How the West covers Africa and how we, African elites, need to expose these stereotypes
I argued last week that there is a double standard among institutions – both public and private – in the western world when dealing with an African country like Rwanda or a European country like Belgium. For example, mere allegations by Rwandan dissidents in the UK and Sweden to the police that their government has sent a hit squad to kill one of them are enough for police to take action and publicise the threat or expel a diplomat. However, if similar allegations were made against the government of Belgium, British or Swedish police would give Belgium the benefit of the doubt, investigate the matter and establish some credible basis before taking any action. The question is why the double standards when it comes to Africa?
The fashionable view today is that we live in a post-racial world. The election of Barack Obama, a black man, as president of the USA has been presented as the ultimate manifestation of the triumph of color blindness. Yet it seems to me that racism remains, only changing its form. I have come to this conclusion only slowly and reluctantly. For many years, I argued against African Americans and other black people living in Europe when they told me of racism. Age and travel have given me experience and time to reflect on the state of our world. Today, my views on racism are tempered by a sobering awareness that the reality is much more than meets the eye.
Let us place Rwanda’s “public relations problem” (as American journalist working in Kigali put it a February 24th – March 1st article in The Independent) in the wider context of Western standards of dealing with Africa and its peoples. As a concept, Africa exists at two levels: as a geographical entity and as a people. As geography, Africa includes a northern region that is largely Arabic ethnically and Muslim by religion. In Western mass media, scholarship and diplomacy, the Arabic north is reported upon, studied and related to as part of the Middle East. Hence, when western media, governments and scholars talk of Africa, they mean Sub Sahara (or black) Africa.
In dealing with Arabs, the most dominant construct is religion – they are treated as Muslims first, Arabs second. In dealing with Sub Sahara Africa, the dominant construct is race; we are all “black”. This “Africa” is also an intellectual construct – there are images and symbols that people associate with Africa promoted through Western scholarship, religion, mass media, popular culture and language. For example, stories about Africa during the pre-colonial period were filled with bizarre tales of cannibalism, human sacrifice, savagery and other insane imaginations. Consequently, any mention of Africa or its people evoked feelings of sub-humans only useful as slaves. This construction was not pointless. It sought to justify one of the worst tragedies in human history – the Trans-Atlantic trade in slaves from Africa to the Americas.
As the colonial period began, a modified picture of Africa and its people took shape. Africans were no longer sub-humans to be enslaved. They were backward people in need of civilization. “The African,” said Gen. Ian Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa while giving the Rhodes Memorial Lecture at Oxford in 1929, “has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook. A childlike human cannot be a bad human…” Then Albert Schweitzer like many colonial overlords said: “The Negro is a child and with children, nothing can be done without authority.”
In one of his most thoughtful writings, Karl Marx argued that the way people organise themselves to solve their basic economic challenges – how to clothe, house and feed themselves – requires a “superstructure” of non-economic activity and thought; it will be bound together by laws (or traditional customs in societies without states), supervised by government, inspired by religion and justified by philosophy. In the same way, attempts by the West to dominate Africa at each of the epochs have needed intellectual justification tailor-made to a particular system of social control.
Thus, slavery required a particular intellectual picture of Africa – to use human beings as one would a horse. Capitalism and improved technology on the other hand, rendered slavery inefficient. This created a necessity for free labor from coercive conditions. Therefore, the philosophy of colonialism about Africans had to be different from the philosophy of slavery – the African as a perpetual child only able to work under the whip of colonial authority. This philosophy justified and legitimised the structure of the colonial state to its home constituencies and to the colonised.
As colonialism ended, overt racism became repugnant having been discredited by Adolf Hitler and his NAZI allies who took it to the European mainland. The claim that Hitler began genocides disregards history. The German psychopathic dictator was following in a long European tradition of mass slaughter of native peoples by European conquerors in Latin and North America and Africa. But to return to Africa, although overt racism began to decline at the end of colonial rule, the imagery of studying and reporting on Africa was not transformed, it only changed manner of presentation. Overtly racial expressions were dropped. In their place, however, particular stereotypes have been introduced that have sustained the construction of Africa and Africans as some incompetent humans in need of external emancipation – by the white man.
For example, Western media today tend to focus on poverty, misery, despair, corruption, state rapacity, violent conflicts, ritual murders, hunger, famine, cruel and brutal leaders etc. Western scholarship follows in the footsteps of the media, to provide intellectual explanations. Then Western human rights organisations campaign for particular interventions to solve the problem – the recent YouTube video calling upon the United States to capture Uganda’s rebel leader, Joseph Kony, being a good example. All this “pressure” makes western diplomacy (sometimes, as in Libya recently, military intervention) necessary to induce or force governments in Africa to behave in particular ways. Such projects require local allies. Slavery and colonialism required local chiefs as collaborators. Today, the West funds local “civil society”.