Kenyan-born author and activist Dr. Firoze Manji stopped by the SaharaTV studios in New York on June 26, 2014 to speak about pan Africanism and revolutions today.

According to Dr. Manji, Africans today have to reclaim our past and not as a romantic vision or an academic history but rather as a way of challenging present day Africa and creating a future. He said, “I think especially in the last 30 years of neoliberal policies, structural adjustment programs, etcetera, people talk about dispossession of material resources, dispossession of land, dispossession of jobs and so on but there’s also been a dispossession of memory.”

He therefore advised that Africans draw on our own lessons, cultures, music, poetry to be able to understand how to reclaim our past because without a past, we cannot invent the future.

Dr. Manji is the former editor-in-chief of Pambazuka news and recently set up Baraza, an organization aimed at reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future.

Contesting Africa's Present and Inventing the Future: Soundoff Segment With Dr Firoze Manji Contesting Africa's Present and Inventing the Future: Soundoff Segment With Dr Firoze Manji...


Tell us more about the organization Baraza:

Baraza in kiSwahili means a community meeting - a forum, a place of discussion, organizing. And we are in the process of setting this up as a pan African institution with the strapline of reclaiming history, reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future.

How is this different from the numerous number of Pan African institutes, academic concerns, clubs, organizations etc. all over the world?

In a sense it acts as a forum for lots of different organizations and institutions to be able to work together. We avoided the word institute because we don’t want to be an academic institution. We’re not a think tank. We’re a facilitator. We are going to help people to get their voices heard. There are many voices across the continent and in the diaspora which are not heard in the mainstream media or indeed in much of progressive media. So the question is how do we get them to provide a platform which is safe for discussion, for organizing? It’s to bring the intelligence here together to interact with activists and with social movements. I think that combination is not something that is very common across the different kinds of pan African institutions. So we’re not there to compete with anyone, we’re there to facilitate and amplify voices.  

It could be safely said that prior to the wave of independence of African nations in the 60’s, Pan Africanists were very powerful but after independence they became dictators. Why do you think that happened?

I think there were a number of reasons. I think that the nationalist movement came into being and rode on the back of a mass movement that erupted across the continent, in almost every single country across the continent in the post second world war period. I think there was social contract between the mass movement  and these new regimes. I think two things happened. First of all, there is no doubt that those with the more radical perspective like Amilcar Cabral, those like later on, Thomas Sankara and so on. These people were assassinated. There were interventions. We know even right from the beginning Patrice Lumumba was killed. We too often, I think blame empire - the British, the Americans, the Belgians, the French etc. and there’s no doubt that they were involved in these assassinations but I think one of the things that we have to own up to, because we won’t be able to deal with it ourselves, is that the betrayal came from within as well. Sankara was killed by his own comrades so Cabral. Nkrumah was betrayed by his own comrades so was Lumumba and so on. That’s one of the tragedies that we face. I think that what happened was that where there is movement for freedom was about emancipation, real freedom. The nationalist movement basically offered only  a contract which allowed them to occupy the existing state colonial state machinery and to use it as a source of profit personal accumulation but I think Cabral’s writings about the state are really important here. He said the problem is not that we have a white administrator. The problem is that we have an administrator at all. He was completely against the occupying of the colonial state. He said it needed to be completely dismantled, demolished and a completely new structures put in which represented the views and perceptions of our people. Unfortunately every time that experiment has been attempted, as did Sankara, there’ve been interventions to prevent that and I think we have to understand capital has no interest in seeing that kind of thing happening because the continent of Africa is seen as the place to be stolen from. We know how the corporations, the multinationals etcetera simply profit from all the natural resources and labour from the continent. I think that has been the tragedy. The moment you occupy an existing colonial state, you use the same colonial police, you use the same colonial army, you use the same colonial laws to oppress people. Of course they end up as dictators.

Can you speak of how Africans have been robbed of their memory?

