Achille Mbembe: “The war in Ukraine is not unique”

A professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and commissioned by Emmanuel Macron to dust off the relationship between France and Africa, Cameroonian Achille Mbembe is considered one of the most influential thinkers on the continent. He intervenes this Tuesday evening in Geneva at the opening of the Explore festival in Geneva, devoted to the urban transition. He will expose a new utopia, the “universal right to breathe”. Meet.

Le Temps: What is the universal right to breathe?

Achille Mbembe: Even though breathing is vital, this right does not exist. This utopia is not about to come true, I am well aware of that. But the goal of utopias is precisely to think of the possible and to refuse the fatality of a mind-numbing and brutal world. We do not sufficiently question the breathing that signs our common parenthood with all other living species. From this base, we could reimagine the right to existence and our common belonging to a planet in danger. This opens up the possibility of founding a law that would not depend on a State or a counter. The air has no borders and we breathe it equally.

Is it the covid that led you to this reflection?

This question bothered me before the pandemic. I didn’t invent anything. Frantz Fanon, for example, constantly talks about it. Reading it again, I became aware of the political dimension of breathing. The covid has only amplified this interest, because this disease attacks our respiratory capacity.

Covid has hit the whole world. What changed this feeling of global vulnerability and this common destiny?

This tragedy has staged our essential kinship with other living species. It is now obvious that our fate depends on our ability to deal with the other inhabitants of this planet, animals or plants, to leave them a place. This radically challenges our development model. This one was based on exploiting a supposedly infinite world. However, it is getting smaller and smaller and its resources are running out. For the world to be sustainable, it will have to be shared and repaired, so damaged have we been. We will not get out of it without satisfying this double condition.

During the pandemic, you warned against a resurgence of tensions and violence, when it would be necessary to “sanctuarize the living”. With the war in Ukraine, we are there.

Yes, but the brutality against Ukraine is not unprecedented. Previously, the war took place further away from Europe, as recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Yemen.

Is there a common explanatory factor for these conflicts? Increased competition for resources?

In Ukraine, I see above all the Russian colonial impulse: a better armed and economically stronger people wants to impose its law on another perceived as weaker. Russia wants to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure and resources, rather than grab them. This is what colonial wars looked like. We are witnessing a repatriation to the heart of Europe of the methods it inflicted on distant peoples, as during the wars of looting which had made it possible to destroy the African empires in the 18th century. Today, we act as if the war in Ukraine was unprecedented. But it has nothing unique, or very little.

Read also: The humanitarian consequences of the war: “It is not a crisis like any other”

On behalf of the African Union, Senegalese President Macky Sall is worried about the blockage of cereals because of this war and sends Ukraine and Russia back to back. What do you think?

The former Brazilian president Lula, as well as India or China expressed themselves in the same direction. Europe cannot act as if these voices were worthless. She has an interest in listening to them and not acting as if her interests were universal and supplanted those of all the others. This smugness and arrogance is causing a stiffening elsewhere in the world. We must listen to Macky Sall who is worried about the risk of famine. This must also question Africans: how come such a rich continent cannot feed its inhabitants?

Do you think the sanctions against Russia risk causing a famine in Africa?

We must get away from the idea that the violence exercised by the West is by definition moral and that the price paid by the innocent is only collateral damage. Things are complex. If the sanctions have undesirable effects, we must be able to discuss them and get out of this dichotomy imposed by Europe which says: “Either you are with us or against us.” The burden of the food crisis must be distributed equitably. We can imagine compensation. It is too often the same people who pay the high price. Similarly, efforts against global warming must be more equitable. On these questions of justice, Europe has not always been convincing.

Read also: Emmanuel Macron invents the “New Africa-France Summit” without an African head of state

You were mandated last year by President Emmanuel Macron to rethink the relationship between France and Africa. What’s left?

Several concrete projects have been launched. The most advanced is the support fund for democratic innovation in Africa. This fund will be launched in October and endowed with 7 million euros for the first three experimental years, 50 million for the next ten years. Contributions will also come from private foundations, including African patrons, because they must get involved in democratization on their continent. This fund will be based in Johannesburg, South Africa, with offices in several parts of the continent. We want to better support civil society and encourage its networking between different countries. Our ambition is for it to better contribute to the development of democracy on the continent. The project for a house of African worlds, which will be built in Paris, is also progressing, as is the mobility project for academics in Africa.

Despite these efforts, France’s image has rather deteriorated, particularly in the Sahel.

France is in the middle of the ford. It has left the shores of Françafrique, but its military and monetary policies remain tied to these networks. We must respond to African opinions that question the legitimacy of military interventions and French bases as well as the CFA franc. France is accused of supporting tyrants in Africa. It must respond to it with visible and consistent actions. It is only thus that the campaign against France on which the younger generations and certain leaders feed will come to an end.

By not inviting the presidents of the continent to the last summit with Africa, Emmanuel Macron was accused of weakening the states, many of which are undemocratic. It is the squaring of the circle.

None of this is easy. The lesson givers are not serious. We must of course continue to talk with African leaders. The subject of the discussions must relate to democratization and the establishment of the rule of law in Africa. This political dialogue must be demanding with incentives and, where appropriate, sanctions, while respecting the sovereignty of countries. This is the art of diplomacy.

Read also: Achille Mbembe: “Switzerland’s racist unconscious keeps it from recognizing its negative role in Africa”

Cameroonian President Paul Biya, 89, nearly half of whom are in power, returned on a private trip to Geneva this spring. Should Switzerland stop hosting him?

Switzerland must stop hiding its face. She can’t act like she doesn’t know how much Paul Biya costs in Cameroon. During his reign, he did nothing for his country. Switzerland should reimburse Cameroonians for the sums the president has spent in Geneva over the past forty years.

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