columnBy Nathaniel Manheru
TOh how wonderful it feels when you have no fool to poke, no fop to irritate! Unlike a few weeks back, this week I feel free, very free to grapple with the larger questions of African life, to engage bigger thoughts, bigger concerns than the deadening, ornate boasts of loud fools.
Sound, fury, significance
And I have a very strange title around which to celebrate this happy homecoming: when history continues. African history, that is. I know the reader feels puzzled, plagued even. How does history continue, with all the present around, and an inexorable future to come? Exactly! I am just as puzzled, plagued, conflicted even. I ask the same questions. But unlike the reader, i am not puzzled by the paradox in words, or the riddle they bring out when strung together. It is reality -- African reality -- which throws by intellect into some imbroglio, into some spin, some baffling cauldron so full of sound, and fury, and so hugely signifying. And the last aspect is my only respite from the traditional conundrum. For happily I am spared the emptiness, the vacuity of Shakespeare's tale told by an idiot.
Selling the Rafale
Sometime last week, this week too, certainly next week, maybe for many more weeks to come, the French found, shall find their way into deeper Mali, itself a portion of our beloved continent, Africa. Not to civilise. Not to impart grace or romance. Never to get we Africans to sample their high culture, their avant-garde culture always frenetically driven forward by a bold embrace of iconoclasm and hybridity: those two wonderful French afflictions which have always thrust them onto the cutting edge of the finer side of civilisation, throughout human history. No, not to share that with us. The French came, come, shall come flying, raining down death on that patch of Africa so thirsty, so dry, so ashen with aridity. They come aboard Rafale fighter jet, that war machine which has been assaulting Mali for slightly over a week now. I am told it has done spectacularly well, confirming its value earlier registered in Libya, against Gaddafi. UAE Khaleej Times reports that so impressed is India by this versatile war machine that it plans to buy 189 such assault planes from the French, in a multi-billion dollar deal. Excellent reality marketing, whose icing on the cake is a bit of blood on African soil. No big deal.
Mali that once shone
Mali is a core part of Sahel, ever drier than carrion in the veld. It has always been dry, both literally and metaphorically. Not that this aridity has been continual, unrelieved. No, Mali has had its moments of glory, of shine, with the rest of Africa luxuriating in its loftiness. Timbuktu has been the seat of intellect, of higher learning, and thus a defiant and chastising gesture to all imperious races that tend look down upon Africa, labelling it the land of savages, unthinking savages, indeed a continent of brawn only given to rapine. No, we have had thoughtful moments in our history, caressing thoughts as thoughts, beyond the exigencies of survival. We explored thought, tickled the abstract, built philosophical stairs right up to dizzy heights of refined thinking. Africa has been curious; Africa has asked itself questions, answered some of them, raised new ones, doubted yesterday's certainties, challenged enthralling verities and set standards, to break out of the chrysalis. For Timbuktu was, is, a very old centre of learning, a university well established, indeed an advanced writing well before other races could, indeed when and while other races were still called barbarians: the Huns, the Vandals, you name them.
The great boast we deny us
And Timbuktu still stands today, admittedly bruised, scarred by Africa's internecine conflicts, but standing nevertheless and harkening to those days of African glory we often forget, or bashfully recall, to great, deadly self-denial and mortification. Tell me, gentle reader, which great civilisation, which great economy, which great people, does not rest on a trumpeted past, a great tradition immodestly recalled, boastfully thrust on the reluctant Other? Which? See what great harm we do to ourselves when we refrain from inflicting on the rest of mankind this needful boast from a more deserving past. See what harm we invite onto ourselves when we don't tell the world that our past, with all its imperfections was not, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe, one benighted history from which the benevolent white man, acting on strong Christian impulses, rescued us.
Well, invited, much welcomed
The French are here, delivering death to us, all from above. It is a bit of a bloody parody to the biblical notion of heavenly manna -- or worse -- God's grace parodied by an able cynic. The pretext for this divine French visitation is what we already know from history, both long and recent. To stop Africans from killing each other, one another. And there was a lot in the media to announce that the rebels were about to advance on Bamako, which would have opened the stage for another great African fratricide. Which makes France a great, humane cousin of Africa, as indeed Hollande has been called by the leadership in strife-torn Central Africa Republic. Media reports indicate the whole of Mali exploded with shrill African gratitude, as France zoomed in, Rafale style. Malians were shown to be hugely grateful, for France had positively answered to their call for intervention, all to "uphold Mali's sovereignty and territorial integrity"! By the way, let us be fair to the French, and Malians too. The French were invited by the Malian Government. The French were invited by the subregional ECOWAS, a position buttressed by Benin's Boni Yayi, speaking both to us, and for us as the current AU chairman. Better still, the UN Security Council has since passed a resolution, thereby making French entry legitimate, lawful in the eyes of international law.
