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The decline and fall of the African Renaissance

The Roman achievement was colossal. The Romans knew it themselves hence their belief in Roma Aeterna, the eternal city. But as everybody knows, Rome was not eternal and “the best-known fact” about Rome, remarked Arthur Ferrill, is that “it declined and fell”.

Edward Gibbon was summing up not just the reign of Emperor Antoninus, or Rome, but of all mankind when he lamented: “The reign of Antoninus is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

Gibbon is perhaps responsible for the best-known work of modern history. His magnum opus, titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, captures with unparalleled erudition the slippery slopes that led to the eventual, if not inevitable, collapse of that once mighty empire. Of particular note are the indictments a historian of his stature makes against the whole of mankind. If history teaches us that until now, human history is characterised by “crime, folly and misfortune” then what sort of questions ought we to ask of our current African circumstances? To what extent can we say this foolhardiness reflects on our leaders? And what has been our complicity in it?

Furthermore, Gibbon’s observations raise deeper questions about how this seemingly “inescapable” state of historical affairs is currently impacting on our attempts at an African Renaissance. Is it plausible that due to these follies we shall be waiting for an absolution in an African Renaissance that would never come? Worse yet, assuming that we finally achieve an African renewal of sorts, can we have the peace of mind that Africa will not eventually collapse in the same historical fashion of Rome and the others? How, then, can we conceive of a renewed Africa that is capable of sidestepping Gibbon’s warnings?

Thomas Sankara was no closer to the truth when he said: “I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organisation we deserve victory … you cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen … we must dare to invent the future.”

From this vantage point, the answers to the questions raised in this short inquiry must surely be the province of youth, to whom the future remains to shape. Youth must begin to craft a sustainable future for an African renewal that will last. It becomes a question of values. Not so much the values of our leaders but our very own values, for our values will reflect themselves in the leaders we choose to lead us.

Hitherto, the leadership we have sought salvation from has proven impotent with the mandate we have given them. Admittedly, some things were done well under the circumstances, but it has not been enough. As history shows, theirs has been characterised by vainglorious endeavours of crime and cronyism, epic fumbles and ass-kissing of the status-quo.

Let there be no doubt about whether calls for radical change are necessary or not. They are. In the conclusion to his book titled The Black Man’s Burden, historian Basil Davidson, noted: “The pessimists, on this general view of matters may be said to have overstated their pessimism and to have forgotten that peoples can never for long be confined to the cages of any neat scenario. What has remained common cause to optimists and pessimists alike is that the systems in place have failed, whether neo-colonial capitalist in Africa or Stalinist in Europe, and that the prime badge for their failure, as Ikem said, has lain in the brutal divorce between the rulers and ruled.”

On the issue of change, let it be clear, we speak not of farcical change of the sort of political swaps that characterises modern day African power struggles. This sort of change is typically folly, borders on criminality, and has led to misfortunes. No! Instead what is required is real, meaningful change for the betterment of all who live on this continent and otherwise.

Say, to all youth, you must remain obstinate, steadfast, indefatigable, independent and unapologetic about your demands for social justice. In this you should expect that your mandate will expand to other critical areas such as policy. While on the item of crime and other such nuisances, you must press on for radical policy shifts on this front too. You must not be derailed by counter-forces that will try to persuade you that conditions can only change at current pace.

There are better ideas to resolving these issues. Others suggest a complete rethink of how, as a nation, we conceive of public office vis-à-vis amassable wealth by individuals elected to such an office. Public office is an honour and these values of honour must be upheld in the actions of our leaders. The scope for policy reform must not end with limiting the coercion only of those in leadership; it must also make determinations on remedying the coercive aspects of existing socio-economic policies. This must certainly include re-opening discussions around redress policies. Here others have suggested that the time for the shunning of policy suggestions towards legally enforceable redress mechanisms is long over!

It must be noted that this was not meant to be a treatise on policy per se but more a consciousness-raiser on the veritable mandate handed down to us by history. Whatever the direction our rejuvenated positive values steers us towards, one thing must be clear: we must be blunt and relentless! So come all, stand up and be counted. The time is now.