sts-double-standards-part-i> Inside the West's double standards Part I & II
Saturday, 17 March 2012 11:34 By Andrew M. Mwenda
West covers Africa and how we, African elites, need to expose these
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
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
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".
Of course Western scholarship, journalism, the human rights and humanitarian
movements and diplomacy do not invent disasters in Africa. Rather it is the
way they focus and angle this particular aspect of our reality that I find
questionable. Indeed, it is the almost complete exclusion of our other
realities that consciously or subconsciously sustains these stereotypes.
Thus, although explicitly racial arguments about Africa are rare today and
when made are scorned upon, the campaigns to end poverty, promote human
rights, democracy, feed the hungry, try African leaders at the International
Criminal Court (ICC) etc are part and parcel of a construct that seeks to
present Africa and Africans as incapable of self-government.
Thus, today, there are phrases, words and expressions that allow many people
not to mention race in discussing perceived failures in Africa. But they are
still able to present arguments about our perceived inherent inferiority.
The point is that it is no longer necessary to talk about race. This is
because talking about poverty, misery, hunger, brutal governments etc
conveys the same message of Africans being backward, brutal, incompetent,
incapable and hence in need of external intervention. Different factions in
the West may disagree on the nature of intervention - some may call for
military force, others diplomacy etc. - but intervene they must.
Anyone reading this article thus far would be tempted to conclude that we as
Africans need to establish our own media, think tanks, universities etc
through which we can generate knowledge about ourselves and tell our story
without such stereotypes and prejudices. Actually that is the solution. But
the problem is much more complex than that. If that solution is to work, the
complexity of how we are intellectually constructed has to be understood. As
economics Nobel laureate Robert Solow said, just because the tyre is flat
does not mean that the hole is at the bottom. The fact that Western
journalists report negatively about Africa does not necessarily mean that
African journalists and mass media owned by Africans would report about the
continent differently. On the contrary, they could even be worse.
In my experience, I find that we African elites perpetuate these negative
prejudices and stereotypes. With Rwanda, for example, the most outlandish
stereotyping is done by its own journalists supported by like-minded allies
in the regional press. A Western journalist may seek some little evidence in
spite of the low professional standards required by her news organisation
when reporting on Africa. This is because of her training and the standards
- even if low - required of her by her employer. She is also likely to check
her back for likely accusations of racism and hence tamper her statements
with some qualifiers and reservations. The African journalist is restrained
Steve Biko said that the greatest weapon in the hand of an oppressor is
never his armies - these are secondary. It is the mind of the oppressed. The
overlord uses control of communication channels (mass media, think tanks,
universities, books, education curricula, religion, philosophy etc) to
create a particular world view - what Antonio Gramci called hegemony. This
is a mind-frame or belief system of what is normal, regular and right - as
opposed to the abnormal, irregular and wrong. In other words, the production
of knowledge is an important instrument of social control.
We African intellectuals and elites know about ourselves largely (not
entirely) through the writings of non-Africans. So we go to Stanford and
Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge to be taught who we are, what we are, what we
think, what we want, what we do, how we do it etc. Most books and research
work about us is produced by someone other than ourselves. We participate in
its consumption, not its production. The biases, prejudices and stereotypes
generated may not be driven by deliberate racial intent. However, research
into cognitive bias shows that both conscious and sub-conscious biases lead
to prejudiced views and actions even when the individual does not want to do
I think most western scholars on Africa are anti-racist and seek to be as
race neutral as possible. However, they come with particular biases - most
of them sub-conscious - based on their education, culture, history, beliefs
etc. These generate cognitive schemas or thought structures that influence
what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted by our minds.
Studies show that such schemas operate not only as part of conscious,
rational deliberations but also automatically i.e. without conscious
awareness of intent.
For example, in the United States, the mass media is awash with news of
criminal activity on a daily basis. In most cases, the criminal is always a
black male. In Michael Moore's documentary, Bowling for Columbine, there is
a play of actual television news reports sounding like a broken record in
the way they repeat this description of a criminal suspect. Research studies
into this cognitive bias show that after decades of media reports, it has
sunk in the social consciousness of the Americans, including black people,
that a criminal suspect is always a black male.
