Achille Mbembe, a professor of history and political science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was commissioned by Emmanuel Macron to reinitiate dialogue between Africa and France. (Reuters)

At the end of July, you were on Emmanuel Macron's presidential trip to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. As the kingpin of the last Africa-France summit, what did you retain as a key step of your involvement?

There were a number of issues that I addressed. As far as Cameroon is concerned, the big question is related to transition. President Paul Biya will have governed this country for 40 years. He is not eternal. The country is plagued by a number of challenges and contradictions. How can we peacefully prepare for this massive transition so that it does not lead to a chaotic situation that undermines the country's developmental possibilities and sub-regional security? It is therefore important that a dialogue takes place with France, which has remained a privileged partner of Cameroon.

Questions related to the memory of the wars that accompanied the struggle for independence deserved to be brought to the fore. Benin, which is engaged in a very interesting developmental trajectory, wants to open up to the world by focusing on its cultural and touristic potential within a tense regional context. I was interested to see all that has been done — France’s restitution of works of art that were exhibited in the new museum in Cotonou; I wanted to witness this moment.

Faced with the criticism you meet in this type of involved work, how does your position as a critical thinker of post-colonialism, of ‘Francafrique’ and therefore of France, express itself through your role as a craftsman of a new relationship between the two countries — In an era where one side should be chosen over another?

It is precisely important to reject this kind of sectarianism that would like us to always be ‘against’... What I say to the president of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, is exactly what I wrote in my books — no more no less. I adopt exactly the same theoretical positions in my discussions with him. There is no Mbmebe who, faced with power, adopts another language. It is possible to maintain a position of freedom in relation to any power — political, financial or religious.

What exactly are your safeguards when accepting a tightrope-walker position like yours?

The safeguard is you facing your own self. It has nothing to do with the public. It is a position of righteousness in front of oneself. Mine is known — explained in articles and books and translated into several languages. This is exactly the position that I defend when I meet with the president of the Republic or in the places where I intervene. This confidence in oneself, in one's own power, in one's ability to think for oneself at a time when one thinks in terms of manipulations, makes claims of intention and wastes time and energy in stories.

"One’s own power," "Thinking for oneself"... Your ideas are in contrast with this era, when the order to the collective masses is predominantly to think in the name of an imaginary "we."

Ultimately there is very little ‘collective’ these days. There is a kind of generalised narcissism. Basically, we are witnessing the rise of the packs. But a pack is neither a collective nor a community. If we want to rebuild strong communities, we will have to overcome a challenge and restore strength in critical ability. One cannot build a political community when critical thinking no longer exists.

Unfortunately, in this era of social media, we are witnessing an erosion of critical thinking and therefore of the possibilities of standing tall and consistent with oneself — that is to say absolutely free. This is a precondition for Africa if it wants to change the terms both of the discussion and of its relationship with the world. It is in posing as a historical subject that it is only accountable to itself. My attitude is to try and change the terms of the relationship between Africa and France so that it is less childish, less hysterical.

There was Cameroon in July, then Algeria in August — two countries that were key in the violent history of the French colonial empire. How do you interpret Emmanuel Macron's ‘friendship’ trip to Algiers, almost a year after the quarrel provoked by his statements on the "memory rent" of Algerian power?

We live in a world where many [people] do not want to talk to each other. From now on, one really must not talk to adversaries and enemies. From now on, dialogue is considered a betrayal. Is this really the kind of world we want to build? A world where the strongest impose their vision and interests on the world? It's not my view of the world.

Moreover, in the political and philosophical tradition of which I am a part, great [leaders] of decolonisation like Patrice Lumumba and Ruben Um Nyobe demanded dialogue. It was the others who saw them as terrorists who didn't want to talk to them. If Nelson Mandela had not spoken to his enemies, where would South Africa be today?

Obviously, we must agree on the terms of the dialogue — the fact that it must be a conversation between equals in order to build this world we share together. The only choice is to build it together.

If Macron goes to Algeria, obviously he needs gas and Algeria needs to sell its gas. But he makes us believe in ourselves and our ability to obtain a fair price for our raw materials. It is not a question of selling them off or seeing them looted.

Due to the conflict in Ukraine, political scientist Bertrand Badie has said that "Powerful nations are equal in terms of risk." This topic of dealing [with the situation] as equals shows that Africa, because of the energy crisis, may be in a position of strength. Would you say that the situation in Ukraine is a catalyst of history just like COVID was?

