Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The New African and 21st century Pan-Africanism

During the days of Life President Dr. Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, the only way I was able to read The New African, the London-based pan-African monthly magazine, was through a relative who managed to bring copies to Malawi from Zimbabwe, where he was teaching. The relative sadly passed away in 1997, three years after the end of one-party rule in Malawi. By that time The New African was on sale in Malawi, although I am not sure whether it had been on the list of banned publications or not during Dr. Banda’s rule.

Last Saturday, 21st April, I entered The Central Bookshop in the Shoprite shopping mall in Blantyre, and saw a copy of the current issue of The New African. I promptly picked it up. It was the first time I was buying a copy since 1997 (a friend gave me a copy two or so years ago that he had found, quite strangely, in a bookstore in Lansing, Michigan). Although I would have bought the copy anyway, my decision was made much more conscious by the recent exhortation of two good friends, one a historian of the sexual politics of racism in colonial Ghana, who runs a column in the magazine, and the other a professor of international relations and politics who found it incredulous to learn that I did not have a subscription to what she felt was the best pan-Africanist magazine available.

So it was in the company of another very good friend, Bright Malopa, that I entered the Central Bookshop and saw a copy of The New African. Bright had urged me the previous night to buy a copy of a book by D.D. Phiri on Clements Kadalie, a Malawian who played a highly significant role in the struggle for freedom in the early years of the 20th century in South Africa. It is titled _I See You: Life of Clements Kadalie, the man South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia should not forget_ (2000).

I will write about D.D. Phiri’s book on Kadalie when I have read it in the coming weeks, but for now I want to talk about the current issue of The New African, which I must confess I now feel guilty for not having followed in the last decade or so (Thanks a lot Carina, Kiki, and Bright).

Splashed across the front page of the current issue is the title of the cover story, “Confessions of a CIA AGENT: How the imperial powers control Africa.” This story is followed by an essay on the Special Court in Sierra Leone and how it is seen as persecuting people whom Sierra Leoneans regard as heroes. Of interest to Malawians will be the fact that the Registrar of the Special Court in Sierra Leone is Lovemore Munlo, a Malawian attorney who once served as Minister of Justice in the dying days of Dr. Banda’s rule. Announcing the death of Chief Sam Hinga Norman, who was being tried by the Special Court, Mr. Munlo referred to the hip surgery that took the life of Hinga Norman as “successful,” a reference seen by many Sierra Leoneans as in bad taste, and a betrayal of the people’s wishes.

In the features section are articles on Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary and President Kuffour’s choice to wear a suit rather than the traditional Kente; the crisis in Darfur; the Nigerian elections; Liberia’s Blue Lake; and The Gambia’s first university. Cameron Duodu’s column discusses a recent article by the British historian Nial Fergusson, who, writing about Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary, commented on how colonialism was good for Africa as evidenced by what he sees as the failure of Africans to govern themselves. The Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo is quoted, in an interview with Ruth Tete, as saying “Africans underestimate themselves and do not have confidence in themselves. Time has come for Africans to have confidence in themselves, and to take their destiny in into their own hands. Time has come for Africans to have partners and not masters.”

The remainder of the magazine contains articles on the improving picture of health in Africa; the need to protect what is known as the “African brain”; African prostitutes storming Europe; the perspective of Canada’s Senate Committee of Foreign Relations on Africa as a “lost cause”; stopping Black Americans from voting in 20th century United States; footballing news; and a young African industrial designer who is GM’s lead designer on their latest car, the Volt.

It would need a much longer essay to go into the details of each article in this particular issue, but suffice it to say that the magazine speaks to the continuing importance of pan-Africanist perspectives in understanding the contemporary African world. The cover story describes a new book by Larry Devlin, who was the Chief of Station in the DRCongo when the then Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. The book reveals how the assassination of Patrice Lumumba was ordered by the then US President, Dwight Eisenhower, for fear that Lumumba would turn to the Soviet Union and thereby thwart the US’s efforts to control what is considered Africa’s most strategically placed country. The article’s focus is on how the same policies aimed at gaining control of strategic resources on the continent still continue to this day, and should serve as a warning to current and future generations of African leaders (My note in the margins reads: “Tchvangirai, take note”—though not necessarily as an expression of uncritical support for Mugabe’s methods either).

The article’s author, Osei Boateng, also sends a message to African journalists to be critical of claims of objectivity and independence by the Western media, which has always operated on the principle of serving the foreign policy of their governments. Boateng’s implied caution is that some (not all) African journalists tend not to be aware of this and instead take the side of the Western media in propagating policy objectives of Western governments against those of their own countries, in the naive belief that they are pursuing objectivity and independence. I find Boateng’s argument persuasive, although I would add that in fact many Western journalists have a lot to learn from some African journalists when it comes to objectivity and independence.

Of even greater relevance to the optimistic expression of Africa’s rebirth (as in Afrika Aphukira) is the interview with President Gbagbo. His observation that Africans underestimate themselves should not be understood as pessimistic; rather, it should be understood as a diagnosis aimed at encouraging boldness amongst Africans to trust in their own perspectives and potential. Gbagbo says Africans could play a stabilizing role in the world, but the lack of confidence means that Africans are not even aware of the importance of African perspectives in the world. He says Africa has the capability to generate what he calls a “solidarity fund,” in the form of a development bank, that could come from taxes on Africa’s unique natural resources, yet Africans prefer to continue being dependent on the IMF and the World Bank.

Gbagbo talks about young Africans managing some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, yet they have no confidence in generating and managing capital for Africans. The story of Jelani Aliyu in the same issue, a young Nigerian who is the lead creative designer for the global automaker General Motors, is another example of the potential that Africans possess, but which is hampered by the lack of confidence, and is therefore stifled in many young Africans who end up languishing in the villages and on the streets.

As for Malawi, there is a growing sense of optimism amongst the middle class, who see a new Malawi emerging before their eyes. While some of this optimism is being generated by government policies that stress fiscal discipline, food security and economic stability, some of the vitality is also being generated by ordinary Malawians who have never stopped working hard, despite popular beliefs to the contrary held by the educated elite. Some have asked if Malawi will also experience a rebirth as the rest of Africa does, and my response has been that it will take a pan-Africanist perspective that asserts our place on the continent. Obviously that needs further redefinition, but I am glad to say The New African appears to me to be a part of that process to redefine pan-Africanism for the 21st century.