There was a study in America involving a video game where participants were
asked to shoot as quickly as possible at a target they suspected was armed.
Each target would be of either a white or black person. As the results
showed, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed
even when he was actually unarmed and more likely to mistake the white
target as unarmed when he was actually armed. Black participants in the
video game were also as likely as white participants to shoot at unarmed
black targets as opposed to armed white targets. These results showed a
pattern of discrimination based on subconscious thought processes, not
conscious deliberations - meaning that over the years, a common "wisdom" has
penetrated the social consciousness of Americans that a black man is a
The point is that the knowledge created by western scholarship and mass
media that is imparted to us shapes our self-perception. For example, there
are many things our governments do as part of democratic deal-making that we
claim are signs of failure of our democratic process. Yet these very same
actions are seen in western democracies as costs of democratic compromise.
Indeed, African elites are quick to see the specks in our societies and
remain blind to the logs in western ones.
For example, elites in Africa may condemn Rwanda and Uganda occupation of DR
Congo - a country with an absentee state just across the border. But they
see nothing wrong with America and NATO occupation of Afghanistan some
10,000 miles away for over a decade. A few killings by an African army get
so much coverage compared to hundreds of death at the hands of American and
NATO aerial bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We are therefore active
participants in processes that encourage and reproduce stereotypes against
Therefore, the challenge for Africa is not merely to create our own mass
media houses, universities and think tanks and staff them with people of our
skin color. The primary challenge is to develop self-awareness - to
understand the world we live in and challenge the images of who we are that
have been constructed. There are many non-Africans in Western institutions
who would see our point of view and advance it in their own media. But it is
important that we actively define who we are and develop images, symbols,
and schemas that reflect this self-perception. Only then can we expect
others to respect us.
Immediately after independence in the 1960s, there was an attempt to do
this. What happened? I will return to this question next week.
sts-double-standards-part-ii> Inside the West's double standards Part II
Sunday, 25 March 2012 11:44 By Andrew M. Mwenda
How post-independence failures have helped the West change an image of who
Africa's heroes are
At the time of independence, Africa was basking with self-discovery and
self-confidence. There was hope and confidence that Africans would shape
their destiny independently. We were supposed to cooperate with others as
equals. The first crop of post-independence leaders - Kwame Nkrumah
(consciencism), Julius Nyerere (Ujamaa), Kenneth Kaunda (Humanism), Leopold
Sedar Senghor (Negritude), Milton Obote (The Common Man's Charter) even
attempted to develop distinct ideologies for their countries. Even Mobutu
Sese Seko had "Authenticity." Many of these philosophies were ill conceived
and generated failure. But they were an important effort to create a
distinct view of who we are and how others should view us.
As a teenager growing up in an intellectually curious home, I was educated
in the heroes of Africa to be Shaka Zulu, Omukama Kabalega, Kwame Nkrumah,
Milton Obote, Ahmed Ben Bella, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Julius
Nyerere and Nelson Mandela. Our freedom fighters included Amilcar Cabral,
Samora Machel, Sam Nujoma and Yoweri Museveni. Our struggle for freedom and
dignity was organised under the ANC, NRA, PAIGC, UPC, CCM, CCP etc. At home
and at school we read novels, poems and plays by Bethwell Ogot, Chinua
Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Camara Laye, David Rubadiri, Mongo Beti, Cyprian
Ekwesi, Okot P'Bitek, and Alechi Amadi.
This did not exclude western texts. I read ancient Greek and Roman
civilisation beginning at age 10 - focusing on philosophy, literature and
art. I admired Socrates. My heroes included John Stuart Mill (for his ideas
on liberty), Thomas Jefferson (for his defence of press freedom) and I dared
write a letter to Ronald Reagan at age 12. Although I was a proud African, I
saw myself as a human being first.
Today, it seems the obvious and the perceived economic and political
failures of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Africa destroyed that intellectual
tradition that made our leaders try to think independently. These failures
are an attempt at a one-sided view of post-independence Africa. Perhaps our
leaders and elites lost faith in locally developed solutions and turned to
the West for answers. It is also possible this sense of defeat undermined
our self-confidence. However, this development has given vent to outside
intrusions to regain control over our sovereignty that was hard-won through
wars of national independence.
