Of what value is accepting to be insulted?

Two weeks ago, this column called out the American President Donald Trump on the despicable comments he allegedly made about Africa.

Sections of The Observer readers were not impressed. I could understand why. But many of them missed the point, with some taking it a notch higher with personal attacks and effortless yet needless ad hominem charges.

There is nothing as priceless to any group of people, be it a race, nation or an ethnicity, as the pride they have in their heritage and history, their cultural values and social mores.

To be proud of one’s society, culture, and to appreciate the many endowments in one’s surrounding is by no means to be oblivious of undesirable conditions and intractable problems.

To the contrary, in fact the key to overcoming adverse conditions and breaking through the shackles of poverty and deprivation is self-belief and pride, ownership of problems and innovating solutions.

To lie down and allow others define who you are as a people and what you need is not only untenable in the short run, it also breeds deeper long-term problems. Africa has been at this for long.

It is most regrettable that with our clearly charted checkered history, many Africans still look at outsiders, especially the West, as our saviors who should have the right to insult us and treat us with unfettered paternalism. It has been more than 200 years of trying to save Africa, going back to evangelism contemporaneous with the horrors of slave trade.

I do not know of any society that has been transformed by the fiat of outside saviors. Development, or whatever one might want to call it, is fundamentally the function of internal social and political dynamics.

In fact, it’s arguable that left to their own devices, African peoples would have charted their own development trajectories, for bad or worse. No one knows!

The mindset that applauds outside insults and sees credence in cheap caricatures of Africa fails to appreciate some important issues. I will comment on only a few here.

First, the tendency to paint a one-sided negative picture of Africa derives from seeing Africa through the lens of the West.

Somehow, we are supposed to reach broad-brush and dismissive conclusions of Africa because it doesn’t measure up to the standards of Western modernity. And many of us do this often lacking a full grasp of the myriad problems other societies, whether in the West or elsewhere, face and grapple with interminably.

The practice of constructing other societies and positing them in negative terms is precisely the art of seeing strict opposites in what outsiders see compared to their own ways and standards. This, unfortunately, draws in sections of the African intelligentsia and government officials who see outside caricatures of Africa as accurate descriptions.

But Africa can never be like the West, whether we are talking about systems of public management of problems or social institutions that govern social relations.

I am not suggesting that African countries have to operate under their own sub-optimal standards or that we shouldn’t subject ourselves to the highest, rigorous criteria of duty, responsibility, and probity. Of course we have to.

But we cannot do so using templates from elsewhere, templates and standards adjudged as being superior and modern.

The Chinese have their own templates, so do Indians and Koreans. Africa has to imagine its own ways of solving problems, and this cannot happen by welcoming outside ridicule. It just won’t work.

The second issue that many of us fail to appreciate is the need to draw a distinction between the everyday struggles of ordinary people and the shenanigans of those in power. There is more to poor African societies than the misdeeds of rulers and the dysfunctions of governments.

I was born to parents of very humble means. My father received very limited formal schooling. But he had the tenacity for hard work and the determination to make a difference in very modest ways without throwing his pride to the wind because of his limited material capabilities. There are millions of Africans like my father.

So, the reckless and rather misguided insults thrown at African peoples and societies fail to appreciate the heroic struggles of millions out there who start from scratch and make huge differences in communities.

Many among Mr Museveni’s critics must have found themselves on rather unfamiliar terrain: the man agrees with them that Africa deserves to be insulted! Strange!

But here is the grandstander and the chief of deception who has spent a great part of his political and military life haranguing the West for supposed crimes against Africa.

The subtext here is that joining the chorus of our ostensibly deserved insult helps Mr Museveni hide his own culpability as easily the leading agent of outside (mostly Western) interests in Africa.


The author is  an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd