Trump insulting us. Europe sending us away. Israel chasing us out. The Arabs enslaving us. Shame, you black African leaders for making us a laughing stock. Rich natural resources, corruptly rich leaders, poor masses. We may not be a shithole but a hellhole we certainly live in.
- Fofana @umarufofana, January 13, 2017 tweet
There is no sugar-coating it, President Donald Trump’s contemptuous “shithole” comments about Haiti and Black African nations were reprehensible and racist. His outburst was yet another reminder that the occupant of the White House is poorly read, ignorant of historical context and mighty proud of it. These are embarrassing times for America. As an American and a Nigerian, my despair rose several octaves in the knowledge that we have a president who through his actions and utterances truly believes that people like me are inferior to his race. Since coming to this country from Nigeria in 1982 to attend graduate school at OLEMISS, Mississippi. the subject of racism has always been a constant companion in my personal and professional life, but in retrospect, the racist indignities I have suffered in almost four decades of living in America have paled in comparison to the new bold ways with which people who look like me are accosted with physical and psychological violence under the leadership of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump may have gone too far this time. But has he?
Let’s be clear: The notion that immigrants from Africa and Haiti are the dregs of the offering before America is not supported by the data and the facts. America is a great place precisely because we are here. America’s schools are populated by African immigrants with a deserved reputation for academic achievement and a crushing work ethic – from kindergarten to the highest rung of tertiary education. There is the joke that if they were all to leave, America’s test scores would drop precipitously. We are not leaving, it is just a joke, we are here to stay. We are America’s doctors, engineers, scientists, educators and computer programmers. As we speak the gentrification of America’s business landscape continues with immigrants changing the narrative from blue suits and corporations to immigrant-run small businesses that fuel the tax base with muscle and vigor. By the way, let me remind Mr. Trump that Mr. Barack Hussein Obama, his predecessor, one of the most successful American presidents in modern times, is the offspring of a Kenyan father. This is not just about academic excellence being the yardstick for measuring the worth of immigrants of color. In America, educational institutions are retooling their curriculum to emphasize a college and career focus, partly inspired by what immigrants do as artisans, plumbers, handymen, cleaners, cabdrivers, hairdressers and small businesses. In 21st century America, business is no longer clothed just in blue suits, we turn your lights on in the morning and turn them off at night and pay a lot of taxes in the process. We deserve a lot of respect from you, Mr. President.
Mr. Trump’s foreign policy towards Africa is largely transactional and fueled by skepticism. Our people in Nigeria say it is what is in your mind when you are sober that comes out when you are drunk. Sadly, Mr. Trump is the inebriated voice of many in America who see Africa as a deficit, a continent of disease and near savages with nothing to offer the world. Indeed, it is the case that Mr. Trump’s “shithole” outburst is a virulently malignant form of the benign neglect that Africa has suffered and continues to suffer in conventional narratives in the West and in foreign policy. American foreign policy in the past decade and a half has been inchoate at best, inarticulate. Since President George W. Bush’s investment in confronting the AIDS crisis in Africa, America’s body language has given the impression that Africa is a lost cause to be humored and neglected by the rest of the world. President Barrack Hussein Obama’s policy Africa was embarrassingly inchoate, it was as if Africa was an afterthought. America has been happy to absorb those who can afford to leave Africa’s shores, mostly the cognitive elite, who have proven more than capable of making America a better place than they met it, through hard work. You will find African scientists for instance in the top echelons of America’s scientific community, making substantive contributions to innovative research, you will find her writers competing for and winning literature’s top prizes and engaging America in debates on social issues of the day (race, feminism, gender issues, etc.), for fame and for fortune.
With respect to Africa’s challenges, though, what is the truth? The voices of Africa that the world sees are decidedly middle class (well-fed African writers and thinkers funded by the deep pockets of the West’s progressive liberal left) and although they purport to represent Africa, they mostly speak from a perspective that does not necessarily represent the reality on the ground in Africa. There is the Diaspora narrative and there is the home reality. The tensions between these two perspectives have played out on social media with young Africans at home in Africa largely acknowledging that Trump is speaking the truth while Diaspora voices have been busily sharing photos of high rises in Africa and their many degrees as proof that Trump is being racist. Trump may have inadvertently escalated a seething class war among Africans.
