Ideals, Morality and the hypocrisy of Western and African Leaders

This week, President Paul Kagame was interviewed by France 24's Catherine Nicholson at the European Development Day. One of the highlights of this conversation was the President’s outburst towards the end, about the report on his Human rights record. With proper context, his outburst might have some merit. He berated the western reporter for the hypocrisy of the western media and their inconsistency in applying the same standards of morality to the west. However, he was wrong to imply that universal rights are not to be adjudicated by the West or that there should not be focus on human rights records.

Amongst many of Africa’s revolutionary leaders, President Paul Kagame probably stands head and shoulders above many of them. He is one person that has actually made his country better in ways that perhaps only Mr. Mandela of South Africa and Mr. Rawlings of Ghana have. The predominant view of the west by many of these men (like former President Mugabe) has been one of suspicion and distrust, and rightly so. The history of colonization is not one that should taken lightly and the atrocities that the West committed in many African countries (Congo, South Africa, Kenya) are things that should never be forgotten, a beacon of history.

However, this mistrust has also allowed many of these leaders to fan anti-Western sentiments and this led to the rejection of ideals that were seen as Western morality. The view that these “Western ideals” are sometimes bad and how they can be in opposition to African culture. This is particularly interesting for multiple reasons but chief among them is that the nature of colonization in Africa means that Western culture and African culture have already begun to mix and it is no longer clear where African culture truly begins and ends.

When former US President Barack Obama was in Kenya, he made efforts to speak about the treatment of the LGBTQ+ in Kenya and in response, President Kenyatta said, “I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas…maybe once, like you, have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at other ones, but as of now the fact remains that this issue is not really an issue that is at the foremost minds of Kenyans and that is a fact.”

In 2015, at a UN General Assembly, former Zimbabwean President Mugabe said, “We equally reject attempts to prescribe ‘new rights’ that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays!”. Views on homosexuality tend to grab the most attention and are the most prominent but one aspect of the rejection of concepts like homosexuality is that they are “Western” and therefore foreign to the African continent, a sentiment is completely untrue.

On January 7, 2014, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill into law and the effect of that bill are so far reaching. The vast majority of Nigerians supported the bill even though many claim that the bill was only signed as an electoral tool. Mention of homosexuality in public spaces tend to be treated with derision and when interacting with the wrong crowd, it could potentially be life threatening. In many ways, this bill legalized the oppression of members of the LGBTQ+.

However, homosexuality is not the only thing that is portrayed as a “Western” thing. In the aforementioned interview, Paul Kagame claims that, “ You (Europe) really need to stop this superiority complex nonsense about human rights. You think you’re the only ones who respect human rights, and all others it’s about violating human rights”. His focus might be on the hypocrisy of the West but, he must also take a critical look at himself and his leadership of the country.

We must not forget that he is actually right though. The reporting of the African continent is always biased, there is always some mention of the human rights abuses of African leaders and this is fine. These ideals are important but there is indeed an imbalance in the reporting (and therefore perception) of the African continent and its leadership. That very same lack of respect for ideals and human rights exists in Western spaces as well with the pervasive racism and structural classism that allocates dignity on the basis of color of skin and amount of disposable income.

That is why ideals are important. Ideals are a measuring stick that can be applied universally. These ideals are universal and is why we can look at that the racism that is in the west and condemn as harshly as we condemn the child marriage in Islam or the homophobia in Christianity. The West might have encoded ideals in literature and philosophical thought but ideals are inherent in humanity. That is: the concepts of democracy, liberty, equality and justice are not “Western” concepts, they are human concepts. And that is where President Kagame’s outbursts are so annoying for me. He is quite rightly irritated by the over focus on the human rights record of his administration but that does not invalidate the nature of the questions.

When President Kenyatta said on CNN that “Gay rights are of no importance in Kenya”, that was disheartening because it appeared to me that these men that are supposed to be leading the continent into breaking new ground, really have no idea what they are talking about. Economic prosperity and growth are always and will always remain secondary to ensuring that the social fabric remains intact and that the social contract we sign with ourselves is held to a very high standard.

What often happens in African countries, especially post independence, is that the African politicians ignore the need to create a social contract which leads to a strong social fabric. Western philosophers, especially the enlightenment philosophers, attempted to codify what the essentials of a social contract should be e.g. liberty, equality, justice, bravery, wisdom, self-awareness and so on. This is important because these ideals are then the things to which everyone in society is held to. So there is no religious being that determines what is right and wrong, instead we use these ideals to ensure consistency in ourselves.

These ideals are not western. Loyalty, liberty, equality, justice, bravery and many other principles of morality are not foreign to African soil. These ideals (moral principles) tend to be universal and we can see how they repeat themselves in all the hundreds of different cultures across the world. What western philosophers did with these ideals is attempt to figure out what they are. So when Socrates asks, “what is justice”, he is attempting to figure out a concept that has long been in human society but whose definition is anything but concrete. These principles will then seep through the entire society, from politics to legal system and there is a measure that can be used to judge.

This is where Western countries differ from African ones. Countries like America, for example, have an idealistic foundation that ensures that there is something they are trying to work towards, even though they fail repeatedly. In the 2016 Democratic primary, then US President Obama says, “not afraid of what is, ready to seize what ought to be” and in a way, that perfectly encapsulates the idea behind ideals. Ideals are there to remind us that our current position is not perfect and that there actually is perfection out there and they can work towards it.

This optimism is, of course, not always good. Not everyone is consciously aware of these principles and because they are not, they will falter. Even in the beginning of America’s founding, as they wrote that greatest of sentences: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, even as they wrote this, many of the men in the room were slave owners and slavery is in direct opposition to the ideals they were supposed to espouse.

But that is not an indictment on the ideals themselves, merely on the people espousing them. African leaders, like Paul Kagame, cannot be allowed the freedom to do as they like simply because they give some form of stability. I am extremely proud of the progress Rwanda has made over the past two decades but I cannot overlook the beatings, killings, lack of press freedoms and so on that have also been staple of this new Rwanda.

It is this same lack of reverence for ideals that elevated Libya’s Gaddafi in the minds of many. President Paul Kagame, like many other African leaders, has a history of human rights violations and although they might be justified in his head or to his supporters, we must be held to higher ideals. We must recognize that principles and morality and upholding them are more important than the personalities we are attracted to. Vigilance in the face of obvious evil, in the face of men and women we do not like: the Buharis, the Marine Le Pens, the Trumps, is not more important than vigilance of the people we do like. Often, they use our admiration, consciously or unconsciously, as a shield, content in the knowledge that we trust them to do what is right. However, we cannot afford to trust our leaders, we can only hold them accountable.


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