College of the Holy Cross. Worcester
In less than ten years, Africans will speak English,
technology they use will be American, their elites will be educated
in the United States, and we will be cut off from our African roots, huddled
up over a Europe which feels the cold and is incapable of being a power that anyone listens to.
Bernard Debré, former French Minister for Cooperation (1998)
Between African intellectuals and black kinglets,
Paris made the choice a long time ago. Neither the appeals,
nor the emphatic sermons, nor the institutions, however wealthy they
may be, will make any difference: having French as one's official language is condemned
to being the parade banner of mercenary pen-pushers and the laughing stock of independent creators
Mongo Beti (1988)
Since the Berlin wall came down, the discussions about democratisation that have been taking place in Africa have been accompanied, amongst the intellectual elites of almost every country, by lively exchanges on the value and weight of numerous diplomas held in national and/or metropolitan institutions. But how many of us, elite and highly educated people from many different backgrounds, can claim to have made any remarkable contribution, in opposition to dictates that have come from elsewhere, to the economic, social, political or cultural development of our respective countries? Today just as in the past, doesn't everything happen as if most of the countries in Africa were irremediably extrovert, the quest for knowledge being organised mainly so as to be able to claim some sort of extracontinental legitimacy?
Hence, we can ask ourselves the following question: can legitimation, even scientific, be built up outside the social framework that inspires the research? In other words, how can African research, and even research on African topics, be validated outside Africa itself? More fundamentally: are we condemned to stagnate on the periphery, always determining ourselves in relation to other people, unable to picture ourselves in an independent way? Must our research stick to the pathways mapped out by/for the colonial or neo-colonial experts, mainly satisfying the Other's needs for knowledge and hence continuing to respond to preoccupations that we might often be ashamed to mention? Obviously, the autonomy that is being claimed has nothing to do with a type of intellectual nationalism, confinement or entrenchment in a suicidal isolation.
Of course, science's calling is the universal. But we now know how closely the universal is linked to ethnocentrism and how much those who have sold us the values of the universal at a very high price have most often set up their own values, not to say their own fantasies, as a universal system. Thus, Senghor will have devoted the greatest part of his intellectual activity to promoting what he called Civilisation of the Universal. But when we look at it more closely, we can easily see that the poet-president was simply a victim of the deceit of his masters who were justifying the universal, simply to camouflage the promotion of ethnocentric values, a matter of being at their ease at all times and in all places, once their vision had become the world vision par excellence. The trouble is all the worse given that many Africans, no doubt less famous but not necessarily less gifted than Senghor, spend the greater part of their time looking at themselves in the mirror of the very people who imposed their condition on us in practically all areas of life on the pretext of a universalism that answered their own purposes.
But the stake here is no longer even one of trying to go into reverse but rather of knowing whether there exist in Africa not only the conditions but also, and more especially, the desire on the part of Africans themselves to create an autonomous framework for the validation and appropriation of a local body of knowledge, which could help them better to perceive their environment and construct a context for living which is suited to their own aspirations. Thinking about this, one realises that the years of European colonisation perhaps did more harm than one would tend to believe. And how could one not, once more, admit that Cheikh Hamidou Kane is right and sees things accurately when he writes: "It suddenly occurs to us that, all along our road, we have not ceased to metamorphose ourselves, and we see ourselves as other than what we were. Sometimes the metamorphosis is not even finished. We have turned ourselves into hybrids, and there we are left. Then we hide ouselves, filled with shame"
Unfortunately, a good many Africans appear to be scarcely aware of their actual condition and, even if they are ashamed, they do not always hide. From this point of view, the colonial institutions appear to have succeeded in a masterful piece of undermining and conditioning.
