Achille Mbembe’s Afropolitan vision

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von Hans Dembowski

European enlightenment: hypocrisy and universal principles

Achille Mbembe has an “Afropolitan” vision of Africa’s future. He has spelled it out in a recently published book. The intellectual from Cameroon states that he is not anti-European, but wants Europe and other continents to adhere to the principles of European enlightenment.

Essentially, the term “Afropolitan” means that human rights are to be respected and that everyone must have the opportunity to make a difference in public life. After a traumatic colonial experience, victimisation and ideas of victimhood are no longer considered to be acceptable. Afropolitan reasoning goes beyond pan-African reasoning by insisting that African history is intertwined with the history of other continents through migration from Africa (forced in the past and voluntary in more recent times) as well as migration to Africa (especially during the colonial conquests). Diaspora communities matter.

Mbembe sees European enlightenment as an unfulfilled promise rather than a historical achievement. His book “Sortir de la grande nuit – essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée” is nonetheless based on the ideas of enlightenment. (Full disclosure: I read the recently published German translation and did not find an English version  in a short google search). The scholar does not paint a romantic picture of Africa, but sees many shortcomings, including poverty, violence, exploitation et cetera. For several reasons, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural South Africa, where he now lives, is the country that comes closest to Mbembe’s Afropolitan vision, whilst war-torn failing states are the farthest from it.

Nonetheless, Mbembe points out that all African countries are marked by the experience of racism. The idea that every African person is entitled, at least in principle, to a self-determined, assertive life on an equal footing with any other person on Earth, still needs to take root.

Colonial rule was preceded by the slave trade, Mbembe argues, and it reinforced racism. Double standards were typical of European powers. While European thinkers developed the philosophy of enlightenment, their countries built racist empires that oppressed peoples and denied subjects rights and opportunities. The imperial powers claimed to be spreading civilisation, but brutally suppressed native people with darker skin colours.

The most striking example of double standards was probably Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the USA’s Declaration of Independence. The document states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Jefferson was a slave owner, and the USA only abolished slavery a century later after a bloody civil war. Racism remains a huge issue, as the Black Lives Matter movement or the election of Donald Trump to the White House prove.

European powers’ approach to race was equally oppressive, Mbembe argues. The way western powers treated black people never fit their enlightened rhetoric.  

As a journalist with a background in empirical development studies, I am personally not all that comfortable with purely philosophical writing. I prefer studies that convey more facts and figures to assess the empirical reality in much greater detail. Moreover, I appreciate tangible policy proposals.

Mbembe’s book, in contrast, does not offer policy tools, but discusses underlying ideas. Some of his metaphors are confusing, but his main arguments are interesting. It is true of course, that ideas matter in themselves, and that thorough diagnosis is needed before any meaningful therapy can be applied.

As a distant observer in Europe, I cannot tell what difference Mbembe’s work makes in Africa, but I have a hunch the impact is probably limited to the ivory tower of academia. I think the book would be more useful if it contained information concerning what needs to be done to make the Afropolitan vision come true. 

At the same time, I hope his book resonates in Europe. We Europeans are often not aware of our rhetoric concerning good governance and human rights ringing hollow in African or Asian ears. The reason is the long history of western hypocrisy. We tend to believe that racism and colonialism are things of the past and we have all become citizens of the world. When Europeans discuss human rights with Africans they normally think of the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, not noticing that Africans are thinking of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.  

Mbembe’s writing is very nuanced. His criticism of European double standards is convincing, but he also points out that he is not anti-European. He wants Europe to live up to its own principles.  

To some extent, however, he seems to be overly obsessed with Europe. The German version of the book has 300 pages, and 100 of them deal with France. One third of the book is thus not an essay on decolonised Africa, as the book’s subtitle promises, but one on post-colonial France. Those 100 pages are worthy, and European and African history are indeed linked. They need to be seen in context.

However, focusing on European failure probably cannot do much in terms of driving Afropolitan success. As Mbembe correctly insists, Africa must rise to African challenges, and Europe is no longer as influential as it used to be.

I’d sum up the irony of the book as follows: though the enlightenment that started in Europe lacks credibility in African eyes, its universal principles need to be applied – in Europe, Africa and all over the world. 

Achille Mbembe, 2016: Ausgang aus der langen Nacht – Versuch über ein entkolonialisiertes Afrika. Berlin: Suhrkamp / French original: 2010: Sortir de la grande nuit – essai sur l'Afrique décolonisée. Paris: La Découverte

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