Eds: Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine.
Publ: Pambazuka Press, 2011 and E-book
Reviewer: Stephen Derwent Partington
Here in Kenya, we tend to think of Divide-and-Rule as a period-specific strategy employed by the Roman and, much later, the British, empires. Yet, we shouldn’t perhaps be quite so self-congratulatory as to consign this strategy of governance to some dead zone called ‘History’, any more than we should – as critics of neocolonialism rightly remind us – be overly swift to attach the prefix ‘post’ unproblematically to that persistent noun, ‘colonialism’.
As one of the editors of the excellent African Awakening: the Emerging Revolutions, Firoze Manji, reminds us, the West’s segregation of Africa into Egypt and the northern Maghreb on the one hand, and the sub-Saharan (even, ‘black’) south on the other, while being a binary sometimes accepted by certain African scholars, is undoubtedly a lasting ploy to create a conceptual border that quarantines geopolitical realms. At few points in recent history has this been more noticeable than during the past couple of years of what much of the mainstream international media has called the ‘Arab Spring’, that domino-fall of revolutions which toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya...
Indeed, Firoze Manji’s and Sokari Ekine’s collection of essays by various hands starts with the very convincing suggestion that this so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was almost insuperably interpreted by Western powers as an event which, if not isolated to the north of Africa, seeped exclusively across to the Middle East rather than southwards into other African countries. Convincingly, the editors early on imply that equally liberationist struggles on the streets of countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Uganda, Burkina Faso, South Africa and other localities are devalued by such a hegemonic interpretative paradigm; I might add that indeed this dominant view of where the ‘Arab Spring’ was (and should be) restricted to is utterly discriminatory and patronizing in its implication that while north Africa is capable of rationally-radical politics proper, the vast region south of the Sahara is capable merely of turbulent chaos and irrational tantrums. The editors’ alternative thesis, and that of many of the fine contributors, is that indeed the ‘Arab Spring’ might better be read as an ‘African Awakening’, a hopeful and productive return to the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, and that to read it otherwise is to perform an interpretative Divide-and-Rule over our continent. These arguments are convincing.
In fact, it’s fair to say that despite the vast journalistic and early academic coverage that the north’s revolutions enjoyed, no collection of analyses of those events has impressed and convinced me as much as African Awakening. This is particularly admirable, given the great recentness of Ben Ali’s, Hosni Mubarak’s and Mu’ammer Gaddafi’s falls and related events further south.
That there are so many short articles (thirty-two of them, from about five to fifteen pages long) by so many diverse hands (fine Pambazuka regulars such as Horace Campbell, big names such as Mahmood Mamdani, emerging doctoral students such as Lakhdar Ghettas, activists such as Hassan El Ghayesh, opposition politicians such as Kah Walla) makes not only for thrilling theory-and-action reading in itself, but also has a wider symbolism. For, each accessible article is rooted in the specifics of a particular radical act’s place-and-time, enabling us to zero-in on, say, popular discontent surrounding recent elections in our neighbouring Uganda in a short piece by J. Oloka-Onyango. Yet, by preceding this essay with one on protest in Cameroon, following it by another essay on women’s struggles in Cote d’Ivoire and then situating these more widely amongst thirty-or-so other essays that node from site to site around the contemporary continent, the editors have created a wonderful book that is metonymic of the New Pan-Africanism at work throughout our continent. Not only, then, do the book’s individual essays focus-in on organized and legitimate acts of radical dissent across the continent that give the lie to the accusation that ‘sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t do coherent politics’, but also as a wider work itself African Awakening acts as the conscientious voice of a diverse-but-interacting continent that will not allow CNN to tame it by dictating how Africa’s radicalism should be elucidated, explained away, segregated and, yes, co-opted and contained.
Recently, yet another new advert for Coke hit the spaces in between the more interesting programmes on television stations across Africa. The first minute or two of this advert is deeply inspiring and feel-goody, reminding us that while Euro-America slides into crisis, African economies are growing; that while the weather is appalling in Finnland, we have excellent sunshine; that while the West does this, we’re on the up, culturally and economically – vast amounts of nicely-nice guff, all to the classic tune of 'I Love You Africa!' It is precisely this sort of advert and its associated product that ‘Arab Spring’ rather than ‘African Awakening’ interpretations of recent revolutions have allowed, for as the editors and most of the contributors point out, one key part of the West’s explanation of their ‘Arab Spring’ is to argue that Egyptian protestors, for instance, didn’t want freedom and material liberation at all, but rather they merely wanted freer trade, Facebook friends and greater consumer choice, which is to fundamentally misread Tahrir Square, its causes and its legacy – and, most worryingly, is to show an insolent disregard for the lives lost in the struggles. Contrary to received opinion, those baton-charged across the continent did not and do not endure such violence so that they might buy the new pineapple-flavoured Fanta, or Coke in a plastic rather than a glass bottle, and the contributors to African Awakening are responsibly unwilling to let such a myth persist. Such a swift and thoughtful intervention is necessary, so that faux-humanitarian aid, corporate interventionism and NGOs’ undermining of democratic State action is not allowed to sidetrack and incorporate our continent’s fledgling movements for new radical change.
At a time when our own country, Kenya, is entering an election period on very wobbly feet, African Awakening is a necessary read, whether your sympathies are themselves radical or whether, as an interested local citizen of our broad continent, you merely want to understand the new swells of discontent and hope.