Theory Teacher's Blog

Africa in Copenhagen for Climate Change

As I’m sure all the readers of my blog are already well aware, the United Nations Climate Change Conference has been going on for the past week in Copenhagen. Interestingly, the representative of the African Union is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. A lot of people are critical of this choice because of Meles’s poor record on both human rights and the environment.

For instance, journalist Douglass McGill in his YouTube video: 

In addition, yesterday, the Oromo Studies Association sent an open letter to the UN conference detailing this record, including the destruction of Lake Koka and the burning of the Bale forest.

From the perspective of cultural theory (i.e., my blog), two things about all of this interest me. One is the choice of Meles to represent Africa rather than the leader of a country that is more stable and democratic (such as maybe Ghana, Senegal, Botswana, or Tanzania.) Wouldn’t it be preferable to choose a leader who has successfully tackled climate issues? Perhaps the choice of Meles was motivated by the location of the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. But I want to assert that Ethiopia’s place as the “representative of Africa” has a longer literary history than the African Union’s political history, as scholars such as John Cullen Gruesser and Wilson Jeremiah Moses have carefully demonstrated. Consider Alice Walker’s joke in her novel, The Color Purple: “Everyone has such high hopes for what can be done in Africa. Over the pulpit is a saying: Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands to God. Think what it means that Ethiopia is Africa.” Her book reflects a long tradition within black churches in the United States, Caribbean, and West Africa — a tradition whose literary origin is the passage that Walker quotes from Psalms 68. Because of Ethiopia’s unique relationship to the Greek classics and the Christian Bible, and because it was the only African country never to be fully colonized by Europe (though it was colonized, just not fully), it has become the spiritual representative of pan-African aspirations. Ironically and paradoxically, it is precisely because of Ethiopia’s exceptional relationship to a European literary tradition that it gains its representative status on behalf of Africa.

The second interesting thing is the question of Africa’s voice in a process dominated by the United States and Europe. Many fear that Meles will sabatoge the conference by claiming that Africa’s voice is not being heard. For instance, recently he said [here], “If Copenhagen is going to be about an agreement that simply rides roughshod over Africa, then we will try to scuttle it, and I think we have reasonable assurance we can scuttle it if our concerns are not addressed.” Noticeably, Meles seeks support for his position from China and India, perhaps because these two countries have recently begun to invest in various economic projects in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. On the one hand, I think Meles has a reasonable point that the major global institutions such as the UN, IMF, World Bank, and WTO have tended to force African nations to submit to agendas that serve the interests of the United States and Europe. I think this point should be taken seriously. But on the other hand, I suspect that Meles is using that point as an alibi, for if anything, his scuttling of the conference is perhaps encouraged by multinational corporations based in the U.S., Europe, China, and India who want to continue exploiting the resources and people of Africa with little environmental oversight.  In other words, in the name of African rights, Meles ultimately serves the interests of global corporations, and not actual Africans. This, I think, is the real question of Meles as a “representative.” If he comes from a country whose democratic institutions are totally corrupt and whose government is violently oppressive, then whom is he really representing?

I hope all of my patient readers notice that the first thing that I discussed is the relationship between literary representation and political representation (Ethiopia’s symbolic status on the world stage) and the second thing I discussed is the relationship between political representation and global economics. Hence, the theoretical question that guides my inquiry is the relationship among literature, governance, and business.

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December 13, 2009 - Posted by | global, Oromia

1 Comment »

  1. You raised legitimate questions.

    Comment by Tony | December 13, 2009 | Reply


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