Vol. XX, Issue 2 (Spring 2013): Contemporary Africa and the Spirit of Amistad



Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown

ISSN  1526-7822


Olayemi Akinwumi

Ayele Bekerie

Paulus Gerdes

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)

Gumbo Mishack

(South Africa)



Jennifer Nicoletti
Academic Technology, CCSU

For more information on AfricaUpdate
Prof. Gloria Emeagwali
CCSU History Dept.
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, CT 06050
Tel: 860-832-2815


Table of Contents 


      Professor Tunde Zack-Williams has been a major scholar of African Studies in the last three decades. He is the author of numerous academic papers and scholarly books on Africa.  Between 2006 and 2008, Professor Zack-Williams was the President of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, ASA-UK and Member of the British Academy Africa Panel. He is also a member of the Editorial Working Group for Review of African Political Economy; an Advisory Board Member for The International Journal of African and the Black Diaspora; a Member of the  Editorial Board, African Sociological Review.  He has been the Chair of the European History of   Social Science Conference network with respect to Africa.

     Professor Zack-Williams has been an External Examiner of numerous universities including The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; Birmingham University; Leeds University; and Wagenigen University, Holland. His current interests include research into Global Capitalism and Development in Africa; Economic Reform and Political Transition in Africa; The Role of Child Soldiers in West Africa; and Race and The Criminal Justice System. Professor Zack –Williams gave the first of the ten Distinguished Lectures on the Amistad, here at CCSU in 2003. We were therefore excited to have him back on the Tenth Anniversary of the Lecture Series. He is the recipient of the 2013 Amistad Award for his outstanding contributions to scholarship on Human Rights and African Studies.

Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

“Contemporary Africa and the Spirit of Amistad”

By:  Professor Tunde Zack-Williams, Department of Social Science, Central Lancashire University, Preston, Lancaster, United Kingdom

A Lecture Delivered at Central  Connecticut State University On the Tenth Anniversary of the Amistad Lecture Series 


President Dr. Jack Miller, Provost Dr. Carl Lovitt, Distinguished Colleagues, Fellow Students, I want to extend my gratitude to the Amistad Committee for inviting me to deliver The Tenth Annual Amistad Lecture. I am delighted to return to CCSU to participate in this project that is by now one of the most important items on the Africanist calendar in North America and the African Diaspora. It is heartening to see the height to which this project has grown, with so many distinguished Professors participating over the years.

In the First Amistad Lecture, entitled ‘Amistad and Education in the Diaspora’ I started by drawing attention to my own historical and cultural confluence with Segbe Pieh Cinque: sharing the same place of origin in that social formation we now call Sierra Leone. Similarly, like him my ancestors traversed the Rough Crossings of the Atlantic, from Western Nigeria to Jamaica, USA and then to Nova Scotia, where we were promised freedom and land as a reward or quid pro quo for fighting for the British in the American Revolution / War of Independence. After a terrible landless winter in Nova Scotia, we took our campaign to the heart of the British establishment, by migrating to London, where Elizabethans had labeled us as ‘the Blacker Moor in the realm’ or ‘the Black Poor’. In London, we soon encountered philanthropists such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Fowell Buxton, who were prepared to champion our cause. From 1787 onwards, we were gradually removed from London to the Province of Freedom, Sierra Leone. Within a short period, Sierra Leone became the bridgehead for the British project of ‘modernity’ in Africa; and by the late nineteenth century because of the growth of educational and cultural institutions, Freetown became known as the Athens of West Africa. (Zack-Williams: 2002a).

In 2007 as part of the celebrations of the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the visit of the schooner Amistad to Britain, I received an invitation to deliver a lecture at the London Dockland Museum. The title of this lecture was ‘The Spirit of Amistad and the African Renaissance’. This lecture was the conduit that took me away from my initial Amistad Lecture that dealt with Diaspora conditioning to thinking and yearning for the Motherland.