Across most of Africa, we see a growing effort to usurp our sovereignty.
Increasingly, Western intellectuals and activists have taken on the role of
becoming our liberators. Secular missionaries have succeeded Christian
missionaries. The latter dressed their mission in religion - to emancipate
our souls; the secular missionaries use the language of ending poverty,
democracy and human rights - to emancipate our political being. The old
colonialism proclaimed its desire to liberate Africans from the tyranny of
custom and the despotism of chiefs. The new colonialism promises to liberate
Africans from material poverty and brutality of our leaders.
In this new era, Africa has new heroes - celebrities like Bob Geldolf,
Angelina Jolie, Bono and George Clooney; academics like Jeffrey Sachs and
Paul Collier; journalists like Anderson Cooper and Nicolas Kristof;
humanitarian activists like John Prendergast; liberators like David Cameron
and Nicolas Sarkozy (did you see how they "liberated" Libya?);
philanthropists like Bill Gates etc.
As the Kony 2010 U-Tube documentary shows, we are not supposed to be active
participants in our own emancipation. We are supposed to be passive
spectators in the struggles that are shaping our destiny.
Thus, our human rights are defended by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International; our press freedom is fought for by Reporters without Borders
and the Committee to Protect Journalists; our democracy is promoted by the
National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House; our lives are saved by
Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross; our diseases are fought by the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Fund; our economic policies
are shaped by the IMF and World Bank; our struggle to overcome poverty is
led by Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie; our hungry are fed by WFP; our
refugees are cared for by UNHCR; our trade negotiations are led by Oxfam and
Action Aid; our leaders' crimes are tried by the ICC - the list is endless.
How did we come to this? One needs look at the main news about Africa in the
mass media to see how our inherent inability to manage our affairs has been
played and replayed. The news is about civil conflict, poverty, famine or
disease. If it is about famine and hunger, for example, there will be an
impoverished mother in dirty clothes, carrying a malnourished child on her
back, stretching out her frail hand towards a white aid worker who is
presented as an altruistic saviour.
Colonial attitudes have been recreated through the reporting of Africa
today. Many of the promoters of colonialism were high minded Europeans like
David Livingstone seeking to end slave trade, spread Christianity and
"civilization." Yet behind this seeming altruism also lay Western cultural
hubris captured in Gen. Ian Smuts comment: "The African has largely remained
a child type, with a child psychology and outlook."
The imagery of Africa as a continent in need for Western help has not
Visit an aid project in Africa. There will be a white aid worker in his 20s
teaching an army of middle aged Africans how to use a condom, how many
babies to produce, how to plant rice etc - as if they are children. In
government ministries there will be an aid project with a 25-year old
college grad from the USA working with an African PhD civil servant. He is
paid 12 times better than his African counterpart. The African has to feed
his family. Knowing the aid project serves interests of the donor than the
recipient, he leaves office to attend to his private business, leaving the
college grad to do all the work. In the evening, the "technical expert"
retreats to a largely white drinking club and gossips to his friends how
"Africans are lazy."
These attitudes would be a sad but minor inconvenience if they were
restricted to those who think about Africans this way. The fundamental
problem is that they are most dominant among us African elites. We have been
bombarded with the images of our incompetence, inferiority, and helplessness
daily - and we seem to have succumbed to them. Any attempt to fight this
image will be met with claims that such an African supports local dictators
or corruption. Therefore, the first line of defence of these stereotypes are
African elites themselves. The second will be western intellectuals,
journalists and diplomats who will claim "you are exaggerating" the issue.
As these images are played out, another image appears on the horizon - the
"international community" coming to our rescue. This will be a kind relief
aid worker, volunteer doctor, an altruistic human rights campaigner who will
have "sacrificed" the comfort of his Beverly Hills lifestyle to come to our
rescue (in Darfur).
