Often, Africa accuses the West of applying double standards when commentating on the continent.
But what I find most astonishing are the double standards Africa uses when assessing itself. A few examples capture this schizophrenic tendency.
Some years ago, a Kenyan journalist wrote an article about her visit to Kigali. She applauded the city’s order and cleanliness, then concluded: “I missed Nairobi’s warmth.
I identify with the chaos there because it speaks to my carefree upbringing. I have nothing against cleanliness, but in Rwanda, it seemed cold and robotic.”
Instead of asking why Nairobi could not be as orderly and clean, and how a country recovering from genocide accomplished such a feat, the journalist dismisses Kigali’s order and tidiness as “cold and robotic” and, instead, affirms chaos and filth as part of our culture.
So one imagines that the hills of garbage in Nairobi’s estates, sewage-flooded streets, unplanned neighbourhoods that become death-traps in emergencies, disarray in government departments controlled by cartels, the traffic mess, etc, evoke nostalgia for “our carefree upbringing!”
And then there was a US-based African musician on a visit to Kenya talking to a TV interviewer about the chaos on our roads.
Instead of expressing frustration that Nairobi, which collects billions of shillings in levies and taxes, is such a mess, the musician saw something culturally identifying.
The mess and chaos, he opined happily and triumphantly, let him know that he is home in Africa. Would he find uncollected garbage outside his flat in the US just as welcoming?
Remember the reaction to Trump’s characterisation of African countries as “sh*tholes”? Africans were livid. The AU demanded an apology and some countries summoned US ambassadors to express their displeasure at the insult and denigration.
These reactions would have been meaningful if we expressed the same anger and displeasure at the behaviour and actions of African politicians who not only denigrate and insult Africa’s dignity but also cause the conditions of underdevelopment that make us objects of ridicule by people like Trump.
In fact, we should be multiple times angrier at the former. What do we see instead? We send to parliament people who incite us to take up machetes against our neighbours.
We elevate to powerful political positions people who have stolen billions of shillings that should have gone into hospitals and schools.
Rasna Warah, the celebrated newspaper columnist, once expressed despair that the architect of the Goldenberg scam that robbed the country of over 100,000 billion shillings was treated like a rock star by the Kenyan public.
And now, Noordin Haji, the indefatigable Director of Public Persecutions who is revolutionising the concept of public duty, has expressed frustration at this culture of “ having no standards” or, as I call it, double standards.
His frustration was prompted by Migori County Governor Okoth Obado’s appearance at an international donor conference where he made a presentation.
The governor faces charges of murder, possession of illicit firearms, and is being investigated for loss of billions of shillings of public money. The governor also speaks at Deputy President William Ruto’s 2022 campaign rallies.
Why hasn’t the party that sponsored Obado’s gubernatorial candidacy suspended him pending conclusion of his court cases?
Why has not the Council of Governors put pressure on him to step aside until he is cleared by the courts?
Why has not Mr Ruto asked him to stay away from his rallies for now? Most important, why has not Okoth Obado himself understood that his continued stay in office creates an ethical conundrum? Why does he not resign?
If truly these entities and people were interested in preserving Africa’s dignity, if they were honestly offended by Trump’s insult, would they not take the actions I have suggested? But oh, no, for ourselves, we use a different standard of evaluation.
This mentality of reserving a different standard of appraisal for ourselves underpins our economic and political backwardness. Leaders who marvel at China’s spectacular leap forward, will at home tolerate ineptitude, slothfulness, chaos and filth
The moment we begin to ask why we cannot be as efficient and orderly instead of excusing inefficiency and chaos by referring to some cultural standard, is the moment our fortunes will begin to change.
Instead of applying low standards when evaluating ourselves, why not apply the highest possible? Why can’t we discard this fatalistic mental attitude?
Imagine if Shenzhen, a fishing village a few years ago, and now a global leader in technological innovation, had said, “Oh, we can’t aspire to anything else because fishing is our culture.” It would still be a fishing village.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.