 The Spirit of Amistad

So what is this spirit of Amistad? I have identified the following characteristics as being features Segbe Pieh and his colleagues demonstrated onboard the Amistad as they sought freedom. These include:

  • A Spirit of Resistance to oppression.

  • Determination to fight for and a yearning for Freedom.

  • To fight for what we call Human Rights today.

  • To demand change: implying that today should be better than yesterday, as tomorrow should be superior to today.

  • A  fight for a New Order, a Spiritual Rebirth: Rebirth of learning and cultural visitation, with people saying,  down with the ancien regime (slavery).

  • A  Spirit of Togetherness and Solidarity (Harambee).

  • Self-reliance, control of one’s destiny (though not autarky).

  • The Spirit of Science and wanting to know why things are as they are.

  • Quest for knowledge: A curiosity to know more about the status quo, in order to seek its replacement.

  • An end to fatalism and Afro-pessimism (though not critical discourse).

Given these qualities, the Spirit of Amistad is an attempt to wrench African communities in the New World, in Europe and the Continent itself, away from political and economic oppression and exploitation, to create societies of truly free people. In the manner in which Max Weber celebrated the Protestant Ethic, the Amistad Ethic must have trickled down the social structure of these African communities. For change to be catalyzed, we need good and selfless leaders to step forward. At the risk of being accused of teleology, I would argue that the Spirit of Amistad has always been a modernist project, which if it had followed its logical trajectory would have led to the liberation of African communities in the Diaspora and the continent itself. In this respect, I agree with Paul Gilroy, who has argued in the Black Atlantic that Africa is not ante- modern, but that it is steeped in the project modernity.

The Age of Afro-Pessimism

Distinguished colleagues, it was not so long ago that Afro-pessimism came to dominate the study of contemporary Africa. By Afro-pessimism, I refer to that genre that constitutes a series of discourses which emerged in the post 1970s era which sought to create a series of narratives around African exceptionalism by representing Africa and its people as different sui generis from other human beings and human settlements. Afro-Pessimism took its inspiration from travelers and explorers, ‘the rumors of angels,’ and the Atlantic trade. Colonial literature has much influenced Afro-pessimism; with colonial writers such as Conrad, Rider Haggard and Kipling being major sources of inspiration.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of the Matter; H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines; Rudyard Kipling’s: Ballad of East is East West is West ‘Oh East is East and West is West, and Never the Twain Shall Meet; Till Earth and Sky Stand presently at God’s Great Judgment Seat.’

Afro-pessimism seeks to represent Africa to a Western audience as the alter ego of the West by renewing the tradition of colonial anthropology of pathologizing African realities and presenting an image of the African as the ‘Other’, who mimics European institutions and policies in an alien environment. For Afro-pessimists, Africa is the land where backward bending sloping supply curve of labor, identified by colonial economists and anthropologists, such as J.S. Furnivall and J. H. Boeke in Dutch East Indies still exists. In terms of public policies, Afro-pessimists question the efficacy of aid to African countries, since it disappears into the quagmire of neo-patrimonial politics. Afro-pessimism has its ‘right’ and ‘left’ dimensions; you know them when you encounter them. They claim to speak for the African masses, when in fact they serve the interests of global capital and their domestic lackeys.

In my view Afro-pessimism reached its apogee with the publication in the London Economist (May 13th – 19th 2000) of an article titled: ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (Economist, May 13-19 2000). This article, which was based on the over-generalization of the specific situation of the civil war in Sierra Leone, was itself called into question as soon as it came out, as the UN Security Council had declared in 2000 ‘a month of Africa’, reflecting renewed interests in African affairs by the world body. In the same year, the UN dispatched some 17,000 UN troops to Sierra Leone for peacekeeping operations. These facts notwithstanding, the question we want to address is the source of Afro-pessimism. Why did this intellectual arm of global capitalism decided to warn its readers and potential investors of the hopelessness of the African case? The hopelessness that the Economist referred to is largely caused by natural disasters, such as floods in Mozambique and Madagascar; famine in Ethiopia; government-sponsored thuggery, and poverty, pestilence. Nevertheless, this was not all:

 ‘Most seriously, wars still rage from the north to south and east to west. No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continents shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African- brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere- (and here comes the pathology) but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them...

