By Andrew M. Mwenda
How the West has built a global incentive system that sustains a negative narrative against Africa
Steve Biko once said the greatest weapon in the hands of an oppressor is not his armies and arms but the mind of the oppressed. Antonio Gramsci had made a similar observation regarding forms of domination. He argued that a ruling class does not dominate subordinate classes simply through [its] state’s instruments of coercion and repression (as Karl Marx had posited) but through the development of a dominant ideology, which he called hegemony.
Hegemony refers to the sum total of beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values and mores that a dominant social group develops and subordinate social groups accept as the norm i.e. the normal way things are or should be. Hegemony is therefore the universally dominant ideology that justifies the existing social, political and economic status quo as natural, normal, inevitable and beneficial to everyone. Yet the status quo is actually an artificial social construct developed by and for the benefit of the dominant social group.
We have been brought up to believe that the social arrangements (economic systems, political institutions, and cultural norms) of the Western world are the global standard that everyone should adopt for their own good. The counterpoint to the assimilation of this ideology is the belief among African elites that our own systems are archaic and backward. Thus African elites are quick to condemn everything in Africa or African – our political leaders, our public institutions, our ways of doing things, etc. This is not always an entirely wrong accusation even though it is an overly simplistic one.
We also tend to hold ideal illusions of the West. We believe Western leaders are noble, loving their countries, and working genuinely to serve the interests of their citizens. We also believe that their political institutions work well. When we encounter the failures in our own systems, failures that may be produced by structural problems, we argue that our leaders are selfish and evil. The resultant social frustrations drive us to hate ourselves, suck our energy to find our own solutions, and drive us to look for external saviors.
Thus, whenever we face a problem, our first reaction is to look for a solution from the West. A lot of the political pathologies that we face are a product of this obsession of copying and pasting Western theories and institutions unto a reality that is totally different. We look to Barack Obama, a “black man”, hoping that he would use American power to solve our problems even when we can see that America has sown seeds of chaos wherever it has intervened – witness Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, the list is endless. We look at the ICC to hold our leaders to account.
The situation is made even worse by the structure of incentives created by a Western dominated global order. The broad spectrum of global (read Western) institutions – media, academia, diplomacy, think tanks, human rights advocacy, etc. – is designed to sustain this vulgarisation of Africa. There are some exceptions, divergences, and even counter narratives to this. I have dealt with many Western persons and institutions that seek a more nuanced view of Africa. But the mainstream thrust is a condemn Africa story.
For example, the “true” African projected in Western media is a malnourished person living in poverty and misery. If they present a successful African, he is a blood-thirsty dictator and his cohorts, a corrupt civil servant, crooked businessman or a warlord who kills insanely. When an enlightened African is presented, he will be a refugee running away from tyranny, a prisoner of conscience in gulag or a constantly persecuted fighter for democracy and human rights i.e. he will be a victim of his own society. Whatever the motivation; this presentation shows that Africa is opposed to enlightenment and progress.
The broad spectrum of Western institutions; universities, think tanks, diplomatic missions, mass media, etc. are designed to promote this narrative. The African invited to speak at different conferences in the West is all too often the Africa-bashing elite. The more one condemns African leaders as backward, primitive and brutal systems, the more invitations they get, the more book contracts they sign and the more prominence the Western media give them.
The African who wins international awards is a persecuted human rights activist, a journalist in and out of jail, an advocate for homosexual rights, a charity worker etc. Even when an occasional African leader or civil servant is given an award, it is only in those moments when they have promoted an idea or a cause sanctioned and promoted by Washington, London and Paris. So Rwanda’s Paul Kagame will be honored for Doing Business reforms (a Washington project) but not for Gacaca (a locally generated restorative justice mechanism). Yet in the wider scheme of things, Gacaca has done for Rwanda one million times what Doing Business has done for that country.
I grew to appreciate this reality because I have actually been that African who unwittingly promoted this cause even as I argued against the negative coverage of our continent. I would land in Washington or London after informing my friends in universities, think tanks and media of my arrival. I would find tens of speaking engagements prepared for me at different hastily organised conferences and workshops, and tens of interviews prepared for newspapers, television and radio. The topics would be set: How Africa is collapsing under the weight of corruption. How dictators are suffocating freedom.
My stay in London, Paris, Brussels, Washington and New York would be a whirlwind of activity – from conference hall to television station, from meeting with a prime minister or foreign minister of the host country to appearing to testify before a parliamentary committee etc. Overtime I realised that the international system is designed to promote a particular narrative about Africa – complete with rewards for denouncing our leaders and punishments for defending them.
The West is not monolithic. But its mainstream view of Africa propagated through its various channels is dangerous to our own progress. As I have broken the chains of this dominant condemn-Africa ideology, I want to know why Africa leaders act the way they do. What structures constrain their ability to act as we would wish them to in ideal terms? Why they take actions that ideally seem stupid? For now, someone has designed the song; we are singing it. I have learned that Africa needs to find its voice. Happy New Year!