MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa at Crossroads: Complex Political Emergencies in the 21st Century,

UNESCO / ENA, 2001


A conference on ‘Africa at Crossroads: Complex Political Emergencies in the 21st Century was organized by Ethno-Net Africa(ENA) at Sawa Novotel in Douala (Cameroon) from 21 to 23 May 2001. ENA, it should be stated was created three years ago with a view to serving a an observatory for studying, monitoring and evaluating conflicts at the national and regional levels as well as proposing effective policies for their resolution. Its program was adopted by its Scientific Committee in January 1997 and approved by UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformation (MOST) Programme. This conference was therefore presented a opportunity for a mid-term review of the activities of ENA, and was supposed to help provided the structure with new orientations, if need be, for contributing to peace building in Africa.. Participants came from Benin, Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. Papers were received from others in Ivory Coast, Sweden and who could not be physically present.

Prof. Paul Nkwi, the Co-ordinator of ENA in his welcome speech thanked UNESCO/MOST as well as the Project head for UNESCO’s Democracy unit, Prof Timothee Ngakoutou for providing funds for the organization of the conference. He also noted the support that the project has so far been receiving from the Minster of Scientific Research in Cameroon. 
It was evident from the beginning of the conference that Africa’s marginality in the world system is still the norm in spite of globalization. As Afro-pessimism has become common currency in Western academic and political circles, there are predictions that the continent would soon become irrelevant. The task of reversing this perception according the Resident Representative of UNESCO requires the collective energy of all Africans. Pointedly, it would require political will among the ruling class as well as the expertise of African intellectuals who should play a primordial role in mapping out a new and bold vision for the continent. The representative of Cameroon’s Minister of Scientific Research, Dr. Charly Gabriel Mbock rehashed these points, spelling out several initiatives that are instantiations of the Minister’s determination to translate this commitment to concrete policy. Africans, though their paths cross, he noted, do not necessarily meet. They would have to start meeting.

In the keynote address to the participants, Professor Kofele Kale after denouncing the cult of state watching in Africa that has become an industry in Western academic circles, emphasized the urgent need for a deconstruction of the language being used to describe the continent because this comes with an ideology. This is a prerequisite for restructuring the African reality and this can be brought to fruition only if Africans set their own research agenda. This plea which had a wide purchase among the participants called not for an African epistemology but for an epistemology by Africans. In short, they noted the patronizing attitude of Western scholarship and resolved not to accept their discursive neutralization as far as the study of Africa was concerned anymore. 

It is against this backdrop that the members of the network presented the empirical data that addressed that various sub-themes of the conference. These themes were: Problems of State Construction and Transformation in Multiethnic Societies, the Political Economy of Conflict, Dealing with Legacies of the Failed State and Issues in Reconstituting the State. It was noted ab initio that whereas most of the studies were country specific, there were some commonalities among them. These commonalities needed to be brought into broad relief because they enable a wide description of political phenomena as well as explanation and prediction. That the participants who belong to different disciplines could willingly accept to start a conversation across their boundaries shows that the struggle for turf is no longer primordial. This is important because of the vanguard role of this class.

Papers on the Problems of State Construction were presented by Timothée Ngakoutou, Agossou Christian, Charly Gabriel Mbock and Bazahica Dorcella. Though their papers were country specific studies, focusing on Rwanda, Benin, Cameroon and Burundi respectively, they revealed that state construction in all of these countries was haunted by similar problems.  Primordial among them is ethnic heterogeneity  The plurality of groups within African states has been a bane rather than a boon. Clear evidence of this is the prevalence of war genocides etc in Africa. After diagnosing some of the problems that have haunted state construction they also confronted critically some of the instruments that have been used by policy makers for resolving same. Despite a consensus that colonialism is to blame for most of the problems that confront the continent today, they pleaded that Africans not take refuge in a culture of complaint. Rather, our energy should be devoted to looking for effective solutions that would help transform what has been described derisively, or with religious fervor and conviction, in the literature as failed, or collapsed states into vibrant ones. Notable among them were proposals that we revisit the past with a view to rewriting African history so that it foregrounds facts, while de-emphasizing the concern with historical impact that has contributed inordinately to its deformation.  Concern with the latter has caused the process of state construction to be perceived by segments of the population as a violating and violent experience. Elites who have appropriated and privatized the state were blamed for this development. In an endeavor to perennize themselves in power, they have even recontextualized politically neutral clichés, giving them connotations that would cause brother to take up arms against brother. In short, that ethic which Hegel saw as a pre-requisite for the existence of a society has been in short supply in Africa. No doubt, in some countries such as Rwanda and Burundi, there have been efforts made in this direction with the signing of various accords. While this is salutary, participants emphasized that focus should be on the performative rather than constative dimensions of accords meant to nurture peace on the continent. Slippage at the implementational phase has led to the scuttling of agreements in Africa by desuetude. 

