The limits of African autonomy

Achille Mbembe on how the Ebola Crisis exposed Africa’s dependency on the West.

Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita in a screen grab from the video for "Africa Stop Ebola."

In addition to the human toll, the Ebola crisis in West Africa has severe political consequences. According to Achille Mbembe, Western states present their intervention in West Africa as a purely humanitarian endeavor, but it has political implications. At a time when African states attempt to reconfirm their autonomy and responsibility over their own affairs, the West’s actions instead highlight the limits to African autonomy. On the occasion of the translation of Mbembe’s new book, Critique de la raison nègre, into German, the German newspaper Die Zeit interviewed the Cameroonian scholar about his views on the involvement of Western countries in tackling the crisis in states affected by Ebola. We want to point you to a couple of passages worth reading.

One of Mbembe’s main criticisms of the current discourse is its de-politicization of foreign (humanitarian) aid:

Mbembe: The discussion about Ebola is currently being conducted in purely medical and epidemiological terms. It also lets Africa’s political autonomy and cultural diversity fall under the table. The continent is currently on the rise: Africans want to finally overcome their victim status, they want to reinvent themselves as free people and prove to be responsible. Africa is about to show the world the new face of an African modernity. The victory over apartheid in 1994 was a milestone achievement—a victory that Africans achieved on their own. Any intervention that comes from the outside, whether it is military or civilian, provides evidence that Africans are not able to solve their own problems.

Mbembe does not promote an end to all interventions, but aims to highlight that they have “unpleasant” side effects and unveil racist attitudes, as the political history of the continent demonstrates. They present an old question in a new guise:

Mbembe: I mean the old question of the 19th century, which occupies the Western world (the region that traded for centuries with millions of blacks as slaves) since Alexis de Tocqueville: whether Africans can govern themselves. This question often superimposes itself on the realistic perception of the continent, on which—as everywhere else—rational actors act; only that in Africa they do so under post-colonial conditions: [others treat Africans as if] you don’t need to listen to those who cannot govern themselves. They are faceless and voiceless. They are like silly big children. They can’t make political decisions. One of the fatal effects of such interventions from the outside is this impression of immaturity.

Is the Ebola crisis the result of people’s distrust of aid workers? Mbembe responds by pointing to the past to understand the present (a move he makes in his scholarly work, including the new book). The problem is not distrust of aid workers but the structural deficiencies of African countries resulting from slavery, colonial rule and plunder, and decades of civil war. Africans mistrust the general attitude of the West towards Africa, “namely when aid is fiction.” Here he offered of global capitalism more generally:

Mbembe: More money and resources leave the continent than investment and assistance arrive. In the current example, the Liberian hospitals lack gloves that protect against Ebola. How is that possible in a country that has one of the largest rubber deposits in the world? It is dominated by the US company Firestone. Liberia currently exports its raw materials and has no domestic industry that could produce gloves that would now allow the treatment of Ebola patients.

Mbembe thus has an instrumental view of the West’s engagement in African states. Western states rarely intervene for purely humanitarian reasons. The human toll of any crisis does not trigger action by Western governments—only when states are potentially threatened themselves, do they intervene:

Mbembe: Dying alone doesn’t do much. From the West’s perspective, Africa is the continent of millions of inevitable deaths. In Rwanda, the poor Africans have killed each other, as these unfortunate primitives have always done. Hegel said it in an enlightening way: these African societies with their natural primitivism are without history, societies without rationally acting people, far from European modernity and its rational actors. But Ebola is not far away. The virus is mobile, it travels, it is as globalized as the nature of the road. (…) It does not respect borders: This is currently the most worrying for a weak Europe. Therein lies a vital threat to the biological existence of Europe. The borders must be respected.

Ebola thus has dramatic consequences for both the development of the continent and immigration policies in Europe:

Mbembe: My concern is that the continent is now imprisoned by Ebola in a twofold sense: internally due to the closure of borders between African states. And externally, so that Africans do not cross the borders of Europe, whether as refugees, students, entrepreneurs, immigrants or travelers. But there is no development without mobility, without flexibility. Racists of all countries could have never imagined in what ways Ebola would assist them.

  • Read the complete interview (in German) here, and a review of Mbembe’s book (in English) here. See also our previous interview with Mbembe on the trope of “Africa Rising.” Translations from German by the author.

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