African Intellectuals in the Face of the Phenomenon of Dictatorship

Donato Ndongo Bidyogo-Makina, translated by Anna Tybinko
Abstract: At the crux of this Humanities Futures piece is the act of remembering. Like the griot of African folklore, writers and thinkers from across the continent and in diaspora or exile have dedicated themselves to transmitting the aspirations of a people. With the phenomenon of dictatorship that followed many African independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this role acquired new significance: writing offered a promise of futurity in the face of authoritarian regimes. Given the current political climate, this paper insists that we recognize the work of Africans who strove to counter totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Starting with the Fifth Pan-African Conference in 1945, it brings to light the contributions of African thinkers, writers, and artists who dedicated themselves to resistance in the form of creative production.

Frequently, I am asked what purpose literature serves in African societies. From the outside, the many hours of solitude reflecting on the longings and frustrations of human beings, struggling with each word in order to choose the one most likely to have an impact upon hearts and minds, are incomprehensible; even more so when writers hardly gather any fruit from their labor, nor do their potential readers have ready access to their work. It seems like a wasted effort, only taken on by fools; some ascribe to the belief that we are dilettantes that write for whites, the main consumers of these cultural goods. I disagree. Given that it’s not the first time I have traveled to the United States, this latest journey is testament to the fact that some of our writing can open the minds—and perhaps even the hearts—of honest people, people who consider our contributions to be of interest, exposing them to hitherto unknown realities or those sidestepped at a distance. My presence here [as a visitor to Duke University], like that of many colleagues before and after, justifies our profession, a function of which is to communicate. Given that one cannot delimit communication, we direct our words to any reader willing to delve into our realities: to our compatriots, who ought to look themselves in the mirror and check whether the image reflected corresponds with their dreams; to the people from any part of the world gifted with sensitivity, who should recognize in our voices the zeal we have for each day. This is the same inherent role of literature in all societies, in any era, with one particularity: African writers inherit the role carried out by troubadours in our millennial cultures.

Frequently, I am asked what purpose literature serves in African societies. . . . It seems like a wasted effort, only taken on by fools; some ascribe to the belief that we are dilettantes that write for whites, the main consumers of these cultural goods. I disagree.

The griot was not simply a buffoon in the courts of the powerful, nor a manipulative illusionist of sleep-inducing daydreams, but the maker and keeper of ideas, guardian of memory, and transmitter of collective desires; in sum, the intermediary, par excellence, between words and actions. In our precolonial cultures, the word was not mere sound devoid of meaning; we did not grunt, although the dangerous mixture of ignorance and prejudice, translated into racism by the colonizers and their epigones, considered our languages ​​”rude dialects,” as written in some Spanish treatise. Our elders never talked just to talk; the verb persuaded, oriented, implicated, defined, and evaluated whoever expressed it, enclosing all the values ​​that subtend the soul of a people. In those "primitive" societies, the main difference between an elder and a youngster depended on the capacity to reason and exhibit good judgment at the appropriate moment, transmitting useful ideas to other citizens. A loquacious or dishonest elder was considered insensate and unworthy of respect, not to be taken seriously, while to the contrary, a prudent youth was expected to assume responsibilities for the benefit of all. Enriched today with writing—which, remember, was not born in Europe—such characteristics take on a new dimension. Devoid of the whimsical effects of physical memory and immune to the passing of time, the word can be fixed in order to permanently recall our trajectory, its origin, direction, and proposed goals. This conception explains our disdainful indifference toward so many senseless words directed at our cultures, at our persons, by people incapable of making the least effort of empathizing with other realities distinct from their routine immediacy.

As an elder, I could advise young folks to be prudent and to let stupid comments fall upon deaf ears. But I will not do it. It is precisely age and experience that compel me to warn of the consequences of spreading foolishness in an impulsive, thoughtless, and malevolent way; history lived and analyzed warns that our disdain is harmful. We must not remain silent, merely drawing merciful smiles at the absurd ideas of powerful ignoramuses. This ignorance, wrapped in pride, tinged with bad faith, is so dangerous that if tolerated it leads to tragedies and generates atrocities. There are far too many examples of intolerance throughout history. Exploited, harassed, and humiliated during the past five and a half centuries by other humans imbued with boastful self-complacency, we Africans are obliged to counteract lies with truth. While we enjoy—still—a certain freedom to express ourselves in words and writings, let us use it to unmask the tendentious discourse that stimulates petty instincts like hatred. We will not fight lies with lies, insults with insults, hatred with more hatred. Let us employ more effective weapons: shame them with their ignorance, ridicule their unjustified haughtiness, and move in their hearts the residue of humanity, of reflection, which we suppose exists in every featherless biped, according to Plato’s definition.

