Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is the ultimate alpha male among world political leaders; a man that brooks no nonsense. I have been a student of Russian history, literature and philosophy for as long as I can remember. I know that there has never been such a thing as a liberal Russian leader. From Catherine the Great to Tsar Alexander I, Vladimir Lenin, Yuri Andropov and Boris Yeltsin, they have all been authoritarian leaders. But, in a funny sort of way, I admire Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Not too long ago he was quoted as saying that Africa is nothing but a cemetery for Africans: “When an African becomes rich, his bank accounts are in Switzerland. He travels to France for medical treatment. He invests in Germany. He buys from Dubai. He consumes Chinese. He prays in Rome or Mecca. His children study in Europe. He travels to Canada, USA, Europe for tourism. If he dies, he will be buried in his country of Africa. Africa is just a cemetery for Africans. How could a cemetery be developed?”
Putin has fingered a major problem that hardly ever features in African development discourses. The heart of the problem is that Africa has no value in the world. Our continent has no value in the eyes of Africans themselves and no value in the eyes of the rest of the world. If you yourself don’t value what you have, why should anyone value it on your behalf? Thus it comes about that the dominant image of our continent in the West remains that of the “Dark Continent”, a hell-hole of war, violence, poverty, disease and death.
Where is Africa a cemetery for Africans?
It is a question, in my humble view, of history, global image and international political economy. No people in the entire history of humanity have suffered such injustice, mass genocide and humiliation as the Africans have suffered. Historians the world over are agreed that Africa is the cradle of mankind. Homo sapiens emerged in the mist of antiquity between 5 and 7 million years ago around the region of East Africa. They began making tools and other artefacts some 2.5 million years ago. And they began spreading into Asia and Europe about 2 million years ago. The earliest human civilisations began around Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. The highest civilisation of antiquity was, without a doubt, the Egypt of the Pharaohs. It is a well established historical fact that the greatest Greek philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers were schooled in Egypt, among them Thales of Miletus, the first medical doctor Hippocrates, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. They were also initiated into the mystery cults of the Egyptians.
One of the greatest challenges we Africans face is that the West and the Arabs have made it a point to wickedly deny that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation. Some of them have gone the ridiculous extent of claiming that the ancient Egyptians were aliens from outer space. It is strange indeed that no other place on earth had a civilisation built by aliens except in Africa. The great Senegalese scientist and historian Cheikh Anta Diop wrote profusely about the African origins of Egyptian civilisation. He became an outcast in mainstream Western academia. When former UNESCO Director-General Amadou Mahtar M’Bow set out a research programme to redress the egregious gaps in the history of Africa, he was hounded out by the world powers.
One of the greatest contemporary scholars who heroically fought to redeem the image of our continent through historical studies was the late Martin Bernal (1937-2013). His book, Black Athena, made strong waves when it first came out in 1987. Bernal argued that the origins of Greek civilisation and language were of ancient Egyptian provenance. He also maintained that ancient Egypt was predominantly an African civilisation. The book enraged racist scholars in Western academies , notably Mary Lefkowitz, Jacques Berlinerblau and several others who declared it to be a piece of heresy.
Somehow, intellectual racists know that once they concede that the greatest civilisation known in the ancient world was of African origin and that great people such as Akhenaton, Ramses II, Imhotep, Tutankhamen and Nefertiti were black, it would forever nail the coffin of world intellectual racism. The custodians of antiquity in Cairo have also joined the collusion to ensure that the scientific truth is buried in layers upon layers of lies, stratagems and subterfuges. They are doing DNA tests on the mummies with Euro-American partners without involving any African scientists in such projects. We cannot trust the results because our people were not involved in it. We have every reason to believe they have a vested interest in concealing the facts.
History has been one of the greatest weapons used against the African people. The Arabs were among the first, and remain among the worst, of global racists.
Hear the traveller and scholar Ibn Batuta writing in 1331: “The geographer al-Idrisi ascribes ‘lack of knowledge and defective minds’ to the black peoples. Their ignorance, he says, is notorious; men of learning and distinction are almost unknown among them, and their kings only acquire what they know about government and justice from the instruction of learned visitors from farther north.”
Elsewhere he also writes: “[inhabitants of sub-Saharan African countries] are people distant from the standards of humanity….Their nature is that of wild animals….”
The medieval North African historian and jurist Ibn Khaldun had this to say about Africans: “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and proximity to the animal stage.”
Among the Europeans, racism against African people did not exist in ancient times. The Romans saw Africans largely as equals, if not rivals. The bitter conflict between Rome and Carthage was a battle for supremacy and for control of the Mediterranean. Even in the Renaissance and early modern Europe, the great Italian artists depicted black Africans as different but equal. In Shakespeare’s Othello, we find a tragic hero who happened to be black. His blackness was incidental to portrayal of a great man with a character flaw. Western racism began in the sixteenth with the Trans-Atlantic slave, following the discovery of the New World.
Slavery and colonialism provided ideological justification for European racism. In 1830 the German philosopher Hegel who wrote: “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit…What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”
The nineteenth century French aristocrat Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau declared that, of all the races of mankind, “the negroid variety is the lowest… “
Following on their trail, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, later known as Lord Dacre famously declared that Africa has no history: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”
What is today termed “scientific racism” is deeply ingrained in Western academia and research institutions.
Some of the worst views about Africans come from world renowned scientists. Consider the remarks of James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the double helix: “[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”
Today, the 2 billion peoples of African origin throughout the world are the most oppressed and humiliated on earth. We have been consigned to the margins of civilisation. I have been told that the name for Africa in mandarin Chinese is Feizhou. It literally means “Nothing State” – a place where nothing happens! The word fei in mandarin means something negative or evil. So Feizhou connotes a place of evil or negativity. By contrast, America is referred to as Meiguo, an object of great beauty.
What late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui termed global Apartheid remains the grim reality of our world. As a consequence, our confidence has been broken. The British economist Dudley Seers wrote several decades ago that, for post-colonial nations, self-esteem must be reclaimed through policies anchored on self-affirmation and economic nationalism. The duty of our generation of leadership is to honour our continent. We must turn Africa into an inner-directed and inner-propelled vortex of prosperity and hope.
No country is better placed to champion the African Renaissance than Nigeria. But we can only fulfil that destiny if we are a humane and prosperous democracy. We need world class leaders of intellect who can lift our country from the morass of mediocrity. We must match the best in the world, intellect for intellect and capacity for capacity. And we must not assert ourselves with arrogance but with humility. Because we are the cradle of civilisation itself. We shall staunchly defend the honour and Africans throughout the world. We shall become the conscience of the world – a moderating and humane voice in international relations. We in Africa shall become a light unto the world, the flag bearers of the standard of civilisation.
It was the novelist Chinua who pointed out that until the day the lion tells his own tale himself, his story will always be written by the hunters. Those who removed history from our school curriculum ought to be tried and shot. They have done us great evil. We Africans have a duty to reclaim our history and invest in research in the historical sciences so as to teach our young people about our glorious past. Unless you know where you are coming from you can never know who you are, let alone where you are going. In the words of the nineteenth century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
, Cemetery for Africans