In his acclaimed book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a passage I have struggled to get out of my head since I first read it. For about three days after I read it, I could not turn the page. I was both struck and stuck.
The passage comes a few lines after Coates’s critique of the school system he was exposed to growing up in the United States. He says he always got the sense that “schools were always hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask: Why – for us and only us – is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies?”
The irony of institutions designed to enlighten (as is often claimed) “hiding something” and keeping their learners in the dark is inescapable. In bringing this out, Coates brings into question the entire education system in the US, and by extension, the process and means of cultural production. It is when he speaks about the teaching of black history – the story of his ancestors, his people, and how it is taught – that the logic of “hiding something” becomes quite apparent.
“Our teachers,” writes Coates, “urged us towards the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summer, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed their lungs, the fire hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets.”
He continues: “They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in special need of this morality … The world, the real one, was civilisation secured and ruled by savage means.”
The savage, in this case, was not black but rather an established and robust structure premised on white supremacy. This form of savagery masks the lie that whatever was done to other races by whites – the violence, the killings, the plunder – was all for a greater good for humanity and should, therefore, not be questioned.
The genius of white supremacy is that while it presided over domination and oppression of other races, it still set the standard and codes for freedom and justice, ensuring it was sufficiently insulated from being held accountable for its atrocities. In short, pursuing total historical, cultural and economic domination was a virtue of Western universalism, and whatever dispossession took place in the process was justified. The result of that pursuit is clear in the ordering of races via a hierarchy that puts whites at the apex.
This is not a review of Coates’s book. Rather, it is to reflect on what some have described as the “colonial wound” wilfully and systematically inflicted on black bodies and other Southern populations over many years. This festering wound’s pain is mostly felt and seen in the violent dispossession of being, knowledge and nature, a dispossession disguised as a civilising mission.
The analysis is staggering. To be black is to be backward, to be a savage or a barbarian, or both. It is to be irrational. To be white, on the other hand, is to be superior, to be progressive and to be modern. It is to be rational. What follows this thinking are ideologies of modernity, liberalism and capitalism, a deliberately racialised triad that provides the building blocks for the colonial edifice, entrenching the hegemony of Eurocentric or Western values and overseeing the unleashing of both physical and structural violence.
It is important to remember, of course, that the foundation of this edifice is rooted in the violent dispossession of indigenous people’s bodies, language, knowledge and land by invalidating their codes and delegitimising their agency or praxis. But because all this violence occurs under the pretence of civilisation, the perpetrators of these atrocities are not accountable to any form or instrument of justice. They are applauded and praised for their courage and virtue, all of which are said to have combined to make a positive contribution to humanity.
It’s worth noting that this narrative has since been legitimised, normalised and now prevails, almost without question – white is good, black is bad. Yet nothing about its claims could be any further from the truth. Western values, mostly advanced under the rubric of ‘universal’ human rights, are neither free of value nor universal. Rather, they are used to promote the myth of Western exceptionalism and mask the violence that accompanies their unsolicited civilisation.
Why were only our heroes nonviolent?
It is a powerful question, a question of justice – but whose justice? Within Western universalism, the colonial project and its historical precedents such as slavery are justified because they allegedly brought about human development and ushered in an era of modernity. But what about the justice for those who suffered, who were oppressed and lost everything – including their being – while the ‘civilising mission’ went on? Where does their justice reside? And what right to violence do they have?
The irony of this question lies, starkly, in the participation of very few African countries in the crafting of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), a founding instrument of the rights-based discourse that has become dominant in interpreting local, regional and international questions about justice. In 1948, the only African countries classified as independent were Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa. Most of Africa was not free, subjugated by colonialism, dehumanised, and systematically denied every right that was being claimed as “universal” by the United Nations.
In 1948, as the UNDHR was being adopted, violence was being visited on most Africans. Material dispossession, especially of land, was taking place on a massive scale, and so was the killing, in many cases mass murders, of Africans. Leading up to this period and the crafting of this instrument, there were other brutal murders of Africans that were conveniently ignored because they had been some kind of collateral damage in the West’s civilising mission.
It is only when Europe went into devastating war with itself (although it enlisted the services of Africans) and had to confront a savage built to precision in its own image, Adolf Hitler, that the need for something like the UNDHR became necessary. The plight of Africans and other Southern populations living under oppression during the same time had almost nothing to do with this design.
Structurally, therefore, the pain – black pain – suffered by most of Africa at this time was deliberately ignored, pushed to the margins and inhumanely delegitimised. Savages, as blacks had been classified, were incapable of feeling, let alone having the capacity to think or act.
As if this was not enough, Eurocentric histories, cultures and ideologies that stood to benefit from the deliberate and systematic rearrangement of memory, reconfiguration of power and erasure of pain subsequently ensured that the heavier burden of recognising and adhering to frameworks of ‘international’ justice lay on those who had been spiritually and materially dispossessed of their being, and had lost control of their environment and the means to produce and reproduce vital elements of their existence such as culture, knowledge and ideology.
