Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine has unveiled and deepened ideological divides in debates about state power and the use of violence; ethnonationalism and the ‘right to exist’; mass mobilization and solidarities across difference. At the heart of these debates is a growing awareness of the limits of Western liberal democracy and a call for new vocabularies and frameworks for political action that echo and extend Black internationalist and Third-Worldism movements of the twentieth century.
‘Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.’
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963.
In March 2002, a delegation from the International Parliament of Writers visited the Gaza Strip, among other parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The delegation, invited by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, and under the aegis of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, included writers such as Portugal’s José Saramago, the American writer, Russell Banks, Italy’s Vicenzo Conselo, and the Nigerian writer and playwright, Wole Soyinka.
Deeply troubled by the experience, in particular the worsening plight of Palestinians since the Nakba (Arabic word for catastrophe) of 1948 in which thousands of Palestinians were forcefully exiled from their lands by Zionist militia (making way for the creation of the State of Israel), Soyinka would reflect on the visit in a 2002 essay titled ‘The Isle of Polyphemus’. In the essay, Soyinka likened the ‘blind fury’ with which the state of Israel maintained its military occupation to that of Polyphemus, the giant cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. He wrote:
What my brief stay among ordinary Palestinians did was simply to compel me to revisit that and allied policy statements by the Israeli government, promoted with such galling insensitivity by the US government. If I took anything away from our visit personally, it was the intensification of my private terror that so much critical interventionism in world affairs actually rests in the hands of such leaders with limitless military power.
What I obtained during my visit was a reinforcement of what had been a source of marvel, and it made me truly afraid for the Israelis–that many of those who believed that their political leader was treading the right path had simply never taken the trouble to project their minds into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, into their daily existence, even if they could not visit the physical reality, experience at first hand the daily humiliation and the scars of memory that fully spell out the condition of nearly all Palestinians today.
We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of Palestinian Arabs pass daily in order to work within their sole economic source–Israel. We were trapped in the endless motor convoys through which Palestinians pass twice a day. Those convoys reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup and the Biafran Civil War, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the faces of despair and resignation, but also the simmering anger of a populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant military.
A few years later, in 2008, another eminent Nigerian literary figure, Chinua Achebe, would publicly declare support for Palestine as one of the founding patrons of the Palestine Festival of Literature. In his inaugural address, Achebe expressed hope that the festival would help ‘switch off even for a moment the noise of violence and death’ and that the event would ‘grow and resound with peace in Gaza, the West Bank, Palestine, the Middle East, and around the world.’
Having lived through the Nigerian-Biafran War, Achebe was well acquainted with the noise of violence and death, with the struggle of a beleaguered minority group resisting a much stronger, more widely supported opponent intent on utter victory. Closing the address, he recited a poem composed during the war titled ‘Refugee Mother and Child.’ Like Soyinka, Achebe saw stark parallels between the unchecked state violence wrought upon Palestine and the brutality waged by the Nigerian state against Biafrans and other citizens in successive governments.
Speaking from Biafra in 1969 on his disappointment with independence and the international response to the Biafran cause, Achebe noted the doublespeak of the British government, which kept up a facade of neutrality while supplying the Nigerian military with warships to impose a blockade. The blockade cut off food supplies to Biafra, leading to severe famine and the starvation of millions. The methods of Israel’s ‘complete siege’ on Gaza, in which Israel has bombed Gaza from land, air and sea, and cut off power, food and water, would have been instantly familiar to Achebe. In an interview with Transition Magazine published in its 1968 issue, the Nigerian-Biafran war now in its second year, Achebe described the conditions of Biafrans in grim detail:
From morning about 7 a.m. to about 6 p.m. there is this tenseness. At any moment they might come. It does not take long-a few seconds-and 120 people are charred to ashes, charred black, and perhaps 20 buildings wrecked, and this is a very real thing[…]Food is short, drugs are short. Thousands-no, millions by now-have been uprooted from their homes and brought into the safer areas where they really have no roots, no property, many of them live in school buildings, camps, and the committee does what it can.
Reports from Palestine, not just over the past weeks, but over seven decades under Israeli rule, testify to intensified devastations of a similar nature. In n+1 Magazine, Saree Makdisi, a literary critic of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, wrote recently:
At any moment, without warning, at any time of the day or night, any apartment building in the densely populated Gaza Strip can be struck by an Israeli bomb or missile. Some of the stricken buildings simply collapse into layers of concrete pancakes, the dead and the living alike entombed in the shattered ruins. Often, rescuers shouting ‘hadan sami’ana?’ (‘can anyone hear us?’) hear calls for help from survivors deep in the rubble, but without heavy lifting equipment all they can do is helplessly scrabble at the concrete slabs with crowbars or their bare hands, hoping against hope to pry open gaps wide enough to get survivors or the injured out. Some buildings are struck with such heavy bombs that the ensuing fireballs shower body parts and sometimes whole charred bodies—usually, because of their small size, those of children—over surrounding neighborhoods.
