On January 7, the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris came under attack by two masked gunmen who killed 12 people, including the editor, seven other employees, two police officers and two other people.
Eleven people were wounded in the attack.
The alleged reasons for this attack were the publication’s controversial depictions, over a long time, of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Within hours, the killings had made headlines across the globe.
Heads of state released messages of support and, immediately, activities were lined up in honour of the French nationals who died at the hands of Islamist fundamentalists.
A few days following the killings, another diabolical attack took place in another part of the world.
In northern Nigeria, terror of seismic proportions was unleashed on 16 villages. The villages were burnt to ashes and hundreds of people killed by Boko Haram militants.
The response to this atrocity was virtual silence.
Unlike the Paris killings, the massacre of hundreds of African people did not make headlines.
No messages of support were immediately forthcoming. The world media were more focused on the deaths of 12 French people.
But it was not just the world media that treated the massacre in Nigeria as a non-issue.
We failed too. While French citizens staged solidarity rallies across their country, with millions of people gathering under the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), we sat back and watched those villages burning.
But I will address Africa’s soporific state another time.
Today, I want to talk about why I am NOT Charlie.
From as far back as the early 1900s, large pharmaceutical companies have been using African countries as sites for clinical trials. Many of these trials lacked proper informed consent from those used as test “subjects”. Some of them were forced medical procedures and there have been incidents of unethical experimentation.
In the early 1900s, we had the case of Dr Eugen Fischer, a professor of anthropology and the study of eugenics. Fischer, who later became a Nazi, performed sterilisation experiments on Herero women in Namibia, which at the time was occupied by Germany. His experiments were carried out largely on the children of mixed-race couples to provide justification to ban marriages between Germans and black women and men.
One of the greatest atrocities that Zimbabwean women experienced at the hands of the Rhodesian regime in the 1970s was the administering of Depo-Provera, a birth control drug later proved to cause, among many side-effects, amenorrhoea. The drug, given forcibly to black women working on white-run commercial farms, was banned the year after Zimbabwe attained independence, in 1981.
Perhaps the most brutal of all unethical medical experiments carried out on black people by giant pharmaceutical companies was the clinical trial for the Pfizer drug Trovan in Kano, capital of Kano State in northern Nigeria. Pfizer is an American multinational pharmaceutical corporation.
In the 1990s, during a meningitis epidemic in the city of Kano, the drug was administered as part of an illegal clinical trial.
This was done without authorisation from the Nigerian government or consent from the parents of the children on whom the testing was done. Eleven children died in the trial. Many others were left blind, deaf or with irreversible brain damage.
In January 2009, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the Nigerian victims and their families were entitled to bring a suit against Pfizer in the US under the Alien Tort Statute.
A settlement of $75 million (about R750 million at the time) was reached with the State of Kano a few months later.
The above are three of many examples of the brutality meted out to sons and daughters of Africa by pharmaceutical giants in the West, in countries that benefit from the systematic brutality to which Africans have been subjected.
This beastliness is best captured by Rachel Weisz in the film The Constant Gardener, in which she plays an Amnesty International activist fighting a big pharmaceutical company running a dangerous clinical trial in Kenya, when she posits: “There are no murders in Africa, only regrettable deaths. And from those deaths, we derive the benefits of civilisation – benefits we can afford so easily, because those lives were bought so cheaply.”
But the heinousness meted out to Africans does not end with medical experiments that have left so many dead or with permanent physical, mental and psychological damage. There are countless conflicts in Africa that are a result of the devastation caused by the West.
The Rwanda genocide, undoubtedly one of the worst atrocities the mother continent has seen, is rooted in the historic injustice of systematic repression born in Europe.
As with most wars in Africa, one cannot understand the Rwandan genocide without first studying the history of Rwanda, for it is in this history that parameters of genocide were set.
Rwanda was colonised by Germany in 1884 as part of German East Africa, followed by Belgium, which invaded it in 1916 during World War I.
Both countries championed pro-Tutsi policies. It is alleged that this preference for Tutsis over Hutus was informed primarily by the phenotype of the former.
Rwanda’s colonial period, during which the ruling Belgians favoured the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, created a legacy of tension that exploded into violence even before Rwanda gained its independence.
The genocide left an estimated one million people, most of them Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, dead.
The streets of Rwanda were moistened by the blood of men, women and children who could not run fast enough to evade the machetes of the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi.
The international community largely remained on the sidelines during the Rwandan genocide.
A UN Security Council vote in April 1994 led to the withdrawal of most of a peacekeeping operation, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, which had been created the previous year to aid with the transition under the Arusha Accord protocols signed in Tanzania in August 1993 by the government of Rwanda and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to end a three-year-old civil war.
In his article “How the West armed the Interahamwe”, Norm Dixon makes this damning statement: “Documents discovered by a reporter for the London Times after the eastern Zaire rebels drove the Interahamwe from the Mugunga refugee camp show that a British company had supplied weapons until July 1994.
“The documents and a report by a UN team investigating breaches of the embargo, leaked to The Times in early November, show the arming of the Interahamwe involved British arms dealers, intermediaries in Israel, eastern Europe and Russia, France, Italy, Belgium…” The emphasis is mine.
The Rwandan genocide is not the only conflict in Africa in which France has been involved directly.
A 40-year-old war is being fought in Africa that the world has forgotten about or does not care enough to highlight.
It is taking place in north-eastern Central African Republic, in Birao, a remote city that has been destroyed by the French military. Only 10 percent of its population remain – the rest dead or displaced.
According to British journalist Johann Hari: “The French flag was first hoisted in the heart of Africa on October 3, 1880, seizing the right bank of the Congo for the cause of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity)– for the white man. The territory was swiftly divided up between French corporations, who were given the right effectively to enslave the people and force them to harvest its rubber.”
I sit here now thinking back to the words of Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, in his address to miners in Marikana shortly before they were massacred at the hands of South African police.
As he knelt on his knees begging them to disperse, with tears in his eyes, he pleaded: “They will kill us all here and hire others who they will pay salaries which do not mean anything in life. Black life is cheap in South Africa!”
Mathunjwa was correct that black life is cheap, but not only in South Africa. Black life is cheap all across the world.
That is why the massacre of Nigerian people does not move the world with the same intensity as the killings of white people in France does.
That is why, today, the world mourns the few dead in Paris, but sheds no tears for the multitudes who perish in the Central African Republic (CAR) where black people are massacred by the French army, as they have been for decades.
My condolences to the departed, who drew cartoons provoking Islamists, but never once caricatured their own leaders who have brought immeasurable suffering to the people of Africa.
My condolences to their wives, who too will know the depth of the nightmare that families in Birao go through, pain caused by the diabolical French military for whom a black body is a target for practising its shooting skills.
My condolences to their children, who will most likely have trust funds created for them, while the children of Birao walk barefoot through the debris strewn across the dusty streets of a place they once called home.
My condolences to the people of France, who say little about the terrorism to which their government subjects the developing world.
But more than that, my sincerest condolences to the sons and daughters of Birao, with whom I have more in common than with anyone who perished in that building in Paris a week ago.
My condolences to the people of the late prime minister of CAR, Barthélemy Boganda who, as a child, saw his mother being beaten to death by the guards in charge of gathering rubber for a French corporation.
A progressive African nationalist, a defender of democracy, a thought leader, a fighter, a true revolutionary, killed by the French who today claim monopoly over the correctness of the definition of “terrorism”. Seemingly, only white bodies can know terror.
But Africa knows terror too – at the hands of countries like France. And I am NOT Charlie, because black lives matter too!