France’s Imperial Leader Explains Africa to Itself

From James McDougall’s article, “Sarkozy and Africa: big white chief’s bad memory,” 7 December, 2007, openDemocracy:

The headline event of Sarkozy’s first (and brief) tour of sub-Saharan Africa was a speech, written by special advisor Henri Guaino, delivered “to the élite of Africa’s young people” on 26 July at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. The tone and content of the forty-five-minute address were poorly chosen – or deliberately injurious – for the context: a leading African university named for one of the continent’s major intellectuals, whose work, however debatable in some of its conclusions, laid much of the ground for subsequent academic work on pre-colonial African history.

As responses from both African and French audiences immediately demonstrated, the president’s “vision of the continent” and its future were hardly grounded in a careful attempt at understanding or a serious project for north-south cooperation. For the Senegalese audience, Sarkozy appeared in the well-worn and unwelcome role of “the ‘big white chief’ come to enlighten his ‘little African brothers'” (see Thomas Hofnung, Libération, 28 July 2007).

Sarkozy’s “vision” of Africa turned out to be a tissue of fantasy images drawn from a familiar stock of 19th-century clichés:

“The tragedy of Africa is that African man [sic] has never sufficiently entered into History. The African peasant, who for millennia has lived with the seasons, whose ideal of life is to be in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal recommencement of time in rhythm with the endless repetition of the same gestures, the same words. In this imaginary where everything always begins anew, there is no place for the adventure of the human spirit, nor for the idea of progress. In this universe where nature commands all, [African] man escapes the anguish of History that grips modern man, but he remains immobile amidst an immutable order in which all seems written in advance. Never does he launch himself towards the future. Never does the idea occur to him that he might break with repetition and invent his own destiny.”

From this admirable (in harmony with Nature) but savage (outside History) homo africanus, colonialism “took but […] it also gave. The coloniser built bridges, roads, hospitals, dispensaries, schools, made fertile virgin soil, gave his effort, his labour, his knowledge”; the fact that it was African labour that built the roads and bridges, that hospitals, dispensaries and schools were generally available only to a very few, that the “virgin soil” was expropriated from people who then worked it for someone else’s profit, is discreetly passed over.

The important thing is that the colonisers “believed they were fulfilling a civilising mission, believed they were doing good. They were wrong but they were sincere.” And “sincerity”, apparently, covers a multitude of ills. The faults of colonialism were, indeed, many (it “disenchanted Africa” of its “soul […], the sacred ties that men had forged over millennia with the sky and the earth, […] the mysteries that came from the depths of the ages”), but since “colonisation is not responsible for all the difficulties of Africa today” (a banal truism that only the most vulgar misreading of all the critical literature on colonialism could justify as a worthwhile assertion), it is held responsible for nothing. Rather, “that part of Europe” that rests in Africa is not a difficult and profoundly ambiguous inheritance of dislocation and oppression but “the call of liberty, of emancipation and justice and of equality between men and women; it is the call to universal Reason and to consciousness.”

Sarkozy’s rhetoric, in seeking an ostensible acknowledgment of the “wrongs” of colonialism and slavery without attributing responsibility for them or continuing significance to their legacy, mired itself in contradiction and evasion: elevated to a “crime against all Humanity”, slavery becomes a crime not against its actual historical victims but “a crime against Man” – and therefore against no one in particular. The legacy of slavery remains “an open wound in the soul of all men”, and so one that cannot (or ought not to) be healed, since “no-one can ask today’s generations to expiate the crimes of past generations”: another banality that dodges, rather than addressing, more serious questions of historical responsibility.

Sarkozy the anti-intellectual, in embracing the worst aspects of a Romantic authenticism of “the African personality”, selectively identifies with the “ancestral wisdom” and “mysterious faith” attributed to his audience, with “this need, in which I myself believe so much, this need to believe rather than to understand, to feel rather than to reason.” Altogether, the president’s address, while claiming to offer a “politics of reality and not a politics of myth”, in fact presented quite the reverse.