 Writing about Sierra Leone, the editor offers a caveat emptor:

‘In itself, Sierra Leone is of no great importance. If it makes any demands on the world’s attention, beyond the simple one of sympathy for its people, it is as a symbol for Africa. Yet the UN has sent troops to Sierra Leone. Mr Sankoh (Rebel Leader) wants them out, so that he can plunder and torture at will. He has therefore done his best to terrify them, and their political masters, by capturing several hundred. The Security Council, meaning the great powers that can render it useful or supine, is torn by all the usual arguments. It agonizes that it cannot stand idly by, as it did in Rwanda in 1994. Moreover, it cannot, after all its fine words in January, turn its back on Africa. But neither can it keep a peace that does not exist, nor intervene in every corner of the globe. It must beware of mission creep, and fight only where it can win. African wars are, above all matters for fellow Africans (p17).

 This observation turned out to be a travesty, as the UN did intervene in Sierra Leone with UNAMSIL and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair sent in the elite parachute regiment to rid the capital of the siege by the Revolutionary United Front. Why was it necessary to send troops in to save ‘a state with all the epiphenomena and none of the institutions of government?’ After all one lesson from Black Hawk Down is that no American or Western life is worth risking trying to save a failed African state. Henceforth, African wars are the concerns of Africans. Drawing from the recent work of Stephen Ellis (2011), one can argue that American and European policy makers have tended to over-play the fragility of the African state, by underestimating its ability to adapt to new situations with much resilience. Ellis has argued that since its partition because of the Conference of Berlin, Africa’s governance has been inseparable from the international system. However, the failure to take cognizance of this has led to the erroneous position of treating African wars: ‘as localized emergencies, small wars of international concern only on humanitarian grounds, rather than a serious threat to international peace and security’. Ellis points out that for most observers the growing fragility of the African state was not promptly seen as ‘an early sign of a wider problem with the system of international governance that was put in place in or around 1945 and is now showing its age’. Furthermore, he adds, ‘It was the realization that small conflicts could spread that led the United Kingdom to send troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 and thereafter to maintain political and financial support for a restored government there’. In his view, this was also the reason behind the various military co-operation programs that successive US administrations have put in place in the Sahel since 2002.

Prior to the war, there were rumors of large deposits of oil and high quality iron ore in the war-torn country. As a consequence of mineral mining in 2011 Sierra Leone was ranked number 2 in the world in terms of real GDP growth rate, second only to Malaysia; and 13 African countries were in the top 30 best performers. Not surprising in its December 24, 2012 publication, the Economist wrote that ‘The booming continent is shedding its begging bowl image’.

Africa, Crisis and Cure: Hemmed in by the IFI: 1980-2000

To the uninitiated to talk of Africa in crisis (Zack-Williams 2002b) is to play into the hands of Afro-pessimists. However, as the South African sociologist Omar Badsha has warned. A dilemma facing radical scholarship on Africa is this: ‘... how does one represent Africa without extending the pervasive influence of Afro-pessimists?’ (2001: 3) Critical engagement is the leitmotif of radical scholarship, which in turn is committed to radical transformation of the social structure and the empowerment of Africa’s producers, i.e. the workers and peasants. In my view, the take-off point of any radical scholarship on Africa is to problematize power distribution and its use in Africa.

It is clear to most observers that from the late 1980s and 1990s many African countries ran into major economic, social and political difficulties. This was partly due to their mode of incorporation into the world capitalist order; partly to poor policy choice in response to changes in the global economy, which witnessed the fall in prices for African exports in relation to imports; and the subsequent collapse of their currencies due to balance of payment difficulties. The slow response to these difficulties on the part of African policy makers led Afro-pessimist to announce that Africa is being marginalized from the global economy. In this respect, it is important to recall Laurens van der Laan (2002) warning:

 ‘... international financial institutions and other members of the donor community rely too heavily on world trade data that do not reflect accurately enough Africa’s position. Misguided policy recommendations have been the result’.  

Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou, in Criminalization of the State in Africa, have pointed to the radical privatization of the state and the criminalization of the behavior of power holders. Governance is another issue that African leaders have had to confront as challenges to their authority emerged from the mass of the African people in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80 and their reaction in most cases was to stifle debate and opposition, as well as to institute the one-party state. In the era of superpower politics, many African leaders played up one superpower against the other. For example, Mohammed Siad Barre of Republic of Somalia used both American and Russian weapons in his irredentist war against Ethiopia in the Ogaden. In the unipolar world of President George Bush’s New World Order, no longer can African dictators playoff one super-power against another, as they became emperors without clothes. Furthermore, the deflationary consequences of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) instituted to deal with the economic crisis, and its impact upon society led to challenges from the workers, peasants and declasses elements who were now seeking a voice in how society is organized.

The closing years of superpower politics, saw the beginnings of the African renewal, in particular the move from autocracy to democracy. In many ways, these ejected rulers-: Mobutu Sese Seku of the then Zaire, Mengistu Haile Marian of Ethiopia, Mohammed Said Barre of Somalia, Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire, President Milton Obote – were removed because of their repressive and dictatorial rule. It must be pointed that the economic policies imposed on these rulers by the International Financial Institutions, i.e. SAPs, were not conducive to democratic politics, as only dictators can survive the wrath of their subjects after their implementations. Little wonder that the era of The Washington Consensus (with SAPs at its core), was characterized by political upheaval in Africa. The conditionality imposed by SAPs led to the collapse of social, economic and physical infrastructures; with hospitals doctors having to operate without basic facilities and medication; teachers and other state workers had to go for months without wages or salaries. For example, from 1991-98, annual average growth in Africa was a paltry 1.8 percent, the lowest growth rate of all developing countries; and per capita GDP growth was negative for most of the 1990s. In addition, GDP per capita fell from US$671 in 1975 to US$ 245 in 1997. Total African Debt rose from US$ 4.5 billion in 1970 to stand at US$ 400 billion (Zack-Williams: 2002b, 4). These poor performance figures can be contrasted with recent figures showing in 2010 aggregate GDP for all of Africa grew by 4.7%; and the forecast for 2012 was put at between 5.3 and 5.7%. By contrast, the global forecast figures 4%. For the oil producing African countries, the forecast is higher between 6-7% in 2012.

Structural adjustments had far-reaching social effects on the population. For example, cuts in social expenditure meant that the children (in particular girls) of the poor could not afford to stay on at school as many parents could not afford to pay the fees charged due to cost recovery programs. SAPs demanded that profitable para-statal should be privatized and unprofitable ones liquidated, which led to widespread unemployment, particularly among young people. Given the above, it is no surprise that ‘new wars’ occurred all over the continent as people were demanding to have a say as to how they were governed, people demanding rights of citizenship, including social citizenship. Indeed, the failure of African administrations to deliver citizenship underscores most conflicts in Africa. In my view, the existence of ‘subjects’ rather than ‘citizens’ in many African countries have resulted in the fact that local issues are being transformed by angry people into global issues, threatening global peace. Challenging the immediate oppressor is not an African prerogative, it is an aspect not only of fundamental human rights, but it is also the action that lead to a just a fair society. Pace the Afro-pessimists, now we can see why African economies tumbled: the nature of their imposition within the world capitalist order, lack of control over the price paid for their exports, economic mismanagement and the oppressive policies imposed because of SAPs.

An African Renaissance?

What is the lesson from above?

First, we do not need to dwell on this myth of the hopelessness of the African continent since the editor of the journal at the time has dissociated himself from that unfortunate statement.

