Day I: Eurocentrism & Obama

Development Policy04 Jun 2009Marieke Hounjet

After I helped a small group of African scholars with some directions in Leipzig yesterday I realised that the African Studies Conference had truly started. I was happy to see today (and now I need to be very careful with how I phrase this) that African scholars, in proportion to European/Western scholars, are not badly represented at this conference. This is important because terms such as ‘eurocentrism’ and ‘neo-imperialism’ are often in the back of the mind of those working and studying in this field. It was after all during the discussion of the busy panel that I attended today (Panel 11- We’ve tried but they failed) that a professor from Nigeria and then a professor from South Africa asked respectively: Can there be any altruistic reason for intervention [in Africa]? and What is exactly liberal about liberal interventions? It is at these moments that you realise that we probably do not ask ourselves those questions enough, probably for the reason that although relevant they are too difficult to answer. I would say though that on a conference like this one most people are quite aware of these issues and sensibilities. It was interesting in this respect how Rita Abrahamsen, as discussant in this same panel, posed the question: what is really critical about these critical perspectives? We should not forget to ask ‘what needs to be done?’ She quoted Foucault who once said: “It is not that everything is bad but that everything is dangerous”. In other words she summarised: once we realise that power is everywhere, how do we actually live together? Of course these are not the kind of questions to which we should find clear-cut answers, they are more of the sort to ponder about, and I get the idea that there will be ample opportunity to ponder about these and other questions at this conference.

Such an opportunity presented itself already during the ‘Lugard Lecture’ today, where Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (President of the US African Studies Association) presented on “Pan-Africanism in the Age of Obama”. First a quick note: I find ‘Lugard Lecture’ a very controversial title for a lecture on a conference like this one. This was later explained by the International African Institute with the excuse that they seem unable to find a suitable alternative name. I would hereby call for some suggestions! Overall, Zeleza’s speech left me asking myself why I cannot share similar enthusiasm for the meaning of Obama’s presidency for Africa. I think Zeleza was absolutely right by saying that “Obama has electrified the Pan-African world”. I do acknowledge that his presidency is a historical marker and extra meaningful for Africa, with Obama being the first African descendant who becomes President of “the West’s most powerful country” (Zeleza’s words). However, this is where my celebration stagnates, but it seems that for others it here only begins. Zeleza speaks of Obama representing: the transnational narrative; the respite from America’s imperial arrogance and the potential for a binary racial system. Even though Zeleza ends his speech by reminding his audience that all this potential does not mean it is there yet and that we need more “articulated dreams” I left this lecture thinking Africans might have a truly different perspective on this matter. In other words, eurocentrism might still be more prevalent than I thought. I namely didn’t feel to be the only one who did not share this excitement, as a large proportion of the audience became a little restless listening to the long list of Obama’s qualities and around me I heard some (European) people mention that the speech slightly resembled an election campaign. Not to say that optimism about Obama & Africa is per definition unrealistic; I read on Chris Blattman’s blog that the President of Tanzania is now the first to pitch a development ‘plan’ with Obama’s administration, namely US support for an African Green Revolution. Thus, this was yet another experience that shows why it is important that there are Africans present at this conference.