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Afro-Pessimism and the Question of Biafran Nationalism


By Daniel Chukwuemeka



Saturday, March 9, 2019.


Perhaps the adoption of Afro-pessimism – by intellectuals - as a critical method in the evaluation of African nationalism, is to use it as a theory to articulate alternative perspectives. On the one hand, those some considered as Black fundamentalists adopted the term as a way to acknowledge the power, robustness and the radical nature of the African imagination. Some proponents of Afro-pessimism have used it to articulate the subject-position of abandonment, abjection, distancing, dread, and doubt, in response to the enduring legacies of colonialism. These include the view that dismantling white supremacy would mean demolishing much of the social and political institutions of the modern world.


Furthermore, in international relations, Afro-pessimism is a Western construct regarding the ongoing depiction of Africa and Africans in Western media in terms of extreme poverty and backwardness by reflecting Eurocentric images and rhetoric. As Noah Bassil noted in ‘The Roots of Afropessimism: The British Invention of the “Dark Continent”’, the media tend to use such rhetoric to victimize and exoticize Africa for its ongoing struggles with poverty and lack of modern development. The victimization is then visible in the humanitarian and development projects, which sometimes use the language of saving African people from such humanitarian disasters. I argue that, drawing from the Biafran quest for separate national entity from Nigeria as representative of the first example of Afro-pessimism stated above, the second version of Afro-pessimism which defends the merits of white supremacy can be a positive contrivance atoning for its ugly past deeds if only it would—not merely establish humanitarian aids in Africa, but instead—support indigenous African nationhood, since the bane of African politics and economy is ethnic conflicts in the nation-states occasioned by colonialism.



Can anything good ever come out of Africa? This is a question which many, including Africans at home and abroad, grapple with whenever they discuss the state of affairs in Africa. But Africa is not a country. Despite the shared historical experience of its people, it is a vast continent with countries of diverse cultures and development index. Where I come from, Nigeria, for instance, afro-pessimism permeates the sentiments of most middle and lower class citizens regarding a possible redemption of the country from the shackles of underdevelopment.

I have lived all the 29 years of my life so far in Nigeria, where I was born and raised. But I currently live in the UK as an academic. Prior to this, I lived in Germany, where I worked as part of an editorial team creating an Oxford English-Igbo bilingual dictionary. Even before my first six months contract was extended by my employer in Germany, friends and family in Nigeria and a few others in the West (but especially those in Nigeria) had insisted, advised, and begged that I should ‘find a way’ to remain ‘there’ (Germany) after the expiration of my contract. ‘Find yourself a casual job, even if menial’, one of them opined, ‘instead of returning to Nigeria’. This is apparently one of their subtle ways of expressing hopelessness in the Nigerian system. But I am not ignorant of the sources of their frustrations.

In early March, this year, I was introduced to Afro-pessimism by the keynote speaker at a conference on ‘Urban Walking’ which I was attending at Friedrich-Schiller-University in the small German city of Jena. I had finished my presentation on negotiating cultural memory through urban noise in Teju Cole’s novel, Open City in which I, among other submissions, asserted that New York City today was built and developed by the ruins, blood and sweat of the black slaves. I remember this because while he approached me after my presentation, the keynote speaker, David Kishik of Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, had emphasized the need for my theorizing on the concept of Blackness to consider a certain Afro-pessimist angle, that is, (and I suppose that was what he meant because our meeting was very short and interrupted by the conference proceedings) one that will take a nuanced and ambivalent position toward the subject and therefore strike a balance between emphasizing the historical trauma of slavery and colonialism and a critique of problems of contemporary African governance. Later I would find Manthia Diawara’s In Search of Africa, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, and Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony as critical testaments buttressing this perspective.

Before being prompted by Professor Kishik to take a critical stand on Afro-pessimism, my position had always been that it was a dormant discourse that is at best a consequence of Eurocentrism: that notion that Africans are incapable of self-rule and need to be saved from themselves, at least for the sake of humanity, read as the white man’s burden. But while I dismissed such stance, which proceeds from an obvious invalidation of the historical relevance of the African experience, I am not unaware of the fact that apologists of organized violence against colonized societies such as the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, justify the state of things in Africa by totally berating the continent in the most callous terms.

