Like Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the 2010 finalist for the “Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa”, I dream of an Africa where “complaining about colonialism” would have “come to an end.” Unlike her, however, I’m not convinced that the path to achieving this dream is paved with the casting of every criticism of colonialism into the court of “blame game”, where Africans are accused of groaning when hit by a Viking shield. From the title of her BBC “Letter from Africa” article, her response to the uproar that met the French president’s recent tweets about Nigeria’s colonial past, to the last paragraph of the piece, the word-choices betray a misapprehension of the obstacles Africans face in the current sociopolitical climate and of the means to overcome the obstacles. The word “complaining” makes one shudder even before reaching the cringe-worthy word “victims”. Titled “Complaining About Colonialism Makes Us the Victims”, it seems that the truth was the other way round, and I sometimes want to believe that the bone of my contention may merely be the result of a careless use of language. But by the end of the essay, I realize that, even though I remain certain that our goals for the prospect of Africa are similar or the same, the interpretations of our dreams have pitted us on opposite sides, inadvertently poised to reverse one another’s forward steps such that we both reach nowhere. The bigger tragedy, however, is that, in Africa and around the world, there are millions of people of African descent who also subscribe to these two opposite positions, by which we are calcified into opposing positions that make real progress difficult.
In an era of social media, people often don’t realize it when they parrot narratives they wouldn’t have endorsed had they looked closely enough, or narratives that are even against their own interests. The two famous elections of 2016 were classic instances in which large numbers of people passionately elected to uphold platforms erected to confuse them into self-defeating choices. Facing real economic and sociocultural challenges, both the American and the British so-called “white working middle class” groups fell for counterfactuals dished out only to feed fantasies of racial and cultural purity while the elite consolidated their power. In a similar vein, it seems Ms. Adaobi may have fallen victim to the west-serving narrative trap that obfuscates and allows for the divided-morality technique that helps perpetuate the old power structure. Curiously, this looks too reminiscent of the evangelizing and “divide and rule” tactic that was very effective for the aims of slavery and colonialism. Like the old scripture-based narratives cherry-picked to keep “slaves” docile in the Americas and to opiate Africans before taking their lands, I firmly believe that Ms. Adaobi and the millions of Africans who buy into the well-meaning but errant spirit of her article have fallen victim to the false morality and false equivalence that make us eager to flee from the labels of “blame gaming” and “victimhood”. And in doing so, we all get distracted by our fixation with the weaponized moral ideas while the benefits of our confusion continue to accrue in the coffers of our “former colonial rulers who once paraded themselves as superior to us” and who never stopped parading themselves as superior to us.
In such a well-intentioned discourse about Africans’ reactions (or overreactions) to statements and actions of Europeans that evoke the history of our former relationship, there’s a painful effect of trivializing the legacy of colonialism that is sometimes produced. To see this trivializing so explicit and relished in a work of a respected African writer produced an additional effect of adding salt to the wound. But what’s of utmost importance, I believe, is our need to educate ourselves well enough on the history of colonialism. Until we have acquired appreciable knowledge and understanding of what happened during the period, why they happened, and how the whole venture of colonization itself came to be, we might not be able to escape the moral and intellectual bones that keep us distracted while the west continues to eat the real meat. In a world in which colonialism isn’t taught in African schools at the primary and secondary levels, how could we even begin to talk reasonably about its effects, much less react unambiguously to Europeans’ actions and statements that evoke the power relationship within the system. The dearth of history in our schools, books, and electronic media leads directly to the dirge around our self-identities and self-worth.
Indeed, sixty percent of the Nigerian population is aged under 25, as Emmanuel Macron tweeted; and that’s 60 percent of bright young minds, like Macron, unexposed to the depth and breadth of the history of western colonialism. They are the new generation already deficient from being able to build any culture better than the current lopsided one we live in. In the cultures of our societies, there are patterns to which I hope Tricia, Macron, and all of us would pay closer attention as we dream of a better future for ourselves, patterns that perpetuate our ignorance and make us vulnerable to internal and external conflicts such as this.
