Why are the French so obsessed with African civilisation?

WHY are the French so obsessed with Africa and its civilisation? I am compelled to ask this question because a few months ago French President Emmanuel Macron was quoted as saying: “With a family that has seven or eight children in Africa, even if you invest billions, nothing will change, because the challenge of Africa is civilisational.”

A decade ago, his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a well-packed hall at the venerable Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, said pretty much the same thing.

He opined that Africa is stagnating because its collective mindset is rooted in “circles and circles” of thinking. Nothing moves, everything is in “endless circles”, hence no progress is possible. The audience in that sweltering summer in Dakar felt both stupefied and humiliated.

Times have changed. The grandees that once occupied the Elysée Palace — Charles de Gaulle, Pompidou and François Mitterrand — would never have made such pedestrian commentaries.

One academic who did not allow Emmanuel Macron to get away with it was the sociologist Amadou Douno of Ahmadou-Dieng University in Conakry.

Professor Douno declared: “Africans do not need your debauchery civilization. Because, with your (so-called) civilisation a woman can sleep with a woman; a single….a woman can sleep with her dog;  a child can insult his father and mother without problem….a young man can live with a woman who is his mother’s age or his grandma without problem….Africans have no civilisation lesson to learn from people like you. Africa is by far the richest continent in the world with its enormous mineral wealth. What is delaying this continent is the large-scale pillage of its resources by the great powers, France in the lead….France is nothing without Africa….The challenge for Africa is to get rid of France. Because the latter is not the solution to its underdevelopment; it is at the heart of the problem!”

Europe and Africa are condemned to live in cocoons of mutual incomprehension. Our civilisational mindsets are different, if not diametrically opposed. There is also what one of our teachers at ABU Zaria, Bonaventure Swai of Tanzania, termed “Africanist historiography”.

Western scholars who make themselves specialists of Africa often present an Africa that is often strange to us Africans ourselves. They make their names and their fortunes at the expense of our people. But a lot of what they present is an Africa as perceived through Western lenses.

One of the oldest views is that of an Africa imprisoned in the medieval womb of myth and superstition; a civilisation caught in the circular chains of nature and the seasons. They transpose what Marx and Weber termed “the Asiatic mode of production” and its circular mindset into the African setting. Thus Greece is presented as a unilinear civilisation anchored on continuous progress while Africa is condemned to repeat its misfortunes in endless cycles of birth, adulthood, senescence, death and rebirth ad infinitum. The myths of Homer’s Odyssey present a heroic drama that has a beginning and climaxes in a denouement of hope and progress, whereas Africa is contrasted as being lost in the Middle Ages, doomed to reproduce only poverty and degradation.

What is false about this narrative is the fact that African myths are also unilinear in their zest for hope and redemption. The myths of Ozzidi as retold by the poet J. P. Clark Bekederomo and the ancient tales of Sundiata Keita of Mali also speak of a bleak childhood of suffering and deprivation that finally springs into hope through personal effort, greatness and divine redemption.

One of my teenage heroes was the Franco-German doctor, missionary, theologian, philosopher and musicologist Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was one of the most learned savants of the twentieth century, with earned doctorates in medicine, philosophy, theology and music, in addition to almost a hundred honorary doctorates. Schweitzer later earned the Nobel Prize for Peace and was a close friend to such progressive post-war intellectuals as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Bertrand Russell. At the beginning of the previous century Schweitzer gave up the pursuit of worldly fame to work as a missionary doctor in the primeval forests heart of “darkest Africa” in Lambarene, Gabon.

When I was in Gabon recently I was talking about his legacy to a friend and he exclaimed, “Oh, when I was a child my mother would take me to his hospital. He would give me an injection and then console me with some sweets. Schweitzer was a kindly old man!”

The problem with do-gooders like Schweitzer was that they still suffered from a European superiority complex. Schweitzer famously proclaimed that “the black man is our brother – albeit a younger one!” That infamous remark alone has virtually destroyed his entire legacy in Africa.

Africa is widely accepted by the world scientific community as the cradle of human civilisation. Although Homo sapiens first reached its settled mode in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Meroe and Kush were the first to lay claim to being high civilisations. There is no civilisation of antiquity that rivals the Egypt of Imhotep and Ramses II.

What the Europeans and the Arabs have done is to collude in wickedly denying that Pharaonic Egypt was an African civilisation. Africa is the only continent where a civilisation found on the continent was denied to be part of that continent. It is the stupidest and most pernicious intellectual racism known in the annals of world science.

When Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal presented his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne conclusively proving that ancient Egypt was a black civilisation, his thesis was rejected. He resubmitted it at London University and was awarded a doctorate. Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, at the time Director-General of UNESCO, sponsored a major research project on rewriting the history of Africa. The Americans were so offended that they pulled out of the organisation altogether. Other Western powers starved UNESCO of much-needed funds. M’Bow had to eventually bow out. I met him in Dakar in 2003. He was still looking svelte and dapper. A great and brave man indeed!

The work of the late Anglo-Jewish historian Martin Bernal at Cornell opened a whole new debate on the subject. Before embarking on his Black Athena project, Bernal already had a well-established reputation at Cambridge University as a classical scholar and historian of science with a focus on ancient China. Nobody could doubt his credentials. And he had no axe to grind with anyone. But it was very painful for him to be at the receiving of an avalanche of attacks for his work. Entire books were written just to discredit him. While Afrocentric intellectuals were celebrating racist academics who felt that the Western canon was being threatened cried murder.

The greatest challenge we face in Africa today is what the late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui termed “Global Apartheid”. It is a pernicious and evil system that seeks to keep our continent permanently under the sewers of human civilisation. Nothing good is supposed to come from Africa. And if any good still oozes through and is unavoidably perceived in the gilded pavilions of the Western academe, they are greeted with condescension and indifference. We will never be welcome at the dinner table as equals with the Western powers. It is foolhardy even to try. Rather, we should behave like the Chinese. The Middle Kingdom decided long ago that they would never aspire to be second-class Europeans or Americans. Rather, they will be themselves. They will reinvent themselves and reincarnate their civilisation in readiness to meet the imperatives of the twenty-first century.

We must therefore be true to ourselves. We can build a technological-industrial democracy and still be Africans in heart and mind. We can embrace Western science and Western democracy while rejecting everything else. Europe itself, as far as I am concerned, is now becoming an anti-civilisation. Even the Greeks at their worst never embraced the heresy that a mother could marry her own son and that an old man could marry a boy. The Europe of today is a temple for wicked demons who believe that you can build a civilisation without the ramparts of faith.

But both Sarkozy and Macron have a point. The mediocrity of our leaders, especially in Nigeria, is grossly inexcusable. We have bungled it – big time! Our generation of leaders owes it to our people to be more disciplined and more focused. The mission of our generation is to build a new inner-directed and self-confident civilisation anchored on African values   of Ubuntu — of love and faith.

Chinua Achebe, late doyen of African letters, noted that unless the lion learns to tell his story, his story will always be told by the hunter. We must learn to tell our own story otherwise others will write it and they will write it in colours of ignominy. We must assert ourselves or die!