Enter high-tech war
Apart from stopping a monumental fratricide, France seeks to flush out the bad guys who have invaded the Sahel. And today's bad guys have a common name: Al Qaeda. When variety is sought and granted, we call them terrorists, which they remain as until we cannot handle them, until their ways become more sophisticated, and thus need a bit of big America's muscle. In which case we call them Al Qaeda again, or more considerately, Al Qaeda-linked. We know it is one appellation so accurate in hitting off America's war reflex. If Fanon lived today, he would have adapted his saying in relation to Adolf Hitler, all to describe America's irrational security terror. When America hears Al Qaeda, Fanon would have said, she draws a sword! At the mention of Al Qaeda, America's drones are already up, and the deadly game begins, remotely controlled from Pentagon in war rooms in which operator-actors reduce killing to a video game. We inhabit a curious era of high-tech war. And because soldiers need not deploy, casualties need not be suffered by those prosecuting the war, high-tech wars are so easy to declare. The drone, itself the acme of this new war, takes off from a mere twiddle of a computer button by a gum-chewing soldier fighting from an easy chair, to come to Africa, itself the new theatre of high-tech war, comes in so quietly without a drone, and then does its murderous work so efficiently, to then depart leaving behind an African wail. We of Africa used to hear this as a faint wail from behind the implacable hills and mountains of Pakistan, of Afghanistan. We even marvelled at, admired this new striking capability in the West. But today the drone is upon us, yet still needing the pretexts of history: to prevent slaughter, to flush out the bad guys. Oh, how history continues.
From our own history
Give me time so I illustrate. Lately, I have been reading copiously on the years soon before 1890, and then that crucial date itself, and the years after it -- say two decades or so after our occupation (no sexuality suggested) by the white man. And my read has all been white, Eurocentric, if you want to speak the deep language of Timbuktu. My read cannot be otherwise. There are no African tales to narrate that era. Only African scars, even then measured by the pen of victors, white victors. As Africans, we have not written; we are not given that much to that awful manipular habit of writing. Or even its sibling, reading. Often I wonder whether this does not have its origins in the fact that history has made us its object, made us its sufferer, to use an old English teacher's favoured word. And throughout history, have sufferers not always been dumb, some wailing, inarticulate bearers of inordinate pain? And wailing does not write history, or does it? The late Leonard Dembo had a beautiful line on that. Musically lamenting the grief-filled fate of one Nherera, Orphan in English, he penned a line whose last words were "Tsvaga anokuroora mwanangu Nherera/Chirairo chako musodzi, Nherera hona." Roughly translated the lines are: "Find someone to marry you my dear Orphan/For your solace shall always be tears." Dembo was more evocative. In place of "solace" he used the imagery of the Eucharist. Before and ever since that hit, silent grief has been the Eucharist of history's Orphan. And the orphan's colour has always been black, remains black! Like me.
Imperial history's colossus
In that vast moment of time, Victorian England expanded northwards, from already conquered and colonized South Africa. The riches of Kimberly, earlier on amassed during the diamond rush, had bred irrepressible ambitions, enormous ambitions to "paint the continent red, British red". And the man wielding the brush was one Cecil John Rhodes, the British empire's celebrated colossus. Amazing how a simple finger gesture can define and carry the fate of a people, the fate of a country, its destiny. Stretching out his palsied hand, he uttered those few words that white history hallow to this day: "Your Hinterland is there!" That imperial commandment would be said and said again -- repeatedly -- if you indulge me for this stylistic superfluity. And "There" was here, was us. The exhortation was to his fellow whites, all told more than Britons.
What we haven't grasped from history
Zimbabwe was occupied by a specimen of nationalities of the world, albeit united under the Union Jack, the British flag. This is one key detail whose implication to contemporary Zimbabwean politics often gets me to wonder whether we have fully grasped history, whether we have not read its chapters from up side down. We have not integrated this detail from history into our ways. Our tormentors have always carried many nationalities, all of them western. Consequently our life chances as a nation shall always be defined by many western nationalities, all acting in concert, acting like the pioneer column of the turn of the century. Need we wonder why the EU and America, swelled by Switzerland and Norway, combine their respective angers, to slap Zimbabwe with crippling sanctions? Oh, mama why does history so continue?
Fabricating equal role, status
In reading that history, you find a curious detail. White historiography invariably emphasizes that the Ndebeles, then viewed as the lords of the new hinterland for whites, had come from Transvaal in South Africa, slightly over 50 years before the white man. Curious because this small detail ends up carrying the fate of the Ndebele Kingdom and its ill-fated King, Lobengula. At one level, it made the Ndebeles read like equivalents of the incoming white invaders, in which case they could not, just like their white counterparts, claim any greater rootedness or legitimacy in this marked hinterland. Yet at another level, it made them a suitable target for a violent displacement by their invading white siblings, as reckoned in that historiography. Surprisingly, this shared common role, vis-a-vis the locals did not unite the two invaders, according to this narrative. There was a violent clash in 1893, and then another in 1896, in which the Ndebele state came worse off of course. And whites never saw this as some disinheritance. They saw this as the better side triumphing!