That is why I chose this topic, paraphrasing Wole Soyinka, "some day we’ll teach the soldiery to read." It is our responsibility to enlighten those who, believing themselves to possess absolute truth, may discover that they ignore the essential truths of existence.

That is why I chose this topic, paraphrasing Wole Soyinka, "some day we’ll teach the soldiery to read" (Soyinka 1972, 73). It is our responsibility to enlighten those who, believing themselves to possess absolute truth, may discover that they ignore the essential truths of existence. It would be enough if they read Nations nègres et culture by the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop or Facundo: Civilización i barbarie by the Argentinian Domingo Faustino Sarmiento to shut their mouths. If they read Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing (who were not black), they certainly would not open them. It would suffice to know that the Belgian king, Leopold II, murdered more than 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908 to silence them.[1] Their drama is that they are ignorant of their own history. They should know that the Germans exterminated entire ethnic groups in Namibia, Togo, and Tanganyika in the early twentieth century. They should know the atrocities committed by officers of the Spanish Army in my town, where they burned babies only because they were disturbed by their crying. If they read, they would understand the emotions of the descendants of the millions of Africans massacred by the French, Portuguese, Italian, and British in the four corners of Africa, destroying social structures and curbing the natural evolution of our cultures. If they were honest, they would be ashamed of their ancestors, glorified adventurers who ruled the world, driven by the greed and famine of the wretched Europe of the fifteenth century.

It is not necessary to go on hammering away at these arguments; the aforementioned examples are sufficient. There is no room left for the fallacies scattered over centuries by slaveholders and colonialists when Prehistory, Biology, and Psychology refute supposed differences beyond the different shades of skin that surround us. Knowing that these deterministic fatalisms are gross lies, it is time to act with certainty because there is no reason for us to internalize the inferiority that they inoculated us with, condemning us to live wracked with constant anxiety.

We write not as mere storytellers; we conceive of our office as a solid ethical and moral commitment to our suffering societies, miserable specters wandering on immensely rich soil.

We write not as mere storytellers; we conceive of our office as a solid ethical and moral commitment to our suffering societies, miserable specters wandering on immensely rich soil. We choose between supporting the sane or the insane, the oppressors or the oppressed, the executioners or the victims. These terrifying daily circumstances turn indifference into dehumanization: the gift we possess will not immunize us from the pain of others, a collective pain that is our own pain. The African writer is not enclosed in a glass jar from which he or she looks impassively at the phenomena he or she describes. We are not, as in the West, privileged beings who discover from the height of their ivory towers how to take pleasure in the leisure of well-nourished bodies. We know that literature is art, and art, to be such and not mere craftsmanship, simple imitation, or repetition, cannot forget its aesthetic dimension. But aesthetics is not enough in itself; beauty is a banality, changing according to the fashions of time or place. The African does not conceive of “art for art’s sake.” Thus we do not enclose our creation in museums and palaces for the exclusive delight of experts and the powerful. We join forces through our work, literary or plastic. Aesthetics, ethics, and utilitarianism form a harmonious and inseparable conjunction that gives our cultures the elements necessary to motivate social transformations, a notion that generates clichés in those who despise what they ignore. Nonetheless, our accomplishments have rested on this tripod since the dawn of time. They are valuable instruments today when we feel the need to transcend orality and adopt writing, only to discover that we did not need intermediaries that distorted what they did not understand. We also write from our souls in order to express them: our system of beliefs and values, state of mind, and perception of the world, which may well benefit the rest of humanity.

