Friday, March 30, 2012

Kony 2012 and the African Victimhood Complex

I saw the first white people in my life in 1969. That was in a refugee camp, during the Nigerian civil war. Two Catholic priests and a middle aged lady in a bluish gown. They brought us food, clothes and medicine. It took my little body time to recover from the ravages of hunger and malnutrition, from kwashiorkor. But I made it, thanks to the enormous responses from the peoples of the world.
Fast forward to 2012. I am alive; I teach at an American university. I, too, watched the video, Kony 2012. I’m aware of the many celebrity endorsements of the video and the backlash it has unleashed especially from some African intellectuals and some liberal groups. Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” stands out not only for its highly crafted, nuanced arguments, but also for putting together decades of hurt, oppression and paternalisms from the West on Africa. It is difficult to challenge the core arguments of the essay without appearing to be against Africa. The success of the essay lies in the fact that it is rooted in the time-tested model of African write-back ideology, the ideology that has Africa’s victimhood as its first, inevitable premise. But isn’t Africa a victim? Isn’t Africa easily taken advantage of by those who lack all diligence, by western and African dictators and scavenger NGOs?
Cole’s eternal wisdom, “let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy,” seems unimpeachable. It is another version of “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.” I resist the temptation to infer that Cole suggests that white people should take their hands off of African problems; he is, I think, only asking for due diligence. Which is not to ask too much. Yet the idea that “the White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage,” appears more tricky than its “You hypocrite,” version.
Back again to 1969, to the tragedy of Biafra, the one thing that made Steve Jobs to lose faith in God. I was a seven year old boy then. I was one of those who had been condemned by their fellow Nigerians to starve to death. You could count my ribs from a ten-meter distance. And then the Irish came; those two Catholic priests and a woman. They brought food. They brought medicine. God, they brought love. Just like the Germans did (Caritas) and the English (Oxfam). This is no fiction. This is no ideology. This is life. Raw as it gets. Now, I want to repeat Cole’s injunction: Hey! Begin your activism in Ireland! I can’t say that, can I? Or, rather if I happen to say it now, it is perhaps because I am a middle class man, a university professor, enjoying the  comfort of a beautiful condo in Chicago North Side and an office at the Northeastern Illinois University. If I urge Westerners to first challenge their ugly governments before responding to human catastrophe elsewhere it is perhaps only because some ideology might have made me forget the intervention of Europeans who were moved to empathy by the horrid pictures of us Biafran kids. Were they releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage? But this is not to deny that there are many people out there scavenging among African spoils. But abuse never vitiates use.
I know it often sounds na├»ve to talk about international solidarity. We have all become dubious because we have seen lots of abuses. Yet I’m one of those who cling to the belief that people could still be moved by the pain of others, even those they do not know. When flood hit Pakistan in 2010 some of my students went from office to office collecting money, clothes, and food items for the people of Pakistan. These were Caucasians, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians. My students. Why did they do this? Were they releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage? I didn’t get that impression. I got the impression that they were genuinely smitten by people’s suffering. And that is beautiful.
The Irish gesture of empathy in 1969 which gave rise to “Concern Africa” didn’t mean that some African countries haven’t been doing much work on the ground to save starving Biafran kids. In fact the government of Gabon airlifted thousands of children to Gabon. The same could be said of Kony 2012. We know that people have been working in Uganda to liberate these abducted children, to rehabilitate the ones freed. And for such works Jolly Okot (herself a victim) was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. So, what is the fuss about Kony 2012? That it is flashy?
Shouldn’t we see it as just one of the many attempts to stop the gross acts of inhumanity playing itself out in Uganda and neighboring countries? It is an attempt that might not be as effective as the ones on the ground, but gosh, it is a response, and it has drawn global attention to a local problem. As the New York Times reports, the African Union has gotten involved in the hunt for Joseph Kony. Finally!
The emergence of Nigeria’s capitalist class, the new clubs of millionaires and billionaires, some of whom didn’t have up to one thousand dollars in their bank accounts five years ago, has taught me one more thing: the 1% everywhere, have one thing in common: self-enrichment (mostly) at the cost of the rest 99%. Progressives (should I say do-gooders?) everywhere should, I think, always start their solidarity by adopting the perspective of the one in pain: the kids abducted by Joseph Kony, the Biafran kids whose lives hung on a thread. They are the real victims. If all our theories are not aimed at saving these people in need, we might as well be making ideological noise.
I read “The White Savior Industrial Complex” and I hear “The African Victimhood Complex.” Whoever chooses to discuss Africa’s victimhood should do well to begin from the real victims of global greed and callousness, from the perspectives of the abducted children, of the victims of war, years of dictatorships; these real victims are eager to accept relief from any person, from anywhere. Kony 2012 provides an opportunity for Western and African human rights activists to work together to help real African victims.
But I understand the catch 22 situation African intellectuals have been forced into whenever it comes to altruistic gestures from the West. It wouldn’t be wise to take in everything that comes from the West. But it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss everything either, or to get stuck in the write-back ideology of the past four decades. Doing so, and making it our modus operandi, reduces us to the status of “fire brigade” intellectuals. We easily serve up the powers of our intellect just to quell the fire of Western assault, but quietly go back to our cells, even while greater fires eat up our homes.


