How the West has built a global incentive system that sustains a negative narrative against Africa
Steve Bikoonce said the greatest weapon in the hands of an oppressor
is not his armies and arms but the mind of the oppressed. Antonio
Gramsci had made a similar observation regarding forms of domination. He
argued that a ruling class does not dominate subordinate classes simply
through [its] state’s instruments of coercion and repression (as Karl
Marx had posited) but through the development of a dominant ideology,
which he called hegemony.
Hegemony refers to the sum total of beliefs, explanations,
perceptions, values and mores that a dominant social group develops and
subordinate social groups accept as the norm i.e. the normal way things
are or should be. Hegemony is therefore the universally dominant
ideology that justifies the existing social, political and economic
status quo as natural, normal, inevitable and beneficial to everyone.
Yet the status quo is actually an artificial social construct developed
by and for the benefit of the dominant social group.
We have been brought up to believe that the social arrangements
(economic systems, political institutions, and cultural norms) of the
Western world are the global standard that everyone should adopt for
their own good. The counterpoint to the assimilation of this ideology is
the belief among African elites that our own systems are archaic and
backward. Thus African elites are quick to condemn everything in Africa
or African – our political leaders, our public institutions, our ways of
doing things, etc. This is not always an entirely wrong accusation even
though it is an overly simplistic one.
We also tend to hold ideal illusions of the West. We believe Western
leaders are noble, loving their countries, and working genuinely to
serve the interests of their citizens. We also believe that their
political institutions work well. When we encounter the failures in our
own systems, failures that may be produced by structural problems, we
argue that our leaders are selfish and evil. The resultant social
frustrations drive us to hate ourselves, suck our energy to find our own
solutions, and drive us to look for external saviors.
Thus, whenever we face a problem, our first reaction is to look for a
solution from the West. A lot of the political pathologies that we face
are a product of this obsession of copying and pasting Western theories
and institutions unto a reality that is totally different. We look to
Barack Obama, a “black man”, hoping that he would use American power to
solve our problems even when we can see that America has sown seeds of
chaos wherever it has intervened – witness Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan,
Lebanon, Somalia, the list is endless. We look at the ICC to hold our
leaders to account.
The situation is made even worse by the structure of incentives
created by a Western dominated global order. The broad spectrum of
global (read Western) institutions – media, academia, diplomacy, think
tanks, human rights advocacy, etc. – is designed to sustain this
vulgarisation of Africa. There are some exceptions, divergences, and
even counter narratives to this. I have dealt with many Western persons
and institutions that seek a more nuanced view of Africa. But the
mainstream thrust is a condemn Africa story.
For example, the “true” African projected in Western media is a
malnourished person living in poverty and misery. If they present a
successful African, he is a blood-thirsty dictator and his cohorts, a
corrupt civil servant, crooked businessman or a warlord who kills
insanely. When an enlightened African is presented, he will be a refugee
running away from tyranny, a prisoner of conscience in gulag or a
constantly persecuted fighter for democracy and human rights i.e. he
will be a victim of his own society. Whatever the motivation; this
presentation shows that Africa is opposed to enlightenment and progress.
The broad spectrum of Western institutions; universities, think
tanks, diplomatic missions, mass media, etc. are designed to promote
this narrative. The African invited to speak at different conferences in
the West is all too often the Africa-bashing elite. The more one
condemns African leaders as backward, primitive and brutal systems, the
more invitations they get, the more book contracts they sign and the
more prominence the Western media give them.
The African who wins international awards is a persecuted human
rights activist, a journalist in and out of jail, an advocate for
homosexual rights, a charity worker etc. Even when an occasional African
leader or civil servant is given an award, it is only in those moments
when they have promoted an idea or a cause sanctioned and promoted by
Washington, London and Paris. So Rwanda’s Paul Kagame will be honored
for Doing Business reforms (a Washington project) but not for Gacaca (a
locally generated restorative justice mechanism). Yet in the wider
scheme of things, Gacaca has done for Rwanda one million times what
Doing Business has done for that country.
I grew to appreciate this reality because I have actually been that
African who unwittingly promoted this cause even as I argued against the
negative coverage of our continent. I would land in Washington or
London after informing my friends in universities, think tanks and media
of my arrival. I would find tens of speaking engagements prepared for
me at different hastily organised conferences and workshops, and tens of
interviews prepared for newspapers, television and radio. The topics
would be set: How Africa is collapsing under the weight of corruption.
How dictators are suffocating freedom.
My stay in London, Paris, Brussels, Washington and New York would be a
whirlwind of activity – from conference hall to television station,
from meeting with a prime minister or foreign minister of the host
country to appearing to testify before a parliamentary committee etc.
Overtime I realised that the international system is designed to promote
a particular narrative about Africa – complete with rewards for
denouncing our leaders and punishments for defending them.
The West is not monolithic. But its mainstream view of Africa
propagated through its various channels is dangerous to our own
progress. As I have broken the chains of this dominant condemn-Africa
ideology, I want to know why Africa leaders act the way they do. What
structures constrain their ability to act as we would wish them to in
ideal terms? Why they take actions that ideally seem stupid? For now,
someone has designed the song; we are singing it. I have learned that
Africa needs to find its voice. Happy New Year!