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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Literary Criticism

Writers and Progress in East Africa
Ronald Elly Wanda

The history of contemporary political ideas of Africa is a neglected field in the continent and more so outside of it. As we commence 2009, and near the first decade of what the UN has ambitiously termed "Africa’s century", it is important as Africans to re-examine and discuss our plight in relation to our development.

My capitulation as a concerned reader and writer places emphasis on none other than the young African writer, for it is he or she that is likely to stimulate and catalogue development and historical discourses as per se. This is because, when it comes to Africa, where African thought has been studied, expositions of metaphysical systems or discussions of critical or theoretical thoughts belonging to individual Africans are quite rare.

As a political writer, there are many moments that I can recall where I have encountered red-tape under the auspices of "editorial policy" sanctioning me from expressing a certain truth as certain publishers have feared exposing well-known dictators and other high-profile societal wrong-doers in Eastern Africa, often citing their own safety concerns. Concerns which are well-founded.

In East African society today, it is still common place for independent journalists and writers to receive death threats; face intimidation and harassment; face arbitrary arrest and detention; be severely beaten up and or tortured; while media houses risk being raided by state security agents and their publications and media equipments seized and destroyed depending on what they publish. More recently, the Monitor and East African Standard of Kampala and Nairobi respectively have suffered this fate. On the other hand, public media in the continent still remains a monopolised government propaganda machinery; New Vision of Uganda, Kenya Times of Kenya, NewTimes of Rwanda are one such examples of tawdry propaganda sheets.

For decades the need for analysts to look elsewhere for ‘unofficial thinking’, has been the motivation of newspapers and magazines such as the Eastern African Magazine or for that matter West Africa published by Africans for African readers here in the diaspora as well as those back home in Africa.

While I remain acutely aware of my status as a pan-Africanist in the diaspora, my role and that of fellow African writers in foreign shores, so to speak, is to normalize the spirit of promoting positive African intellectualism, in spite of obvious obstacles at hand. For a start, we must pester the corrosive ‘big brother’ culture of gagging African intellectualism for not only does it suppress the truth but it also disbands the very apex of political journalism, that of seeking thy truth and reporting it objectively without fear or intimidation.

In my view, one aspect that has continued playing a strong part against our development has been our history. Although not motivated by professional commitment to historical inquiry, nevertheless, I feel impelled to suggest that the recent past has everything to do with phenomena that are apparent in East African society today. As young African writers, we therefore need to engage with the history of contemporary Africa both as a way of throwing new light on our remote past and as away of understanding the present. For instance, we played no part at all in the formation of the so called ‘nation-state’. Our boundaries were drawn up by Europeans who had never even been to Africa disregarding existing political systems and boundaries. 50 years later, we were given flags and national anthems, airlines and armies and told we were now "independent". Five decades afterwards, that independence is now "dependence".

Ever since the British government (the chief predator in East Africa) bought into the aid agency view of Africa – "all Africa needs is aid" – it has reduced its capacity to further understand the region. Aid with attached conditions is pointless to Africa. According to a recent study by the University of Massachusetts, there is more money leaving Africa than is going to Africa as aid. It is estimated that the capital flight from 40 African countries from 1974 to 2004 stood at $607 billion in 2004 compared to a total $227 billion external debt owed by those countries. "While the assets are in private hands, the liabilities are the public debts of African governments", said the report, also pointing a finger at UK and Switzerland as jurisdictions likely to enjoy embezzled funds from Africa.

While the EU has only 23 languages in use, Africa has at least 2,000, and in East Africa alone we have well over 150. So while tribalism is an issue in our society, it is not some weird atavistic African sentiment but a logical result of our "imposed history". Most people I’ve met whilst in East Africa speaks at least three languages, intermarriages are a common thing, and in normal times, there is little personal conflict between people of different ethnicity, thanks in part to a resuscitated and enlarged union of East Africa.

In Africa, the concept of the nation-state has failed us, because it has acted as a cumulative mechanism benefiting certain elites and foreign agents and not wanainchis (Africans). Naturally it is this reason that has led wanainchi, especially those in rural areas with little education, to identify more with their own people, language, culture and society than they do with the nation-state. Therefore, for me, at the risk of simplification, the answer lies in regionalisation. Thankfully, the East African Community is one such work in progress. We ought to laud this initiative as the first stage of setting ourselves ‘free’.

The notion that Africa is post-colonial is hardly satisfactory, not least because of the continuing reference to the colonial past in this epithet. Also unsatisfactory is the suggestion from the former South African president Thambo Mbeki that Africa is now in the age of renaissance of some sort.

As young African writers of newspapers, magazines, blogs, books etc, it is our task to construct a history that we can claim is ours, one that positively identifies the character of Africa in its present age. After all, history can only make its weight felt on living generations through mechanisms or expositions of the information that can become operation. The main task at hand is to inquire into the nature of recent times diligently and, above all, without the burden of past expectations. It may then turn out that, for all the terrible events and formidable problems of recent years, redundant discourses aside; it is an age of the young African writer to impact.

© Ronald Elly Wanda February 2009

Ronald Elly Wanda MCIJ is a political scientist based in London.

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