What is laid bare in the similarity of these two excerpts is what Zoé Samudzi, a scholar of genocide, calls ‘The colonial imaginary of total war’ which mobilizes systemic, persistent, and large-scale violence against members of a group on the premise that they are ‘burdens, blemishes, demographic anxieties, existential threats.’ It is, in essence, a geopolitics of extinction.
I draw attention to these parallels now because they emphasize key points for developing a political imagination ‘from below’ in the 21st century and, therefore, might help us, as Africans, respond meaningfully to current events in Palestine and elsewhere. One key point is the necessity of recognizing the distribution of power as a structural phenomenon that is always being negotiated; secondly, the importance of acknowledging specific manifestations of this distribution within local contexts while also acknowledging that systems of oppression are often, if not always, dependent on other systems of oppression. Ideologically and materially linked.
Soyinka’s critiques of the Israeli government in the aforementioned essay implicated, as others have, the United States government, whose diplomatic, financial, and military support of Israel empowers and helps legitimize its occupation. Similarly, Achebe saw how Britain maintained its hold on its former colony by supporting the Nigerian government’s campaign against Biafra. While Britain’s initial response to the Nigerian-Biafran war appeared noncommittal, Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War, only a few days after the Biafran Declaration of Independence, forced a shift. The Canal had been critical to British oil supplies. In its absence, maintaining access to Nigeria’s oil fields became a top priority. When the Federal army gained control of Shell-BP’s oil installations in areas such as Bonny Island, strong support for the Nigerian side, the extent of which Britain wished to keep hidden, became politically and economically expedient.
Elaborating on his disappointments in the response to Biafra, Achebe said, ‘This independence about which we rejoiced in the early 1960s is really quite empty. And if only Africans would see it—see that what’s happening here—that the bell that’s tolling here is tolling for them.’ These collisions and entrapments between and among nation-states—the intensification and transference of penal statecraft and extractive architectures—are a feature of the global order or what is known as modernity. Scholars of modernity and decolonization understand this order to work as a ‘colonial matrix’ or through a ‘coloniality of power’.
Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a scholar and theorist, explains that the ‘coloniality of power works as a crucial structuring process that sustains the superiority of the Global North and ensures the ‘perpetual subalternity of the Global South’. This process, according to Ndlovu-Gatsheni, is underpinned by four ‘technologies of subjectivization’ which include economic control through land dispossession and appropriation, resource extraction, and labour exploitation; the second is martial and administrative control through the maintenance of military superiority and the monopolization of violence; the third is the control of sexuality and gender which manifests as an imposition of Western domestic and cultural norms on indigenous knowledges and practices of social organization. The fourth form of control is ontological and epistemic, and it aims to uproot essential markers of indigenous identity, culture, and subjectivity.
It wouldn’t take any serious thinking to see how this describes the state of affairs for the majority of the world’s population, for masses in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. It reflects in totality the domination under which the people of Palestine have bitterly struggled. Thus, the recognition that national systems of oppression are mutually inclusive with and dependent on global systems of oppression might lead us to two critical formulations: histories of resistance are likewise intertwined, and neutrality is impossible.
The struggle for decolonization has always required an internationalist politics. Circuits of cultural exchange, political solidarity, and material support do not merely limn the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, they were animated and energized by them. This is one reason why refrains such as ‘telling our own stories’ and ‘Africa to the world’, in their present-day uses at least, aspire to a kind of agentic internationalism but are ultimately devoid of liberatory potential, limiting our ability to locate ourselves within Black radical traditions.
‘ON TELLING OUR OWN STORIES & BRINGING AFRICA TO THE WORLD’
The first phrase, ‘telling our own stories’, and the spirit of its use, is most likely adapted from a proverb Achebe helped popularize in a 1994 interview with The Paris Review. In it, he describes early experiences of reading European literature about Africa in which taking the side of the ‘excellent’ and ‘intelligent’ white people against Africans who were represented as ‘stupid’ and ‘ugly’ seemed instinctive. ‘That was the way,’ Achebe writes, ‘I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories’. This realization illustrated the proverb that ‘until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.
Without the full statement, it may seem that Achebe is encouraging exercises in self-narrativizing and the rhetoric of agency for their own sake. In the lines that follow, however, it is clear that Achebe means something else entirely: ‘Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job.’ He says, ‘But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.’
Achebe does not charge us simply to tell our own stories, he charges us to tell them with a world-historical consciousness, with awareness of a history whose evolutions have been marked by the terrible struggle between hunter and hunted, the destructive viciousness of the hunter and the attempts by the hunted to overcome their condition and defy the terms of the hunt. By accepting the responsibility of the historian, furthermore, we must not only recognize our place in the course of events, but we must also ensure that the record reflects the truth as we see it, free of distortion, rescued from silence. And more than that, we must take sides. Achebe’s awareness of his place in history, and the demands of his era, necessitated solidarities and alliances with oppressed peoples beyond ethnic and national borders. His support for Palestinian liberation must be understood in this context. It was part of an ethics. It arose from principle.
