In this high profile visit of the President of the United States of America to Africa as he prepares to take a bow, he spoke with passion and his usual disarming frankness to the leadership and people of Africa. He did so without the fear of crossing red lines or stepping on sensitive toes. As far as the woes of the continent and the list of desired changes are concerned, he did not say much that is new.
All that he said about corruption, education and women’s empowerment had been trumpeted by African activists and NGOs from the late Wangari Maathai to Sesôr Africa and agencies of the United Nations from the Economic Commission for Africa to UNCTAD, UNESCO and even the African people themselves. Of course, coming from the President of the most powerful nation, his words carry weight and the impact will sink into more ears across the globe for good or ill. Africa needs to do more than listen to this proud American, son of an African father from a remote village in Kenya who is proud to introduce his two daughters to the heritage of their ancestors who were both slaves and slave owners. Of course the slave and the slave owner had different and divergent mindsets. And that is what we have to deal with as the President of the United States of America seeks in the dying months of his eight years in power to thunder on Africa. A few words about mindsets are therefore in order.
In their seminal tome Why Nations Fail, economic historians, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, expose the reader to some of the most heinous acts of brutal exploitation perpetrated by man against his fellow being. One of those that is likely to get you hot under the collar if you have any inkling of a sense of social justice is the narrative of how the Spanish conquistadors dealt with their innocent, welcoming and generous indigenous peoples of the new world.
A typical ploy was to take the ruler of the generous welcoming people of the Aztec nation prisoner, put him in a room and inform him that the condition for his release was to order his people to fill that room with gold. However, even after the near impossible condition had been fulfilled by the bewildered Aztecs, the conquistadors still went ahead and executed their leaders.
The mindset of the conquistadors was to fill up the palaces of their kings and queens and their castles with gold and precious stones from distant lands and conquered peoples from all discovered lands. Whatever they did to fulfil their zeal was good and proper and indeed in honour of the god of their world view.
A scanning of the activities of conquistadors by whatever name called from the Alaskan promontory to the Australian sub-continent demonstrates the preponderance of this mindset for the better part of six centuries. The metamorphosis of the motto of this mindset from the “king and country” mantra to the “greed is good” one did not soften its essential barbarism. The softening of the methodology from the audible rattling of the sabre and its ominous glint in the sun before the strike or the plunge to the bite and blow strategy of the proverbial rat has not changed the conquistador’s mindset.
In African mythology, the rat nibbling at your feet while you sleep, takes a bite then blows cool air on the wound to keep you comfortably sleeping while he has his feel of dinner from your feet. The new conquistador convinces the hapless victim that he is taking him to heaven while gently pushing him down the slippery slope of destructive policies and unworkable programmes packaged as aid or partnership. The bellicosity of the ominous gunboat or Maxim gun has been taken over by the subtlety of economic subversion and socio-political manipulation. And many of the countries of Africa have been either hapless victims because of their clueless leaders or worse; where their leaders have been willing collaborators with the tormentors of their lands and people. The mind set of defeatism, dependency and self-abnegation has been the lot of the majority of Africans for the last half millennium.
So when Obama says “Dignity -- that basic idea that by virtue of our common humanity, no matter where we come from, or what we look like, we are all born equal, touched by the grace of God. Every person has worth. Every person matters. Every person deserves to be treated with decency and respect…” he strikes a chord that should resonate with all Africans, leaders and followers alike.
When he says “America’s approach to development -- the central focus of our engagement with Africa -- is focused on helping you build your own capacity to realize that vision”, Africans must understand that both our perceptions of each other and our vision of the future are functions of the mind and our mind-set determines that which flows there from. The economic programmes and the commitment to partnership are indeed good but the greater realisation is that our battles of today and tomorrow are those of the mind.