Mid-morning yesterday (30th July 2015), I happened to come across a Facebook post (entirely by chance since I hardly spend any time on Facebook nowadays as opposed to Twitter). The post happened to be a video shared by the famous Old Man of the Clan Andrew Mwenda. Forgive me dear reader if you don’t know what the Old Man title means – I also don’t. The video was a short clip about Air Force One. Within the first few seconds of the clip, I was shaking my head at the inaccuracies and wondering why Andrew had chosen to share that particular clip with all the falsehoods therein – right at the start. Two glaring ones were that the plane was specially made for President Obama and that it’s top speed of 630km/h (really? Probably miles per hour) happens to be the average speed of a Formula 1 car. Suffice to say, I stopped right there. After all, with all the coverage of Obama’s visit to Kenya, don’t we all know everything about that particular plane? But it was disturbing to see Andrew, who revels in providing accurate facts and figures about whatever topic he talks about (accompanied of course by a few Socratic sayings), sharing something with such blatant lies. Far more disturbing however, was his accompanying text:
Imagine this was said of a presidential jet of an African president and it would all be: “look how extravagant he is”. For an American president we take all this is right and necessary, don’t we?
Now – I don’t deny that America is flagrantly extravagant and that there is so much to dislike about the ‘Land of the Free’. What I simply don’t understand is why Andrew feels the need to draw comparisons with Africa. The first thought that came to me was “wait a minute – who made that plane? If Boeing is busy selling jets hand over fist, year on year, earning billions of dollars, then just their taxes surely can cover the cost of one of their products (along with all the expensive work required to fortify it). And if that is not enough, then the government of the USA can always top up with taxes from manufacturers like General Dynamics. If you’re Ugandan, you should know these guys. They own a company called Gulfstream Aerospace. They made our President’s jet“. But what was really bugging me was the fact that Andrew seemed to be suggesting that we shouldn’t call out African heads of state for extravagance (and other ills) simply because the Americans tend to behave the same way. In short – two wrongs do make a right – an attitude that completely puzzles me. Anyway, I posted a short comment and turned to other things.
Fast forward some 10 or so hours and an Al-Jazeera article with an eye-catching headline (”Africa to Obama: Mind your own business“) pops up on my Twitter TL. I opened it and was intrigued to see that it had been penned by Andrew. And boy was he on fire! As usual for the web, the comments section was also soon on fire. And then Twitter exploded (sort of) as well. It is easy to see why. Andrew wields a pen the same way I used to wield a table-tennis bat. He does have a way with words and his combative no-holds barred approach endears him to readers (including myself). Liberally quoting facts, figures and ancient Greek philosophers while weaving paragraphs with logic (sometimes deceptive), he appeals to our emotions and biases especially when tackling topics to do with the ‘Evil West’.
In this case however, alas! Inasmuch as he said a lot, just like his Facebook post, he completely missed the point. There’s absolutely no point in telling Obama not to lecture African leaders when, truth be said, the continent’s populace is faced with immense challenges that need solutions TODAY. Worse still, most of these challenges are being worsened, actively or passively, by the political leadership of the various countries on the continent. The same people the POTUS was talking to. Make no mistake – no amount of grandstanding and fiery anti-West rhetoric will hide the fact that we have astonishingly high unemployment figures coupled with an ever-increasing proportion of young citizens, awful public healthcare and education, tragically comic corruption, shockingly lousy infrastructure, spineless authorities unable to enforce measures for the public good and extremely despicable politics. In my own country (Uganda), the daily news (print and broadcast media) is often so depressing that most of us have gotten immune to the kind of stuff that would make a grown up man cry. Whenever I travel upcountry, I am shocked by the absolute poverty on display everywhere. Don’t even get me started on issues like the frustrating inability of our police to solve crimes, annoyingly bureaucratic government procedures and so on. And so Andrew – we really shouldn’t be spending our energy and resources compiling figures that prove the US is less of a democracy than us (by the way – no they really aren’t). We should instead be figuring out how to get out of the deep pit we’re in. Who cares about what Obama has to say about us when we’re this deep in trouble? A drowning swimmer really shouldn’t care about the guy on the shore shouting insults at him. He needs to concentrate on saving himself after which he can indulge in counter insults. At least the US is trying to address some of the issues mentioned in the article. Just before he travelled to Kenya, Obama was outlining steps to try and reduce on his country’s incarceration rates. Who wants to bet against them having comprehensive reforms in that area long before we do anything meaningful to reduce the grand theft of taxpayers’ money here in Uganda?
Incidentally, it is hard to understand why Obama’s speech to the AU attracted Andrew’s ire. If anything, it was pretty mild and I’m sure you’ll find quite a number of Africans agreed with even the ‘lecture’ portions. Which is probably why quite a number of tweeps and commenters wondered why the title was “Africa to Obama…” and not “Mwenda to Obama…”. And upon examining Andrew’s piece, once can’t help but laugh at the hypocrisy and irony therein. He talks of “Flagrant hypocrisy”, “Dehumanising Africans” & “Lecturing Africans”. For each of these focus areas, one can find examples of the same being meted out on Africans by their leaders. What greater hypocrisy is there than castigating the West but flying there for medical treatment as soon as one catches a cold? Is there greater dehumanization than being treated like this? Or this? And is there any greater lecturer than Andrew himself who takes every opportunity to talk down what he calls the chattering classes and brainwashed elites (true to form, he mentioned them in the Al Jazeera op-ed)? Actually, upon reflection, I’d rather be insulted by a foreigner than my own countryman.
Finally, a word about America. As a scientist with extremely keen interest in all things to do with technology, I am acutely aware that there is something about America that somehow unlocks the creativity in people irrespective of their standing in society. Consider Tesla/Space X, WhatsApp, Sandisk, Yahoo and even Google. All these giant companies were either wholly or jointly founded by first or second generation immigrants. There is no way that governance doesn’t play a role in creating the environment that allows ideas to flourish and become billion dollar enterprises (over and over again). There’s no need to talk about the son of a Kenyan who became President. And so, whether we like it or not, we must accept that the US is better at this governance thing than us. Sometimes, you just have to accept that some people do certain things better than others. That is why you buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee instead of a Great Wall Haval H2.
And so, when people who are better at certain things than us talk, lets listen and learn from them. Getting worked up and going defensive (or going on a counter-offensive) is certainly not productive and when the Internet dust has settled, the same myriad issues we face will, quite assuredly, still be there. Probably worse.
For another opinion on Andrew’s Al Jazeera piece, please see Nada’s post here. I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiments.