A publication by and for African Youth

Issue 5: September 2001 


The New African Union: An Extension of Colonialism or a Collective Effort at Decolonisation?1

The month of July 2001 saw African leaders formally launch the African Union, replacing the Organization of African Unity (OAU). UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan, (of African origin) set the pace by declaring that "This historic effort will require leadership, courage and a willingness to depart from the ways of the past, if it is to do for Africa what the European Union has done for Europe". Annan further elaborated that Africa "must reject the ways of the past, and commit itself to building a future of democratic governance subject to the rule of law." Echoing these comments, the outgoing OAU Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim said the African Union would create "an enhanced form of co-operation and integration" necessary to meet the new challenges of a changing continent and a changing world.

While it looks like an honorable motive, we must look beyond the mere surface of words and intention to predict what the AU will actually do for Africa. The stated objective of the AU is to "do for Africa what the EU has done for Europe." To this effect, the AU is being modeled on the EU model, which means that African leaders are recommitting themselves to the race of ‘catching up’ with Europe. Once again they seem to be saying that European civilization is superior; therefore we "must reject the ways of the past" and continue to embrace the dehumanizing and enslaving theories of the European Renaissance (highlighted by Isaac in the May edition of this publication).

Annan did not stop to reflect on what the EU has actually done for Europe: environmental degradation, obliteration of smaller cultures and languages, domination of populations and cultures by Big Business, and the murder of creative diversity. But most important of all, no one asked the question of what the EU and their American cousins have done to the rest of the world, especially Africa: the colonization of cultures and creativity, the plunder of Africa’s natural resources, the promotion of genocide and large-scale manufacturing of poverty.

The fact that the AU proposes to initiate a single parliament, central bank, currency etc. for Africa, demonstrates that African leaders still subscribe to the notions of "one size fits all" and an obsession with BIG things. One is left to wonder how the leaders, who have failed to manage small countries of a few million people, expect to manage a whole continent. Of critical importance though is the assertion that large-scale mainstreaming of the people of Africa into an oppressive global economy in which they have no control or voice must continue on a much grander scale. For example, the idea of a single parliament means that still fewer people will be in a position to decide for millions of people. Indeed the AU Executive Council will coordinate and make decisions on areas of "common interest" including foreign trade, food, transport and communication, agricultural and forestry resources, water, irrigation and environmental protection.

Millions of voices will be lost as African leaders look forward to standardizing everything. For example, all the official languages of the AU are foreign languages, English, French, Portuguese and Arabic (Where are the important regional languages like Swahili, Hausa, Zulu?). African leaders are calling for a single development plan, and Thabo Mbeki's Millennium Action Plan and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade’s Omega Plan are already being marketed, mainly to Europe, as the panacea for Africa’s problems.

In seeking to turn the continent into an economic union, African leaders are merely responding to what is happening in the rest of the world: countries are being defined by their economic growth and nothing else matters. Decisions are based on how big business/ investors can be protected. In the global economy a few corporations, through the World Bank and IMF, are increasingly controlling the world. Statistics reveal: 20% of the world’s population own and control over 80% of the world’s wealth; 70% of the world’s trade is controlled by just 500 corporations; 1% of all multinationals own half the total stock of foreign direct investments; the top 1% of the population of the world now probably has about the income of roughly the bottom 60% combined. World Bank/IMF policies continue to facilitate this process where wealth is transferred from the so-called Third World countries to a handful of corporations. It is this world that Africa is being urged to rush and join.

Everyday, newspapers say that Africa is increasingly being marginalized and will lose out on the "fruits" of globalization if it does not act fast. With our new watchman on the lookout, it is assumed that it will now be easier for us to browbeat the whole continent into jumping on the Development wagon. Leaders who assume power through unconstitutional means will get their countries marginalized, thus losing out on these fruits (constitutional means are defined as multi-party elections). Popular uprisings to overthrow dictatorial regimes that rigged their way to power will not be considered constitutional. We might even soon see a NATO--like body performing NATO--like duties, i.e. punishing those who do not behave properly in their eyes.

