By Andrew M. Mwenda
Why the U.S. president always feels compelled to lecture to Africans and my obsession with his meddling
It has become custom for U.S. President Barak Obama to constantly volunteer unsolicited advice to African people whenever a given country is going through some major event. So when Nigeria was going into elections, Obama recorded a video: “For elections to be credible they must be free, fair and peaceful,” he lectured Nigerians, “All Nigerians must be able to cast their ballots without intimidation or fear. So I call on all leaders and candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections and that they will not excite, support or engage in any kind of violence before, during and after the votes are counted…”
This was saddening but also illuminating. Who does Obama think he is to make this call? God? Does he think Nigerians do not know these basic concepts? Isn’t it obvious that if Nigerians do not adhere to them, that is not due to lack of knowledge but due to structural circumstances and political incentives that drive politics in that country? He recorded a similar video for Burundi, lecturing its people on how they can end their conflict. There is something megalomaniacal about Obama. Perhaps he sees himself as a special human being, a Pope for African peoples. So he thinks we need his sermons to change the political trajectories of our nations.
Obama may be well intentioned when he lectures Africans, genuinely believing – like his African admirers, that he is trying to help our continent. But we should not miss the underlying attitude that informs his lectures. To understand where he is coming from, one needs to read colonial literature focusing on its racial content. I will liberally borrow quotes by colonial officials from Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s majestic work, `Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’.
In his 1929 Rhodes Lecture at Oxford, former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts said the African is a special human type. “It (sic) has largely remained a child type with a child psychology and outlook.” And Albert Schweitzer agreed: “The Negro is a child and with children, nothing can be done without authority.” In the colonial mind, Africans were no ordinary children. They were destined to remain perpetually so – “Peter Pan children who can never grow up, a child race” as Christopher Fyfe mocked this attitude.
Many high-minded colonialists did not see themselves as oppressors but as helping “civilise” Africans. I suspect Obama has internalised these racist stereotypes albeit (perhaps) subconsciously. The belief that Africans cannot govern themselves and need foreign assistance is deeply entrenched in the Western mind. To many in the West, Africans need the benevolent hand of the white man to tutor them on how to live their lives and govern themselves. It is expressed in many Western efforts to save or help Africa.
For example, our civil wars are to be ended by an American military intervention, our political leaders tried by the International Criminal Court, our human rights defended by Human Rights Watch, our hungry to be fed by World Food Program. Our sick must be treated by Doctors Without Borders, our press freedom defended by the Committee to Protect Journalists, our democracy advanced by Open Society Institute, our poverty fought by philanthropists Angelina Jolie and Bono, our civil society must be Western funded NGOs, our policies decided by the IMF and World Bank.
Visit any part of Africa and see for yourself. In government ministries will be “technical experts” advising on the budget and on every public policy. In villages there will be aid workers teaching Africans how many babies to have, how to plant beans and rice, how to use condoms, etc. In cities, Western donors will be funding a “democracy deepening” or “capacity building” project. On practically every arm and leg of our existence, there will be white people working to fix our problems. We are children whose every step must be guided by the benevolent hand of the white man.
There are many problems in Africa – poverty, corruption, low levels of human skill, conflict, etc. Our states are young and hardly omnipresent in the lives of many of our people compared to their counterparts in the West. Nationhood has not gained sufficient social consciousness among many of our citizens. Our societies are still largely agricultural. The social values and norms of most of our people differ from those of the West. As we struggle to modernise, our structural conditions create particular challenges – violent conflict, corruption, stolen elections, pervasive patronage etc.
A section of African elites and their Western cheerleaders see these outcomes as pathologies inherent in Africans. Yet even a casual reading of Western history shows that they were inevitable accompaniments of its own modernisation. Western nations went through a similar experience without outside help. Modernisation stimulated massive social upheavals involving international and civil wars in the West. These upheavals were not aberrations but part and parcel of the process of modernisation. Africa is also going through these massive social changes and is handling them much better than Europe did.
Blind to these historical parallels, a significant section of Western society, supported by sections of African elites, yell and shout at how pathological Africans are. Many Western scholars, journalists, activists, pundits, leaders and diplomats can no longer use overtly racial language to express these biases. They fear being accused of racism. But African elites are not restrained by this fear. So they make attacks about African leaders, systems and peoples presenting them as pathological. Western society is always keen to promote such African “intellectuals” as spokespersons of their racist views. So it has created an international intellectual infrastructure that gives television appearances, newspaper articles, publishes books, academic papers and speeches by Africans who condemn Africa.
This is the context in which we need to understand and problematise Obama. Since he is partly of African ancestry, he is the best suited “black man” to play the role of colonial headman, lecturing Africans on how to behave themselves as good colonial subjects – without coming across as racist. It is not that Obama is stupid and cannot see his role in the wider scheme of the white military, financial and industrial aristocracy that rules our world. Rather his megalomania and exaggerated belief in his own messianic mission to save the world blinds him to his role as the agent of white social contempt of Africans.