A recent concern amongst some African intellectuals has manifested in the question; why is the West so enamored with Africa’s poverty porn? There has been that proclivity. That fetish for distressing stories from Africa, which explains the unbalanced perspective about Africa in the Western media. The African writer-in-residence at an American university who has written so compellingly about malnourished children in a war-torn African country with distended bellies, twig-like limbs, visible ribs and rust-colored thinned hair has unlocked a treasure chest of grants and fellowships. Winning Pulitzer Prizes, gaining international acclaim and raising funds from cleverly presenting Africa’s real and imagined misery has been the norm for some writers, photographers and NGOs from the continent, it is always about the commercialization of pain and grief. The symbolism of the Kevin Carter story impresses this fetish even further. The photographer had gone to South Sudan in March 1993, and had photographed a hunger-ravaged child in an open field, kneeling in the dirt, head bowed as if in prayer, while a vulture watched in the hope that she was soon going to be a corpse. That picture had captivated the world, not in the sense of what it represented in its stark presentation of humanity in its most hopeless of situations, but in a curious voyeuristic interest.
Africa must begin on a wrong foot in celebrated forgetfulness, when the stage was set for the Independence of many African countries, a shadowy and an even more sinister control of the continent’s soul was tied to the goods that the West had to offer. As a consequence, Africa must sell its soul, the leaders must court the goodwill of the West and African writers must write stories that the West wants to read. Stories that must show Africa’s misery.
There is a brand of Afrocentrism that is stuck in the racial insecurity that some African leaders and intellectuals feel when dealing with the West. That brand of Afrocentrism appears very resolute in its consideration of economic handouts even in the face of privation, but it fails when there is a personal benefit that is interfaced by condescending gestures, gestures made necessary by the leverage of power. Whoever controls the money controls the narrative. Suddenly tough-talking African government officials find themselves unable to negotiate IMF loans from a position of convenience, African countries find that they cannot give political and moral support for citizens who face racism in top international organizations. It is helplessness. The same helplessness Africa feels currently in the clutch of the Chinese state. For some of the African intellectuals, it has become a tradition to criticize the continent and institutions they helped undermine from the comfort of a Parisian café or in the coziness of a hotel room in Frankfurt. The continent has problems; yet it is the job of many African intellectuals and writers to exaggerate those problems and romanticize them. They know it is in high demand, such expectations of black misery.
The West must be purged of its sins; its conscience must be clear that Africa is settled when there are indications that no one cares. The Rwandan genocide was a case in point. Colonialism had aggravated ethnic mistrust between Hutus and Tutsis just as it had been in Nigeria, ethnic mistrust which had been a fallout of the colonial arrangement had fired up a civil war in Nigeria in 1967. Many African writers fed off the horror of both historical incidents. The United Nations Security Council that could have averted the Rwandan genocide, could only cite Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter when there was a legal challenge to the jurisdiction of the court it established for the prosecution of the Rwandan war criminals.
Africa has monsters. These were teething monsters fed with the lust for wealth and power. The spiritual gratification that must appease these African monsters now grown, must be exercised in the philanthropic and charity gestures that should show the world cares about Africa’s pain and the economic emasculation of society by Africa’s poor choices. What has not been noted is that in the beginning of things, Western colonialism of Africa started bitter wars of boundaries and political misgivings in territories marked in error and in the empowerment of power drunk bandits. Africa’s monsters have run amok in dangerous, economically reckless regimes, expressed in an obscenely corrupt elite class and in mock institutions without merit. The corruption in Africa which started on a large scale with resource exploitation had the collusion of multinationals and African leaders. One instance was the Shell and Eni corruption scandal that involved employees of both companies and a former Nigerian president. Reuters reported in 2018,that the money involved in the scandal was ‘more than the entire Nigerian healthcare budget for 2018.’
The African monsters of poverty, terrorism, famine and insecurity seem to grow in the light of their glorification, and the profiteers of misery feed off them. African leaders blame the consequences of their economic profligacy and lack of foresight on the West, but the continent is a legacy of a failed start. Could Africa have been better without a legacy of a failed start? In Nigeria, the weaponization of ethnicity for political advantage and to avoid political responsibilities started with a state with incongruent parts; a state which was the product of a colonial experiment.In South Africa, the psychology of the society is fractured in its engagement with the ghosts of Apartheid, and so violent crime became history’s gift to the people.
Africa’s monsters were created by colonialists, and they are nurtured by African leaders without vision; without a sense of nationalistic responsibility toward the states they govern. These African leaders in collusion with their marionette intellectuals have ruined the continent, and they keep ruining the continent in the dystopian narratives they help peddle to a willing Western audience who have closed their minds to the good that might come from the African continent. New narratives about inventors and young smart people trying to fill in the gaps in countries where the leadership has failed must be made known. Africa needs new set of leaders, and as much as it needs new narratives of victories out in the wild; Africa needs to know that it is not a hellish place, but a continent with peculiar challenges. Africa does not need thinkers who mock their own people in narratives that rob the black body of dignity, but thinkers who would explore the mystery of the continent in ways that can inspire the continent and bring the world to understand the mysteries and beauty of the continent.