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.
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.