Skip to main content
September 23, 2018

What It Means To Finally Be African

African sculptures displayed at a shop in Nairobi. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
African sculptures displayed at a shop in Nairobi. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

When prolific columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country”, he meant that the government’s reaction to the trials had aligned the country more closely with policies in much of the rest of the continent. I think there is another, perhaps more profound, sense in which Kenyans have become Africans.

I have always been uncomfortable with the notion of 'Africa'. It has not been apparent to me what, apart from a surfeit of pigmentation, I am supposed to possess in common with the other billion or so residents of the second-largest continent. And far from simply describing people from a place, the term has come to imply a historical, metaphysical and supra-cultural bond, loaded with all sorts of stereotype.

Sadly, many of my fellow Africans have been content to reflect and enact the tropes of Africanness. A favourite one is that of the 'African Big Man', the kleptocratic, long-living and self-serving, genocidal tyrant who nonetheless commands the unquestioning loyalty of his tribal folk whose only goal in life is the extermination of their ethnic rivals.

The African Union has become an unfailing mirror of these reflections. At its summits, the continent’s Big Men (and few Big Women), regularly get together, it seems, to commit ever more outrages on common sensibilities. At Kenya’s instigation, last year’s pow-wow in June in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, voted to expand the jurisdiction of the yet-to-be-established African Court of Justice and Human Rights to cover international crimes, with the caveat that the Big Men as well as their senior government friends would be immune from prosecution while they remain in office. The move was meant to deliver President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto from the clutches of the ICC. And it was welcomed by their fellow Big Men who are wont to remain in office for rather longer than their subjects can reasonably expect or tolerate.

Any idea of accountability in this life is an anathema. Kenya provides an excellent example where the state has continually frustrated any attempt to punish either current or former government officials or their misdeeds. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which named almost every star in the country’s political firmament, seems to have met its end in the National Assembly where it went to be “improved” by the very people it mentioned adversely.

Kenya’s two fabulously wealthy still-breathing ex-presidents, Mwai Kiabaki and Daniel arap Moi continue to live lavishly on the public purse despite widespread reporting, countless commissions of inquiry as well as interminable police investigations concluding that their tenures were characterised by officially sanctioned murder and theft. None of their senior officials have been pursued either. On the contrary, the current administration has simply picked up where they left off. In fact, during the most recent AU summit, the Kenya government maintained its single-minded determination to ensure that African potentates never again have to endure the prospect of facing justice.

And a new crop of leaders is learning just how useful this “Big Man” syndrome can be. Recently, two first-time legislators were caught on camera at a weighbridge trying to throw their weight around and intimidate police. The problem? A truck belonging to one of them had been impounded for not having the necessary paperwork. In less than two years, they have learnt, that in the Big Man tradition, the rules don’t apply to them.

Of course impunity has been a large part of Kenya’s story. But with the exertions at the AU, we appear to have thrown our hat in with that community of nations that defines itself solely in terms of its powerlessness. A site of perpetual victimhood, of constant and exhausting struggle against imperialism and colonisation. A place of contradiction where the foreign-funded AU can, without the slightest appreciation of the irony, declare that the equally foreign-funded ICC, where its members constitute the largest block, with an African prosecutor and judges, is a tool of imperialists.

By becoming Africans, we have accepted to be faceless, nameless victims. To have a cheap and expendable existence. To live at and for the pleasure of Big Men. To repudiate “foreign” notions of accountability. We have accepted that the continent should first deliver for the powerful, before it delivers for the multitude. If that sounds familiar, it is because it should be. To become an African is to go back to the roots of Africanness. To don the costume of moral and material backwardness spun for the continent by the Big Men from other continents determined to subjugate it and who have since been replaced by our home grown varieties. It is, in short, to accept our place at the bottom of the human pile.

Poll of the day