Staging Africa

The warning and the promise

Africa is like a primed powder-keg, subject to internal and external forces that inscribe and determine its future, writes Cameroonian philosopher Jean Godefroy Bidima. Cutting the fuse will require self-reflection. Only then can Africa act in its own interests and those of the wider human family.

Africa launched into this twenty-first century – a time when irony and anxiety beset our certainties and designs – with its own share of tumult and hope. Upon and around Africa curl layers of discourses, traces of courses and recourses. We expound how, why, and to what end Africa sees, reveals, believes, persuades, grows, nurtures, and, ultimately, endures. Africa’s situation can be approached – at this moment when the world, our common home, aches with vulnerability – through the duality of a warning and a promise.

The warning is none other than Walter Benjamin’s, addressed to his contemporaries: ‘Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut.1  In Africa, the powder is an exuberant youth (breathless at a walk but adamant of its right to run), material poverty, conflict, war, cultural holdovers, the irresponsibility of local bureaucracies, waves of migration, an unjust global financial system, and the marginalization of the African voice when the affairs of the world are being decided, whether medical, criminal, religious, military, industrial, or cognitive. This warning prompts us to take another look at the discourses of exculpation and self-satisfaction, so that Africa can calmly set out its moments of truth in this world that we all share.

The promise stands in opposition to those African and non-African discourses that, sweeping their panoptic gaze over the progression of history, and secure in their academic, military, financial, media, and technological power, declare and divine what Africa will be made of tomorrow. The promise takes care to distance itself, too, from the placebo effect of populist discourses.

How do this warning and this promise come together in today’s Africa, battling for its sovereignty amid an onslaught of biotechnological, digital, ecological, industrial, health, economic, political, and symbolic challenges? To walk the tightrope between the warning and the promise is at once a mise en scène and a mise en sens – a staging and a sense-giving. How can we sow the African stage with words and actions that have a sense?

To speak of a stage implies a space that, while defined by politics, evolves into a territory. To engage with the stage, we must be wise to the illusions and manifold misconceptions that may have formed it. As we are speaking of Africa, of its lavish geography, there is a story to be told and recitals to be given. As we look for the actors who take the stage, we discover the type of play that is performed (a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, or a tragicomedy). Who has written the script and fashioned the costumes? Who is in charge of the plot, the puppets, and the stage jesters? How strong are the cords that raise the curtain, and those that move the puppets? Who decides how the play will end? By what means does it provoke our indignation and rage, and first enliven then subdue our shouts or laughter? Who foots the bill when the performance is over? And who rejects the play, only to write another? How and for whom can we write a different play, without forgetting the actors and verses that came before? This stage of Africa, which we might transpose to the political, educational, cognitive, economic, or symbolic spheres, teaches us about where the continent stands today.

Yinka Shonibare’s ‘The Confession’ is modeled after Fragonard’s ‘The Love Letter’. Shonibare’s intellectual choices – the use of wax-print cloth that tied Europe to Africa and that figured in both the slave trade and economic colonialism, or the headless mannequins prefiguring the guillotining of aristocrats – as well as his art-historical references require decoding for both Western and African audiences. Photo Kirsteen, 2007. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0. Now in the collection of W. George and Margot Greig. Commissioned by the Musée du Quai Branly for the exhibition “Jardin d’Amour.” © Yinka Shonibare MBE. Photo via Pressbooks@MSL

The production of intermittent euphoria

The African peoples, in all their diversity, have all known moments of euphoria. What is it that impels such emotions? And how are they impelled? Psychologically speaking, euphoria contains both a hope and an impetus. In Africa, hope is often attached to the agent, and to the content of the message that provokes the enthusiasm. It is the hope of seeing the future differently, and the impetus that drives people to move forward and move through, to have faith in themselves, and to construct a semblance of happiness or joy through sheer anticipation. Is this euphoria a translation of sublimation? What is the nature of this translation? What remains that can never be translated or sublimated?

There are some philosophers who regard enthusiasm as a poor counsellor. Hume associates it with superstition, two forces threatening to corrupt true religion.2 Viewed differently, enthusiasm is an opening act that defies the fear of the void: ‘There is in the enthusiastic man a universal receptivity, an ability to gather everything with a surplus of energy which spends itself just for the pleasure of acting.’3 Are African enthusiasms illusions, or are they manifestations of vitality and receptivity? Let us look closely at six forms of African euphoria.