However, on the flip side we must examine what possibilities this initiative offers to those involved in a genuine struggle for justice in Africa. One, it offers a possibility for us to start dismantling the artificial boundaries created by a bunch of European imperialists sitting round a table in Berlin in the late 19th century. But before dismantling these physical boundaries, designed to make the control of populations possible, the psychological boundaries must first be broken. This should involve questioning the dominant (Western) assumptions, ideologies and concepts that guide the creation and implementation of policies (such as the World Bank/IMF policies), institutions (education, media, health, etc.) and systems of governance.

This process of de-colonization should be accompanied by the creation of spaces that will facilitate and nurture the creativity necessary, if we are to build new visions of Africa based on the principles of Justice, Equality and Sustainability. The institution of the Africa Union has already initiated debate around the concept of Pan Africanism in the context of the present global structure. This discussion must not be left to leaders and professionals who are tying Africa to enslaving economic institutions, but rather the space must be extended to the people of Africa. This forum, the Counter Renaissance, aims to develop spaces that will be used for critical reflection and regeneration of visions for Africa based on African concepts of Justice, Creativity, and Harmony.

-- Charles Otieno-Hongo



To women warriors

They are many more than we can imagine

To those who stand for themselves and others

To Aline Sitoe Djata killed at the age of 22, for leading a spiritual revolution in the south of Senegal against the French colonial state

To Malika Sanders Warriors

To the women who clean, who feed, who sing for the revolution


If They Killed Us

If they were to kill us tomorrow

We would just go back home

to Paradise

where we belong

and where we are from

Cause see

We have rocked some children to sleep yes

We have shed some tears

We have spoken some truth

We have held some hands

We have lifted somebody up

We have danced some steps

If they killed us tomorrow

We would just go back home to Paradise

where we belong

Cause see

We have healed some pain

We have taken a stand for justice

We have sown some seeds of peace

We have offered some gifts

We have brought some joy around

If they killed us tomorrow

They wouldn’t cut the flow of revolution

Cause there would be more of us

Cause see

We have rocked some children to sleep

And their lullabies were songs of freedoms…

- Coumba Toure, activist, Mali




I had never paid too much attention to Language. Sure, like many people I spoke, but never stood aside to critically reflect upon it. I thought that was a job for the experts: the linguists. In high school, we were driven towards concern for "proper grammar"; non-standard English was "grammatically deficient"! Further, we were conditioned to arrogantly render value-judgements on local languages but never to pay attention to subtle, yet vital, cultural particularities. Out of school, I was programmed to see English and English speakers as the developed part of society.

I have learned now that the sentence construction of African languages differs from standard Western languages in many ways. They have their own internal consistency, something which may never be apparent through superficial analyses, of the kind schools are adept at, or by easy comparison with other languages. Still, many intellectuals have interpreted these differences as evidence of "linguistic underdevelopment!" (Pinker,1995) or have taken these as manifestations of stupidity or slowness of mind. From linguist Noam Chomsky credited with revolutionary studies in language and cognitive science, I have discovered crucial facts about language. In this article, I will attempt to shed light on a few dimensions of Language by focusing on the following questions:

  • What constitutes Language?
  • In what ways and by what institutions is Language and its essence being constricted?
  • Why must we nurture our local languages and modes of expression?

What is Language?

It is ridiculous to consider language a neutral or passive medium of communication. Language is embedded in the physical, socio-cultural, spiritual universe of a people. Language(s) are expressions through which people make sense of physical/experienced reality and create a sense of collective cultural identities. Value systems--moral, aesthetic, ethical –are also constituted in languages, as are shared symbols and meanings, relationships, behaviors, local knowledge(s), local experiences. Forms of expression, art, dance, manner of dress, general habits, systems of agriculture, processes of production, forms of ownership, etc. are ‘encoded’ in language, forming part of an undifferentiated whole.

