Thursday, 8 December 2011

Fanon’s enduring relevance

by Ama Biney, Pambazuka

Fifty years since the untimely death on 6 December 1961 of Frantz Fanon, he continues to have immense relevance in our times. His writings were focused on the dialectics of the colonised and the coloniser during the era of the 1960s. Whilst that era has passed, new forms of colonialism between Africa and the former colonial powers, or Africa and the developed world, now manifest in the 21st century.

Fanon had a clear grasp of the problems confronting emerging African states. The core themes pervading his radical perspective forged from his role as a scholar, psychiatrist and political activist are: The indispensability of revolutionary violence to decolonisation, class struggle in Africa, neocolonialism, alienation and his profound commitment to freedom. What he would make of the myriad socio-economic and political problems facing Africans and people of African descent today with the intellectual tools of analysis he bequeathed is the focus of this article.


The violence Africa experienced in the wake of independence i.e. since 1960 onwards has been of two forms. There have been the protracted national liberation struggles that engulfed countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The material conditions and intransigence of the settler colonial powers in these aforementioned countries forced the nationalist forces to adopt armed struggle as a last resort to secure their political freedom from foreign rulers and settler colonialism. In Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, it is well-known that these forces were ideologically divided and on the formal attainment of independence, the struggle became an internal one of civil war that wrought death, injury and destruction on the lives of millions of Africans.

In short, the national liberation struggle that was waged to fight an external colonial aggressor soon became one of Africans with opposing ideological visions fighting each other. In Mozambique the Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) fought the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO); in Angola the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) challenged the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and in Zimbabwe the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) stood opposed to the Zimbabwe African Political Union (ZAPU). Revolutionary forces such as the MPLA and FRELIMO were locked in a dangerous battle against the forces of counter-revolution in the form of UNITA and RENAMO who were supported by the Western countries during a period of heightened Cold War tensions.

The decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw new forms of violence and genocide emerge in Africa in wars between factions that were not ideologically driven as were the struggles of the previous decades of nationalist liberation. The driving nature of this violence was naked power, material greed, and ego among African warlords and their armies rather than an external force when compared to the struggles of the nationalist period. The wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Chad, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and numerous coup d’états of Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere litter these decades. The fundamental nature of the violence of these decades is partly rooted in the unresolved contradictions of the post-colonial state; problems of nation-building in which particular ethnic groups and political elites have been excluded from access to the state, power and the resources in their society that failed to be redistributed equitably. The abundant resources of Africa, for example the rich oil reserves of Angola or the coltan of the DRC have not been used for the benefit of the people but to purchase weapons of destruction to wage war to maintain the power base of the contending power elites.

Fanon would not have condoned the horrific gratuitous physical violence that has terrorised innocent communities and individuals in the post-independence phase in Africa (and epitomised in the catastrophe of 9/11 and elsewhere) in which the nationalist elite promised so much and abysmally failed to deliver. Such brutal violence from Africa’s wars of the 80s and 90s has traumatised communities and individuals and necessitates healing of minds and bodies in the reconstruction of new societies and nations. It continues in the rebel groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the various militias in the DRC. The militias in the DRC are sustained by Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who are US backed autocrats who have been able to siphon the colossal wealth of the DRC by supporting pillage, plunder and rape in this vast country that has not seen peace since its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba was killed by neocolonial forces in January 1961.

For Fanon the use of violence to free oneself from colonial rule was legitimate for he argued that colonialism ‘will only yield when confronted with greater violence’ (Wretched of the Earth). That the wars of the decades of the 80s and 90s were fought between Africans and were extremely vicious and brutal is a consequence of the ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’ that Fanon unsparingly exposed. In essence, the consciousness of the governing elite was limited to their own self-preservation.

