The Ontology of the African



Some sincere African intellectuals are genuinely dismayed about the derisory status of the African among other human beings in the world. It is the stuff of an ontology that remains the same today as it was in yesteryears. The sources of occasions for being dismayed are numerous, especially the treatment of African immigrants in Diaspora and images of Africa in the media. The unexplained detentions, sporting racism, police brutality, rough deportations, slave jobs, denial of guaranteed social amenities, human rights violations. The inhumane experiences by migrant Africans in nations who have taken it upon themselves to be the leaders and moralisers of the free world are more than contradictions. We should not exclude the cursory treatment of the African by his/her leaders and authorities, which is a significant part of the problem. A brilliant former colleague of mine, Dr Edith Phaswana, via social media, communicated that the dehumanising treatment of the African in the Diaspora especially in so-called “civilised societies”. Her comment had a basis in a crushingly low and derisory ontology of Sub-Saharan people. I agree with her completely.

The derisory ontology of the African appears robust and immutable – it has been that way for centuries. The African as a cannibal, the African as a savage, the African as heathen, the African as unintelligent, the as incapable of administration, the African as a carrier of primitive vales to clean civilised societies, the African as wretched, the African as academically capable but lacking business or strategic insight. They are all the same thing, the stuff of a derisory ontology. African leaders are somewhat oblivious to the impact such an ontology has on their people – it might take the wisdom Frantz Fanon to explain it adequately to them. The African in the ontology of the mainstream academy has to be the lowest of the low. Who else can occupy such a position in this world of ours where Africans are under the conviction to aspire to freedom, justice and equality nested in human rights, free markets and democracy but never see it at home or abroad? The African, after all, is from ‘Bongo Bongo Land’, championed by Tarzan and lives a Christian-generated Biblical lie that African are the children of Ham whose son Canaan was cursed to be the lowest of slaves to his brethren by his father, Noah. It is the origin of the anthropological term “Hamitic” for the African. It came into use as a less than righteous Christian ontological justification for slavery. Where is the proof of the birth record of the African? I was surprised when told by a group of non-African feminists that African women could not know what sexual pleasure is because,” they are all circumcised and mutilated, therefore reduced to baby factories”. Sex is something insects, fishes, birds do and enjoy but not the African woman. And the African woman is also claimed to be “too poor to love”. You have to be a female of a higher ontology to enjoy sex and to love. 
However, I wonder what role African leaders and intellectuals play in the persistence of this derisory ontology. It is refreshing to know some like George Ayittey, the Ghanaian economics professor, vehemently sees the ontology of the African as “homemade”, created by African leaders and intellectuals who for their societies could have done better and known better, respectively. See Furthermore, African intellectuals tend to avoid the derisory ontology of the African altogether. Upliftment or restoration to “appropriate human dignity” (not superior human dignity) is to be found in neoliberal competition and sensibilities, not in indigenous necessity. The acquisition of money and power at the expense of their people and lands appear more substantial. Post-colonial and contemporary African studies that reflect the enduring hopelessness of the continent or emphasise the notions of catch-up (with the West, or is it the North?) receive far more attention. Science, engineering, technology, business, innovation, enterprise, transparency, good governance and democracy are the subject of examination with much enthusiasm by African scholars, alas, to no avail. How do you impose, encourage or elicit good science, the right technology, good business, genuine innovation on people who have a derisory ontology of existence? Peter Thomas Bauer in the 1950s when describing West African economies wrote that the wealth or productivity of a nation/people is not manifest on the possession of natural resources but the behaviour, characters, attitudes and habits of citizens. Bauer’s was a derisory ontology of the African, but it is challenging to prove him wrong, if at all. Therefore, when Calestous Juma said on twitter that “Africa is where political and economic theories go to die. Graveyard of bad ideas” I had to take him very seriously, especially when he attempts to create a much more positive ontology of Africa in numerous fundamental ways. For Juma, the graveyard can become the stage flourishing culture complete with much-needed development in all aspects of modern society.
And there is no “funding” for a dignified ontology of the African. Africanists in the academy or African experts in the industry of reputation tend to be strictly non-Africans. African universities do not do much African studies or studies that are pro-African of any sort. While African students will be happy to study African studies and similar at Harvard, Oxford or the Sorbonne, for example, they will be very reluctant to do so at African universities. I have attended a couple of seminars where Africa is not even on the map of the world! Why? The answer I got was that the omission was because Africa produced too little energy to register on the map. That was a very derisory ontology of African peoples, landmass and whatever else makes up Africa. One may ask what African intellectuals do about such exclusions. No one I know knows because it’s a rarity to find Africans intellectuals that do. It is not unfair to say that there is not much hope from the African intellectual in improving the ontology of the African. Those intellectuals who are dismissed as “grammarians” in their own countries even by their leaders, bureaucrats, moguls the educated. Those with power are not concerned with derision the ontology of the African is laden.
When Fela, the Afrobeat maestro, sang “people when know dey happy, people when no know look” it had many meanings. One was leaders entrenched themselves in power perpetually as “sit tight presidents of Africa, sometimes using proxies”. In a subtler sense was the question, what happened to the African leaders that were good and did seek to create a positive ontology of the African? We all know the answer. Well, John Perkins provided a credible explanation. Still, Calestous Juma, George Ayittey and a few others would not settle for such a take on the issue; they would instead promote the “Do for Self” narrative critically and persuasively. However, the self-perpetuating African leaders promote a derisory ontology of the African by their avarice and mediocrity. They as a rule of thumb provide no economic, social or political freedoms for their citizens. Nations like Congo and Nigeria that have generated enough wealth since the 1960s to be developed countries today are homes to significant percentages of the bottom billion of most impoverished people on the planet despite being middle-income nations.
A country like Nigeria has earned close to a $1 trillion since independence in 1960, yet over 110 million Nigerians live on under $1.25 a day. The richest Nigerians are not capitalists but current and former leaders/bureaucrats who made their wealth through theft, misgovernance, violence, oppression, repression, misinformation, coups, ethnic clashes and thuggery. The results for their citizens are helplessness, hopelessness, poverty, hunger, insecurity, chaos, stagflation, superstition, infirmities, frustration, unemployment, constraints and death. Forced escape to apparent and actual political, economic and social freedoms sought via migration to developed nations becomes the best hope for most Nigerians and Africans in general. Ironically, Diaspora often turns out to be a big disappointment, if not a living hell for migrant Africans. They would have never left home if leadership theft was not so rampant and decivilisation allowed to flourish. There is the assumption that the leaders and intellectuals of non-African persuasion appear to have provided their people with a much-dignified ontology. Maybe they care more for their people or perhaps because they dare to do so. No one gives a people a dignified ontology of themselves; such is merit attainable by the power of their leaders and wisdom of their thinkers. Oh, Dear!
Will there be a future dignified ontology of the African? It will depend mostly on whether African leaders and intellectuals in large numbers truly and energetically want it to be the case. The big concern is who is willing to “pay the price” or “do the work?”
Grimot Nane

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