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Culture Wars: UNESCO, Libya And The General History Of Africa

3 June 2011 3 June 2011 No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Gaddafi’s overextended excursion to power began in 1972 with the overthrow of the British backed the grandson of the Grand Senussi of the Muslim order, King Idris (Sayyid Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi). A tainted human right track record however did not prevent him from creating a quality of life for Libyans most Americans would envy. Among the Libyan leaders credits are underwriting a bulk of the African Union’s annual operating budget and providing monetary support for the telecommunications infrastructure of many African countries

As civil strife continues in Libya and the US and NATO attempts to oust Libyan leader Muamur Gaddafi, the collateral damage and soft atrocities done to the African continent as a result of this conflict remain unaccounted. Members of the academic and activist communities expressed their disbelief and dismay when they learned UNESCO’S Director General Irina Bokova put the UN agency’s most critical project in Africa in harm’s way: the 8 volume scholarly masterpiece, The General History of Africa. “This is an important issue as the future of our children is at stake” stated Prof. Bankie F. Bankie, a Namibian legal scholar and former diplomat. Destroying Gaddafi’s military bases is not the only structural damage that the US and its NATO allies enabled but others unmapped in war rooms such as education and its dissemination, is pressed into fodder. Just as there remains lingering doubts about the legitimacy of NATO’s involvement in the Libyan war, the legitimacy of the Director General’s sole decision to return funds donated by the Gaddifi Foundation towards the General History of Africa, something that exceeds her jurisdiction, raises questions about what the real motivations behind her actions. An unlikely warmonger, the 59 year old Bulgarian ex-Parlimentarian, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova, issued the following statement


“…UNESCO halts all cooperation with Libya. UNESCO has been involved in a range of a ctivities in Libya, notably in the areas of science, culture and communication. Many of these activities have been funded under a partnership agreement with the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations, signed in 2001. This partnership has now been terminated.”

Bokova’s unilateral decision to drop the bomb on the 8-volume text exemplifies the most problematic aspects of cultural diplomacy. As some progressive policy makers have noted, such actions feed into the imperialist dynamics of North/South relations that has leaders of the global North treating African and intra-African relations as inert and restrictive. Moral and cognitive separations are made between Africa and the rest of the world so that actions taken by the dominating discourse are applied to the continent without weighing African realities. Bokova further infantilizes the relationship UNESCO has with the African Union by reaching such a damning conclusion without their consultation, participation, and input. Cutting funds on the project has global implications, as the books are not only intended to benefit Africans but the African Diaspora as well. The foundation of trust that UNESCO has as a neutral steward of education, science and culture, and is charged to create and uphold appears breeched.

Perhaps, if Bokova had consulted with her African counterparts, she would have considered how partitioning the African continent in 1885, followed by it subsequent colonization, enabled the confiscation of mineral wealth that further enriched Europe and the Americas. Indiscriminate segregation of traditional nations and borders lead to or nurtured internecine wars. These combination of factors resulted in the continent’s underdevelopment. Africa’s “brain drain” facilitated underutilization of the continent’s human capital and ultimately created poverty. The latent historic, social, and economic inequalities (caused by colonialism and globalization) are among those responsible for the revolts and revolutions mining the African continent today.

Irina Bokova

Bokova joined UNESCO as its first female Director General in 2009. Now, more than ten years after the completion of this critical piece of scholarship, she seems determined to undermine what is perhaps the agency’s most ambitious project, the General History of Africa (GHA). The eight-volume set, 35 years in the making was initiated immediately following the independence of most African countries, in 1964. Crafted by 350 prominent historians and world experts, two-thirds of whom were Africans, the GHA was completed in 1999. Each volume is over 800- pages long. An additional 9th volume a Guide to the Sources of the History of African as well as other anxcillary materials has been completed.

Although recognized world wide and available for purchase on CD-ROM with free excerpts available on-line, the books are still underutilized. The GHA is informed by the continent’s vision of itself; constructs a continental identify for Africans; and encourages a healthy respect and appreciation of the tremendous diversity of the African continent and its cultures. More importantly, it challenges the Eurocentric presentations of African history and is a major step in decolonizing the mindset of Africans, re-educating her historical oppressors and their descendants.

Ironically publications bearing Bokova’s name in their forward demonstrate how well she comprehends the devastating impact of war on education. The UNESCO text, “Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011, the Hidden Crises: Armed Conflict and Education,” pointedly states that when wars break out, international attention and media reporting invariably focus on the most immediate images of human suffering. Masked behind these images however is how in the global South (countries outside the United States, the UK, Europe et al) conflicts are destroying not only school infrastructure but the hopes and ambitions of generations of children. The report again signed off by Bokova categorically states with countries in conflict, there are damaging consequences for education noting, Schools are often used to transmit intolerance, prejudice and social injustice.

The report deemed an authourtative reference for education policy identifies strategies for strengthening the role of education in peace building. Yet these principles appear to have been defenestrated when the decision to forgo the use of Libyan contributed funds – some $2 million out of a total of $8 million needed to incorporate GHA’s assets into the formal education systems for schools throughout the African continent. Funds are also needed for professional development of teachers, teacher guides, lesson plans, translations of the 6,400+ page set into Africa’s principle languages among other items needed?. The faulty logic applied by Bokova assumes that this is a Libyan project. In fact, as the principal title states simply and clearly, it is an African project. Paradoxically the General History of Africa is one of the few UNESCO projects initiated, managed, and intended to benefit Africans and her Diaspora. www.unesco.org/culture/africa

Amputating the GHA project during 2011, United Nations International Year of African Descent and the 10th Anniversary of the Durban Declaration & Programme of Action puts the otherwise respected and highly regarded Bokova, and her agency into question. She condemns these materials to collecting dust literally and electronically as this enormous body of scholarship needs marketing and translation into useful, implemental pedagogical tools for the African masses and members of the Diaspora unfamiliar with their histories. When the GHA crises was bought to the attention of Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the Great-great-great grandson of the re-known d African American orator Frederick Douglass and the Great-great-grandson of educator Booker T. Washington, he stated:

“Science has proven how each of us carries the history of our people within our genes. By truly understanding the journey of my ancestors; what they believed, the struggles they faced and the obstacles they overcame, I begin to understand myself. If I feel as though I descend from nothing, in my mind I am no one. Once I learn, however, of the strength and the modest miracles it required to deliver me to this place in time, I begin to understand my own powers and the greatness within me. History is not the study of other people it’s a record of my own.”

Critical information from a range of disciplines retrains readers to understand the history of humanity begins in Africa and that the history of Africans, particularly Sub-Saharan peoples did not begin with the massive deportation and enslavement of Africans in the TransAtlantic, Oceanic, and Trans-Saharan slave trades. The GHA as a scholarly exercise was intended by its African conceptualizers to serve as a tool for countering the psychological and political obstacles to development and human capacity building. This unprecedented move begs the question to what extent the institutionalized recriminations faced by this project, and its chief stakeholders: the African Ministers of Education and Culture, the teachers, and most importantly, students of the African continent, and ultimately her Diaspora, are not indeed the most recent victims of a new form of racism manifested coyly as a sophisticated, soft prejudice buried under the guise of cultural diplomacy? Could the new face of discrimination be mirrored as a United Nations affiliate?

Without the Gaddifi monies, and without a proposed strategic plan for its replacement, Afro-descendants are once again deprived of means to fuel the activities that might affirmatively transform their lives. If the founders of the General History of Africa envisioned this opus magnum as not only a scholarly/educational and psychological tool, could it have been seen as a restitutional one? One that restores Africa’s rich and diverse history to the world as it affirms the pride and dignity of people who were made coward, angered and ashamed under the shackles of enslavement, colonialism, and apartheid?

Is it possible, however surreptitious, that this 35 year labour was also conceived as a form of reparations? Former UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and UNESCO insider, DouDou Diène and the French-based Congolese scholar Mutombo Kanyana argue for reparations in the form of moral and educational issues that must be redressed. For them, education is a large part of the bigger philosophic issues that confront the agents engaged in the argument for reparations. As a project imagined, initiated, and managed by Africans in response to the challenges and responsibilities of independence, self-determination, and self-governance called for in the prevailing PanAfrican framework of the time, one might also contend that any monies procured to assist the project regardless of its source, at any stage of its development, including the solicitation, refusal of, or return of funds should be an African decision. Why isn’t this an African determination, to be made by member states, especially those most invested in the work and not by the guardians of the project — in this instance UNESCO? The fate of the GHA is also a moral one, speaking to the enfranchisement of knowledge, its interpretation and dissemination.  If we can consider and accept the possibility that this broader notion of reparations was what the founding body of GHA had in mind, then the Director General’s actions are indefensible.

UNESCO’s actions have not gone unnoticed in this historic year UN International Year for People of African Descent. The global African community has begun to mobilize itself against this kind of discrimination. Notification by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent as part of a larger set of concerns regarding efforts to undermine the 10-year anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action is in place.

The current UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary racism, Mr. Githu Muigai, shall be called to scrutinize this situation further by members of civil society who gathered in France during their national day for Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery May 10th. The African Union whose credibility and organizational viability is now at stake since a large portion of the AU’s annual operating budget was provided by the Libyan government, has not yet articulated a remedial plan. At the time of publication, no one from the African Union’s New York offices could be found for comments, their telephone numbers are disconnected.

While the Director General indicated she would resume cooperation with Libya as soon as “the rights of the Libyan people are fully respected,” she may be waiting a long time. Madame Bokova might in the interim respect the larger needs of the continent, reverse her position, and find alternative means for expressing her discontent with Mr. Gaddafi and his foundation.

by Mariana Lambert Victorin


The 8 volumes of the General History of Africa are also available for consultation and download is free of charge at the following site: http://www.unesco.org/culture/africa. To contact the Secretariat of the Project and send an email demanding immediate suspension of the Director General’s unfortunate decision write gha@unesco.org.


Mariana Lambert Victorin is a freelance journalist working with AfroBeatRadio and several human rights organizations.

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