“I know no national boundary where the African is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free.” – Marcus. M. Garvey.
The expression of many identities is seen as the celebration of diversity and a legitimate vehicle for claims to political and other forms of rights. The resolution of diverse identities into compound /combined identities and unities is often suspect bearing the implication that rights and diversity might be sacrificed in the process of bringing about a new combination or synthesis to distinct and plural identities.
Also combined and hybrid identities are seen to command less loyalty than identities derived from origin, biology, cultural and other distinctive behavioural characteristics. It is argued that combined identities continue to bear schizophrenic,bifurcated and even fractured loyalties leading to breakdown in harder times than when the political and economic circumstances is going well.
The combination may not remove residual loyalties to the pre-existing entities. Worse, unless there is a new ontological base to back the combinatory initiative, and a consciousness to overcome the possible self-assertion from the constituting entities, there will be a tendency for a phenomenon of loyalty bifurcation and even fractured expressions of identities within the combination to prevail, thereby rendering identity-hybridist endlessly unstable. The danger of combination can therefore be more unwelcome than the status of remaining with fragmented identities. That has been the argument that some of the leaders of the first post-colonial generation made against the combinatory ambitions to express an African identity and will. This more ambitious direction was the road that Africa was not to travel despite the universal and shared expression and appeals to political unity by nearly all the leaders of post-colonial states during the period of decolonization in the 1960s. Those appeals gave birth to the Organization of African Unity, but not to African unity. States retained their sovereignty in alliance mainly with the system that subjugated Africa under colonialism without any reform. State-identity building to make Africans citizens of largely disunited post-colonial states continued. This has not prevented the post-colonial state from being challenged by subversion, threats to disintegration and re-making by ethnic or clan identity self-assertions, outbursts and affiliations from within, often aided by external interests.
What makes the search for an African identity current and compelling is the fact that hordes of disaffected identity groups mount precisely opposition by taking advantage of the structural weakness of the post-colonial state, its continued conceptual arbitrariness, and its inability to become independent and rely and be accountable to the population within its jurisdiction.
If it has been said that combined identity may not command loyalty as local and less remote and familiar identities, it is even more true to say that putting together groups that share little in common with each other in one state, and splitting those that share more with each other into different states, has given cause for identity groups to mobilize ethnicities into national movements for political power.
The Meaning of Identity
In general identity expression is neither good nor bad. Identity posits two interdependent and distinct entities. The first is the ego, self, inside person or the in- group, and the other is the out-group, outside person, the other, or even the other of the other. Historically and anthropologically a more potent expression of identity has been ethnic identity. The latter defines a group by distinguishing the persons entitled to belong to it through their physical, behavioural, and social character and their myth of origin. Often the ethnic identity has been used as a demarcation criterion of inclusion and exclusion to determine who is inside and who is outside the group.
Selection of persons for inclusion and exclusion in the group is often based on: a) physical characteristics such as skin colour and hair type, b) social characteristics such as language, religion and belief, c) behavioural characteristics such as style, ritual or traditional customs, and d) myth based on imagined or real common origin, history and social-political experience.
Some see identity as a naturally fixed, static and a historically given concept inured with the binaries of exclusion and inclusion, particularity and generality, and the inside and the outside. In the naturalist conception of identity, historical interaction is defined by the assertions of identities.
Though history may dilute identity, in the final analysis, it does not overcome it. The proponents of fixed and essentialist identity stress the unchanging cultural and psychological attributes of a group’s survival and roots in the enclosure of identity, heredity and blood. Such fixed identities that brook no dilution by any social and historical experience can degenerate into racialism. For instance I once met an Englishman who was originally from Liverpool in a social event in Durban who told me he would be migrating to Edmonton, Canada. I asked him why he wanted to leave South Africa. His reply astonishingly was racist: “The blacks will never change.” He was convinced that that South Africa under black leader would implode sooner or later. This is a clear case of a racial conception of who is entitled to rule, and who is not. I told him it would be good riddance if his thoughts were coloured with such vile racism.
