US President Donald Trump’s reported recent reference to Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as a bunch of “sh**hole” countries is not worth dignifying with much debate.
What is of greater interest is that, on social media, there have been many videos, Facebook posts and Twitter commentary by Africans not just agreeing with Trump but saying he wasn’t harsh enough.
These Africans who agree with Trump, though for different motives, argue that because so many of our countries are corrupt — ruled by cruel men who steal elections and jail opponents, have run economies down, are full of school teachers who sleep with school girls, preachers who rob and prey on their flock, cities and towns pockmarked by giant potholes and overflowing with garbage — they are “sh**holes”. They deserve to be called out. To be shamed.
There are many reasons these brothers and sisters agree with Trump.
To begin with, a whole cottage industry, a lot of it driven by the African diaspora, has grown up around trashing Africa. For many, it helps them to come to terms with living and working away from the continent instead of being home, rolling in the mud struggling to fix its problems.
Also, in many African countries, as politics fails, ruling party/president opponents and critics like these “sh**hole” portrayals because they form a wider arsenal of regime delegitimisation.
These criticisms are not entirely without validity, and they probably sometimes shame African governments into doing some good, but, overall, they are problematic. The main problem is that they are based on an unnatural and ahistorical view of what a country is.
An example that this column cited before will illustrate the point.
Some time ago, a friend who studies African countries and their endless messes told me many people criticise cities on the continent for being dirty. Cities, he said, by definition, are dirty. The garbage and dirt is a product of activity and economic dynamism. Only dead cities, he said, are the ones that produce no dirt.
“People should criticise us for failing to clean our cities but not because they are dirty,” he said.
On the face of it, he sounded nonsensical, but he was very profound. Great cities emerge from learning how to clean up, building infrastructure that works, keeping streets safe, creating jobs. Dirt is good.
Every great country, he would have argued, starts as a “sh**hole”. Trump reportedly said he wanted migrants from Norway. The Norwegians laughed, because, compared to their country, the US is a mess. Norway is richer on a per capita basis and has universal health insurance that the US doesn’t. Reports indicate that there are virtually zero Norwegians migrating to the US.
However, barely 70 years ago, Norway was an “African country”, as it were. It got governed better and smartly, cleaned up and is where it is today.
You cannot have just laws until people have been subjected to injustice and pushed back against it. Elections are stolen first before they eventually get fair and transparent, through campaigns and resistance against abuses.
Only the rich used to vote everywhere in the world — until the masses rose up and, first, only men, the not-so-rich and the poor ones, got the vote. Women were excluded. A long history of struggle by suffragist and democratic men gave women voting rights in the West barely 100 years ago. Until three years ago, there were parts of the world where women still hadn’t the right to vote.
Countries almost never learn to make peace until they have had war. No society ever mastered farming without hunger or the threat of it. You could argue, then, that being a “sh**hole” is not just a natural condition of societies but the most critical element for their progress.
But we live in very changed times. Three hundred years ago, most societies were more or less at the same level. The Industrial Revolution, and the technological innovation it unleashed, upended all that. Thus today it is possible to have a difference in quality of life between countries, of up to 100 years.
But a difference between countries is not the same as a difference between peoples. Admittedly, in these times, overcoming a 100-year gap can seem daunting and escaping into defensive negativism an attractive option. It isn’t. It’s easier than most of us fear. Just ask Norway.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]