Therefore, let us affirm, with pride and conviction, that black African intellectuals played an avant-garde role in the triumph of human dignity. African thought at the beginning of the twentieth century became associated, as was natural, with its Afro-American and Caribbean diaspora and presented the world its contradictions. Since their enumeration is long and prolix, I will offer an example: did the world wage a bloody and devastating war against racism and totalitarianism, with an important contribution by colonized peoples, so that the victory of freedom and democracy would benefit a single race, a single culture? Let us remember: in 1945, most of the inhabitants of Earth were still subjected to oppression as cruel as that suffered by the races and peoples outraged by Nazi barbarism. The fundamental question was—and is—whether liberty, democracy, and dignity are exclusive rights limited to a few, or inherent to the human condition. It was African and African American intellectuals who raised a basic principle to universal consciousness: the construction and consolidation of peace cannot ignore or overlook the crimes and exploitation suffered in the colonial territories, disguised under sweet euphemisms like “civilization.”

Therefore, let us affirm, with pride and conviction, that black African intellectuals played an avant-garde role in the triumph of human dignity.

If we clear recent history of its prejudices, it becomes patently obvious that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is the compendium of claims to freedom and dignity formulated by the Fifth Pan-African Congress that met in Manchester (England) in 1945, whose conclusions permitted the values ​​of democracy to be extended to all nations, peoples, and persons. The most illustrious black minds participated in that encounter; among others were the African American W. E. B. Du Bois, Jamaican George Padmore, and Africans Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), and, above all, Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah. They agreed to prioritize the political liberation of Africa as the most immediate task at hand, a decision that substituted emotion for ideas and sentiments for action. It was a determination that benefited humanity as a whole, establishing respect and dialogue as a deterrent to conflicts, universalizing the right of self-determination, and abolishing the “right of occupation" that formed the axis of international relations throughout the nineteenth century, serving as a pretext that legitimized the occupation of Africa in the Conference of Berlin (1884–1885).

The creation of the United Nations, like other relevant events of the time, demonstrates the Conference’s impact. Now minimized and forgotten are the creation of the publishing house and its magazine, Présence Africaine, by the Senegalese Alioune Diop in 1947 and the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists from Paris. Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Jacques Rabemananjara, Richard Wright, Cheikh Anta Diop, Mercer Cook, John Davis, and Jean Price-Mars were among those who met in September 1956.

It is impossible to deny that the ideas emanating from these decisive encounters have since regulated relations between peoples. Concepts such as multiculturalism, the dialogue of civilizations, diversity, and interculturality were first formulated by these black intellectuals. This marked a fruitful way of perceiving the “other.” It seemed as if the definitive formula that would harmonize interactions between the different races, creeds, and cultures had been found.

It is of the utmost importance to remember these things here and now, while anachronistic crusades and revisionist movements are reborn, when we have witnessed attempts to exhume old theories that brought horror and suffering to hundreds of millions of people. Those supremacist ideas contained, for example, in Hegel’s Philosophy of History and the Count of Gobineau’s[2] work are the root cause of intolerance and the spiritual fodder of racists and xenophobes. It may be useful to put things in their place when powerful, if ignorant, voices are raised calling for the recolonization of Africa and the recolonization of blacks: useful and important because such formulations would have been sterile without the complicity of influential non-African intellectuals such as André Gide, André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, or Théodore Monod, who were soon joined by Pablo Picasso, Roger Bastide, Basil Davidson, Michel Leiris, and many others. Hence our recurrent proposal: a convergence of objectives is needed, with the active complicity between African, American, and European democrats to achieve them. The fight against intolerance does not concern a single country, people, or race; conquering oppression and maintaining freedom and dignity concerns each member of our species. It seems unquestionable today that without that meeting of minds, culminating five centuries of resistance against slavery and oppression, colonialism, which converted into an anachronism soon after, would not have lost its force.

When independence movements emerged in the mid-twentieth century, African intellectuals found themselves in a dilemma. They had devised an anticolonial rebellion and counseled politicians on strategies to regain sovereignty. They militated through independentist parties; they were organizers of unions or youth movements. Their task was to raise awareness of the immense advantages of freedom amongst these populations. Having achieved this imperative, they had to choose between collaborating with emerging powers and dedicating themselves to their trade—removed from the political ups and downs or fighting those who had helped to elevate them in the face of the bitter drift of the new States. It soon became clear that independence did not bring freedom or progress.

