What is the worth of a black African life? No End to Impunity, No End to African Misery


I raised a difficult question in these pages last week – what is the worth of a black African life? A very difficult one indeed. Does the life of a Darfuri have any worth higher than that of an animal? Does that of a Congolese under occupation either by that country’s notorious “national army” (in reality an outfit of government-sanctioned looters, rapists and murderers), or their close allies, the FDLR?

Black Africans have died in the most inhuman ways time immemorial, from centuries of slavery, to colonialism, to the decades after colonialism. Other regions too have had their suffering throughout history: medieval Europe and the years of the Inquisition and other religious torture methods that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives; Asia and the fringes of eastern Europe cowering before the rapacious army of Genghis Khan in even earlier times; genocide on the Indian sub-continent as the country broke into two at the end of British colonial rule; genocide in Europe as the Nazis rose and waged war on the continent. And so on.

The main difference between us in Sub-Sahara and the rest of the world is that it’s only in our countries that genocide, mass rape, hunger, even natural calamities continue to thrive. There has to be a reason other than the usual, albeit valid ones, for why we lag in human progress. Yes, slavery and colonialism took a terrible toll. Yes neo-colonialism has had a big role in holding us back. Yes the rest of the world long ago rigged the world economic system to its favor so that we can hardly get a toehold onto the first rung. And yes, as many of our thinkers long ago acknowledged, a lot of the problems come from bad leadership. But all this only takes us in a circle. All problems named here, other regions too have suffered, but have overcome. (Just a few decades ago for instance, South Korea, China, India and others like that were as poor as Africa, but today are world economic giants, and neither did they receive any favors from the West! Far from it).

Why then are we the only ones caught in the vicious cycle of the world’s miseries, which continue to degrade the life of the black African, to the extent that dogs and cats in Japan or the US or Europe are far better off than most people in Africa?

Why then are we the only ones caught in the vicious cycle of the world’s miseries, which continue to degrade the life of the black African, to the extent that dogs and cats in Japan or the US or Europe are far better off than most people in Africa?

In asking what the worth of a black African life is last week, my starting point was the hundreds of thousands of Ugandans that perished during Idi Amin’s brutal eight-year rule in Uganda. But it could have been with the equally infamous administrations – to varying degrees – of any several of this continent’s rulers who have found it expedient to mount campaigns of terror, mass murder and genocide against populations they supposedly were sworn to protect: Habyarimana, Bokassa, Tombalbaye, Kayibanda, Mobutu, Moi, Obote, Abacha… the list is really long. The record of Sub-Saharan African leadership mostly has been appalling. Yes, the good leaders have been there, and they still are around.But they have beenexceptionally few.

Bad leadership not solely African problem:

Why? Are our leaders less “human” than those elsewhere? Hardly. After all other regions of the world have produced individuals like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Milosevic, Mao (yes, you admirers of Chairman Mao, you may not be aware of this but Mao is responsible for starving… starving, leave alone those killed at his orders!… more people in his country than died in Europe in World War 2!), Pinochet, Ceausescu and other psychopathic men like those. Sub-Saharan Africa clearly has not had a monopoly on terrible leaders.

Yet, as other regions have escaped their pasts, so too have they figured ways never to have terrible men rule over them again. But here we still are, with our Robert Mugabes, Teodoro Obiangs, Yahya Jamehs, Paul Biyas, and others like that; here we are with people who cling to power at all costs even when their most useful years clearly are behind them, like the aforementioned Mugabe and Biya, and others like Dos Santos or Yoweri Museveni. Here we are with weakling leaders of states that are states only in name, like Joseph Kabila. His weakness is such that all kinds of predator groups have taken advantage of lack of rule of law in the vast DRC to carry out sustained campaigns of ethnic cleansing, looting and raping, one of the main groups being FDLR remnants of the perpetrators of the Genocide in Rwanda who long ago found safe heaven in the jungles of eastern Congo and the first thing they did was target Congolese of Tutsi ethnicity for extermination.

All this is not to paint the continent as “hopeless”, like The Economist magazine did a decade ago. There has been notable socio-economic progress in parts of Sub-Sahara, places like Ghana which has put behind it bloodshed as a requisite to ascension to power; like Kenya which somehow has managed the transition from one president to another without the kind of bloodshed witnessed in 2007-8; like Botswana which is one of the handful of countries (including our Rwanda, am proud to say) that are achieving ever better results uplifting the lives of the poorest. There is real reason for hope when one looks at stories like Rwanda’s.

