Nigeria’s former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was truly in his element when he spoke at the recently concluded Commonwealth Day Service and Commonwealth Africa Summit activities in London. Chief Obasanjo who is the Co-Chair of the Commonwealth Africa Initiative (CAFI) told summit participants, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, that there is a lot the Western world can learn from Africa.
With raw candor and sheer sagacity, the retired General fired the first salvo at the theme for the 2016 Summit: “Leveraging our Shared Heritage – What Africans Can Learn from Their Developed Commonwealth Counterpart.” In his keynote address he said:
“I want to correct the impression that it’s only we (Africans) that can learn from other people and others don’t have anything to learn from us. I believe that any good person can learn from any other person, from situations and all the things around you. There is a lot the west can learn from Africa.”
He told the audience that if Africans had not put their act together and worked as hard as they have done under the auspices of the commonwealth, the obnoxious apartheid regime in South Africa might still be ongoing.
“How we did it, what did we do, others can learn from us. Let’s focus this conversation on what is right with Africa and on what can we do with Africa. Africa is not an unmitigated failure, there are good things in Africa. Africa is the cradle of humanity,” he added.
Obasanjo also took a swipe at globalization:
“Let nobody confuse you with this word globalisation, for me I don’t take it, if Globalisation means you ask me to open my door and you close your door against me and you want to take everything in my own house to yourself then to hell with globalization.”
Continuing, he said: “We as Africans should remember that nobody will do anything for you unless you do it for yourself. In my part of the world, when you want to carry a load, you put a pad on your head and stand by your load, then they will see you need help and come to help you.
“We need to put our pad on our head as Africans and stand by our load ready to carry, then they will help us. Our greatest asset is our people. Let us train and educate.”
Chief Obasanjo won the heart of the West in 1979, when he successfully conducted a general election as a military head of state and handed over the Nigerian government to a democratically elected President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Such a peaceful transfer of power was a rarity, if not altogether unprecedented in Africa at that time. This time around, his punchy, ego-puncturing London sermon may have ruffled some feathers, but that is vintage OBJ for you, as he is called back home in the Nigerian media.
Punctured egos notwithstanding, it is common knowledge that the deep-seated superiority complex amongst the Westerners, especially when dealing with non-westerners, has not only beclouded their perception but also made them almost irredeemably fixated on the ugly and dark past they shared with Africans, such as a slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, imperialism, neo-colonialism and many other isms.
The former president of Germany, Prof. Horst Köhler, aptly captured this tendency while speaking at a public forum on African affairs not too long ago. He admitted that from a historical perspective, the defining characteristic of Europe’s relationship with Africa has not been partnership, let alone friendship, but rather objectification.
He went on to say that many colonial and neo-colonial attitudes still persist up to the present day, sometimes latent and unsuspected but other times quite overtly. “Have we really moved on from perceiving and treating Africa as an object?” he asked his fellow Europeans.
Köhler noted that it was high time the West transformed the way it views its relationship with Africa to facilitate, despite all the existing asymmetries, a partnership of equals, free of paternalism and condescension:
“What I would like, therefore, is for us to acknowledge the distortion in the way the West sees things. To be shaken in our prejudices. Not to apply our own yardstick as universal measurement. To learn, and to understand Africa in its own context. To turn the irritation and friction that entails into a constructive force. To listen, and to listen over and over again.”
One leader who unapologetically commands Europeans to listen is Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Africa’s longest-serving president. A long-time critic of the West, President Mugabe and other African leaders have been pushing for Africa to be heard on the world stage with at least two permanent seats in the Security Council and equal veto power. They argue that Africa’s 54-member countries justify the need for a say in crucial decisions, many of which affect the continent.
During his final speech as Chairman of the African Union (AU) in January this year, Mugabe urged UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki Moon to deliver his message to the West:
“Tell them, tell them we are not ghosts, that we also belong to the world, part of the world called Africa, and Africans shall no longer tolerate a position of slavery, slavery by any other name,” he declared.
“If the United Nations is to survive, we must be equal members of it. Equal members, members who can say when we go to the body, that we can now, speaking truly as members with a voice that is understood, respected and honored.”