The institutions that were inherited from colonisation and have never been questioned govern, from many points of view, the way in which the current African institutions operate. Analysing the stakes of representation, Trinh T. Minh-Ha poses the pertinent question: "If you can't locate the other, how are you to locate yourself?" . Of course, we know the main points of the anticolonial discourse developed by those patriots who struggled and often paid with their lives for the formal liberation of the continent. None of this could be questioned. But in the light of the ever more precise rhetoric of a Bernard Debré (see epigraph) and his ilk, one is entitled to wonder whether Africans have ever measured at their true value the stakes of their meeting with the West. Have we mastered the grammar of imperial thought? If we have, we should have envisaged our future in terms of a clean break rather than of assistance, if only technical, or even cooperation. Césaire nevertheless put us on our guard: "You don't understand a thing about Prospero. He's not the collaborating type. He's a guy who only feels something when he's wiped someone out. A crusher, a pulveriser, that's what he is"
But the problem now, at the end of the millennium, is no longer one of contriving to prosecute the coloniser or his heirs - clearly he had objectives to achieve and he alone can be the judge - but rather of asking ourselves about the reasons for the multidimensional failure of our institutions: phantom States in search of an undiscoverable democracy; an extrovert economy which is almost entirely controlled by corrupt networks; a disjointed society whose essential services - schools, public health, personal safety in particular - seem irremediably compromised; young people who are crippled, left to themselves in a world without any ethics. Manifestly, our continent is being left behind. And everything points to the conclusion that we have only ever had a superficial knowledge of the Other. In doing so, we have not asked the questions we should have asked about ourselves. Debré and the representatives of eternal France are now reminding us of how indispensable we are to the great destiny which is its own. Africans have never been anything but hostages. And if the (former) colonised peoples' wishes for emancipation are not taken heed of, fears Bernard Debré, "we (the French) will be cut off from our African roots (my emphasis), [...] incapable of being a power that anyone listens to" (see quotation in epigraph).
Clearly, and as Trinh T. Minh-Ha very justly confirms, the periphery is indispensable to the existence of the centre: "Without the margin, there is no centre, no heart" . But have we ever thought of our interests in terms of the place we occupy in the global ambition of the Other, of France? What, for example, is represented by the francophone plan which, as we now know, allows the former imperial power to continue its rivalry with the English-speaking world? Will we have any use other than as simple cannon fodder or, as Mongo Beti puts it, "special contingents fighting for the prestige of France"? (. How could we have validly negotiated our place in that game since we don't seem to have taken the trouble to "locate" ourselves or to at least set out the marker pegs for our future with regard to our human and material potential and our geopolitical situation? The responsibility for work such as this could in no event revert to the coloniser or his heirs.
There are no longer any grounds for harking back to the conditions in which our various independences were acquired. Over the last forty years, however, a few changes have taken place, if only as a result of the implacable laws of nature, and there are very few veterans of the colonial administration still in service today. Is cultural alienation sufficient to explain the fidelity with which the successive heirs of the colonial power continue to serve the interests of mainland France? Are African leaders still irresponsible, unable to reverse in relation to the original direction they took? It has to be believed that the training received in the institutions set up by the Other with the aim of subjecting us to its world vision to the point where we are convinced that its plans are our own was and is still indisputably effective. Otherwise how can it be explained that even the most revolutionary amongst us can fall so easily into the trap of Eurocentrism by resorting willy-nilly to schemes interiorised throughout their academic course. Writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and even Mongo Beti have difficulty in moving away from the precepts of a liberal humanist training inherited from the western school. Of course, Cheikh Anta Diop and his Afrocentrist disciples have been reproached for having a sterilising tendency to be interested only in themselves. It remains nonetheless true that applied research of the Afrocentric type could have set out marker pegs for an African modernity of the sort that can be seen in a good number of Asian countries. These borrow from the West whilst at the same time keeping a look-out for alienation. A good few African executives, on the other hand, manage their countries just like vulgar colonial administrators. In this regard it has to be said that the history of our training schools is particularly significant. In order to prepare junior officials responsible for relieving the troops or in order to look like they are preparing for the advent of the promised modernity, the colonial and postcolonial institutions fall into line with a more or less truncated mainland model.
Hence in French-speaking Africa, "African doctors" who were really only nurses were trained; the high-level public servants spat out by the Ecole Nationale d'Administration et de Magistrature and who were true public administration gurus often had a basic training that scarcely went past the certificate awarded after the first few years of secondary education. In the beginning, our institutions of higher learning used to recruit their clientele from amongst those who had done less well in their secondary education. We should no doubt see in this a need to "indigenise" on the part of the Parisian institutions of higher learning! Moreover, taking advantage of an extremely centralised administrative system and an authoritarian power, the various executives trained in this way would go on to become what V.S. Naipaul has called "mimic men", or in other words types of clients of the colonial order. Fairly quickly, they would catch up in the field with the graduates of the mainland schools, whether executives from overseas institutions or former students of western universities, all of them disciplined in the rhetoric and imbued with that general and speculative knowledge the secret of which is held by our (former) masters.
