Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 2

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 2
African independence and after
Some well-written things to make people angry

"What does this Independence mean?" asks Ngugi. A rush of progressive developments, perhaps. No. Because his answer to that question stresses the evident gap between ideals and actuality. For the peasants and urban workers, Ngugi sees this as a period of gradual disillusionment:

Independence has not given them back their land. They are still without food or clothes. But now there is a difference. Before independence basic realities were boldly and visibly delineated: all conflicts were reduced to two polarities - white was wealth, power and privilege; black was poverty, labour and servitude. 'Remove the white man,' cried the nationalist leaders, 'and the root cause of our troubles is gone.' Gone? Not exactly! The peasants and workers are still the hewers and carriers, but this time, for what Aluko would call the 'black White Man.1

Ngugi sees the nationalist elite group deflecting from itself "the never-silent clamours for better living conditions" by fanning the flames of tribalism. Thus, in Nigeria (for instance), the Yoruba is made to blame the enterprising Ibo; the Ibo is made to blame the uneducated Hausa; and the Hausa is made to blame the cunning Southerners. Attempts are also made to stifle unrest by appeals to nationalistic sentiments. For the elite group, however, Independence is a boon:

Under the banner of Africanization, it grabs at jobs in the civil service and jostles for places on the directing boards of all the foreign companies - Shell, I.C.I., Unilever, Union Miniere, Anglo-American banks and mining-corporations that really run the economy of the country. It surrounds itself with country houses, cars, washing machines, television sets and all the consumer durables that are associated with an acquisitive middle-class2

Ngugi's earlier question - will this class use their political power to entrench their economic position? - has been answered, so far as he is concerned, strongly in the affirmative.

Ngugi, though clearly angry about this turn of events, registers no surprise. It would seem, however, that many observers (both outside Africa and within) were taken by surprise. As Basil Davidson has pointed out, it was mistakenly believed that "the colonial situation not only swept away the old but also, like the English industrial revolution, laid foundations for the new." Any balanced survey of the 'evidence', he emphasises, will reveal that it achieved the first but not the second. "All that emerged from the colonial period, in a structural sense," writes Davidson, "was an institutional void concealed for a while behind a political safety-curtain painted with parliamentary symbols of European provenance, a mere facade of order on lines drawn by alien cultues.3 That facade of order began to crumble shortly after Independence. The socio-political upheavals of the late 1960's - characterised by bloody internecine fighting and a proliferation of military coups - can be seen as manifestations of what Davidson has termed "a crisis long in the making, a crisis of institutions on a continental scale".4 Indeed, the process of disintegration can be traced back to (at least) the start of 1961 with the death of Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Congo. "The death of Lumumba," notes one African critic, "dramatically spelt the beginning of the crumble of the mental edifice that the Africans had regarded as being the purpose of independence".5 Such traumatic episodes as the deposition of Kwame Nkrumah (the Osagefo or Redeemer, spearhead of Africa's drive towards Independence and unity)6 and the disastrous Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) take their place in what is portrayed as a general trend towards disillusionment. Of the Civil War, Ngugi writes:

The Biafran - Nigerian conflict, where ordinary men and women who had not in any case gained much from Uhuru were made to slaughter one another, with guns supplied by competing Western powers who had for centuries ravished the continent, is today's African reality: the potential of a Biafran type of conflict exists in every African country that had doggedly refused to dismantle capitalism and colonial economic structures, to correct the legacy of an uneven geographic and social development.7

If the Biafran conflict is part of "today's African reality" then (in a specifically East African context) so also are such developments as the murder of Josiah Kariuki (a prominent Kenyan politician and critic of government policy), the emergence (in March 1975) of a Kenyan group significantly calling itself the Poor People's Liberation Organisation, and the repressive tactics employed by many of Africa's ubiquitous military leaders such as the notorious Idi Amin in Uganda. African writers directed a strong degree of indictment at the Amin regime. In a resolution coming out of the meeting of writers in Accra (June 1975), Uganda is aligned with white-dominated South Africa. The resolution reads: "The Union of African Writers, aware of nameless atrocities perpetrated on Africans in Africa by external forces as well as by African authorities hereby expresses its vigorous condemnation of such atrocities wherever they do occur. This Union wishes to stress its profound indignation against all attempts at the denial of human dignity, freedom and security as is currently the situation in Uganda and South Africa, not to mention the other concentration camps on the continent."8 Signatories to the resolution included Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