What would he make of the call by the ‘rebel forces’ in Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) for military assistance that led to the UN Security Council resolution 1973 that authorised the NATO no-fly zone over Libya and the eventual violent death of Gaddafi along with several thousands Libyans? The call by the NTC for Western intervention bodes the beginning of the neocolonial project in Libya and the continued military re-colonisation of Africa under the ideological pretext of humanitarian intervention i.e. ‘responsibility to protect.’ This figleaf is the latter day doctrine of the 19th century ‘white man’s burden’ and Fanon would have recognised this imperialist agenda and its duplicity which seeks to secure the resources of Africa for foreign benefit.

Perhaps, we also need to question whether the era of armed revolutionary struggle is now archaic, particularly when we look at how the Tunisians and Egyptians overturned decades of repressive dictatorship in their countries with consistent and peaceful demonstrations that initially united the youth and then the middle classes and other social groups in their societies?

If Fanon were alive today, his message would remain that it is imperative the wretched of the earth, particularly in Africa, confront the fact that class oppression in Africa comes from fellow Africans with black skins who comprise a conceited oligarchy which takes seriously its role as the intermediary of the international conglomerates plundering the continent.


Fanon analysed that colonialism gave rise to the development and polarisation of social classes in post-colonial African society. These classes are: The lumpen-proletariat, the peasantry, the working class (or proletariat), and the national bourgeoisie (or middle class). They continue to remain useful analytical categories for examining the phenomenon of socio-economic differences in current Africa. It appears that in Africa the minority African elite or ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ – as Fanon characterised this class, have become entrenched in Africa and the Caribbean today. They continue to perform the role of the ‘transmission line between the nation and capitalism.’ They collude with foreign capitalist interests to further their own narrow class interests. As Fanon eloquently writes: ‘The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner.’ Whether in Haiti, where elements of the Haitian business classes have colluded with the US giant conglomerate, Walmart, to exploit the Haitian poor in paltry wages that Jean-Bertrand Aristide sought to increase; or the dumping by countries of the North of obsolete computers that release toxic fumes in waste grounds in Ghana – it is the ‘hopeless dregs of humanity’, as Fanon defined the sufferers in Africa, who are exploited, whilst the African elite benefit alongside their European corporate partners. In South Africa, after decades of apartheid, sections of the black middle class that has benefitted from the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programmes of successive ANC governments boldly assert ‘there is nothing wrong with being filthy rich’ whilst levels of socio-economic inequality increase between the beneficiaries of BEE and those who live in the black townships.

Therefore, the current struggle in Africa is fundamentally both against the ruthless forms of capitalist exploitation that robs the majority of African people – the peasantry and working class of their labour and the rich resources of their lands – and those Africans who collude in the misappropriation and blatant theft of this wealth that is denied the majority. The unfolding of this internal class struggle will be one of advances and defeats on the African continent.

The complexity of the class dynamic can be seen in the example of the role of local African Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that did not exist in their plethora during Fanon’s time. Would Fanon see some of them as genuinely aiding the struggles of African people or assisting in the further subjugation of Africans to outside interests? To what extent are the educated African elite who make up these African NGOS, many of which are funded by Western governments or Northern NGOs an integral part of the neo-colonial problem currently confronting Africa?

What is problematic is that the cycle of psychological dependency remains in such structures and relationships i.e. between Africa and the North, donor and recipient/user. Fundamentally, the majority of the NGOs in Africa are engaged in the provision of services that is the responsibility of the African state to provide for their people i.e. clean water, healthcare, education etc. It is similar with so-called aid that has been pumped into African societies since independence. A proportion of this aid is allocated to pay African civil servants who have not been paid by their governments but are paid by Northern governments in the form of ‘budgetary assistance’ in all forms of complex loan arrangements hidden from the scrutiny of the people. The wretched of the earth receive the crumbs from such aid packages which never radically transform their day to day existence.

Another example of the complexity of the current nature of class struggle in Africa can be seen in the calls for the New Economic Partnership for Africa (NEPAD) that emerged around 2000. Again, we should ask: What would Fanon make of this economic doctrine that claims to be ‘new’ yet is wedded to the neoliberal discourse of capitalist exploitation and is being propounded by an African elite? In whose interests does NEPAD serve? When the rhetoric of this economic policy is interrogated it is clear that it seeks to further integrate Africa into an unfair global economy and extend the suffering of Africa’s poor through the continued promotion of private-sector investment that is seen as the lynchpin of wealth creation and distribution in partnership with governments and corporate interests of the North that was also integral to the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 1990s. In essence, NEPAD serves to legitimise existing global power relations rather than alter them. In the forefront of the calls for NEPAD are the African business elites in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya as well as African politicians who launched the policy as a means to give this class an opportunity to reposition themselves vis-vis the neoliberal capitalist order.

The growth of Western military training of African armies in the post-independence phase has quietly and dangerously taken place with the collaboration of Africa’s ruling elite and Western governments. US military training programmes and establishment of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, now surpasses France which continues to have a huge military presence in many of its former African colonies. American training programmes such as the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program (ACOTA) and the Combined Joint Task Force: Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) are just two examples of several American-led training programmes across the African continent that have engaged African military chiefs on the continent. The British and French military involvement in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast respectively, demonstrate the collaboration of Africa’s neo-colonial elite with Western forces.

Perhaps Fanon would have warned that there remains the real possibility of African armies being turned into proxy mercenaries for outside interests who under the pretext of fighting terrorism are euphemistically characterised as ‘co-operative partnerships’ but are engaged in fighting neocolonial wars. Such bi-lateral military arrangements entrench the politically repressive capacities of the African ruling class, for their access to the latest military technology enables them to use these weapons against their citizens as we have seen in Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and elsewhere on the African continent.

The rise of millionaire charlatan preachers in Nigeria and Ghana and elsewhere constitute new members of Africa’s middle classes who are exploiting the African masses through the rise of charismatic Christian churches. Similarly the rise of the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram in Nigeria also uses religion as an opium of the masses but do not promise their converts riches on earth. Within several of these newly emerging charismatic churches are Christian preachers who insist that in order for material riches to be gained ten per cent of a member’s income should be donated to the church in return for the pastor to exorcise bad luck and bless them with miracle healing.

As African politicians have lost the political legitimacy of their people on account of their failure to deliver basic needs, it appears that such spiritual leaders are winning the hearts and minds of millions of Africans with faith. The reality is that these churches that are mushrooming are founded on a cult of personality around a pastor who preaches that it is acceptable to get rich through God. Fanon would perhaps see that these independent churches, often set up anywhere and unregulated by the state, are multinational millionaire corporations bringing in thousands in what are now referred to as ‘mega churches’ that mirror some of the fundamentalist Christian churches in the US. Disturbingly some of the latter have missionary programmes in Africa such as the Kabbalah sect that operates in Malawi under the patron of the American singer Madonna.

In Nigeria, where 80 per cent of the population live on less than US$2 a day, poverty remains despite the huge oil wealth of the country. Beneath the seemingly benign surface of worship, many of these churches have become well-oiled capitalist corporations marketing God in their DVDs, books, music CDs, TV stations and radio stations that bring in listeners, viewers, attentive congregationatists who enrich a tiny elite within this corporate “church” apparatus. The ideological justification of socio-economic poverty and political inequality is justified and legitimated by these charismatic church leaders who grow rich at the expense of their congregation i.e. the poor, who are alienated from the truth that they are being exploited by both their political and their religious leaders. The obsession to get rich is the focus of such pastors that they promote and inculcate such specious doctrines of ‘prosperity preaching’ to the wretched of the earth who also despair of their wretchedness.


The wretched walking Africa’s earth today are the amputees of Angola’s and Mozambique’s wars that shed landmines across the country during the long civil war from 1975-2002 and 1977-1992 respectively. They are those who survived the hacking of their limbs in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002. They are the women and girls raped in wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Burundi and elsewhere on the African continent. They are those suffering from diseases such as malaria that continues to kill African people unnecessarily. They are the mothers who needlessly die from childbirth. They are those HIV/Aids sufferers and their families who struggle to obtain anti-viral treatment or those who do not have access to such treatment and die miserable deaths leaving orphans to be cared by grandparents. They are the millions of beggars and homeless in Africa. They are the street children of Africa denied both a childhood and education due to neocolonial impoverishment. They are the albino men and women of Africa, as well as Africans who are gays and lesbians, who across Africa receive discrimination and prejudice. They are the landless whose lands have been sold by neo-colonial African governments to foreign interests in recent land grabs on the continent. They are the Ogoni people of Nigeria (and many others) who have been economically impoverished by oil that has enriched the minority Nigerian and Western elite and ecologically damaged the environment. The untold toll on the health of the Ogoni is a ticking time bomb of wretchedness waiting to be uncovered.

Africa’s wretched of the earth includes, as Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem poignantly pointed out, all those Africans who have been prematurely killed ‘through inadequate public services compromised by corruption. Monies meant for drugs, roads, hospitals, schools, public security etc… are siphoned away.’ They continue to be the peasants of Africa that Fanon wrote about in his seminal work ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (published in 1962); he considered them to be the most revolutionary class, ‘for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain’ (p. 47). In the Caribbean, the wretched of the earth are not dissimilar from their brothers and sisters in Africa. Take for example, the survivors of Haiti’s devastating earthquake of January 2009 who continue to see little benefit from the millions of dollars of aid pledged to help the survivors of the earthquake. This list of today’s wretched of the earth is not mutually exclusive.

Is Fanon turning in his grave that the social category of the wretched of the earth has considerably expanded since he wrote that classic work and that the levels of cruelty meted out by despotic African regimes have been just as worse as those perpetrated during the colonial period? In addition to the globalisation of the wretched of the earth – not only in Africa – but across the world, has been the manifestation of new forms of alienation in our times.


Fanon’s ‘Black Skin White Mask’ is a searing critique of the inherited crippled colonial mentalities of post-colonial society. It is powerfully and skilfully portrayed in Sembene Ousman’s film ‘Xala’. Currently it is reflected in various manifestations and terms such as the ‘wabenzis’ of Kenya – that is the wealthy minority of the Kenyan elite who live in luxurious gated communities with their Mercedes Benzs and are conceitedly cocooned from the squalid lives of their fellow citizens in the rat-infested slum township of Kibera, yet they retain ties with the extended family in the village.

Whilst the use of the term alienation is sparsely used in Fanon’s works, he is certainly concerned with this phenomenon. In the beginning pages of the aforementioned book he writes: ‘I am speaking here, on the one hand, of alienated (duped) blacks, and, on the other, of no less alienated (duping and duped) whites’ (p. 29). He gives much attention to discussing the psychological and cultural manifestations of alienation of the colonised African man and to a lesser extent the African woman. Fanon’s masculinist focus and language throughout all his work is characteristic of his era of Pan-Africanists who were predominantly male and unconsciously sexist in their thinking, vocabulary and frames of reference. However, he was discerning of destructive social relationships between the colonised and the coloniser, and in his ‘Black Skins White Masks’, has a chapter entitled ‘The Woman of Colour and the White Man’, ‘The Man of Colour and the White Woman’ and ‘The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples.’

As a psychiatrist who worked in an institutional setting with Algerians psychologically damaged by war in a colonised society, Fanon had considerable professional experience of the perniciousness of colonial values and inferiority complexes on the psyche of Africans. Therefore, Fanon of today would find resonance with the recent school of thought among African-Americans who are interrogating the impact of ‘post-traumatic slavery syndrome’ on Africans born in the diaspora where white privilege and superiority operates alongside the continued maligned image of Africa. The consequence of this has been an internalised racism within the consciousness of some Africans in the diaspora. The manifestations of this are both covert and overt. For example the pursuit of European values and aesthetics of beauty, individualism, glorification of materialism, the objectification of the bodies of African women in particular genres of Hip-Hop music are negative influences on young blacks/Africans born in the diaspora, particularly in the US and the UK. The increasing preponderance of young African women (as well as mature African women) who wear wigs, weaves, skin-bleach, wear false eyelashes, false nails and blue or light brown contact lens in their eyes in the West, is a consequence of the historical denigration of African women and the elevation of Europeanised/Westernised forms of beauty that have had a profound adverse influence on self-perception. It is also a manifestation of the profound alienation that exists on an unconscious level among African women as a consequence of the sophisticated forms of social conditioning and programming in the prevailing racist Western dominated society. The escape from one’s natural self; false synthetic attachments to one’s natural body that are intended to allegedly beautify and imitate European forms of beauty are the epitome of a people who engage in self-contempt and self-hatred of their own skin and representations.

The effective instrument in promoting this alienation has been the Western media in all its forms (magazines, advertising, newsapers, TV, videos etc). They are powerful mediums to promote and elevate. For example African fashion models and celebrities (both male and female – but predominantly the latter) who conform to Western notions of beauty and attractiveness i.e. are light-skinned, have processed hair or wear a weave and are anorexic in their body proportions are the predominant images presented. The central questions are: Whose concept of beauty is being represented and what is the impact on our African youth of such images and values? Why do Africans buy into such images? In our globalised world, such images are transmitted in advertising and music forms and beamed onto the African continent. Therefore young Africans on the African continent are also influenced by these perceptions and images. Perhaps if all shades of skin colour and body types were equally represented in these media forms, the problem of the internalised inferiority of African women in the West would not be problematic. In the UK and US, at its extreme are the sexualised images of women in Rap videos that reinforce the idea which has its origins in slavery and colonialism that black people are culturally retarded, sexually perverse and morally loose. That there are white equivalents in the form of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga is not an issue; the issue is their past is not linked to hypersexualised images of sexual exploitation, commodification and denigration as is the past of black women.

In short, there remains in the West a major task of challenging the myth of black/African inferiority or what Na’im Akbar aptly refers to as ‘breaking the psychological chains of slavery’ on the consciousness of Africans born in a racist society that seeks to keep them disconnected from Africa and continues to portray Africa and Africans in a negative manner. Fanon would have recognised the political, psychological and cultural impact of definitions of identity for Africans born in the Diaspora and atomised from their true selves and potential. Also, as a psychiatrist committed to freeing human beings from all forms of oppressive conditions, he would have acknowledged what Na’im Akbar refers to as the ‘ghosts of the plantations’ i.e. patterns, values, attitudes, that have transmitted over generations since slavery and colonisation, yet continue to reconfigure themselves in the society and are unconsciously enacted upon by those who are damaged by such values and attitudes.

Another example of the alienation of which Fanon wrote about was expressed in the violent uprisings that took place in the summer of 2011 in England. They were in many ways predictable since going back to the 1970s young black men in the UK, and in London in particular, have been disproportionately stopped and searched by the police under the former ‘sus’ laws i.e. on the mere basis of suspicion. In the US the African-American term of ‘driving while black’ is also an experience many black men in Britain who are stopped and searched for driving a car that a racist police officer believes is beyond the means of a black man, is a daily dangerous reality that breeds resentment and hostility towards a racist police force. The uprisings were triggered by the death of the young black man, Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011. However, whilst there are a myriad of reasons why many from different ethnic backgrounds, including black youth, participated in this conflagration, the lack of a focused political agenda of the youth was apparent. The crucial question arises as to how do progressive forces for change tap into the resentment and rage of the youth to channel it towards positive action? Or in other words how can future uprisings be prevented? These are questions for progressive forces in the UK to address.

