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Decolonising the mind: What Raila Odinga’s AU post would mean

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Azimio leader Raila Odinga during a past media briefing. He has expressed interest on the Africa Union Commission chairperson seat.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

Renowned Kenyan writer and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o described decolonising the mind in his book as “a process to end a false universalism in the guise of ‘westernised’ canons that attribute truth only to western forms of knowledge production without succumbing to a relativism in which all perspectives are equally valid”.

Africa has held itself hostage to a post-colonial narrative of wilful exploitation and dependency that has continuously undermined the continent’s ambition and development for way too long. This is despite boasting the world’s youngest population.

Lately that narrative is encountering a new and unforgiving headwinds from a relatively nascent and young virulent leadership mainly from francophone-west of the continent – Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali – and we will be watching keenly developments in Senegal with another fairly young leader recently sworn in. What we are witnessing is a gradual growth of defiance against post-colonial way of doing business.

In just about nine months from now, the African Union Commission will have an opportunity to usher in a new Chairperson for the next four years. It is imperative to recall that a majority of the previous chairpersons of the commission have been mostly former Foreign Affairs ministers except Alpha Konare, who was a former two-term President of Mali. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the current chairperson, was Chad’s Foreign Affairs minister – having taken over from South Africa’s Nkozana Zuma, who was also a minister in different portfolios over about a decade.

Vast political experience

If former Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga garners the requisite votes to become the next chairperson, he will not only be the first occupant of the office with such a high profile from anglophone Africa, but also a renowned and unapologetic Pan-Africanist of vast political experience and knowledge. Without being harsh to previous occupants of the office, and being fully aware of the supranational nature of the commission, nothing earth shaking is on record attributable to previous holders of the office.

After more than six decades of independence for most of African countries today, the continent is still seen from the outside world as one large homogeneous country called Africa that is all poor and needy, hopeless and can only survive through dependence on the West. In fact, a web of a mercy industry thrives and rides on that perception. In the most part the perception problem has been the continent’s own inertia in the post-colonial-hangover.

These ranges from clinging on to the colonial systems of education that was designed then to keep a proletariat gene; a colonial concept of infrastructure; colonial systems of governance and so on. In any tenure of high office, office holders will always be torn between personal ambition and typical issues that go with the office. Many times, the Commission routine issues will always overwhelm. But characteristically, the AUC can also be overcome with unforeseen matters like natural disasters, coup de tats, and sometimes waves of political unrests.

It will serve someone of the stature and profile of Raila to laser focus on no more than three nerve-centre issues that have the most likely power to contribute most towards decolonising the African mind and energise the ambition of self-reliance. I suggest only three areas; Africa must aspire to not only sufficiently feed herself but the rest of the world; rid herself off borrowing from former colonial masters; and be a major player of global trade.

Global arable land

On the first issue, Africa covers 20 per cent of the world’s land mass and 60 per cent arable land. Despite Africa having nearly two-thirds of global arable land, the five top world producers of agricultural goods are China, India, USA, Brazil and Russia in that order. This means Africa is the world’s abandoned farm and yet it is capable of feeding the rest of the world. Instead, the continent is the barn of sad news. For example, at least one in every five Africans sleeps hungry and about 150 million face food insecurity. This situation worsened post-Covid with millions more Africans unable to afford a healthy diet. Food is a deadly weapon and Africa cannot rely on her former colonial masters to feed her if the continent ever wishes to determine her destiny.

Secondly, the sovereign debt situation in Africa is getting even more dire by the day. Over the last decade alone, total external debts as a share of Africa’s export earnings doubled from 75 per cent to 140 per cent, which is a near fatal haemorrhage on foreign exchange. On the other, between 12 per cent and 15 per cent of Africa’s internal revenue is spent on debt servicing. The global financial architecture was constructed after the Second World War to deliberately serve its founders and has remained unfriendly to the continent.

The new push we witness today by President William Ruto is not only a bold move but also a most welcome one towards rebalancing the construct of the global financial system. A potential Raila Chairmanship could further this by rallying African countries to come up with innovative ways to deploy the Special drawing rights of the International Monetary Fund to be conditionality-free and debt-free sources of liquidity. But even more strategic and important is to mobilise African government-backed development banks towards increasing the availability of finance and reduce the dependency of foreign funds to stay the course of financial dependence.

Raw materials

Thirdly, the continent must increase her efforts toward Intra-African trade as well her share of global trade. The global share of trade for the entire continent of Africa is still less than five per cent and is largely raw materials or merchandise. Just an additional 1 per cent of intra-African trade can potentially generate an extra $70 billion in income annually into the continent. But owing to the colonial heritage, African countries still find strange thrill in trading outside Africa than amongst themselves. Keeping focus towards deepening integration within the African Continental Free Trade Area will contribute immensely in sobering the continent.

Finally, if Raila wins and keeps the focus on the three issues of greater impact, he will make a lasting impression in his tenure by getting the continent firmly on a path of eventual self-determination. Raila’s voice will be powerful in creating a new-look Africa, especially at the G20 where the AUC Chairperson was recently admitted as a member.

The writer is a trade and investment consultant. [email protected]