Identities that offer premium to natural attributes of genealogy, kinship, race, clan and religion are narrow-minded and often lead to barbarian consequences. Such conceptions resist hybridisation, and are driven by a desire to control and oppress. Control of women’s sexuality is often at the top of the list of the expression of essentialist identity. Women have to be controlled to bring up children to grow up as members of the inside, and not the outside – the race, ethnic group, religion, clan or kinship. Marriages are arranged formally or by informal pressure to gear women’s reproductive capacities to reproduce the particular racial and ethnic group. This control of women’s sexuality is at the core of an essentialist strategy for keeping identity undiluted and pure. Some religions also insist that marriages have to remain within the religion and frown upon inter-faith marriages.
In Africa we have a serious problem in relation to the oppression of women by naturalistic and religious expressions of identity. In South Africa, there is a serious attempt to carry out a gender revolution to confront all forms of essentialist conceptions that limit women’s agency inAfrica.
Making African Identity
When we speak of African identity, such an identity must be built on a rejection of essentialism. There is no such thing as an essential African character that has been frozen from time immoral. Africa has always lived in history and through history. Its identity must be expressed through the rejection of racism, ethnicity, parochialism, exclusivity and barbarism. It must be an identity rooted in its earlier civilization, its experience of resisting injustice and its record of humanising the world. Thus African identity must posit an inclusive, non-essentialist and emancipatory goals.
The negative connotation of essentialism has to be replaced by the positive connotation of building an inclusive, tolerant, civilized and combinational African identity. As the distinguished African scholar Ali Mazuri puts it, Africa needs a social engineering: “emphasizing what is African, nationalising what is tribal, idealising what is indigenous and indigenising what is foreign.” This is one of the greatest challenges in the making of the African and of the Africa –nation. The African and the Africa-nation exist.They are recognised by those who define Africa by its negative and those who define it by its positive such as Kwame Nkrumah and Thabo Mbeki.
Africa invokes negative definition as it does positive. Those who define Africa only with its negatives contest fiercely any positive narratives of, or from Africa. Those who define Africa with its positives constantly contest the negative representation of the African and the Africa-nation.
The substantive discursive referent of the negative representation of the African and Africa is reproach, which is itself born from the undiluted prevalence of essentialism and racism when it pertains to anything African. The most potent way by which the idea of Africa is relayed to the world by those who buy into the essentialist discourse (Africans and non-Africans) is the reduction of African capabilities to solve problems through African own resources. Its main mode of representation is to associate the name of Africa with reproach and despair, and Europe with civilization and hope. “Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease.” (President Bush Jr.) Africa is “out of the world” operated by “private indirect Government.”(Achille Mbembe). Africa is a “shackled continent” (R. Guest). It is a ‘hopeless’ continent. (The Economist). It is the heart of darkness (J.Conrad). Africa works through disorder (Chabal and Daloz). Like Adam and Eve’s fall from grace , Africa’s hopes lies only if there is hope from a tree of evil (Bayart). The kind of staggering self-defeat mentioned above, simply boggles the mind. This goes beyond describing a situation; it becomes a total moral condemnation of Africa.
Africa is defined by condemnation, reproach and lack of agency. In our time we have a positive definition of Africans and Africa in Thabo Mbeki’s notion of African Renaissance. This optimistic, non-condemnatory and non-reproachful direction opens a new perspective for Africa to seize the historical opportunity to bring about a post-colonial revolution. The new conception builds on the positive achievements of Africans throughout the world, without denying the problems and the challenges.
