Lecture by Prof. Sean Hawkins, Director of African Studies, University of Toronto, Canada at the 10th Professor Wole Soyinka Lecture held at Council Chambers, North York Civic Centre, Toronto, Canada on 14th July, 2007.
I will begin by stating that as a historian, I would like to provide some perspective on Darfur – a word that has come to signify violent killing in the western imagination as much as it does in the geographical place in south western Sudan. In particular I would like to ask us to think about the relationship between knowledge on the one hand and truth, honesty and understanding on the other.
For knowledge to be real, for it to have consequences and for us to realize the full disturbing meaning of what we know about Darfur, we need context. Only with context does knowledge lead to understanding, to the sorts of truth that lie beyond the mere facts. You already know enough so do I. It is not knowledge we lack, what is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions. These are the opening and closing words of Sven Lindqvist from the remarkably disturbing idiosyncratic book about the history of the relationship between western colonialism in Africa and European genocide. In Exterminate all the Brutes, one man’s odyssey into the heart of darkness and the origins of European Genocide, Lindqvist retraces the argument that Cicero presented more poetically in discourse in colonialism two generations before. A few years before Cicero delineated the connections between the genocidal logic or the ideologies to sustain western colonialism and the policies of National Socialism, Hannah Arendt had noted in her post holocaust study, the origins of totalitarianism that the brutality of the Nazi and communist regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union respectively in the 1930s and 40s should not have come as a surprise to anyone. She wrote “lying under anybody’s nose were the many elements which gathered together and could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism”. These elements were the techniques she referred to as terrible massacres and wild murdering of European colonialism.
As we seek to understand the facts of Darfur, if not only of how these European techniques came to work out in the tropics and came to haunt their practitioners, but also how the precedents, the ideologies as well as the techniques of such violence has been appropriated by peoples once colonized and applied against each other. How has the Sudanese government been able to imagine what it has so callously orchestrated to happen in Darfur? Do we think that these types of violence perpetrated by the junta lead are sui generis, that they are entirely unique, and that they came from nowhere? That these forms of violence and hate do not have connections with the wider history of hate and violence and that they emerged entirely from local conditions, themselves entirely isolated from local conditions elsewhere? To some extent the western media prefers to see Darfur this way. These gutsy riders are evil horsemen as the junta- led has been variously translated, seen as having risen from the dust of the desert. If not uniquely Sudanese then they are certainly uniquely African, part of the wider pattern that is rooted in the continent’s soil.
Darfur is linked in the western imagination to Rwanda and or to the Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia or any other sites that sustain the cynicism of afro pessimism in the west. All these places have in turn become synonymous with anarchy and despair, post modern versions of savagery. No context is provided. All these places of violence are themselves sui generis or lived only by way of racist essentialism. De-contextualization had its desired effects. It does what more overt forms of racism once performed. Robert Kaplan manages to separate Africa both geographically and temporally from the world. In two mere pages of his influential book The Ends of the Earth, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy published ten years ago, asking his readers to consider the possibility that Africa is even farther away from North America and Europe than the maps indicate. At the same time he tells them that although Africa’s geography was conducive to humanity’s emergence it may not have been conducive to its further development. These are shocking words.
The connection between Darfur and elsewhere are about as historical as well as human. They are an intricate part of the story of civilization. Its obscured underside, the precedent of former atrocities informs the action of successive groups of killers the world over. Once unleashed the idea and precedent of such kinds of colonial violence became as dangerous as the particular forms of hate that informed them. The violent techniques perfected in Africa by western powers as well as the other parts of the global south, became the precedent for succeeding acts not just in Europe during the two World Wars, or in the Soviet Union or during the Bosnia War, but for other colonial atrocities even after 1945, in Madagascar, Algeria, Kenya or South Africa. We should also mention all the other colonial wars from Vietnam and to today’s Iraq. But these precedents, ideas and techniques have also been adopted and appropriated by the formerly colonized.
