Laughing at Gaddafi in an unheroic age

For his insistence on a United States of Africa, Muammar Gaddafi last week incurred the wrath of a large number of well-educated East Africans who have dismissed him as a “pipe dreamer.”

Libya's President Gaddafi listens to the proceedings during the opening session of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa. Photo/REUTERS 

BY PHILIP OCHIENG'

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For his insistence on a United States of Africa, Muammar Gaddafi last week incurred the wrath of a large number of well-educated East Africans who have dismissed him as a “pipe dreamer.”

In this, they epitomise the absence of ideals that characterises Africa’s post-independence elite.

The term originates from the impracticable ideas that may invade your head when you are inhaling opium from a pipe.

That was why, in their condemnations of the Libyan Leader, our editorial, op-ed and letters columns raised startling theoretical questions.

Is Gaddafi’s US of Africa a dream? Of course. For, at the moment, it looks perfectly impossible. Every African country is gripped by such powerful nationalistic self-interests that even a regional proposal like an East African Federation is slipping through our fingers.

But does that make it a “pipe dream”? Are these national self-interests a good reason for rejecting such a dream with a wave of the hand? Is it a “pipe dream” to keep proposing that Africa should unite?

Was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi speaking through his opium pipe when he dreamed aloud that an independent India could soon come about through the sheer power of peaceful resistance?

Had Martin Luther King had a few pipes when, in the late 1950s, he “dreamed” aloud that, in a few decades, a black man would occupy the White House? The solid realities of that moment forced most of even the former slaves to dismiss him as a man of fancies.

Yet some individuals (of all colours) took the dream seriously and pursued it with relentless and often valorous vigour. A great many human beings (again of all races) lost their lives in the pursuit of that dream. Like the Mahatma, King himself was soon gunned down for it.

But the human spirit is indomitable. Both in India and in the United States, these adversities — though looking in every way insuperable — goaded the people into actions that were even more heroic. And the result? Well, Barack Obama is neither a mirage nor a daydream.

In short, what we call ideals — or dreams or even pipe dreams — are usually the products of social failings or difficulties or injustices. And it is their seeming insurmountability that challenges human beings into grappling with them.

Without what the French call a vision splendide, there can be no artefact.

When A. Comte spoke of “science, d’ou prevoyance [et] prevoyance, d’ou action”, he meant that knowledge is the mother of all predictive wisdom and that predictive wisdom is the only sure basis for a history-making action.

In What Is History? H. E. Carr admits that our predictive activities are often fanciful and surreal.

But the British scholar declares that, without such utopian ideas, there can be no history or social progress. History is the struggle, from milestone to milestone, by a society to arrive at ideals that it sets for itself.

I agree that the Libyan leader has very many subjective faults.

Subjectivism is what we may call it when you plunge into action immediately upon a dream — that is to say, long before you have studied and ascertained the nature of the problem you are setting out to defeat.

Gaddafi was in the habit of using even the enemy’s media to publicise elaborate plans on how to tackle whoever he considered to be the enemy — at that time the United States, Western Europe and Israel, their Trojan horse in the Middle East.

Wherever we stand ideologically, we have to admit that if you choose as your enemies the city on the Potomac, the city on the Thames and the city near the Jordan, you are in a power of trouble.

At least, you must tread with the extreme stealth of a cheetah. It was because Gaddafi did not, that he always came a cropper.

But he was not the only nationalistic leader who made that choice.

So did Jawaharlal Nehru, Ahmed Sukarno, Broz Tito, Cheddi Jagan, Ahmed ben Bella, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the leaders of other newly independent — and highly idealistic — states on all the five continents.

So did — here in black Africa — Mohammed Siad Barre, Amilcar Cabral, Modibo Keita, Patrice Lumumba, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Samora Machel, Eduardo Mondlane, Robert Mugabe, Agostinho Neto, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, Jaramogi Odinga and Ahmed Sekou Toure.

