Africa, Dismantling Bad Faith: Ben Okri And Biko

By Claudette Carr

I am more than certain that we have witnessed one of the most transfixing speeches delivered thus far, for the 13th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, magically crafted by Nigerian author, and public intellectual, Ben Okri, some few days ago at the University of Cape Town . It’s worth mentioning again here – that along with Emperor Haile Selassies address to the United Nations in 1963 ( which, incidentally, was later translated into the powerful anti-racist anthem, ‘War’ by Bob Marley), and Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” Speech, addressing equality and discrimination, also in the same year; we are in danger of staring a gift horse in the face. Okri’s five-part talk, entitled “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa”, embraced the spirit of Pan-Africanism, providing a stirring blueprint for Africa’s much talked about renaissance. I argue further on, that this malady of “Bad Faith,” ensconced in many of the philosphical  and provoking questions raised in Okri’s speech, are indeed endemic to current modes of political thinking and discourses on development in relation to Africa. Like Dr Martin Luther King, Okri ascends the mountain top, and descends with a speech so majestic, that includes an encyclopedic knowledge – and a Solomonic wisdom second to none: so wide, you can’t get around it, so deep you can’t get under it, and so high you can’t get over it. I am somewhat surprised he is still with us, having not been translated, or transfigured somewhere in the process of this oratory masterpiece. African leaders, intellectuals, activists, and development professionals, would do well to take heed, that we are indeed standing on the shoulders of Giants. Ben Okri, is truly what the African-American intellectual Cornel West has described as a “race transcending intellectual,” but organic enough an intellectual to recognize the potential of the “balm in gilead” remedy, Biko’s Black Consciousnes movement provides for healing the wound of the daughter of his people through out the Continent of Africa. Let me start with a quote about Steve Biko from Okri:

“You have no idea what you mean in the historic consciousness of the world. Sometimes it seems that awful things in history happen to compel us to achieve the impossible, to challenge our idea of humanity. Your struggle mirrored around the world, is one of the greatest struggles of our times. It poses and continues to pose the biggest questions facing humanity; massive philosophical questions that have never really been tackled by the great thinkers of the human race. These are some of the questions which your history posed: Are human beings really equal? Is justice fundamental to humanity or is justice a matter of law? Is there evil? Can different races really live together? Is love unreal in human affairs? Why is there so much suffering? Why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Can the will of a people overcome great injustice? Can a people transform their lives and their society through the power of a new vision? Does God exist and is God unfair?

~~Ben Okri~~


The question so poignantly poses are key in grappling with this notion of “Bad Faith” in relation to the African condition. In ‘Fanon and the Crisis of European Man’, Lewis R.Gordon provides a good reference point, from which we can begin to think critically about dismantling the syndrome of “Bad Faith” that persists in development discourse concerning Africa. I use Bad faith here to describe the kinds of epistemic violence reinscribed in postcolonial discourses on Africa, which are dependent upon Western intellectuals speaking for the subaltern’s [the poor/marginalised] condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. I use Gayatri Spivaks formulation of epistemic violence here, where the subaltern is silenced by both the colonial and indigenous elites. Fanon, observed that one major stumbling block

pertaining to the African condition, was the national bourgeosie, who simply had as their plan – having fought for national independence struggles in Africa – to move into the masters mansion. It is not particularly surprising then, as the Ghanian economist George Ayittey has noted why we have so many corrupt “hippo” leaders turning several African countries into corrupt banana republics? I would apply this thesis to the black bourgeosie today. Africa needs more than a “Cheetah” generation who merely constitute a bunch of Professional careerists, or technical rationalists whose desire for their nation are difficult to disentangle from that of their colonial masters. Where is the platform for Africa’s new intellectual leaders? What do we really mean by “Empowering African Women? Where are the African women intellectual leaders?

“Institutional bad faith discourages human recognition. It is an effort to construct collectives and norms, “inert” practices, that militate against sociality, against human being. Although its goal is the elimination of the human in human being, its route of legitimation may be humanity-in-itself. Institutional bad faith some times takes the form, then, of an attack on humanity in the name of humanity. Segregation in the name of order, which in turn is in the name of peace, which in turn is in the name of the public good, which in turn is in the name of protecting the innocent, and so on. The appeal is familiar. there is a discouragement of choice through the presentation of ossified values.” (Gordon, 1995:22)

Some key concepts in developmentalist discourse aimed at “empowering” and “giving voice” to the poor, as if the poor had no voice in the first place to tell their own stories are tools used to perpetuate bad faith. It is only when we begin unpacking some of these concepts and the ‘spirit’ behind them, that we begin to see how they have become what I refer to as “broken cisterns that hold no water” – acts of false generosity in the face of continued suffering and poverty within the African context. What are the contours of this bad faith that keep Africa in this sate of poverty in perpetuity?

“All across the continent and everywhere where human love responds to the suffering of others, these questions were nagging kind of music. All across Africa these questions troubled us – and among the voices that articulated a profoundly bold and clear response to these big questions of fate, injustice and destiny, one big voice pierced our minds was that of Steve Biko. One of my points of affinity with Biko is with his rigour and his high-standards of expectation of the human and the African spirit. He asks fundamental questions like: Who are you? What are you? Are you what others say you are? What is your selfhood? What makes you a man or a woman? He asks questions which will be relevant in hundreds of years time, questions which are an inevitable part of a free society. We need to reincarnate Biko’s rigour, his high-standards and his forensic questioning of society and of all of his assumptions. We need to keep alive Biko’s fierce and compassionate truthfulness. In fact, we need Biko’s spirit now more than ever. If he were here today he might well ask such questions: Is the society just? Are we being truthful about one another? Has there been a real change of attitudes and assumptions on both sides of the racial divide? He might have expressed concerns about the police reaction to the striking miners of Marikana. He would have said that it does not need to be said that the murders and the use of apartheid law to try the miners are shocking to the international community and that it has disturbing resonances with his own death. He might well ask: Has there been reconciliation without proper consideration? He might ask whether the things that he fought against have merely mutated like certain cancerous cells. It is a strange kind of fate for Biko to have suffered for in being so unjustly cut down so early, he remains for us perpetually poised in the stance of his difficult questions.”


This message was written in response to a liberal white economist, who in the course of several online exchanges, had dismissed African intellectuals such as Steve Biko – and on this occasion, Chinua Axhebe as being irrelevant to Africa’s Development.

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”- Steven Biko

“Paradoxically, a saint like [Albert] Schweitzer can give one a lot more trouble than King Leopold II, villain of unmitigated guilt, because along with doing good and saving African lives Schweitzer also managed to announce that the African was indeed his brother, but only his junior brother.”― Chinua Achebe

Dear Liberal [white Economist]The above is a quote – Chinua Achebe is making this point.I post many critical quotes about the Black African existential and human condition in relation to development – you choose to misconstrue/discredit them in the way you do, which is a testament to how effective they obviously are . I will not be silenced or derailed by your defensive comments each time I post a quote or a piece that stirs your soul.You may have gathered by now, that I am beyond obsfucatory platitudes; my modus operandi for getting beyond the good intentions that beset much of development practice, is CHANGE [NB. not the ‘Like’ button’]. You need to get beyond making personal attacks because you disagree with a comment I have posted on my wall. Let me be clear, as Machiavelli very poignantly notes, “I am not interested in preserving the status quo, I want to overthrow it.”I think that is what paradigm shift might actually mean.The art of good development practice is for development professionals – soon and very soon, to make themselves redundant.As an Economist you should empathise or know, that this, at the very least, is what will go some way towards constituting genuine human growth. We pay homage to those who have gone before us in the quest for transformative justice: Chinua Achebe, Steve, Biko, Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lamumba, Samora Machel, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Harriet Tubman, Walter Sisulu, Walter Rodney, Oliver Tambo, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, May Angelou, Angela Davies….Shall I go on speaking more uncomfortable truths? We would still have Jim Crow, and women would still be chained to kitchen sinks….and blacks still infantilised, subject to the brutal and ignoble regime of Apartheid in South Africa, had Biko not courageously announced: “I Write What I like!” I make the posts, I do to ensure that Africa for this new generation of “do-gooders” as you put it, do not decontextualise, dehistoricize or dehumanize the f1act that they are standing on the shoulders of GIANTS, of which Chinua Achebe and Steve Biko are such. (Signed, FrankTalk)


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button