If Hegel’s position was obsolete, so to say, since it was made in the beginning of the nineteenth century, today we can still find Western writers and journalists who make pessimistic comments concerning Africa’s future. (Wafulo Okumo, in ‘Afro-Pessimism and African Leadership’ reminds us that the futurist author, Paul Kennedy pronounced in 1983 that Africa’s future was ‘extraordinarily gloomy’; journalists such as Blaine Harden, in ‘Africa—Dispatches from a Fragile Continent’, David Lamb, in The Africans, Keith Richburg, in Out of America, and Peter Marnham, in Dispatches from Africa, ‘brazenly painted Africa in dreary terms: unbridled corruption, state brutality, severe underdevelopment and general desolation’. Also Robert D. Kaplan, in ‘The Coming Anarchy’ declared that Africa is ‘at the edge of the abyss’; and in its June 16, 1997 issue devoted to the theme, ‘Africa is Dying’, The New Republic contested that what is happening to Africa ‘is nothing less than Africa’s exit from international society’.)

However, even as some Africans have themselves become afro-pessimists in the above guise of thought, not all western observers of Africa have completely written it off as a hopeless case. Therefore, while Michael Chege, an African scholar at the center for African Studies of the University of Florida had predicted that Africa is the only region in the world where poverty and political violence are likely to increase in the opening years of the twenty-first century, and as the likes of Jean-Francois Bayart (author of Criminalization of the State in Africa) and Patrick Chabal (author of Africa Works: Disorders as Politician Instrument) incessantly make reference to the distressed and dysfunctional state of affairs in Africa, the Western journalist, Blaine Harden, proposes that Africa could possibly be rescued under a special programme such as a Marshall Plan, though a scheme which critics such as Henry Hazlitt (in his book, Will Dollars Save the World?) and Ludwig von Mises, and which also the historical revisionist Walter LaFeber have largely and effortlessly proven to have had insignificant contributions in the economic recovery of Western Europe, and ultimately a scheme which is unacceptable to the proposal of this paper in relation to the African situation.



Outside the scope of academic theorizing, and especially in the new media world of contemporary art, photography and news reporting, Afro-pessimism is often blamed as the idea behind the performance of Africa to the world in the form of what has come to be known as poverty-porn. Many African scholars have condemned the lackluster and monotonous representation of African realities in the media and art, especially by the West and a few other African writers.

Africa has very serious leadership problems, which have over time culminated in rendering it impoverished and underdeveloped. As Teju Cole would say, ‘Lagos is shit: people really suffer, so we are not going to paint a picture that makes it look rosy. But, on the other hand, when you acknowledge that Lagos is shit but it’s our Lagos, and we take care of each other a little bit, that’s also largely a relief’. Then he added, ‘If you do something that has many layers and some people just have a tag-line to describe it, then they are not talking about you. They are talking about themselves’. The story of Africa has ‘many layers’ and it will be quite preposterous for one to reduce a whole continent to an obscure entity. I agree with Teju Cole that such accounts of Africa are grossly uninformed and unbalanced, and seem to say something about the gratuitous feeling which Frank B Wilderson says accompanies the violence against the Black race, whose only request from humanity is for recognition and incorporation.

The ambivalence of Afro-pessimism, even without its theorizing aspects, does not condone undue sentimentalism. Providing only a positive image of Africa to the world is not the forte of academics and leaders of thought. Such is rather the calling of advertising agencies. The role of intellectuals in this area is instead to fashion out a different environment where a discourse on Africa devoid of representational prejudice would thrive. This will therefore require a redefinition of the African epistemology on Afro-pessimism in order to fashion out one that will, according to Enwezor Okwui, be premised on ‘the recognition of the complexity of each situation, seeing and writing about what is at hand in any given context as part of a larger world and not merely as a series of disjointed, fragmentary narratives’.

There is need, therefore, for us to move away, as proposed by Mohammed Ibrahim in a 2015 interview with France 24, from Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism—both which are a general branding of Africa sometimes as a basket case and other times as the new frontier of economic development—to Afro-realism: the need to look at what is going on, the realities on ground. Ibrahim pointed out how much a misnomer it is to stick one label to a continent of 54 countries, noting that countries such as Mauritius, Namibia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and some other African countries are moving forward. But he did not hesitate to also mention the systemic failure in other African countries such as South Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria.