The rebels who have not suddenly appeared
We derive one key lesson of imperialism. When Europe seeks conquest, it brands the native ruling lords undeserving outsiders, late comers, thereby making them deserving of an ouster. I notice that in French propaganda lore, the evil in Mali is not home grown. It has foot-loosely come from all over into Mali, apart from neighbouring countries, principally Libya, Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria. The lore connects the evil to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia, themselves perceived implacable hatcheries of Al Qaeda world-wide. The Al Qaeda ancestry and genealogy of the tumult in the Maghreb is handed down to us as axiomatic. The name Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and his Masked Brigade and the Battalion of Blood, keeps coming through in the lore. Known as the "Marlboro Man" for his cigarette smuggling network, he is presented as contested by another operator, Abdel Hamid Abou Zaid, allegedly for control of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. That way the rebels are de-nationalised, made foreign to Mali and the Maghreb. I have no problem with connecting either or both of the two men to Al Qaeda.
The missing connections
What really bothers me is not connecting them to America which trained them, armed them far back in the Soviet days in Afghanistan, of course alongside Bin Laden. What bothers me is not to link this fermentation in the Maghreb to events in Libya, events precipitated by America and NATO -- French-led NATO -- when it toppled Gaddafi, turning his formidable arsenal into an uncontrolled quartermaster to all so-called terrorists. Is this the prize the Sahel region pays for the pillaging of Libya's hydrocarbons? Indeed what bothers me is the absence of a recognition that there are at least three groups active in that region, including Ansar Dine, all three active in Mali.
They have not emerged overnight. The Tuaregs have always struggled against Mali's central government, putting forward key issues of resource allocation and exclusion. As China Daily correctly notes, their rise has been the result of long-time social turbulences deriving from how resource access is structured, how state power is maldistributed. And of course the French colonial legacy. Poverty and exclusion has torn that part of the world apart, creating conditions for the upheaval which France says it has come to put down. Mali has hydrocarbons which France badly needs.
Countries around her, all of them Francophone, have natural gas, all of it piped to Europe. And the attack on an Algerian refinery does underline the point. Much worse, across the region, including in West Africa, we are looking at polities of appalling social inequities amidst huge natural endowments, principally oil. That includes Nigeria, the bigger muscle in ECOWAS, the bolder voice in inviting NATO into Sahel. The unanimity in ECOWAS over putting down the rebellion in Mali, by whatever force, to whatever political ramifications for the continent, goes well beyond a givenness to African solidarity. It's born out of self-fear arising from a recognition that the harsh social conditions in Mali are a poor copy of what exists within their own borders. What afflicts Mali is now made to read like a new threat. In reality it is an old threat expressing itself in new forms. There is something sick about how West Africa relates to the West over the subregion's resources.
Escaping the Blair/ Bush mess
But of course these connections will not be made. The rebels have to be de-nationalised, have to be re-invented as intruding foreigners. It is a connection and an interpretation which France needs to feel holy and righteous about the death it imports onto the African continent; to deserve the help it must get from the western world; needs to be granted the legitimacy it needs from the UN. The first helps it mobilize home support; the second magnifies its arsenal; the last confers on it global goodwill, the denial of which turns any warring politician into a Blair/Bush messy compound. The triggering evil must thus always come from without if the West has to wage a just invasion. Gentle reader,kindly note history as it continues!
Rhodesian historiography emphatically tells you invading and occupying other people need not amount to an evil. It has always been there, indeed has always patterned human history, which is why it must never be regarded, let alone made a basis for staking a claim against the victorious, whether once or still. "I myself am Irish. And as you know Ireland was once a British colony", so said Claire Short, Blair's Overseas minister. That gave us some casus belli in our land war against Britain and her scions here, did it not? Man, read thy history, a continuing history! Rhodesian historiography will excuse you for invading a weaker, sparser people who can't take human history forward; will excuse further, excuse more, if you are high-minded about that invasion. Proselytize. Civilise. Modernize and Save! Those are the watchwords that make invasions good, kind and deserved, indeed the magical detergents that washes away all the blots or stains of settler colonialism, whether these soil the occupied country or the conscience of the occupier.
