Struggle for legitimacy in the post-colonial state Ousmane Sembene

Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
The post-colonial nation state as an extension of the empire has its power hinged to colonial apparatus. While this might afford it some power and goodwill from the colonial master at the start, it soon draws on itself the wrath of its citizens.

The nation state suffers a crisis of inheritance (Kheir, 2010) and from inheritance as well; caught up as it is between efforts to please the colonial master and to give its people what they fought to get from the colonial master.

The fictional state of Senegal depicted in Ousmane Sembene’s “The Last of the Empire” (1981) suffers the historical burden of France and of French values and institutions.

French domination of the continent had depended on assimilation where the French hegemonic ideals were inculcated into blacks and they came to represent the normative of black life. These ideals pursued and entrenched a French way of life.

The assimilated African is made to believe that he does not only become a Frenchman, but he also changes his station in life. This rationale also obtains in Mongo Beti’s “Mission to Kala” (1957).

The Western-educated African Frenchman alienates himself from his fellow citizens whom he looks down upon, believing that he is above them as is the case with Toundi in Ferdinand Oyono’s “Houseboy” (1956).

Assimilation foists French hegemony, which becomes a historical burden that still afflicts Francophone Africa, Senegal included. Through assimilation, France sought to create a black man who would think of himself as French first and African second; a black Frenchman, who is educated in the French ways and sees everything through the eyes of a Frenchman.

It is this historical burden that plays havoc with Leon Mignane, the president of the fictional state of Senegal, reverently known as the Venerable One in “The Last of the Empire”.

Critics, like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Maryse Conde, have even cited, with reason maybe, Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal and his marriage to a white woman as well as his soft stance on the empire reflected in his Negritude ideology, as evidence of the extent to which assimilation hurts the chances of the continent’s leaders to reflect an African ethos.

Whereas Senghor is of the view that Negritude is the sum of the cultural mores of the black world as expressed in the lives and institutions of the black man and as armoury against colonialism, his glorification of Africa and compromise towards the same colonisers whom he pretends to fight against exposes him to critical brickbats.

In Sembene’s novel, Mignane’s personal physician, Professor Fall, says to Doyen Cheikh Tidiane after the coup: “I never renounced my nationality. We were French before we were Senegalese. You too, I hope . . . Blacks are all crazy . . . Incapable of governing themselves.”

The Doyen also intimates that: “I belong to two epochs. For over half of this century I convinced myself that I was French. I have done everything necessary to be acknowledged as such … My Frenchness affects me here (He passed his hand over his shaven head). It’s choking me. I refused to opt for dual nationality. I didn’t believe in Independence.”

The negativity and lack of belief in the post-independence nation state is both worrisome and disheartening, especially coming from intellectual elites that Africa lays its dreams on. It is this struggle to locate the self in the collective that leads to contradictions, all stemming from the subtle colonial machinations of plunder, which are made possible by Western forms of education and governance.

These contradictions reflect on the post-colonial state of Senegal and burden it as belonging is steeped in class and material gain. The elite class finds itself aligning to the empire and alienating itself from the people, leading to despondency, frustration and civil strife which are fodder for coups.

Since colonialism, the dialectical forces separating blacks and whites, and blacks from blacks along material lines, have created complexes that affect the post-colonial nation state of Senegal. Like most other African states at Independence, Senegal’s national army incorporated soldiers from the colonial army who have gone on campaigns in defence of French interests believing that they were Frenchmen.

With the addition of new recruits to the army, it becomes an army divided along hegemonic lines with interests also split along affinity depending on one’s interpretation of nationalism, or citizenship. With a black Frenchman at the helm, disaster lies in wait. Chief of Staff Brigadier-General Ousmane Mbaye, whose advisers are European, has a chequered history, which makes allegiance problematic: “He remembered past moments of pride and satisfaction. He had twice had the honour of taking part in the July 14th parade in Paris, marching from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe with his black troops.

“He recalled the great moments experienced during the years he had spent in the Colonial Army—all his youth. He had risen through the ranks, aided by his servile mentality . . . At the start of African independence, he suddenly experienced nationalistic feelings. He returned to his country to set up the first National Army.”

