Two of Africa's most notorious war criminals are facing trial at The Hague, right now, for perpetrating crimes against humanity. Exhibit A: Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, accused of using blood diamonds to finance atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front during the Sierra Leone Civil War. Exhibit B: Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, former vice president and militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo, believed to have masterminded a five-month span of rape, pillaging and murder in the Central African Republic, ending in March of 2003.
Leaving their beloved countries crying, the actions of these two aggressors evidence Frantz Fanon's psychopathologization of colonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth, which describes, in part, the dangers of institutionalizing a counter-revolutionary class structure in the postcolony, one that will favor the formation of a national vanguard dependent upon and indistinguishable from a continuation of oppressive colonial decadence. Yet, conflicts cultivated by Taylor and Gombo as markets for violence are rarely discussed in postcolonial terms. Instead, they are projected through the prism of tribalism, an ideological frame that renders all African tensions as by-products of an uncivilized, ahistoric continent, whose people have not only failed to embrace modernity, but rejected it outright.
Art can become a clarion, in such cases. In the following interview, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, one of East and Central Africa's leading literary and political voices, makes clear the need to move beyond the frame of tribalism to achieve a nuanced understanding of African conflicts, as well as the justice, both juridical and discursive, that such understandings breed.
Q: Western media often blame African violence on tribal factionalism. Since you will have frequently lectured on the myth of tribalism in African politics, can you discuss your view of how African conflicts have been recast by foreign press agencies?
A: The word "tribe" is what I find problematic. The Western media has a formula for discussing African politics whenever political eruptions occur in any African nation: Tribe x versus tribe y. They look at the ethnic origins of the main actors and the so-called enmity within tribes, no matter what other issues are present, including issues of democracy, economic empowerment or disagreement with foreign policy. All of these issues are reduced to a single formula, under which genuine economic and political differences are subsumed.
Q: Achille Mbembe once said that "in dominant African narratives of the self, the deployment of race is foundational not only to difference in general, but also to the idea of the nation." In postcolonial Africa, how are such ominous discourses of inferiority being overcome?
A: The race question is asked within the question of modernity. I put them together with the colonial question, which was given meaning in popular discourse through the slave trade and slavery. We cannot disregard the question of modernity without race and we cannot think of modernity without considering the contribution of systems of movement in Asia, America, Africa and the islands.
Q: In your book Decolonizing the Mind, you encourage postcolonial authors to write in their native languages, as opposed to European tongues, in order to cast off the lingering shadow of colonialism. In your view, what has been the impact of this message, not only in your homeland, but throughout the world?
A: I think that Decolonizing the Mind has had a big impact, particularly because it raises the issue - in Africa, Asia and Europe - of the centrality of language in the decolonization process. Many marginalized intellectuals tended to write in Western European languages, which presented a disability by making those individuals invisible within their own culture. Instead, I encourage them to become visible in their own language, then become visible on a global scale.
Q: Can you talk about the role of history in your work, especially your recent book Wizard of the Crow, which takes place in a fictional nation?
A: History is a strong component in my work, where an awareness of the past is used as a way of viewing the present to prepare for the future. I consider Wizard of the Crow a global epic from Africa. Although the story is based on a fictional country, the narrative moves across the globe, from Asia to America and back to Africa. It concerns both the past and the present, and, in particular, the problems of globalization, or what I call "corpolonialism," or the continuation of Western economic colonialism and domination through multinational corporations.
Q: What do you hope that people will learn from engaging with your ideas?
A: I hope they come to understand the significance of reducing issues to a single word. This is important not just for Africa, but for the whole world. There is an increasing gap of wealth, which is both widening and deepening, within each nation, a gap between the minority rich and the majority poor. This division between and within nations is the fundamental foundation for today's problems of world politics.