In 2011, the board of the Africa Centre were engaged in a secret deal to sell their historic home at 38 King Street. A campaign started in protest, now followed by over 3,000 petitioners and supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mo Ibrahim, Jazzie B and Bonnie Greer. In August 2011, Hadeel Ibrahim delivered a full-proposal for a redevelopment by renowned architect David Adjaye, but in January 2012 the proposal was withdrawn in protest at the board’s process. The struggle for democracy continues in ‘our little Africa in Covent Garden’.
There is always something warmly familiar about the bar at the Africa Centre, a small social club lost in the backwaters of Africa time. The poor state of the building echoes museums constructed under colonial patronage and then left to rot after Independence. Since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, the Africa Centre has lost its remit as the centre for African political activism in London, and without a visionary executive, the once great institution has drifted into the realms of the obsolete. Meanwhile, Covent Garden has been transformed into ‘Selfridges outdoors’ by the property developer Capital and Counties: 38 King Street is the next piece on the monopoly board. An aggressive offer led the charity’s board to decide to sell-up and move on. But what would a club with so little infrastructure do with £10.5 million? Would the discovery of ‘oil’ in the Covent Garden property market save the charity or lead to the ‘resource curse’ that plagues so many African countries?
A country called the Africa Centre
‘Why is the African community so obsessed with the Africa Centre?’ a friend at the Royal Commonwealth Society asked me, ‘You should be trying to solve the big problems in Africa, not trying to save a building.’ How could I explain that the issues are one and the same? The story of the Africa Centre is a parable of Africa’s recent history. With the death of colonialism, African nations had to re-consider their vision. Some looked forward with audacious constitutions, continuing to dream of a brave new world. Others took on the machinery of oppression and played it out against their own kind.
The Africa Centre is a unique institution in that it was bequeathed to the African people in Britain, creating a virtual Pan-Africa at 38 King Street. In 1958 the founders, Margaret Feeny and Cardinal Hinsley, declared the Africa Centre to mean ‘all people coming from Africa and all people interested in Africa’. However, the governing document maintained authority amongst a closed membership association, led by a self-selecting board of trustees – the charity was founded during a period in which colonial patronage was the norm. The current board has inherited a difficult conundrum: should they maintain power within their closed clique as permitted by their governing document, or should they recognize the spirit of the charity’s founders and open up their governance to democratic processes?
When the decision was made to sell in December 2010, the board had no structured plans for the charity. An executive had not been hired in over five years, and the trustees had forgotten that the charity was a membership organization, providing no checks or balances to decision-making. The Save the Africa Centre campaign demanded an Extraordinary General Meeting of former members (previous trustees, committee members and directors) but this was denied by the Chair Oliver Tunde Andrews. Instead, he called his own EGM on 20 June 2011, at which 14 new members were instated to ratify the decision to sell. On this date Hadeel Ibrahim put forward her proposal to support David Adjaye’s offer to redevelop the original site. The sale was postponed. To an impossible 6-week deadline, Adjaye delivered a full feasibility study backed by £3.6 million raised by Ibrahim, the most successful fundraising campaign for the centre to date. Former President Obasanjo accompanied her proposal with a declaration of fundraising support from the Nigerian government. Adjaye’s social capital offered the Africa Centre the opportunity to re-brand as the premiere African cultural institute in Europe – he is currently commissioned to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the Smithsonian in Washington DC, which will be opened by President Obama in 2015.
But the proposal was sat on for over 21 weeks and during this time the Chair refused to meet the investor formally. Further fundraising was impossible until the board had given their support for the initiative. In January 2012, Ibrahim withdrew the proposal, as she did not believe it was being considered in good faith. She stated, “We decided to withdraw rather than wait for their disingenuous process to conclude that our proposal was not good enough. We were no longer willing to provide them with political cover for the inevitable sale.” Although some trustees were seriously considering the proposal, the 21 weeks had been spent developing a business plan to buy another smaller building. For Andrews, ‘saving the Africa Centre’ can only be achieved by selling 38 King Street.
The campaign has bought the board time to produce a more structured plan once they sell. But the question remains whether there was ever any serious intention of heeding Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s plea to consider alternatives to sale, work on the charity’s governance and respect the importance of the original site. Andrews is only willing to concede a review of the charity’s governance after its only asset has been liquidized. His decision will clearly transform the Africa Centre’s bank balance, but with it will be lost the vision, good will and social capital of a powerful community. Is the hard power of authority and financial transactions stronger than the soft power of community networks and culture?
These are questions that millions are asking their governments across the world, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Lagos. In this context, the struggle for the Africa Centre is small but it shares the basic ideology underpinning the social change of our times: a younger generation yearning for a new world order that returns to ideals, humanity, accountable leadership and civic participation. It is ironic that a building that was once the refuge for activists has closed the gates to their participation. For the children of the struggle generation who watch Africa from the diaspora, the future looks bleak if social transformation cannot take place within the context of liberal London. If dialogue for the collective good cannot be achieved about a building, how can it be achieved in countries where the asset is billions of dollars worth of mineral resources?
The campaign, made up of diverse community members from Bonnie Greer OBE and Yinka Shonibare MBE to cultural organizations like Open the Gate and Afri-kokoa, has offered a collective vision of what 38 King Street could be. The Vision Document constructs myriad ‘meeting-places’ at 38 King Street: a think tank on Africa, from an African perspective; cultural heritage classes to children from across London; a hub for social change where social entrepreneurs are supported to create projects that directly impact on Africa; and a public space in which the community gathers to celebrate itself, and show the world what Africa has become.
The campaign envisions a programming model based on the fractals through which some African communities traditionally arranged their villages.
The campaign is cognizant that 38 King Street is a museum: it holds the footsteps of our ancestors. Museums are places in which society gathers to remember and reflect upon its humanity. Even without any programming, 38 King Street achieves this through the collective memories held within its walls: the museum itself is the medium. On 26 January 2012, a meeting of over 130 community members sent a request to the board for a moratorium on the sale until open consultation on the charity’s Vision and Governance has been delivered. The community awaits a response.
The Africa Centre is a metaphor for Africa: it is the networks, talents and skills of its people that will transform the continent, if they are allowed a governance framework through which to contribute effectively. The billions wasted in aid to developing nations that did not have firm vision or governance is proof that financial capital is not the solution to social transformation. It is the diverse skills and talents of the African people, our networks and human capital, which will see Africa soar the heights.