On Nathaniel Manheru's thesis about indigenous oppression versus foreign interference

Sep 11, 2011

This year alone in Africa we have seen the people of Ivory Coast and Libya have to face a choice between continuing oppression by rulers who had no respect for the popular will, and a type of 'liberation' in which foreign powers with their own interests play a prominent role. Either choice represents a fundamental failure of African governance. According to their circumstances different peoples will choose between these two bad options differently, but Africans should not have to settle for the low standard of such a poor choice to begin with.

Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru, in his typically long-winded way, addresses a subject that has previously been discussed on this space under the heading How African rulers open the door to foreign interference. Manheru, as is his fashion, deals with this issue as one of a number of only loosely related matters in a rambling article which is partially about the U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks.

Manheru says a reader of his wrote him to say say, 'Observers have rightly blamed this new age of African occupation (by imperialism) on our repressive leaders themselves, who give the West a legitimate excuse to re-colonise our wealth. Human rights abuse; oppressive legislation; cooked-up election results, refusal to adhere to rule of law, refusal to respect election outcomes, dictatorships for life (in fact the list is endless). Need I tell you that despite ‘the good work' Gaddafi did for his Libya, his was an illegitimate government for over 40 years?''

In building up to his response, Manheru proceeds to put additional words in his reader's mouth. He writes, ''The reader's argument to African mis-governance is foreign invasion, occupation and pillage. All this, so the argument implies, sets African things right, indeed repairs African injury from years of dictatorships.''

The reader, if Manheru quotes him correctly, neither said nor implied that foreign invasion ''sets African things right'' or repairs the injury of dictatorship. If anything, his reference to the ''new age of occupation'' and his characterization of it as an ''excuse to recolonize our wealth'' suggests his reader is despairingly disapproving of the new neo-colonialism.

Manheru initially politely and respectfully refers to his reader and correspondent as raising a 'serious, persuasive,' though 'fatally flawed judgment,' and describes him as 'the respectable reader.' This may seem pedestrian to mention, but it is a little startling because Manheru is is not known for his civility in print. He can be biting in making his points, which Zimbabwean political discourse in general needs more of, but he is also often boorish and insulting where rebuttal of an argument is all that is called for. So it seems deserving of note to mention how surprisingly gentlemanly he initially is in building up to pointing out the 'fatal flaws' in his reader's argument.

It is in the paragraph immediately after his display of respectful civility that he changes course and puts additional interpretations of the reader's fairly un-ambiguous words.

Why is all this important? What does Manheru's arguing tactic have to do with the actual content of the subject matter at hand?

That tactic, of putting words someone didn't say into their mouth, and then challenging what you allege the person said/meant, rather than what he actually did say, is one of the characteristics of the many repressive governments we have had and continue to have all over Africa. The idea is to depict the person, before even engaging with his point of view, as a renegade, a 'counter-revolutionary,' a 'puppet' of foreigners and/or 'enemies of the revolution,' a 'sell out' and so on and so forth.

That tactic is the very opposite of preparing to do intellectual battle. It is instead silencing, intimidating behavior that one sees far too often, including but not at all limited to today's Zimbabwe. It has become an entrenched part of the arsenal of repression, censorship of speech and even thought.

People at the receiving end of it often no longer see it for what it is, because of how accustomed they have become to being hit with it. In a way, both perpetrators and targets have become victims. The former is a victim because his now unconscious silencing/censoring tactic prevents him from knowing the peoples' true feelings, often until 'the revolution' is right upon him and the system he represents. The latter is more obviously a victim by not being allowed to express what he really feels, and to be responded to on that basis, rather than on the false basis of what he is alleged to say/think.

It is a sort of invisible, subtle, insidious but terrible manifestation of a kind of oppression far too common in many African countries, but in countries all over the world as well.

Manheru then goes to town mocking not the point that his reader brought up and asked him about, but the one Manheru falsely attributed to him, which was that the reader was supporting or justifying foreign interference, neo-colonialism or outright 're-colonization.'

Before it even gets any chance of starting, what could have been an honest and interesting response by Manheru to what he admits is a perspective ''held by some in executive echelons of many African countries'' is killed. The rest of the time he spends on the issue he is rebutting the position he attributed to the reader, rather than the simple question that he posed. Manheru is basically holding a one man 'debate,' the reader's point/question completely cast aside.

As regrettable as it is that the reader's concern/point/question has been ignored, the argument that Manheru then puts in his mouth instead is nevertheless also interesting to ponder.

Manheru says, using the example of Libya, ''You, the African so oppressed and so abused for more than 40 years under Gaddafi's excesses, get repaid by an European invasion, war and occupation, followed by systematic pillaging of your resources by the West! Through foreign invasion, foreign war, foreign occupation, through the resulting foreign-directed or blest mis-governance and exploitation, you, the African oppressed must feel expiated, must feel sweetly avenged! Except you have moved from internal oppression to external invasion, defeat, occupation and exploitation.''

He continues, ''You are no better, in fact are comparatively worse. The solution to internal or local oppression cannot be external invasion or occupation. You will still need to fight another war, to wage another resistance to colonial intrusion.''

Manheru is absolutely right on these counts.

However, having said what the solution cannot be, he neglects to say what it can/must be for those like the Libyans, so many of who felt so helplessly trapped by '40 years under Gaddafi's excesses' that even the other violation of foreign engineered, backed and even orchestrated regime change seemed like a preferable alternative.

Manheru is also probably right that the Ivorians and the Libyans will soon enough get over feelings of gratitude towards their foreign 'liberators,' and begin to feel their over-bearing presence as a new kind of imposition.

Why then do Africa's despots so often force their people to make this ugly choice, between being oppressed by 'the excesses' of their own, and replacing it with the temporary, short-lived 'liberation' by foreign hands which soon feel oppressive again?

From just reading Manheru's reader's question at face value, without trying to add to or subtract from extra meaning, the reader was saying for Africans to be so often put in this position of two bad choices, and of choosing as the Ivorians and Libyans have done, is not at all out of a feeling of expiation or revenge, but a sign of tragic desperation.

The responsibility for that feeling of desperation lies squarely at the feet of the many African despots who express contempt for the aspirations and free will of the people they rule. Examples of these despots are such as those who cast their lot with the oppressive Gaddafi, rather than with the Libyans who for many years cried out out for relief from his oppression.

Most Africans, as most people anywhere in the world, do not want to be forced into a choice between indigenous oppression on the one hand, and foreign invasion/occupation on the other. What they want is a third choice that Manheru tellingly didn't mention at all: sovereign, proudly indigenous government, but which is also representative, responsive, and respectful of their will. By omitting this obvious third choice, Manheru almost acts as if he does not believe it is possible or important for a government to meet all these goals at the same time. But that is what 'liberation' was/is all about, and why people everywhere are rising up in various ways against dictatorship.

That is also how and why people sometimes weigh their options and sadly, painfully make the choices that we have seen them do in Ivory Coast and Libya. It is a big shame to Africa that so many people would choose as the Libyans have done, rather than the just as undiginified one that Manheru implies they should
continue to live with.

With so many of Africa's people still faced with awkward justifications for one or the other kind of oppression, local or foreign; rather than a third, more enlightened, democratic, just and dignified way, it is truly, sadly still too often ''cry the beloved continent.''

The Zimbabwe Review 


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