By Baba Galleh Jallow
African publics are generally disengaged from the politics of their countries. Paradoxically, they are also generally saddened by the politics of their countries. This paradox seems to affirm the view that if you do not get involved with politics, politics will still get involved with you. In other words, human beings are essentially political beings. Among the majority of Africans, including a large section of modern day intellectuals, politics is shrugged off as really not that important, as a dirty game, as something that just has to be endured.
Since Africans cannot really ignore their national politics, and since African politics are generally unpleasant to contemplate, most Africans go about their daily business carrying around a sad sense of déjà vu when it comes to what their government is saying or doing. They are beset by a pervading sense of helplessness and often do not bother to join whatever little effort there is to remedy the situation, either by speaking out, acting, encouraging, or acknowledging those who do speak out and/or act. The majority of this silent majority ascribes government to God and patiently wait for the arrival of God’s will to change the government, however desperate their situation, however unjust and tyrannical their government.
African publics’ disengagement with their national politics has its roots in colonial space. The colonial state stood African civic cultures on their head by totally shifting the locus and source of political power from the people to their rulers. European colonial policies demanded total obedience and compliance from African publics through African rulers that they either installed or tolerated. The preoccupations of African rulers were reduced to the task of helping the colonial state rule her African subjects, have them pay taxes and do colonial labor as and when required. African rulers were often allowed to form their own police units and build their own prisons for those of their people who would dare to question their authority or the authority of the colonial overlords. Where rulers were held accountable by their people before European hegemony, they now dared anyone to question any of their words and actions, however manifestly unjust and destructive. The ugly phenomenon lives on in many present day African rulers, some very close to the home.
In postcolonial Africa, the people remain powerless because power never shifted back to its precolonial source and location in society. The men who took over from the colonial authorities chanted songs of freedom and popular empowerment, and energized and mobilized their people in the struggle for independence. But once independence was gained, freedom and popular empowerment were placed at the bottom of national priorities where over half a century later, they still languish. In a majority of cases, independence was understood to be coterminous with the departure of the colonialists, the transfer of political power from white hands to black hands, and nothing much else; certainly not the freedom and popular empowerment in whose name independence was sought, often violently fought for, and won.
Following independence, the people were consulted only for their validation of the new rulers. Their votes were solicited at election times, when they were reminded of the heroic victory of the new rulers over the old, how they were all freed from foreign domination. They were told they now owned themselves and were nobody’s slaves. And they were told to be grateful and loyal to the rulers that God had given to them. Those who thought otherwise were branded and continue to be branded agents of the old rulers whose imaginary insidious plots to enslave the people again would never materialize. Unlike foreign slave masters, Africans now had local slave masters who would not to beat them up too badly unless they badly misbehaved by refusing to be “patriotic” citizens whose defining characteristic was total obeisance to the new rulers. They were often reminded and continue to be reminded to this day that only God could effect a change of ruler which, given their unchanging circumstances was really not too hard for the people to believe. The new African rulers proved more powerful than the old colonial rulers and practiced a politics that rendered the people even more removed from their governments. Africa is one continent that bears the dubious distinction of replacing colonial rule with a worse kind of indigenous rule; a continent better off in 1960 than it is in 2015.
African diaspora communities are more or less equally disengaged from their national politics. Those Africans who travel outside the continent as economic migrants are more interested in earning a living and sometimes supporting their families and relatives back home than they are in how badly their government behaves. Thousands of Diaspora Africans remain mute and seemingly indifferent unless and until they or a close relative or family member gets into trouble with the rulers. At that point, they would join the verbal struggle against the bad rulers either momentarily or permanently. This pattern of behavior is also seen among the African intellectual Diaspora. The majority of educated Africans in the Diaspora maintain a stony silence over the ugly politics of their countries. While unavoidably angry and / or sad at the sorry state of their national politics, at the outrageous antics of their rulers and governments, many educated Africans remain publicly disengaged from the politics of their countries.
The minority of Africans both at home and in the Diaspora who find their home politics sufficiently unbearable to speak out or advocate for political change find themselves in a very lonely and hostile space. They have to contend with a malignant state, mentally blind state loyalists, indifferent audiences and cynical detractors. They draw inspiration to continue speaking and/or acting only from a deep-seated sense of duty and a conviction that disengagement from their national politics is simply not an option.