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Africans haven’t fully entered into history nor the future – Sarkozy’s unforgivable comment

Despite enduring colonialism, post-colonial Africa has suffered from racist and demeaning structures, policies and comments over the years; a typical example is Hugh Trevor-Roper, a European historian who held the view in mid-17th century that, there was no African history to teach. In modern times, former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy repeated similar sentiment. The racist excesses of Sarkozy towards the continent and its people forced so many African scholars and some world intellectuals to question his eligibility as President. To many, Sarkozy reduced the bar of Presidency to its lowest ebb.

Recall that, in the year 2007 when Sarkozy, the then French President visited Africa, he made certain damaging comments. In a speech themed the “Dakar Address” delivered to a university audience in Senegal, he asserted that, “the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future.”

He went on with claims that, “the African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”

This position was widely criticized across Africa, especially within a context where he (Sarkozy) was expected to deal with the exploitative relationship the French government had with its former colonies. Alpha Oumar Konare, the then head of African Union commission said “this speech was not the kind of break we were hoping for; It reminded us of another age, especially his comments about peasants.”

Among the critics was Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe who questioned that, “who gave him(Sarkozy) the right to talk about Africa and Africans in the manner of a master who has the habit of ill-treating his slave?” Babacar Justin Ndiaye, a political analyst also stated the obvious that, a “speech with the smell of racism about it will strongly diminish his standing in African public opinion.” Indeed, public opinion dealt heavily with Sarkozy for over a decade, his unfortunate comments are still considered one of the worst to have come from a president who was supposed to be making amends for his country’s bad history.

As demeaning and reckless as those comments were, scholars interpreted his guts to utter such words on the African continent, specifically Senegal as an expression of inherited and unapologetic colonial era mindset. His line of commentary can be traced to similar European sentiment in the 17th century. Prominent among such was the series of lectures held by Hugh Trevor-Roper, an English historian with attempts to demean African history, or totally deny its existence.

Trevor was quoted by historical documents to have said in 1963 that, “it is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”  

He further said, “if all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?”

These lines of commentaries, coupled with deliberately fashioned policies were seen as attempts to whitewash black history to probably hide colonial realities and the true stories of Africans prior to colonialism.

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