It is a deeply human dilemma: the writer, artist, or university professor is not free of emotions, passions, and interests. That is why we are against myths as they are constructed in Western societies: writing books does not make anyone an incorporeal angel despite the requisite coherence.

It is a deeply human dilemma: the writer, artist, or university professor is not free of emotions, passions, and interests. That is why we are against myths as they are constructed in Western societies: writing books does not make anyone an incorporeal angel despite the requisite coherence. It is inevitable that someone be guided by his stomach instead of ideas—as noted by Chinua Achebe—and hide sensitivity behind security. In any place and time, human beings react the same way to certain challenges. Africans withstood colonial barbarism together, but with independence, methodological or tactical divergences arose in focus, priorities, and objectives. An ideological plurality flourished that oppression had formerly enshrouded. Simplistic reductionisms consider all blacks the same, whereas race is not a uniform; each individual adopts attitudes according to his or her tendency and expectations. It happened in other places: not all the portentous cultural elite of the Weimar Republic had the courage to stand up to Hitler’s barbarism. The vast majority sought accommodation in that sinister structure, a phenomenon that repeated itself in the countries of "real socialism": the scientific and humanistic academies, journalism, and the literary world which grew from “organic intellectuals” in the service of Stalinism.

We Africans are not different; when human nature is so uninclined to heroism few would take scorn, marginalization, poverty, imprisonment, exile, and even martyrdom before supporting iniquity. Furthermore, if we comprehend the brutal pressure of totalitarianism on minds and bodies, we will find other reasons that complicate the unity of action against black-on-black oppression, which replaced the oppression of the colonizer. It is hardly understandable in societies like the United States, but an objective contextualization requires placing ourselves in underdeveloped countries, where, often, the only source of income and survival is the portentous finger of the dictator. These are realities that disable certain utopian exercises that tend to seek idyllic behavior improper of our species and praise heroism precisely because of its infrequency.

It would be impossible to outline here a detailed history of all that occurred in each of the 55 African nations in the 60 years of supposed “freedom,” nor would it be possible to detail the behavior of their cultural elites in the face of such convulsions. We all have in mind an image of Africa, paradigm of all disasters: cruel, lifelong dictatorships causing diseases, famines, wars, and permanent instability while producing millions of refugees, all of which contrasts with the shameful opulence of insatiable oligarchies, with their ignorance and contempt of knowledge. These leaders are insensitive to the lacerating misery and suffering of their compatriots. This astonishing inefficiency questions their reasoning power; null protection for children and the elderly; violence against, and the objectivizing of, women: in short, the systematic infringement of all fundamental rights, reflected by the appalling human development indexes; daily tragedies contemplated impassibly along with the massive emigration of our young people. These are the frightful effects described by recent African literature.

Simplistic reductionisms consider all blacks the same, whereas race is not a uniform; each individual adopts attitudes according to his or her tendency and expectations.

Read in other worlds, it would seem that our books legitimize the stamp of “impossible Africa” ​​disseminated by racists. Because these effects are profusely aired, there is scarcely any mention of clearly identified causes: a voracious neocolonialism that mercilessly exploits the wealth of our countries while a charitable discourse prevails, underscoring the supposed inability of the African to self-organize and coexist in society. It is an image that perpetuates an immovable cliché and forms the basis of relations between the West and Africa; depredation to which emerging nations like China, India, or Brazil are added. In the mind of the citizen in another corner of the planet, the African is the scum of the world.

This cliché established itself in the subconscious of the Africans themselves. Beings aware of their own lesser importance, deprived of spiritual holdings formerly provided by primitive cultures, driven to an intimate dissatisfaction not satiated by suffocating modernity, they were turned into caricatures of others. African thought appears debilitated. Lacking cultural infrastructures that counteract the perverse effects of the singular discourse, illusions are broken in the certainty that all resistance is futile against the invisible powers that dominate African lives. All attempts at regeneration are crushed and ridiculed.

But our thinkers have not quit. We know our problems better than anyone; we reflect on them and we propose solutions. Does this effort benefit us? Does it matter how much we can think or say? Is it even worth it to swim against the current, navigating thousands of ruses with which the constituted order silences transgressive ideas, the attempts of dissidence and rationalization, all the regenerationist proposals that alter the deafness of our existence?

But our thinkers have not quit. We know our problems better than anyone; we reflect on them and we propose solutions.

Thus, the developed world is full of African liberal professionals and technicians unable to practice in their countries; a gap never filled by cooperants and other charity efforts. But the “comfort” of Europe and North America is not the reason for desertion. Does the American public know that European financial institutions receive from Africa capital equivalent to twice the European Union’s budget for development cooperation? Are they informed that 14 African countries pay France 400 million euros each year, in exchange for absolutely nothing? Why not tell them that money laundering and other forms of corruption practiced by the extractive industries deprive Africans of $157 billion dollars annually? Why are Africans defending their fishing grounds in Somalia or Nigeria, their main resource for centuries, considered to be “pirates” and “terrorists” in the West when, in addition to destroying their habitat, illegal and uncontrolled fishing involves losses of more than $70 billion a year? This data is easy to find on the Internet, prepared by institutions and agencies that no reasonable person considers “revolutionary.” It is known to authorities, but the effects are concealed by companies in places like Equatorial Guinea, my country, where they have maintained for almost three decades the cruelest and most corrupt present-day tyranny. Do you think, given these realities, that independence is a "luxury," that Africans do not deserve freedom? Does the topic of “failed states" not ring of simplistic reductionism, which, in the middle of the twenty-first century, seemingly exhumes old imperialist desires?

From our perspective, our states have not failed, our nations are not "unviable," nor do we Africans possess some sort of special gene that makes us inferior to other people. The failure is the imposed model. Throughout these six decades of independence without sovereignty, the Lampedusian model substituted white government officials for black overseers charged with "maintaining stability" in their holdings so that nothing changed. The extent of what happened in Africa from 1956 on indicates that real willingness to dignify the African and recognize his full humanity never truly existed.

Investigate and analyze for yourself how many conflicts are taking place in Africa; surely you will not find data to support the fallacy of the supposed “tribal wars” and other myths. You will discover, instead, the true role of “respectable” companies, governments, and personalities in the perpetuation of misery. For us, it would be enough to foster the only model yet to be experienced in Africa: participatory democracy. It would suffice that we truly recover control of our destinies; that they should represent us honest and decent compatriots, concerned for the welfare of their fellow beings. We need leaders who respect the rights of all and who value human life. We need leaders with credible moral and intellectual solvency, not ignorant brutes drawn from remote villages and suddenly endowed. We need presidents and ministers to speak the current language and know how to manage our interests.

We need, finally, to recover Humanism, which is not only contained in the millions of books that cram the libraries of the West; Humanism is also formulated in our sayings and maxims, in our philosophy, in our traditional values, those that are useful in this century.

We do not recognize ourselves in those grotesque, caricatured Africans who they say we are. In Kampala or Kinshasa, in Lomé, Nairobi, Harare, or Malabo, as in London and Rome, Madrid, Paris, Ottawa, or Washington, a thief is a thief and a murderer is a murderer. We will not resign ourselves to an imposed sense of fate. We know that everything can be different. But as long as the West prefers African libertarians, thieves, and murderers, please do not insult us because Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Idi Amin Dada, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, Hissène Habré, Omar Bongo, Charles Taylor, Sani Abacha, Ggnassingbé Eyadéma, Blaise Compaoré, Yoweri Museveni, Denis Sassou Nguesso, Robert Mugabe, José Eduardo dos Santos, or Teodoro Obiang Nguema do not represent us: we have not chosen them; they do not rob in our name, nor for us.

How can we not write, if our first obligation is to tell the things that nobody will recount for us? How can we be silent, if our main duty is to complete the half-truths? And as long as we live, we will continue to write, to unmask fallacies, to denounce manipulation, aware that the struggle undertaken by our grandparents and our parents has not concluded. If they wrested formal sovereignty, we set the path to freedom and development that the generations to come will enjoy.

Not all African intellectuals chose the arduous path of fighting censorship and ignorance, defending the right to life and freedom. Many settled for ambition, cowardice, or comfort, putting their capacities at the service of dictatorships. The dead were erased from our memory, and the living pay for their betrayal in their consciences. We consider it of great interest to remember the thousands of Africans who suffered and continue to suffer humiliation, imprisonment, torture, exile, and death for their fidelity to the idea of ​​a free, prosperous, supportive, and dignified Africa. These are aspirations for which our elders demanded the end of colonialism, revindicating a humanism without last names. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, creator of the Epic Theater, persecuted by the Nazis, and murdered by the communists:

Those who are weak don’t fight.
Those who are stronger might fight for an hour.
Those who are stronger still might fight for many years.
The strongest fight
their whole life.
They are the indispensable ones.

–From The Mother, 1930

Amongst our “indispensables” is the Malagasy Jacques Rabemananjara, born in 1913, co-founder of the Democratic Movement for the Malagasy Renewal and deputy-elect in the French Assembly after World War II, although he never occupied his seat: he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to life imprisonment by order of General Charles de Gaulle, accused of instigating the rebellion of 1947. Released ten years later, he was exiled from his country until independence. After he served several times as minister and also as vice president, a coup d’etat in 1972 sent him back into exile, where he died in 2005. He wrote a novel, thirteen collections of poetry, three plays, two essay books, and numerous articles, compiled in two volumes.

Félix Tchicaya U Tam’si was born in the so-called French Congo in 1931. He lived in France from age 15 until independence in 1960. A follower of Patrice Lumumba, he returned to exile after the assassination of the nationalist leader in January 1961, where he died in 1988. His brief corpus of work includes four poems, four novels, and three plays.

Amongst our “indispensables” is the Malagasy Jacques Rabemananjara, Félix Tchicaya U Tam’si, Alexandre Biyidi Awala, Camara Laye, Chinua Achebe, Sony Labou-Tansi.

Alexandre Biyidi Awala, better known as Mongo Beti, was born in Cameroon in 1932. He experienced colonial injustices in his childhood that incited his militancy in the party of Rubén Um Nyobé, an anticolonial leader assassinated by the French in 1958. Beti studied in France and, given his opposition to the dictatorship at home, stayed to found a magazine and write 22 books of narratives and essays denouncing African dictatorships sustained by Europe. He returned to Cameroon after his retirement, where he died shortly after in 2001, poisoned, according to his family.

Camara Laye was born in Guinea-Conakry in 1928. After receiving a scholarship to enhance his craft as a mechanic in France, he went on to study engineering. With proclaimed independence in 1958, he returned to his country and collaborated with President Ahmed Sékou Touré, but the president’s tyrannical drift forced him into exile in Senegal, where he died in 1980. He published only four novels, but is fundamental in African literature. Ahmadou Kourouma was born in 1927 in Ivory Coast; as a young man he joined the French colonial army, which he left after the Indochina war. Upon Ivory Coast’s independence in 1960, he returned to his country. Yet his criticism of President Félix Houphouet-Boigny, who was protected by France, led him to prison. The long exile that followed was spent in Algeria, Cameroon, Togo, and France. He returned to his country during the democratic interregnum; in his critique of the civil war that began in 2002, “an extravagance that will lead to chaos,” he said, he became an "enemy" of power and was forced to flee. He died in exile in 2003. I had the immense luck to meet him and talk briefly with him in September 2001. I was struck by his boundless bitterness. His body of work, only five novels, is one of the most solid of postcolonial literature: ironic and full of heartbreaking images about the reality of the continent.

My admiration toward and tribute to Chinua Achebe is eternal, because he influenced my littoral vocation upon the discovery in my adolescence of Todo se desmorona (Things Fall Apart). Born in Nigeria in 1930, he was a prominent member of the portentous generation of intellectuals whose activism, while still being students at the University of Ibadan, would be fundamental to articulate anticolonial consciousness in Nigeria and neighboring countries. The convulsive history of his country, with the Biafra war as a culmination, marked his life and his work. Since 1972, he lived in exile in Boston as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, where he died in 2013. With deep feeling I wrote his obituary in the Madrid newspaper El País, as with that of Mongo Beti and, recently, my friend and compatriot, Maria Nsué. Achebe’s immense legacy includes five novels, eight books of stories, eight critical essays, four pieces of children’s literature, and six poems, in which he positions himself on phenomena such as coups and dictatorships, focusing their devastating effects on the individual.