The coastal imaginary, and the fascination with the coast in African proto-colonial history, is a subject that merits more attention. The coast is at once a symbolic site of loss (the slave trade) and of attraction (incoming consumer goods). The people of West and Central Africa have a history of enthusiasm for the coast.4 Today, for various reasons, this enthusiasm translates into immigration, both beyond and within the African continent.

Before the tide of independence broke, enthusiasm and euphoria were the preserve of messianism. So it was with Amadou Bamba in Senegal, Marie Lalou in Côte d’Ivoire, and Kimpa Vita, Simon Kimbangu, André Matsoua, and Tong Likeng in Central Africa. These surges of enthusiasm inspired hope of political liberation through the sacred. Then came the euphoria of independence. Scholars and politicians seized upon this word, this fetish: ‘Independence: self-determination, self-sufficiency.’ Before long, the independence movement fell prey to attack (in Guinea under Sékou Touré) and manipulation (in the Congo’s assorted wars and secessions). Scepticism – ‘false start in Africa’5 – was hardened by pessimism – ‘Can Africa take off?’6 – and tempered with jaded cynicism – ‘When will dipenda, “independence”, end?7

Next in line was the catechism of ‘development’, with its theologized vision of history. Development was supposed to usher in a Copernican revolution through rationalist, technoscientific salvation. Africa – besieged by experts, loans, and projects – had, first of all, to recognize itself to be ‘poor and underdeveloped’. The enthusiasm for development has passed, in light of the richness of the African substrata, the enfeebled condition of African nations, and the results it has produced.

A mania for democracy and technocracy swept in with the end of the Cold War. Africa would adopt a hand-me-down model of democracy, one that had been revised, corrected, packaged, and delivered. It fell to African technocrats and their international monitors to translate this model for the African context. The mania centred on technocrats, bereft of a sense-giving that would unite the people around an external reformer. World Bank advice was followed to the letter, as African nations put technocrats at the head of their governments: Milongo in the Republic of the Congo, Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire, and Soglo in Benin. The International Monetary Fund compiled a new lexicon, and under G was the word ‘governance’.

This portmanteau, a yardstick for the international monetary system, became a thermometer cracking in the fierce tropical heat of local and international subsystems of inertia, irresponsibility, and resistance. The new dogma was that state and society should be managed like a private enterprise. In these fragile nations, crying out for some unifying narrative, politics was thus reduced to a series of investments and exercises in budget balancing. ‘Management’ became the ruling philosophy.

Finally, the sun rose in the East. China was on the ascent, to the disquiet of the western old guard (fearful for their hegemony) and of African doughnut sellers (fearful for their small businesses). China established its markets, at times held the indigenous people in contempt, made secret deals with the African elites, bought up huge swathes of arable land, participated in local projects, honoured delivery deadlines, and often lent money without any (immediate) interest or (explicit) conditions. China is the new African messiah, the lightning rod for a new enthusiasm. On the ground, clashes between conventional anti-China doctrine and Third-Worldist apologetics urging South–South cooperation played out in a battle of propaganda and corruption. The latest twist – China’s new image, alternately tarnished and gleaming in the geopolitics of COVID-19 – is sure to add an unexpected dimension to the struggle to control Africa in the years to come.

Africa has many subclasses of enthusiasms: the proliferation of Islamist fundamentalisms and American-style mega-churches, to name but two. What remains unknown is whether the inflammation of passions, the chain of fascinations, and the manoeuvres of persuasions have the capacity to reconfigure African society – to effect a mise en forme.8 A morphology and syntax of the motives and forms of enthusiasm and the mobilization of passions in Africa remains to be written. How have injustices and deflated enthusiasms produced nostalgic discourses, a compulsion toward excessive accusations, a false Afrocentric mythology, a selective victimhood, moral corruption, and self-hatred? Let us turn away from anger and inquire into fear.

Fears that fester

Here is a question for African historians, so militant and politicized: Who will write the history of fear in Africa? How does one say ‘fear’ in the Beti language? Beti, a tonal language, expresses ‘fear’ as wòñ. One semitone higher, and wóñ means ‘to be lying in wait and searching for’. There is a popular Beti saying that plays on an AABB rhyme, to the effect that a hunting dog feels no fear (wòñ) because he is lying in wait and searching for (wóñ) … Building on this common root, we might say that fear is not a withdrawal but an active state of pursuit. Passive fear retreats inward, but active fear pursues and inquires. What kinds of fear do we find in Africa today?