I was born and raised in Nigeria, where I lived until I was 28 years old and before I moved to the United States where I would begin to learn about the Nigerian civil war. In Nigeria, I knew there was a war that ended just less than three years before I was born; people spoke vaguely about it sometimes, perhaps in the same manner they spoke about Lord Luggard’s wife coming up with the convenient name “Nigeria”, with no hint of recognition for the experiences of the people that have populated the Niger area for thousands of years before she was born. But I didn’t learn about Biafra or the people who briefly bore the citizenship until I moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and heard people scream “Biafra kwenu !” at events and parties that sometimes almost certainly had only one non-Igbo Nigerian present. Growing up in Ibadan, I knew more about what happened to the Jews in ancient Egypt than what happened to Biafrans only scores of miles away from my city, and less than three years before I was born.
Today, the vague ideas casually expressed in conversations that conveyed the story-bits of the old war have become the canon that one hears during ethnic tensions in Nigeria, the kind we heard during the 2015 gubernatorial election in Lagos State when the Oba threatened to throw Igbos in the Lagoon, and the kind we continue to hear across the country in the agitations for separate ethnic nations. We talk about tribal compatibility or incompatibility in essential terms, as if we were different in a kind of elemental way similar to how white people thought they were different from people of skin colors other than theirs. These are the kinds of dangerous misconceptions that are borne out of a paucity of self-knowledge bred by inaccessibility to the details of history from which we were all brought forth. With our inability to perceive history and ourselves in such high-resolution perspective, we resort to stereotypical assessments of one another and we act aggressively on the resultant assumptions, actions that may only be serving as unconscious compensations for our inadequacy. The conflicts that rage amongst us thus become our defenses against the conflicts that rage within us.
The question we therefore need to ask is: if we were still so conflicted by a three-year war that ended less than a handful decades ago, how much more conflicted are we about the hundreds of years of European plundering, slavery, and colonization of the African people? Does talking about these, trying to understand their connection to our present world, constitute complaining and indulging in victimhood? Are they merely delightful opportunity “to insult, bully, or deride our former colonial rulers”? Aren’t we all already victimized in some way by this history, making us patients of graver illnesses but who focus rather on minor ailments - like ignoring the proverbial leprosy to devote all our resources to ringworm? The dearth of history in our everyday lives leads directly to the dirge sung to greet our self-identities and self-worth.
An old Yoruba proverb counsels that one has to blame the robber first before castigating the robbed for not keeping her property safe enough. Another variation suggests that it is better not to blame your rooster for straying from the right path when the assaulting fox is still around; otherwise, you give the fox the impression that it’s okay to eat the rooster when out of line.
Contemplating the process of victimization, it’s hard not to wonder why we focus so much on the victimized while we think nothing of the victimizer. It may be a noble thing to do to suggest to the victims of an assault to refuse not to let the assault define them, but it’s ignoble to not first acknowledge or tend to the effect of the assault. And if evil is a spectrum or a complex system of ignorance, then it is evil to not have anything to do about the perpetrator of the assault. Neither the Africans nor the westerners really understand the nature of the beast in this perpetrator. The trajectory of white racial intents in the United States may be instructive in this situation. The resilient adaptability of the efforts to keep black people subjugated to white control is astonishing; from the progress of the abolitionists to the struggle of present-day equal rights activists, black subjugation has found a way to morph from slavery to every other thing possible, including the Jim Crow laws, the prison industrial system, and the police brutality. Indeed, Africans and all well-meaning westerners must strive to understand the nature of the beast; otherwise, the persistent efforts to keep Africa colonized, physically and mentally, would keep slipping from our grips.
Rahman Oladigbolu is a Nigerian filmmaker based in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s the writer and director of the films SOUL SISTERS (the story of friendship between an African immigrant and an African America) and THEORY OF CONFLICT (a feature film based on true stories of a diverse group of college students who must confront a tension about to tear their campus apart).
He’s also the writer and director of the upcoming film A PRIVATE EXPERIENCE based on a story written by Chimamanda Adichie about two young women caught up in a religious riot in Kano, Nigeria.