Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 444-446
National Council for the Social Studies

The United Nations: Its Role and Place in African Education

Francois N. Muyumba
Despite the profound lack of African participation in the founding of the United Nations1 and in its early operation when the majority of former colonies on the African continent were becoming nations, one thing stands out. The new African nations attached a great deal of significance to the UN. Indeed, one of the first actions of the newly independent African states was to seek membership. By 1994, 28 percent of the total UN membership consisted of African members (53 countries), and the Security Council and General Assembly had elected Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt the first African Secretary General.
But how have Africans regarded the UN over the past fifty years? Perceptions have been mixed. To many, the perception has been that the UN was created for and has since remained a very reserved province of Euro-Americans, Euro-Russians, and their European allies: predominantly monolithic and monoracial. However, during the period of independence movements, when Africans had no voice in the international bodies that decided every "worldwide order," prominent Pan-Africanist leaders (such as W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Sylvester Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, and Marcus Garvey) organized parallel conferences to infuse their ideal thoughts into these world conferences. They regarded the international community as ethical, normative, and opposed to racist doctrines. They sought to convince everyone that the world community would be better off when and if Africans were given respect and human rights. They would then become effective world citizens. They looked at the UN as the best reflection of the world's determination to uphold basic democratic principles, without which the world might not be able to unite and live in peace and harmony. Even Malcolm X, a noted civil rights leader of the United States, was convinced that American racist laws and their effect on the African-American citizenry in the USA should be taken up in the UN General Assembly. For him, the UN was the world's protector of the human rights of minorities, the principles enunciated by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

This dichotomy in thinking is clearly reflected by the Congo crisis of the 1960's, which, for African brothers and sisters, exhibited the contradictions of the UN. The Charter represented the hope of the world, and Africans shared that hope. They sought equality, justice, and equity. They challenged the distribution of power in the UN's General Assembly and in its Security Council. They wanted equal representation in UN agencies, and they wanted it in the form of one nation, one vote.

The Congo crisis of the 1960's became a symbolic dilemma for the UN as well. It challenged the new African states; it imposed upon them the responsibility to make sure that their voices were heard. Africa mistakenly had regarded the UN as a perfect, autonomous, and sovereign organization, i.e., a world government entrusted with the powers to make just, equitable, and binding decisions. Such a world body would be the judge and consciousness raiser, particularly with regard to injustices, inequality, and inequities, as in the exploitation of the colonial subjects and the racial discrimination perpetuated by the majority of white colonizers, or their neo-colonial successors.

Legacy of Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism on African Education
The colonial administrations throughout Africa were generally disinterested in educating Africans. They found it useful to teach unnecessary subjects and to exclude valuable African cultures, true African history, and some true European civilizations. Even after independence, much neo-colonialist influence remains.

Education in most independent African nations owes a great deal to initial, but never reinforced, UNESCO dicta, such as the 1958 resolution proposing that even within the context of colonialism, teaching in and study of the mother tongue would facilitate learning and ensure a child's success in acquiring knowledge. African people and their governments regarded the UN as having sided with them, especially in places such as the Belgian Congo where a debate raged on whether to teach French or Flemish, and/or to teach selected African linguae francae. The 1976 Soweto massacre in South Africa, when students protested instruction in the Afrikaans language instead of their own, accurately reflects this ongoing quest for the relevancy of African language in education.

The targeted goals of education set in 1961 were to achieve universal schooling for all by 1980. The UNESCO Conference of 1963 echoed these sentiments. Yet today, African intellectuals use French more than African languages in their official communications and education. And Africa has continued to remain illiterate (about 83 percent), with only 28 percent of the population attending schools and 3.3 percent on the average dropping out, while about 26 percent of the national budget continues to be allocated toward education in many places. The French colonial officers were never ashamed of promoting their language. Culture and education were resources that constituted core economic factors in development. France, the United States, Britain, and Portugal are very well known for spending a lot of money to propagate their languages as the media of cultural, economic, and intellectual domination. The failure of African countries is therefore the direct result of these powerful nations' input into neo-colonial education, which disregarded and refused to adopt the UN's principled ideas about political pluralism, democracy, and human rights.

A Pedagogy of Liberation
The search for democracy, justice, equity, and education has forced African states to look with interest upon the pedagogy of liberation.2 One example of this comes from Mwalimu Nyerere's Arusha Declaration in 1967, which shows clearly that the African leadership was borrowing important values from the UN.3 For instance, Nyerere, through his effort to push Tanzania in the direction of "Education for Self-Reliance," created an impetus for the Africanization of education. This kind of education for liberation borrowed heavily from the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It marked a turning point in the politics of education and pointed to such values as the following:

(a)All human beings are equal.
(b)Every human has a right to dignity and respect.
(c)Every citizen is an integral part of the nation and has the right to take an equal part in government.
(d)Every citizen has the right to freedom of expression, of movement, of religious belief, and association within the context of law.
(e)Every individual has the right to receive from society protection of his life, and of property held, according to law.
(f)Every individual has the right to receive just return for his/her labor.
(g)All citizens together possess all of the natural resources of the country in trust of their descendants.
(h)In order to ensure economic justice, the state must have effective control over the principal means of production.
(i)It is the responsibility of the state to intervene actively in the economic life of the nation so as to ensure the well-being of all citizens, and so as to prevent the exploitation of one person by another or one group by another, and so as to prevent the accumulation of wealth to an extent which is inconsistent with the existence of a classless society.

