We refer to something as “exceptional” when it is a typical, extraordinary, abnormal, rare or excellent. Exceptionalism, a noun formed from “exceptional,” is usually used by people who think deeper than myself, to describe a country, society, individual or time-period that is unique and does not conform to traditional pattern or norm. Political Scientists, notably, Seymour Martin Lipset and Alexis de Tocqueville, first used this word in their discourse of the system of government of the United States. Lipset was fascinated by the history and political system of the United States which he described as “inherently different from that of other nations.” This inherent difference gave birth to the concept of “Americanism,” based on what was perceived as a new political system, clothed with egalitarianism, democracy, laissez-faire economics, liberty and individualism.
The early thinkers went further to described the seemingly peculiar system of government in the United States as “American exceptionalism,” in that while political repression and authoritarianism reigned in other countries in the world, political leaders in the United States were busy discussing how to create a nation based on law, freedom and opportunity for every citizen. Whether every American enjoys legal protection, freedom and equal opportunity is outside the scope of this article. The significance of this is that these peculiarities are enshrined in the US Constitution and are accepted as the national political culture. In his address to the nation in 1863, President Lincoln called upon his fellow Americans to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What he was saying, in plain English, was that the United States’ history and mission gives it superiority over other nations, and if need be, American culture should be imposed on other nations.
The notion of being superior to all other nations gave birth to the concept of “manifest destiny,” a doctrine or belief in white, Anglo-Saxon superiority; a faith in American exceptionalism, that Americans and American institutions were morally superior and that Americans were morally obligated to spread their superior cultures and institutions from the East (Atlantic) coast to the West (Pacific) coast, in order to free people of North America from European monarchies and to uplift the "less civilized" societies, such as the Native American tribes and the people of Mexico. The spread of Anglo-Saxon culture in the Americans went together with land grabbing and human slaughtering to achieve their aims. Believing that they had the right to take away land and resources from the native Americans, the white settlers engaged in a wholesale massacre of native Americans, and banished those spared by their slaughter knives to specific reservations to this day.
The Anglo-Saxon settlers in the New World considered themselves and their institutions superior to the rest of the world. In his famous poem propagating the concept of “manifest destiny,” Rudyard Kipling claimed that the USA and its white Christian citizens, were God’s chosen people, with the right and authority to acquire any land they pleased anywhere in the world, and in return spread their culture, Christian religion and Western civilization to the "inferior" people of the world. This was the genesis of imperialism. This kind of thinking emboldened the white settlers in the New World to wage war against Native Americans and the European countries that had colonies in the Americas. The Europeans, having lost their territories in the New World, embraced the concept of manifest destiny and invaded and colonized Africa. As the Europeans conquered Africa and other parts of the world, they stole local resources and imposed their way of life on the native populations, and justified their behaviour as a just and benevolent conquest. In their view, they were not taking over another people’s land at gunpoint, but rather the so-called “savage” people should be grateful to them for bringing them the “gift” of civilization.
The Europeans tried to inject humanitarian flavour into their colonial expedition with the theory of “White man’s burden,” which states that colonialism has cost attached to it, one of which was the duty of white colonizers to care for nonwhite indigenous subjects in their colonial possessions. For a Century, rather than taking care of Africans, the Europeans exploited the sources of African Continent, including human beings captured and sold as slaves. As rich as the Continent was, and still is, Africa is considered the world’s basket case. Africa has the largest number of people living below poverty (383 million people) level, according to recent World Bank/UNICEF studies. This simply means the theory of “White man’s burden” was a dishonest appeasement. Even more troubling is the fact that the Europeans have not accepted any responsibility for poverty and underdevelopment in Africa. They cast blames on what they see as African exceptionalism.
“African exceptionalism” is based on a Eurocentric view of Africa—so different, so impossible to organize, that any undertaking is practically pointless. It is the European view that African nations are more likely to lack behind other nations because Africans are unruly as citizens and irresponsible as politicians and bureaucrats. This is certainly an unjust indictment. This thinking has heightened the world’s attitude and perception of the Continent as a problem and to ignore the impact of colonialism.
The Europeans do not have clean hands when it comes to the attributes of “African exceptionalism.” How much of the present-day attributes of African exceptionalism was inculcated in the minds of Africans by the Europeans? Where is the birthplace of unruliness and corruption? Language is the conveyor belt of a nation’s culture. Corruption is not an African language, but English. The Europeans need to revisit their history, especially the part of history relating to corruption in the church, which led to rebellion by unruly citizens, against the church and the birth of Lutheranism and religious Reformation. The proponents of African exceptionalism need to be reminded of the Catholic Church's corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin, which became the catalyst for Protestant Reformation. It was common practice for sinners in Europe to pay money to church leaders in return for pardon or forgiveness of sins. In France, the kings created an army of “tax farmers”—tax collectors, who had no compunction to put in their own pockets part of the money collected. History has it that only 25% of the money collected was delivered to the king. This meant high taxes, but not enough revenue for the king to carry out state functions.
These were the corrupt practices that the Europeans infected Africans with in the era of colonialism. It was because Africans were responsible and loyal bureaucrats that the British introduce “indirect rule” in its colonies. The Europeans resocialized Africans to think and behave like the Europeans, including lifestyle. Africans in the colonial era lived like the Europeans out of extra favours received from colonial bureaucrats in return for blind obedience to orders from the colonialists. That learned behaviour has been difficult to unlearn. Though Africans have attained independence, colonialism they have buried still rules them from the grave. The external colonialist may have left Africa in the 1960s, but they left behind internal colonialists (local elites), loyal to the Europeans, to champion and protect colonial interests.
Colonialism left many problems and a bad legacy for Africa. Some of the problems that African countries experience today are not homegrown, but are a result of the negative impacts of colonialism. Some European colonies fought and spilled blood of their citizens to gain freedom from foreign domination. Soon after their independence, it dawned on them that political independence did not give them economic independence. The lack of economic independence is the root cause of dependency on metropolitan countries. Of course, African countries cannot have economic freedom so long as they remain suppliers of raw materials to developed countries and consumers of finished goods from Europe. Tea and coffee are grown in East Africa and the raw leaves exported to Europe where they are processed, packaged and reshipped to Africa as Nescafe or Earl Gray. If the Europeans were interested in economic development in Africa, they would build factories and process the raw tea leaves in situ and provide employment for local population.
The unruly citizens and irresponsible politicians are the brainchild of a flawed legacy left behind by the colonialists. On independence, the citizens of these new countries found themselves forced into a relationship with other tribes, ethnicities, social structures and cultures that were emotionally distant from each other and irreconcilable. This was done to facilitate colonial administration and not to prepare the colonies for self-rule. Creating nations by drawing artificial boundaries and dumping diverse groups that were hitherto oriented and loyal to their subgroups inevitably led to acrimonious relations between the diverse groups, which still exists today, and marked by jungle justice, civil wars and in an extreme case, genocide. The same way it was difficult for the British to manage its relationship with the Irish Republican Army, so it was an uphill task for the leaders of these new nations to force the diverse groups to belong and be loyal to the nations they did not ask for.
Colonialism seems to have ended, but its impact will remain a threat to political stability in Africa. For Africa to progress and take its rightful position in the international community, problems created by the colonial system must be addressed. These problems include the culture of corruption, loyalty to the tribal groups and foreign powers as against their countries, and war as a mean to solving national problem. It is indefensible that these practices have been accepted as part of African culture. Be it as it may, they are now African problems to be solved by Africans themselves. That means keeping the advocates of manifest destiny out of African problem, for obvious reasons. It’s a false hope if Africans think the Europeans would help them out of the valley of poverty and dependency. More importantly, Africans cannot sit back and allow themselves to be defined as unruly, corrupt and irresponsible. They need to defend themselves, not by talking or killing opposition groups in their countries who dare speak out, but by keeping their hands clean of practices not expected of national leaders. A good society is one in which everyone is a role model, not only for their own self-respect, but for respect from others.