I was previously blind to the import of these images of Africa and their
racist undertones until I lived in America - once in California and later in
New Haven. In either case, I lived in a rich (read white) neighbourhood -
the roads are well paved, the sidewalks done, the houses neat, the fountains
work, the streets are lit at night etc. Just across the street is a poor
(read black) neighbourhood - the roads filled with potholes, pavements
broken, ramshackle houses. The police would stoke the neighbourhood every
evening looking for black male youth to arrest for using or dealing in
Why does the city council pave roads in the white neighbourhood but ignore
the black neighbourhoods? Through discussions with friends, I was told black
people do not show up at town council meetings, don't vote and have
therefore been politically excluded from public services. But why have they
developed this self-destructive behaviour? It sounded abnormal. I would see
politicians and preachers, both black and white, on American television
castigating blacks for lacking "personal responsibility" hence their
condition. I became critical of black culture, accusing African Americans of
self-destructive behaviour as Barrack Obama does.
Over time, I began listening to African Americans rather than arguing with
them. They referred me to books and research studies that have been done
about the crisis of the black man in America. What I stumbled upon began a
sobering journey of reflection. It became clear to me the "truth" is
created. One truth in America that I took for granted was that gangster
culture was among blacks because of trade in drugs. Yet statistics showed
that white people in America are 13 times more likely to use drugs than
black people. That notwithstanding, 78 percent of drug arrests are of black
people. In Georgia, 98% of all people sentenced to death for drug related
crimes are black. In New Jersey blacks are only 15 percent of drivers on its
highways. Yet they constitute 46% of all traffic stops by cops and 76% of
Here was the puzzle: as an avid reader/viewer of the American press, I had
never seen mass abuse of black people as an issue in the mainstream media.
The media was always awash with self-congratulatory news about the greatness
of the US. Black incarceration was only highlighted as a fringe issue. Civil
rights advocates like the Reverend Al Shapton were often brought in only as
comic figures fighting for an issue that had been settled. Nowhere in the
news did I hear or read that up to 30% of adult African American males were
in jail and that there were more black males of college going age in jail
Leaving the worst injustices on black people in America, I returned to
Africa to find white American journalists in the thick of a struggle for
freedom on our continent. I would meet white human rights activists working
to save the people of Rwanda, Zambia or Kenya from their "brutal and
corrupt" governments. I would feature on TV and radio debates on BBC or CNN
with white academics from America fighting for our democracy. I began to
wonder why all these passionate defenders of our aspirations for freedom are
silent about the freedom of their fellow black citizens at home.
Anderson Cooper who goes to Congo or Haiti to make special reports about the
suffering of the people there has never done one special feature in a black
ghetto in America. The US has the largest prison population in the world -
even more than China- but the colour of prisoners is never an issue in the
American media. The media were telling the truth and nothing but the truth,
but they were not telling the whole truth.
Slowly, reluctantly, I began to re-examine my views about Africa and how I
presented them as a journalist and publisher. Perhaps we consume ourselves
with too much negative reporting (all true) to almost complete exclusion of
our achievements. The constant barrage of news about failure makes us hate
ourselves. We have no examples of our achievements - so we think we need
others to liberate us.
I had been writing a book on aid to Africa and its effects. Then I found an
agent and a publisher to work with. As we discussed the content of the book,
I was shocked by what he told me: I had to be bold on how I presented
Africa. He even suggested a title: stop aid now: how American (or western)
assistance sustains corrupt and brutal regimes in Africa.
My agent was a smart and practical marketing man - no racist at all. He knew
which batons to touch in order to sell a book about Africa in the West. I
understood his point of view. But I did not agree with it. It was clear that
to sell something about Africa in America and Europe one has to feed the
prejudices. I had met this reality with many of my friends from Europe and
North America covering Africa for international news media. Each time there
was a good story, they told me their editors would not like it. But each
time a famine struck a country, an epidemic ravaged a village, a war
engulfed a town, a ritual murder was reported in an area, a warlord
massacred people etc, my friends would hit the headlines across Europe and
North America. I was not going to promote this narrative.
Racial bias shapes the news which reproduces and sustains racial bias in a
circular flow of conscious and subconscious racism. It took me longer to
reflect on this dynamic and even longer to begin changing my mind about how
I, as an African journalist, need to go about my work. I am still reflecting
and learning. But one lesson is clear: even in covering Africa's failures,
we should at least provide context.
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Received on Wed Mar 28 2012 - 08:21:03 EDT