The 60s and 70s were the age of liberation and revolution in Africa. It was the age of the late Abdulrahman Babu, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney and many others. For us in Dar es Salaam and many other areas of the world, it was a time of intellectual ferment, and insurrection of ideas.
But things have changed. Today, many academics have metamorphosed from intellectual researchers of yesterday to policy consultants of today. The truth of course is that we are neither consulted nor recommend policy. Policy is set elsewhere by those who hold the purse string while, we the local counter-parts, as we are called, mount stage shows organising national workshops of stake-holders;. No one pretends that consultancies generate knowledge, much less that the consultant is an organic intellectual. We all know, and admit it in private, that we are neither organic to anything nor intellectuals. We are simply paid juniors, euphemistically called counterparts, of Western consultants paid by the West, leaving us little time to care about the rest. In this game of euphemisms, Western paymasters are called development partners; consultancy, whose only source of scientific data is rapid rural appraisals and other consultancy reports, is called development work, which development work is dutifully executed by a Western team leader called development practitioner.
It is this amazing double-speak of imperial consultants and propagandists which has been at the heart of decimating the body of intellectual thought that provided the theoretical foundation and ideological inspiration for the age of liberation and revolution. The double-speak is aimed at three targets.
One, at rehabilitating imperialism morally by demonising Third World nationalism and delegitimising Third World states (particularly Africa) as no more than a coterie of ethnic groups out to loot poor, ignorant populations who need to be saved from their own rulers by the humanitarian interventions of the international community. Humanitarian interventions to save the Third World people from themselves, then is presented as the motif of numerous military and economic interventions by the international community from Serbia to Somalia. These interventions are not only begged for by our political leaders themselves but also justified by our intellectuals. In the post-cold war period we do not have any clashes of idea or ideological struggles but the clash of civilisations, as Samuel Huntington, the intellectual think-tank of the US state department, proclaims. The clash is supposedly between the Western civilisation and Islamic and Confucian civilisations, between the Good and Evil, between the Values of the Free World, and the prejudices of the Rest, between People and non-people.
Of course, the clash of civilisations had to be invented. How else would one justify the expanding military machine of imperialism while at the same time proclaim end of ideology after the Cold War?
The second big onslaught has been to make the ideology of human rights, and its related offshoots such as rule of law, good governance, poverty alleviation etc. Again human rights is of course not presented as an ideology but an immortal, all time truth. Its unquestioning pervasiveness and acceptance among our own intellectuals is remarkable. When I wrote my The Concept of Human Rights in Africa arguing that it was an ideology of domination and that we needed to re-conceptualise it and turn it on its head to make it an ideology of resistance, it was simply ignored and brushed aside as demagogic.
In our part of the world, human rights ideology, in short, has been pretty effective in displacing grand social theories and vision of human emancipation. Human rights discourse has succeeded in marginalising concrete analysis of our society. Human rights ideology is the ideology of the status quo, not change. Documentation of human rights abuses, although important in its own right, by itself does not help us to understand the social and political relations in our society. Given the absence of political economy context and theoretical framework, much of our writings on human rights, rule of law, constitution, etc., uncritically reiterate or assume neo-liberal precepts. Human rights is not a theoretical tool of understanding social political relations. At best it can only be a means of exposing a form of oppression and, therefore, perhaps an ideology of resistance. If not carefully handled, it cannot even serve that purpose.
The third target of imperial ideological onslaught has been the organisational expression of people’s struggles. Traditional and historically well-tested forms of organisation like parties, trade unions and mass movements are placed on the same footing as non-governmental organisations. As a matter of fact, it is the various human rights NGOs which occupy the centre stage because they are best funded by the donor community and whose importance is blown out of all proportion to their real capacity for change.
The very concept of NGO has drained the people of the organisational expression of their struggle. NGOs are supposed to be non-political, non-partisan and non-membership, formed by activists, usually from outside the social group that they are advocating for, without any constituency, accountable only to themselves and the funder. Their function, as they see it themselves, is awareness raising and advocacy in which people themselves are passive, ignorant subjects or victims, incapable of struggling for their rights. Under the demagogic precept of action not words, even well intentioned individuals in NGOs willy-nilly end up supporting the status quo because they have no theoretical tools or ideological stand to guide them. In the world of NGOs, theory and ideology are swear words. They are despised. In other words, we are told to act, not to think.
In the 60s and 70s, the radical intellectual did not make a distinction between political and civil, between nongovernmental and governmental but rather preached and practised the dictum that Politics is the concentrated form of economics and that the state is the table of contents of civil society and class struggles.
Today, the world is presented as a global village which is being inexorably villagised by the forces of globalisation. It consists of the international community and others. The composition of the international community is flexible but rogue-states are definitely not part of it. No one, we are told, has control over the processes of globalisation because it is controlled by the invisible hand of the market, which incidentally, is a very competent distributor of resources. We, in the Third World do not have much of a choice in this globalised world. The globalisation experts tell us, and our political leaders repeat it parrot-like, that globalisation offers opportunities and challenges. To be able to make use of these opportunities, among other things, we need to behave ourselves; enforce the civilisation values of freedom, individualism, good governance, and human rights. We must of course put in place an enabling environment to attract development funds by making available at no cost our state sovereignty, land, labour, minerals, water and air and space to investors. For this we need appropriate sectoral policies and the international community would always consider our applications for funds to hire consultants to draft such policies for us.
We all know that there is no community of interest in the international community; that globalisation is just another name for imperialism; that the global village embodies in it global pillage; that all cards are staked on one side in stake-holders workshops; that good governance is another name for legitimising economically despotic system, for governance is not a question of morality but a contest of power. Yet, it is amazing how this farce is re-enacted and the most we can allow ourselves is to make a few sarcastic remarks, which is good entertainment, while business continues as usual.
It needs hardly to be said that we are in the trough of the world revolution but I do not believe all is lost. The forces of progress may have been defeated but certainly not destroyed. Wherever there is oppression, there is bound to be resistance. There is a silver lining and we are already witnessing it: Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg, Genoa are dress rehearsals. As Abdulrahman Babu would have said, Comrades. Do not fritter away this opening. Use it.
Edited extract of a keynote address at the International Conference to celebrate the life of Adulrahman Mohamed Babu, Dar es Salaam, September 2001
* Issa Shivji, Professor of Law, University of Dar es Salaam