The Mythology of a Unified African Identity

It is very easy for African intellectuals and politicians to dismiss the multiculturalism of the African continent in favour of a unified and superficial racial identity. It conceals the extractive and exploitative class relationships that have formed under successive administrations controlled by a small group of African leaders, aided and abetted by the intelligentsia. Some of these relationships exhibit continuity with pre-independence political arrangements.

The agreement between African leaders to maintain colonial boundaries became a cheap veneer to ensure that the new elite retained control over lucrative natural endowments. The poverty of Africa is directly attributable to the deliberate political manipulation of ethnic identity and the supportive intellectual dishonesty that replicated the thinking of the colonizers – black skins versus other pigments, when it should have been a discussion around governance arrangements that permitted difference based on the distribution of ethnicity and language.

The insistence on a falsified and unitary identity became the means through which poor governance found convenient historical scapegoats in colonialism and race-based identities. Congo is home to over 200 ethno-linguistic groups. The violence of its colonial past became the unitary mythology that denied the right of ethnic groups to self-determination.

It became acceptable to place the blame for social turmoil and dislocation on the colonial past instead of addressing violent contending elites as a sizeable contributing factor. This does not exculpate King Leopold’s methods of control but it is not entirely true to blame his methods alone for the burning of a naturally rich country where the mined minerals are not utilized by domestic populations in their own development but enrich the politico-military elite.

In Nigeria, the Biafra conflict was a direct result of a resistance towards etho-linguistic domination. The bitterness of this conflict remains to this day in populations that feel that their own identities are being ignored, and their own needs neglected. In South Africa, of the nine official Bantu languages, other languages, particularly of the Khoi, are neglected. The lack of official recognition is due to the same logic and myth of black identity. In other parts of the continent, ethnic domination has led to skewed resource allocation patterns and has tended to reinforce ethnic partisanship in governance arrangements. In Malawi, Chichewa from the north dominated Nyanja in the south with all sorts of permutations of this ethnic domination in many African countries, from Sudan to Senegal to South Africa.

The side effect of this has been low levels of public trust in governance institutions, which in turn fuelled ethnic conflicts and partisan and unsustainable human development. The absence of honest dialogue in the post-colonial era has replicated the colonial mindset and has actively vilified self-determination, autonomy and power sharing arrangements. It is no accident that the largest ethnic group usually became the support base of a corrupt and brutal ruling class to the detriment and neglect of minority ethnic groups.

The truest form of democracy is only possible in a city-state. If Africans wish to democratise, they need to acknowledge local units of power in a federalist arrangement that recognises autonomy and limited self-determination within a unified political entity capable of achieving a viable economy of scale. However, many in the ruling classes are greedy for personal gain and personal advantage and will never allow their absolute, almost feudal power to be openly challenged through this form of political arrangement. Africans are different. African identity is not monolithic.

Historical material conditions might follow similar patterns, but materialism does not create an identity. Even in the European Union where economic conditions are fairly similar between major political sub-units, culture and language create divergences in political identities. Fairly good examples of linguistic and cultural differences reflect between the Lutheran north and catholic south of Germany, where dialects, cuisine and local unifying symbols assume a greater reality than national symbols. Popular jokes abound around the Republic of Bavaria, a southern German state. However, there is an acceptance that national symbols are just as important as local symbols.

Similarly, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious and economic differences replicate in Portugal, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France on the same north-south axis. The unifying agency for all these localised identities is a prolonged exposure to statehood and the subsequent identification with popular national symbols. In many African states, the flags of political parties, which largely correspond to ethno-racial identities, are more unifying to the individual than national symbols. In public protests and mass rallies, a South African flag is a rare occurrence, but the flags of political parties and formations are ever present. It is perhaps an acknowledgement that the state is only justifiable if racial identity is exploited as a unifying political agent to the formal or informal exclusion of others.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would see Africa as a rich patchwork of identities each with different requirements for development. If we continue to see Africans as all the same, we destroy the cultures which constitute its diverse and rich history to the detriment of sustainable development. Africans need to have this conversation.

© Justin Steyn