I think especially in the last 30 years of neoliberal policies, structural adjustment programs, etcetera, people talk about dispossession of material resources, dispossession of land, dispossession of jobs and so on but there’s also been a dispossession of memory. A writer said, wrote about it saying if you want to dominate a people, eliminate their history, rewrite their poems, their songs and their culture and you can dominate them. And that is effectively what has been happening. There has been the CNN culture. There has been the elimination of real histories of the struggle for independence from our schools, from our universities and so on. Which is why initiatives like Sahara Reporters is really important because we’re now having a means by which we can put the other story, an alternative, and I think that’s why media such as this is really important because it’s a process of restoring that memory. We have to reclaim the past. And it’s not just about a romantic vision, its not about an academic history. It’s about drawing on our own lessons, drawing on our own cultures, drawing on our own music, our own poetry, to be able to understand how to contest the present, and invent the future. Without a past, you can’t invent the future.

Where do we place the blame for the current condition of Africans? Is it the African elite, multilateral international institutions, corporations (there is a typo in the video), or complacency of Africans themselves?

When you point your finger, four fingers point back at you. I think we have to give ownership. Our ruling elite have gone into bed with the corporations, with the finance capital, with the imperial powers. There’s no doubt about that. But, to the extent that we’ve allowed them to do that, we share part of that blame. I think we share part of that blame in not being constructive about thinking forward, in thinking about ‘what is the alternative?’ When Martin Luther King spoke, he said I had dream. He didn’t say I had a nightmare. If he said I had a nightmare, it wouldn’t have mobilized people. I think the problem with us in the progressive movement is we keep talking about the nightmare of Africa, and we need to turn that round. We have to look at our own histories, celebrate what we have achieved, celebrate our possibilities, and draw on our own philosophers to define the future because we have to have a dream. If we don’t have a dream, the alternative is a nightmare and I think that is one of the self criticisms we have to make.

Africa has had political turmoil in the last 5 years. Some have said what happened in Tunisia, Libya (typo in the video) and Egypt were revolutions. Some others have disagreed. Where do you place the North African turmoil?

I take Libya out of this equation. Libya was a small uprising in Benghazi involving a few hundred people. The Americans, the French, took advantage of that whole situation and look at the quagmire we are left with now. But I think what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia were major social upheavals. I think they are the beginnings of a revolution. That is that they contested power, and even created in the throes of all those mobilizations, alternative ways of organizing, alternative ways of making decisions. They were beginning to create in a sense, alternative state power. It wasn’t just about getting rid of dictators. But I think that reflects and if you understand why so many million people came to the streets, it is for the same reasons, that 140,000 or more people in Nigeria came together on the streets in protests not against the rise in petrol prices, the prices of fuel, but because of 30 years of disenchantment, of the reverse of the gains of independence. We’ve seen this happen in Kenya in Djibouti, we’ve seen this happen in Senegal, in Benin, in Burkina Faso, we’ve seen it happen in Zambia, we’ve seen it happen in Angola, Mozambique, in South Africa and so on. So what we are seeing is different phases of a revolution. But one thing we have to be patient about - revolutions never happen over night. Just take the Chinese revolution. It took 40 years even to get to the point of the first victory. There are now reversals in that. We have to keep an understanding of the long arc of history. I will say that Tunisia is at the moment on Act 1, Scene 1. I think Egypt is Act 1, Scene 2. But it’s only the beginning of a play.

In fact, if you look at it in terms of the long arc of history, I would suggest that the national liberation movements in the 50’s and 60’s were phase one, the first act of our revolution. In 50 years time, we’ll look back and we’ll have a different way of looking at these things so i think we have to be patient, I think that the situation neither in Tunisia nor in Egypt is actually stable and I think we will see the eruption of people back onto the street on that.

You have seen three generations of movement leaders, social movements and anti structural adjustment programs in the 60’s and early 70’s, national conference in the 80’s and the current generation of social media activists. Which of these three generations do you think is most solid?

