“I held 250 Town Hall meetings. I articulated solutions to our problems in my constituency. My opponent did not campaign at all. He gathered money and showed up one day to elections. He distributed money. He won. Africans are not moved by ideas. Their stomach leads them.” This statement is attributed to PLO Lumumba, an inspirational speaker who travels the continent reshaping the ideas and views of many young people about Africa.
This view, is shared by many, especially the so-called “educated African elite.” Unfortunately we seem to minimize the historical significance of past events that shaped current affairs. Blaming the poor for their perpetual state of poverty is just another case of blaming the victim.
To the professor and the educated Africans who share that view; there is a saying in The Gambia that goes so; “before you tell a hungry man where he can wash his hands, show him the food and he will decide if he wants to wash his hands.”
“Foroyaa” is our concept of honesty, freedom, truthfulness, and sincerity but hunger is the one thing that poses the greatest challenge for anyone to maintain their Foroyaa. Hunger will make a man give up on deep seated values not because he wants to but because as humans, our NEEDS outweigh our desires. Food and water are the most basic physiological needs of humans; everything else is secondary.
Before the professor stood in front of those members of his constituency with those great ideas, his stomach must have been full; not just with food but the food of his choice selected from a variety of choices. He appeared in decent clothes on his back, with an ability to travel to meet them in their hamlets. From where they walk great distances on foot to take care of their daily needs amidst back breaking labor. Treading the same path as their ancestors did centuries upon centuries ago. They cannot afford decent clothes, housing or food for their children. Born into poverty, lived in poverty and enduring untold hardships to raise their children in poverty.
Not saying the professor being able to afford those comforts is wrong, or that he should feel guilty about the conditions of the people, by all means we should desire such comforts for ourselves and our kinfolks across Africa.
But the question is, have they not trusted politicians before? Have they not trusted people with great ideas before? Only for such people to turn on them, abuse not only their resources but their humanity and their dignity; the politicians and government officials who collude and connive to amass wealth and power while taking both away from the masses. It gets to a point when a people will lose hope that those they entrust their affairs with will perpetually fail them and so they resign to taking from them what little they can, not out of immorality or a desire to entrench corruption; but out of desperation and a believe that the most they can get from those lying politicians is the money they get directly from them.
“They are all the same; it’s not like we have not heard great sounding rhetoric before.” This, is the attitude of many a poor African towards politicians and the educated elite. They have resigned themselves to a fate of perpetual disappointment and hopelessness; they are not the problem. How many times have they fought and bled for a cause they fervently believed in only to be neglected at the end of the fight? For example, how many gave their lives for the liberation of Zimbabwe in the name of reclaiming their land only for Matabele land massacres to take place after they rose up to demand that which they bled and died for? I chose Zimbabwe as an example because Mugabe is one of the most educated presidents ever, academic wise. He led a struggle with a promise that no one can falter; self subsistence and dignity on your own land. These are things the people value and so they willing gave their lives for it. The people did their part, the “educated” perpetually failed them, so what do we do now?
Those with ideas have a task to hold governments to account, and they have 5 years from when a new government is sworn in to the next elections to ensure that government functions as it is supposed to; take on the elected leaders with your ideas, the people will follow you. Yes, it will come at a price but that is the sacrifice needed and unfortunately most of our educated elite are found wanting when it comes to sacrificing for the common man. Their approach can be summed up, for the most part as follows; “it’s their fault for voting in idea-less people to lead them. let them (the people) reap what they sowed.” So the “educated elite” pull back and watch those brutish leaders unleash hell on the poor defenseless people, who will eventually rise up to chase them out. This is when the educated folks show up to ask that they be entrusted this time around. Why would the people trust you to be any different from those they chased out? What have you done when it mattered to prove to them that you would be different? They did not see you speak out or take action when it mattered. The cycle repeats itself again and again and again across Africa.
It is easier to change systems than to change people’s perceptions. For example; people in the west (the so called developed word) have similar inclinations to bribe law enforcement officials just like we do in Africa. But in the west, the one offering the bribe knows that the law enforcement official has a code to operate by and there are mechanisms in place to know when such codes of conduct have been violated. The punishment for that violation is enough to deter him from taking a bribe, and because he is determined to avoid that consequence, the temptation for falling victim is also removed, ergo making offering bribes a crime with severe penalties. So the person so inclined will have to gamble as to whether the offered bribe will be accepted or if they will will get arrested for offering a bribe. Law enforcement may not be a very lucrative career but it certainly comes with benefits and incentives attached, we can advocate for the same and get our institutions right, gradually people will have confidence in the system enough to trust it will deliver. The people who deliver those results will eventually be rewarded with the trust they sought.
Let us ensure a thorough and people-centered constitution is drafted for our various countries; ensure whatever is done at government level is done in the name of the people and be seen to be for the people. Once that is done, the educated folks with ideas can be on guard and constant advocacy to ensure elected officials deliver; whatever the personal cost to them. People are good and will be drawn to the good that earned them good results. We can still continue to expand civic education for the population but focus greater concentration on objective institutional reforms. Blaming the poor for the greed of people they trusted is unfair and counter productive.