A few weeks ago, I met a Briton who works in Nigeria for an international aid organisation. He was young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about my country, a combination rare in these isles. We spoke of Nollywood and Third Mainland Bridge traffic, and finally of a project that had taken years to plan and research. Now it was under way, his organisation was working with the Nigerian federal and state governments, but remained reluctant to do so with grassroot cadres because of a fear of offending cultural sensibilities. In his view, meetings with local leaders were fraught with the danger of unknowingly offending cultural norms and thus scuppering this carefully planned project.
I, the native, said that such extreme levels of caution was absurd. Minding cultural sensibilities was important but surely not to the point of excluding those rural poor the project targeted. He, the burdened invader who'd travelled in Nigeria more extensively than I, remained adamant.
It is difficult not to construe every meeting between Africa and the west in these terms, which conjure up district officers and indirect rule and dog-eared copies of Things Fall Apart. It is difficult not to think of the white man's burden when I remember my conversation with this man who chose aid work in rural Nigeria over bank work in London. Kipling's burden was shouldered by men who felt a calling to civilise the "half devil, half child" peoples who apparently proliferated the 19th-century world. Kipling's white men were goaded into far-flung regions of the globe by their sense of unassailable racial superiority. Things have somewhat changed in the 21st century. Many who take up the load of development do so, if not with guilt – for guilt is too unnuanced a term –, then with an acute awareness of all that has preceded their arrival among the less economically developed of the earth.
A Belgian in Congo must know of Leopold and Lumumba and the shadow these names cast on his or her actions. A Briton in Nigeria must be aware that the shadow of Lord Lugard, first governor general of Nigeria, haunts his footsteps. So they tread carefully, mindful of sensibilities that are both figment and real. They overlook corruption because it is how things are done in Africa. They laud substandard leaders because it is how people are ruled in Africa. To criticise or hold under too deep a scrutiny is to be accused of being an agent of a new type of colonialism. It is true that the phrases neocolonialism and neoimperialism are not obsolete. The attitudes and mindsets that spawned the racist and exploitative policies of empire have not disappeared; but they are not always necessarily at work when a documentary of Lagos slum life is aired on the BBC, or an African leader is tried for genocide in an international court.
Perhaps it is better that African countries are now beginning to deal with foreigners who have had little interaction with the continent in the near past. A deal recently struck between a Chinese construction company and the Kenyan government for the building of a railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi may have echoes of the British built Kenya-Uganda railway line that also connected Nairobi to Mombasa; but such parallels are secondary when gauging the merits and demerits of the contract signed.
There are cries that China's is a new imperialism. If so, at least it is new and not trapped in a stagnant history of ex-colonisers and their ex-colonies. Hearteningly, China does not hide its wish to make profit out of its dealings with Africa behind altruism or religion or paternalism. Thus, if indeed we are witnessing a 21st-century attempt to colonise Africa once more, at least there will be no hegemony to destroy when the fight for independence begins. But if China's dealings in Africa do not point to an attempt to make Beijing a metropolis, then it is better not to recast the Chinese arrival in Lagos as the second act of the British landing in Eko; it is better that history serves as merely a loose reference for dealing with foreign powers.
Or perhaps the way to proceed is to work in tandem with the past and the future. In Nigeria, where the power industry is undergoing privatisation, the Chinese Nigeria Power Consortium has just won the bid for the Sapele Power Plant. The consortium consists of Nigerian, Chinese and British companies and thus one may hope that all cultural sensibilities will be preserved while constant electricity is generated. Or perhaps the best way to proceed is to work in tandem with the past and the future. In Nigeria, where the power industry is being privatised, the Chinese Nigeria Power Consortium has won the bid for the Sapele power plant. It consists of Nigerian, Chinese and UK companies and thus maybe we can hope that all cultural and historical sensibilities will be preserved, while constant electricity is generated.
Chibundu Onuzo, a Nigerian writer, is author of The Spider King's Daughter.