When I volunteered to review Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s Africa Must Be Modern (2014) in a graduate seminar sometimes ago, I found myself defending Africa. I was looking for excuses to disprove his argument. I only saw one, maybe two during our class discussion. The book is a thorough dissection of all too familiar issues of the postcolonial African state and the lived experience of its citizens. The author does not only address what he considers to be an issue; he suggests several ambitious ‘‘way forward” for Africa to gain her place as an integral part of global modernity. In this piece, I’ll attempt a dialogue with some of his thoughts, and I hope to find something worthwhile in the haystack.
Before addressing the matter at hand, I would like to start with this simple fact: Africa is modern. Africa exists in modernity. Yes, Africa is “a global condition. Or at least, Africa as imagined in Euro-America. Its reality is rather more complex. And not all darkness.” This statement is my knee-jerk reaction each time I pick up literature by an “African,” detailing the horrors and the sites of abjection that are well too familiar. And some of those writers sometimes go home with some prize money for “African literature.” It is all well and good. But is that Africa’s sole contribution to the global economy? And what exactly is this modernity that Taiwo’s manifesto is invested in? Here it is: Africa must be modern. Put simply, Africa must embrace individualism as a principle of social ordering; make reason central in its relation to, activity upon, understanding of, and producing of knowledge about the world, both physical and social, that it inhibits; adopt progress as its motto in all things. This is very deep and succinct. I hear words like “order,” “reason,” “understanding,” “knowledge” and “progress.” These to me are central to how we might start domesticating “modernity for the benefit of Africa.” But what kinds of modernity are we domesticating? The ones before African empires started selling their people to Europe or the one after? What are the tools? Where are the resources and which Euro-American multinational power allows that to happen without a fight? And as history serves us right, great African empires have fallen to the muskets of the Europeans. I’m glad the author recognizes the crippling power of colonialism. So what kind of domesticated modernity will produce this sort of progress and how do we arrive at it without an entanglement to multiple elsewhere? Let’s hear this:
During the period 1450-1700, Africans and Europeans engaged in complex and many-sided interactions, including many cultural exchanges and a major shift of population from Africa to the Americas. given the equality of the two partners in this exchanges …historians have been puzzled by Africa’s continued participation. These exchanges have negative demographic and social effect…especially the slave trade.
The greatest tragedy that happened to Africa is the loss of its people to slavery. Simon Gikandi puts the notion of modernity, identity at the same moment when transatlantic slave trade thrived. In Slavery and the Culture of Taste, he writes:
The Atlantic slave trade thrived at a temporal juncture in which modern identity was predicated on the question of freedom and in an era when subjectivity depended on the existence of free and self-reflective subjects. As a modern institution, slavery was anachronistic simply because it seemed to be at odds with the aspirations of the age; however, it provided the economic foundation that enabled modernity.
Simply put, the age of reason was unreasonable because the economy, which funds modern free thought, was fueled by the bondage of another. Gikandi maps out how at every turn in modern history, the African has been there providing Europe its needed “idea or structure of identity” as “the real or imagined other.” No wonder Hegel wrote that document on Africa! Now, this is not a lament of the horrors, or perhaps it is. The point I am trying to make is that modernity for the benefit of Africa requires capital—intellectual and material. According to Taiwo, this need is particularly important because “one of the major political events of the last quarter of the twentieth century was the crumbling of African states’ independence and sovereignty and the (surreptitious) placing of these states under the tutelage of international creditors.” The implication here is that Africans are not just misidentifying “modernity-as-colonisation-and-westernization,” they are living it from the exchange rates to the unequal exchange of value for resources, within the current global economy. What constitutes the concrete abstraction of modernity “exists as a reified order of imagined, transactable value” because “it embraces the social, economic, cultural, moral dimension of life in specific times and places—and, simultaneously, is invoked to describe the epochal and the universal.” Thus, these “transactable values” are what also assign importance to the difference between the global North and the South. And being in the South presupposes “economically and politically marginalized nations and community.
Simply put, it is what draws the blind on our common humanities. It is what makes us think that we live in separate modernities. Tejumola Olaniyan puts it even more succinctly that those “world trade and intellectual connections” that began in the 1400s “created a vast ‘World system’ of connections and interconnections” to which I’m addressing. And as he puts it again, these connections, based on transactable value, is “the origin and content of the modernity that exploded globally and still endures today, thanks to capitalism.” As I have mentioned earlier, Africa is already modern. The issue is the continent’s positioning within fields of possibilities for growth and expansion regarding the flow of capitals across borders.
Let me be clear that my concern is not so much in disagreeing with Olufemi Taiwo as much as in agreeing with him. I subscribe to the principles of subjectivity, the centrality of reason and the idea of progress. I don’t know any Nigerian politician, for example, who has not used the word “progress(ive)” in campaign slogans, but the question remains in the field of interpretation. How will those principles become “domesticated” in various places where the notion means something different? If the goal is to domesticate modernity, what constituent parts, represented in Euro-American thought is adaptable? Or we should just simply “sell” them as dogmas or creeds? Theories are beautiful, but if set in praxis, what are those elements that enable their possibilities in different contexts? Or are we to assume Africa is a plain canvass on which principles are enacted? I have another question. The nativists and nationalists also want to have what they see and admire in the “West.” Yet they resist on principle some of these “western” notions of subjectivity, reason, and progress as Taiwo conceives them. Maybe that nameless Umuofia man, in Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, is right by saying, “Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it.”
What matters at this juncture in our history is to recognize that Africa stands to lose a lot by playing the victim. In this age of hypermobility and circulation, there are as much African’s living abroad as those on the continent. The North/South dichotomy is becoming more like a metaphor. We are more connected in the world that we want to admit. From Gikandi’s point of view mentioned earlier, there is no Western modernity without the African agency that enabled it. And there is no Africa without the history of European contact—for good or ill— that has forever changed the organization of former African empires into fragmented and scattered nation-states. But the question is, how has Africa benefitted from this history of entanglement? What visible evidence abound to see the continent in an ambitious hypermodern drive to rebuild and reposition herself in the global food chain?
Returning to the reason for this post, how do we “domesticate modernity for Africa’s benefit” without becoming the mimic (wo)men that Homi Bhabha describes? What sort of knowledge societies do we build to actualize this domestication? And where do we start, given the disinterest of most African leaders in building a knowledge economy because it is a threat to the consolidation of their powers? These questions require a lot of introspection as Africa is evolving in the age of China’s project of expansion on the continent.