Romanticising The Shithole Comment
Ever since the president of the United States made his infamous ‘shithole’ comment, we have had responses from many Africans and non-Africans alike. Rightly, Trump has been called to retract and apologise to Africans and other people of the so-called Third World countries. Africans have also been jostled to rethink their relationship with the rest of the world. More importantly, Africans are taking stock of where they fell short and device ways of making amends.
My interest in this comment has been drawn to persons who are trying to romanticise and pacify the conscience of a blatant racist. Some are arguing that the sorry state of Africa and our underachievement give credit to Trump’s comment. For these commentators, the shithole comment is a true reflection and diagnosis of the African predicament. Well, it is true that Africa is struggling. It is also true that corruption and poor state institutions have taken the limelight out of many African countries. It is also a truism that many Africans live in penury. But is the poor state of Africa enough to warrant our classification is shithole people?
Sometime in 2007, the eminent and accomplished American scientist, who was a Nobel Prize winner, James Watson, made a very disparaging comment about Africans. As a geneticist and molecular biologists, Watson argued that Africans have low intellectual capacity compared to their Western counterpart. The backlash that his comment attracted was enough for him to eat the humble pie. The idea that Africans are inferior to the so-called European is not the creation of the 20th Century. In centuries before the 21st Century, Ibn Khaldun, the eminent (Arab?) geographer, historian, and sociologist, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher and an important figure of German idealism, also passed very condescending comments about Africans. Following the outstanding theory of evolution, which Charles Darwin had popularised in the 19th Century, the study of Africans became the fixation of European explorers, scientists and historians to travel to Africa.
Anthropology, as an academic discipline, also emerged to study the Other (Africans and non-European people). Following the appropriation of Darwin’s evolution theory in the Humanities, a social ladder and hierarchy was created and, as it were, Africans were placed at the base of the social hierarchy. Since it is the logic of evolution that things follow a linear progression from simple to complex, savage to civilisation, Africans were projected as savages and used to explain the ‘complex’ civilisation of Europe. In the area of religion, African Traditional Religion was seen as the primitive form of Western Christianity. The evolution theory and the Hamitic hypothesis denied Africans any contribution to civilisation. Sometime in December 2017, I visited the science Museum at Oxford University, and I was struck by the fact that all the carvings of Africans in pre-modern times had their broad nose chopped off (my question was: was the chopping of the broad nose of Africans to hide Africa’s contribution to civilisation?) To sum it up, the evolution theory deepened the asymmetric relationship between Africans and non-Africans. Later, thinkers like John Stuart Mill and John Locke provided the intellectual and theoretical sophistication for the plunging of non-European cultures. Aside these persons, David Ricardo, who championed comparative advantage as the steam of political economy, did so with the intension of creating space for Europeans to venture into the unknown world and, of course, to exploit.
The thinkers mentioned above did not only lay down the philosophical sophistication and rationalisation for the pillaging of non-Europeans, it set the pace for racism. Racism is not scientific. It is a social construct. It is created to rationalise and justify why another group of human beings could be objectified to make those objectified vulnerable and susceptible to wanton exploitation. The world runs on competition because of the assumption that resources are limited in supply. The survival of the fittest operates to pacify the conscience of those who are adept at pillaging others. The idea of selfish gene explains the penchant and predilection on the part of all of us to want to take advantage of the Other. In friendship, in marriage, in religion, and in politics, we all seek to project our selfish interest over and above others. It is wired in our DNA. The selfish gene in geopolitics is expressed as follows: ‘In geopolitics, nations have neither permanent allies nor permanent foes, they have permanent interest.”
Two years ago, I read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s ‘Devil on the Cross,’ and I appreciated how the great African novelist masterfully demonstrated how the selfish gene operates in global political economy. In 2010, as part of my assignment at the Institute of African Studies, where I studied for my Master of Philosophy, I reviewed Kwame Nkrumah’s ‘Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism,’ and what became obvious to me was the complexity of the world’s political economy, and how it is sustained through neocolonial logic. At some point, I felt Nkrumah, like Walter Rodney, idealised the West, in terms of the West plunging Africans into the abyss of underdevelopment, but reading Nkrumah and Walter Rodney shaped my understanding of how global politics works, and the complexity of the relationship between Africans and the rest of the world.
