Nicolas Sarkozy's Africa (voir traduction francais)

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Achille Mbembe démonte le mensonge de Sarkosy sur l'afrique
(titre en français sur notre site)

Nicolas Sarkozy's Africa

By Achille Mbembe
publié le 08/08/2007

If they'd had the chance, the majority of French-speaking Africans would have no doubt voted against Nicolas Sarkozy at the last French presidential elections. It's not that his rival of the time, and even less the Socialist Party, had anything particularly convincing to say about Africa, or that the Socialists' past practices demonstrated any desire whatsoever to radically change relations between France and its former colonies. The new French president would have simply paid a high price for his attitude to immigration when he was Jacques Chirac's Minister of the Interior, his alleged collusion with the racist extreme right-wing and his role in sparking the riots in France's deprived suburbs in 2005.

Violation by language

On his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa, he thus arrived in Dakar preceded by a terribly negative reputation: that of a hyper-active and dangerous politician, cynical and brutal, power-crazy, who doesn't listen, speaks his mind and more, doesn't skimp on the means and who, with regard to Africa and its people, shows nothing but condescension and contempt. But that wasn't the whole picture. Many were nonetheless willing to hear him out, intrigued if not by his political intelligence, at least by the formidable efficiency with which he has handled his victory since his election. Surprised by Rachida Dati or Rama Yade's nominations to the government (even if there were more ministers of African origin in the Republic's ministries and assemblies in the colonial era than today), they wanted to know if there was some kind of grand design behind the manoeuvre: that is, a true recognition, on France's part, of the multiracial and cosmopolitan nature of its society. He was, therefore, keenly awaited. To say he disappointed would be an understatement. Of course, the cartel of satraps (from Omar Bongo, Paul Biya, Sassou Nguesso to Idris Déby, Eyadéma Jr. et al.) were delighted at what clearly transpires as the choice of continuity in the running of "Franceafrique", as is dubbed the system of reciprocal corruption which,since the end of the era of colonial occupation, has tied France to its African accomplices. But, if one is to judge by the reactions expressed here and there, the editorials, the letters to the press, the interventions on private radio stations, the debates on the Internet, a very large part of French-speaking Africa - starting with the youth he chose to address - found his words absolutely incredible, if not frankly shocking. And understandably so. In all relations in which one of the parties is not free nor equal enough, the act of violation often begins with language - a language which, on the pretext of simply expressing the speaker's deepest convictions, excuses all, refuses to expose its reasons and declares itself immune whilst at the same time forcing the weakest to bear the full force of its violence.


For those who expect nothing from France, the words pronounced at the University of Dakar were nonetheless highly revealing. Indeed, the speech written by Henri Guaino (special advisor) and delivered by Nicolas Sarkozy in the Senegalese capital offer an excellent illumination into the power to harm - conscious or unconscious, passive or active - which, over the next ten years, might well arise from the paternalistic and hackneyed vision that some of the new French ruling elite (on both the left and right) continue to project onto a continent which has nonetheless constantly undergone radical changes, especially during the second half of the 20th century. In all his "candour" and his "sincerity", Nicolas Sarkozy openly revealed what, until now, went unspoken: that is that, both in terms of form and content, the intellectual framework underlying France's policy to Africa literally dates back to the end of the 19th century. It is thus a policy whose coherence depends, despite a few new touches here and there, on an obsolete intellectual heritage that is over a century-old.

The new French president's speech shows how, trapped in a frivolous and exotic vision of the continent, the new French ruling elites claim to shed light on realities that they consider their worst fears or their fantasies (race) but which, in reality, they know nothing about. To address "the elite of African youth", then, Henri Guaino contented himself to lifting, almost word for word, passages from the chapter Hegel devotes to Africa in his work Reason in History, which I again, after many others, recently criticized in my book On the Postcolony. According to Hegel, Africa is a land of unchanging substance and dazzling disorder, the joyful and tragic country in Creation. Black people, as we see them today, are as they have always been. In the immense energy of the natural arbitrariness that dominates them, neither the moral moment, nor ideas of freedom, justice and progress have any place or particular status. Whoever wants to discover the most appalling manifestations of human nature can find them in Africa. Strictly speaking, this part of the world has no history. What we understand, in short, going by the name of Africa, is an ahistoric, undeveloped world, entirely prisoner of its natural spirit and whose lace remains on the threshold of universal history. The new French elites do not believe anything different. They share this Hegelian prejudice. 

