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Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Lectures on Africa at ECAS 4

The Fourth European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 4) started yesterday in Uppsala, Sweden. Over a 1,000 participants have converged to address the thematic question; African Engagements: On Whose Terms? They include notable African/Africanist thinkers such as Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Valentin Mudimbe, Karin Barber, Thandika Mkandawire, Rita Abrahmsen, Dismas Masolo and John Lonsdale among others. One of the key highlights of the first day was the 'lectures in contrast' delivered by Peter Ekeh and Issa Shivji.

In his provocative Lugard Lecture entitled Basil Davidson and the Culture of the African State, Ekeh left the audience dumbfounded by shifting the origin of the crisis of the post-colonial African state(s) to the 'pre-colonial' era of 'Arab/Muslim invasion' rather than the colonial age of 'European/Christian conquest'. Ekeh locates the ancient battle between Songhai and Morocco in the 16th century - within the context of the British battle with the Spanish Armada and the war between Portugal and Morocco - as the key moment in which a/the 'black African state' was destroyed to set the precedent of redirecting the character of the African state. To him this Arab/Muslim 'redirection' reached its zenith during the Sokoto Caliphate under Usman Dan Fodio whereby, he claims, its 'Fulani Revolution' entrenched a monarchical setup rather than the democratic system of individual liberty that allegedely characterised the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence which also occured in the same century. He thus postulates that Lord Lugard's indirect rule - and the attendant imperial/colonial conquest in the 19th century -was an extension, or rather, affirmation of what the African state had already evolved to, that is, a 'failed/failing state'.

By 'shifting the blame' to 'Muslim Arabs' in the current context of the 'War on Terror', Ekeh downplays the role - and even dismisses the long duree history - of European imperial conquest of orientalizing the world. He thus falls into the trap of demonizing the 'Muslim Arabs'. Ekeh also does a disservice to African, nay, global/world historiography by explaining away the nature of colonialism and imperialism with a far fetched case study from the 16th century that does not account to what happened in the 15th century when Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese conquistadors circumnavigated Africa, let alone what befell Carthage. His postulates does not explain the character of the African state in southern Africa when and after Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape in the 17 century nor does it capture its character when the Kingdom of Kongo had skewed 'diplomatic relations' with Portugal. Morever, it bypasses the experience of British imperialism in India and how it informed the way Lord Lugard introduced Indirect Rule in Africa.

Such a historical blindspot is/was 'incidentall'y addressed immediately in Shivji's keynote lecture on The Struggle to Convert Nationalism to Pan-Africanism: Taking Stock of 50 Years of Independence. It's opening paragraph thus locates the periodization of European conquest:

"The post-Vasco da Gama epoch of some five centuries, as Panniker calls it, is a story of the 'West and the Rest'. The West constructed its own story and the story of the rest. It is a story of plunder, privation, invasion and destruction; it is a story of permanent wars and passing peace. It is a story of the annihilation of pre-European civilizations from the Incas of the Americas, so called after the European explorer Amerigo Vespucci, to the Swahili civilisation of the Eastern Coast of Africa. The title of a book describing the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the near-extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines by the British, the white American dispossession of the Apache, and the German subjugation of the Herero and Nama of Namibia sums it all: Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold".

Ekeh's attempt to over-play the role of 'Arab/Islam' and downplay that of 'European/Christianity' thus inevitable lose sight of this decisive moment in the history of world that Shivji captures:

"As the Portugues privateers were devastating the African coast in the last quarter of the 15th century, so Spanish conquerers were discovering the "New World". Vasco da Gama laid the foundation of the European invasion of Africa. Christopher Columbus inaugurated the extermination of the indigeneous populations of the Americas and the Carribean...One led to white hegemony, the other to white settlement. From then on, the fate of the three continents was inextricably linked and found its immediate expressioin in the triangular slave trade"


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