“What do you care? Have you heard of Rwanda? Tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima.” This is part of a memorable scene in Collateral, an American movie starring Tom Cruise playing a cold-blooded contract killer dressed in a fashionable slim-fit business suit. Vincent (Tom Cruise) was wondering why Max, a Los Angeles taxi driver (played by Jamie Foxx), was perturbed to have the body of a man dumped in his cab trunk.
The scene is shocking but revealing. Nobody cares about the huge losses of lives in Africa, the sprawling epidemics, and the lack of access to basic human necessities: water and electricity, for instance. In the case of political upheaval, Africans are usually assured by human rights organisations that their “voices” matter, but their lives may not.
Take, for instance, the case of a dear African country — the Democratic Republic of the Congo — as evidence that the core issues are getting a raw deal, at least for a nation that strives for survival. The DRC is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of the most populous. It spans a huge area, roughly 2,344,858 square kilometres in the Central Africa region, and is home to over 100 million people. Over the years, the country was left in the dark, battling armed insurgencies in the east, and various epidemics — the outbreak of the lethal Ebola virus and measles in 2018 and 2019 respectively only the most recent. The country came only to the fore when former president Joseph Kabila refused to hold elections, seeking a third term in office, sending the whole nation into a wave of uncertainty. The West surely reacted and human rights organisations shelled the Congolese people with tens of reports employing the famous refrain, “each voice counts.” By 2019, with a new president already in office, world attention evaporated.
While global media outlets were competing to update their audiences on the unfolding “political” developments in the country, nobody gave attention to the regrettable “social” crisis. Amid that media coverage, has it been noticed that over 75 million Congolese people literally live in the dark without access to electricity? Has any international organisation, particularly those cramming African nations with reports detailing their breaches of the stereotypical image of human rights, tried to raise funds for the people of the Congo, or at least brought to the attention of “the public” in the West that millions of humans in the Congo do not have access to electricity?
Do many recognise the fact that the DRC has the hydropower potential to light up a significant part of the whole continent thanks to the powerful Congo River, the second largest in discharge in the world, next only to the Amazon River? Should the country have secured much needed “funding”, it would have fully utilised the river’s estimated 40,000 megawatts of hydropower, a massive power output that may have changed the face of life not only in the country, but in many darkness-stricken countries in Africa. The ugly truth is that only 2,200 megawatts of this huge potential is utilised due to the lack of necessary funding.
But if you think this is the only human right from which the Congolese people are deprived, then you are completely wrong. The people of the Congo lack the humble means to stay alive, because in case of the outbreak of any epidemic their lives are at stake. Last year, an unfortunate outbreak of measles ravaged all 26 of the DRC’s provinces, constituting the world’s biggest measles outbreak in decades. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported the death of 6,000 people, mostly children under five, with the highly contagious epidemic leaving more than 300,000 people in jeopardy. Regrettably, people in the West never bat an eye for “helpless humans” in Africa. As the WHO has noted, again lack of “funding” impedes efforts aimed at curbing outbreaks of lethal contagion among the Congolese people. The lack of funding for lifesaving medication, particularly when rich West can afford it in no time, is a ruthless breach of human rights.
These are just two examples of how the West replies to “real issues” in Africa and among helpless peoples at large. In plain language, over many decades, Western powers have not recognised that some of their peoples’ lifestyles are not a passport to heaven. “Westernisation” is not synonym for “civilisation”.
Above all, why have organisations that raise the bright banner of “human rights” failed to consider that it has taken decades for Westerners to be who they are today? Six decades ago, the works of D H Lawrence, a prominent English novelist, were banned for tens of years both in his home nation England and in the United States. The reason was that his writings, most notably Lady Chatterley’s Lover, were dubbed as “obscene and indecent”. Now, D H Lawrence is celebrated as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century!
At that time, American and British societies were “conservative” and could not tolerate the explicit depiction of adult relationships. Nobody at the time slammed British or American decision-makers as savage or labelled ruling regimes as “repressive” because they could not tolerate “freedom of expression” or courageously embrace “different opinions” — readymade charges nowadays employed to stigmatise most African nations whenever necessary. Or perhaps, the British and Americans were busy at the time rebuilding following the devastating effects of World War II and they prioritised reinvigorating their ailing economies more than paying due attention to a writer, or “freedom of expression”.
In different regions in Africa, as in the case of the DRC, peoples are yearning for a normal life where their most basic needs are met. Every “life” counts in the West, or so it said, but in Africa it is every “voice” that counts.
In his great satire Animal Farm, George Orwell predicted the tragic scenario meticulously when he stated that, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly