It is indeed a compelling Documentary and a must-watch for as I did, I came to realise that the scramble, partition, and colonization of Africa saw the continent divided among different competing powers which went to great lengths to sap the continent of its vast riches. While the British adopted the colonial policy of ‘Indirect Rule’, The Portuguese and the French adopted the policy of assimilation. This was informed by the fact that they portrayed nothing good in the African, and by their policy made Africans to despise their own cultural values and attempt to adopt western values at the expense of their rich African heritage. Hence, Africa was divided among European countries for the purpose of exploitation, suppression and domination for one obvious reason, and that was economic predisposition.
The Europeans petitioned African nations, repositioned themselves, and became ‘owners’ of everything in Africa that were of any value. African nations were subjected to foreign domination and exploitation. This situation was exacerbated when most of the academic and religious orientation of some of the first breed of Africans was aimed at continuing the legacy of slavery and colonialism in new forms – even in an era where there is so much talk about human rights, freedom and political self-determination.
<<< Crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, poor education, inferiority complex, low expectation, poverty, corruption, poor health, and underdevelopment plagues people of African descent globally – Why? 500 years later from the onset of Slavery and subsequent Colonialism, Africans are still struggling for basic freedom-Why? Filmed in five continents, and over twenty countries, 500 Years Later engages the authentic retrospective voice, told from the African vantage-point of those whom history has sought to silence by examining the collective atrocities that uprooted Africans from their culture and homeland. 500 Years Later is a timeless compelling journey, infused with the spirit and music of liberation that chronicles the struggle of a people who have fought and continue to fight for the most essential human right – freedom.>>>
The 500 Years Later (2005) movie written by M. K. Asante, Jr. and directed by Owen ‘Alik Shahadah, with five international awards to its credit, is a penetrating documentary that looks at history from an African perspective. It depicts the problems people of African descent continue to encounter today and finding their roots in history. Filmed on location all over the world, this film covers issues ranging from slavery to the civil rights movement and from colonialism to poverty. The movie further depicts those who died due to famine, diseases, and social dislocation aboard ships that took them to Europe in order to build empires. It is now half a century since Ghana got its independence as the first African State after colonisation, but Africa is still bereft of any meaningful economic and technological development. It is a cause for concern for any well meaning African. This has led A.M. Babu when writing the postscript of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, to query;
…..What, we may ask, has gone wrong? Is it inherent in the very nature of underdevelopment that makes development an impossible task? Among the many prescriptions that have been offered, e.g., cultural, social, psychological, even economic-none has produced any encouraging result, in fact, nearly all of them have had negative results, and made bad situations worse.
The questions raised by Babu receive a cogent examination in 500 Years Later. While the movie deals with issues such as crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, poor education, inferiority complex, low expectation, poverty, corruption, poor health, and underdevelopment among others, this critical review will focus on some of the broad themes that cuts across the different issues raised in the documentary to evaluate where the problems really lie. Is it justified that Africans should be perpetually held by the bondage of their past or should they forget it and move on?
If there is one theme that runs through the movie 500 Years Later, it is the notion of a people who have been perennially exploited for the good of others. It captures on-screen what Walter Rodney captured in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The importance of bringing such an issue to the limelight can be seen in the fact that the Occupy Protests that raged across many cities in the world all aimed at fighting the excesses of Capitalism which is inherently exploitative. This is what 500 Years Later captures so well. It shows clearly that the present day form of capitalism crept into Africa, in the 19th century with the arbitrary partition and colonisation of Africa. This was as a result of some weaknesses which Africa had. Rodney (2005) recognises some of them as “the concept of weakness, and inadequate economic capacity, as well as certain political weaknesses namely; the incompleteness of the establishment of nation states which left the continent divided and the low level of consciousness concerning the world at large which had already been transformed into a single system by the expansion of capitalist relations. (p. 174)
Of the two weaknesses, Africans were able the overcome the latter, as they gradually got opportunities to study and acquire more knowledge about the world at large. Most of the first breed of Africans who got fully educated strove to overcome the other weakness. These were the African Nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Marcel among others. But unlike Europe and America who had to determine their future with little or no external influence, the case of Africa was different. The gullibility of most Africans led to their being pitched against each other. The result was general political instability, coups and counter coups, civil wars, etc. Within such circumstances, there was little or no room to make any meaningful economic advancement.
