The politics of Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism define the rhetoric of PLO Lumumba, one of Africa's most preeminent scholars and intellectuals. We attempt to understand it.
For some reason PLO Lumumba, a Kenyan law professor and pan-African intellectual is a security threat to Zambia. Officially the Zambian government argues that ‘security considerations’ forced their hands in denying him admission, unofficially one wonders if it is his harsh rhetoric against Chinese corruption in Zambia that perhaps informed the so called ‘security consideration.’ That is PLO Lumumba, a hard-talking, witty Pan-Africanist who has gained fame for his speeches across the continent.
The philosophy and politics of PLO Lumumba is complicated. On one hand, he looks at Africa and sees a continent in ruins, a continent whose founding dreams have been snatched by greedy and selfish vultures. On the other hand, he sees a diverse, resource-rich continent of hardworking people that is capable of being a key player in the world’s geopolitical landscape that gives him hope. He calls it the paradox of Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism.
It’s easy to understand why PLO’s relationship with the continent he calls motherland is complicated. He was born in the early 1960s, at the height of pan-Africanism. He was born at a time when African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Tom Mboya and Patrice Lumumba painted a picture of a united and prosperous collective African future. He watched as a young boy and as a young adult as political instability, civil war, rampant corruption and looting by ‘leaders’ stole this dream of Africa from him and his peers. How it must have hurt PLO Lumumba as many African countries conceded the initiative letting countries like Singapore and South Korea overtake them. How it must have hurt PLO Lumumba as education systems that produce ‘engineers’ who cannot fix engines took root, churning out educated people absent the ability to think critically and creatively. It must have been seething and painful when the Economist dubbed Africa the ‘hopeless’ continent.
But at the same time, hope is the candle that is always flickering. The young – vibrant population across the continent must have excited Mr. Lumumba. Surely the cultural diversity, innovation and entrepreneurship zeal of the common person in this continent rekindled his soul. If it didn’t, then it must have been the strong economic growth by most countries at the turn of the century or the increased political stability in many member states. This hope, PLO Lumumba understands, is only but the beginning. The challenges that the continent face remain intractable. How do we solve the challenge of South Sudan that appears hitherto unsolvable? Must we think differently about Chinese encroachment into the continent in the name of investment? And what about the Western powers, forever masters of the art of ‘dead aid’ and hypocritical ‘moral high ground’.
It is for the above that Mr. Lumumba believes that the African at home and in the diaspora can no longer take the middle ground. It is for the African to take over the mantle from the heroes of the past like Steve Biko and the heroes of present like Ngugi wa Thiong’o. From academia to the private sector, it can no longer be business as usual lest afro-pessimism takes charge and all is lost. This exactly is why PLO Lumumba is a security threat.
PLO’s philosophy moves from the individual to the society. He argues that we must abandon the notion of a ‘one fit all’ democracy that our Western ‘friends’ have so fervently pushed on us. Can countries with different tribes, customs, languages, food exist harmoniously in a democratic state? Can we even claim that there exists a true democracy in continent? And what about the corruption and filth that democracy creates that is so against African ethos and values? We must open our eyes, democracy might actually be a myth. We have paid the price of the failures of democracy for way too long. In the same stead we must review the education system that places value on camming Western gibberish and leaves in abandon generations of African knowledge. We cannot continue filling our countries with PhDs whose doctorates leave them nothing but exalted fools. Surely, we must embrace a new progressive education system that consolidates the best of human knowledge with the best of African culture and knowledge.
But change requires boldness. The meek may inherit the world, but it is the bold who own it. Individuals must be willing to sacrifice to achieve the pan – African dream laid down by Nkrumah and our founding fathers in Addis Ababa in 60s. Just like PLO is ready to become a ‘security threat’ to the establishment, individuals from all walks of life must rise up and demand a continent for all, a continent that works for Africa and Africans. How we get there, PLO Lumumba can only hypothesize.
Watch PLO Lumumba's recent talk at Harvard University, hosted by The Kennedy School African Law Association. The talk is titled "Our Roles in Creating Systemic Change in African Politics!"