The intellectual politics of correctly naming an object or a phenomenon is often as critical and decisive as properly identifying the said object. Take for example, the current debate about restructuring in Nigeria. One would have thought that the elementary meaning of the word as changing or remodelling a particular structure would be so obvious even to a primary school pupil.
But the intellectual politics of correctly naming and properly identifying a phenomenon has taken over with adamant and implacable opponents of restructuring tasking the proponents to say what they actually mean by restructuring or keep the peace forever. Deliberate confusion is a legitimate weapon in the politics of naming. As it has been noted, language can be used in three principal ways: to express thought, to conceal thought or to replace thinking altogether.
In a famous encounter, an exasperated British philosopher once asked his opponent who was feigning philosophical ignorance about what it meant to be in pain to hit his foot against a sharp stone. To put it in native Yoruba parlance, it takes only a few minutes for a scantily dressed woman to figure out what Harmattan is all about. To live in a structurally dysfunctional nation is akin to being sent to a penal colony.
Karl Marx solved the famous Kantian philosophical conundrum about the unknowable “thing in itself” which sets a limit human understanding by insisting that philosophical perplexities are vulnerable to human praxis. Marx had pooh-poohed F.W Hegel’s ascription of the Kantian confusion to some Absolute Spirit in control of human destiny as a prime example of Hegelian mystification and idealism.
According to Marx, what cannot be resolved at the level of abstraction will be resolved at the level of concrete human action. Wielded hammer speaks poetry. Rounding off his thirteenth thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach with intellectual flourish and scornful bravura, Marx famously thundered: “Philosophers have always interpreted the world, the point is to change it”.
Yet given what many consider the Marxian revolutionary debacle in Russia, there are those who believe that it was Emmanuel Kant and his theory of the unknowable in human history who had the last laugh over his radical traducer. To start with when the revolution finally occurred, it was a revolution against capital, that is against the classical conditions enunciated by Marx and in a society roiling in feudal backwardness too. Second, praxis led to practical monstrosity and unspeakable human tragedy.
It can now be seen why the fierce struggle over concepts and key terms, the political contests for meaning in all their Orwellian necessities, even where they appear futile and meaningless on the surface, are an integral part of the timeless crusade for human emancipation from the clutches of feudal backwardness, superstitious idiocies and state-subsidized illiteracy.
There are many readers of this column who are quite upset by the persistent recourse to the word “post-colonial” to describe the Nigerian and African condition. As far as they are concerned, there is nothing “post” colonial about the Nigerian condition in all its consuming and epic tragedy. For them, Nigeria remains very much a colonial penal colony; a hardship posting for the most unlucky species of the Black race; a purgatorial transit camp of the condemned. Nothing has changed since the formal cessation of colonial rule.
But to say that nothing has changed since Africa’s formal independence from the colonial masters is to stretch the narrative a bit too far and a flagrant assault on actual reality, however impossible and nightmarish this may be. A lot has actually changed. No human condition and circumstances can remain the same forever; static and stagnant like a fetid pond. You are either moving forward or moving backward. Once again, we remind our readers of this column’s most insistent desideratum: You cannot step into the same river twice.
The phrase post-colonial tries to capture many things at the same time. It is like shooting at a moving target. It can refer to Africa and other colonized continents after the physical cessation of colonization. It is a new epoch and whether we like it or not, we just have to get on with it. In the history of the human race, the stronger have always attempted to dominate and impose their might and will on the weaker.
Nobody pays any reparation for colonization. Britain itself was a colony of the Roman Empire. Spain was a colony of the Almoravids for about two centuries until they threw off the yoke, beginning with the conquest of Zaragosa. Holland was a colony of Spain and so was a huge chunk of the South American continent which still wears its Iberian heritage with some aplomb till date
Brazil was a colony of Portugal and at a point the entire Portuguese royal clan relocated to Brazil, setting up the world’s first tri-continental empire-state. The Ottoman Turks did their bit and were set to overrun the whole of Europe until they were halted in a memorable battle on the plains of Serbia. The Japanese colonized the Koreans and brutalized the Chinese. The important thing to note is that people have always conquered and colonized other people. In the timeless flow and ebb of history, empires rise and fall and the world moves on.