But the harmony between the officers of the postcolonial State and the few African intellectuals aware of their duty to think would be of short duration. Located as it was on the "periphery", the neocolonial administration would want to command respect as the guardian of the prerogatives of the "centre", challenging by this very fact any local initiative aiming to invalidate the control exercised by the (former) master over the periphery. This broadly explains the marginalisation in which any African initiative in the field of knowledge would remain stuck and the hiatus arising between the postcolonial State and the researcher wanting to ask those questions essential to national construction and our existence in the world. The censure, the internal and external exile from which a good number of African intellectuals suffer are also the result of the marginality into which any initiative perceived as incongruent is forced. In Africa more than elsewhere, social and intellectual legitimacy belong to those who hold the power and who believe themselves to be authorised to define, often violently, the standards of behaviour.
Researchers in the social sciences and scientists in every other sector can feel the uneasiness all around. Uneasiness without which the African researcher could eventually have burst open the locks of the system inherited from the centre and broken away from the imperial inheritance in order to force us to look at ourselves in the mirror. In this way, we would perhaps have understood that it is only by looting that Africa can get out of its difficulties. To claim the English-speaking or French-speaking heritage, as is done in Cameroon for example, seems all the more absurd because one then wonders whether it is possible to define Cameroonity beyond various imperialisms. Of course, neither the English-speaking heritage nor the French-speaking heritage, nor even a certain Germanity, can be denied, but is it rather not simply a matter of elements amongst so many others that can contribute to fashioning an identity that will inevitably consist of heterogeneous elements, or rhizomorphs in the sense that this term is understood by Deleuze and Guattari?
The countries of Africa, contrary to what Debré and his acolytes believe, should be free to connect themselves to all networks and all points in the world, provided that their interests, which they alone shall define, are protected. Indeed, why would we hesitate to adopt a new language of communication, a new form for the State, a new educational system, if required by our interests?
As Russell McDougal shows, it is easy to see now that we have all played the part of Oduche, that character of Achebe's who, in Arrow of God (1964), shows quite a remarkable flexibility in learning the ways of the Other:
In sending Oduche to learn the whiteman's ways, Ezeuleu bases his response to change upon the principle of flexibility, or, in other words, innovation, but the principle behind sacrificing the boy to the whiteman's god is one of stability, or tradition. One might even see the two responses as relating to two different perceptions of time, "real" and "mythic", the one permitting individual innovation and the other sacrificing the individual to the tradition of community
Unfortunately, Oduche's good intentions, just like those of Samba Diallo, lead to an impasse because of the inflexibility of the Other who locks himself up in his arrogance and refuses to set any value at all on the personality of his interlocutor:
What will have been the use of all the identity-related wounds we have suffered, since today, just as in the past, we are countries under guardianship, always constrained to rely on the judgment of others without ever defining for ourselves the concepts that would allow us to operate on reality. The experience of inflexibility should however have been telling, and we should never have waited for the progressive closure of the borders of mainland France and the multiplication of charters regarding persons without papers, the supreme humiliation, to think of running all around the world looking for principles that would allow us to build a society that measures up to us. The stakes are huge and it is to be feared that at a time when each nation's contribution to the construction of a global world is being scrutinised, Africa is only offering its flexibility, or in other words its submission to injunctions that have come from other places.
(Translated by Linda Pontré)
 Bernard Debré, "Plaidoyer pour l'Afrique" Le Figaro, 09 February 1998
 Mongo Beti, "Seigneur, délivre-nous de la francophonie" Peuples noirs - Peuples africains, nos 59-62, Sept-Dec 1987/Jan-april 1988, p.106
 Cheikh Hamidou Kane Ambiguous Adventure,  London :Heineman, 1963, pp.112-113.
 Trinh T. Minh-Ha "No Master Territories", in Bill Ashcroft et al. The Postcolonial Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 1995, p.217.
 Aimé Césaire. A Tempest. New York: UBU Theater, 1992, p.23.
 op. cit., p.215.
 Mongo Beti. La France contre l'Afrique. Paris: La Découverte, 1993, p.120.
 Deleuze and Guattari. Mille plateaux, Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2. Paris: Minuit, 1980, p.13.
 Russell McDougal. "The Body as Cultural Signifier", in Bill Ashcroft et al, op. cit., p.338.
 ibid., p.339.
Ambroise Kom shared his education between the Universities of Yaounde, Pau and Sorbonne Nouvelle. From 1972, he has taught African, African-American and Caribbean literatures in Canada, the US, Morocco and Cameroon. He is currently Eleanor Howard O'Leary Chair in Francophone Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, USA and Editor in Chief of the literary Journal Présence Francophone.