Second, far from Africa been marginalized from the world capitalist economy, Africa has been central to the emergence of capitalism through capital accumulation via the slave trade (Williams: 1949) and a source of raw materials and markets for manufactured goods. Africa’s link with the global capitalist system is reflected not just at the global infrastructure level (manufacturing/ production/ consumption), but also at the superstructure (ideology/religion, culture). Thus a Nigerian bishop has warned that the Islamophobia holding sway in the West has often resulted in Nigerian Christians being singled out for religious violence by home-grown fundamentalists (Zack-Williams: 113; 2002c).

 Third, given the above, I shall argue in what follows that the era of Afro-pessimism is now history. African leaders are now beginning to address the issues of major concerns: democracy and good governance, as is reflected in the rise of democratic polities on the continent. The era of the dictatorship of the one-party state is gone; civil society is now revitalized and in many cases led by women who call on their governments to account for policies and actions. Gender and ethnicity remain major issues of contention and though democracy is yet to be fully embedded into the body politick, yet there are more women heads of state in Africa than in Europe. Free, fair and peaceful elections are now becoming the norm, rather than the exceptions, as politicians are increasingly been socialized into the idea of multiparty democracy. We are also beginning to see the end of winner-takes-all competition as compromises and alliances are emerging. The number of conflicts has reduced significantly and the AU is now showing signs of maturity in dealing with Africa’s security and governance issues.

Finally, Africa is more like the frontier of opportunities than a hopeless continent. For example, Time Magazine in its December 11 2011 edition referred to ‘Africa Rising.’ The Economist did a volte-face, in its 3 December 2011 edition, it writes: ‘The Hopeful Continent’; ‘Africa’s hopeful economies’ and pointing out that: ‘After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia’. In May 11th 2012 edition, correspondent Louise Redvers continued the atonement with a new caption, ‘Africa: No longer the hopeless continent’.

 Changing Realities of Africa              

  To return to the title of this lecture: Contemporary Africa and the Spirit of Amistad points to the changing realities of Africa on both the local and global levels. Globally, African development has received a fillip with the arrival of China and other BRIC nations such as India and Brazil on the African scene as major investors. In 2003, Liberia signed an agreement with the Indian steel mogul Arcelormittal under which the latter agreed to invest US$1.5 billion to rehabilitate the country’s ports and railways, creating 3,000 jobs immediately and 20,000 indirectly, though this agreement was cut short by the 2008 recession. In 2010 China signed an agreement with the Johnson-Sirleaf government whereby China Union, would invest US$2.6 billion in the iron ore mine in the former Western Bong Mines, creating up to 4,000 jobs immediately and a further 15,000 indirectly in the central region. The agreement also called for the rehabilitation of the mines from Bong to the Liberian capital and the provision of electricity. China and Brazil continue to invest in Angola’s oil and infrastructure; whilst China has played major roles in Sudan’s oil industry and mining in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone’s iron ore. Clearly the advent of China has provided African policy makers with an alternative to Western aid; and unlike aid from the G7 and OECD countries Chinese expansion into Africa has been based on bilateral agreements between Beijing and African regimes (Melber: 2009). China has provided major opportunities for African countries not just for infrastructure, but also mining and manufacturing. Chinese support and investment in Africa includes agreements with Chad, Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry, Zambia, Angola and Gabon. What seems clear is that the Beijing Consensus (non-interference, structural development, friendship and mutual respect, economic development within a command economy structure or dirigisme) seems more adaptable to the African realities; than the Washington Consensus (high regards for human rights, macroeconomic stability, free trade of goods and services, privileging the market [‘market fundamentalism or neo-liberalism] and anti-dirigisme, fiscal discipline). Clearly, African leaders should be mindful that whilst the arrival of China and other BRIC nations has created new opportunities as the unprecedented boom in mining revenues has shown, yet caution should be exercise in order to avoid dependency and new colonialism. For the West, it is important for them to take heed of the recent warning of President Zuma of South Africa, that ‘western companies must change their old “colonial”   approach to Africa or risk losing out even more to the accelerating competition from China and other developing powers’. He goes on to offer further advice:

 ‘I’ve said it to the private sector from western countries: “Look. You have got to change the way you do business with Africa if you want to regain Africa. If you want to treat Africa as a former colony…then people will go to new partners who are going to treat them differently’ (Russell: 2013).