500 Years later clearly addresses the main issues of slavery and colonialism, it does also explicitly address another question, which is, why the many prescriptions for the African problem seem to be making no headway even after 500 years. This is the question of neo-colonialism. For example, neo-colonialism played and still plays a major role in Africa’s post-independence economic stagnation. Neo-colonial relationships can be seen to be the product of the transfer of formal political power to a class created by, and dependent upon western capitalism. This relationship receives a cogent description from Hodgkin (1969) who says ”Neo-colonialism” tends to be regarded as something of a dirty word, to be used-if at all- in inverted commas, reflecting the shocking lack of gratitude of the formal colonial peoples for the benefits which they continue to receive from the former colonial powers and from the west in general. But in fact, it is an entirely necessary way of describing the situations arising out of false-decolonization”.
Cabral (1979) also describes the real character of decolonisation and the context in which it took place as an objective of the imperialist countries to prevent the spread of socialism in Africa through the liberation of reactionary forces which had hitherto been stifled by colonialism and allowing these to ally with the international bourgeoisie. The end result of this was the creation of a bourgeoisie class where one did not exist so as to strengthen the capitalist and imperialist camp. This done, the bourgeoisie in the new countries had a role which, “…far from being anything surprising should be considered absolutely normal; it is something that has to be faced by all those struggling against imperialism” (p. 442)
Cabral’s (1979) analysis ties in with that of 500 Years Later which depicts that social differentiation was initiated in Africa during the colonial period. Although it is a fact that antagonistic social differences had already emerged in Africa long before European contact, the impact of European trade, followed by colonial rule greatly transformed the fabric of the African society and produced a new and more accentuated social cleavages. As Amin (1979) confirms “the complete colonization of West Africa had two principal social effects: the acceleration of the decadence of the primitive community and the reinforcement of traditional class difference on the one hand, the introduction and development of a new class differences linked to the capitalist exploitation of the continent on the other hand” (p. 36)
Fanon (1963) who labels this new class the ‘national middle class’ or national bourgeoisie’ of the African countries blasts them for compromising the goals of the national liberation movements and permitting a ‘false decolonization’ to take place. Fanon clearly states that the mission of these national bourgeoisie “has nothing to do with transforming the nation” as it is content with playing “the role of the western bourgeoisie’s business agent” and serving as the local instrument of neo-colonialism (152-153).
Fanon (1963) further characterises this strata of the society as an ‘underdeveloped’ middle class’, since it has little or no independent economic power and no capability or inclination to play the historical role performed by the bourgeoisie of the western society. Thus, he states that the national bourgeoisie: “is a bourgeoisie in spirit only….consequently, it remains at the beginning and for a long time afterwards a bourgeoisie of the civil service…..it will always reveal itself incapable of giving birth to an authentic bourgeoisie society with all the economic and industrial consequences which this entails.
Caught up in this relationship and without an economic power base, of its own, the bourgeoisie has no choice than to become the willing accomplice of neo-colonialism and rely upon an authoritarian dictatorship to maintain its domination and privileges, ready to do anything to stay rooted in this position. Having being established as a ruling class, the bourgeoisies generally enriched themselves at the public’s expense through public graft and corruption as well as deals with foreign capitalists.