Though African societies heavily rely on the orate, they also experience language as "real life". African languages are particularly noted for their "reinforcement of the virtues of collective vision" (Mugo, 1999). Local knowledge systems are, for example, firmly embedded in local experiences, adapted to the local eco-system. Local languages and modes of expression in African societies are not static; they adapt to an ever-changing physical and cultural environment, resulting in changing forms of social organization. These languages are difficult to convey in written form; they have to be ‘experienced’ via practice and activity.

Distorting the Essence of Language

Being aware of the vastness, depth, diversity and richness inherent in local languages (the languages most commonly used by ordinary people), the project of modernism has employed two strategies to artificialize language, and thereby exclude social majorities (ordinary people) from their processes of self-determination. First, language has been used as a manipulative device. Second, language structure has been standardized, in order to control people's expressions.

In the first instance (language as a manipulative device), carefully selected vocabulary has been adopted to suppress meaning and create confusion in understanding between people. Such vocabulary includes Progress, Success, Economic Growth, Aid, Information Technology, etc. These terms make whole populations accomplices to what the powerful want. Progress and Economic Growth have meant an unlimited extraction/ accumulation of finite resources, leaving mass poverty in their wake and producing a tiny but extremely wealthy elite. Similarly, financial loans are deceptively called Aid. Intellectuals both in the West and in Africa have overlooked the absurdity and inherent arrogance of this term, since ‘Aid’ is actually loans that have to be paid back with interest.

In the second instance, standardizing the structure of language legitimizes the suppression of any assertions that are not expressed with ‘correct grammar’. If one considers that local languages, spoken by the majority do not conform to any rigid construction rules, then one can see the power inherent in standardizing language. Vast numbers of people suddenly become inarticulate! It also creates the need for spokespeople (read: the educated experts!)

I am part of this ‘educated’ group that is expected to impart ‘scientific’, ‘technocratic’ and ‘expert-based’ advice to the local people. To do this, I am required to reduce my perceptions of the world to a management imperative: to believe that professionalism and specialization, proper planning and control over our social, political, economic, agricultural production processes can make our institutions and personal lives a success. In many school subjects, we referred to local communities as ‘unproductive economies’, even though they produced enough for their needs, while hailing as ‘developed’ those economies that gorged on the natural resources of others.

However these labels neither help me understand the complexities of the world around me, nor do they bring about a critical understanding of the destructive nature of existing economic, political and social paradigms.

Nurturing Local Languages

The dominant language, which aims to measure and force everything into its framework, has tyrannized and ridden over humane values, which once formed vital support-systems within our communities. It is also fast erasing, from reality and from the conscience, alternative ways of living and seeing the world.

In reply to it, we must not take superficial measures. For example, in some African countries, it is official policy to ‘teach’ local languages at lower primary school levels and then dump the same by mid-primary school, where the colonizer’s language is allowed to take over. This is done in the hope that students will learn school subjects better, as well as English, French etc. This internalizes the colonial ethic. School officials would probably claim, "people do not know their own languages; we ‘need’ to teach them their languages." This attitude (a) reflects a shocking ignorance of the richness, intricacies, knowledges, meanings inherent in local languages, (b) brings into question official/formal commitment to local identities and self-determination processes and (c) furthers ‘domestic colonization’.

Are local languages the Solution?

I do not claim that the answers to our problems are lying in local languages. We see, anyway, how even local languages are being corrupted by jargon from the dominant language. (The word Development is a case in point. The word is Dongruok in Luo. However the sense in which the Luo would originally use it, drawing from their cultural experiences would be entirely different from today's English translation). But if our intention is to create visions of just and humane societies, then we must also recognize the immense opportunities provided by ordinary language.

This publication aims to (a) draw us apart from the dominant language and make us look on it more simply and more externally than we are accustomed to do; and (b) to return to our ordinary ways of saying things but with a deepened consciousness of their importance and value. My dialogues with my fellow African students has helped me to de-mystify the consuming tendencies of the dominant language, especially when we examined the backgrounds of certain words and phrases. Language perhaps remains one of the powerful means through which we express our humane-ness and I think we can apply this understanding in creating -- for ourselves -- novel ways and spaces to nurture equally humane languages.

