Excerpts from speech by Nicholas Sarkozy, given at the University of Dakar, Senegal on July 26, 2007.
The speech given by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the University of Dakar on July 26, 2007 is arguably one of the most talked-about and most controversial speeches in recent times; one that has generated - and is still generating - tons of reactions from across the world, particularly from Africa. Although excerpts of the speech have appeared in many publications and websites, it has been quite difficult getting a full transcript of the speech in English. A good samaritan recently directed me to an unofficial version of the speech in English. Find below sections of the Dakar speech that generated most of the controversy. (Subtitles are mine).
The excerpts are followed by links to rebuttals by Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian Professor of History at the University of Witswatesrand in South Africa, which have also generated widespread debate in Africanist circles.
Colonization took... and gave back...
Africa is partly responsible for its own misfortune. People have killed each other in Africa at least as much in Europe. But it is true that a long time ago the Europeans came to Africa as conquerors. They took the land of your ancestors. They banished their gods, their languages, their beliefs, the customs of your forefathers. They told your forefathers what they had to think, what they had to believe, what they had to do. They have cut your forefathers from their past, they have torn their souls from their roots. They stole Africa’s spell. (Could also be translated as They killed Africa’s enthusiasm).
They were wrong.
They did not see the depth and the wealth of the African soul. They believed that they were superior, that they were more advanced, that they were progress, that they were civilisation.
They were wrong.
They wanted to convert the African, they wanted to make them in their image. They believed that they had all the rights and that they were all powerful, more powerful than the gods of Africa, more powerful than the African soul, more powerful than the sacred ties that men have woven patiently during thousands of years with the sky and earth of Africa, more powerful than the mysteries that came from the depths of time.
They were wrong.
They ruined a way of life. They ruined a marvellous imaginary world, they ruined an ancestral wisdom.
They were wrong.
They created anguish and misery. They fed hatred. They made it more difficult to open up to others, to exchange and to share because in order to open up oneself, to exchange and to share one must be sure of ones own identity, values and convictions. Before the coloniser, the colonised lost all confidence in himself, did not know who he was anymore, let himself be overwhelmed by fear of the other, by fear of the future.
The coloniser came, he took, he helped himself, he exploited. He pillaged resources and wealth that did not belong to him. He stripped the colonised of his personality, of his liberty, of his land, of the fruit of his labour.
The coloniser took, but I want to say with respect, that he also gave. He built bridges, roads, hospitals, dispensaries and schools. He turned virgin soil fertile. He gave of his effort, his work, his know-how. I want to say it here, not all the colonialists were thieves or exploiters.
There were among them evil men but there were also men of goodwill. People who believed they were fulfilling a civilising mission, people who believed they were doing good. They were wrong, but some were sincere. They believed to be giving freedom, but they were creating alienation. They believed they were breaking the chains of obscurantism, of superstition and of servitude. They were actually forging much heavier chains, they imposed a heavier servitude because it was the spirit, the soul that was enslaved. They believed they were giving love without seeing that they were sowing revolt and hatred.
Colonisation is not responsible for all the current difficulties of Africa. It is not responsible for the bloody wars between Africans, for the genocides, for the dictators, the fanaticism, the corruption, the prevarication, the waste and the pollution.
But, colonisation was a huge mistake that was paid for by the bitterness and the suffering of those who believed they had given all and did not understand why they were so hated.
Colonisation was a huge mistake that destroyed the colonised’s self-esteem and in his heart gave birth to this self-hatred that always results in hatred of others.
Colonisation was a huge mistake, but from it was born the embryo of a common destiny. And this idea is of particular importance to me.
Colonisation was a mistake that changed and intertwined the destinies of both Europe and Africa. And this common destiny was sealed by the blood of Africans that came to die in European wars.
And France does not forget this African blood spilled for its liberty.
No one can pretend that nothing happened.
No one can pretend that this mistake was not committed.
No one can pretend that this history did not transpire.
For better or for worse colonisation has transformed African and European.
I want to say to you, youth of Africa that the tragedy of Africa is not in the so-called inferiority of its art, its thought, its culture. Because, in what concerns art, thought and culture it is the West that learnt from Africa.
Modern art owes almost all to Africa. The influence of Africa contributed to changing not only the idea of beauty itself, not only the sense of rhythm, of music, of dance, but as Senghor said even the way of walking or laughing of the world in the 20th Century.
