We earn no respect when we conveniently play the famous ‘Africa is different’ card


I would like to recall an incident that took place at a town hall debate where ordinary citizens could ask questions of the candidates during the electioneering campaign in 2000 that ended with George W. Bush acceding to the presidency of the United States.

A member of the audience turned to then Governor Bush and said something along the following lines: Your state, Texas, executes the most prisoners on death row in the United States.

Do you worry that in your zeal to carry out death sentences, a mistake might be made and an innocent person executed? Without pause, the governor retorted: “We follow the law.”

I could not believe what I heard coming from a man who claimed the Christian Bible as his favourite book and Jesus Christ as his hero.

Why do these identifications matter? Because if there is a tenet that is at the heart of Christianity, however it is conceived, it is that, as humans, we are irremediably fallible. This fallibility means that anything that is contrived by us is permanently vulnerable to error and liable to mistakes.

I just witnessed a similar instance of lack of humility and grace coupled with thoughtlessness on the podium at the joint press conference addressed by the American President, Mr Barack Obama, and his Kenyan host and President, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, on Saturday, July 25.

The American president, a scion of an ex-colonial Kenyan father whose antecedents included the murderous dehumanisation of his people by British colonial overlords, and who himself is also an inheritor of an equally egregious history of racial victimisation in the United States that he is still battling even as a twice popularly elected sitting president of his country, cannot be accused of being flippant or trivially seeking to score ideological points when he dared to analogise the struggle for gay rights and the one for civil rights in his homeland.

When he then declaimed that unequal treatment of citizens of a polity on the basis of who they are — blacks, in one instance, gay, in another — cannot be good, one does not have to agree with him. However, what one should not do is to treat his remarks as unworthy of more than a rehearsed, to-the-ready, dismissive response that gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact.”

I have no doubt that Mr Kenyatta was playing to the gallery. Many had been steeling him for that moment when he would show Africa’s resolve not to be pushed around any more by the West.

I think it is unfortunate that in his totally unnecessary show of “resolve” Mr Kenyatta came across, as Mr Bush did, as thoughtless and arrogant.

A little thought would have made him first acknowledge the difficult but enlightening history of the struggle against oppression and for human dignity that Mr Obama referenced and the equivalent of which Mr Kenyatta’s own forebears prosecuted in Kenya, too.