Generally speaking, it would appear that in the face of socio-political turmoil many of the African elite groups have retreated behind the shelter of army rule. Yet the frequency of military coups9 is seen as only a surface indication of a more serious dilemma, or (as Kofi Awoonor has described it) "a visceral manifestation of a more deep-seated malaise - the inability of Africa to reconcile herself to herself and to search through the debris of her history for the pieces with which to build that true self in her own image."10 The system of neo-colonialism - continuing indirect, yet effective, control by the former imperial power - is shown to stand as a major obstacle to such an attempted reconciliation. Echoing Ngugi's comments on the foreign companies that "really run the economy of the country," Kofi Awoonor attacks those African scholars who "naively believe" that neo-colonialism "was a figment of Nkrumah's imagination." Rather, writes Awoonor, it is "the real monster of postindependence Africa, manufactured in the political enclaves of Europe and America and wheeled into an African existence." He sees neo-colonialism as a force that "still terrorizes and holds to ransom the whole of the African continent" and as a characteristic feature of the contemporary situation wherein socio-economic (and, by extension, political) alternatives seem to be defined "not by Africa's own need ... but by the still-persistent political and economic demands of Europe."11 Such a view tends to stress the function of the various African elite formations as local brokers for non-African financial interest groups. Another commentator, the economist Samir Amin, concludes his comprehensive survey of the phenomenon of neo-colonialism by pointing to the evident fragmentation of economic area within Africa. His conclusion appears to support the views projected by Awoonor and Ngugi regarding the dominant role of continuing non-African economic control. Amin asserts that "the unambiguous conclusion must be that the fragmentation of economic area which West Africa has undergone constitutes an irresistible pressure for the maintenance of colonial structures and policies and colonial 'development,' and that these in turn no less irresistibly produce foreign domination and underdevelopment."12 The alliance of international economic forces with an indigenous broker group results in the appearance, within the new African states, of what has been termed "the theft-economy,"13 characterised by "a reckless squandering of economic resources combined with an absolutely king-size capacity for corruption and graft of all sorts in all social strata including the highest (indeed especially in the highest)."14 The theft-economy is shown to inhibit any egalitarian distribution of wealth, even where such a distribution forms part of the proclaimed policy of the African leadership cadres. Ngugi's response to this situation is to call for radical structural change. "Until the whole structure is changed so that peasants and workers have an effective voice," he writes, "decolonization will never be complete and we shall not even have started on the road to Independence."15 He refers to Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth. In this highly influential text Fanon points to the essential superficiality of post-colonial development undertaken without radical socio-political changes to the colonial structure. It is all just pomp and ceremony:

... there's nothing but a fancy-dress parade and the blare of the trumpets. There's nothing save a minimum of readaptation, a few reforms at the top, a flag waving: and down there at the bottom an undivided mass, still living in the Middle Ages, endlessly marking time.16

Independence as a hollow sham played (this time) by black players like some vicious drama of the absurd: a highly available metaphor for the literary texts to work with.

In an author's note to Homecoming, Ngugi again emphasises that there has been "no radical change in the inherited structures and in our priorities."17 He stresses the point that, "apart from blackanizing the personnel running them," the key African socio-economic institutions remain substantially as they were inherited from the colonial period:

There has been no basic land reform, the settler owning 600 acres of land is replaced by a single African owning the same 600 acres. There has been no change in the structure and nature of ownership of various companies, banks and industries; the two or three European directors go away to be replaced by two or three indigenous directors - the companies remain foreign-owned. There has been no socialization of the middle commercial sector; the Asian dukawallah goes away, to be replaced by a single African dukawallah.18

Neither, notes Ngugi, has there been much structural reform of the educational system - "the former white schools remain as special high standard schools, attended only by those who can afford the exorbitant fees." Although he sees the "more blatant racial aspects of our education" as having been removed, he comments that "the actual educational system which aimed at producing subservient minds which at the same time looked down upon the rural peasantry and the urban workers has not been radically altered."19 Ngugi quotes approvingly, however, from a speech given by Julius Nyerere to teachers in Tanzania. Nyerere urges them to teach to produce strength in the context of the revolutionary aims of the Arusha Declaration:

