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Is America a shithole country?

FILE PHOTO: Trump speaks at a luncheon with African leaders last year.

How Trump and his African admirers judge the quality of something based entirely on money

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Just before the outbreak of the Nama-Herero rebellion in modern day Namibia in April 1904, Chief Hendrick Witboi of the Nama tribe penned a letter to the then German military governor of that colony. “He (the colonialist)… introduces laws which are entirely impossible, untenable, unbelievable, unbearable, unmerciful and unfeeling,” he wrote, “He punishes our people… and he has already beaten people to death for debt. He thinks we are stupid and unintelligent people but we have never punished people in the cruel and improper way he does.”

Witboi was to lead one of the most ferocious and equally tragic wars of resistance that Africans fought against colonialism. Although he died after one year of rebellion, the Nama and the Heroro people continued the struggle for another three years. By the time the rebellion was crushed in 1908, 50% of the Nama and 90% of the Heroro people had been exterminated by the Germans in one of the genocides Europeans carried out in Africa.

Thus, when U.S. President Donald Trump stirred the waters of controversy recently by referring to our nations as “shithole countries”, Witboi’s letter came back to my mind. A few Africans reacted by denouncing this overt and crude racism. Yet a large section of our elites found Trump’s racism justified because they also think our nations are shithole countries.

But what makes a country a shithole country? Is it the size of its wallet or the collective decency of its people? Trump and many of those who agree with him believe that money and the things it can buy define a country as a shithole or a good place. If a country (or individual) has a high income, it allows them to provide a large basket of public (or private) goods and services in large quantities and of high quality.

Witboi saw through this arrogance of money. The contempt Germans had for Africans was mistaken. He felt they were actually much more morally repugnant compared to the Nama given their cruel behaviour; they lacked humanity in them. To him Germans were shithole people regardless of their money and technology because their cruel barbarity showed that they lacked basic human decency, empathy, feelings, and mercy.

Just imagine a mafia gang-leader who made a fortune killing, robbing and pillaging the neighbourhood. Once wealthy, he buys mass media – television, radio and newspapers and hires an army of propagandists to propagate the idea that he is a decent fellow and a civilized member of the community. The media show him driving luxury cars, living in expensive mansions, sending his family for highly specialised medical treatment abroad and his children studying at some of the best universities. Whenever he sends his gangs to loot in the community, his propaganda machinery refers to it as cleaning the neighbourhood of undesirables. Who would fail to see him as a shithole member of the community?

America is a country that was built on the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of black people. Today it keeps bombing nations and massacring people or assassinating leaders or staging military coups in other countries in order to keep looting their natural resources to enrich it. This sickening brutality may have made America the richest nation on earth but it does not change its basic character as a shithole country.

Most nations of Africa have low levels of income. This is less because they have been badly ruled but more to do with the fact that they were integrated into the global economy where opportunities for rapid transformation are limited. For example, public spending per person in Uganda this financial year is $170, Rwanda $208, Tanzania $268, Kenya $435, Senegal $333, Zambia $642, Ghana $445, Malawi $92, Zimbabwe $256, Botswana $860 while the USA is $21,250. Even with the best of intentions, our nations just don’t have the resources to fund a large basket of public goods and services to all citizens in the quantity and quality demand.

Chief Hendrick Witboi. PHOTO by Deutsches Historisches Museum

This poverty and the material deprivation that accompanies it do not make African nations. Money does not make a person or country. Character does. Therefore, contrary to the common assumption among African elites and their cheerleaders in the West, poor delivery of public goods and services in our nations is not due corruption, incompetence, and the personal greed of our leaders. These factors play a role, but as consequences, not causes, of poor performance in service delivery.

High income cannot be the only criterion to judge a country’s worth. Many poor people in my village lead materially deprived lives but are decent human beings, and morally superior to the hundreds of rapacious cheats and thieves who are wealthy in Kampala. And this was the gist of Witboi’s letter: money is not enough to make one great. The United States, in spite of the most advanced technologies, great institutions of learning, high levels of skill, good institutions, high income and huge public spending still has over 45 million people in poverty and another 32 million lacking (or being stripped of) medical insurance, 550,000 citizens are homeless and 2.3 million in jail, the highest in the world.

Yet in 2009, the Obama administration was spending $100 billion per year on a fruitless war in Afghanistan. Over the last 15 years, and as millions of her citizens went without medical insurance, many were homeless and or were jobless, their incomes stagnating and their lives heavily in debt, America spent over $2.5 trillion on foreign wars that destroyed millions of lives and livelihoods.  And in spite of this, the world’s most powerful military was unable to defeat poorly armed and poorly trained Taliban and Iraqi militias. The $2.5 trillion was spent to whet the appetites of a tiny minority of superrich white corporate elites in the military industrial complex.

Remember that average household incomes in America have not risen in real terms (after adjusting to inflation) since 1973. How have its citizens been able to continue consuming? Through debt! And how have the political elite mobilised impoverished poor and middleclass whites to support policies that destroy their lives? By making barely disguised racial appeals. The difference between most American politicians and Trump is that he says bluntly what they say using coded racial language.

It is no longer socially permissible to use explicit racial slurs in America. But politicians in America have learnt how to use coded racial language to promote racist policies against ethnic minorities like African Americans, Hispanics, Arabs, etc., a subject best handled by Ian Lopez in his book, Dog Whistle Politics.



  1. “yet a large part of our elite finds Trump’s racism justified…”

    Mr Mwenda, let me speak for Uganda’s elite, you obviously don’t know us at all. If you did you would be aware that we don’t give a hoot one way or another about Mr Trump’s statement.
    We have real-life problems to deal with; and we realize that the opinions of foreign leaders, polite or not, are beside the point.
    If you were a member of the elite you would know enough Europeans and Americans personally to know that Mr Trump only voiced what every knowledgeable foreigner thinks when the see Africa: The polite ones say “Oh goodness, they have rather made a mess of things, haven’t they”. They are referring to the fact that university graduates are seeking work as maids in Dubai. They are referring to the fact that the leadership is sent for medical treatment abroad at public expense while the taxpayers die unattended on cement floors in public hospitals. They are referring to countries that can’t hold elections without teargasing opponent rallies. They are referring to families selling everything they have to pay a smuggler to get them into Europe.
    The Elite are well aware of these problems; and are well aware that even if no foreigner mentioned them life is still hellish. Thus Mr Trumps speech is a conversation piece for the chattering classes but of no interes to the elite.
    And, by the way, a shithole country is not just a poor country. It is a country whose citizens want, above all things, to get out of.

  2. This article reeks of fallacies of diversion: The straw man and the red herring. You can’t just make up your own definition of american slang words and terms and then argue according to your own personal made up definitions. Learn the lingua franca before you go down a certain path.

    nounvulgar slang
    noun: shithole; plural noun: shitholes; noun: shit-hole; plural noun: shit-holes

    an extremely dirty, shabby, or otherwise unpleasant place.
    “this place is a shithole, I hope you know that”

    If most African countries were not shitholes you would not have so many of its citizens risking life and limb to go to the western world. Uganda is extremely dirty and shabby. For many it’s unpleasant. Please stick to the proper definition of the word “shithole” instead of diverting us with arguments based on your own made up version of common terms.

  3. When the rule of law is frowned upon
    When the most vulnerable of us are not protected
    When corruption is abated at the highest levels of government
    When plunder of the scarce resources goes unrestrained
    When dictatorship is enshrined in the constitutions
    When state tools of enforcements are used to pillage, maim and murder of their own citizens
    When the hospitals lack the basic sanitation needs but the elite go abroad at the expense of the taxpayer
    When the political elites live lavish lifestyles paid for by the taxpayer
    When local media houses are coerced to air the leader’s address without compensation
    When goons work hand in hand with the police force to clobber political dissent
    When a country has to borrow to construct a public latrine

    That country deserves Trump’s descriptive phrase.

    • Mulumba, according to statistics, no less than 9 million Americans live outside the US; including children who are born to them when they are there.
      The US is no haven as we at times think. There are many reasons that make Americans leave but some of them are familiar:
      1.Economic reasons (e.g. inexpensive housing in neighbouring contries like Mexico)
      2.Family reasons (most common with recent immigrants or permanent residents)
      3.Marriage to a foreigner making a US citizen leave with the spouse to spouse’s country.
      4.Business opportunities (e.g. American corporations and individuals in the Persian Gulf and East Asia and Africa who would not make it back home)
      5.Religious reasons (missionary work)
      6.Political issues arising mostly from segregation which makes some leave permanently to go where they will be respected as Americans yet they are called trash at home.
      7.Evasion of legal liabilities (e.g. crimes, taxes, loans, etc.)
      The only problem is that Mr Trump has opened a can of worms with his rash statement such that he is now the talk of even those who did not know him before. That is not good for a POTUS.

      • Hi Rwasubutare

        You are completely right America or any other western country for that matter is no heaven. America has many social and economic problems. Racism, police brutality against minorities, homelessness, etc. My argument is that the existence of such problems in the western wold don’t dissolve Africans from the responsibilities to live like descent civilized members of the human race. American presidents like Trump and to an extent Barack Obama have become more candid in the way they address Africa. The later of course is more refined to employ the same colorful language that Trump used. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Africa to take a closer look at our selves and figure out how we can change our image to a more positive way. As long as our fresh graduates trek to the middle east to work under servitude, and young men and women brave the ire of the Mediterranean to cross to Europe ; Many more Donald Trumps will refer to Africa as “waste-holes”

  4. The shithole is not America, but Trump’s mouth, which needs to be closed. If there are any shithole countries in Africa, they are/were a creation of you know who. The horrible, cruel things they do to African countries only to turn around and call them valugar names is disgusting! Look at what they have done to Libya! Shame on the African leaders that cannot come out and reject such insults from the dotard! The other day our neighbor was busy explaining, that their country was not among the shithole countries the dotard was referring to, really! At least Mugabe would have told off the Mellon headed head of the great USA.

  5. Trump is massively illiterate and ignorant, thus the need to communicate in pejoratives, invectives, prejudices and stereotypes. If he is not stuffing his foul mouth with junk food he is spewing racist sewerage. He is a lumpen president. He doesn’t even understand the USA. He refers to many peoples (within and without the USA) in derogatory terms. Even people around him, his subordinates, in private, haven’t referred to him in favorable language. Africa which is just emerging from colonialism (like the USA more than 200 years ago) nation building which Trump doesn’t understand. He thinks the USA was the same then as it is today. The USA was just a back water, poor and technologically backward.

  6. Try reading the New Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.

  7. Andrew kills us ladies when he wears neckties actually we advised him to stop wearing them.
    1.Trump always hits the bulls’s eye with his statements actually his reference to some 3rd world states as “shithole” states must have been locker room talk we should instead work hard to get out of the shithole status.
    2.USA spends a lot of money trying to make the world a better place but the nations she has assisted are never grateful.
    3.The third world is always reciting and heaping praise on people like Mandela,Luther King,Malcolm x yet their contribution towards the development of the world is not comparable to the industrialization,banking and technology innovation that are dominated by the 1st world nations.This raises the question why are the shithole nations obsessed with democracy and governance and not innovation?
    4.Why hasn’t Kayihura been fired up to now???

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Sister Winnie,
      In No. 3, you raise a very important issue – and ask a pertinent question. At the risk of unraveling a few feathers on this column and elsewhere, I’ll give a summary of my personal opinion.
      The so called third (and lower hierarchy) world glorifies the ARTS/HUMANITIES because it was conditioned – and is still being flattered by the so called ‘advanced’ world to keep doing so. And we are ‘happily’ falling for it.
      You see sister, after the likes of Trump’s ancestors used and pampered the then minuscule creative, adventurous and innovative talent among themselves, to conquer and dominate most of the world, they reasoned that these other conquered peoples ought to be less ‘human’ than themselves. So, the first pretence by the invaders was to claim a ‘civilising’ mission which in earnest meant making the victims more ‘civil’ in behaviour so that the conquerors could do what they pleased with them. Native activities to do with creativity and innovation were promptly stopped (after-all, how could semi humans dare innovate?). Only submissive type work was encouraged – even through the education systems they introduced to replace the natives’ I address the details of this calamity in a separate forum (and had wanted to run a simplified series on it in this very magazine – but your very good friends and role models here thought otherwise).
      But just to give you a hint: Imagine your ‘hero’ Mwenda had – in his earlier pre-primary days – been exposed to an environment of scientific creativity unlike his reading of Plato, ‘The Republic’, what do you think would be happening now? Personally, I try my best to expose my children to this creativity from the word go – and so far, I am not disappointed.

      Cheers sister.

  8. 1. @ Kant science should be made easy to learn its just that those who teach science programmes teach it in a boring and intimidating way.
    2.Reduce the entry requirement for science based programmes after all they are all about practice my brother is a civil engineer at times he goes to work dressed in shorts i just love the way he does a difficult job in a relaxed way.
    3.Most children failed PLE because their parents spend all their time discussing Sheeba,Desire,Zari.
    4.The crazy of making quick bucks wiil leave us in the shithole status for example when iam on my way to the airport i see able bodied men selling toilet paper and cooking food a long the roadside now when shall we develop with such crap?

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Thanks sister.
      I actually agree with you on most of those points – especially No.1. I do not know whether you can find out: In 2003-05 I used to run one hour programs on Radio West (Thursday evening), Voice of Toro (Saturday morning) and Radio Hoima (Saturday evenings) titled: “Science Made Easy” in RRRR for the general public. If you have time and contacts, just check that there was ‘much’ interest and believe me, the programs were not boring. I got lots of feed back from pupils, students, butchers, medicine men/women, even ordinary folks in buses, taxis and markets. By the time I left to help a friend in Botswana set up some factory,(and subsequently return to academics) Buddu FM (Masaka), Kagadi Community Radio and Radio Masindi were asking for the same. Those programs are to this day some of my fondest memories about HOME.
      Sciences in Africa are largely taught in uninspiring ways because of reasons that should have appeared in the earlier mentioned series. We ought to change so that we can attract more than half of our youth to the same.

  9. Jaireh Kubagenda

    Totally agree with you, Andrew. Shockingly though.

    My UGANDA is not a shithole country and all these so called elites saying so need a prescription for their inferiority complex. With all the beauty in flora and fauna, the landscapes and rivers, mountains and hills UGANDA has has, you choose to concentrate on the dirty slum in the business areas…. ehhh.

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