It’s telling, how President Goodluck Jonathan volunteered more words about the murdered French Charlie journalists than on the soaring number of Boko Haram victims. What likely surprised him about the Boko Haram atrocities wasn’t that they happened; it was that anyone outside Nigeria noticed.
One of his officials wrote the human collateral damage off, mumbling of how “everyone knows” that “these things happen” around “these times”. I don’t know who kicked him under the table before he banally added that the administration was “doing everything” in its power to end the carnage. But those words were barely out of that mouth when people began criticizing the president for dancing at his daughter’s wedding when the body count from the record-breaking massacre was barely concluded. At the very least, he could have had the decency to spin the tragedy into a photo opportunity, like these guys.
And with election time coming up mid-February, the President is now as cornered as his country is by the Gunean Gulf. But none of Africa’s political leaders are any better off.
Each African statesman wears two hats. One is as the leader of a liberated former colony that’s selectively adopted facets of various human rights’ charters. The other is of the biased referee in tribal conflicts so complex they could be topics for masters’ theses.
This is why in Tanzania, for example, the government has prohibited female genital mutilation but still needs to sell the sanctity of human rights to traditional leaders. Likewise, President Jacob Zuma has condemned sexism and homophobia, but the memo hasn’t cascaded to the people on the ground because it was released by a divided leadership.
African leaderships work by playing to the perceptions of two groups of people – international spectators and the local players – and, if need be, playing them off against one another with them in the middle, their hands ostensibly tied. They need to please foreign funders so they may keep their voters happy but the founders have demands that will alienate the voters, and vice-versa.
Many Nigerians cooperate with the Boko Haram because members of Nigeria’s security forces have committed violations for which leadership is powerless to demand an account. I speculate, maybe unfairly, that the situation has persisted for so long and has become so normal, that purging the army of rapists and other human rights violators would amount to disbanding the military.
To understand the complexity of an African statesman’s position, it helps to remember that these presidents resent how a white woman (the Queen of England) gets to assess how they perform as leaders of democracies without her having to give up her own non-democratically elected crown before she opens the British purse. It’s an emasculating double-standard they’ve inherited from her ancestors’ scramble for Africa. The imposition of western values (read “human rights”) is seen as the insult of cultural imperialism added to the injury of past economic, political and bodily exploitation.
So this aid the UK gives to African countries is really Child Support that Father England (run by a white woman) pays to Mama Africa (run mostly by black men) to help raise the spat-out republics that erased and replaced indigenous territories.
For the African statesmen to be well-mannered ladies, smile, wave and play along is one thing. But for them to roll over and remain supine while being insulted this way, not just by Europe but people in their own countries that mock them for how they are controlled – that doesn’t sit well.
Egos smarting, they will hold on to presidential office for a number of terms directly proportional to how emasculated they feel. And the more pressure there is to step down from office because of the human rights’ violations that happen during their conflict-ridden terms, the more they imagine themselves to be seen, by their people, as pressurized to give in to Western values (read “human rights”) imposed by Father Europe run by a white woman. To give in is to accept colonization; a betrayal not too different from old Kings selling their people off into slavery. That, and they owe too many people too many favours and can only stay out of jail by staying in power.
Not that there is anywhere left for him to step down to, but for Jacob Zuma to leave because of offense taken by some “western” sensibilities towards his pastime (corruption) would be for the big black man to give in to the small white minority in this country. And who runs the country, after all? Verwoerd? Rhodes? The Constitution is a western artifact; an impostor from the bad old days.
So these leaders, if you want to call them that, tolerate human rights’ violations that happen under their gaze while hoping nobody notices that, oh, I don’t know, 200 girls just upped and left school at gunpoint (talk about a steep drop out rate), or that 2000 lives fell off the human balance sheet just before the president’s daughter’s wedding. How rude of them, and how inconvenient their timing.
The below image by Charlie is insensitive but prophetic. Because rape is normal, run of the mill, everyday, the way things are, in Africa. Violence is normal. Poverty is normal.
Now you’ll imagine that the answer to this is simple. Pump civil rights activists into Africa’s veins so that her countries will be legible for one last jolt of international aid, and rebuild once and for all.
But it’s not that simple. These activist often run into gatekeepers on their way in. Does anyone remember those voices telling our Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities that funding to feminists groups must be cut because feminism is unAfrican, domestic violence has to be resolved at home and women should be submissive to their husbands? Those were gatekeepers talking.
Gatekeepers are not a body that can be held to account for their words. They can make off the cuff remarks on any platform. They represent and coalesce the most uninformed views on any issue, which makes them a brief but unified force of resistance against the imposition of “western values” (human rights) on “our way of life”, to quote the president of Gambia. They also wield an inordinate influence over Africa’s political leaders.
Gatekeepers have the upper hand in that their definitions of terms and lingo are already “in” with the people they are influencing. If the gatekeepers are Christian in a Christian country, then they can label the human rights activists as the antichrist. If Muslim, the devil; if the gatekeepers are steeped in ethnicism, they can paint the activists out to be unAfrican, the embodiment of the west’s attempt to supplant local values, or infiltration from some evil force known only to the local superstition. Gatekeepers are tribalists and you are always playing on their turf.
Tribalism is reasoned cronyism. It breaches the normative systems we’ve agreed upon as republics. To please tribal gods, Africa’s political leaders will cut corners for their clan members. But when corners are cut, they corrode. When things corrode, they are corrupted. Jobs for pals, especially pals who share your mother tongue, is the essence of both cronyism and tribalism. But once the line is crossed, it’s erased. The police aren’t going to be much help. There is currently an investigation into allegations that our police actually engineer unlawful arrests so that the SAPS can be sued. They then split the awarded money with the people they’d colluded with (for interests’ sake, these allegations are concentrated far more around the City of Johannesburg than they are around the Western Cape Province).
Law? Order? You tell me.
For the world to turn the spotlight on Africa over issues like ebola and kidnapped schoolgirls, is for the world to familiarize itself with the grim underbelly of this dark country we call Africa. And that’s a good start. We want accountability and transparency.
#JeSuisCharlie resulted in massive on-the-ground action because everyone immediately knew what was at stake. Knowledge is power.
#BringBackOurGirls fizzled out because, well, reasons.
#JeSuisBaga can either be an indulgent moment of “look at me, I’m aware of what’s happening in the world around me, I have a global conscience”.
Or it can be the declaration of war for the life and soul of Africa, a battle that, for us, would begin in South Africa. The President of Nigeria (along, I think, with every African head of state) is hoping it will be the former; that it will flash and fizzle out before the next shiny thing grabs our attention.
Let me know which it is for you.
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