The first is the fear of being unable to survive in this world, where life falls prey to biological, anthropological, and media manipulations. Scientific rationalizations, food and its by-products, nuclear energy and its secrets, waste management and spatial planning, urbanization and population control, life under digital diktat, irreversible human disruption to nature, the geopolitics of water and, above all, the disconnect between words, promises, and real life are all evaluated in our post-postmodern age through the notion of risk. Let’s not forget that ‘those who point out risks are defamed as “alarmists” and risk producers. Their presentation of the hazards is considered “unproven.”’9 Today, however, the question of risk should be addressed from the point of view of the African people themselves, not that of ‘investors,’ as it has been in the past.

Centuries of colonialism, the painful saga of slavery and the slave trade, the demeaning status system in caste-based African societies, commemorations as smokescreens, humiliating and often undeserved poverty, and the ancillary position of African countries in the intricate workings of the international market. All of this brings us back to the philosophical question of contempt. We might draw inspiration from Peter Sloterdijk’s words on rage: ‘We have entered an era without rage collection points of global perspective.’10 We might say that our era is lacking ‘contempt collection points’ of global perspective. Every thinker tends his own private flame of rage and draws the contempt of his intellectual peers, rivals in the mastery of a consecrated language, mutually agreed upon and protected.

Theorists on identity, on subjectivation, on governmentality, on individuation, on class alienation, on the unconscious, on the secularization and/or re-enchantment of the world, and on ‘deterritorialization’, as well as advocates of ‘post-isms’ (postmodernism, postpolitics, posthumanism), have occasionally placed contempt collection points in their theoretical work. But do their theories tell us anything about contempt: the spark inching toward the dynamite? What can we say about racial or class contempt, unless we have experienced it ourselves? What does it mean to be born into contempt?

Every African, in this game of global recognition, feels this fear of contempt. The politician fears he will suffer the fate reserved for his continent when international decisions are being made. The would-be intellectual fears he will faint under the force of the world’s cultivated zeal, telling him what to think and how to express it, in a magnanimous desire to help him know himself. Should he feel inclined to laugh or to cry, he half expects to be handed an ‘essay on the methodology of laughter or tears’, just as he has been handed the methodology of development.

This fear gives rise to a ‘siege mentality’ that is sometimes expressed through a defensive and explosive withdrawal.11 Axel Honneth puts contempt at the heart of the question of recognition, and the fear of contempt can be studied in the context of the recognition of the inner self, civil rights, and the capacities of the subject.12 In the African context, what fears are aroused in relation to the manipulations of the inner self? What frustrations are associated with the non-recognition of the civil rights of subjects and communities? And what is to become of subjects’ unfulfilled capacities? The question of contempt that festers in our societies is a kind of symbolic misery, as Bernard Stiegler reflected: ‘And we, supposedly cultured people, scholars, artists, philosophers, perceptive and well informed as we are, we have to understand that the vast majority of society lives in this state of symbolic misery, marked by humiliation and insult.’13 The tradition of contempt leads to death and explosions.

Mounana is a town in Gabon, once home to the uranium mines of the multinational corporation Areva. Today, radioactive contamination threatens its population’s health and the development of agriculture. On the one hand, we need industrialization, but, on the other, we inherit its legacy of pollution, and hence fear. Medical experiments, clinical trials, and vaccination drives also arouse fear in Africa. As COVID-19 spread across the world, the suggestions from French doctors that Africans would make good guinea pigs reopened wounds left by colonial medical experiments. We recall the experiences of Senegalese Tirailleurs in 1916, used as test subjects for vaccines against tuberculosis and pneumococcus (under the supervision of Dr Kerandel); the scandalous deaths among Tirailleurs in Cahors; the abscess crisis in Dakar that followed a vaccine trial in 1924; and the role of the Pasteur Institute in colonial policy.14 This fear chills the African imaginary, just as the fear of bioterrorism chills citizens of other shores.

Sense-givings: The sketch of a promise

There are prerequisites to sense-giving: the remembrance of symbolic debts; the creation of a framework for understanding, in which different subjectivities and communities recognize others and themselves; a conception of history that highlights points of emergence, of nascent potentiality – where something new comes into being; and a capacity for self-reflection that allows us to view ourselves with detachment, so that we can create from a place of respect for our own interests and those of the wider human family.