- Isaac Ochien’g <>


i Noam Chomsky, quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct [1995. New York: Harper] unmasks the intricacy of the system and calls attention to fundamental facts about language. "Virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand new combination of words appearing for the first time in the history of the universe. Therefore, a language cannot be merely a repertoire of responses."

ii Information Technology is only accessible to a minority. It is a commercial project that expands the gap between the ‘ICT-literate’ and the overwhelming majority, who are committed to oral traditions and local value-systems.



In TRUST US, WE’RE EXPERTS! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (New York: Center for Media and Democracy, 2001), authors Sheldon Ramptom and John Stauber unmask the sneaky methods that institutions use to influence our opinions, exploit our trust and get us to buy into what they sell; both in terms of ideological and material products.

One method that corporations and governments alike use is Independent Experts. ‘Neutral third parties' give 'unbiased' opinions to the public about products or ideas. These independent experts are usually housed in think tanks, whose agenda reflects the interests of their funders from the business world. If common people raise questions about a product, independent experts are used to intellectually bully and silence them.

Another method commonly used is Information Glut - jamming the public with so many statistics and random information that they simply give up in despair. Witness how, after the recent attacks in the U.S.A, the dominant press -- using expert political commentators -- has taken for granted that a violent response is necessary. Those of us who are keen on thinking deeply about terrorism are silenced with the question, "Whose side are you on?" A full range of essential, more important questions has been ignored. For example, Why do people resort to violence? Who profits from the militarization of human lives? In whose interests is this 'war' being waged?

Why must we challenge Expert-ism?

Development institutions in Africa today have more experts (nationals, expatriates) than they did in the era of colonization. The expense of hiring and keeping them on the field costs about US$22 billion per year. All this money must be paid back by ordinary people, as it comes in the form of loans, or 'development assistance'.

But more than the enslaving burden that experts have placed upon the people of Africa, the privilege allotted to experts has silenced the majority, who have become passive participants in crucial decisions concerning their lives. Expert-ism is legitimized by the philosophy-process of guardianship -- the notion that people are not really able to make wise decisions and therefore need to be governed by someone who is smarter, better informed, more rational, or better fit to rule. The harsh result of guardianship is that common people have been robbed of their capacities for self-learning and self-discovery. Instead, they have become pathetically dependent on external control.

Expert-ism today works as the ‘virtuous face of colonialism’ (Binart 1989). It uses covert ways to privilege Western-based knowledge/science. It constricts our cultural diversities and ways of knowing and divorces us from understanding our own localities and communities. For example, Rahnema (1997) explains how local ways of doing are recognized only when they are validated by expert advice. Otherwise, they are regularly devalued, even when they are much more viable.

Hancock (1989) details examples of how expert decisions wreak havoc upon African people’s lives. In Ghana, World Bank experts prescribed the construction of the Akosombo Dam which resulted in 100,000 people acquiring onchocerciasis (river blindness), of whom 70,000 were rendered totally sightless by the time of the dam’s completion. In Mali, USAID experts constructed a 'scientific' aquacultural farm, whose total cost was estimated to have been US$4,000 per kilo of fish reared!

"Are you saying we do not need experts?" To affirm or negate this question would unnecessarily lead to polarization and the paralysis of a meaningful dialogue process. It would be more useful to focus our attention on reclaiming responsibility for our own lives, since many of these matters are too important to be left in the hands of a clique of experts alone. Each of us can choose issues that move us most deeply and devote more time to them. Such activism can enrich our lives and brings us into personal contact with other people who are informed and passionate in their commitment -- people who often are better sources of information than the experts on television or in newspapers.

Underneath their image of perfection, experts are human beings and hence have limitations, like any of us. To shed our dependency on/submissiveness to experts, we must start asking basic questions like: What assumptions are fundamental to expert-ism? Who drives and benefits from expert-ism? How do we challenge it?

References: Hancock, G. Lords of Poverty. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Rahnema, M. The Post Development Reader. London: Zed Books, 1997.