It is befuddling how a man with such conflicting feelings, who thinks highly of his experiences in the Colonial Army and “suddenly” has “nationalistic feelings” can be entrusted to set up a national army and subsequently lead it, or even be trusted in remodelling or nationalising it along acceptable ideological lines. The likelihood is that he will attempt to curry favour with the empire, because his heart remains ensconced in past exploits for the coloniser, and distance himself from the rank and file of the military.

As Fanon (1967) argues, the army should be nationalised and not militarised, for nationalisation is what transforms the military to a people’s army. Through Captain Mane, Sembene insists that it is possible for the army to fight in the corner of the people. The major tells his charges that they should not harm women and children, neither should they shoot at people.

The dialectical tensions are exacerbated by Leon Mignane’s belief that he is a Frenchman, yet he is the president of an independent African country. His government and its crucial institutions like the army are compromised.

Mignane has an apartment and a house in France, yet he doesn’t own a house in his own country, which irks most of his countrymen. He also has French citizenship, which makes him a Frenchman at heart. One can imagine the image created here and what it does for Africa; an African president who is a national/citizen of France.

The Venerable One, who to Doyen Cheikh Tidiane is “more European than any white man” is said to belong to “a blood group that exists only in northern Europe”; thus he is European by blood, yet he is a black Senegalese and First Citizen of that country. With these opposing forces at the personal and national levels, it becomes difficult for an African legitimacy to be fostered. The empire remains alive in Mignane, which compromises the nation-state. With the empire waiting to capitalise on any slip-ups, the post-colonial state remains in danger of losing out and reverting to empire.

The antithesis that obtains within Mignane and General Mbaye as individuals with a strong connection to the empire and other individuals who believe that they are not Frenchmen, like Captain Mane and Doyen Cheikh, confirms the Hegelian idea that synthesis is only temporary, because dialectical tensions are not always class-bound. Because of the love for power, individuals in the same class do not always see eye to eye.

As the Doyen reveals: “In the years 1945-50, Leon Mignane would say during his election campaigns: ‘I will free you from the serfdom of ‘native’ status . . . I will make you . . . French citizens’. That was why the peasants supported him. Twenty years after our independence, our thinking still bears the marks of serfdom. When we talk of foreign goods. The foreigners in our country are English, American, Japanese, Chinese, Russian.”

From the beginning, therefore, there are dialectical forces working within Leon Mignane himself, which affect his determination of an all-encompassing ideology, hence his coming up with Authenegraficanitus for Eurafrica.

It is a high-sounding ideology, which in all essence means nothing and is reflective of his acute sense of displacement and not belonging, which he only uses for his own personal gain. The effort to combine values and worldviews, without real grounding and unaware of where he himself stands, reveals both his confusion and thereafter his acute alienation from both his African world and the French one he aspires to belong to.

As all this plays out, the people, who are for the most part ignored, are the losers. He is told by his nemesis, Doyen Cheikh Tidiane Sall, that: “Eurafrica is an association between horse and rider. And we’re the ones being ridden, Leon,” but because of his hunger for power, and his attachment to the empire, which in a way he cannot undo, he fails to realise that the time bomb he has set will one day explode.

Like drunken pilots depicted in Mashingaidze Gomo’s “A Fine Madness” (2010), and the radarless captain and his crew in Clement Chihota’s “Shipwreck” in “No More Plastic Balls and Other Stories” (2000), who take instructions from voices projected from the West, Leon Mignane, epitomises African leaders who function as proxies in the empire’s global strategy of plunder.

As long as the proxies get along with their plans, they remain in power, but the moment they decide to think independently, they are slapped with sanctions, which cripple their economies and pit them against their people. On his part, Mignane, who selfishly seeks personal power, plays ball to the West’s hypocrisy, while at the same time he pretends to be on the side of his people, so that he legitimises his power and maintains it.

As a self-seeking tyrant, the president uses a combination of hegemony, skewed democracy, tribalism and Machiavellianism to hoodwink the people, like Sam does in Chinua Achebe’s “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987).

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