Mohammed Ibrahim’s realistic view of Africa comes with one suggestion for an easier management and administration of African countries: a more ‘homogenous population’ in order to make governance easy, as in the case of Namibia, since this will ensure a relaxation of political tensions that are usually fuelled by religious and ethnic diversity and competition.  I argue that Nigeria’s large population and diversity, going by this index, does not contribute positively to its governance and development.



In the spirit of specificity, Nigeria’s national stories of debilitation can be addressed from the perspective of re-examination of its national foundation. So instead of propagating Afro-pessimism (the subject-position of abandonment, abjection, distancing, dread, and doubt in response to the massive, unending consequences and historical upsets of colonialism) or Afro-optimism (acknowledgement of the power and vivacity of the pliability and radical imagination of Nigerians without addressing fundamental national questions), we need a more viable middle ground, Afro-realism, one that will draw the above elements of Afro-optimism in order to take to task the reassessment of the factors that prompt its counterpart—Afro-pessimism. Thus instead of providing Nigerians with humanitarian and development aids, (sometimes using the language of saving African people from humanitarian disasters—financial aids, such as from World Bank and IMF, that African leaders end up looting, returning their nations’ developmental index to ground zero with increase in poverty and national debts), the West can perhaps support indigenous African nationhood, since the bane of African politics and economy is ethnic and religious conflicts in the nation-states occasioned by colonialism. This instance of Afro-realism that aims to dismantle the colonial foundation of the Nigerian heterogeneous nationhood is exemplified in the Biafran struggle for a separate nation state in Nigeria.

In Think Again, Marina Ottaway argues, with very detailed and compelling points, that ethnic and cultural communities need to be recognised as independent nation states, with her research interest in politics of development centred in particular on Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. She identified the root cause of the underdevelopment of the many failed states in the Global South when she declared that ‘Most of today’s collapsed states, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, are a product of colonial nation building. The greater the difference between the pre-colonial political entities and what the colonial powers tried to impose, the higher the rate of failure’ (17). Sadly, this is the case with Nigeria.

Biafran nationalism is not going to be the first of its kind, as could be gleaned from the teachings of Marina Ottaway:

Nationalism gave rise to most European countries that exist today. The theory was that each nation, embodying a shared community of culture and blood, was entitled to its own state... This brand of nationalism led to the reunification of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871 and to the break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918. This process of nation building was successful where governments were relatively capable, where powerful states decided to make room for new entrants, and where the population of new states was not deeply divided. (17)

The Nigerian population today is deeply divided along ethnic lines. And this invariably results in its government (which is helplessly incapable of running a state) being ridiculously divisive in policy making and implementation.

Two means of nation building, according to Ottaway, are through wars and intervention of the international community:

The most successful nations, including the United States and the countries of Europe, were built by war. These countries achieved statehood because they developed the administrative capacity to mobilize resources and to extract the revenue they needed to fight wars. Some countries have been created not by their own efforts but by the decisions made by the international community. The Balkans offer unfortunate examples of states cobbled together from pieces of defunct empires. Many African countries exist because colonial powers chose to grant them independence... Such countries have been called quasi states—entities that exist legally because they are recognised internationally but that hardly function as states in practice because they do not have governments capable of controlling their territory. (18)

Nigeria is therefore a quasi state. The Nigerian-Biafran civil war of 1967—1970 failed to determine what could have been an ideal Nigerian nation-state: one that could have existed as today’s United Kingdom (with England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as its independent ethnic nationalities) or as a confederal state (such as we have in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Serbia and Montenegro), or a dissolved state (such as the case with the former USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Sudan). Having lost the opportunity to create a viable nation-state through the war, Nigeria, with its fragile national unity that has never looked sustainable since after the civil war, had to rely on the other form of nation building which all colonised groups were bequeathed with. In fact, the fragile national unity of Nigeria is sustained by the hegemony of British colonialism. And many historians of the Biafran civil war have asserted that the Nigerian government received military assistance in crushing the Biafran rebellion. But there can hardly be a true peace among any group where justice is trampled on, for the pursuit of peace in the absence of justice will always end in wasting human lives to protect what must have been a fraudulent agreement.

Therefore, today’s realities point to the fact that the British colonial design of a one Nigeria is a colossal failure. Afro-realists must look towards questioning that colonial foundation as the starting point of any feasible form of nation building. Because the defeat in the war did not succeed in quenching the Igbo nationalism and quest for a separate ethnic nationality, neither was it capable of truly uniting Nigeria towards a common national consciousness and identity for growth and development.



It usually amuses me each time a young Nigerian argues that it is intellectual laziness to finger the British colonialism as the plague currently holding Nigeria down. I have always maintained that such dismissive point of view is an ignorant and shallow articulation of the nuances of the conundrum that is Nigeria, because I see clearly how it fails to acknowledge the intellectual dishonesty and irresponsibility in its rather romantic, disoriented claims. For me, what is actually an exercise in intellectual laziness is the tendency to outright dismiss the creation of Nigeria itself, the aims and objectives around it, by the British, as insignificant in the discourse of the trouble with present day Nigeria.

Nigeria is like a house with a very faulty foundation. It will never withstand soil vibration from political seismic activity. The founders of Nigeria (not Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwe or Obafemi Awolowo, please. We need to stop indulging in historical ignorance and self-deceit.), the British colonial administrators, neglected the breaks in seams among the ethnic panels that make up the entity, and thus disregarded the need to lay a very strong foundation with an enduring identity for what Nigeria is and for what it means to be a Nigerian. The early post-independence Nigerian leaders mentioned above, on the other hand, failed to go back to the historical and philosophical and even anthropological laboratory to test the factors needed to draw up concrete and tenacious principles of what consists a Nigerian identity in order to solidify the faulty foundation they were already left with by the British. They failed to see the necessity to—since they decided to accept the new artificially contrived nation-state in the late 50s—forge a binding force, a national ideal to live and die for, and a creed to abide by, for a strong cohesion capable of erasing doubts and suspicion among the ethnic groups, for an easy economic growth and development, peace and progress.

I may be too blunt in declaring that those who we refer to as the Nigerian founding fathers, mentioned above, were too laid back in profiling and redefining the young nation handed over to them (in the guise of ‘independence’), but I will unapologetically insist that the British colonial legacy of a one Nigeria is what is stagnating the country till today. So when I claim that colonialism is Nigeria’s chief problem, and one mentions other colonised countries who are progressing today, I would like to invite them to desist from such intellectual laziness by going further in details to analyse the local peculiarities of the nations being compared.

Homogeneity will greatly favour many groups of people that make up Nigeria, because it ensures reduction—or even a gradual process that can lead to a possible non existence—of ethno-religious conflicts and other generic clashes of interest. If this is not realisable as circumstances might show, only a return to regional government will salvage Nigeria today and set it up for a reversal of the British colonial fraudulent foundation it has inherited.

We will therefore continue looking forward to a day Nigeria will have, in large numbers, leaders who will be fed up with the cosmetic surgery that is the country's current administration. Leaders with vision, who will think long term and therefore support and vote for regional government. Until then, we can only just be MANAGING (in) Nigeria.

The Afro-pessimists who seem to specialise in doling out financial aids to the corrupt Nigerian leaders and the Afro-optimists who still have faith in the Nigerian human capital should, if at all they are sincere enough, lend their voice in the call for a referendum to be recognised and held by the Nigerian government to enable the country’s different ethnic nationalities determine whether to accept or opt out of the Nigerian project or remain a part of the union wielding a high level of regional autonomy. 

Main Picture: The city of Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria. Image: courtesy of Wikipedia - By Nwabu2010 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46343581

 This article was originally presented as an academic paper at the ‘Nations and Nationalisms: Theories, Practices and Methods’ International Postgraduate Conference, Loughborough University, UK. 

Daniel Chukwuemeka is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol. His thesis links e-fraud economy with colonial and postcolonial economics using literary and cultural representations of the subject in contemporary Nigerian texts. He lives in Bristol.

Afro-Pessimism and the Question of Biafran Nationalism

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