As a consequence, there has been increasing obligation of the bourgeoisie to foreign interests who are only too glad to offer loans, grants, and credits which will keep the bourgeoisie in debt to them. Thus in a bid to finance this conspicuous consumption and at the same time service the debts incurred, the bourgeoisie have mortgaged both the local economy and the state to foreign capital, in some cases, in the name of “privatization” Hence, the operating budget of most of the African states are totally dependent upon loans and grants from one or more of the major Western Powers, while local entrepreneurs and business men depend upon loans and credits from foreign banks and firms to finance their investments. The end result is a neo-colonial society, tied in a multiplicity of ways to foreign capital. With this state of affairs, it is clear that Africa’s quest for independence began on the wrong footing. The Bretton Woods institutions have not really helped matters. The loans given to most African states by the International Monetary Fund, accompanied by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP), did no more than sap the African states of the little they had, leaving them with huge national debts to service
Another key theme running through 500 Years Later is the need for education or re-education of Africans with relation to their history. Rodney (2005) had made the point that “the educated Africans were the most alienated Africans on the continent. At each further stage of education, they were battered and succumbed to the white capitalist system, and after being given salaries, they could then afford to sustain a style of life imported from outside… That further transformed their mentality” (p.275) 500 Years Later affirms this by stating that “the kind of education that we have is to still enslave our minds, to make us believe we are inferior…” This is an issue that had already received cogent treatment from Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah (1959) acknowledged that the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin greatly impressed him; hence he felt that their philosophy was capable of solving the problem of imperialism and colonialism. Nkrumah (1962) felt that education was the key to the liberation from colonialism, which to him is “…White man’s burden which rest heavily upon the shoulders of the so-called “backward” people who have been subjugated, humiliated, robbed and degraded to the level of cattle (p.29)” Nkrumah saw in the policies of the colonial masters a lot of hypocrisy. In their crafty nature, they masked their real inhumane nature and evil intentions so well that it was very difficult for the people to notice. He describes what will pass today as neo-liberalism as being an attitude aimed at stifling the real independence of African nations. For Nkrumah (1962), “…the attitude of Britain, France, Spain, Italy and other colonial powers towards what they call “participation” by colonial peoples in colonial government and public affairs are half-way measures to keep them complacent and to throttle their aspiration for complete independence (p. 27). In the light of this, Nkrumah saw the need to present a model theory for the liberation of Africa, partly motivated by the hope that the Socialist movement in the world at the time would overtake the capitalist – imperialism that exploited Africa. Hence, in line with the objective of the author of 500 Years Later he wrote that “We have read articles, papers, pamphlets, and books on the subject and we are weary of the platitudes of their authors and distortion of facts. We have written as we see the facts and are indebted to no one but our conscience quickened by the rich revolutionary heritage of historical epochs”.
The point here is that many Africans having deciphered the distortions and platitude of European colonialism and now see the importance of knowledge in the African crusade of decolonization against European colonialism, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the African liberation and development. Knowledge is necessary for power and for action as Nkrumah (1962) wrote that “…there are vast numbers of ordinary Africans, who animated by a lively national consciousness, sort knowledge as an instrument of national emancipation and integrity. This is not to say that these Africans overlooked the purely cultural value of their studies. But in order that their cultural acquisition should be valuable, they needed to be capable of appreciating it as free men (p.4).
The whole idea is therefore that there is a pressing need for Africans to get engaged in the de-colonial campaign as free historical beings, since, “the main purpose of the organization is to bring about a final death of colonialism and the discountenance of foreign imperialist domination” (Nkrumah, 1962, p.41). This is because it was glaring that “outside interference does not help to develop their country, for it impedes and stifles and crushes not only economic progress, but the spirit and indigenous enterprise of the peoples themselves”(Nkrumah 1962, p.42). Hence, decolonization should have been seen as a major indigenous enterprise. Since it was an African ideological response, a philosophical responsibility of Africans to existential challenges of European colonialism Africans should be able to think along with Nkrumah, that de-colonisation is a theory of “what must be done” in responsible response to this dangerous foreign ideology against Africa and its citizens, nature and cultures. The writings of Nkrumah, Fanon, Rodney and others are just a few examples to support the message of 500 Years Later that the oppressed African spirit was only scorched by slavery but not killed, it was not discouraged in to naivety or total resignation, it was not wearied into inactivity, nor hoodwinked into self-annihilation.
