For the last few months, formerly colonized African states have dominated international news: Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya.
Governed with an iron fist since independence in 1957, Tunisia experienced the first uprising in January. The frustration and misery of the population symbolized by the self-immolation of a young street vendor ignited the revolts that expanded to the whole region, and highlighted the abyss separating the tranquility of the governors and the distress of the governed. But this was only the beginning.
In February, the 40-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak fell.
In May, after months of bloody battles, a new, democratically elected president was sworn in, in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast.)
The civil war that lasted more than twenty years came to an end in South Sudan, when the global peace accord signed on January 9, 2005 was applied through a referendum that consecrated the partition of that country, creating independent South Sudan on July 9, 2011.
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The novelty in this dynamic was the pulverization, through a democratic process, of the principle of immovable borders, which was inherited from colonization. In the formerly colonized world, we are now entering an era in which borders will be moved. This, and the recent troubles in the Mediterranean (Syria, Yemen…) mark the beginning of the end of the colonial states.
Writing in 2009, I highlighted the limits of the post-colonial African state: the immense human waste it engenders, and the multidimensional crisis the African continent has experienced since the 1980s.
The post-colonial state and its one-party political system was principally responsible for the deconstruction of African societies.
It imposed itself on the state for the profit of an individual, a group of individuals, a clan or an ethnic group, and expanded its reach to the whole society.
It hindered the organizational ability of the masses (youth movements, women’s associations and unions) to play their role as the transmission belt between the state and the citizens.
It reduced the space for liberty.
We are now witnessing the end of that system. What will replace it is in the making, and only time will tell what we have learned from the past.
Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya
Even if the events that place them under the lights are different, the objectives of the revolutions taking place across northern Africa are the same: to move beyond the state bequeathed by the post-colonial period.
The essential cause for the uprisings resides in the impossibility of peaceful transitions of power in many African states. By infringing on the people’s ability to breathe, and the country’s ability to aerate through democratic elections, the post-colonial state winds up producing the type of explosion that, suddenly, shatters all bearings.
The chaos left by the African dictators will not be easily or quickly resolved. And I am not so naïve as to absolve the hand of the “wanguzu” or white man, (there’s a saying that when you see the wanguzu pointing his cannon at a bird, you can be sure he is really aiming at the elephant behind the bush.) There has clearly been unequal treatment by the international community of Libya and, say, Syria or Bahrain. But we are no longer in a period of signing “Pharaoh, let my people go”. Rather, we must let Pharaoh go, by refusing to be oppressed by our own people, and by engaging in this refusal “by any means necessary.”
This is the quintessential lesson coming from Benghazi, the rebel capitol in Libya.Gadhafi’s false “Pan-Africanism”
With the regime on its last legs, those who claim a corrupt Pan-African ideal to defend Gadhafi must now face a reality Africans have been clamoring about for the past fifteen years: that he is an enemy of African unification, not a champion of it.
Not long ago, he advocated splitting Nigeria on a religious basis, unveiling his implicit support for the backward Islamic movement called Boko Haram. But this was not the first of his destructive interventions in black Africa.
The destruction of lives, property and the entire society of West African states like Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone; the arming of thugs like Idi Amin Dada, (Uganda) Fodé Sanko, (Sierra Leone) and Charles Taylor (Liberia) — all resulted in massacres on a scale never before seen in Africa. These have taken place with the financial and military support of the so-called “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” Muammar Gadhafi.
True, Gadhafi supported the freedom fighters in South Africa, Mozambique and Angola during the 1980s. But while doing so, he also supported and financed Idi Amin’s attack on Tanzania while that country was bearing the brunt of its own struggle against Apartheid. (Gaddhafi-backed troops were roundly defeated by the Tanzanian forces.)
Gadhafi’s contradictory position was a manifestation of “bat syndrome”— whereby the bat wants to simultaneously be a bird and a rat.
Having long “championed” the Arab cause through his claim of having the heritage of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, and having then been abandoned by the Egyptians and the Palestinians, Gadhafi turned to Africa at a 1999 Organization of African Unity summit in Sirte, Libya, presenting himself as the “Great Pan-African hope. Yet, it is the same Gadhafi who signed an agreement with the Italians, promising to control African migration to Italy. We will never know the number of young Africans thrown into the middle of the desert in that campaign, and left to die.
The political convulsions of Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, Congo and Libya, are those of the agonizing colonial heritage. The troubles generalize to most of the countries whose borders were drawn by colonization. In fact, the states that incarnate so many Africans are the same ones that colonization gave to itself by force, to impose the international contemporary order.
Today, those post-colonial states are coming apart. Globalization is awakening people to their rights.
Suddenly, the post-colonial state is asked to serve, rather than repress; to authorize where it used to forbid; to educate, where it used to promote ignorance, and to heal, where it used to poison.
For these states, democracy is the world upside down.
And that poses a problem common to all of the countries that emerged from decolonization: the nature of the post-colonial state itself, which because of its colonial origin, can only be a dictatorship. Therefore, the uprisings of today highlight the necessity of finishing with the post-colonial state altogether, and replacing it with a state based on human rights and liberties; a state at the service of its people, that is not a dictatorship.
To that end, three things will have to be studied attentively in the coming years as the revolutionary phenomenon unfolds into black Africa: a youth that has been “repoliticized” with modern political norms it has invented, a radical left, awakening to the cause of freedom, and the forces of the emerging African middle class.
The cases of Ivory Coast, Sudan and Libya show what happens to countries in which the problems of liberty and government by consensus left unresolved, rise to the point of provoking the dismantlement of the country.
This is what is likely to happen to all of those countries that deny the rights of the people who compose them. The coming showdown carries with it all the risks of war and disintegration.
Libya today! Black Africa tomorrow. There is no turning back.
Babacar MBow is an independent researcher who focuses on Africa and the African. He is the author of the Idea of Modernity in Contemporary Haitian Art and Managing Editor of the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (Oxford: ABC -CLIO, 2008).