These groups could not – and still cannot – demand justice for past afflictions that bring into question the West’s civilising mission and its accompanying violence. Remarkably, for the same colonised groups to be accepted and recognised as ‘civilised’, they have to continuously subordinate their being and memory to the colonising power. This is done so the oppressed can forget the violence of their spiritual and material dispossession and remember it, rather, as an experience that has positively affected their lives, transforming them from barbarians and savages into civilised people.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o eloquently captured this moment in his brilliant 2003 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, titled ‘Recovering Our Memory: South Africa in the Black Imagination’.
Wa Thiong’o said, “… the colonising presence tried to mutilate the memory of the colonised and, where that failed, it dismembered it, and then tried to remember it to the coloniser’s memory: his way of defining the word, including his take on the nature of the relations between the coloniser and the coloniser.”
He continued “The relation was primarily economic, for nobody colonises another for the aesthetic joy of simply doing it. The colonised as worker, as peasant, produces for another. His land and his labour benefit another. This is, of course, effected through power, political power, but it is also accomplished through cultural subjugation, the control of the entire education system, for instance, the ultimate goal being to establish psychic dominance on the part of the coloniser and psychic submission on the part of the colonised.”
Here, Wa Thiong’o answers one of Coates’s questions – “Why are they showing this to us?” – when he reflects on the images of black people being oppressed shown to him in school as he was growing up. Why is it necessary to show young black children images of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts being violently and unjustly attacked, and then in the same breath preach human rights and nonviolence?
Why were only our heroes nonviolent?
The answer is power, especially the discursive power to name what rights are and what violations of those rights constitute, as well as the power to control which memories to remember and which events to forget.
Imagine, for example, how the people of Chile feel every year on 11 September when most of the world remembers the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. For Chile, that very same day invokes the memory of a brutal US-sponsored coup in 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected leadership of president Salvador Allende and left thousands dead, including women and children.
In 2002, Tito Tricot, a Chilean, expressed this imbalance in global memory and pain quite succinctly:
“Our dreams were shattered one cloudy morning when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Twenty-nine years later, at midday, Chile’s firemen sounded their sirens paying tribute to thousands of men and women who lost their lives without really understanding what was happening.
“It was a moment of remembrance, not for the victims of the military coup, but for those killed at the World Trade Centre in New York. Sad as that might have been, it is even sadder that Chilean firemen have never sounded their sirens to remember our own dead. And there are thousands of them, including many children, who were murdered by the military.
“It is not a matter of comparing sorrow and pain, but for the past year the US media has tried to convince us that North American lives are worth more than other people’s lives. After all, we are from the third world, citizens of underdeveloped countries who deserve to be arrested, tortured and killed. How else are we [to] interpret the fact that the military coup in our country was planned in the US?”
These discursive privileges afford dominating countries the power not only to dictate what can be remembered, but also the nature and extent to which rights to freedom and justice can be either exercised or withdrawn. There is no neutrality, objectivity or even fairness in this regard. Hence, as the UNDHR has continued to share its DNA with various other instruments and frameworks, it has also imparted the element of systematic marginalisation, disenfranchising the less powerful while leaving the powerful to act as they please.
In 2013, Wa Thiong’o analysed this discursive power in a lecture titled ‘The Language of Justice in Africa’.
His main argument was that “our judicial system, the most consequential in all our lives, has no room for African language speakers. The defence, prosecution and judge occupy a linguistic sphere totally removed from the person whose guilt or innocence is on the line, if s/he happens to be an African language speaker. This was the way it was during the colonial era; this is the way it is in the postcolonial era.”
Essentially, then, the law that was used to enforce colonial control remained intact and contributed to building the hegemony of Eurocentric values in the creation of the postcolonial state. Hence, the continuation of colonial-era practice in the delivery of justice has also meant that an acutely Eurocentric bias remains at the core of the justice-delivery mechanisms in most countries.
Under this setup, it is very difficult to imagine any African judiciary being able, for example, to take white European or American leaders accused of committing crimes against humanity – including brutal colonial crimes – to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
That is why British Prime Minister David Cameron – a man personally related to the slave enterprise – can tell the people of Jamaica to get over their violent history of slavery without any sense of irony. It is also why US president Barack Obama can get away with a simple apology for the bombs he has dropped on other people and still not see himself as a terrorist, or as having warranted a “war on terror” against his own country.
The West can sponsor coups, drop bombs and commit other violent acts on African or other black populations and international justice mechanisms would still be handicapped, unable to decisively deal with such clear violations. This is possible because these very same perpetrators of violence and architects of “crimes against humanity” have assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner in the framework of “international” justice. They are not answerable to anyone except themselves.
But one must still ask: how different are the Charlie Hebdo killings in France (remember #JeSuisCharlie?) to the US bombs that were dropped on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, recently? If “we” – the outraged international community – are demanding Justice for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are we doing exactly the same for Kunduz, with the exact same media prominence and unity of action? If not, what informs the differences in reaction, action and reflection?