The point, however, is that all these nationalists used certain idealistic criteria to identify the enemy correctly — namely, Western imperialism. Their failure lay only in their unwillingness to study that enemy thoroughly before moving into action against him.

The heart of that failure was their refusal to invest in collectivity.

Either for the personal interests of each leader or for not recognising the power resident in united effort, they took much more stock in national interests than in regional and continental interests — and paid dearly for it.

However, let us not make too blanket a judgment.

It was precisely this left-wing faction of African nationalism that initiated the pan-Africanist movement. Nkrumah, Nasser, Nyerere, Keita, Ben Bella, Toure and Kenneth Kaunda must be recognised as the fathers of the idea of a united Africa.

Here, in East Africa, Rashidi Kawawa and Oscar Kambona of Tanzania, Sam Odaka and Grace Ibingira of Uganda and Mbiyu Koinange, Tom Mboya and Joseph Murumbi of Kenya were the stars in a regional chapter called Pafmeca (Pan-African Movement of East and Central Africa).

The question is: Why do we — the elite — pay attention to what the leaders are promising about the East African Federation but feel offended when Col Gaddafi reminds us of the ideals of our own founding fathers?

The answer, I think, is that our post-nationalist ruling classes are too steeped in the grabbing of personal wealth at the national level — too comfortable in their parochial power cocoons — to be interested in a larger political entity. Their fear is that such an entity might remove power from their hands and, with it, their financial privileges.

As long as we can gorge ourselves in the cocoon, we cannot be interested in expressing and pursuing such higher ideals as a united Africa.

The reason Muammar Gaddafi does not caress us — the reason he scares us stiff — is that his ideas run directly against our interests as a consumer class.

That is why the present generation of the African intelligentsia has no time or desire to propose and pursue ideals or utopias that may prove seminal and lead the mass into history-making actions. That is why ours is such a remarkably unheroic age.

When, just before Kenya’s independence, Nyerere, Obote and Jomo Kenyatta announced a formal commitment to an East African Federation, did we dismiss them as “pipe dreamers”? No, we gave them a standing ovation.

Did we shake our heads with a knowing wink when the pan-Africanist dream was realised in the admittedly less perfect form of the Organisation of African Unity, inaugurated under Emperor Haile Selassie’s sponsorship at Addis Ababa in 1963?

Of course, the East African Federation remains a dream.

When the fruits of narrow nationalism proved too sweet, some of the dreamers themselves not only frustrated it but also played havoc with an East African outfit at Arusha that the colonial regime itself had bequeathed to us.

But so what? The dream remains alive and, from the utterances of our present leaders, we know that it bothers their consciences. We know that it remains morally powerful and politically potent and may yet force them into some action.

The question is: Why do we — the elite — pay attention to what the leaders are promising about the East African Federation but feel offended when Col Gaddafi reminds us of the ideals of our own founding fathers?

The answer, I think, is that our post-nationalist ruling classes are too steeped in the grabbing of personal wealth at the national level — too comfortable in their parochial power cocoons — to be interested in a larger political entity. Their fear is that such an entity might remove power from their hands and, with it, their financial privileges.

As long as we can gorge ourselves in the cocoon, we cannot be interested in expressing and pursuing such higher ideals as a united Africa.

The reason Muammar Gaddafi does not caress us — the reason he scares us stiff — is that his ideas run directly against our interests as a consumer class.

That is why the present generation of the African intelligentsia has no time or desire to propose and pursue ideals or utopias that may prove seminal and lead the mass into history-making actions. That is why ours is such a remarkably unheroic age.

Is it only a narcotics addict who can entertain such an idea? Yes, even the subjects of the sprawling British Indian Empire originally dismissed the Mahatma.

It was their pseudo-Marxism that scared a much better organised and much better armed enemy into counter-action.

For instance, it was Obote’s incredibly thoughtless “move-to-the-left” nationalisation programme that egged then British prime minister Edward Heath into sponsoring a coup against Kampala.

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