Why Obama is Right to Lambast Africa

January 13, 2024
10 mins read

By Wole Soyinka
Monday, July 20,  2009,The saddest song to have come out of Africa in recent times was actually composed as a song of celebration, written to mark the ascendancy of an African-American to the presidency of the United States of America. It was a musical tribute by a Kenyan, and the lyrics say simply: it is easier for a Luo to be President of the United States than to become the President of Uganda.The Luo are, of course, one of Kenya’s minority nationalities. Obama’s triumph took place, it will be recalled, after one of the most devastating riots ever witnessed in Kenya. It lasted weeks, left entire townships wiped off the face of Nairobi and environs, claimed hundreds of lives, many of them through singularly bestial forms of butchery.
The panga reigned supreme. Those days were reminiscent – minus the scale – of the Rwandan massacres. Among the walking survivors are men who are traumatized for life, having been subjected to forced sexual mutilation. The cause? Denial of a people’s right to choose their own leader through the ballot box – that endemic curse of the modern African state. Kenya nonetheless made a claim on Obama as the logical spot for his first presidential touch-down on Black African soil. It should have been an occasion to be celebrated in festive accents as the return of the native son. If sentiment indeed weighed more on the scale of entitlements than humanity itself, the Kenyan claim would be universally unassailable. The other, and indeed more presumptuous claimant to Barrack Obama’s recognition on his first presidential visit to the continent is of course, mine, Nigeria.
The Nigerian nation has not witnessed an uprising on allied scale to Kenya’s in the last few decades, not since in the mid-1960s when a similar, but far less wholesale, indiscriminate campaign of arson and killings took place in a region that an incoming Head of State came to designate ‘the Wild, Wild West’. There was also the more recent spate of butchery in a northern state or two, but neither came close to matching the sheer brutality of the Kenyan scenario. Nigeria cannot be ranked, needless to say, any higher on the democratic scale than Kenya, even though electoral robbery did not result in such mayhem, any more than it has led to a protracted Civil War that devastated the Ivory Coast in recent times.
Nonetheless it is important to remind ourselves that the Biafran war of Secession that began in 1966 did not lack for flammable tributaries from accumulated electoral injustices. Memories of that war, and the fear of an even more nation destabilizing repeat have contributed to the seeming accomodativeness of the Nigerian people towards a now deeply entrenched project of national disenfranchisement. Only the complacent however dare eliminate possibilities of an eventual explosion from the suppressed rage that stems from civic dispossession, and the air of impunity that surrounds the incorrigible perpetrators.
Indeed, this inevitability is seen by many – both insiders and outside observers – as only a matter of time. Since the debilitation of civil society through decades of military rule, Nigerians freely use the expression ‘internal colonialism’ as the readiest expression of the continuing suppression of popular will, an orchestrated democratic denial that operates in relay, and is sustained by a select hegemony resolved to remain in perpetual control of the nation. Offering nothing in return, this unproductive cabal has become increasingly arrogant and contemptuous in its dismissal of even a pragmatic semblance of a gesture towards fair dealing that sometimes salves the pride and dignity of a people.This, then, is the background from which one listens to, or reads of, plaints of resentment and indignation from government cheer-leaders at Obama’s symbolic boycott of the ‘Giant of Africa’. They are lost to the irony of laying claim to recognition by a product of electoral equity, an African-American who came to power in a once openly racist nation through the ballot box. Such complainants are not stupid however, they are merely actors in a script of diabolical cynicism.