Before I answer that question I think we have to be careful about calling them the twitter and facebook revolution. This is what the Americans will like to try and call it. If you talk to Egyptians who’ve been spending years pounding the streets, organizing, etcetera, by calling them that you are actually taking away, you’re making a victory of this technology and it isn’t about that. So I think we have to be careful. I think it will be wrong to try and compare these ... I think they are different parts of different parts of histories. I think the situation for us today is much, much more difficult, more complex than it was in the past. I think we are facing a financialized capital that has penetrated every single aspect of our lives.

We have a situation where the internet, which was once a platform and space for us organizing and for democratic discussions and so on, today is a monopoly space. It is completely owned by a handful of corporations, it is controlled by the United States of America through ICANN(Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and various other institutions and reality is, we have just seen from the reports of Snowden and others that actually the United States has being using it to spy on us. And there is no doubt that even our elite are being spied upon both economically, politically and otherwise. And I think we have a challenge to face and that is, how do we turn this around because there is no doubt that our governments are being spied upon. The question is, are they brave enough to stand up and say this should not be allowed? And not just not be allowed on the government, shouldn’t be allowed on the citizens.

With regards to the ICC that has been largely criticized for picking on Africas, whereas big time war criminals in the U.K. and the U.S. are untouched; how would you make the argument that such an international organization can be tolerated?

Well, I think they’ve dug their own grave in that sense. Here is an institution that could potentially provide some way of dealing with crimes against humanity and so on. But as you say, they’ve been picking on Africans largely and actually determine in most cases by decisions made by the security council. The security council we know is just a handful of imperial governments in particular the U.S. which controls it. The U.S. never signs their own treaty on the ICC so they are the major influencers on this institution even though they are themselves are immune from it and people like Tony Blair, Bush and so on, all get away with impunity and I think this is outrageous. But I there is a more fundamental issue here. The question is, what do we need to do about situations where we face people who have carried out crimes and so on? The model that the ICC is built on, is actually the Nuremberg trials. It was about a situation where Germany and the Nazis were able to be prosecuted for their crimes against the Jewish people. But the difference is this, look at Rwanda, the Hutus have to continue living in Rwanda, it’s not like they’ve got their own Israel. There’s no where they can go. They’re still there. So the issue is now no longer, “is it a question of a court actually delivering something which allows things to go forward?” And I think it isn’t. I think these courts are basically about revenge. If you build a society based on revenge, all you stimulate is counter revenge and hatred. And the issue for me is, do we really need to think about, how do we resolve issues on our own terrain, how do we make sure? … I think the Gacaca courts in Rwanda points someway towards this saying look, we’re going to have to find a way to resolve it where there is a catharsis, where we can actually see justice being done but we have to find a way of living together. We have to move forward together.

So I am not a terrible great fan of the ICC and it is known more for its impunity than for its prosecution. Take Kenya where I come from, the selection of Uhuru and Ruto to be prosecuted is no doubt, in my view, of their … well guilt … but they are certainly associated. But there’s a thing called chain of command. The major killings that happened in the 2007/2008 post election violence were also carried out by militia who were controlled by both sides and secondly by the GSU who are directly answerable to the president. So why is it that Kibaki was not brought to the ICC? It was a political decision not to do that. They chose two other people. But the moment you do that, it’s a political trial, it’s no longer a judicial trial so the moment you politicize it, then you have a problem. I think that’s the big mistake the ICC has done and it’s inevitable because like most of the human rights movement, they detach crimes from their history and so they depoliticize the situation and I think their big crime is actually that like many of the development NGOs, they depoliticize poverty, they depoliticize impoverishment and they depoliticize violence and crimes.

On a more positive note, is there anywhere in Africa you can look to and say the government is doing well?

