[This piece was written in the immediate aftermath of the January 2015 Baga massacre. I did not get around to publishing it then, but in the wake of Garissa and the violence against immigrants in South Africa, sadly it still feels relevant. So better late than never.]
Much has been said about the contrast between Nigeria, Africa and the world’s non-response to the massacre in Baga, Nigeria, and the overwhelming French and international response to the terror attacks in France earlier this month.
Africanists rightly point out that the contrasting responses illustrate how little African lives are valued, both by Africans ourselves and the global community. Many have demanded that something be done. Ultimately this episode, like countless atrocities before it, illustrates the tortured history, failures and shortcomings of African society and government, and the enduring difficulty of confronting particular kinds of insurgencies. This is the complexity that African citizens and leaders must confront if we hope to see the end of the sort of recurring atrocity of which Baga is only the latest example.
Why is African life so cheap?
Surely the precariousness of African life has its roots in the enormous violence visited on Africans in and during, variously: the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries; the subsequent colonial conquest and domination and associated violent repression; the many repressive regimes, dysfunctional states and amoral warlords of the post-colonial era. Throughout this 500 year history, Africans have been routinely brutalized and murdered for reasons large and small.
In your mind’s eye, imagine the confused Africans huddled in the dungeons of slave castles on the Atlantic coast, crammed head to toe in the bowels of ships circled by sharks awaiting sick or mutinous slaves to be thrown overboard, doing back-breaking labour in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, many of whom were worked until they dropped dead of exhaustion before reaching the age of thirty. Imagine the Belgians bloody conquest of Congo, as detailed in Hochschild’s essential book, King Leopold’s Ghost. Traverse through time across the killing fields of Sharpeville, Biafra, Amin’s Uganda, Rwanda, KwaZulu-Natal, the East Rand, Marikana. Imagine all the precious lives cut short for one agenda or another. Imagine the anguish of thousands, whole families wiped out by Ebola while their governments and the international community dithered and equivocated.
Now consider the tragedy in Baga and see if you are shocked. The world stops when innocent French citizens’ lives are brutally cut short because it is exceptional, unusual, unacceptable. Murdered Africans let down by their governments, holds no shock, elicits no outrage. It is unexceptional, routine, and therefore acceptable.
What to do about this?
Why are the wicked, the murderous and the negligent allowed to operate with impunity in our continent? African humanity will only be valued when African people demand it. The values and principles of freedom and human rights underpinning our societies anchor us only insofar as they are deeply held by the body politic, and these values are formed and internalized by our history, and the lessons we learn from it. Western Europe is peaceful now, not because Europeans are inherently enlightened. Europe is peaceful because after centuries of conflicts over nationality, territory and elite power contests, and two world wars in the 20th century when they set themselves to killing each other at immense, industrial scale, they finally appreciated that war was not a move in a political chess game to be played endlessly, but a horrific and destructive enterprise which would ravage humanity and ultimately end civilization as we know it if not abandoned as a tool of political ambition. So until African citizens refuse to accept conflict as political strategy, violent conflict will persist. In leading countries around the world, politicians cannot seek high office without detailing their worldview and foreign policy; as should it be in Africa where conflict remains an issue, and ‘African solutions for African problems’ remains our aspiration and rallying cry. In the wake of the Baga massacre, Africans everywhere must ask their leaders how they will end conflict on our continent, and hold them accountable.
Somewhere in this, we must also ask ourselves if our mindsets contribute to our vulnerability to violence. Does our seemingly endless capacity as Africans to bear suffering and move on, to forgive and forget, serve us? It is useful to reflect on the ways in which black intellectuals have drawn attention to our mindsets in this regard. Black nationalists in the US have argued that Christianity contributed to the oppression of African-Americans through slavery and Jim Crow by encouraging them to believe that the last in this life, will be first in the next. Black liberation theologians such as James Cone argued that black people must reclaim God as a God which empowers them, and wants justice and self-determination for us here and now. This resonates with Biko’s black consciousness, which argues that we can only become free once we truly know and value ourselves, and resolve to take control of our own destiny. Both systems of thought attacked the passivity and acceptance of oppression that kept us oppressed. We must apply similar focus to the warlords in our midst who murder, rape and maim with impunity. Currently we look the other way, rationalize their actions, and seemingly accept that sometimes bad things happen, such is the lot of the African. No more.
This kind of violence expose the flaws of our political culture. Keeping citizens safe is the primary responsibility of government. The unconvincing and ineffectual response to escalating attacks by Boko Haram, most notable the kidnapping of the Chibok girls and now the massacre at Baga, raises questions about how important the safety of Nigerians is to their leaders, and how capable they are of ensuring this safety. Allegations that the Nigerian army- like the Ugandan army in its war against the LRA- itself has committed atrocities in the same region complicate the issue further. While terror is among the most challenging issues affecting governments everywhere, I worry that Africans are particularly vulnerable because the tendency of our leaders to rise to power based on their ability to accumulate power rather than their presentation of a coherent set of ideas on where they want to lead society and how they plan to do so.
Boko Haram is primarily a Nigerian problem, but increasingly also a regional one, as it conducts attacks in Chad and Cameroon and sending refugees into those countries and Niger. Regional leaders and concerned Africans across the continent are calling for a regional force to confront Boko Haram. The AU has yet to demonstrate that it can quickly respond to, let alone proactively intervene to prevent, these sorts of large-scale atrocities. Doing so requires ready forces as envisioned by the still theoretical African Standby Force (ASF), or President Zuma’s proposed African Capacity for Intervention and Response to Crises (ACIRC). It also requires significant funding, logistics, coordination, and intelligence sharing.
But more importantly, it requires moral clarity about when atrocities are being committed against civilians, and political will to intervene. Perhaps an appropriate African solution would be to use the Elders, or a body like them, of respected senior leaders of unimpeachable moral authority tasked to immediately declaring atrocities as probable crimes against humanity. This would necessitate the convening of an emergency meeting of the Peace and Security Council of the AU, which would be obliged to, within 24 hours of convening, conclude debate and conduct a yes or no vote to immediate deployment of forces to the area to stabilize the situation in line with Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles, and bring perpetrators to justice.
What is an African life worth? For 500 years and counting, the answer is: not much. Only through a change of mindset, moral clarity, and decisive action to respond to atrocities, will the tragic assault on African humanity be brought to an end in our lifetime.
Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a public servant, he writes in his personal capacity. He tweets at @lionofjozi