 This caveat on China is particularly pertinent in view of the current post-colonial enclosure of land taking place in Africa, as multinational corporations in Europe, North America and the Middle East clamber over African land for bio-fuel, and food export. The net effect is the creation of landless peasantry with little prospects of employment in the rural areas who now migrate to swell the rank of the urban déclassé groups. In the forest zone, forests ‘are today under pressure as never before (Southall & Melber: 16), as depletion of forest resources through logging by European and Chinese companies, of which over 70% of such exports from West Africa being illegal. Equally under pressure is Africa’s wild life, due largely to poaching and other illegal activities. Agriculture and fishing as the largest employer of labor provide millions of people with employment; and fishing account for 19 per cent of animal protein intake in Africa. Fish export accounts for some $2.3 billion annually (ibid: 17), though illegal fishing in coastal waters by foreign trawlers has always been a major issue for governments, with little resources to patrol their coastline.

 The choice of title reflects not just the changing image of Africa, but also the African re-emergence. If the 1960s was the decade of African Independence; the 1970s the decade of expectant Africa; then the 1980s, 1990s were the wasted decades, marked by the destructive effects of structural adjustment programs and the emergence of ‘African warlordism’, in order to ward off domestic challenges to petty bourgeois hegemony. In the post-post-colonial era of multi-polarity, African ‘Big men’ can once more play off one economic power against the other in a new confrontation of ideas: The Washington Consensus versus the Emerging Beijing Consensus.

       As have been pointed out above, the arrival of the BRICS, in particular China, has given African leaders new opportunities for renewal, which demands critical analysis in order to avoid dependency and further neo-colonialism. In this respect the Spirit of Amistad and Pan-Africanism must be high on the agenda, since without these crucial items of Harambee, selflessness, love of freedom , respect for human rights, patriotism and self-reliance, Africa would remain divided, with imperialist forces playing off one country or block against the other.

Badsha, O. (2001) Amulets and Dreams: War, Youth and Change in Africa, SAHO.

Ellis, S. (2011) Season of the Rains: Africa in the World, Hurst & Co. London

Gilroy, P. (  )  The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness 

Lauren Van der Laan, H (2002) in Zack-Williams, A. B. Thomson, A. Frost, D. Africa in Crisis: New Possibilities and New Challenges, Pluto Press

Melber, H. (2009) ‘Global Trade Regimes and Multi-polarity: The US and Chinese Scramble for African Resources and Markets’, in Southall, R. & Melber, K. (eds.) A New Scramble for Africa?’ Imperialism, Investment and Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Russell, A. (2013) ‘’Suma in “Colonial Warning to West’, Financial Times, Monday March 4, p.1 

Williams, E. (1994) Capitalism and Slavery, University of North Carolina Press

Zack-Williams, A. B. (2002a)‘Freetown: From the “Athens of West Africa” to a City Under Siege: the Rise and Fall of Sub-Saharan Africa First Municipality’, O. Enwezor, C. Basualdo, U. M. Bauer, S. Ghez, S. Maharaj, M. Nash, O. Zaya, (eds.) Under Siege: Four African Cities Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos Documenta 11_Platform 4, 2002, p287-315, ISBN 3-7757-9090-X.

Zack-Williams, A. B. D. Frost & A. Thomson (eds.) (2002b) Africa in Crisis: New Possibilities and New Challenges, With (eds.), Pluto Press

Zack-Williams, A. B. (2002c) ‘September 11 and All That: An African Perspective’, in Phil. Scraton, (ed.) Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent, Pluto Press, 2002, p130-35 ISBN0-7453-1962-9.

Selected Publications of  Professor Tunde Zack-Williams

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