Worldwide, there’s a growing concensus that “outsiders” (useful, for lack of a better term to describe non-residents of the sub-Saharan) ought to view Africa with a new set of spectacles. Outdated pre-conceptions still dominate outisders perceptions of what ails Africa, and how the “patient” might best be “cured.” But increasingly, the dangerous stereotypes of the past – mental maps and meta-narratives that influenced all manner of wrong-headed understandings of what’s happening in the sub-Saharan – are giving way to new approaches that begin with asking better questions about Africa’s present and future. Probably the clearest expression of the need for looking afresh at a tired subject is this year’s most important book on Africa by a professional Africanist, the eminent observer of the region’s politics, Stephen Ellis.
An advisor to the Dutch government on assistance to Africa, and a professor of African studies at Leiden university in the Netherlands, Ellis has long been among the shrewdest observers of Africa. In his concise and clear book, Season of the Rains: Africa in the World, Ellis strikes a balanced position between the new optimism about Africa’s future economic and social dynamism and the persistent frustrations over violent conflict, inequality and governmental under-performance.
Too many powerful actors on the world stage continue to insist that the shortcomings in what can rightly be called “the African renaissance” must inevitably undermine, if not erase, the enormous gains experienced by all levels of African society since the start of a new century a dozen years ago. Rather than embrace new ways of thinking, these veteran “Africa hands” act as if they can replay the tired, outmoded arguments for the inevitability of African failure. The continent is too diverse, and the recent examples of African achievement are too plentiful, for people seriously concerned with world affairs to fall prey to the conceptual errors of the past. Having cried wolf too many times about Africa in the past, “the best and brightest” of the international community would seem to have exhausted their franchise to consign Africa to the domain of permanent disappointments, perpetual “scars on the conscience of humanity,” to paraphrase Tony Blair’s unfortunate description of the region not very many years ago.
Refreshingly, a new conventional wisdom about is Africa is emerging and Professor Ellis is among the leaders in this movement to press the restart button on the image of Africa in the world. For those unaware of this movement, Season of the Rains is an excellent place to begin. This emerging view, which I among others have trumpeted since the early 2000s and which is finally gaining serious traction among popular thinkers on international relations, (see my own collection, Hotel Africa, which explores the revolution in thinking about Africa in the world) amounts to a new declaration of independence, both for political-economic thinking about Africa as a whole and for individual Africans in the world. The existential acceptance of African capability for self-governance, however imperfect, tracks the growing realization that so-called “developed nations” are themselves afflicted by serious problems, across a range of domains, that call into question legacy notions of superiority.
Ellis smartly concludes his clear, valuable book with what amounts to a new creed for understanding African affairs “We need to consider Africa’s recent history in ways that have more power to explain things than either the Africa-as-victim theory or the Africa-as-imcompetent one, with their sub-variants. Only then are we equipped to understand Africa’s place in a fast-changing world and to read accurately the omens concerning what more happen in the forseeable future.”