How post-independence failures have helped the West change an image of who Africa’s heroes are
At the time of independence, Africa was basking with self-discovery and self-confidence. There was hope and confidence that Africans would shape their destiny independently. We were supposed to cooperate with others as equals. The first crop of post-independence leaders – Kwame Nkrumah (consciencism), Julius Nyerere (Ujamaa), Kenneth Kaunda (Humanism), Leopold Sedar Senghor (Negritude), Milton Obote (The Common Man’s Charter) even attempted to develop distinct ideologies for their countries. Even Mobutu Sese Seko had “Authenticity.” Many of these philosophies were ill conceived and generated failure. But they were an important effort to create a distinct view of who we are and how others should view us.
This did not exclude western texts. I read ancient Greek and Roman civilisation beginning at age 10 – focusing on philosophy, literature and art. I admired Socrates. My heroes included John Stuart Mill (for his ideas on liberty), Thomas Jefferson (for his defence of press freedom) and I dared write a letter to Ronald Reagan at age 12. Although I was a proud African, I saw myself as a human being first.
Today, it seems the obvious and the perceived economic and political failures of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Africa destroyed that intellectual tradition that made our leaders try to think independently. These failures are an attempt at a one-sided view of post-independence Africa. Perhaps our leaders and elites lost faith in locally developed solutions and turned to the West for answers. It is also possible this sense of defeat undermined our self-confidence. However, this development has given vent to outside intrusions to regain control over our sovereignty that was hard-won through wars of national independence.
Across most of Africa, we see a growing effort to usurp our sovereignty. Increasingly, Western intellectuals and activists have taken on the role of becoming our liberators. Secular missionaries have succeeded Christian missionaries. The latter dressed their mission in religion – to emancipate our souls; the secular missionaries use the language of ending poverty, democracy and human rights – to emancipate our political being. The old colonialism proclaimed its desire to liberate Africans from the tyranny of custom and the despotism of chiefs. The new colonialism promises to liberate Africans from material poverty and brutality of our leaders.
In this new era, Africa has new heroes – celebrities like Bob Geldolf, Angelina Jolie, Bono and George Clooney; academics like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier; journalists like Anderson Cooper and Nicolas Kristof; humanitarian activists like John Prendergast; liberators like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy (did you see how they “liberated” Libya?); philanthropists like Bill Gates etc.
As the Kony 2010 U-Tube documentary shows, we are not supposed to be active participants in our own emancipation. We are supposed to be passive spectators in the struggles that are shaping our destiny.
Thus, our human rights are defended by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; our press freedom is fought for by Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists; our democracy is promoted by the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House; our lives are saved by Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross; our diseases are fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Fund; our economic policies are shaped by the IMF and World Bank; our struggle to overcome poverty is led by Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie; our hungry are fed by WFP; our refugees are cared for by UNHCR; our trade negotiations are led by Oxfam and Action Aid; our leaders’ crimes are tried by the ICC – the list is endless.
How did we come to this? One needs look at the main news about Africa in the mass media to see how our inherent inability to manage our affairs has been played and replayed. The news is about civil conflict, poverty, famine or disease. If it is about famine and hunger, for example, there will be an impoverished mother in dirty clothes, carrying a malnourished child on her back, stretching out her frail hand towards a white aid worker who is presented as an altruistic saviour.
Colonial attitudes have been recreated through the reporting of Africa today. Many of the promoters of colonialism were high minded Europeans like David Livingstone seeking to end slave trade, spread Christianity and “civilization.” Yet behind this seeming altruism also lay Western cultural hubris captured in Gen. Ian Smuts comment: “The African has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook.”
The imagery of Africa as a continent in need for Western help has not changed.
Visit an aid project in Africa. There will be a white aid worker in his 20s teaching an army of middle aged Africans how to use a condom, how many babies to produce, how to plant rice etc – as if they are children. In government ministries there will be an aid project with a 25-year old college grad from the USA working with an African PhD civil servant. He is paid 12 times better than his African counterpart. The African has to feed his family. Knowing the aid project serves interests of the donor than the recipient, he leaves office to attend to his private business, leaving the college grad to do all the work. In the evening, the “technical expert” retreats to a largely white drinking club and gossips to his friends how “Africans are lazy.”
These attitudes would be a sad but minor inconvenience if they were restricted to those who think about Africans this way. The fundamental problem is that they are most dominant among us African elites. We have been bombarded with the images of our incompetence, inferiority, and helplessness daily – and we seem to have succumbed to them. Any attempt to fight this image will be met with claims that such an African supports local dictators or corruption. Therefore, the first line of defence of these stereotypes are African elites themselves. The second will be western intellectuals, journalists and diplomats who will claim “you are exaggerating” the issue.
