A Long Walk to Freedom

A Long Walk to Freedom

Thursday, December 14, 2017 4:41 pm

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By Adebayo Williams

As the world settles into the new millennium, a radical shift in the balance of demographic composition appears to be under way. A huge change in global population and the pattern of human settlement is taking place before our very eyes.

As the phenomenon of globalisation abolishes time and space, as its momentum dissolves barriers, as its dynamic collars and corrals nations into involuntary cooperation, those left behind in the remaining hells on earth are also “globalising” with their feet. The result is human migration of awesome proportions which often rivals the best space adventure in terms of imaginative daring and resourcefulness.

The world, particularly its better managed metropolitan centres, is under siege from this human armada. For the first time in its history, the Hispanic population in the United States is poised to outstrip the Black populace as the dominant minority. In Britain, David Blunkett, the newly elevated Home Secretary, is already perfecting a revolutionary new policy to stem the tide of immigrants. Unwanted guests show up at royal banquet. Primeval cousins long abandoned in ancestral homesteads suddenly pop up at dinner in the affluent west.

A huge human tornado with origins in the distressed nations of sub-Saharan Africa is assaulting the European coastline. From Mexico and Cuba, and particularly from the human fiascos of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, it is a daily battle of wits and will with American coastguards; from Central Europe, the Western European gateway is often subjected to amphibious assaults combined with an infantry dash across the channel tunnel as human initiative and sheer will power make nonsense of impregnable fortresses; from Asia the boat people still take to the perilous seas.

Accompanying the tragedy of this people are tales of extraordinary courage in the face of unimaginable adversity. These are epics of heroism stretching the limits of human endurance and the threshold of pains. They would make the fabled Moses wince in admiration. Almost without exception, the ordeal invariably ends in forced cannibalism as the logic of survival takes over from the imperative of civilising refinement.

They tackle their grim fare with mournful restraint rather than the joyous relish of the truly famished. When rescued, survivors are usually in a state of delirium babbling insensate nonsense or staring at their rescuers in terminal disorientation. The desert and the high seas are not the most hospitable of places.

Whatever it is that would make human beings subject themselves to this extreme torture and tribulation must be quite unsettling. Human migration, to be sure, is the first condition of humanity, and is the biological equivalent of shifting cultivation. No nation, tribe, race or people can boast with any assurance that their current location is the precise origin of their ancestors.

Reeling before victorious armies, escaping from social hostilities, absconding from pandemic pestilence and other epochal disorders, or literally in search of greener pastures, mankind has always been on the move. Indeed, it is said that during the glacial age, certain precursors of the human race went back to water from whence they came rather than face the intense hostilities on land. Hence, the anomalous features of certain sea mammals, particularly the whale and the dolphin.

But migration can also be an internal continental affair. The Yoruba wax eloquent about their origin in ancient Egypt which they left after a fierce battle of succession. The Fulani almost certainly left the Atlas Mountain, incubating and mutating for several centuries in the Futa Jallon plateau from where they eventually fanned across northern West Africa. The Itsekiri of the Niger Delta are almost certainly of Yoruba extraction. Sometimes, a triumphant army can engender dislocation and dispersal of epic proportions.

This is what is behind what is known as the mfecane phenomenon in South Africa when the victorious Zulu army scattered all the tribes to the wind. The one hundred year civil war which attended the collapse of the old Oyo Empire in the eighteenth century altered the demographic constitution of the Yoruba nation forever, engendering little local difficulties such as the Modakeke phenomenon, the Owu diaspora and other contemporary political imbroglios.

Africa, as usual, occupies a unique position in this migratory conundrum. Something new always comes out of Africa. And we are not talking of bizarre exotica. There are three features unique to the benighted continent. First, there is no record of human migration back to Africa. The much storied captivity of the children of Israel in Egypt ended when Moses led his people back to freedom. The Jews have travelled long and hard ever since then, but certainly not back to Africa.

Human beings may have erupted from the plains of East Africa, but it would seem that the natural human instincts lead away from the stifling heritage of the founding continent. When the heroic Colonel Netenyahu led his men on the famous Entebbe raid against the murderous thugs of Idi Amin, he was re-enacting an atavistic ritual.

The second distinguishing characteristic for Africa is the absence of a civilising hub or nucleus to act as a magnet for the disconsolate and discontented of the continent with the exception of negligible and miniscule oases such as Botswana, Namibia and Senegal. North America has its United States and Canada; Europe has its affluent western nations and Asia has its Asian tigers.

With Zimbabwe having joined the common ancestry of failed postcolonial states, with South Africa slowly unravelling as the revolution begins to consume its children and noble ideals, with the Nigerian mammoth taking its time to fulfil its manifest destiny as a multinational haven for the black person, Africans are left with no alternative than to flee Africa.