The key platform from which Africans can find solace is that they have successfully dealt with, and defeated a major contemporary enemy. Yes, Africans can be proud of their victory over formal colonialism and its attendant institution of white minority domination. The harder problem that remains to be achieved is Pan-African integration. Despite all the efforts of the OAU, AU, NEPAD and other regional and sub-regional groupings, Pan-African political and economic integration is still at the lowest end of the curve. One of the key missing elements for the lack of progress in actual integration is the absence of ideology. Pan-Africanism, for all its worthy contributions, has evolved more as a movement rather than providing a coherent framework for African integration. It was Walter Rodney who said that the “OAU does far more to frustrate than to realize the concept of African unity.” The reason for that is because the leaders of the post-colonial states that constituted the OAU never shared a common African ideology on how to forge a united political and economic African space beyond opposition to colonialism and racism. Frantz Fanon also pointed out that opposition to colonialism and racism in itself does not provide a sufficient condition for Africa’s full freedom. In his words, “colonialism and its derivates do not, as a matter of fact, constitute the present enemies of Africa. In a short time, this continent will be liberated.
For my part., the deeper I enter into the cultures and the political circles, the surer I am that the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of ideology.”
In Africa, there has always been a goal-identity that is shared by all types of political communities. When the OAU was formed in 1963 both the radical Casablanca group with its slogan of “Africa Must Unite Now!”, and the more conservative Monrovia group’s belief that Africa should unite gradually- had both unity as a shared goal-identity. We can say they shared the ultimate goal but differed on strategy. The chief architect of the Monrovia group, the late President Flex- Houphouet-Boigny had declared that “Africa is seeking her salvation through unity, unity of action.” The situation is exactly the same now with the African Union that replaced the OAU. There are some Africans who wish to form a more integrated Africa by accelerating the tempo of unification and others that think the best way to avoid the chaos of immediate unity is a gradualist approach. Like in the earlier period, both would like unity as a goal-identity to take place.
While the Right says we must bring about such unity through functional coordination and ceding sovereignty inch-by- inch through the long haul, the Left wishes to bring a rapid combination of African post-colonial states into a unity-identity. The fact that there is no difference in achieving the ultimate goal is perhaps a very welcome development that bodes well for the project of African unity.
Diversity in Africa constitutes the Achilles hill of Africa’s undoing. Fractured and disunited, the lack of primary loyalty to African-ness remains the sore problem undermining efforts to bring about Africa’s fully decolonized future. Africans have neither recognised being African as their premier identity, nor have they discovered that identity. They still express multiple identities from their birth to their death, and have not yet privileged as a principal and dominant identity the fact that they are Africans. The reason why many Africans find President Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech very attractive is because it provides the basis for building the Africa-nation. It is the basis for constructing a common and shared identity.
Between the individual and humanity lies the nation. Africa as a nation-identity emerges when the African becomes the key nucleus for bearing citizenship. This process has accelerated over the last three years with the new rhetoric to change AU from an only state-centred to a peoples-centred institution.
Africa is not a country. Africa is more a concept bearing the logos of final freedom for people who were forcibly excluded from its soil as well as those whose resources are daily robbed, and whose humanity and liberty are denied and undermined by an indifferent and exploitative international arrangement which they were denied agency in forming as partners. Thus, as an identity, being ‘African’ expresses the desire to dream, to deal with fear, to resist oppression and to promote a project. What is lacking is the ideology and purpose to bring Africans together to build on resistance identity against colonialism and racism, and to build on a renaissance project identity so ably articulated by the current president of South Africa. Being African expresses a double purpose: reject reproach, affirm renaissance, reject the negative idea of Africa, and bring in the positive idea of Africa. Only the development of an ideology of anAfrica-nation can complete the liberation of Africans the world over.
Ali Mazuri, (1972): Cultural engineering and Nation Building, Evanston, North-Western University Press,1972.
Frantz Fanon, (1967): Towards the African Revolution, (Grove Press, New York)
Felix Houphout-Boigny, (1947): “Le continent African en marche,” Democratie Nouvelle, no.2 Ferier, pp.74-79 reprinted in Rupert Emerson & Martin Kilson, (1965): The Political Awakening of Africa, Prentice-Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs,