By Baba Galleh Jallow
A famous Africanist once said something to the effect that in terms of development, Africa has remained prostrate since independence. While other continents are more or less up on their feet and walking, even if their walk is a stagger, Africa remains unable to rise up to her feet, even to stand up straight. Africa is mired in an ever rising pile of difficulties and complications, even as more and more wealth is discovered on the continent; even as more and more brilliant minds are born and bred on the continent. The main explanation the rest of the world has for this chronic poverty and backwardness is that Africans are somehow inherently incapable of managing their affairs and that therefore Africans must somehow be kind of stupid. From the outside looking in, stupidity seems like the most sensible explanation for what has been termed “the African condition.”
This so-called “African condition” is fraught with negative connotations. It suggests some kind of continental disease (condition) for which there is no cure. It evokes images of ever-growing poverty, political instability, civil conflict, rampant and uncontrollable corruption, poor health, poor infrastructure, poor utility services, inefficient and totally unproductive bureaucracies, a people that is just doomed to remain beggars among the community of nations and a people who are doomed to forever stay stuck in chaos and darkness; a continent that is to be pitied but mercilessly exploited at every possible opportunity.
But that surely is not what Africa is. The “African condition” is simply a myth of exception that has taken on a semblance of reality. Like all other peoples, Africans are endowed with human intelligence of no inferior quality. We are endowed with more than enough resources to give the lie to this abiding myth of the “African condition”. All we need to do is take responsibility for ourselves and our environment. All we need to do is stop doing things the way they have always been done because the way things have always been done has turned us into the beggars of the world and the butts of unfunny universal jokes. When we sit at meetings and conferences and the lights suddenly go off, foreigners in our midst do not even blink. Everyone takes it as normal that such things are normal in Africa.
Yet when the lights go off in the middle of a meeting or conference in London or New York, there is an air of dismay and anxiety in the room because such things are not expected to happen in London or New York. Of course we are not London or New York and we probably don’t want to be London or New York, despite all the concrete, the glass, the metal and the glitter of those great cities. But we can make sure that some of our basic necessities of life are adequately taken care of and that we are not habitually embarrassed by problems that belong to the 1960s.
One such problem is that over the decades since independence, African governments have mastered the art of negligence and made the ostrich and the sand syndrome one of their favorite modes of dealing with challenges and uncomfortable situations. Rather than creatively deal with individual problems as they arise, they choose the easy way out by holding endless meetings, issuing white papers, and laying out plans of action that are never followed. Processes of talking about the problems almost become synonymous with actually solving the problems. And so as time goes on, the problem-piles grow larger and higher, eventually turning into mountains of chaos and disorder that assume the semblance of normality and permanence.
If trash keeps accumulating outside your door and you don’t dispose of it, your house will eventually become inhabitable; if you let your clothes accumulate dirt without washing them, you can’t possibly keep wearing them. If you fail to cut the weeds from your farm, they will eventually take over and destroy your crops. The logic is simple. If we let our problems keep accumulating and choose to neglect them or hide our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, they will eventually consume our identity and be mistaken for who we are; hence the “African condition.”
Across Africa, archaic and hugely unproductive practices are repeated from day to day, month to month, year to year and decade to decade not because they are benefiting or helping us in any way, but because that is how things have always been done. It is high time that Africans recognize that we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We need to really start thinking big and thinking bold, and getting ready to suffer some inconveniences in order to deal with the mess ceaselessly accumulating around us and the complications continuously piling upon us. There are no easy ways to progress and there are no magic formulas for national upliftment. Especially, we should not expect to rise and shine by merely copying or accepting prescriptive formulas for development from institutions and societies that know us and our problems less than we know ourselves and our problems.
Often, taking these prescriptive developmental models is only a manifestation of our reluctance to take charge of our responsibilities because taking charge means facing inconvenient truths and suffering personal inconveniences that will distract us from our smooth lives of ease and sleeping. Tradition is always a convenient horse to ride because all it asks is to do things the way things have always been done: sit in the saddle, hold the reins, and give it a prod to initiate movement. And as long as we are not directly – meaning personally – affected too seriously, it is much easier to nurture and ride the calm horse of tradition than to tackle difficult questions. And so our problems and our debts keep piling up even as we become wealthier in both material and human resources.
It might not be farfetched to say that Africans – at least most of those that run the affairs of our countries – as well as many ordinary citizens are very good at trumpeting and promoting the rhetoric of change but balk at the first signs of change. We want positive change; but we do not want to hear any ideas or take any actions that might pull us out of our comfort zones – our smooth and cozy beds of business as usual. We want change, but we do not want change that is difficult to achieve.
Sometimes, we want change but the change we want can only happen on our own terms, even if our own terms are not capable of bringing about the desired change. The “illogic” goes: I want change, but if change must happen, it must happen my way, not anyone else’s way even if anyone else’s way is the way capable of bringing about the change I desire. A recurring nightmare of developmental self-flagellation thus keeps Africa firmly in the shadow of the mythical “African condition.” Yes, we can discredit this dark notion of an African condition that defies healing. But we can discredit it only if we stop doing business as usual and start thinking bold and acting bold in ways that will enhance our creativity and put our present and our future squarely in our hands. We are bigger and smarter than our problems; we can create order out of the chaos that surround us; and we can stop being the beggars and the laughing stock of the world. But we can only succeed if we stop doing business as usual.