But I don’t like to get carried away. I am not among those who wax euphoric at the first bit of good news and begin imaging “Africa is emerging,” or feel-good sentiments like that. My reason is simple: of all the people in this world, we seem to have the most cavalier, or even indifferent attitudes about the misery, mass starvation, mass disease, death at the hands of tyrants, name it, of the very people we should care most about: us! And if a people do not value lives, especially if they place little value in the lives of those like them!, such a people can never progress in many areas of human endeavor. Period.

Idi Amin – whose rule ended only 34 years ago – killed hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, but today except the few amongst the most prominent victims, such as Janani Luwum, Oboth Ofumbi, Erinayo Oryema and a few others, most of Amin’s victims are forgotten. There isn’t a single monument anywhere in their honor. There isn’t a single historic marker anywhere at the sites of mass burials or the sites of heinous crimes to indicate here is where it took place.

Museveni tools around his country with sacks of cash, but has not allocated a single shilling to digging up the remains of Amin victims in Namanve forest or any other hundreds of places, to give them a decent burial; to remember and honor their memories. Instead what is in place of those memories are articles in newspapers penned by notorious Amin apologists like Timothy Kalyegira and other revisionists of that ilk who have for years mounted a spirited effort to whitewash the record of the most notorious mass murderer in their country’s history.

Egregious failures to remember:

But leave alone Amin victims, Museveni and his government apparently have not seen the need to put in place proper remembrances for victims of his own war in the Luwero area, very many who were his supporters and fell prey to Milton Obote’s gangs of killers, the so-called national army. Instead Museveni has slipped into old age being defined, for better of worse, as the leader of a very corrupt system, one that long ago forfeited the moral authority to define who has, or hasn’t been good for Uganda.

That is the sad reality that the people of next-door neighbors Kenya have lived with for generations. Actually viewed from a certain angle Kenya is even worse in the cavalier attitude displayed even when it comes to the lives of those who should be most sacred in that country’s history: the Mau Mau fighters who faced the full wrath of British colonial suppression, fought it and prevailed. There is not a single monument, anywhere in Kenya, to these heroes! So what is responsible for this appalling travesty? (I am told British imperialists signed a pact with Kenya’s post-independence leaders not to honor the Mau Mau! If true it would be an even harsher indictment of the sorry lack of moral fortitude by that country’s leaders). What is responsible for the fact that a million people can die in Nigeria’s Biafra secessionist war and today these people are all but forgotten? Is it just poverty of minds? Is it just short memories? That Africans are quick to forgive and to forget? Whoa! Forgive and forget! That to me is a very good answer. Forgive and forget. Which is why even when an apologist for someone like Idi Amin writes a cloying newspaper article about him, the reaction of the audience is not outrage, or even mild anger but, at most, a shrugging of shoulders and a moving on.

I sit and try to imagine what would happen to a German newspaper that dared publish a revisionist article about Adolf Hitler! That newspaper would be clogged with outraged mail demanding retraction of the article; that newspaper’s offices would be pelted with stones and eggs and rotten tomatoes. No journalist of such a newspaper would even dare mention he worked there. That newspaper would experience a massive boycott of subscribers and advertisers so that it would never see the light of day again; and finally, the editors of that newspaper would be tried in court, with the very real possibility of being sentenced to lengthy jail terms. All that would happen because that newspaper would have trampled most disrespectfully and insensitively on the memory of six million victims of the Holocaust of European Jews. Obviously, not even the most secret neo Nazi editor of a European newspaper would ever be crazy enough to contemplate publishing a pro-Hitler newspaper.

But that is elsewhere, where war was declared on impunity long ago, while in Africa impunity thrives in an environment of “forgive and forget”; in an environment of ethnic hatreds whereby when one says, “wait a minute, Amin was a monster!” or, “Obote was a corrupt tribalist and killer”, one immediately gets branded a “Munyankore”! Or if it’s in Kenya and the Luo raise the legitimate complaint that Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta was guilty of mass murder (when on one occasion ordering his bodyguards to use deadly force against protesting Luos in Kisumu), the Kikuyus or other groups with an axe to grind with the Luo will only pour scorn and ridicule on them! That, or something like that, seems to be the total sum of attitudes by Africans about African lives. And those attitudes and similar ones have to change, or ours will forever be the region of genocides and terrible rule and many other calamities.

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