I have already said that racism is not scientific, but rather social construct. As a social construct, it is deliberately created to sustain unequal relationship among human beings. The virulence of racism is best captured in the Ghanaian expression, ‘Everyone for himself, God for us all.’ Under racism, we operate the worldview of Cain, ‘I am not my brother’s keeper.’ Perhaps, the challenge with Africans is that we have not developed a very sophisticated way of exploiting the Other. We have been timid and ineptitude at engaging in gargantuan international stealing. Our national thieves steal from their own and that explains why many Ghanaians and other Africans have bought into the infamous shithole comment. The African selfish gene is directed against his fellow African. Our hospitality is directed at the non-African. So, in Africa, we have the reverse, ‘like the unlike’ as opposed to the European logic, ‘dislike the unlike.’ In the 20th Century, the great Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. Du Bois, said the greatest challenge of the 20th Century was the colour line. Thus as opposed to Marx’s class struggle, which explains the dialectic nature of history, Du Bois saw racism as the greatest challenge of the world. Sadly, it appears that racism is the challenge of all time!
Many commentators have talked about the ineptitude and corruption of African leadership to give credibility to the infamous shithole comment. I agree to some extent with most of these commentators, including my own ‘grandpa’ and friend, Prof. nana essilfie-conduah, who sent me a comment to that effect. My point of divergence with such analyses is that they are deeply apolitical and ahistorical and unrealistic. It is true that most African leaders are corrupt, but it is also true that Western leaders are corrupt. In fact, in a world that is placed on the wheels of survival of the fittest, it is corruption that sustains the steam. The only difference is that the African corrupt leader steals from Africa and invests in the West. This is contrary to the Western leader who steals from Africa and invests in the West. It is also true that African continent is riddled with conflict. But it is also true that the West were involved in killing themselves until the Treaty of Westphalia, which was accepted because it provided a space in Africa where they could redirect their aggression. In the West, the production of missiles is tested in non-Western countries. Iraq and Afghanistan are examples. Perhaps, the mistake of Africans is that we direct our aggression against ourselves.
While Africans are largely responsible for their predicament, it will be a gross oversight to diagnose the African predicament only as an African affair. Basic reading of world history, political economy, and international relations will help one to sway from a simplistic, ahistorical and apolitical analysis of the African predicament. The scheme of geopolitics, as I have stated above, is such that it is geared towards the exploitation of the Other. The woes of Africa are the gain of the rest of the world. Conflicts in Africa bring peace to the rest of the world. Corruption in Africa brings economic buoyance to the rest of the world. Religious superstition of Africans gives credibility to Western Christianity. Racism against Africans gives the White pride in himself. African’s downfall is the rise of the rest of the world. Following these permutations, which space forbids me to elaborate, it is clear that geopolitics thrives on the weakness of the Other. In studying international relations and global politics, one would not fail to realise that corruption and conflicts in Africa would not suffice without the support and connivance of the global West.
The shithole comment of the racist is part of the grand plan to dampen Africans and to give hope to the world of racism. The shithole comment contributes to making Africans the easy target and prey for the bloody thirsty vampire of the West. But just like Esau, whose blessing was stolen by the pre-modern capitalist Jacob, Africa has hope. I can imagine Isaac, the patriarch, telling Africans, ‘But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck” (Genesis 27:40b). Esau was inspired; he worked hard, and successfully threw off the yoke of Jacob. By the time Jacob met Esau later after parting company, the latter was overly rich and had assumed control of his destiny. Africa, God will take care of us. Our destiny will be turned around. Our shame and reproach will be taken away. God is our portion. As individuals, we need to do our part to free ourselves from things that keep us in the wheels of progressive retrogression. The leadership which we all believe is a problem will do very little to bring change to Africa, after all they are the beneficiaries of the corrupt bureaucracy in the system. Throughout the world, revolutionary change has come from men and women who acted as men and women of thought and thought as men and women of action! Arise, the youth of Africa!
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra