Exposing the hidden bias behind our obsession with Western goodness and Africa’s dysfunctions
The greatest triumph of the colonial state was not the integration of our economies and social/political systems into the international capitalism system. That could have been achieved without colonialism and via free trade. Colonialism’s greatest triumph was the colonisation of our minds. Today we see everything Western through rosy lenses. Conversely we see everything African through lenses tinted with poisonous acid. We are so quick to cheer the good in Western society and blind to its political and social pathologies. We are equally unable to see the boundless goodness in Africa and quick to condemn every dysfunction we imagine.
Recently, Ramathan Ggoobi, a lecturer at Makerere University, tweeted a picture of British Prime Minister David Cameron on a train in England: “God! When shall my country get here? My president on a public train! (Pioneer Bus in our case and standing for no seat).” Then my friend Hashim Wasswa quoted the tweet with a quip: “Lol, not until you have a president with a middle or working class background – a generation or two down.” Someone else then commented: “Civilisation of the highest order. We are very far to reach here.” Soon it was a barrage of acidic attacks on leaders in Africa and their penchant for a good ride.
Ten years ago, I would have joined this condemnatory league. But I have outgrown this mindset because I realised it is actually a one-sided look at Western (picking only the positive) and African leaders (finding fault). So I tweeted to Ramathan saying that President Yoweri Museveni has previously travelled on a pick-up truck in Kabale in 1989, on a boda boda in Kampala in 2000 and in a minibus (matatu) in 2004. I forgot to add that in 2006 Mrs. Janet Museveni travelled by bus to Nairobi, not to mention when in 2007 she held a broom and cleaned the streets of Kampala for CHOGM.
Ramathan replied that such moments were campaign gimmicks. But what makes him think that Cameron’s train ride is not a PR gimmick, which of course it is? Museveni’s truck and minibus rides were pragmatic. He travelled to Kabale by helicopter. There was fog at a place he was supposed to land. So the helicopter was diverted to another place but his convoy could not get there fast enough. Museveni and Janet walked over to the road, stopped a pick up truck carrying passengers with their wares going to the market. Janet sat in front and Museveni rode on the back of the truck to Kabale town.
In 2004 Museveni’s helicopter could not land at Kololo airstrip. It was diverted to Luwero but his convoy could not get there fast enough. The president with his bodyguard walked to the main road, waved a matatu to stop and boarded it. It was 20 minutes later that the presidential convoy got to where the president was – he was nearing Kampala. Museveni refused to enter the presidential limousine and drove in the matatu all the way to Nakasero State House. I have walked with Museveni through the village of Rwakitura as he talked to ordinary citizens. These can make good PR gimmicks but he doesn’t invite cameras.
Idi Amin (YES, Idi Amin) used to ride a bicycle through Kampala and Entebbe each time there were fuel shortages. He used to drive himself in an open Jeep, walk to Owino and Nakasero markets and talk to vendors, taxi drivers and openly mingle with ordinary citizens. I have been to Botswana and stood in a Cafeteria with President Feustus Mugai when he walked over from his office to get lunch. I have gone with President Levi Mwanawasa (RIP) of Zambia to do some shopping in a super market. As a young journalist I walked to President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya (2001) in Munyonyo and asked him for an interview. He held my hand and asked me to sit and have lunch with him and Presidents Omar Al Bashir of Sudan and Museveni. President Joyce Banda of Malawi invited me to dinner with her husband in New York in 2012 and there were no pomp at all.
I have driven with President Paul Kagame – him driving and me in the co-drivers seat and he stops by the road to say hello to citizens and listen to their concerns. He has stopped in the middle of a road and asked for a tape measure, gone down to measure its width when he felt it was narrow. He plays tennis at a court right next to the road and traffic is not inconvenienced at all. Only last year while jogging early in the morning in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, I bumped into its president whom I had met the previous day when I moderated a debate between him and other presidents. We stopped, exchanged greetings and continued our jogging.
Ask Kenyans about Uhuru Kenyatta and how he relates to ordinary people. Recently, on May 28, he stopped at roadside kiosk and drank a soda. His deputy, William Ruto, took a glass of milk. Pierre Nkurunziza rides a bicycle, plays soccer and mingles with his citizens, his tainted bid to retain the presidency and the controversies it is generating notwithstanding. He leads a very ordinary life.
I have interacted with enough presidents in Africa and realised that actually they are not the psychopaths our and Western media make them out to be. So Western leaders are not monopolists in modesty and African leaders in ostentation. The problem is that we are obsessed with the negatives about our leaders and blind to their positives.
Many African leaders across our continent do many ordinary things daily. They do not get credit for them because, anyway, they are not seeking credit. Western leaders do ordinary things only when the cameras are watching in order to get some PR dividend. Watch Obama when he takes a walk around the streets of Washington DC or visits a diner or when Cameron rides on a public train. It will be all over newspapers, television and radio, Facebook and twitter. Away from such campaign gimmicks, I have been to New York when Obama is visiting and the entire city of 12 million has been shut down – for one man. With helicopters hovering overhead, snipers on top of every building, I counted 134 cars in Obama’s convoy. Please tell me about Western modesty.