Achebe argued against treating the war against Biafra as an ‘African problem’ and wished commentators and governments would ‘deal with it as a human problem.’ ‘We’re not only Africans,’ he said, ‘we’re in the world as well.’ He would’ve seen the dishonesty and bigotry behind the suggestion that the fate of Palestinians is an Arab or ‘Middle Eastern’ or Muslim problem. He was clear about his position. And we must be clear about ours.
What I’m suggesting here is that ‘Africa to the world’ as a post-colonial narrative of uplift undermines the essential fact that, as Achebe says, we are already and have always been in the world. To suggest otherwise is to adopt the imagination and the language of the colonialist, for whom there is still, and has always been, an evolutionary distance between ‘Africa’ and ‘the world’. And if we can only see the potential and meaningfulness of our presence in the world when aspects of our popular cultures are absorbed into [Western] international media, we need to be honest in acknowledging the extent of our capitulation. Without frameworks of solidarity shaped by histories of resistance and grounded in material commitments, our desires for representation in international affairs are at best unsustainable and at worst further implicate us in asymmetries of power.
THE HISTORIAN’S WORK
On 20 October, many Nigerians marked the anniversary of what has been called the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, a spate of state violence that brought the #EndSars protests, the largest and most popular demonstrations of public dissent in Nigeria’s recent history, to an abrupt and brutal end. Let us consider that the frustrations of that moment are shared by those who struggle elsewhere; that collective apathy is always an intended outcome of state violence; and that the powerlessness and resignation one might feel against forces within one’s borders are leveraged by oppressors elsewhere who count on the fear, idleness, and indifference cultivated by domestic authorities.
The world in which we belong, in which we must make our existence, is besieged on every side by calamity. It is a human and more-than-human world and our planetary life is at stake. Entire ecosystems have been and are being destroyed. Millions of lives collapse under the yoke of imperial control. We are in the longue durée shaped by a vision of the earth as a resource and captive populations as fodder in the pursuit of even greater capital accumulation. Each new devastation answers the previous and ongoing and to come. We are and have been, in the ‘interminable catastrophe’ as the scholar, Bedour Alagraa, puts it. While the methods may grow more subtle and more sophisticated, the forms of destruction, impoverishment, and dispossession remain the same. The intent is unequivocal.
Now, as the inhabitants of Gaza experience unspeakable torment, it is again necessary to remember what kind of historians, what kind of people, and what kind of witnesses we have chosen to be. Whatever we choose, we are always already choosing. As millions displaced in Sudan seek food, shelter, and medicine, we, you and I, have the opportunity to decide what our responsibility to them is. We must decide as well if the liberation of the Rohingya people is a responsibility we will share. We have to look at the Armenians in Artsakh and the people fleeing death and exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and decide if their lives are our business.
These escalating and intersecting crises, regardless of our degrees of separation, indict all who are capable of action. Just as the role of the historian is not limited to one person, the efforts it demands are not limited to one issue. The work of the historian, of the active witness, is as much a moral posture as it is a set of practices. It means putting our minds, our bodies, our skills, and resources to use. It means learning about and supporting advocacy groups connected to relief efforts. It means joining petitions that can increase international awareness, supporting and participating in boycotts, joining pressure groups that can influence our governments’ responses. It means keeping up to date with reports from affected areas and learning to discern the interests behind various kinds of reporting. It means understanding how our governments’ foreign policy directly affects the conditions of people elsewhere. It means highlighting inconsistencies in the application of law, disputing the very basis of those laws where necessary. It means building our capacities to organize collective action around and beyond issues.
These are the stakes and the stakes demand a way out of our powerlessness. They should force us to confront the costs of our comfort and our indifference. They should force us to ask what we are willing to allow, and for how long. I know enough. You know enough. There may be those, as always, who can afford to ignore or dismiss or do nothing with what they know. I don’t believe myself to be among them. I don’t believe most of us are.
The intersections of our struggles remind us that, as scholar and author, Christina Sharpe says, ‘We are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force,’ but are not ‘only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.’ The imagination, joy, courage, beauty, tenderness, and hope needed to see and live beyond systems of oppression are shaped and refined in relation. It is precisely in moments like this, in moments of great upheaval and increasing polarization, that our affiliations, our commitments to each other, must be most clear. It is an error to think our lives are disconnected from broader currents of events and their impacts, to think that our immediate realities are entirely unique to us, isolated from shifts in regional and global patterns, or that we can afford ignorance at a time when developments across socio-political, technological, and ecological spheres are considered unprecedented.
If our times are indeed historic then we especially cannot afford the luxury of looking away. Faced with the atrocities that define our era, we cannot make the error of waiting for history’s judgment when it is we who have been tasked with delivering it. We make, all of us and together, in this moment and every day, the history in which our lives are cast. The test of what history we will make is always, already before us. Make no mistake, it is before us now. We may abandon it, but we cannot refuse it. We, members of the so-called Global South, have too long known the indignity of false and distorted narratives, and we do well to challenge them. But there is also falseness and distortion in silence. It obscures motives and suppresses action. It allows the misuse of language and leaves dominant voices unchallenged. We have too long felt the terrible weight of others’ silence. Let us not be victims of our own⎈
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