Unlike the generation of the "Papa-Commanders" (de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand, or Chirac), who tacitly espoused the same prejudice whilst avoiding openly offending their interlocutors, France's "new elites" now consider that one can only address societies so deeply plunged into the night of childhood by speaking unguardedly, with a sort of virgin energy. And that is indeed what they have in mind when they now openly defend the idea of a nation no longer "hung-up" about its colonial past. In their eyes, it is only possible to speak of Africa and to Africans by following the path of sense and reason in reverse. It doesn't matter if this is done so in a context in which each word spoken is so in a blanket of ignorance. It suffices to pile on the words, to employ a kind of verbal plethora, to advance in a suffocating wealth of images - all the things that give Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech its abrupt, faltering, and blunt character. Try as I might to make allowances, I find in guise of an invitation to exchange and dialogue only rhetoric in the long Dakar monologue. Behind the words above all loom injunctions, orders, calls to silence, to censorship even, gratuitous provocations, and insults hand-in-hand with the empty flattery - an unbearable arrogance which, I imagine, can only be displayed in Dakar, Yaoundé and Libreville and certainly not in Pretoria or Luanda.

The ethno-philosopher president

In addition to Hegel, the "new French elites" without the slightest complex recycle a second source: the collection of commonplaces formalized by colonial ethnology at the end of the 19th century. It is through the prism of this ethnology that a considerable part of the discourse on Africa is nourished, not to mention some of the exoticism and frivolity that constitute the prime features of French-style racism. Lévy Brühl attempted to construct a system out of this accumulation of prejudices in his reflections on "the primitive" or even "pre-logical mentality". In a collection of essays about "inferior societies" (Mental Functions in Primitive Societies in 1910; then Primitive Mentality in 1921), he strove to give pseudo-scientific backing to the distinction between a "western man" gifted with reason and non-western peoples and races trapped in the cycle of repetition and mythico-cyclical time. Presenting himself - a customary habit - as "the friend" of Africa, Leo Frobenius (whom the novelist Yambo Ouologuem virulently denounces in Le Devoir de Violence) widely contributed to spreading elements of Lévy Brühl's ruminations by highlighting the concept of African "vitalism". Granted, he didn't consider "African culture" the simple prelude to logic and rationality. In his eyes, nonetheless, the black man was, at the end of the day, a child. Like his contemporary Ludwig Klages (author, amongst other things, of The Cosmogonic Eros, Man and The Land, The Spirit as Enemy of the Soul), he considered that western man's excessive assertion of will - the formalism to which he owed his power over nature - had engendered a devitalization generating impersonal behaviour.

The Belgian missionary Placide Tempels, for his part, discoursed on "Bantu philosophy", one of whose principles was, according to him, the symbiosis between "African man" and nature. In the good father's opinion, "vital force" constituted the Bantu man's very essence. This was deployed from a degree near to zero (death) to the ultimate level of those who turned out to be "chiefs". They, along with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, are indeed the main sources of Senghor's thought, who Henri Guaino endeavoured to mobilize in the effort to give the presidential discourse indigenous credentials. Is he not aware, then, of the inestimable debt that, in his formulation of the concept of negritude or in the formulation of his notions of culture, civilization and even cultural blending, the Senegalese poet owes the most racist, most essentialist and most biologizing theories of his time?

But there's not only colonial ethnology, that pseudo-science of conquerors and other inventors of an imaginary Africa, whose difference they, in their splendid isolation, readily invent to reveal the presence of exotic and unchanging forms in others, the evidence of a humanity of another kind. There's Maurice Delafosse (The Negroes of Africa, 1921), Robert Delavignette (Les paysans noirs, 1931) and other demiurges of the "African soul" - that ridiculous notion of which the French elites are so fond. There is also the legacy of the colonial exhibitions, the tradition of human zoos that Pascal Blanchard and his colleagues have analyzed, and that of travel narratives each more fantastical than the next - from Du Chaillu's explorations of Gabon's massifs to Marcel Griaule and Michel Leiris' Dakar-Djibouti (L'Afrique fantôme), not to mention the "discoverers" of African art, starting with Pablo Picasso.It is all of this which in turn nourishes an, often unconscious, racist life form, which mass culture thenreproduces in films, advertising, comics, painting, photography and, a logical consequence, the "Yes massa", "Uncle Ben's" politics. In these mass cultural productions, people strive to create attitudes that, far from encouraging a real process of accepting the Other, instead turn the latter into a substitutive object whose attraction resides precisely in his/her ability to unleash all sorts of fantasies and impulses.

The French head of state's special advisor thus reiterates this logorrhoea, along with the main points of the pontiffs of African ontology's theses (that he elsewhere claims to refute). To make Nicholas Sarkozy the ethno-philosopher he perhaps aspires to be, it is from this colonial and racist library that he picks his key motifs. He then proceeds as if the notion of a "black essence", of an "African soul" of which the "African man" is the living manifestation, as if that murky and ultimately ridiculous notion hadn't been radically challenged by the best African philosophers, starting with Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, whose work, La Crise du muntu, is a classic in its kind. How then, can one be surprised that his definition of the continent and its people is ultimately purely negative? Indeed, our ethno-philosopher president's "African man" is above all characterized either by what he hasn't got, what he isn't or by what he has never managed to achieve (the dialectic of lack and incompletion), or by his opposition to "modern man" (read "white man"), an opposition which apparently results from his irrational attachment to the kingdom of childhood, the world of night, to simple pleasures and a golden age that never existed.

For the rest, the new French ruling elite's Africa is essentially a rural, magical, phantom Africa, partly bucolic, partly nightmarish, inhabited by peasant folk, composed of a community of sufferers who have nothing in common other than their common position on the margins of history, prostrate as they are in a outer-world - that of sorcerers and griots, of magical beings who keep fountains, sing in rivers and hide in the trees, of the village dead and ancestors whose voices can be heard, of masks and forests full of symbols, of the clichés that are so-called "African solidarity", "community spirit", "warmth" and respect for elders and chiefs.

The policy of ignorance

The speech thus continues in a beatific will for ignorance of its object, as if, during the second half of the 20th century, we hadn't witnessed a spectacular development in the knowledge of the long-term changes in the African world. I'm not referring just to the African researchers' own inestimable contribution to the understanding of their societies and to the internal critical analysis of their cultures - criticism to which some of us have widely contributed, sometimes with severity, but always with humanity. I'm talking about the billions of its public funds that the French government has devoted to this grand oeuvre and which hardly explain to me how, after such an investment, people can still, today, articulate such unintelligible arguments about the continent.

What is behind this policy of voluntary and assumed ignorance?

How is it possible to come to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar at the start of the 21st century to address the intellectual elite as if Africa didn't have its own critical traditions and as if Senghor and Camara Laye, respective champions of black emotion and the kingdom of childhood, hadn't been the object of vigorous internal refutations? What credibility can we afford such gloomy words that portray Africans as fundamentally traumatized beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests? What is this so-called historicity of the continent which totally silences the long tradition of resistance, including that against French colonialism, along with today's struggles for democracy, none of which receive the clear support of a country which, for many years, has actively backed the local satrapies? How is it possible to come to promise us a fanciful Eurafrica without even mentioning the internal efforts to build a unitary African economic framework? Furthermore, what has happened to the knowledge built up over the last fifty years by the Institut de Recherche sur le Développement, by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique's research laboratories, by the many thematic calls for proposals that have brought together African and French researchers and which have so greatly contributed to renewing our knowledge of the continent - often generous initiatives with which I, for that matter, have more than once, been associated?

How is it possible simply to act as if, in France even, Georges Balandier hadn't, already back in the Fifties, revealed the profound modernity of African societies; as if Claude Meillassoux, Jean Copans, Emmanuel Terray, Pierre Bonafé and many others hadn't demonstrated the internal dynamics of the production of inequalities; as if Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Jean-Suret Canale, Almeida Topor and others still hadn't highlighted the cruelty of the concessionary companies and the ambiguities of colonial economic policies; as if Jean-François Bayart and the Revue Politique Africaine hadn't debunked the illusion according to which Africa's underdevelopment can be explained by its "disengagement from the world"; as if Jean-Pierre Chrétien and other geographers hadn't proved the inventiveness of agrarian techniques in the long term; as if Alain Dubresson, Annick Osmont and others hadn't patiently described the incredible hybridity and blending of Africa's towns; as if Alain Marie and others hadn't shown the resilience of individualism; as if Jean-Pierre Warnier hadn't described the vitality of the mechanisms of accumulation in West Cameroon, and so on and so forth?

Denial of responsibility

As for the same old tune about colonisation and the refusal to "repent", this is directly inspired by the speculations of the likes of Pascal Bruckner, Alain Finkielkraut and Daniel Lefeuvre. But who's going to believe that there's no moral responsibility for acts perpetrated by a State in the course of its history? Who's going to swallow that to create a humane world, you must throw morals and ethic to the wind because in this world, there's no justice for complaints or justice for causes? In order to exonerate an iniquitous system, there is a temptation today to rewrite the history of France and its empire, portraying it as a history of "pacification", of "the valorization of empty, leaderless territories", of "the spreading of education", of "the founding of modern medicine" and of the creation of road and rail infrastructures. This argument is based on the old lie that portrays colonisation as a humanitarian enterprise that contributed to the modernization of old primitive, dying societies which, left to their own devices, would have probably ended up committing suicide. In portraying colonization this way, such people authorize themselves, as in the Dakar speech, an intimate sincerity, an underlying authenticity so as better to find excuses - in which they alone believe - for a particularly cruel, abject and vile enterprise. They claim that the wars of conquest, the massacres, the deportations, the bloody incursions, the forced labour, the institutionalized racial discrimination, all that was simply "the corruption of a grand ideal" or, as Alexis de Tocqueville explained it, "an unfortunate necessity".

Asking France to recognize, as the very same de Tocqueville put it, that the colonial government was a "harsh, violent, arbitrary, crude government", or to ask it to stop supporting Africa's corrupt dictators amounts neither to denigrating nor hating it. It's simply asking it to assume its responsibilities and to practice what it claims to be its universal vocation. This request is absolutely necessary in today's context. And with regard to France's colonial past in particular, the policy of unlimited irresponsibility must be the object of firm, intelligent and unrelenting criticism. Furthermore, there is a need for coherence and to stop articulating discourses on colonization that change according to circumstances: some for domestic consumption and others for export. Who, indeed, will believe in France's good faith if, behind the roclamations of sincerity such as those proffered in Dakar, one seeks to exonerate the colonial system by rying to posthumously nominate figures as sinister as Raoul Salan field marshal, or in seeking to build a emorial to killers of the likes of Bastien Thiry, Roger Degueldre, Albert Dovecar and Claude Piegts?


The majority of Africans don't live in France, or in the former French colonies. They are not seeking to emigrate to France. In the daily exercise of their trade, millions of Africans depend in no way whatsoever on any kind of French aid network. They owe strictly nothing to France for their survival and France owes them strictly nothing. And that's as it hould be. Having said that, deep intellectual and cultural ties link some of us to this old nation where, what is more, we were in part trained. A large minority of French citizens of African origin, the descendants of slaves and former colonial subjects, live there, and we are far from indifferent to their lot, or to that of the illegal immigrants who, even if they have broken the law, nonetheless have the right to a humane treatment. Since Fanon, we know that it is the world's entire past we must analyze; that we cannot laud the past at the expense of our present and future; that "the black soul" is a white invention; that the black man doesn't exist anymore than the white man; and that we are our own foundation.

Today, even amongst French-speaking Africans whose servility to France is particularly flagrant and who are seduced by the sirens of nativism and the posture of victim, many are pertinently aware that the continent's lot, and its future, do not depend on France. After half a century of formal decolonization, the younger generations have learnt that there is ittle to expect from France, or from the other world powers. Africans will save themselves or sink on their own. They know too that, judged in the light of African emancipation, some of these powers are more harmful than others. And given our past and present vulnerability, the least we can do is to limit this power to harm. This attitude has nothing to do with hating anything. On the contrary, it is the prerequisite for a policy of equality without which there will be no common world.If, then, France wants to play a positive role in the advent of this common world, it needs to abandon its
prejudices. Its new elites need to undertake the difficult intellectual reflection without which the politically-motivated proclamations of friendship will remain vain. It isn't possible, as in Dakar, to speak to one's friend without actually addressing him/her. Being capable of friendship is, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, to know how to honour in one's friend the enemy he/she can be.

Today, the cultural and intellectual prism through which the new French ruling elites consider Africa, judge it, or doll it out lessons isn't just obsolete. It leaves no place for the amicable relationships that would be a sign of freedom because coextensive with relationships of justice and respect. For the time being, when it comes to Africa, France simply lacks the moral credit that would allow it to speak with certitude and authority.

That is why Nicolas Sarkozy's Dakar speech will not be heard, and even less taken seriously by those he was supposed to be addressing.
Published in partnership with "Le Messager", newspaper
published in Douala, Cameroun
Translated by Melissa Thackway

Publié dans contemporary africa

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