There are many symbolic debts, but let us address just two: the land and the given word. In Africa, space and land are commodities like any other, but it was not always this way – a profound change swept in with the colonial era. For most people, land was not an alienable asset but kin: ‘This interpretation of the relationship between man and land as one of property obscures another relationship … Kinship and land are one and the same … Kinship is affirmed through land.15 The land, where chthonian forces move and dwell, speaks to the life of the living, of ancestors, and of the unborn. Kéba Mbaye expresses this powerfully: ‘The land evades appropriation. The laws of African cosmogony do not admit this appropriation, not for any of the elements (sky, air, or sea) that have contributed to the universe’s creation and sustenance. As the land belongs … to the gods and the ancestors, no human being can appropriate it.’16

This land is sacred; the living are merely granted a right of use. The pact between the living and the land was torn asunder by the colonial rights system17  and by the implicit philosophy of its utilitarian and instrumental conception of nature: the dualities of subject/object and nature/culture,18 the denigration of the kinship between humans and the land as a form of animism. The land was a debt owed to past and future generations, and a promise to the living who inhabited it. Now, this heritage has been sold off to corporations from Asia and the West, and disputes over property rights spark endless clashes and local wars, while those who would corral resources fan the flames. Philosophically, this sale was only made possible because land became a ‘commodity’, in the sense of a construct that is both geometric (it can be divided into plots) and monetary (it can be appropriated through titling), as well as a site for mineral exploration. The key to this shift in the relationship with the land in Africa lies in a theoretical framework that distinguishes the sacred subject (the seller) from the desacralized object (the land).

The word is another symbolic debt. To give one’s word, to be master of it, to respect it, to narrativize it, to stage it, to give it a role in ‘the scriptwriting,’19  to prevent it from being uttered, to stifle its delivery, or to alter its formulation: that is the great tension.

One African promise – one that must not be allowed to decay into an empty husk and that might be translated as ‘the original vitality20 uniting every human being – is its people, in all their dynamism and versatility. We summon them, intellectuals speak in their name, we scorn them, victim and executioner, manipulator and manipulated, perturbed first by fragile nation-building and then by ruthless globalization. The African people are at once the promise and a store of dynamite that has not yet been ignited. Their problem is not so much access to housing, water, civil peace, and liberty as their very institution: their mise en forme. Traditions, religions, consumerism, politics, the media – they all propose their competing visions, but we must go to the very root of things and observe how symbols are produced and the threads of dependence that bind us. Who does the binding? What is it that binds? How did the bonds become so tight? What are the links in the credit chain?

Reflection and self-reflection

Kant drew a distinction between knowing (kennen) and thinking (denken). Mere knowing, uncorrected by self-reflection, becomes warped and commodified. Recurrent claims and accusations formulated too quickly, premature and imprudent, are the enemies of thought. Self-reflection necessitates both distance and immersion. It requires us to take our time when choosing our words, to hesitate over their propriety, to leave a gap between the thought and the moment of reification, to resist the many forms of narcissism, and to accommodate our own vexations. Hope lies in creating a culture of self-reflection, as is often practiced in some traditions. At the moment, the African elite, one of the arbiters of this hope, faces two major difficulties.

First, it criticizes colonialism and globalization, lingers over first-order causes (monetary revisions, cosmopolitanism, violence, the environment, public health), and dispenses its thought from a tower of symbolic privilege. Yet, in these grand battles, it loses sight of the imperative to challenge the commodification of all spheres of our existence, and the ‘commodity-form’ of its own thought. ‘Postcolonialism’ has become a commodity to be marketed and sold. In the North American higher education machine, it serves as an alibi, sometimes blurring the boundaries between critique and resentment, and absolving the failures of an unjust social system.

Second, this elite (sometimes ignorant of Africa’s languages and traditions) wields two formidable and fearful weapons (colonialism and slavery). Who would dare to oppose the critique of these two realities? As a result, this representative elite, as Édouard Glissant put it,21 engages in invented battles with ‘the system,’ forgetting that ‘the detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant … His own distance from business at large is a luxury which only that business confers.22 These African elites – like those of the recent past – will have no poetic task until they learn to say, like penitents in the Middle Ages teasing the confessor: nescio (‘I do not know’). Only then will they feel the thirst for discovery and embark on a genuine symbolic, political, scientific, and artistic reconstruction of Africa.