How else it is possible for such politicians to conceive that a leader like Barack Obama, who has ascended to power through a respect for the manifested will of a people, would actually lend his presence to dignify any state that demonstrably rejects, indeed actively ridicules, the very means that brought him, Barrack Obama, to power? Blood, they say, is thicker than water. Obama’s gesture is intended to inform nations like Kenya and Nigeria that neither blood nor oil courses thicker than equity.How sad it makes one – no, not the studied excision by Obama of those two nations from his itinerary – but the lack of objective self-assessment within the rulership circles of such ‘aggrieved’ nations! It evokes pity for the continent as a whole, that such political leadership exists today which, sooner than retire into their gilded holes to reflect, have actually gone to battle on behalf over some mystic entitlement, since such is not sustained by any credentials in democratic and responsible governance. Of the two, the case of our own nation, Nigeria, is obviously the more pathetic. Primary among the qualities that earned Barrack Obama the prized crown of the American presidency was the public recognition of his intelligent even-handedness, the recognition of a thinking, knowledgeable being, analytic by training and temperament. Anyone who has read his memoirs – Dreams from my Father – or has somehow come into knowledge of his trajectory through childhood, his intellectual and political formation, all brought in evidence throughout a grueling political campaign, would understand immediately that Obama would sooner spend Thanksgiving Day with the genocidal government of Omar Bashir, or the throwback mullahs of Iran, than choose either Uganda or Nigeria for a first visit that not only pursues political and economic goals, but is profoundly symbolic.The very astuteness of Barrack Obama, one that dictated the strategy of a political campaign that catapulted him to victory from the underdog position of a rank outsider, should have informed the ‘patriotic’ cheerleaders of African misgovernance that they can expect no preferential consideration from the 44th president of the American nation. This, just to refresh memories, was a candidate who ensured from the beginning that he would break with corporate patronage and thus, indebtedness, and rely largely on the mass contribution of cents and pennies to ensure a mandate of maximum independence.
By contrast, behold the permanent indentureship of the Nigerian power base, not merely to the moneyed oligarchy, but to the most corrupt, indeed criminal elements within that disreputable oligarchy. Nigeria is a nation that repeatedly blows its chances to stand tall, to present to the world a massively endowed colossus, bestriding the continent with the over-abundant productive genius of its people and the generosity of nature resources.What, instead, has been the actuality? A plague of incontinent rulers in relay, some in military uniform, others in civilian clothing, but all clones of one another, united in a commitment to unabashed profligacy, mutually assisted corruption and, to add insult to injury, an obsessive hankering for self-perpetuation, necessitating the cultivation of outright disdain for the elementary right of their citizens to a voice in leadership choice. Is this truly a nation that deserves the recognition, much less a gesture of respect, from any democratically elected leadership of the world, and one especially of such unprecedented political significance for the African continent itself? A decade ago, needless to say, Ghana would also have been a non-contender. But the continent has witnessed, and remains envious of, the transformation that has taken place in Ghana, an internal process of self-recovery that nearly matches that of the United States in hertransition from George Bush to Barrack Obama.
Among the attributes of intelligence is the ability to create, or recognize the opportunity for self-renewal. Nigerians, at home or residing in the United States during the past decade, have not been slow to observe that the eight previous years in United States governance were uncannily paralleled within Nigeria – eight years of waste, deception, divisiveness and corruption, of advancing bankruptcy, eight years of arrogant subversion of democratic norms….all spearheaded by a man from whom the nation, the continent and the world expected so much, eight years that sent the nation spiraling into a reverse momentum that has earned it the humiliating designation of a ‘failed state’. Should an incoming product of the repudiation of such a shared past compromise his mandate by a significant visit to the other half, while that half remains fixated and unrepentant in its perpetuation of that disreputable past?Of course if it were possible for Barrack Obama to visit Nigerians – the people that is – to express his condolences for such an unmerited state of affairs, parley with non-governmental organizations, exchange views with political alternatives, interact with the labour unions, hold talks with the insurgents of the oil-producing Delta region and offer direct succour to the neglected people of a benighted nation, I have no doubt whatsoever that Nigeria would indeed be his first choice.