I therefore want to say, to the youth of Africa, that the tragedy of Africa does not come from the idea that the African soul would be impervious to logic and to reason. Because, the African is as logic and as reasonable as the European.
The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history. The African peasant, who for thousands of years have lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time, rhythmed by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words.
In this imaginary world where everything starts over and over again there is no place for human adventure or for the idea of progress.
In this universe where nature commands all, man escapes from the anguish of history that torments modern man, but he rests immobile in the centre of a static order where everything seems to have been written beforehand.
This man (the traditional African) never launched himself towards the future. The idea never came to him to get out of this repetition and to invent his own destiny.
The problem of Africa, and allow a friend of Africa to say it, is to be found here. Africa’s challenge is to enter to a greater extent into history. To take from it the energy, the force, the desire, the willingness to listen and to espouse its own history.
Africa’s problem is to stop always repeating, always mulling over, to liberate itself from the myth of the eternal return. It is to realise that the golden age that Africa is forever recalling will not return because it has never existed.
Africa’s problem is that it lives the present too much in nostalgia for a lost childhood paradise.
Africa’s problem is that too often it judges the present in terms of a purity of origin that is totally imaginary and that no one can hope to achieve.
Africa’s problem is not to invent for itself a more or less mythical past to help it to support the present, but to invent the future with suitable means.
Africa’s problem is not to prepare itself for the return of misfortune, as if that is supposed to repeat itself indefinitely, but to want to give itself the means to combat misfortune, because Africa has the right to happiness like all the other continents of the world.
Africa’s problem is to remain true to itself without remaining immobile.
Africa’s challenge is to learn to view its accession to the universal not as a denial of what it is but as an accomplishment.
Africa’s challenge is to learn to feel itself to be heir to all that which is universal in all human civilisations.
It is to appropriate for itself human rights, democracy, liberty, equality and justice as the common legacy of all civilisations and of all people.
It is to appropriate for itself modern science and technology as the product of all human intelligence.
Africa’s challenge is that of all civilisations, of all cultures, of all peoples that want to protect their identity without isolating themselves because they know that isolation is deadly.
Civilizations are great to the extent that they participate in the great mix of the human spirit.
The weakness of Africa, which has known so many brilliant civilizations on its soil, was for a long time not being able to participate fully in this great engagement. Africa has paid dearly for its disengagement from the world and that has rendered it so vulnerable. But from its misfortunes Africa has drawn new strength by re-engaging with itself. This re-engagement, regardless of the painful conditions of its origin, is the real force and the real chance for Africa at the moment when the first global civilisation is emerging.
The Muslim civilisation, Christianity and colonisation, beyond the crimes and mistakes that were committed in their name and that are not excusable, have opened the African heart and mentality to the universal and to history.
Achille Mbembe's Critique of the Sarkozy Speech
How is it possible to come to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar at the start of the 21st century to address the intellectual elite as if Africa didn't have its own critical traditions and as if Senghor and Camara Laye, respective champions of black emotion and the kingdom of childhood, hadn't been the object of vigorous internal refutations?
What credibility can we afford such gloomy words that portray Africans as fundamentally traumatized beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests? What is this so-called historicity of the continent which totally silences the long tradition of resistance, including that against French colonialism, along with today's struggles for democracy, none of which receive the clear support of a country which, for many years, has actively backed the local satrapies? How is it possible to come to promise us a fanciful Eurafrica without even mentioning the internal efforts to build a unitary African economic framework?
Achille Mbembe's rejoinder to his initial critique
Colonialism is now presented not as the crime it was from the wars of conquest to the struggles for independence and decolonization, but as a simple "error" that should now be wiped from the slate: massacres perhaps, but bridges and railway too; institutionalized racial discrimination maybe, but also clinics; the Code de l'Indigénat (1) indeed, but schools to; conscription to serve as canon fodder in Europe's First and Second World Wars against France's "civilizing mission" in general.
Worse still, the new legend has it that colonization was a benevolent and humanitarian undertaking. Prostrate in self-hatred and a hatred of France, trapped in their ingratitude even, the former colonial subjects, we are told, are sadly ultimately incapable of appreciating its benefits given that, left to their own devices, they would never have found the path to progress and freedom.