Though Africa is like a beggar sitting on a heap of gold, there are many opportunities that keep presenting themselves for Africans to change their lot for the better, according to Prof Jean-Jacques Ngor Sène of Chatham University, in the USA.

Prof Sene was delivering the second Lecture on Black Thought and African Studies, co-hosted with the Black Methodist Consultation, under the theme Mythological Dimensions of Afrocentrism, on 24 August.

He said after the honeymoon of independence, Africa descended into chaos and was in very bad shape.

“The period 1960s to the 1980s was a period of Afro-pessimism. We were literally high on the drugs of liberation. We sang about liberation but did not do the work of liberation. We did not even define what we meant by liberation.

“After the Cold War, Africa found herself drinking a cocktail of disasters – poverty, conflict and AIDS. It was a time when ethnic conflict was rife. We saw it in Sierra Leone and Liberia where the young drugged militia were burying alive their neighbours. We saw it in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide,” he said.

At the same time, Prof Sene said, this period and several other moments in history, also gave us an opportunity to reflect and rethink of ourselves as Africans and the direction that we ought to take. He was quick to add that some of these turned out to be missed opportunities.

He said, “In 1962, when His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia convened the founding meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), that was a great opportunity. But it later became very disappointing as it turned out to be a group of dictators that came together to help each other commit all sorts of abuses in their countries, and retreat to their palaces with their mistresses and lining their pockets with public funds.”

Another mistake the OAU made, Prof Sene said, was sanitising the borders created by colonial powers.

“The Preamble of the declaration of Addis Ababa speaks of the inviolability of the frontiers inherited from colonialism. That is absurdity at its best, an organisation of African unity signing into law that the borders drawn at the Berlin Colonial Conference should not be violated! That was a contradiction that we cannot reconcile,” he said.

Another missed opportunity, Prof Sene said, was the 1999 meeting of African leaders that Colonel Muamar Gaddafi of Libya convened to propose that Africa goes the European Union way and move towards federalism.

He said, “When the African Union (AU) was formed in 1999, we had a new opportunity to rethink a better nationalism.  It was a potentially beautiful mythological piece but ended up being detrimental to the cause of its being.”

Prof Sene also noted that SADC seems to have lost the purpose for which was it was intended. “The last SADC meeting and all the drama about the detention or not of Grace Mugabe does not seem to point to a very hopeful direction. The AU said it was going to solidify the regional bodies of ECOWAS, SADC and the East African Community, and when they are ready individually, we were going to bring them together into the United States of Africa. The SADC agenda does not seem to go into this direction,” he said.

He said all is not lost as Africa still has vast untapped potential. He said, “The continent has about a billion people now and about half of that mass is, by international standards, middle class. So the image of a poverty stricken Africa is a figment of Western imagination. Furthermore, about 41 percent of the African population is no more than 20 years old. We are literally a young continent and the future belongs to us.”

He ended by suggesting that Africa is at a crossroads where she has to tell her story to the world.

“The powerful notion of interdependence is a common positive and useful African cultural trait. Africans have exported to the world the concept of conflict resolution, which did not exist in the Western discourse before the 1970s. In Rwanda after the genocide, the Western court system could not mediate the crisis. So the Rwandese went back to the traditional conflict resolution system which proved quite effective. Africans are a resilient people. We have suffered untold odds and yet we are able to sing and dance through the revolutions. African people offer an unparalleled example of what it means to be resilient,” Prof Sens said.