By Cameron Duodu
For those of us who were fortunate enough to be born in the colonial times, to be eye witnesses to the struggle to remove colonialism, and having done that to go through the process of trying to rebuild a new nation for ourselves, the experience has been quite mind-boggling.
First, we enjoyed euphoria of such a nature as few people are ever blessed to taste. We were promoted to new jobs with new entitlements that gave us new status in our society. Our status as full members of the UN and other international organisations also boosted our ego.
But the closer we got to the policy-making apparatus of our new state the more our eyes were opened to the foibles of humanity. We saw selfishness and shallowness of mind and at first hand. Were these politicians the same people we had once worshipped? Did Mr Krobo Edusei, Minister of the Interior in Ghana, whose wife felt so affluent that she bought a golden bed that became a big headline story in British newspapers, the same minister whose lack of education had convinced the ‘veranda boys’ that there was a place for them too in the new administration we were creating in the new nation we were building?
The realisation that this was largely to be the order of things to come sent some of our people into a spiralling depression that descended inexorably upon the spirits, as the fact was accepted that the foibles that had become noticed were not a temporary aberration but perhaps an unmistakable signal that our leadership had succumbed to the ‘sweetness of office’ and become transformed into a mere replacement for the departed European oppressors, and sometimes even worse than them. Thus, in East Africa for example, the Swahili word kaburu [abusive term for white settlers] were replaced in popular disdain by the wabenzi [‘big’ people whose mode of transport was the Mercedes-Benz car].
Inevitably came despair, as we saw the leadership gradually resort to force against the critics within our society. They thereby unwittingly invited the monopolisers of force in the country – the military (sometimes in collusion with the police) – to remove our leadership from office. The depth to which our societies had sunk was illustrated by the emergence to power of such masters of brute force as Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada in Uganda and ‘Emperor’ Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
The violent acts that occurred in many African countries only teased out and removed the surface scum, however, and left the murky rottenness in the middle and at the bottom of the pool of corruption. It had to emerge to the top to replace the politicians and very soon afterwards, each country’s treasury became a feeding trough into which the most roguish and unprincipled elements within our society were allowed to place their dirty snouts and feed fat, safe from sanctions, so long as they shared their booty with those who ‘mattered’.
Power =money=power became our ‘Einstein’s theory that answered all questions.’ It preyed on the minds of the more intelligent elements in the society, placing them at daily risk of expressing dissent and thus inviting murder, social disintegration or clinical depression into their lives. Members of their families were not spared, for which family can survive being uprooted because its head had merely expressed dissent, only to be subjected to loss of life, exile, or physical brutalisation just for uttering words of dissent? Was our country not supposed to be ruled under the principles of freedom and justice? Did we not have a parliament? Did we not live under the rule of law? People glibly boasted of these formal freedoms, and yet real people suffered without being noticed. Individuals within the society were ignored as they silently endured an aggregation of mental bedlam akin to undiagnosed clinical depression.
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Frantz Fanon, who wrote so eloquently about the path to be trodden by the colonised peoples who wanted to free themselves from foreign rule, was a professional psychiatrist, and by observing the state of mind of the patients who were brought to him for treatment in colonial Algeria, he detected the disintegration of personality that could occur in a colonial setting. More important, he could foresee much of the chaos that awaited the individual and his society after decolonisation.
The inexplicable brutality that has marked Algerian society after independence is the single most eloquent validation of Fanon’s theories. But it wasn’t only a future Algerian ‘Callous State’ that Fanon foresaw. Like all the best writers, some of the social diseases about which he forewarned the world in his two most famous books, ‘The Wretched Of The Earth’ and ‘Black Skin White Masks’, read as if they were tailor-made for the citizens of most post-colonial African countries.
For instance, in ‘The Wretched Of The Earth’, Fanon warned: ‘Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty and national dignity. But as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land, and the restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns, which constitutes the national bourgeoisie.’
Who, reading that passage in, say, Mobutu Seseseko’s Congo or the Cote d’Ivoire of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, would fail to recognise his own country as the butt of Fanon’s jibe? And yet, if the three countries mentioned were the most blatant practitioners of ‘the state as a private company’ phenomenon, they were by no means the sole beneficiaries of that profitable ‘enterprise’ which had also served Cecil Rhodes, Queen Victoria, King Leopold I and quite a few other principalities, now quiescent – sometimes even adulated – in the pages of the history of their own countries.
In Ghana, for instance, a minister of agriculture, F Y Asare, was convicted in 1965 for obtaining one million pounds – worth about £20m today – as his share of a ‘deal’ under which a company headed by one Henry Djaba, Agric Machinery Company, was contracted to order spraying machines for distribution to cocoa farmers. Cocoa, as everyone knew, was the largest source of revenue and foreign exchange for the government of Ghana. Yet the Minister in charge of the crop’s wellbeing, thought nothing of depriving the farmers who cultivated cocoa, of the spraying machines needed to save it from disease. He conspired to skim some of the money meant to purchase the machines off and allowed his co-conspirators to filch some for themselves as well. The proceeds went into cars, houses and foreign bank accounts – the favourite targets of a ‘national bourgeoisie’ out on a spending spree at the expense of the taxpayer.
In that episode, the president of the company, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had enough integrity to order his Attorney General’s Department, to prosecute the culprits. But today, in Ghana, it is the Attorney General’s Department that, in a case involving the building of sports stadiums, known as the ‘Woyome case,’ appears to be inviting prosecution. The reason is that the department did not defend the case well before the court to which it was taken, and, even when an out-of-court ‘settlement’ was reached, undue haste was applied towards paying the so-called plaintiff over $50m. This was a sum which could have eliminated all the schools that take place under trees in Ghana.
And yet, some people still doubt that fifty years after his death, Frantz Fanon’s writing are still ‘relevant’ to the world of today. Anyone who wants to answer the question of Fanon’s relevance only has to dissect the socio-economic situation of any African country today. The answer is writ large in the division of the society into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and the political processes that led to that division.
Cameron Doudou is a writer and commentator.