However, such a precedent being impossible – at least in these times – the only programme that remained would have been, at best, a tokenist interaction with the other Nigeria, duly vetted. The rest would be to wine and dine, sign some effete agreements and exchange presents with the current symbol of national decay and leadership alienation, a nation whose claim to the status of a giant is upheld only by the gigantesque dimensions of its retrogression since independence, its governance ineptness and the colossal scale of its corruption. Obama knows that every other hand he would shake at a state reception is steeped in sheer putrefaction from the sump of robbery, perhaps every third elbow deep in the blood of perceived political threats – across all levels of contestation. Obama’s pronouncements indicate quite clearly that he would be the first to admit that his own nation is past master of corruption both in its conduct at home and abroad, but he can boast that the Enrons, the Andersons, and the Madoffs are mere hostages of time, that sooner or later, they end up behind bars. Obama knows that the contrary is the case with Nigeria, that the Madoff-Enron breed will be presented as the leading citizens of the Nigerian nation, feted countrywide, that after their openly inglorious careers in and out of office, thanksgiving services are held for them in church and mosque, that it is such should-be social pariahs that will be lined up for formal handshakes and photo-ops with him, photos that they will proudly bequeath to their children and grandchildren, hang on their gilded walls and pillars of criminal impunity to the eternal glorification of decadence. He has chosen wisely to go the modest, unassuming flag-bearer of the redemptive theology of Change.The homecoming son knows that the Delta, Nigeria’s sole economic provider, for which all prior and potential modes of productivity have been jettisoned, is up in flames. I have wondered sometimes, by the way, whether it is a coincidence that one of the handful of officers of which the Nigerian army can be truly proud, now a retired Colonel, has taken to ostrich farming not far from Abuja, the seat of government. It cannot be by accident. Sooner or later, I think he reasons, the occupants of Aso Rock, and the profligate representatives’ of the Nigerian people in the legislative houses will recognize the message of the ostrich, its fabled habit of burying its head in the sand of unconcern while the wind ruffles and exposes its behind.
These days, it is no longer the wind, it is the fire, and only the ostrich does not yet recognize that its rear feathers are aflame. That is the lesson of the Delta uprising. Sometimes it is necessary to spell things out for the megaphones of, and pretenders to the mantle of leadership: what the Deltan insurgents are saying to the uncaring state is that the present conflict goes beyond the decades-old contemptuous neglect of the goose that lays the golden egg. They are annunciating, in clear terms, that a system that siphons off an obscene percentage of the national revenue to sustain the rites, rituals and member life-styles of legislative houses, is ultimately unsustainable. They are serving notice – and their publicised manifestoes add up to no less – that the Nigerian state is itself untenable as presently constituted and governed, and must be taken apart, then re-assembled, this time in a manner that reflects the true aspirations and entitlements of the components and providers of that artificial entity.
They are pointing out a noticeable constant: that time and time again, even when an incoming national leader has earlier promised no less than a drastic overhaul, no sooner does he settle into that power base than he proceeds to shore up and consolidate a cracked and collapsing edifice. This he does – the pattern has become predictable and boring – by a modest re-distribution among a restricted, conniving elite, but most often by an unscrupulous conversion of state power, brutal repression, political assassinations and divisive strategies.
This was what the nation suffered – yet again – during the eight years of misrule of the last incumbent, a supposedly Born-Again democrat and assiduous bible-thumper. This, in sum, is the extraction, implicit or overt in pronouncements, by the Deltan insurgents.I shall waste no more time on the deviants of the movement, the opportunists and mercenaries, the kidnappers for ransom, rapists, extortionists and psychopaths whose operations have contributed to obscuring the ideological core of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a confusion assiduously nurtured by the corrupt leadership of the nation. The outside world knows its own history, and should be the last to point fingers at the presence of extortionists and psychopaths in any movement, no matter how lofty its ideals.
It is for us, within the Nigerian nation, to sort out those criminals and bring them to justice, a task that is however complicated by the presence of far more seasoned, far more deeply entrenched criminals, more impudent extortionists, assassins, the barefaced, wholesale expropriators of a nation’s resources in positions of power, revelling in the now untamable rampage of impunity.
Now, this is the mafiadom whose triumphalist existence a democratically elected outsider, torch-bearer of a phenomenal precedent, is expected to legitimize by an inaugural visitation! The super-patriots and national chauvinists must however be encouraged to continue to wallow, infuriated, in the sludge of national amour-propre, bawds to the careerists of open prostitution. We can only remind them that, outside their constricted purlieu, there are other national leaders who are not quite as promiscuous as they are, or are accustomed to encountering.
They should content themselves with the representative emotion of the present selected national leader who, unbelieving that he actually sat in the presence of a former United States president, could not contain himself as he gushed: This is the happiest moment of my life. That presidential host was George Bush II.
By contrast, this is indeed one of those instances when absence makes the heart grow fonder. For the average Nigerian, this month of July 2009, when another president did NOT step foot on Nigerian soil, is a month to treasure. The sentiment, after all, is only borrowed from that of the enraptured home president, for what such a Nigerian is saying, equally enraptured is also: this is the happiest moment of my life.
Wole Soyinka is an academic and civil rights activist. He is also a Nobel laureate in literature.

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