How a 'shithole' continent lost its right to dignity


Tue, 16 Jan 2018 Source: Manasseh Azure Awuni

If someone tells you that you have bad breath and you’re not sick in the head, you are not expected to laugh or smile. But if you know you have bad breath, you will be embarrassed, but you don’t get angry with the one who points it to you. You get a remedy.

No African country is expected to be happy after the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, called African countries “shitholes”. But are we not shithole countries? How different is this from what Tony Blair said at a Labour Party conference in 2001 about us? Blair said, “The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world.” Do we dispute that too?

I cannot speak for Haiti and El Salvador, which Trump reportedly lumped together with Africa and described as “shithole countries.” But which honest African can beat their chest and say we have conducted ourselves well enough to deserve respect and dignified treatment on the global stage? There are great African individuals doing great things around the world, but collectively, we don’t deserve the respect and dignity we fight for without doing much to earn a modicum of it.

In many instances, we have conducted and continue to conduct ourselves like wild beasts and have lost the moral right to be angry at the description Trump has given us. In 2018 a member of parliament is murdered and the pathologist says the autopsy report is missing. The court had to fight hard in order to get the autopsy report on Major Mahama’s murder. These are two murders that shook Ghana and if this is the drama at their trial, what will not happen to ordinary mortals like you and me? The police are issuing conflicting reports on the rape case involving a Lebanese. And if you collapsed and were taken to any government hospital today, chances are that you will be turned away because there is no bed to treat you. This is Ghana in 2018.

Because we are human beings, we deserve to be accorded the fundamental human dignities and rights. But that’s where it ends. The thief, drug addict or beggar has the right to life and to a fair trial and the basic rights accorded to humankind. But do you respect them and value them the same way you value the hardworking man or woman who is impacting society in a positive way?

I’m not out to defend Trump or endorse his words. Trump is incurably racist. He is irredeemably uncouth and unrepentantly crude in his ways. He is not any better than some of the worst so-called leaders with whom the Africa continent has been cursed since independence. He’s just like Yahaya Jammeh, the immediate past president of The Gambia. The only difference between their presidencies is that America is a fairly organized society, where institutions work. For this reason, any idiot can govern America and still succeed to some extent.

His stance on immigration is problematic but what got Africans worked out is his description of us as shithole countries. It is said that if someone speaks ill of you, live your life in such a way that people will not believe him. Unfortunately, every honest African believes Trump when he says we are shithole countries. Our elders say a child who washes its hands well eats with kings. But have Ghanaians and Africans washed our hands well?

As long as we remain, beggars, we should not expect to be treated with equal dignity and respect in the League of Nations. We beg without shame. We beg from Europe to America, India to Indonesia and from China to Cuba, where we Ghanaians get medical doctors to treat our sick. We don’t beg because we are poor. We beg because we are thieves who steal the resources meant to develop our continent and carry them to the Western World and some parts of Asia.

In 2017, Switzerland announced it was returning $321 million to Nigeria. This money was seized from Abba Abacha, son of former Nigerian Head of State, Sani Abacha. At the time of making this announcement, Switzerland had already recovered around $700 million of Abacha-related assets.

Nigeria was also pursuing $480 million, which had been seized in the United States. Nigeria lost $400 billion to corruption between 1960 and 1999, according to estimates cited by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Abacha alone is believed to have stolen $4 billion. And this country cannot feed its citizens, provide power, drinking water and other basic necessities of life.

Nigeria is not an exception. Neither is Abacha. It has become an unfortunate norm that the average African politicians, business people and middle class, are out there to fleece the poor. Honesty and integrity and the patriotism to serve and build African states are qualities that are rarer than snowfall in the Sahara Desert.

In 2015, one energy contract in Ghana was said to have been inflated by $150 million dollars. In 2016, $74 million waste bins contract was found to have been inflated by at least $34 million. A piece of bin liner sold on the market at 22 cents was invoiced to the state at $15.6 a piece. In the same country, the Ministry of Justice and Attorney-General received a donation of desktop computers from the Chinese Embassy in Accra and an amount of 10,000 cedis or $2,300.

Why do we take offence at the word “shithole” when cleaning our streets and markets appears more difficult than launching the most sophisticated spacecraft? We still die from preventable diseases such as cholera, malaria; and any time there is an outbreak, we look to the West or some UN agencies to deliver us.

How on earth do we expect to be treated with respect and dignity when we don’t put any value on the lives of our citizens? For a long time, the European Union had made the plight of African migrants its top agenda. Every day we hear stories of how energetic young men and women from Africa drown in drones in the Mediterranean Sea in desperate attempts to escape from shitholes. Italian, Spanish and other European countries patrol these deadly waters daily and are able to rescue some. What has the African Union done about it? The AU, whose headquarters is a product of begging from China, does not seem to care about the lives of its citizens but it cares about the shithole description.

