Unmasking the Colonial Spectre of Objectification in Africa

    In popular media outlets, academic circles, and intellectual debates, negative rhetoric still pervades discussions about Africa.

    Most stem from a bygone colonial era and an entrenched settler-colonial mindset. Thus, rather than treating African affairs as a subject in its own right, the continent is often objectified and solely seen through the prism of the interest of other countries.

    But let’s make one thing clear: we are not talking about a homogenous continent. The continent is diverse and has different political regimes, languages, ethnicities, and cultures.

    However, it’s time to recognise the domination of a narrative that has been all about objectification. You know the drill: “Country X’s investments in Africa on the rise” or “Africa as the new battlefield for great powers A and B”.

    When it comes to writing and telling, or listening to stories about Africa, it is high time we put on our critical thinking caps. Let’s dive deep and unpack why Africa has been relegated to the role of an object in the dominant rhetoric we have grown accustomed to.

    At that point, three critical issues come to the fore, revealing why the discursive status quo regarding Africa has been prevalent.

    Language as a Reflection of Power Relations

    How we narrate Africa is not just a matter of words, it is about power. The language we use reflects the power dynamics at play, and unfortunately, the objectification of Africa is a lingering poison from the colonial era.

    Language is powerful. It can change the course of history based on the used terminologies. In Africa, the imposition of European languages as official languages during the colonial era devastated how the continent was perceived and portrayed.

    It acted as a vehicle that transmitted European ways of thinking and writing about Africa, perpetuating harmful narratives of inferiority and exoticism. Therefore, the act of colonising is, in essence, the act of objectifying. And as a result, the way we talk, write, and discuss Africa today still reflects this toxic legacy.

    Liberal Origins of Objectification

    Social contract theories of liberalism envisaged a particularistic notion of contract that systematically excluded people of colour from the state’s and civil society’s participatory designation.

    The racist climate in Enlightenment Europe put inclusivity in theoretical foundations on ice. As it turns out, the “Social Contract” was a misnomer all along – as Charles W. Mills’ seminal book “Racial Contract” aptly points out.

    In this theoretical context, it is unsurprising that a group deemed “uncivilised” has become an object that needs to be rectified by the “civilised” category. This mentality is not new and has manifested in different forms throughout history.

    The approach commonly referred to as “progressive liberalism,” which was utilised to propel US foreign policy following the Cold War, is a striking instance of the fallacy of claiming to bring “freedom” to “non-free” regions.

    This approach often relied on military invasion and intervention, resulting in the continuation of the oppression it claimed to combat.

    These approaches underscore the innate biases inherent in defining who is “civilised” and emphasise the necessity of interrogating and challenging such narrow definitions.

    New Forms of Objectification in the Age of Neoliberalism

    Neoliberalism crept up on us under the guise of globalisation and pulled off what Wendy Brown called a “stealth revolution.”

    This new economic system has reduced human life to mere assets evaluated based on monetary gains.

    Meanwhile, the old coloniser powers carried on their social engineering in the form of developmental aid, perpetuating the distinction between the subject and the object. And in Africa, this objectification took on an even more insidious form.

    Macron once exposed the predicament of aid dependency, hierarchical posturing, and civilisation-centric referencing in a 2017 G20 speech: “The Marshall Plan was a reconstruction plan […] The challenge of Africa is totally different and a lot more profound, it’s civilisational today,” said Macron, adding that “we need to develop policies that are a lot more sophisticated than the Marshall Plan.”

    In his speech, he pointed the finger at African women, claiming that having seven or eight children is the root cause of destabilisation in Africa. This blame game is one of the disturbing examples of how women are held responsible for hindering progress and development.

    Sadly, this perspective is not uncommon in the neoliberal world, where human life is seen as a mere form of capital to be sacrificed in pursuit of developmental goals. Under the guise of globalisation, neoliberalism has rebranded old colonial tactics with a shiny new gloss and packaged them as development aid in the post-colonial world.

    But this rhetoric only serves to objectify Africa and those who claim to “rectify” it.

    TRT Afrika: Africa, as it is

    The story of Africa as an object rather than an independent subject is a nuanced and straightforward tale.

    On the one hand, it is a complex issue rooted in historical and theoretical legacies that have historically excluded people of colour. On the other hand, the underlying motivation is disarmingly simple: to assert control over a vast and diverse landscape by any means necessary.

    In many ways, it is a case of singing the same tune but with a different, more insidious melody. It is time to move beyond the same old song and reframe Africa’s narrative.

    It is time to acknowledge its rich history, diverse cultures, and agency, to see it not as an object but as a subject with a voice and a story to tell. Thus: TRT World has initiated TRT Afrika, broadcasting in 4 languages: Swahili, English, Hausa, and French.

    Such a step aims to change the mainstream narrative around the continent and focus on global stories of significance that aim to reflect their rich social, political, and cultural heritage.

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of TRT Africa website.

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