by Okello Oculi
AFRICA VISION 525
Cecil Rhodes, the notorious or glorious (depending on
which side of 19th and 20th Century history you
approve of) capitalist and empire monger after whom
Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia
(now Zimbabwe), were named, is quoted as having
expressed the following wish:
"Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire".
Gavin Bell, a former correspondent of the BBC (who won a seat in Parliament as an independent candidate in the last British elections), claims that Rhodes sounded out that dream in 1881 at the young age of twenty three, and probably while gulping down chunks of deer meat at the Kimberly Club at Kimberly in South Africa, as thousands of black South Africans sweated in digging for chrystalised carbon known popularly as "diamonds". Rhodes's reference to reclaiming America makes sense when it is remembered that American colonies had carried out armed struggle and driven out their British colonial rulers in 1776, 155 years before Rhode's uttered his wish for a secret group of angels of empire.
Cecil Rhodes's wish lives on in a project for which he left money for Oxford University to prosecute under which, each year, the most brilliant students in the United States compete for 250 slots of "Rhodes Scholars" to study at Oxford University in England for two years as post-graduate students. A biographer of former President Bill Clinton has claimed that his group of Rhodes Scholars, who travelled to England on a ship, had enough time to plot for one of them to one day become the president of the United States, and the others would form his cabinet. When Clinto's team later lent election campaign technology to Tony Blair, himself an Oxford graduate, there were probably ancient echoes in their minds of Rhodes's dream of those nurtured to promote the imperial unity of the Anglo-Saxon empire working in unison.
The "secret society" agency proposed by Rhodes came to my mind when, in April 2004, I went to eat millet "ugali" in an outdoor joint near Lugogo Stadium in Kampala. It was a late Saturday afternoon but the place was packed with an animated crowd of customers who mixed their beer with often rowdy television watching.There was a televised match going on between Arsenal and Manchester United, two teams in the English football league.It was a familiar sight. I had seen it in an elite club for businessmen, academics and administrators in Zaria, a town in northern Nigeria. I had seen it in the house the Governor of Abia State in eastern Nigeria where the television screen seemed to run from the floor to the roof as a symbol of modernity and political power.
Television pictures of Japanese fans mobbing Beckham as an idol who played for Manchester United (fondly abbreviated as "Man U"), confirmed that the frontiers of this British television football empire was indeed transcontinental. I found myself marvelling at how Britons (as an island people brought up on souls and minds denied adequate sunlight for climatic nutrition), are able (with the aid of information technology) to weave so silent an empire of ruptuous emotions out of fabrics invisible to the naked eye, and other native minds and souls. Cecil Rhodes "secret group" must be matching on.
There was a tinge of regret, laced with envy. in my marvel. I recalled that I had once sold a simple idea to Muktar Mbow when he was the Director General of UNESCO. It went like this. Students in each university in Africa would assume roles as Heads of State of individual African countries and annually conduct STUDENT MOCK SUMMITS OF THE ORGANISATION OF AFRICAN UNITY, OAU. These summits would have elements of drama built into them so that audiences could be held down to watch them. The best "performers" or simulators from each university would also travel to Addis Ababa to hold the annual ALL_AFRICA STUDENT MOCK OAU SUMMIT. Under this arrangement, the student who is President of Kenya may come from Senegal; that of South Africa may come from Cameroun and that of Algeria may come from Namibia, etc.
Moukhtar Mbow liked the idea and urged me to get three African countries to propose it as a "UNESCO Project", meaning that they would give UNESCO's office in Geneva some seed money for tending it. The late Professor Ishaya Audu, Nigeria's foreign Minister in 1982, was excited about it and refered us to work with one of his ambassadors and put it out as a proposal that could be presented to the Cabinet of President Shehu Shagari for adoption into policy. My companion in the team that went to meet the ambassador was Professor Ibrahim Gambari, the current Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the United Nations.It was a mistake going with him. For reasons not openly stated, but obviously related to struggles for succession to the headship of Nigeria's Institute for International Affairs, the ambassador was allergic to him. He instantly terminated the meeting as soon as Gambari uttered his name. For the furious ambassador, Professor Gambari was merely seeking visibility with top government leaders and beefing up his credentials through being associated with the project. He was not going to be a tool for such a careerist scheme.So, off went support for our project.One year later, the military overthrew the Shagari government and Professor Audu was posted away to the United Nations before being lured back and thrown into jail by another military junta. We had counted on him making approaches to the governments of Zambia and Tanzania to come on board.
The crash of our grand pan-African educational vision project against a vicious boulder of a local struggle for bureaucratic power between Nigeria's elites, taught the lesson of the need in Africa for the equivalent of Cecil Rhodes's "secret society" of angels of empire. That Pa-Africanism today needs such angels is made more urgent both by the epidemic of the best brains on the continent jumping into the "brain drain" flood in a season of migration to Europe and North America; and universities in Africa increasingly being mainly local in their student populations. The one undermines moments of dreaming big dreams to redeem and reconstruct Africa, while the other blocks out chances of nourishment from sunlight radiated from larger transcontinental student landscapes found on each campus.
Nigeria's elites have given such migration a new twist in response to the education crisis in their country. To avoid incessant closures of universities resulting from academics going on strikes to fight for better wages and better facililities, richer parents have exported their children to universities in Ghana, and Southern Africa. Makerere University also took in more Kenyan undergraduates as parents avoided campus strikes and political fights against President Moi's politics. Perhaps a "secret society" of pan-Africanists is still possible after all.
Yet the matter of young minds, in a "secret group" that construct big dreams for Africa, remains an urgent one. Garvin Bell, for example, came up with a little personal dream of travelling by road in search of little white communities in small outpost locations across the harshes climatic backlands of the Northern Cape, to get a hint of their views about the future since the end of apartheid in South Africa. As I read him, I kept hoping there are journalists out there in West, East, Central and Southern Africa also undertaking similar trips inorder to hug Africa, hug Europe, hug China, hug India, hug Brazil, hug North America so that, through their reporting back, we too can hug the rawness of these places.
In 1970 we urged a group of Makerere students to trek across Zaire (now DRC) from Arua in northern Uganda, to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and back via Kigali in Rwanda. The group went as far as Kisangani; met President Obote attending a political rally staged by Mobutu, and could not resist the flavours of fling back with him to Entebbe via Kinshasa. An attempt at building a generation of those who would think big in aid of pan-Africanism was aborted. Since 1982 members of a club interested in "International Studies" at Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria, travel annually by road from Zaria to Monrovia and back. One group made it to Egypt. They link up with campus groups in these countries and hold discussions on African affairs and the West African region. The groups have not been very effective in getting press coverage for these trips, but it is a fledgling seedling with some promise.
After two decades dominated by decimations wreaked by colonial victims of psychological damage (mainly through inferiority complexes)-- from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the two Congos, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone to Ethiopia, a generation of young African minds pulverized by resultant barbarisms, genocide, atavistic vindictiveness, greed,despair and bewilderness at the scale of their destructions, are in dire need of curative and animating new visions and imagined frontiers of pan-Africanism. Thinking big by individuals, and a "secret group", is, clearly, the task on the agenda.