The logic of the Revolutionary United Front in severing the limbs of their victims was not that different from the first kingly opposed Congo Free State. In both cases the logic was predicated on brutal regimes of capital resource extraction. The use of rape in Bosnia is little different from that in Darfur. In both cases they are not the by-product of war, but a systematic element in the campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
The idea of extermination whether for profit or ideology is now spreading and with it an infectious and dangerous cynicism. Cicero pointed out half a century ago how destructive the acquiescence to violence was to any genuine idea of humanism in Western Europe. He wrote “we were showed that each time a head was cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a girl is raped and in France they accept the fact each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene set in, a centre of infection begins to spread”.
To this day the Belgians still cannot accept the responsibility of the atrocities in Congo, the French for what they did in Algeria, the British for their actions in Kenya and least I be accused of being anti-European, we Canadians did not accept the way we treated the peoples of the First Nations. If the gangrene that Cicero the colonialist recreated has not been cleansed, if western nations can still not accept historical responsibilities for what they have done, then what chance is there for such countries to accept the humanitarian responsibilities to its people in Darfur? What can keep the cynicism from not just festering but spreading? It is not just the people from Darfur who would be affected Cicero reminds us. In doing nothing we degrade, dehumanize and de- civilize ourselves.
The suggested antidote on offer by the Western media to our cynical indifference seems to be equal doses of celebrity, naivety and egotism combined with popular hero worship and momentary attention to only the latest in this fashionable crisis of the season. George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt to name only a few. The Hollywood stars whose faces graced the July issue of Vanity Fair along with the 15 other luminaries from the world of business, entertainment and politics are somehow qualified to speak for the continent. That they can do so without voices being raised to question their credentials is because of the terrible effects of de-contextualization and in so doing the words only exaggerate the effect by using up valuable oxygen that would have been better spent by letting Africans speak for themselves.
Good intentions are not forms of entitlements nor do they address the baser instincts that exist in the western media attention to these matters. Those of us who might see efforts, such as these as factious are sometimes accused of our own brand of cynicism, but it is simply not the case if you believe that the means affect the end and so cannot be justified. There is a real tension in the recent Vanity Fair issue between the overriding project of western Liberalism which still wants to see Africa in terms of only slightly modified for those captured in the popular interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s somewhat ambivalent phrase “the white man’s burden” and the attempt to portray Africa as culturally vibrant and sub-sufficient. Overall the Africa that emerges remains that of the political and economic victim looking to the set for salvation. This same imagery is still what elicits citizens in the western countries to help aid and save Africa and Africans.
Two Hundred years after the abolition of slave trade the new Thomas Clarkson is Jeffery Sachs whose most recent book is…… But in the 18th century Olaudah Equiano (Gustavo Vassa) the African was a bestselling author and a leader in his own right in the British abolitionist movement. But today it is celebrity and not just firsthand knowledge that counts. Equiano was a prominent member of the sons of Africa, a group of 12 Britons of African descent who campaigned against slavery. 200 years later he and his brothers would have probably assumed much less hope that the cover of Vanity Fair would be covered with the faces of sons and daughters of Africa, economists, politicians and intellectuals. But that would entail an epitomic shift not just for the comfortable world of edutainment but one where real questions would have to be asked and fundamental assumptions changed. We are still not prepared for such a moment. Even Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who single-handedly kept the issue of Darfur alive in the pages of that paper has been forced to resort to publicity stunts in order to keep his readers interested in issues in Africa. He holds an annual trip to Africa with Nick Kristof whereby readers can share the sense of discovery that well-intentioned young Americans experience as their excruciatingly ignorant stereotypes about the continent unravel, wholesale accounting for the past and a sustained programme that blames Africa’s dilapidation, in which African culture is not appealing to our so-called better instincts.
It would only require a fraction of the courage shown by people like Professor Wole Soyinka and Senator Romeo Dallaire who both sustained an active role in meeting their role in international humanitarian responsibilities. However equally important is the role of the media, Universities and cultural institutions have had to play in changing the view of Canadians and other people in the western world about Africa. Thank you.