Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Africa in Uppsala

Africa Conference in Uppsala

Last week the Nordic Africa Institute hosted a conference with the theme “African Engagements: On Whose Terms?”. It was a great conference for various reasons. It was well organized and a great number of young, mainly European scholars congregated in Uppsala. I was taken by surprise by the fact that there apparently is a renaissance in African studies in Europe at the moment. In six years, from 2005, this conference which is part of AEGIS’ (Africa-Europe Group for Interdisciplinary Studies, made up of about thirty European centres for African studies) undertaking, has grown with leaps and bounds. One would be entitled to ask, why such an interest now in Africa by European scholars? In figures, more than 1200 came, more than 1000 papers were presented, 230 panels offered and more than 30 publishers exhibited.

Here I will only venture to comment briefly on the three key note addresses, which one could expect to be setting the tone or the standard for what happened in the rest of the conference. However, my impression is that these keynote addresses did not play any significant role; they rather drowned in the massive number of panels that were presented which generated their own debates in different fields of study. The first address was delivered by Professor Peter Ekeh, State University of New York at Buffalo, USA. He spoke on “Basil Davidson and the Culture of the African State”. While acknowledging Davidson’s scholarship on Africa, not least his ability to combine a high appreciation of the African past with its indigenous statecraft with his concerns about the misbehaviour of African rulers of the new independent states (from the 1960s onwards), there were also some grave misunderstandings. Ekeh eventually pointed out one such misunderstanding, perhaps to the surprise of some, as it could not be said to be politically correct to do so. He meant that the Arab Muslim invasion of northern Africa, fairly soon after the time of Mohammed, in many ways had a devastating impact on the life and structure of African rule. This was indeed a challenging proposition but I do not know of any forum in which his lecture was further debated in the conference.

The second key note address took place in the Great Hall (Aulan) of Uppsala University, a grand hall with its round shape, but with difficult acoustics. It was in fact very hard to hear what the speaker said. Professor Issa Shivji, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, spoke on “The Struggle to Convert Nationalism to Pan-Africanism: Taking stock of 50 Years of African Independence”. My comment here must be brief and will only be on ideology and on what was not said. He certainly had a case in talking about a renewed interest in Pan-Africanism and the need to transcend the confines of the nationalist state, and he duly mentioned all those who historically had worked for a strengthening of African or black identity, be it Franz Fanon or Steve Biko. However, this whole attempt was nearly lost in his insistence on labeling the last five hundred years as years of capitalism that had had a devastating effect on Africa and was the main reason for all its woes. This kind of ideologization reminded me of debates some 40 years ago and one would have been inclined rather to talk now about the market and its inevitability, even though it has to be checked. A paper in the very first panel of the conference by Professor Michael Keating had a much more relevant approach in this regard. Keating stated that the more liberal you become (in terms of market forces etc) the more you need to develop various checks and balances. It would have been better had Shivji ventured into this kind of approach instead. Now he was tempted to omit so much of historical reality in Africa that his lecture nearly became a fatal accident. While he was perfectly right in highlighting the colonial exploitation in Africa, which to me more is about European power politics than a particular ideology, he omitted among others two things, to his own peril. First there was no mention of the systematic misrule of the first generation of independent African leaders from the 1960s onwards. This is of course already a general and established fact, despite Julius Nyerere being one of the very few exceptions to such misrule. Secondly, there was also no mention of how badly African states have fared under development aid (state aid from Europe and North America) since the 1970s, a fact that has to be recognised and scrutinized. Not least Tanzania is, at least from a Swedish point of view, a prime example of how a state remains dependent on aid for decades; clearly, that was not the aim. It would have been good to hear from a scholar of law how he thought one could get out of such a devastating dependency.

The third key note lecture was quite exciting and was delivered by a woman, Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi, Department of Sociology, Stony Brook University, USA. She spoke on “The Coloniality of Power and the Production of Knowledge on Africa”. She certainly caught the attention of all when she kicked off the lecture by creating a link between the alleged rape of a black woman by the at the time head of the IMF, Dr Strauss Kahn last month with slavery (in the USA): if a white man raped a black woman, the resultant child would also be a slave and this act of rape would never be brought to a court. So she certainly had a case: the coloniality is one of power and the only way forward is a clean break. My observation is here that while she spoke in feminist terms, she also came close to the notion of what others might call black power. You do not negotiate in such a colonial relationship, you have to break that relationship and start afresh, and on your own, as it were. However, she also ventured into the Yoruba culture, her own culture, as she is from Nigeria; this was of great interest and she challenged all when she demonstrated that in the Yoruba you find evidence that the male discourse is not dominating, furthermore, there are striking examples of talking about life in non-gendered ways. There is a common “gender” and “he” and “she” are not paramount.

Here I find that she made two mistakes. First, and this was challenged from the floor by at least two other scholars with Yoruba background, she overplayed the significance of these traits in her own culture. She simply was tempted to make her own background the paradigm of all, and that is not really credible. No culture has the final answer to things and as a scholar, to be credible, she should at least have mentioned some of the drawbacks of her own culture. In all her responses, in the lively debate afterwards, she stubbornly defended her stance. Secondly, she in fact stereotyped white men in linking them with rape in a structural way. This is not very helpful. It is an example of how easy it is to abuse any idea of strengthening a particular group due to historical oppression. The need to argue for a renewed Africanness or Black Consciousness is there and it is highly justified, but how easily one falls into the trap of demonising the opponent. Such a move is not bringing us forward, especially not the disadvantaged camp.

Finally, I must add that I have seldom experienced such a vibrant, youthful, serious-minded and yet joyful conference that at times was more of a celebration of the fact that “we are scholars of African studies and that is a great privilege”. The fact that the majority of them were Europeans (this was after all a European conference) and only less than one third from Africa, did not disturb me much. On the contrary, if there is such a serious and keen interest here, now, on the part of young people in Europe, there is indeed hope for a new, vibrant, meaningful and just relationship between Europe and Africa. These two continents are tied together by history, for better for worse, and it has become their fate to stick it out together until the mutual benefits are complete.

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