As these images are played out, another image appears on the horizon – the “international community” coming to our rescue. This will be a kind relief aid worker, volunteer doctor, an altruistic human rights campaigner who will have “sacrificed” the comfort of his Beverly Hills lifestyle to come to our rescue (in Darfur).
I was previously blind to the import of these images of Africa and their racist undertones until I lived in America – once in California and later in New Haven. In either case, I lived in a rich (read white) neighbourhood – the roads are well paved, the sidewalks done, the houses neat, the fountains work, the streets are lit at night etc. Just across the street is a poor (read black) neighbourhood – the roads filled with potholes, pavements broken, ramshackle houses. The police would stoke the neighbourhood every evening looking for black male youth to arrest for using or dealing in illegal drugs.
Why does the city council pave roads in the white neighbourhood but ignore the black neighbourhoods? Through discussions with friends, I was told black people do not show up at town council meetings, don’t vote and have therefore been politically excluded from public services. But why have they developed this self-destructive behaviour? It sounded abnormal. I would see politicians and preachers, both black and white, on American television castigating blacks for lacking “personal responsibility” hence their condition. I became critical of black culture, accusing African Americans of self-destructive behaviour as Barrack Obama does.
Over time, I began listening to African Americans rather than arguing with them. They referred me to books and research studies that have been done about the crisis of the black man in America. What I stumbled upon began a sobering journey of reflection. It became clear to me the “truth” is created. One truth in America that I took for granted was that gangster culture was among blacks because of trade in drugs. Yet statistics showed that white people in America are 13 times more likely to use drugs than black people. That notwithstanding, 78 percent of drug arrests are of black people. In Georgia, 98% of all people sentenced to death for drug related crimes are black. In New Jersey blacks are only 15 percent of drivers on its highways. Yet they constitute 46% of all traffic stops by cops and 76% of arrests.
Here was the puzzle: as an avid reader/viewer of the American press, I had never seen mass abuse of black people as an issue in the mainstream media. The media was always awash with self-congratulatory news about the greatness of the US. Black incarceration was only highlighted as a fringe issue. Civil rights advocates like the Reverend Al Shapton were often brought in only as comic figures fighting for an issue that had been settled. Nowhere in the news did I hear or read that up to 30% of adult African American males were in jail and that there were more black males of college going age in jail than college.
Leaving the worst injustices on black people in America, I returned to Africa to find white American journalists in the thick of a struggle for freedom on our continent. I would meet white human rights activists working to save the people of Rwanda, Zambia or Kenya from their “brutal and corrupt” governments. I would feature on TV and radio debates on BBC or CNN with white academics from America fighting for our democracy. I began to wonder why all these passionate defenders of our aspirations for freedom are silent about the freedom of their fellow black citizens at home.
Anderson Cooper who goes to Congo or Haiti to make special reports about the suffering of the people there has never done one special feature in a black ghetto in America. The US has the largest prison population in the world – even more than China- but the colour of prisoners is never an issue in the American media. The media were telling the truth and nothing but the truth, but they were not telling the whole truth.
Slowly, reluctantly, I began to re-examine my views about Africa and how I presented them as a journalist and publisher. Perhaps we consume ourselves with too much negative reporting (all true) to almost complete exclusion of our achievements. The constant barrage of news about failure makes us hate ourselves. We have no examples of our achievements – so we think we need others to liberate us.
I had been writing a book on aid to Africa and its effects. Then I found an agent and a publisher to work with. As we discussed the content of the book, I was shocked by what he told me: I had to be bold on how I presented Africa. He even suggested a title: stop aid now: how American (or western) assistance sustains corrupt and brutal regimes in Africa.
My agent was a smart and practical marketing man – no racist at all. He knew which batons to touch in order to sell a book about Africa in the West. I understood his point of view. But I did not agree with it. It was clear that to sell something about Africa in America and Europe one has to feed the prejudices. I had met this reality with many of my friends from Europe and North America covering Africa for international news media. Each time there was a good story, they told me their editors would not like it. But each time a famine struck a country, an epidemic ravaged a village, a war engulfed a town, a ritual murder was reported in an area, a warlord massacred people etc, my friends would hit the headlines across Europe and North America. I was not going to promote this narrative.
Racial bias shapes the news which reproduces and sustains racial bias in a circular flow of conscious and subconscious racism. It took me longer to reflect on this dynamic and even longer to begin changing my mind about how I, as an African journalist, need to go about my work. I am still reflecting and learning… But one lesson is clear: even in covering Africa’s failures, we should at least provide context.