While the movie 500 Years Later can be commended for doing a great job in touching on sensitive issues that are at the core of Africa’s woes, it is worth mentioning that it fails in a way in its treatment of the issue of conflict. Following the independence of most African states, there have been many conflicts whose causes cannot be tied down simply to ideology, slavery and colonialism. Some have attributed this to being a ‘curse’ arising from the abundance of Natural resources (Collier, 2007). This is fuelled by earlier views that an abundance of resources generates corruption of political institutions (Lane and Tornell, 1999). The argument has therefore been that corruption and the failure of governance structures in an environment of abundant resources increases the risk of civil conflict (Collier and Hoeffler, 2005). It is therefore worth insisting that a huge problem with Africa today, her unfortunate past notwithstanding, is the problem of bad governance and leadership.
500 Years Later is a great step towards getting the African story right. It depicts that the preservation of the basic relationship of western dominance and African dependence by other means after the formal transfer of power is still a key element in the continent’s underdevelopment. This is evident not only in the field of economic relations but as has been manifested in the resent bombardment of Libya by NATO forces, in the military, diplomatic, cultural, and educational terrains.
While 500 Years Later may have done a great job, this review has been aimed at showing that what M. K. Asante, Jr. and Owen ‘Alik Shahadah sought to achieve by movie had been expressed at different times by scores of scholars of African descent. What is therefore new about the movie is not really the information but the manner in which it has been communicated. The use of a movie means that people can sit down, relax and as a group go through the same story that Rodney or Nkrumah had expressed in print.
This movie and its sequel MOTHERLAND are therefore must-watches not only for African students but for students, academicians and scholars everywhere. In this era of globalisation, ignorance of Africa’s real history will no more be an advantage to any foreigner given that Africans are seeking not only to know the history of other continents but also to set theirs right. The effectiveness of all these however, will be reliant heavily on the condition that Africans first of all undergo what Ngugi Wa Thiongo calls the ‘decolonisation of the African mind’. This has to be, the complete shaking off of the psychological traumas of slavery and colonialism. Unless this stage is attained, Africans will continue to see situations where African leaders keep clamouring for foreign investors, without ever thinking of investing in their own citizens; situations where World economic conferences will be organised only for African leaders to attend and sit at the receiving end of the table; situations where African nations continue to be dumping grounds for outdated and ill fitted technology and technological know-how.
Amin, S. (1979) “The Class Struggle in Africa.” Revolution, Vol. I, no. 9 The African Research Group
Babu; A.M. Postscript to Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,
Cabral, A. (1979) The Struggle In Guinea, The African Research Group
Collier, P. (2007). The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Collier, P. and A. Hoeffler. (2005). Resource Rents, Governance, and Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(4): 625-33.
Fanon, F. (1963) The wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press
Hodgkin, T. (1969) Foreword to Green and Seidman’s Unity or Poverty? The Economics of Pan-Africanism Baltimore: Penguin
Lane, P.R. and Aaron Tornell. 1999. .The Voracity Effect. American Economic Review, 28, 22-46.
Nkrumah, K. (1959) The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, London: Thomas Nelson Ltd.
Nkrumah; K. (1962) Towards Colonial Freedom. “Africa in the Struggle Against World Imperialism” London: Panaf Book Ltd.
Nkrumah; K. (1964) Consciencism, “Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonisation with Particular Reference to the African Revolution” London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Nkrumah; K. (1965) Neo-Colonialism, “The Last Stage of Imperialism” London: Panaf Books Ltd.
Rodney, W. (2005) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Abuja: Panaf Publishing Inc.