The West is in decline. Europe is old and stagnant. America is distracted. The club’s nice guys, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, cower in the shadows, ashamed of their Western identity. They have no idea what to do with themselves. The West and the global order it has shepherded since the colonial era are in disarray.
There’s disagreement over how long the decline has been going on. For some, it’s been centuries, ever since the Enlightenment. Other contend that it’s a recent phenomenon, precipitated by the re-emergence of China, Russia and their constellation of allies as an alternative centre of global power. Others deny that it’s even happening.
Whether the decline should be celebrated or lamented is also in dispute. Some consider West’s past sins to be unforgivable, and insist that erasure is the only acceptable penance. Others think the decline of the West is a great loss. Many are ambivalent.
Among those from whom erasure is expected, at least by contemporary orthodoxy, are Africans. African people suffered some of the worst consequences of Western colonisation; even today, we feel the effects of being kept down by various forms of neo-colonial exploitation, some of which I have enumerated in this column. Given this, the argument goes, the West can’t decline fast enough.
Africa is part of the West
However, things aren’t this simple. It isn’t self-evident that Africans should welcome the decline of the West, despite this sordid history and present reality. This is not least because Africa is actually part of the West. We may be Africans, with a distinct identity as such, but many of the things we hold dearest – ranging from material goods to modes of thought – are Western in origin.
To be African is to be Western too. This sounds contradictory but it is irrefutable. To acknowledge our Western identity is not to deny our African identity. Rather, it is to recognise that the West’s best contributions to mankind, like the best contributions of every other civilisation, are good because they are, first and foremost, human.
Among these treasures are the emphasis on individual freedom and liberal democracy, the only proven means, out of many, of setting up governments that are accountable to the people; and free markets, the most efficient means of distributing economic value known to man.
These two ideas have contributed to a great yearning for, and rapid achievement of, greater human dignity on the continent. In fact, these ideas animated the struggle for independence from the colonials who introduced them. It’s not often that you can use your oppressor’s strengths so effectively to your advantage.
To be clear, these ideas, in their most-developed forms, are new to the West too. A mere century and a half ago, liberal democracy was the exception, rather than the norm, in the much of the West.
In addition, it’s not as if the kernel of these ideas is unique to the West. Otherwise they wouldn’t take root everywhere as they have. Nearly every culture has at its root an acknowledgement of a deep human desire for greater freedom and prosperity. But the West was the first to explicitly articulate and propagate it and it’s been a blessing for the rest of the world.
Another of the West’s most important positive contributions to Africa, especially south of the Sahara, was the introduction of literacy. Most Sub-Saharan cultures were not literate before European contact and relied on oral tradition for the transmission of ideas.
Thanks to the blessing of literacy, I can sit here in deepest Africa and scribble to you about the beauties of literacy, wherever you are in the world. Thanks to literacy, we have access to humanity’s treasures of thought and action, going back to the dawn of civilisation. And thanks to literacy, we can now preserve and share the genius of our own cultures with the world.
Along with literacy, of course, have come rapid sharing of knowledge, the marvels of science and technology, formal education, international trade, durable infrastructure, and modern medicine. Our ancestors had their own ways of dealing with problems and healing disease. Some of these techniques have been unfairly denigrated and prematurely dismissed, no doubt, and may yet prove worthy of returning to.
But none of them could stem the catastrophically high infant and maternal mortality rates which mowed down multitudes in Africa as recently as my own parents’ generation. Thanks to the advances of modern medicine and public health, to which the West arrived by dint of painstaking experimentation and discovery, we now take it for granted that babies, along with their mothers, will survive their first five years.
The West’s most important gift to Africa, arguably, was Christianity, which is now the majority religion on the continent. Some complain that this strange faith belittled, repressed, and replaced traditional spiritual systems.
I contend that this was no real loss, since the successful strains of Christianity were those that managed to converse and integrate with African tradition rather than reject it wholesale. Besides, coercion was rare, Europe having already failed in previous colonial outposts.
The only real misfortune here, as I see it, is that, by the time Europe introduced Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the faith was already riven by the scandal of the Reformation. Conflicts amongst post-Reformation European Christians were exported to Africa, and now divide African Christendom too. Luckily, the conflict rarely explodes, and the continent is now one of Christianity’s brightest spots.
Ours to defend
Finally there is the fact that the West created Africa. Before European colonisation, Africa wasn’t A Thing. Yes, the land existed, and people lived in it. But few of the communities that inhabited parts of it knew of its full extent. Hardly any had a name for it.
Colonialism gave an identity to this land by bringing into one fold disparate and widely dispersed communities that had hitherto not interacted. It sometimes was the occasion of conflict, so that one may even argue that we would have been better off without it. I disagree. I am better off for knowing that the land on which my people live is vast and that we are not alone.
We are a people that put much store by our roots. Our Western roots are some of our deepest, best articulated and best documented. It’s possibly for this reason that its weaknesses are more visible to us than those of our other roots. In the face of this, the attitude we must adopt is that of Shem, who covered the nakedness of his father Noah.
Ours is an age that scorns gratitude for genuine gifts and places more store by moral posturing than by true morality. With feigned erudition, we spit upon and erase the great traditions that undergird our identities, oblivious to the fact that we are sawing off the branches upon which we sit.
It doesn’t help that many in the traditional heartlands of the West are ashamed of the sins of their ancestors, with no counterbalancing pride in their great achievements and contributions to humanity. They’ve been made to think that they are the generation which will see the West wither away.
That won’t happen, but if it does, we Africans, who have an equal claim to the heritage of the West, will not be too proud to lift it upon our shoulders.
We inherit a great tradition that is now in decline. Defending it is the least we can do.