The second meaning of post-colonial refers to the psychological condition of colonized people after the physical cessation of colonization. It may also refer to the psychological condition of the colonizers themselves. There are many who insist that that the physical cessation of colonization was just a sly nod in the direction of political correctness as it has given rise to a far more vicious, virulent and violent form of economic, political and cultural domination.
This is the sense in which this phrase is often used in this column, In contemporary Africa, the post-colony is a new and far more unsettling version of the colonial penal colony; a human hell on earth where genuine statehood has absconded or abdicated and things have reverted to the Hobbesian state of nature. In its millennial horror and sheer terror, it is Dante’s inferno, the Apocalypse and Amargeddon all rolled into one.
In its more benign intellectual formulation, the post-colonial condition has given rise to the notion of hybridised or conflated cultures in which the former colonized give as much to their tormentors as they receive in a brave new globalized world. It is not a one-sided grudge match since there are Third World success stories such as Singapore, a former colonial backwater, South Korea, a former Japanese colony and Dubai, a former desert waste dump, just as there are unfolding First World failures. This is not discounting the enthralling story of a nation like Australia where the pre-colonial, the colonial and the post-colonial jostle for attention within the vast space of a continent-country or a Hong Kong , a First World enclave within a nominally Second World nation.
There are many who are wont to dismiss these glittering spectacles and the enviable modernist skylines as nothing but dubious razzmatazz masking great inequity and injustice. Indeed less benign are the views of Francis Fanon, the Martinique born psychiatrist, who dismiss the post-colonial subject as an alienated and miscegenated mongrel tottering on the edge of despair and psychic disintegration.
Yet anybody monitoring the rise of right-wing extremist groups in Europe, the decline of its political and intellectual class and the Brexit rumpus in Britain, particularly the tortured and anguished visage of the outstanding Theresa May last Thursday as she sought to fend off her assailants who had sniffed blood must come to the realization that even colonizing former empires are not exempt from their own unique post-colonial pathology.
As hordes of immigrants absconding from the concrete hell of the post-colonial state in Africa and the Middle East arrive on European shores, the Age of post-colonial anxiety and unease has also arrived in these nations giving rise to extreme nationalism, xenophobia and racism. What goes around the world will eventually come back to its starting point, freighted with cargo.
It is however in Nigeria, far more than in any contemporary African country not even the Democratic Republic of Congo with which it is often compared, that pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial tensions come together to produce its most combustible combo. It is here that the most extreme notions of poverty and want combine with pestilential diseases to produce surreal suffering on a scale hardly ever witnessed by human society since the advent of modern civilization.
There are some friends of this column who prefer to call this peculiar Nigerian condition “Neo-colonialism” following the example of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and all the avatars of the decolonizing project. But it should now be obvious that this will not do. In its Greek origin, “neo” means young. Modern usage expanded its brief to mean new or recent. Neocolonialism means new or recent colonialism which does not take on board the epistemological totality of the post-colonial condition in all its contradictory ramifications.
Yet an even more militant and extreme formulation views the Nigerian conundrum as a function of what it calls caliphate colonialism. This is a coinage so beloved of many patriots and nationalists who have borne the brunt of military misrule in Nigeria. Yet apart from its usefulness as a weapon of heavy propaganda against the perceived excesses of a particular power formation in Nigeria, this phrase has no conceptual or intellectual value whatsoever.
A caliphate is a territory ruled according to Islamic tenets by a caliph (Khalifa) e.i a successor of the Holy Prophet and a Defender of the Muslim faith. Although there is nothing stopping anybody from succumbing to grandiose delusions, the whole idea of caliphate colonialism in a modern secular nation-state with a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society and with different loci of power is a classic non-sequitur. Nigeria’s post-independence history is an infallible guide on this. Anybody trying to upset the delicate equipoise, the negative equilibrium will only succeed in bringing the roof down on himself.
The post-colonial condition is alive and kicking in all its localized and globalized affinities as well as momentous contradictions. In order to overcome its Nigerian mutant through political push-over, it is important to correctly identify its outer form and inner realities.