The third characteristic is a function and a working out of the logic of the first two. It is true that Africa is not unique when it comes to hellish spots on earth where everything is short, nasty and brutish. The hell-hole of Haiti, the voodoo-ravaged disaster zone that is the Dominican Republic, the stone-age zealotry of the Taleban conquerors of Afghanistan, the trigger-crazed weirdoes of Chechnia, the morbid cruelties of the Balkan triangle of Kosovo-Macedonia-Serbia and of course the dark caves of Irian Jaya all compete for supremacy in the absolute misery index.

But it needs restating that it is in Africa, particularly the vast human zoos of the sub-Sahara, that hunger, disease, want , famine of biblical proportions, epidemics of dereliction such as AIDS and the pestilential Ebola virus have combined with evil governance to produce a new paradigm of human affliction and destitution. Those who are looking for a vision of the apocalypse need not look very far. It is here on the continent that gave birth to humanity.

Those who have not been devastated are voting with their sturdy limb. Their patience exhausted by the moral, spiritual, economic and political bankruptcy of the continent, they turn their back on family and friends forever. Let the dead bury the dead, they seem to be saying. But to reach civilisation, they must first confront the immense void of the Sahara, a monstrous wasteland stretching over three thousand miles teeming with ancient and recent bones.

As the scalding sun singe their hair and the roasting sand burn their feet, they turn into hallucinating wrecks often before wild animals put finishing touches to them. This Old Testament suffering has now been memorably captured in a documentary titled, Exodus From Africa. It is a crying shame for humanity in general and Africans in particular.

Those who subject themselves to this terrifying ordeal are by no means feckless or irrational. Indeed it may be one last act of stupendous will as they seek to rejoin remote cousins whose ancestors’ better honed survivalist instincts led them away from a sinking hulk. It is a leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

To be devoured by wild animals in the Sahara desert may well be a better fate than to be eaten alive by the RUF savages of Sierra Leone. To die with hope in the Sahara inferno is probably a better deal than to expire under the heaving institutional debris of post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile as this goes on, as the flowers of Africa are daily scorched in the Saharan hell, African leaders are busy changing the name of their moribund and comically inept organisation, as if a name-change has ever kept receivers at bay.

The question then is: Who will save Africa? Certainly, not the hypocritical West and its institutions and instruments of domination. Too selfishly preoccupied with the gains of globalisation, Western nations have failed to note the debilitating effects of this phenomenon on fragile economies and still more fragile nations, delinked, decoupled and un-networked as a result of a different mode of production and the different logic of their mode of insertion within the structure of the modern nation-state.

Without ever consolidating the gains of the nation-state, African nations are compelled to abolish embryonic national institutions and seek their fortunes in a solidarity of aberrant states. As it was with the internationalisation of slavery when Africa was occupied and its territorial mass forcibly organised along the image of the conqueror without any regard to internal dynamics, so it is with globalisation.

Yet if one cannot argue with an earthquake, one can at least study its momentum and master its inner logic. Rather than being demonised and diabolised, globalisation ought to be rigorously encountered. This is the urgent task for the intellectual and political elite of Africa. Human development is not a charity ball, and western nations do not owe any obligation to any continent, beyond their own enlightened self-interest.

To be at the periphery of any mode of production is not the disaster it seems. Western nations were able to overcome the contradictions of feudalism precisely because they were at its peripheral formation. This feat would have been impossible in the classically feudal economies of ancient Ethiopia, China and the old Tsarist Russian Empire.

While consolidating their national institutions, African nations can creatively deploy the political devolution and economic deregulation of globalisation to overcome the contradictions and monstrosities of the authoritarian colonial state. If astutely handled, an unviable and unworkable monolithic behemoth like the current Nigerian nation can transform into a genuine multi-national state which can then serve as a transforming hub for other failed colonial contraptions.

Either way, it is going to be a long walk to freedom. Where reforms fail and earthly authorities falter, people lose interest in the pursuit and possibility of worldly happiness, and those who remain will be driven to seek otherworldly succour and solace accordingly. This is not because religion is the opium of the people but a result of a basic human need for reassurance that life itself is not an expensive joke.

In periods of political and social disorder and the total collapse of values, humanity seeks refuge in the transcendent morality which ennobles suffering and canonises pain. If this makes them vulnerable to religious charlatans, it also prepares the ground for the emergence of genuine redeemers, prophets and twelfth imams who will be at the head of rampaging social forces with absolutely nothing to lose. By then it will be too late for the undeserving elite of Africa and for many who would have taken one long last look at the crumbling cradle of mankind.

• Culled from Africa Today, April, 2002.

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