Bertrand Badie is absolutely right. What characterises the rhythm of the world is that we are all exposed, more or less, to the same risk. But the levels of vulnerability are not exactly the same. We have seen this with access to vaccines against COVID.

Inequalities in terms of risk have not been completely abolished. However, among the major risks that threaten human existence and living things and the habitability of the Earth, they are all the same. To survive, we will have to unite to face them together.

All this explains what we had to discuss and that revised multilateralism must return to the agenda; that China can speak with the United States, the United States with Russia, Russia with NATO, Europe with Africa…

On that point, does one have to talk with everyone?

What is the other choice in the discussion? It is to wage war until a nuclear war seems possible? Is this the only option humanity has as its disposal?

In July, Türkiye managed to get Ukraine and Russia to sign an agreement allowing the resumption of grain exports. Can Europe overcome its enmities towards Türkiye for the sake of its own interests? This agreement prevents famines in Africa and around the world.

In principle, these interests are not incompatible. When we have a thought that contradicts, we must make an effort to combine them. This is the role of diplomacy. Stopping short of telling us that we have to throw it out the window, what tools do we have at our disposal for discussion in order to move forward?

Türkiye has interests [in Africa], but Africa also has interests in Türkiye. The continent has interests in trading with Türkiye, in setting up initiatives with it. We must move in the direction of a world where an international deal is not a zero-sum deal. If you win, I lose: we must get out of this paradigm. The fundamental question comes down to ensuring that the Earth is habitable for all. This is the [great] challenge to civilisation in the 21st century.

In Algeria, Macron called on African youth to liberate themselves from “French bashing” in pointing the finger at China, Russia and Türkiye. What do you think about this?

As far as anti-French sentiment is concerned, we need to conduct serious analysis. Why are we here at this point? There are historical and economic reasons… The more seriously we take on this reality, the faster we will solve the problem. Moreover, civil societies in Africa have a key role to play in rehabilitating politics, and in ensuring that it remains attentive to a wide set of values.

With regards to the conflict in Ukraine, you speak of "the Russian colonial impulse." Between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, the dialogue, which was very steady at first, is now chaotic…

Emmanuel Macron continued to talk to Vladimir Putin, but it is clear that the conversation is not warm. But at least the phone line remained open. We can be hopeful that the war in Ukraine will end. We must therefore tackle the root causes of this war. It is wrong to think that one of them is 100 percent right and the other is 100 percent wrong.

In the media coverage of this conflict, the part that appeals to our emotions prevents us from looking at the cold facts in accordance with the “bad guys and the good guys" adage...

It is never like that — not even in the history of colonisation. History does not work in this way. We have to return to common sense. In pseudo-public debates, we have lost sight of reason and common sense to the benefit of very negative emotions. In a conflict of this nature, I repeat: No one can be 100 percent right or wrong; it's impossible.

Moreover, the Minsk Protocol (2014) and the agreements bearing the same name (2015) are at the heart of the matter and the key to peace…

It is an extremely serious conflict because two brotherly countries are now in opposition and because this war opens the doors to a real catastrophe. It is better to put fervent feelings aside and get to the root of this matter. Russia and Ukraine will have to live together, within Europe, after this war. They do not have a choice. Hence the importance of preparing for the post-war period.

In 2020, you were accused of anti-Semitism in Germany after drawing a parallel between apartheid in South Africa and the plight of the Palestinians. This summer, the same debate raged after 38 deputies — the Communists, France Insoumise (‘Rebellious France’) and EELV — signed a resolution on "institutionalised apartheid" in Israel. It is clear that there are very delicate subjects in the public debate. How do we, in this era of post-truth, get back to the facts?

I have been in South Africa, where I have spent most of my adult life, for 22 years. It is a fascinating country. A race war endured for a very long time. At some point, this country gave itself the chance to start all over again: to suspend the war, to engage in discussion, to recognise that what happened had damaged everyone. Even the oppressor had lost his humanity in the process of crushing the oppressed.

This radical reciprocity necessitated that people change their thoughts about the whole question of coming together — to deal with what happened, to acknowledge the truth and acknowledge responsibility: A path from which reparation then flows.

The politics of truth, acknowledgement, reconciliation and reparation: that is the pathway. These stories of memories — of solidarity of the memories of human suffering — are crucial. I think that applies to anti-Semitism and racism. If it is a matter of competing over who has suffered the most, we will never resolve this.

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