The open secret though is that even as Africans excel abroad, their home countries are honestly troubled. Using Nigeria as an example, a Marshall Plan or a hard reset is urgently needed to correct course and set many of these nations on the right path that will earn them the respect that their own citizens have garnered for themselves abroad, as individuals, never mind Trump. This reality is easily measured from the bipolar reaction that greeted Trump’s comments on social media, a loud rancorous space that is fast replacing orthodox African literature as the place to go to gauge the feelings of the true voices on the ground in Africa. While an overwhelming majority in the Diaspora (mostly middle-class and well-off) condemned Trump’s comment as racist, many young Africans at home shrugged it off as merely the truth of their existence. Dispossessed and angry African youths are clapping back at their oppressors – on social media. Between Africa’s political and intellectual elite and Donald Trump, the long-suffering masses carry truth-placards trumpeting their reality. Indeed, African leaders who dared to write on social media to complain about Trump’s conduct were ridiculed as hypocrites, effete and corrupt leaders who exposed Africa to Trump’s racism. The African Union’s statement demanding an apology from Trump was roundly ridiculed on Twitter. Many Western observers, especially those on the political left who wrote against Trump were surprised by the push-back on Twitter by enraged African youths who felt it was hard time someone told the world the truth about Africa.
Nigeria is a perfect example of the kind of horrid governance that many in the West are too polite to complain about in the presence of civilized company. Corruption is rife despite the high hopes that the ascension of Mr. Muhammadu Buhari would improve the situation, and extra-judicial killings are common place, with no one held accountable. In 2015, 347 Nigerian Shiites were slaughtered (these are official estimates, it is said that the death toll was closer to 1,000) for stopping the convoy of the country’s chief of army staff. Recently, almost 80 Nigerians were killed by marauding Fulani herdsmen, many of them children, their throats slit. Many Nigerian youths are openly braving roiling seas, mean mountains, slavery and the possibility of death to escape Nigeria’s economic hell and make it to Europe. Many institutions of governance remain moribund, its educational system is in shambles and law and order are out of reach for the common man. When all these are combined with a high rate of unemployment, there is trouble brewing, as manifested in the angry expressions of support on Twitter for Trump’s statements. The world should pay attention.
In a January 13, 2018 Facebook posting, the writer Karen Attiah exhorted people to invest in a historical context in creating a counter narrative to Trump’s bigotry, saying: “I think this is an opportunity to read, study and share the histories of our countries. To delve into the stories written, movies made, and art created by people from the called global south. To read about the pre-colonial empires from India to Persia to Ghana. Read Frantz Fanon. Learn about Patrice Lumumba. Meditate on Audre Lorde. Kwame Nkrumah. Watch Ousmane Sembene.” It is a thoughtful, dignified and appropriate approach to the violence unleashed on an entire continent and Haiti by Mr. Trump. In Trump’s behavior, I also do see an opportunity beyond the rage, to reflect on roles and responsibilities and structural ways to help a continent in crisis. Many times, liberal orthodoxy is in the way of honestly addressing Africa’s challenges. Too often, the West, especially Western liberals have tended to look away from the misdeeds of African rulers and their intellectuals (the new enablers of corrupt politicians) and persist in pointing only to the ravages of colonialism and racism for what ails Africa. As a related aside, the purveyors of what the Western world calls “African literature” are becoming part of the problem that is Africa, proving to be a powerful conservative bloc that sleeps with corrupt and murderous politicians in dark bloody places, and come dawn write haunting songs of sorrow for consumption by a gullible West. Even at their most benign, they will not publicly address the huge dysfunctions in the societies they fled from (it ruins their brand) but they will write dark novels like Mujila Fiston Mwanza’s Tram 83, which reads like a drunken cross between the racist or condescending thoughts of VS Naipaul and Joseph Conrad. Using Nigeria as a sordid example, many African writers have become just as corrupt as the politicians they write about in their beautiful books.
There is that, but when you look at the Congo left behind after Mobutu Sese Seko’s misrule, when you look at the situation in today’s Nigeria, where it is estimated that of approximately 600 billion dollars earned in crude oil revenue since independence, 400 billion dollars have been looted outright, it becomes increasingly difficult and ridiculous to excuse Africans from complicity in the mess that is today’s Africa. The poor in South Africa continue to toil under conditions that are quite frankly comparable to what obtained in apartheid South Africa, they can barely tell the difference under black rule. In a perverse sense, this is a great opportunity for Africa’s political and intellectual leaders to reject Trump’s racist narrative through honest visionary hard work of nation building. For this is not who we are. We are better than what Mr. Trump sees, no thanks to our corrupt rulers and their intellectual enablers. Many of the rulers that are called “statesmen” are executioners of the dreams of young Africans. Between Donald Trump’s Africa and our Africa, the truth seethes. The illegal routes to Europe and the rest of the West are littered with the dead bodies of young Africans who preferred certain death to life without purpose and hope back home. How can the West help African nations? For one thing, they should help by staring at these rulers in the face and helping Africans to hold them accountable. As Sisonge Msimangu points out, it is not enough to trot out images of high rises in Africa and cute pictures of over-achieving Africans in the Diaspora to counter Mr. Trump’s narrative. Mr. Trump’s racist rants provide an opportunity for Western liberals and indeed all thought leaders to deploy a new mindset that forces African leaders and intellectuals to accept some responsibility for their horrid actions in Africa. Trump is a racist but, sadly, there is some truth to his bluster.