Otherwise you will teach to produce clerks as the colonialists did. You will not be teaching fighters but a bunch of slaves or semi-slaves. Get your pupils out of the colonial mentality. You have to produce tough people; stubborn youths - who can do something - not hopeless youths.20

"There have been advances," writes Ngugi, and he acknowledges that "much has been done - even within stifling, inherited systems." Nevertheless, the essential point is pressed home: "But the lack of structural transformation of our societies means that our economies and other institutions will continue, as in the past, to be tied to the West."21 Noting that the concept of tribe was "a special creation of the colonial regimes," Ngugi gives the term an ironical twist as he concludes that "there are only two tribes left in Africa: the 'haves' and the 'have nots'".22

It is important to ask: What of the position of African authors after Independence? In the post-colonial period many of the writers continue to insist upon the social function of the artist and the necessity (as a general rule) for 'committed' literature. But committed to what, and in what sense?23 As one would expect in any group of authors from such a wide area, there are evident differences of opinion regarding these questions. There is a variety of views expressed within a general concern for the relationship between literature and social change. The Nigerian novelist and critic S.O. Mezu, maintains that because the African poet "can no longer speak to his people" he has chosen to speak for them, "to represent them as it were on the contemporary scene." The modern poet, writes Mezu, "has chosen to sing, chant, shout, be angry, rave, curse, condemn and praise when occasion demands it in the interests of his people." Significantly, Mezu points out that because "his people's preoccupations are of a revolutionary nature, African poetry recently, contrary to traditional poetry, has by and large been revolutionary."24 Okello Oculi is not so sure. "I think it's very presumptuous to assume that an artist would create a revolution in society," he tells an interviewer. "But perhaps there are some well-written things which have made people angry." Oculi's caution clearly proceeds from his understanding of the paradoxical position of the writer: "The very people he's crying for don't even get to the bookshop. They can't afford the bloody books, right?".25 The limits of reference of modern African writing have been emphasised by Donatus Nwoga. He seems modern poetry, for instance, as being "at the periphery of activities" and stresses that, although its "function is important," it should not be exaggerated: "we must not spurt venom as if it were the most essential element in national stability and development."26 Wole Soyinka, arguably the most forthright spokesman on committed writing in Africa, remarks that the exercise of the literary function may serve the writer - and perhaps a few followers - to keep in view "what the ends of humanity are":

They may eventually be spurred to action in defence of those ends. In our own society especially it is essential to recognise this. At the moment, literature and art can only function as a KEEP-IN-VIEW tray on a bureaucrat's desk. Once this is accepted, the writer does not fool himself into thinking that all is said and all is done that need be said and done. He holds himself in readiness - accelerating the process where he can when the minutes in that file can be made a live project.27

Elsewhere, Soyinka holds to a certain inalienable right of each writer. "If he feels committed or involved or if he feels a compulsion within himself to write the truth," asserts Soyinka, "then he surely has the right to try and build the kind of society in which he can write this beautiful literature, these beautiful words."28 Ngugi has also made a clear statement of belief:

I believe that African intellectuals must align themselves with the struggle of the African masses for a meaningful national ideal. For we must strive for a form of social organisation that will free the manacled spirit and energy of our people so we can build a new country, and sing a new song.29

Much of modern African literature attempts to contribute, quite knowingly, to the making of that new song.

So this, for the writers, is the text of Modern African History (or at least its main features). I want to turn my attention now to another collective text: the general literary response.


1. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 56.

2. Ibid., pp. 56-57.

3. Basil Davidson, The Africans, p. 321.

4. Ibid.

5. Atieno-Odhiambo, "The Dead End of Uhuru Worship", Busara, 3, no. 4 (197l), 55-56.

6. The Ghanaian leader's position in modern African political history is an ambivalent one. While he is often regarded as a charismatic leader corrupted by power, the force of his symbolic identification with African freedom is also clearly understood. See Wole Soyinka's comment: "His fate at the hands of his countrymen may prove yet to be a passage of wisdom for the man who is yet to symbolize the destiny of black people everywhere." [Letter from Wole Soyinka to James Gibbs, quoted in Gibbs, Study Aid to 'Kongi's Harvest' (London: Rex Collings, 1973)].

7. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 50.

8. "Meeting of African Writers, Accra, June 1975," Transition (Ch'Indaba), 9 (vi), no. 50 (October 1975/March 1976), 15.

9. There have been more than 40 military revolts in black Africa during the past 20 years, including those in Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda.

10. Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth, p. 32.

11. Ibid.

12. Samir Amin, Neo-Colonialism in West Africa, trans. F. McDonagh (1971; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973). The original French edition was entitled L'Afrique de L'Ouest Bloquee.

13. The term is used by Leonard Barnes, in Africa In Eclipse (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971).

14. Leonard Barnes, African Renaissance (London: Victor Gollancz 1969), p. 10. In this work, Barnes points to three factors that tend to cancel the "strenuous endeavours of indigent countries to help themselves":

"l. dependence on highly unstable foreign markets which entail for the indigent falling export prices and rising import prices;

2. the requirements of debt repayment on account of international aid, which by 1965 was absorbing 15 per cent of all export earnings and is steadily mounting;

3. uncontrolled population growth." (p. 32).

15. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 59.

16. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. C. Farrington (196l: rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 197l), p. 118.

17. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. xvii.

18. Ibid., p. xvi.

19. Ibid., p. 15.

20. Quoted in Homecoming, p. 19. The passage is from an unofficial translation, by the Makerere Political Science Department, of a speech given at Dar es Salaam, January, 1969.

Tanzania's Arusha Declaration can be found in Julius K. Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press, 1968). The concept of Ujamaa (familyhood, collective enterprise) is certainly presented as a rationale for basic structural change. In "Socialism and Rural Development" (Ujamaa, p. 106), Nyerere posits an alternative to the 'theft-economy', based on rural development. Speedy economic development is not seen as essential:

"Progress may thus be quite slow at the beginning, yet that is no reason for surrendering the goal. The man who creeps forward inch by inch may well arrive at his destination, when the man who jumps without being able to see the other side may well fall and cripple himself." (p. 132).

21 Ngugi, Homecoming, p. xvi.

22. Ibid., p. xvii.

23. See the contributions of Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, Kofi Awoonor (George Awoonor-Williams), Mbella Sonne Dipoko, and Ezekiel Mphahlele in The Writer in Modern Africa, ed. Per Wastberg (New York: Africana Publ. Corp., for Scandinavian Inst. of African Studies, 1969), as representative 'committed' views. When one speaks of commitment does this refer to the writer as artist, the writer as citizen, or both? - a typical question in this text.

24. S. Okechukwu Mezu, "Poetry and Revolution in Modern Africa," in African Writers on African Writing, ed. G.D. Killam, pp. 95-96. The article first appeared in Black Academy Review, I, No. 1 (Spring 1970). The emphasis is mine.

25. Interview with Oculi by Marti Mueller and Laura Tanna, in African Writers on African Writing, p. 134. The interview took place on November 3, 1970 in Kampala, Uganda.

26. Donatus I. Nwoga, "Obscurity and Commitment in Modern African Poetry," in African Literature Today: No. 6 Poetry in Africa, ed. E.D. Jones (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973), p. 27.

27. Interview with Soyinka by Biodun Jeyifous, in Transition, 8 (v), No. 42 (1973), 62. Capitalisation is in the original.

28. Soyinka, from the discussion in The Writer in Modern Africa, ed. Per Wastberg, p. 52. The emphasis is mine.

29. Ngugi, Homecoming, p. 50. Part of the 'new song' is clearly concerned with the search for a meaningful way forward for Africa and the Africans. See, for example, the preamble to the "Declaration of African Writers": "Mindful of the critical state in the process of decolonization on our continent; of the need to accelerate the pace of self-apprehension of the African peoples; of the search for a progressive direction for re-shaping our society and determining our destiny ..." [Issue, IV, No. 4 (1974), 8].

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