I’d rather put it this way, I think there’s a lot going on in Africa that is positive. I think people are organizing today in a way than never before they organized. Those in government who control a colonial state machinery who still occupy something which was there created to control us, to oppress us and to exploit us, they don’t have the capacity in those structures to be progressive in that sense. For example if you look at Sankara, what he did was to overturn the structures of decision making, the whole structure of the state. The same thing that Amilcar Cabral did in the liberated zones. Indeed in Mozambique, FRELIMO and the liberated zones and a completely different structure of rule only. It’s only when they then went to occupy the colonial state machine that the capacity no matter how progressive, you’ve still got the same police the same structure, the same laws and I haven’t seen that happen yet successfully. Or rather, it has happened but it has been killed off every stage but I think there are movements where there are for example among shack dwellers, amongst the women’s movement, amongst LGBTI groups, amongst those fighting against natural resource extraction and environment pollution etc. like MOSOP. They’ve gone through difficulties and so on but there are ways of organizing, ways of debating and taking up issues, which we should be proud of and we should be telling our people more about.

What can we all do to bring the Pan-African spirit back to life?

We have to have a dream about what the possibilities are. Remember, we have experienced so much, everyone talks about the suffering that Africans have experienced but what they forget, and this is something that people very rarely realize that Fanon wrote about, and that is that violence has an effect on the perpetrators of violence and what has happened over the last centuries is that people who are in from the north as we call them have become dehumanized in that process. Any society which thinks it can resolve political problems by sending in the military and killing people … I mean there’s a lack of humanity. I think the great thing that we face because of all the suffering and the experience of violence that we’ve had is that we are one of the few people who actually have an understanding of what humanity actually means and our task is therefore not only our own emancipation. It is the restoring of the humanity of those who have been dehumanized by the imperial experience. So I think that’s a wonderful goal to go for. It’s a big and ambitious way of looking at things. And I think we have to dream that we have the history, the understanding, the experience and the ideas to construct a new world based on completely new values and I truly believe that that is the historical task that we in the pan African movement face.

How do Africans navigate around religion and get to that place where social movements can rise again to what a lot of our brothers and sisters did before independence?

I think that one of the things that we in the progressive movement have not really understood is the importance of culture, the importance of song, of poetry, of gathering, of joy and that the church has actually understood that. Religion has understood that long ago and I think often we resort to this sort of shorthand that Marx talked about, that religion is the opium of the masses. But, what that misses out is that culturally, it is an organizing force. If one looks in Kenya for example, during Moi’s era, it was the Catholic church that you could actually organize. You could meet and get some protection. If one looks at Latin America and the rise of the movements around redefining the nature of the purpose of the church. You’ve seen that progressive nature. I think the task we face is how do we create in Africa, how do we influence the church to become part of the more generalized progressive force? A force for all that actually the gospel talks about that is justice and godly, and so on. All these good fine things. I think we have to think about, how do we influence Islam to become a progressive force? Because its history certainly has that. Some of the major anti-slavery revolutions were led by Muslims in the West. And in fact the growth of Islam in West Africa was directly a result of the challenge that they posed to that. I think we have a challenge here. We can’t just simply dismiss these religions. We have to understand their cultural nature while understanding that politically they can be problematic. It’s an age old thing. I think one, the left is very rarely understood, how to deal with culturally, potentially progressive institution which can be politically regressive at the same time.

So how is Baraza organizing itself to bring back the dream of Pan-Africanism?

I was in Guinea Bissau a couple of years ago and across the book on Amilcar Cabral that we recently published. We’ve got a chapter there which talks about how the young people are drawing on abral’s ideas in rap. I think we have to look at culture, we have to look at our music, we have to look at poetry, writings of all different kinds and look at how actually organizing is going on. Young people are putting forward their ideas of resistance through that. But one thing we all have to learn, Baraza will have to learn and all of us have to learn is that making a revolution is about joy, it’s about dancing, it’s about the future. If we can’t do that, nobody wants to dance with us. If it’s all about being miserable then nobody wants to be miserable.

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