The salvation of critical thinking and the poetics of hope in Africa will begin with an exercise in ‘intellectual self-surveillance’,23 a form not of malice nor the policing of self-censorship but of care. We watch over the milk pan mindful of the time, the proportions of the pan, and the quantity and quality of the milk. In the same way, we must examine every outlet for the word in Africa (as given to intellectuals, to politicians, etc.), the structures that stage it (media apparatuses and funding fathers), and the actors who perform their parts without asking who chose the meter, the rhythm, and the running time, who decided the date and hour when the doors will open. Reflection thus becomes a way ‘to leave the cry and forge the word. This is not to renounce the imaginary or the underground powers, it is to arm a new time-span anchored in the emergence of peoples.’24 The challenges of cognitive and climatic justice, of the transition from knowledge to the digital, and of bioterrorism call upon Africans to forge a new word and commence a palaver: an act of both critique and creation.

In memory of professors Francis (Abiola) Irele and Hélène Védrine, and dedicated to Nick F. Nesbitt and Boniface Mongo-Mboussa.


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This article was published in cooperation with CAIRN International Edition,  translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations.

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. J. A. Underwood, London: 2009; preceded by Berlin Childhood Around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland, Cambridge, MA/London 2006 and followed by The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA/London 1999. See Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, trans. Chris Turner, London/New York: 2005.

See David Hume, A Dissertation on the Passions and The Natural History of Religion, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp, Oxford: 2007, 54.

E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, Chicago 1992, 76.

See Frederick Quinn, In Search of Salt: Changes in Beti (Cameroon) Society, 1880–1960, New York: 2006.

René Dumont, False Start in Africa, trans. Phyllis Nauts Ott, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Albert Meister, L’Afrique peut-elle partir? Paris: Seuil, 1966.

A line spoken by a character in Aimé Césaire’s play A Season in the Congo, Paris 1966; English trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Polity Press 2010.

See Claude Lefort, ‘The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?’ in Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (eds), Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, New York 2006.

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter, London 1992, 45.

Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, trans. Mario Wenning, New York: 2010, 183.

Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, New York/London 1984, 18.

See Axel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, trans. Joseph Ganahl, Cambridge 2007.

Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery, Volume I: The Hyperindustrial Epoch, trans. Barnaby Norman, Cambridge 2014. Africans feel this humiliation when, for example, a French president laments the size of African families, or when he receives an African president on an official visit on the front steps of the Elysée with his dog by his side. Perhaps he had previously received Russian or American presidents in this manner, or princes from the Gulf states! Politics, as well as being a sense-giving and a form of management, is also a staging – a question of tact.

See Christian Bonah, Histoire de l’expérimentation humaine en France: Discours et pratiques 1900–1940, Paris 2007, 287–313.

Stanislas Melone, La parenté et la terre dans la stratégie du développement: L’expérience camerounaise (étude critique), Paris/Yaoundé 1972, 21. Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited material are our own.

Kéba Mbaye, ‘Le régime des terres au Sénégal,’ in Le droit de la terre en Afrique (au sud du Sahara): Études préparées à la requête de l’Unesco, ed. International Association of Legal Sciences, Paris 1971, 137.

See C. M. N. White, ‘Land Law and Administration in Zambia’, in Le droit de la terre en Afrique, 159.

See Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd, Chicago: 2013.

See Yves Citton, Mythocratie: Storytelling et imaginaire de gauche, Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2010.

Paul-Henri Giraud, Octavio Paz: Vers la transparence, Paris: Presses universitaires de France 2002, 155.

Édouard Glissant, Le discours antillais, Paris: 1997, 93; English translation Michael Dash: Caribbean Discourse: Selected essays, Charlottesville, 1989, 1992. An unproductive, theatrical, and useful elite, because it does not seek to unravel whatever forms the webs that sustain the dependence relationship. Glissant also speaks of the development of a ‘general instinct for mendicancy’ (57). Regional and national research centers, emerging projects, conferences, and other workshops of intellectual production are often steeped in the funds of the imperialism they so vehemently decry. Do autonomy, coherence, and ‘decolonialization’ have any meaning?

Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, London: 1974, 23.

Gaston Bachelard, Le rationalisme appliqué, Paris: 1949.

Glissant, Le discours antillais, 28.

Published 30 October 2020
Original in French
Translated by Cadenza Academic Translations
First published by Esprit 7–8 (2020)

Contributed by Esprit © Jean Godefroy Bidima / Esprit / Eurozine



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