  1. Poignant personal perspective, Chielozona... at the end of the day the least that one can say is that lot of the victim is so dire that he cannot quibble over the ideological colour of the ladder that will save his life.

  2. Someone here is nothing some thinking. African coconut heads those so-called African intellectuals!

  3. thats a good one-

    ' ... at the end of the day the least that one can say is that lot of the victim is so dire that he cannot quibble over the ideological colour of the ladder that will save his life'

  4. With sublime eloquence, clarity and profundity, Teju Cole articulates, gratefully, the complexities and the contradictions of our collective complexes (of victimhood and guilt) with a unparalleled mastery of the philosophical underpinnings, dynamics and ramifications of the question(s) at stake. He rises, here, above the debilitating confusion between/of symptom and disease. He fishes beyond the surface of that chimerical and tantalizing liquid. He considers the timeless dynamics of text-and-context whose estrangement will only brew fallacious conclusions, he pins down genially the point of “constellational thinking” whose negation will tragically result in the truncated, isolated and sporadic epistles that fail to capture the aggregate picture. Since he, Cole, offers a better verb and mind, on this count, I will suffer you folks to revisit these salient picks once more:

    “His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated "disasters." All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need”.
    “They have a different take on what Kristof calls a "humanitarian disaster," and this may be because they see the larger disasters behind it: militarization of poorer countries, short-sighted agricultural policies, resource extraction, the propping up of corrupt governments, and the astonishing complexity of long-running violent conflicts over a wide and varied terrain”

    “If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself.”
    “Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to "make a difference" trumps all other considerations”

  5. Help was needed, help was given by the whites.
    This is all the victims remember.
    Of course, help was also given by fellow Africans, but the victim remembers only that of the whites.

  6. If African intellectuals, who, due only to their hard work (and the kindness of white people), enjoy insulation from the mess that is Africa, would stop desperately trying to defend African pride and start fighting to protect Africa from her worst enemy: African leaders, things would be better.
    Just as Russells arm bands do not help ordinary Ugandans, Cole's views do not help us either.
    Look around Africa, what is our story? Our leaders rape us blind, kill us, maim us. And some clueless naive white kid thinks of an experiment, albeit wrongly executed, to help, only to help, and then African intellectuals start to flex their muscles and beat poor Russell into the ground. This is opportunistic bullying. It is too easy. It has become a cliche among so called African intellectuals. We need to get off our American and European padded black asses and tell ourselves the truth. TODAY, WE are the problem. Not the guys who try to help.
    If we fixed our mess there would be fewer white people enjoying aid tourism.
    Nice Nice article.

    1. Dear Elnathan:this african intellectuals tag touted around with lynch mentality, & by extrapolation with some perilous autoflagellatory reflex, is disturbing and misleading. why? Cole's arguments are lucid (even if u decide unfortunately to find them futilely opaque), he argues cogently: get the bigger picture of the driving causalities, those policy motives of the world powers that determine in their insidious, cynical and deleterious dynamics conditions why u must have the leaders u have even when u die to dislodge them; that's what he means not the details or symptoms (wars, bad leadership, poverty)that bring sporadic, hyped messiahs and apothecarists of ephemeral, sentimental & sensationalized cures that last only the health time of cured symptoms. So as he aptly indicates: we must engage contellational thinking in order to connect the dots. if u must do away with the many more Konys to come, heal the disease, not the symptom (that one hyped Kony and Russell game). Now that chaos & murder in Libya (and before in Iraq) has been orchestrated in utter violation of (the accomplice & puppet) UN mandate by the very powers, I am awaiting Russell in Mali down from Libya to hype another maudlin humanitarian song. But i wont be lost in the sentimental details. Not me, not Cole, not any discerning intellectual who understands we are living in the Age of Spectacle!

  7. Here here. The only reason why my grandmother's 12 children survived the war was because there was a food station near our village. The British government supplied the weapons but British people sent aid and they shouldn't lumped together with the actions of some politicians in Whitehall. To say that because a nation is in a democracy, the government will do what the people ask for seems a bit naive. The British public at the time turned the spotlight on the government they had elected and it's policy and when it refused to stop supplying arms to Federal Nigeria, they started donating money to feed those that were starving from the war.

    Because you can't affect your government's foreign policy, does that mean you should watch people die?