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A dependent independence

In a paraphrase of a well-known biblical injunction, the late Ghanaian nationalist icon and foremost Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah used to tell Ghanaians and other Africans…

In a paraphrase of a well-known biblical injunction, the late Ghanaian nationalist icon and foremost Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah used to tell Ghanaians and other Africans to “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things else shall be added unto you”. Nkrumah’s point was simple. If only we could wrestle back political power and control from European self-interested rule, and be the masters of our own destiny, Nkrumah—and other nationalists of his generation—thought, then economic and cultural power would follow suit, and Africa would hold its own among the community of nations in the world.  

To borrow a Marxian term, Nkrumah’s political determinism—the idea that political power determines everything else—was the template for the struggle for independence throughout Africa. And after Ghana took the lead in 1957, more than 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained political independence from colonial Europe in 1960, and by 1980, when Mugabe’s Zimbabwe joined the fray, not more than two or three African countries remained under formal colonial rule, mostly in the settler colonies of southern Africa. But 65 years after Nkrumah’s Ghana, just how far the thesis of seeking the political kingdom travelled?  

By all means, not far enough. In retrospect at least, Nkrumah was correct only to a small extent. Under formal colonial rule, Africa had little hope of anything else being added onto it, let alone all things else. Political independence was certainly a necessary condition for anything else to be added onto Africa beyond the tokenistic development that Europeans offered to assuage their own guilt of colonial exploitation or to celebrate their Saviour Complex. But a necessary condition for a cause is not always a sufficient condition for the cause to effect the desired change, as those schooled in formal logic would say. If political independence was a necessary condition for Africa’s development to the benefit of Africans, it was not a sufficient condition to make it happen.  

And in a sense, all of Africa’s post-independence history is a rough testimony to the preceding point. We have had the political kingdom we sought for six decades and more today, but very few would agree that all else have been added onto it. Perhaps the most current word in Nigeria’s everyday speech today is “Japa”, a word that denotes the overarching feeling among many Nigerians to leave the country in search of greener pastures in other countries, or to use another Nigerian parlance, in “saner climes”. But the currency of Japa in our everyday public discourse is by itself an indication that all else has not yet been added, 62 years after independence.  

But Nigeria’s Japa story is evident in many African countries as well. In his provocative 2019 book, The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent—a clear pun on Europe’s Scramble for Africa a century and a half ago, the journalist and scholar, Stephen Smith makes a compelling argument about Euro-African relations based almost entirely on demography. In 1870, Smith says, there were over 270 million people cramped into small Europe, compared to 100 million in the vast plains and forests of Africa at the time.  But today, 510 million people live inside EU borders, while 1.25 billion people in Africa; and by 2050, 450 million Europeans will face 2.5 billion Africans – five times their number.  

Smith’s explanation for the consequences of this huge demographic shift is that just as Europeans scrambled for Africa seeking markets and other economic opportunities in the late 19th century, it is only natural that today, young Africans, driven by a lack of economic opportunities at home, would seek to undertake the perilous journeys in boats and dinghies across the Mediterranean to Europe, whether they make it or not. In other words, for Smith, it is the lack of economic opportunities at home for young Africans, which drives their quest to Japa to Europe, even if, Smith recognises, young Africans migrating to Europe are also often spurred on by what he calls a “sense of adventure”.  

There is a sense in which Smith is also correct. Worsening economic insecurity at home—or Nkrumah’s all things else that have not been added—is one reason young Africans seek to migrate to Europe in their thousands. More importantly, the fear of African migration among Europeans is the single most important factor driving much of European politics in the last decade. It is this fear that has led to the rise of right-wing populist governments all across Europe, as we saw in Italy just last week, because as the argument goes, more and more Africans in Europe threaten the very foundations of the European welfarist state.  

But if Smith has looked deeper at his won thesis, he would have seen the glaring contradiction within it. As Smith notes throughout the book, it is not poor Africans who migrate to or seek residency in Europe because migration is not cheap. So, it is Africans with reasonably paying jobs and assets at home who migrate in the name of seeking even better opportunities or Smith’s “sense of adventure”. But what he calls “a sense of adventure” is in fact, better interpreted as cultural dependency, perhaps the most important unfinished business of a flag independence.  

This brings us back to where we started. If Nkrumah’s political independence has not taken Africa to the promised land, it is because political power alone is not a sufficient condition for independent development. You need indigenous economic power in the form of strong and sustainable economic institutions like big companies, banks, research and development organisations, and of course strong laws guaranteeing economic transactions and activities. You need organisational power in the form of innovation and management skills to marshal labour and technology to achieve desired ends. And you need cultural power, both symbolic and material.  

For me, what Africa has lacked the most of these three is cultural power. It is one thing to thump your chest and say you are free but quite another to feel and act free. Freedom and independence are first and foremost mental, and in that sense they are cultural. To be free is to have an independent sense of self; to know and value your own worth; to be happy with who you are and what is yours, and to build back better with your own hands. It is to will yourself into existence without a care in the world whatever anyone else might think.  

Africa lacks cultural power in this sense. Indeed, when we chastise African leaders for lacking the political will to do the right thing at home, it is in fact this cultural power that they lack. And it is why everything external, from persons to things, is regarded as necessarily better than everything else at home. It is why African leaders feel more accountable to foreign governments to the home populations that elect them. It is why equivalent jobs by Africans are paid so poorly at home. But it is also why middle-class Africans sell their homes and assets to migrate to Europe and elsewhere. And nowhere are all these things more evident than here in Nigeria.   

I am not advocating for cultural determinism. But for Africa and Nigeria, real independence and development must be rooted in a sense of self.