Last year news emerged of how these young men and women were sold to slavery in Libya. With as low as $400, one could get a slave to buy. The kind of uproar which greeted Donald Trump’s comment was absent. The desperation of African migrants is because their leaders have specialized in looting their collective wealth and stashing the loot in foreign banks. Chances are that many of them will die leaving such funds in those banks and not even their children or spouses will know about some of them.

Some things do happen in Africa and one wonders if we were created the same way like other human beings elsewhere. Consider the following incidents that happened in Romania and Ghana in 2015.

In that year 32 people died in a nightclub fire disaster in Romania. About 20,000 protestors took the streets to protest and blamed the authorities for corruption and lack of supervision. The results? The Prime Minister, Victor Ponto, took responsibility, apologised to the people and resigned.

In that same year, more than 150 people were killed in an avoidable fire and flood disaster in Ghana. The June 3 disaster was caused by leaked oil from a fuel station and choked drains, which caused flooding in the city of Accra. The mayor who supervised the floods said he would not apologise to anybody. The President did not fire him.

A few weeks later, hundreds of people took to the streets of Accra, blocking traffic for hours. The reason, the mayor who supervised the causes of the disaster had picked up a form to contest as a member of parliament and the crowd was there to support him amidst dancing and drumming. They voted for him in the 2016 election and they call address him as “Honourable!”

The only person who was arrested by the security agencies over the deaths was a young man who was alleged to have smoked a cigar and thrown the tub in the floodwater. How can anybody defend this country when someone describes it as a shithole?

Africans are racists to the core. Our form of racism is nastier because we direct it at ourselves. Many ethnic groups in African countries see each other as superior to one another. In most cases, such frictions have influenced and continue to influence the politics in Africa. They have also led to deadly wars that have killed millions, the deadliest one being the Rwandan Genocide.

When I got to the Dulles International Airport in the US in 2014, the young immigration officer who processed me was a Chinese. There was also an Arab next to him. I met Ghanaians who were high ranking officials in the US Army and some served in very sensitive positions in state departments. Recently a Ghanaian was appointed a Minister of State in the UK and we were shouting all over.

In Ghana, hell broke loose when someone raised an alarm that he had seen a “white man” driving a Ghana Police Service vehicle. If a Chinese, American or Lebanese becomes a citizen of Ghana and tries to join the security services, what will our reaction be?

Trump may be wrong in trying to control immigration, but African countries have such bad histories. In 1969 the Aliens Compliance Act led to sacking of migrants from Ghana, including missionaries. In the early 1980s, Nigeria did same and sent Ghanaians who had fled the political turmoil back home fleeing leaving their landed properties. Around that time, Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters of Apartheid South Africa were going round Africa begging for money and resources to go back and free the black race from oppression. Today, Black South Africans are hacking and killing citizens of other African countries who are there legally to work.

In 1957, when Ghana gained independence, our first President and champion of Pan Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah declared that the African was capable of managing his own affairs. Sixty years on, we have proved him wrong.

The stories of how African countries govern themselves are replete with barbaric tales of greed, mismanagement and corruption. In countries like Ghana, which the Western world fools us into believing that we are bastions of democracy in Africa, we are yet to understand what democracy is about. Apart from the violence-free periodic elections and freedom of speech for politicians and journalists (the rest are victimized for speaking out), there is nothing significant about our so-called democracy.

In the week Ghana celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 4th Republic, 84,600 youth were lined up in the sun to fight for 500 slots in the immigration service. Those who are daring enough are trekking in the desert in order to get to Libya and finally cross to Europe.

We are a shithole continent that has blamed the Whiteman for our woes but refused to say how we have been complicit in even the white man’s sins. We helped in catching and selling our relatives into slavery and helped the colonisers to fight kingdoms such as Asante, which were determined to resist colonialism.

We accuse the colonialists of stealing our resources to build their empires but after independence, we steal from our own people and carry it to our colonial masters. The politicians, middle class and traditional rulers in Africa now see owning properties in the West as a necessity.

I can go on and on, but the message remains the same. Africa is a continent that cannot feed its people. It cannot provide healthcare for its people. Potable drinking water still remains a luxury. Power supply is erratic. Our educational system is collapsing and those who can afford now educate their children in Europe and America. Nine out of every 10 Africans you sample are likely to run out of the continent at the least opportunity. And a shithole continent is an apt description of our messy state of affairs.

Instead of fighting Trump, let’s fix our mess. Fixing our mess will not change the perception of Trump about us. We won’t do it to please anybody. But we deserve to live dignified lives.

Columnist: Manasseh Azure Awuni