We are so easy to insult. And we aren’t exactly blameless.
What would one call countries that have become so devoid of hope or opportunity for so many of their citizens that multitudes would rather take their chances trekking the Sahara Desert and crossing the Mediterranean Sea? All this in the hope of finding a better life, but resulting in the deaths of thousands year after year.
What would one term a country whose security services are so ramshackle that rebel groups operate with impunity to kill, kidnap, maim or rape? How would one characterise a society where law and order is non-existent?
Trump’s insult on Africa
There is an obvious name for such states — a hurtful and unflattering one. US President Donald Trump said it loudly, his main blunder being to say loudly what many of his compatriots think or say of us privately.
Yet, there are also many from sub-Sahara Africa who agreed wholeheartedly with Trump’s derogatory comment.
They include those that have ended up in slavery in Libya, after falling into the hands of human traffickers en-route to the Mediterranean; the millions of Africans with illnesses or sicknesses that go untreated due to dysfunctional, or grossly mismanaged health systems; the many that starve because of lack of food security.
These people probably consider Trump to be a hero for the scorn he has heaped on their failed governments. Ditto the thousands that fall victim to all kinds of state repression; to police truncheons and tear gas canisters during badly conducted elections; and the countless victims of rape and abuse by those in power.
Trump’s insult on Africa is only remarkable because it is by the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Otherwise the sentiment has been the same over the years.
In 20001, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman was forced to apologise profusely and repeatedly at press conference about remarks he made about his visit to Kenya.
Before leaving for the trip to gain support of African delegates for Toronto’s Olympic bid, the mayor, in an attempt to be amusing, said, “What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?... I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.”
Lastman said the remarks were off the cuff and never intended to offend anyone. He held a press conference about how sorry he was about his gaffe.
But, there isn’t much Africans can do to exact retribution, being that their leaders are the same ones who regularly go to developed countries to beg for aid.
We are so easy to insult. And we aren’t exactly blameless.
Signs of state decay
Over five decades after the wave of independence movements, the signs of state decay are evident: Crumbling schools and civil services; badly run political systems. It is only one or two exceptional African countries that do not suffer these and many other ills in varying levels of acuteness.
Many analysts have attempted to come up with explanations for this decay. Colonial exploitation was the first obvious answer, coupled with centuries of slave trade during which Africa’s most able bodied were shipped off to the Americas and Europe.
Those were the real culprits for our backwardness, we were told. Later on, decades into African self-rule as things became more calamitous these explanations were found to be insufficient.
And so, tribalism was diagnosed as an additional culprit, as well as leaders and government officials having a penchant for large-scale looting of their countries’ meagre resources.
Many writers and political commentators tried putting their finger on the problem. Panafricanists like Frantz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael and others supported the sentiments of Walter Rodney’s How Europe underdeveloped Africa.
Leaders of the continent’s independence movements, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta and others tried to come up with solutions. There was Samora Machel denouncing tribalism, calling it “the commander in chief of all of Africa’s enemies.”
There was Julius Nyerere denouncing the continent’s thieving rulers. There have also been journalists and activists questioning why decade after decade the needle on African socio-economic progress is not moving.
Despite all this expert and informed diagnosis of the problems, nothing has changed. If anything the situation is worsening. At least in the earlier years you didn’t have people drowning in seas off Europe, out of desperation to escape their countries.
Maybe we just aren’t very good at solving problems because it would require us to change our whole approach to life and priorities.
Solutions would, for instance, demand a wholesale overhauling of our cultural attitudes to time management. Or a radical change in attitude to things like binding agreements, laws and regulations. It would ask for a change in our notions of achievement or success.
If we for instance spent more time completing tasks in time society would be much better off. If we were to overhaul educational curricular to teach children from an early age about the dangers of tribal chauvinism and hatred, we would have adults with far less hang-ups about the ethnicities of others.
We should show far less respect to those that gain wealth by looting public money and accord more regard to honest, hardworking citizens, the ones that build businesses from scratch. This would encourage more innovators to build our technological base.
The case right now is that Africans admire or try to emulate big public officials like ministers, members of parliament, managing directors of public firms and go on to continue looting public coffers.
If more people in Africa respected laws and regulations, it would create better societies. The case currently is that many display cavalier attitudes to agreements and laws. This creates countries that disregard laws, such that a policeman will not only accept a bribe but will demand it.
Failure to attempt to correct these deficiencies will condemn us to perennial problems for decades to come. And will encourage more insults from the wealthier, more developed countries.
Shyaka Kanuma is a former editor at Focus newspaper and a journalist based in Kigali.