William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Before blaming the West, let’s shake off our African passivity

So are African lives less important to the international community than Western lives? Following the worldwide attention given to the Paris killings by Islamic militants, it’s a question being widely asked and generally answered in the affirmative.

The refrain is that while fewer than two dozen French were killed, during that same week the Islamic terror group Boko Haram slayed 2 000 Nigerians, an event that occurred against a backdrop of distinct international indifference. But it’s not that simple. Although an insidious Western imperialism remains widespread, there is in this case no easy arithmetic proof.

Something remarkable happened last weekend in France. In excess of three million French people buttoned down fears for their personal safety and took to the streets. It was the biggest march since that celebrating their 1945 liberation from Nazi occupation.

Nominally, they were marching in solidarity with a dozen satirists and the police officers trying to protect them, and four shoppers in a Jewish supermarket – all murdered by Islamic militants. The march, however, was far more than a commemoration or show of defiance.

After all, France is the same as any established democracy, in that political ennui is pervasive. French politicians are as craven, uninspiring, petty and self-serving as those that one finds anywhere else. The resulting voter disillusionment and distaste have translated, as elsewhere in the European Union, into steadily dropping election turnouts – from 82% in 1946 to 55% in 2012.

Now suddenly, it seems from the posters, the chants, songs and interviews, that the marchers once more found inspiration and solace in the values of the famous revolution that more than two centuries ago brought them democracy. The 1789 overthrow of absolutist monarchy, despite the violence and excess that was to follow, was embodied in its cri de couer of Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!

Sunday’s march was in similar spirit about shoulder-to-shoulder fraternity with those under attack, encapsulated in the Je suis Charlie banners and, most movingly, by the Je suis Juif banners carried by Muslims and others who were clearly not Jewish.

This march was about the liberty to offend your neighbour, your priest, your imam, and – note well, African National Congress sycophants – your president. And, finally, it was about a belated realisation that unless there was true equality in today’s France for all hues and faiths, the ghettos would continue to breed fanatics and terrorists.

There is then a political universality to what happened in Paris, and in dozens of other French cities and towns, that transcends the effects of just another, however shocking, terrorist attack of the kind that happens with varying degrees of severity all the time.

Africa correspondent Simon Allison writes in the Daily Maverick that while there are many good excuses for the fact that even Nigerian media gave the Paris killings more coverage than the killings in their own country, it is a shameful “symbol of how we as Africans neglect Africa’s own tragedies, and prioritise Western lives over our own”.

That’s only partly true. The French rally because they believe doing so will make a real difference.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian deaths stand in stark contrast because they are the direct result of state, political and social institutions that do not function properly and will not function properly in the foreseeable future. So in response to the Nigerian killings there are no African solidarity marches, no obsessive African media analysis, no great show of solidarity by African leaders, because there would be no point.

To rally would be a triumph of optimism over experience. African political ennui and passivity are widespread because democracy, where it exists, is not yet vibrant enough to force the political elites in most countries to respond.

It is futile to expect the world to wring its hands over our tragedies when we not only sullenly accept them, but have come to expect them. If we as Africans can’t or won’t help ourselves, why should the world give a damn?

Some of the world's leaders descended onto the streets of Paris during a unity rally following the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Some of the world’s leaders descended onto the streets of Paris during a unity rally following the Charlie Hebdo killings. (Reuters)

Allison points to the “egregious hypocrisy” of Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba attending the Paris march in support of freedom of expression, while violently suppressing those same rights at home. There’s another egregious hypocrisy that is even closer to home.

After some delay, President Jacob Zuma’s government issued a statement condemning the “calculated and barbaric” Paris terrorism. “Such deliberate attacks against journalists and the public contravene international law and constitute a crime against humanity,” he said.

Fine sentiments, but how credible? They come from an administration that steadily erodes press freedom in South Africa. From a leader who has repeatedly used swingeing defamation claims to intimidate cartoonists and journalists. From a political alliance which appeared tacitly to condone populist violence when two men defaced The Spear, a painting depicting Zuma as a venal autocrat, and today argue for laws to protect presidential “dignity”.

There is another French lesson in all this. The Spear satirised Zuma as Russia’s Lenin. Perhaps more appropriate would have been Louis XIV, the pre-revolutionary French monarch who proclaimed boastfully: “I am the state”.

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