While Nyerere's innovations in "Education for Self-Reliance" were welcome, some saw in it only "Socialism and Communism." Some worked to see it fail, and it did. In French-speaking Africa, there was no initiative of similar magnitude.

Since the 1960's, African leaders have acted as a marginal link between the UN and the people of Africa. They read with interest the text of UN declarations that liberal newspapers and radios in Europe and America reported, both to propagandize European civilizations and to disseminate the emancipatory ideals of Eurocentric visions. A challenge to colonized and oppressed people was to find a realm within the UN to voice their own aspirations.

What Is Being Taught about the United Nations?
Not enough. African higher educational institutions, in general, and more specifically the departments of Political Science, International Relations, and International Law have often analyzed the different organs of the UN including the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, the Secretariat, and the different regional and service agencies. These are studied generally from the policy viewpoint and are never structurally explored because, obviously, there is not sufficient time and space within these curricula to go into details. There has been pressure to identify the most useful information and use it. But the UN is not accessible to the African masses because its materials tend to be in French, English, Spanish, and other non-African languages. Additionally, with the recent politico-economic crises, the whole continent is experiencing a decline in higher education, especially in such places as Angola, Algeria, Zaire, Burundi, Rwanda, Mali, Togo, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, where the quest for political liberalization has been met by reluctant dictators who would rather line their pockets than invest in higher education. A sign of hope is the recent victorious democratization process in South Africa.

In Africa's secondary education, if the UN is discussed, it is usually in Social Studies and Current Events courses that focus on data found in textbooks often written by non-Africans. Here the African teachers are really in difficulty because in the absence of good resource centers (libraries, reading rooms, newspapers, magazines) and lack of access to important information about the UN, no one can rationally do the impossible. The UN is not, in large measure, an extensive component of secondary education in Africa. One must be reminded here that for thirty-three years, African dictators have relied on denial of information as the only and most effective way to safeguard their regimes. More time has been wasted away on Mobutuism, Nkrumahism, Humanism, and authenticity than on the significance of the UN, especially in its highest ideals, concerns, and organizational and structural arrangements, as the most important instrument for world peace.

Most young Africans in elementary schools have no access to information about the UN and its agencies. Relatively few African children know anything about the roles, structures, and functioning of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, for example. In elementary schools, therefore, the presence of the Portuguese, French, and English languages has continued to facilitate the prestigious Portuguese, French, Anglo-American, and other Northern cultural and political dominance of the South. Africans are in dire need of knowing themselves, their societies, nations, and the world. They must be provided with knowledge and viable educational resources (books, videos, textbooks, newspapers, computers, and other scientific tools) that would transform their world. Africans will not be able to play a larger role in the UN and its organizational structures, or to uphold its higher humanitarian, political, and socio-cultural principles, without a profound understanding and appreciation of its codes of conduct, philosophies, and political ideals.

Surely, one who dreams for Africans to know themselves should push for Pan-African education to further extend and enrich such continental knowledge. But one should not stop there. The more Pan-Africanist one becomes, the more of a global citizen one aspires to be. Increased knowledge of the UN, its structures, and principled ideals will enhance the quality of world citizenry. The UN must strive to become the medium through which information other than that controlled by the states passes to the citizens who need it most.

The lesson from the past thirty-four years of interaction between the UN and African nations is that the UN has not been fully devoted to the creation, teaching, and promotion of world-unifying values as much as it has been devoted to upholding statehood, dictatorships, and military regimes. The current experimentation with military intervention in Somalia and Rwanda is good only if the UN's highest ideal values are the underlying justifications. Elsewhere, such intervention means that the UN's image will be weakened and powerful states will want to use it to dominate and conquer small states. Who wants to teach that?

The UN and its agencies need to develop a voice and insights that give them a unique status, and a set of unique roles that nation states cannot play. In areas of global education and international understanding, the adaptation of the UN's ideals and values could transform Africa's education systems into dynamic instruments of liberation.

1 Egypt, Ethiopia, and Liberia were the only African members of the UN in 1945, with Egypt and Liberia listed as founding members.

2 Editor's note: Interested students may wish to research the work of Pablo Freire.

3 Editor's note: Students may wish to compare the wording of this to that of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Francois N. Muyumba is Associate Professor in the Center for Afro-American Studies at Indiana State University. He is currently Visiting Senior Lecturer in the African American Studies Department at Pennsylvania State University.