, the Begging Continent, By Olúfémi Táíwò

There is no nice way of stating an ugly truth. As at this writing, the entire continent of Africa, from Cape to Cairo and all points in-between, is under the rule of mendicants enabled by a coterie of intellectuals who are either in profound denial or otherwise think there is something inevitable about Africa’s begging ways in world affairs.

When the idea of this piece first occurred to me about four years ago, I thought that being beggars was a recent development brought about by the devastating consequences of military and one- party misrule combined with ill-timed, not well thought-out, and poorly implemented Structural Adjustment Programmes of the eighties of the last century.

Then, to my utter shock and chagrin, I found that since independence, Africa has, for the most part, been a continent of beggars led by mendicant rulers and intellectual enablers who have already reconciled themselves to the fact of Africa’s permanent position at the bottom rung of the human ladder.

Maybe if we studied more the writings of our philosophers and other thinkers, we would have a better sense of the continuities, especially the unfortunate ones, in our history.

Here is an example. In an address delivered to the 4th Summit meeting of the Organisation of African Unity held in Kinshasa on 12th September, 1967, Obafemi Awolowo, one of Africa’s foremost uncelebrated philosophers, told his colleagues: ‘Today, Africa is a Continent of COMPETING BEGGAR NATIONS. We vie with one another for favours from our former colonial masters; and we deliberately fall over one another to invite neocolonialists to come to our different territories to preside over our economic fortunes.’ [Voice of Courage: Selected Speeches of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, vol. 1 (Akure: Fagbamigbe Publishers, 1981), p. 29]

Awolowo was quite alert to the danger that habituation to begging posed to the realization of the ‘unexceptionable and admirable aims’ of the Organisation then to harness “‘the natural and human resources of our Continent, for the total advancement of our peoples in all spheres of human endeavour’, and of uniting all the African States to the end that the welfare and well-being of all our peoples can be assured.’

He added that the ‘freedom, equality, justice and dignity for our people impel us to [a] course of action’ designed to secure the stated aims. 

It is obvious that, as at the time he spoke, Awolowo did not think that what he observed was going to become a way of life almost half a century after his address.

He probably was convinced that his fellow leaders knew better than to turn what, a scant seven years after the greatest number of African countries got independence, must have been a pragmatic necessity into a way of life. He also was convinced that Africa had the wherewithal to turn around, over time, the ugly situation that he had described with such pith. One principal resource he knew was essential if the lofty aims of the OAU were to be attained were intellectuals who would beat the path out of the thicket of ignorance, disease, and hunger that threatened Africa’s populations.

Lending credence to our interpretation is his warning: ‘We may continue and indeed we will be right to continue to use the power and influence which sovereignty confers, as well as the tactics and manoeuvres which international diplomacy legitimatises, to extract more and more alms from our benefactors. But the inherent evil remains—and it remains with us and with no one else: unless a beggar shakes off and irrevocably turns his back on, his begging habit, he will forever remain a beggar. For, the more he begs the more he develops the beggar characteristics of lack of initiative, courage, drive and self-reliance’ (p. 30).

Awolowo was not alone in thinking that Africa had the requisite mix of visionary leaders and intellectual cadres who would quickly work to exorcise the ‘inherent evil’ of begging and proceed to exploit Africa’s resources to restore the dignity of Africans both at home in the continent and in its global Diaspora. How wrong we were!

Unfortunately, few post-independence rulers were visionary and even fewer were those with any appreciable intellectual heft. And even those with any intellectual heft happened to have ruled countries with limited or no human and material resources.

Rare were those who matched their intellectual heft with visionary prowess. For the rest, we had leaders with mediocre intellectual endowments that, by itself, would be bad enough.

When this is combined with the fact that rather than being visionaries, many of them were blinder than bats, or could barely envision heights higher than what they had accepted as their divinely-ordained prostrate position, it is easy to see how inexplicable it was that we ever expected great deeds from them.

Begging became a way of life.

African leaders did exactly what Awolowo warned against: they reconciled themselves to being the self-appointed beggars to the world using ‘the power and influence sovereignty confers, as well as the tactics and manoeuvres of international diplomacy’ to extract more alms from benefactors whom they played against one another.

While they thought they were securing advantages, they were busy driving the continent into the ground and themselves into permanent abjection among the world’s peoples. It did not matter whether they sat atop one-party states or were military rulers.

They, one and all, never thought that Africa could create self-sustaining economies that could, in turn, make the continent a choice place for humanity to want to come to and lead full lives.

The intellectuals? The dominant ranks of African intellectuals in the post-independence period could not, or were not willing to, wean themselves from their intellectual fathers in the erstwhile metropolitan centres where and in the ways of which they were schooled. They never thought to dismantle the structure they inherited from colonialism and, in symbiosis with Africa’s mendicant rulers, quickly settled into their beggar status vis-à-vis their former colonial masters.

They were content to depend on handouts to run their research and their institutions. They never thought they were good enough until they were recognized in the metropole.

They did not see anything wrong with making the rounds of the Foundations and other quasi-governmental sponsors in their colonizers’ countries to fund their research, support their journals, and generally provide them with a reason for living and working. Fundamentally, they did not talk amongst themselves, or with one another, either within their own countries or within the continent.Like their political counterparts, they were all too happy to extract more alms by playing one side of the donor community against the other.

The continent is littered with wreckages of theories, blueprints, and other intellectual artifacts donated by competing alms givers without any regard for the continent’s needs or what would allow its peoples to recover their dignity. Whoever bought us lunch got to tweak our minds. For some time in the eighties of the last century, African intellectuals were busy globetrotting thanks to sponsorship of the Unification Church.

Forty-five years after his routine speech, Awolowo’s worst fears have become reality.

We have been begging so long that we now have leaders and intellectuals who are convinced that Africa cannot exploit her own resources for her own ends: it has to farm it out to others; those others, at the present time, being the Chinese. And African intellectuals are proud to have the Chinese as a counterweight to the meddlesome ways of that other category of alms-givers: so-called Westerners.

We have no trouble accepting aid from countries that used to be our co-residents of the misery avenue of the global village, including South Korea and India. We now have the apotheosis of this regrettable trend in the opening, at the 2012 Summit of the African Union—the successor outfit to the OAU where Awolowo issued his dire warning—in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of a brand new headquarters for the organisation built for it, from conception to the interior furnishings, by our Chinese benefactors.

What more fitting monument to the shamelessness of our rulers and intellectuals who run the AU Commission than the fact that the meeting place where our current crop of leaders would meet for a long time to come to plot Africa’s future is the physical embodiment of alms!

 I am sure that my fellow intellectuals who run the AU bureaucracy and the rulers who continually meet in Addis Ababa in their spanking new headquarters are busy congratulating themselves and thanking their stars for their new cozy digs. I hate to rain on their parade. But beggars in new alms-inflected digs are still beggars. And therein lies Africa’s shame in fulfilling Awolowo’s dire prophecy. We can do better.

* Olúfémi Táíwò is a professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A


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