Ironically, in the 1960s during the height of the Black Power movement in the US, the Black Panthers appeared menacing to white society as black men carried guns to defend the black community against police brutality; now those guns have been turned inwards. The covert and debilitating reconfigurations of racism in the former metropolitan colonial powers and their current ramifications on the lives and psyche of people of African descent in the diaspora would surely have interested Fanon? The ‘black on black violence’ expressed in the proliferation of gangs in the UK and US; knife crime that has disproportionally claimed the lives of black males in Britain are symptoms of the profound alienation of living in a racist society. It is a society that denies black men legitimate opportunities of employment as the economic recession impacts adversely on minority communities and black males continue to be perceived in threatening racial stereotypes by the larger society. Making money through illegitimate means through criminal activity such as drugs becomes the means by which money to acquire consumer goods, e.g. designer clothes and the perceived ‘good life’ can be easily gained. With an education system that fails to reflect the black/African experience; low self-worth are entangled with the repressed anger of a small section of these black youth who do not value their own lives and consequently see other black lives as equally less than human despite their outward bravado and ostensible fearlessness. Ironically the mantra of some of these young men is ‘respect’ – yet it is genuinely absent from the lives and relationships young men have towards each other as some would not hesitate to kill another for the filmiest of reasons.

Ultimately, tied to the plethora of issues and reasons as to how and why black/African youth have lost their way in the UK is that at the root of their alienation is that perhaps the worst thing that can be done to a people is to disconnect them from their historical memory of themselves. Such a generation – and I emphasise a particular segment of the black/African youth in the UK and US (for not all the youth are engaged in negative activity as the Western media often portrays) – is a great risk of failing to encounter its mission. For as Fanon stated: ‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’ (Wretched of the Earth, p.166) This specific segment of our youth is in danger of betraying that mission if they fail to be taught an education that reflects the genuine struggles and contribution of African people; that they are given new opportunities to abandon gang life and a life of hopelessness; that they are taught how to channel the rage and frustration many carry around as a result of the oppressive racist society they are in; reconnect to their history in order to acquire a new set of values and ethics in order to know they have skills and talents that can be harnessed for positivity rather than self-destruction and nihilism. Failing this, the fact that four out of 10 young people in youth offending institutions in the UK are black youngsters will continue to rise in the years ahead.

Similarly, ‘the new Jim Crow’ in the US that has seen an exponential rise in people of colour in the prison industrial system that is disproportionally full of African-Americans and Latinos is equally an issue that Fanon would have refused to remain silent on. Many African-Americans such as Anthony Troy Davis, who was executed on 21 September 2011, have been subjected to a brutal state injustice in America. The iniquitous racial injustice endemic to the legal system in America also casts its shadow on those incarcerated individuals who have served their time and are released. They continue to be denied an opportunity to reintegrate into mainstream society as full citizens. Unable to vote, unable to find decent employment, denied welfare on account of a past criminal conviction, such an experience befalls many African-Americans more than their white counterparts. In short, the stigmatisation of prison impacts their lives profoundly, isolates them from their family and continues to deny them their full humanity.


Underlying Fanon’s writings was the common nature of the struggle of all the colonised. He linked the fate of the Algerian revolution with that of the continent as a whole. Today he would have been concerned with the struggle against new forms of political, military, economic and cultural exploitation and hegemonic control of the African continent; their consequences on the lives of continental Africans as well as those in the African Diaspora and the fate of our entire suffering humanity. He was passionately committed to the realisation of freedom and a just economic society in which the distribution of wealth met the needs of the vulnerable and needy. However, he was insistent that, ‘Before it can adopt a positive voice, freedom requires an effort at disalienation.’ (Black Skin White Masks p. 231) Fanon did not prescribe methods of how to construct a just and socialist society founded on ethical, moral and philosophical principles in which human beings rather than power, greed, materialism, and profit maximisation are central. In his resignation letter to the resident minister of the psychiatric hospital of Blida-Joinville, Fanon wrote in 1956 that ‘A society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society a society to be replaced. It is the duty of the citizen to say this.’ (Toward the African Revolution, p.63-64)

The intellectual debt of Fanon is a rich one and he continues to have an enduring relevance to Africans in the 21st century. How human beings forge freedom against all forms of tyranny; how we struggle to be human in a dehumanising society and world are the challenges for this generation.