Giving a dog a bad face
Let me extract a portion from W.D.Gale's encomium on Cecil John Rhodes, titled One Man's Vision. The portion reads: "The silence was of that strained, breathless quality which denotes that a momentous proposal is being considered. On a block of wood in the shade of a gnarled tree sat a monstrous mountain of a man, the rolls of fat corrugating his bronze-black skin, his legs, swollen with gout, wrapped in dirty flannel bandages, his feet planted firmly on the ground. A roll of blue cloth round his body and a kilt of blue monkey skin hanging from his bulging waist were his only garments, and an old naval cap decorated with an ostrich feather formed his headdress. His bloodshot eyes roamed restlessly. They surveyed the walls of the stockade surrounding the goat kraal, the floor of which was concealed by layer upon layer of dung and littered with the fly-infested skulls of slaughtered bullocks. Then they moved round to his left-hand side where a group of councillors squatted in a semi-circle, muttering in low voices charged with horrified amazement and looking at him with uneasy eyes. Lobengula, the king of the Matabele, tapped his bare knee with indecisive fingers while those bloodshot eyes regarded everything in the enclosure except the motionless figures of three white men before him. They, too, were squatting in the dung and filth of the kraal . . ."
Revulsed by own ancestry
W.D. Gale is writing in the 1950s, aiming to reanimate a history he himself never lived, to enliven personalities long gone, long dead, personalities he never met. So clearly, his vivid narrative of Lobengula is derived, is synthetic. At that level, propaganda becomes inevitable, and the real issue then becomes one of discovering its aim. Lobengula's portrait is unflattering, in fact very gross and repellent. White history invites you to be revulsed by him. In actual fact you are being invited to be revolted by your own identity, your own ancestry, indeed your own cause. When he finally gets toppled and a part of his world occupied and colonised, you celebrate that self-defeat as a triumph of good over evil, of your gross, uncivilised side by a finer, more handsome, humane civilisation. Now read the way leaders of those rebels in the Sahel are depicted, and then tell me whether much has changed. Or that history stubbornly continues?
Condemning a civilisation
Gale also gives a portrait of the Ndebeles, Lobengula's people then. I quote again: "He (Lobengula) had been brought up differently from any of his subjects . . . Under the rule of his ferocious father, Mziligazi, "the Spiller of Blood", the young men (Ndebele youths and later Lobengula's subjects) were taught to regard the slaughter of helpless people as the natural vocation of healthy youth, and the inflicting of torture and mutilation as desirable accomplishments. When they attained to manhood the average Matabele warrior had only three desires -- lust, gluttony, and the thirst for blood. Mzilikazi's despotic rule and the iron discipline of his military system could be maintained only by the strangulation of the finer instincts of his people, with the result that the men were mere animals, physically splendid but morally and spiritually decadent. Their natural intelligence was arrested at a comparatively early age, and they became bloodthirsty machines." Gale has destroyed the Ndebele figure-head. Now he destroys much more than a people. He destroys a whole civilisation, thereby making it good for destruction only. Look at how western propaganda has been presenting the Islamic movement which France seeks to extinguish. They are vile, seeking to establish "a Taliban like extreme-state based on radical Islam", we are told. Like the Rhodes's Ndebeles, they are only fit for annihilation. Have we moved an inch from history? I wonder.
Inverting the myth
And of course the foil of the "bloodthirsty" Matabeles are Gale's Banyai and Makalakas (Shonas). Enfeebled and terrified by bloody raids from the Ndebeles, white historiography claims, this mentally inert and pusillanimous tribe is only too happy to see the white man who becomes a welcome saviour in their eyes. Too weak to own or rule, their only role is to be saved by a humane and protective white culture that recognises the sanctity of life, and much later once the Ndebeles are out of the way, the dignity of colonial slavery! The become objects of the Pioneer Column's high-mindedness in occupying Zimbabwe: to save the Shona from extinction. That way the natives face whites as tribes, never as a people facing a foreign invader.
At least in the beginning. It is interesting that after Independence, this myth of tribal annihilation and possible genocidal extinction is turned up side down, with the repulsive grossness now coming from Shonas. Until you see it that way, you may never know how we still exist in the same moment in history. In Mali, a deep wedge is being driven between Malians, around religious and cultural differences. From Mali, Africa shall show sharp differences, multiple splits over the correctness of French involvement, NATO's invitation after both Ivory Coast and Libya. That likely to show as the AU meets next week.
Yet Africa will be stuck in an old question of history, indeed an old weakness from its peculiar history. Why could not ECOWAS raise a countervailing force? Why is the re-entry of France on African soil so easily viewed outside the context of history and meaning of history? Why, if not for reasons of colonial history, is the intervening force in Mali French and not Czech, nor Albanian or some such country with no prior history with Mali? We remain trapped in a Bismarckian world, don't we? I hope Zimbabwe will never become a Mali. Should it ever be one unfortunate day, I am curious to know whether that will find us a whole world apart from 1890 and its morning after. Icho!