Mohammad Kabir Isa, and Obododimma Oha presented papers on the Political Economy of Conflicts. Both papers focused on Nigeria. Agossou Christian read Agbroffi Joachim’s paper on the Ivory Coast. That these papers dealt only tangentially with the theme did not detract from their relevance as issues discussed on the first day resurfaced. The sociological makeup of African states as well as their leaders’ preoccupation with the will to power were seen as causes of conflict. Pointedly, the presentations dwelt on the role of manipulation as well as the importance of popular culture for the study of ethnic conflict. Emphasis on the latter was important because it showed how quotidian reality can be mobilized to serve political purposes and thereby cause low-intensity conflict to be endemic. This only rehashed the fact that any study of conflict in Africa has to be holistic or multidimensional.

Antoine Socpa and Ajaga Nji presented papers on ‘Dealing with the Legacies of Failed States’. Whereas focus in the discussions for the most part had been on the states themselves, these papers dealt with how people have sought to negotiate their relationship with this state that is not just an imaginary. In the face of differential invitations to the dinner table, the common man has also played the ethnic and clientelist card, using even music, so as to enhance his probability of obtaining an invitation to the eating table. In cases where he has been or feels short changed, he has simply sought to reduce his exposure to or contact with this state as instanced by the decision of farmers to revert to the farming of food crops that can be readily sold in the local markets. This does not mean that he can completely insulate himself from this state as a new ground for contestation is being opened up with the determination of the state to control its eminent domain. Since this requires control over land, the probability that this would spawn conflict is enhanced as statutory regulations conflicts with customary practice, problems posed by the articulation of capitalist modes of production on African ones and the fact that land has different values/meaning for different people. These presentations showed the need to see conflict through another prism, class, which some have argued is not relevant in the African context, not just ethnicity. 

Three papers were presented on ‘Reconstructing the State’ by Nantang Jua, John Forje and Wale Adebanwi. Discussions heretofore had shown that the African state may not have collapsed or failed as yet. Though it continues to display a certain resilience, there is no doubt that it is verging toward the abyss Alternatively, it displays a lot of uncertainty and human beings detest uncertainty. Whereas individuals have devised coping mechanisms, it is important that societal or macro solutions be found to the problems that confront the continent. Primordial among these was how can ethnicity be converted into resource for national imagining. A consensus emerged that we did not need to invent the wheel again. Rather we just needed to begin to adapt solutions that have been tried elsewhere so that they have a cultural resonance in the African setting. It is against this backdrop that they argued for the role of good forgetting in promoting a transformatory consciousness, peace building education, reconciliation and restitution as well as giving the common man voice.

Following two days of intensive and extensive work, the participants agreed that there was a need to deconstruct the state in Africa so as to be able to reconstruct it, especially with a view to recovering people in this process. Failing this, there is a high probability that people would continue disidentifying with the state that they see as a réseaux or network of some Big men. That is, we need to start building res publicas, properly-so-called.
There is a need to begin to re-examine the role that the Organization of African Unity has played in the history of post-colonial Africa. This Organization would have to be democratized, if it is to play a constructive role in the process of state consolidation and this should be informed by African cultural narratives as well as people friendly strategies imported from elsewhere.

There is a need for the ‘enracinization’ of research on Africa.  This is necessary if we are to grasp the African reality and arrest the tendency to present the continent as an anthropological specimen that is exotic. Undoubtedly, lack of funding would render the realization of this goal rather difficult but not impossible. It is with a view to overcoming this that they called on governments and African philanthropists to privilege the funding of research in their attempt to get their priorities right 

There is a need for conceptual clarity. Dealing with the linguistic inflation that characterizes studies on Africa begin to help restore a proper understanding of the continent. 

With a view to realizing its goals, ENA should work hand in glove with the new initiative of the High Commission of UNESCO in establishing a sub-regional Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa.
ENA should focus in the next couple of years on human rights issues, monitoring the violation of such rights on the pretext of respecting cultural values and norms throughout Africa.
ENA should produce a report on the status of Ethnicity, Racism and other forms of intolerance in Africa to be circulated during the World Conference on Racism due to hold in Durban, South Africa
ENA should establish a communication corridor with COMRED/AC. The results of the present conference should be sent to this structure and ENA should keep it informed about all its future activities. This should also provide ENA with a window of opportunity to insist on governments that they sponsor research activities.
That the OAU or the African Union as the case might be, benefit from the window of opportunity provided by Ethno-Net Africa. That is, the Organization should be able to tap on the resources of ENA. With a view to structuring this relationship as well as guaranteeing a valorization of the recommendations emanating from ENA, the participants delegated the officials of ENA to seek for recognition from and accreditation to the Organization as an NGO.
Whereas the participants acknowledged the financial help that the structure has received from MOST so far, they also noted the skewed nature in the distribution of funding. Similar structures to ENA in other parts of the world have received more funding from MOST. Given that this impairs on the capacity of ENA to do comparable work, participants called on MOST to adopt a formula for the equitable distribution of funds.

Officials of ENA should, despite the foregoing handicaps, use all available channels to disseminate the results of the conference.

© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.