In Africa, identity comes out as the main topic around which to agitate and achieve political ambitions. This explains the destructive role of politics in African lives, and the West is adding fuel to the fire.
Recently I was invited to brief a European delegation on a tour in Rwanda. They had asked me to give a talk on regional politics, as well as Rwanda’s approach to politics and development. I am always eager to do such talks because I get to speak to them face to face with the aim being to show them how their interaction with Africa, although at times well-intentioned, produces harmful effects. I do this in the hope that they may reflect on their behaviour and embrace some change.
I quickly summarized the state of regional politics and security and turned to Rwanda’s national development framework. I told them that the country’s development aspirations are organised around three key themes: economic, social, and governance. After a short description of each rubric, one of the delegates rightly observed that at home they also organise their politics along those three critical pillars, except the fact that they call the governance rubric “politics.” Same thing. The assumptions that explain the difference in the terminology of politics and governance are a story for another day.
On this day, my talk focused on European elite behaviour vis-à-vis Africa. In Europe – and America – there is consensus amongst the elite that all citizens want economic and social goods. They agree that capitalism is the economic approach for delivering those goods, while liberal democracy is the political system to engender the same. As far as the West is concerned, these questions are settled and therefore not open to debate. Indeed, any attempts to invoke a debate around them is considered unbecoming, a threat to the very idea and foundations of who they are as a people; it is a threat to their way of life. Only an invading force can change this status quo through suppression and usurpation of sovereignty. Otherwise, internal efforts to do so will face the wrath of the state. Think McCarthyism.
American and European politics is shielded from debaters on settled matters. However, they are free to disagree within this consensus – the how. In the US, for instance, Liberals (Democrats) and Conservatives (Republicans) – both adherents to capitalism and liberal democracy – might disagree on the amount of taxes that should be levied on individuals or businesses (economic rubric); on immigration; abortion or healthcare (social policy), but they do not debate what they consider settled questions. It is for this reason that critics of the US political system – the most prominent of whom was WEB Dubois – say that America operates under a one-party political system. Moreover, the political elite claim to practise “mature” politics for the very idea that they agree on the big ideological questions and have chosen to agitate over the relatively less consequential policy differences, which they ironically call “ideological.”
Most notably, Europeans and Americans are encouraged to agitate over economic and social policy as long as they do so with the understanding that they come together around the politics of shared citizenship. As long as the latter is secured, the promise is that differences in the unequal access to social and economic goods will be solved through policy. It is on this basis that the people are mobilized to vote every electoral cycle. Even when nothing changes, it is considered a taboo to turn this dissatisfaction into identity-based polarization. This explains why, for instance, the French political elite insist on France’s policy of assimilation which affirms the primacy and supremacy of French culture and the need to adopt it and relegate to the background any other sub-national identity for anyone wishing to become a French citizen. It is within the confines of this shared citizenship that any grievances must be expressed. Similarly, several states in the US have banned Critical Race Theory in schools, a discipline which aims to establish that racism and racial inequalities are the results of social and institutional dynamics.
In both cases, the elites perceive a threat to national cohesion in the attempts to express grievances and agitate around identity. In other words, the aim of the rubric of politics is to de-politicise and de-escalate society’s differences – mainly identity-based.
When they turn to Africa, the same European and American elites encourage and magnify differences. As a result, they discourage the internalising of common citizenship and a sense of shared destiny that should prevail despite the imperfections that may exist in society. Even as they downplay and moderate differences in their own countries, European and American elites amplify the African voices that magnify differences. As a result of this politicisation of differences, any emerging sense of common citizenship and shared destiny is destroyed.
In Africa, there are far fewer “ideological” differences as far as economic and social policy are concerned than there are in the West. Instead, identity comes out as the main topic around which to agitate and achieve political ambitions. This explains the destructive role of politics in African lives: the tendency to exacerbate differences and even invent them when necessary.
It is therefore ironic that Americans and Europeans who are eager to promote democracy in Africa have supported destructive (and distractive) identity-based politics because of the sense of agitation it brings – even when they don’t take responsibility for the resultant violence it creates. This is due to the mistaken belief that this agitation is akin to what takes place in their own societies when in fact the opposite is true.
My message to my audience, therefore, was that if they truly want to support Africa’s democratization, even one that is similar to the kind they are used to at home, they ought to identify the kind of politics that pivot around economic and policy differences. If there is none, doing nothing would be better than supporting those practicing the kind of politics that they (back home in Europe) have done everything possible to avoid: politics that magnifies differences.
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