I also felt close to the tragic disappearance of Sony Labou-Tansi in Brazzaville in 1995, two weeks after his wife’s death. Born in Kinshasa (Republic of Congo), it was established in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), on the other side of the common river, now bordered by the arbitrary colonial partition. His work describes the African’s worst nightmares today: a grotesque world, absurd, summarized in a single sentence: “Look no further, we have found it: man was created to invent hell” (Lab’Ou Tansi 2011, 124). In his brief life, this corrosive playwright and stage director bequeathed us six novels, twelve plays, and five books of poetry.

Among the “indispensable” living Africans, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o stand out.

The pleas for clemency on the part of numerous world personalities—including President Bill Clinton—did not prevent the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995, ordered by General Sani Abacha, then dictator of Nigeria. Writer, television producer, environmentalist, and human rights activist, his only crime was to preside over the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an ethnic group that has suffered the continued degradation of their habitat in the Niger Delta due to oil spills. His peaceful activism cost him his life at age 44, regardless of his 15 published books (poetry, novel, drama, essay) for which he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Among the “indispensable” living Africans, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o stand out. The former was awarded the first African Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 while the latter is an eternal candidate. Their biographies are well-known in the United States, their country of refuge, where they taught for many years. The Nigerian, Soyinka, stands out because of his militant honesty and his thoughts on Tigritude: "The tiger does not pronounce his tigritude—he pounces on its prey" (Feuser 1988, 559), he proclaimed, in opposition to the Negritude proposed by Senghor. For this prolific poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, there is no doubt: "until Africa does not control its destiny, it will not regain its humanity" (Tulio Demicheli 2001), as he declared in 2001. The Kenyan, Ngugi, leads the crusade for the African to abandon "imperialist tongues" and adopt native languages ​​as vehicles of literary creation. He renounced English to write the 30 books that encompass his production: plays, novels, and essays on cultural and political themes, all in Kikuyu.

I evoke countless anonymous heroes (journalists, economists, lawyers, teachers, students . . .) who sacrifice their lives on a daily basis to nourish the flame of future freedom. It is a chimeric future.

I will finish this incomplete journey by recalling the efforts and sacrifices of many other thinkers and artists who, in the past six decades, continue to face the wicked powers that deepen the gulf of black degradation in Africa and in the world. Since each country both recognizes and remembers its heroes, here I can only generically evoke musicians like the Nigerian Fela Kuti, a human rights activist who died in 1997 at the age of 57 due to the harsh punishment he suffered during twenty years of fierce persecution. Also, I evoke the Gabonese musician Pierre Claver Zeng, who for decades lashed out at the family oligarchy imposed by France from 1967 until today and died in Paris in 2010. Not forgetting religious leaders, I recall Rafael Nze Abuy, archbishop of Malabo (Equatorial Guinea). The tyranny of Teodoro Obiang sadly prevented him from leaving the country until the last moment; he died in Madrid in 1991. Cristophe Munzihirwa, archbishop of Bukavu (Democratic Republic of Congo), was assassinated in 1996; Engelbert Mveng, a Cameroonian Jesuit, theologian, anthropologist, and historian, died in Yaoudé in 1995 under suspicious circumstances. His compatriot, Jean-Marc Ela, a priest, theologian, and sociologist, was persecuted even in his Canadian exile, where he died mysteriously in 2008.

I evoke countless anonymous heroes (journalists, economists, lawyers, teachers, students . . .) who sacrifice their lives on a daily basis to nourish the flame of future freedom. It is a chimeric future. While this paper was in preparation, the noted poet Mbizo Chiroso was forced to flee from Zimbabwe because of the cruel persecution of the dictator Robert Mugabe. It is to them, the true protagonists of this history, to whom we must express our deep gratitude.


  1. Joseph Conrad reflected a pale portrait in The Heart of Darkness.
  2. Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was author of An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1855), among other works, disseminating the theory of an Aryan master race.


Feuser, Willfred. 1988. "Wole Soyinka: The Problem of Authenticity." Black Literature Forum 22 (3): 559.

Lab’Ou Tansi, Sony. 2011. Life and a Half. Translated by Alison Dundy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Soyinka, Wole. 1972. “Background and Friezes.” In A Shuttle in the Crypt. London: R. Collings.

Tulio Demicheli, Santiago. 2001. "Soyinka: ‘Hasta Que África No Controle Su Destino, No Recuperará Su Humanidad’.", March 24.


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