The ICC’s own breathtaking inconsistencies in this regard are visible. The court appears to be reinforcing colonial and imperial tendencies, reflecting its ideological inclinations and firm positioning in the discourse on Western universalism.
It is important to note that the Rome Statute, the framework that creates the ICC, also derives its DNA from the UNDHR. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the world’s biggest powers and architects of violence continue to abstain from the ICC, but make commentary and take actions regarding the need to hold other ‘inferior’ countries accountable. Where is the blindness of justice if, indeed, justice is blind?
Denigrating African leaders whose “barbaric” acts must be punished for their no-conformity with Western values and norms mostly validates the ICC, regardless of the barbaric crimes committed by Western countries, such as the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz. That bombing, a sad event for humanity, is a war crime by the West’s own definitions.
In all of this, we continue to see ‘Western rationality’ masking and justifying its violent crimes by creating a sense of African irrationality and imposing the burden of nonviolence and compliance with international instruments on weaker states, most of which have been previously subjugated by colonialism or other forms of oppression. Justice – as it is commonly understood – is, therefore, not international, as is widely claimed, but unapologetically provincial. There is justice for the ‘civilised’ world and there is justice for the ‘uncivilised’ world, and it is the justice of the former that prevails over the other. Impunity rules.
In his reflections on Kunduz, British novelist Rana Dasgupta exposes the hypocrisy of the West in its noncompliance with ‘international’ obligations, especially those on war.
“Western assumptions about which populations may be targeted with aerial bombardment,” writes Dasgupta, “have remained intact – and no one should be surprised if those populations have stored up a diabolical picture of the West over the course of the intervening century. What has not remained intact is the basic repugnance towards aerial bombing which made it, even in the old empires, an unpopular last resort.”
In most of Africa, Western universalism does not function on its own. It is built and sustained by a vast and wide network of local actors belonging to well-resourced NGOs, political parties and other elite groups that receive the bulk of their support from powerful Western donors, multilateral agencies and institutions. Most of this support is, of course, directed at advancing ‘human rights’.
These groups have become capable of articulating, translating and transferring hegemonic and dominant Western ideas on to the broader populations, and orienting them towards the preferences and ideologies of Western capital in the process. Most NGOs operating in Africa today act as extensions of the dominant structures of the global political economy. Their demands for justice are usually coherent with the Western outlook, which often makes no allowance for any organic solutions to dispute resolution.
This is not to suggest a lack of agency on the part of African NGO workers, political party activists and other policy elites. But through the channels these individuals are exposed to thanks to Western capital – Western conferences, training programmes, education, policy dialogues and other funding – hegemonic Western ideas are adopted, internalised, translated and then articulated by these African actors whose locus of enunciation, like their memory, becomes subordinate to Western values.
Further, African NGO workers popularise Western ideas, methods and histories among unsuspecting sections of the local population via popular interventions such as workshops, community meetings, reports, statements and the media, helping Western notions of justice become the dominant principles in African countries too. Through this highly mediated and biased process, the architecture of global domination is sustained, while the development of alternative ideas, processes and actions that might challenge hegemonic power is prevented.
Are alternative instruments and mechanisms for justice even possible to imagine under such circumstances? Can the framework of ‘international’ justice be decolonised and something more humane, more inclusive and more accountable emerge from that process? Can an African redemption song for freedom, emancipation and justice be understood by white saviours who, although they claim to be on a civilising mission, preside over the annihilation of other races’ languages, culture and histories?
To achieve this, a whole process of deconstruction and reconstruction is necessary. Debilitating forms of aid and other dependency have suppressed the creation of organic movements that can aptly respond to contemporary struggles for justice. The search for a sovereign consciousness, which when found will give birth to new forms of activism, imagination and ideology, must begin with a repudiation of existing arrangements of power between the West and the oppressed South. Such a refusal would no doubt be met with resistance and punishment in the form of sanctions, marginalisation or – at worst – bombs.
But “[such] divergence,” writes the decolonial scholar Catherine Walsh, “is not meant to simplify indigenous or black thought, or to relegate it to the category or status of localised, situated, and culturally specific and concrete thinking; that is to say, as nothing more than ‘local knowledge’ understood as mere experience. Rather it is to put forward its political and decolonial character, permitting a connection then among various [organic thoughts] as art of a broader project of ‘other’ critical thought and knowledge.”
In this regard, the principle of justice is not being questioned. What is under scrutiny is the manner in which mechanisms of justice, especially those operating in the international sphere, are designed, and whose interests they serve. It is unacceptable to have countries that preach waters of democracy and freedom while drinking the wine of tyranny and impunity, and still insist that the instruments being used to demand justice are credible, fair and just.
It is important to note and recognise that what is being questioned by the African Union (AU), for example, is not the need for an institution such as the ICC to exist, but rather its function and commitment to principles of international law and justice if, indeed, justice is blind.
The criticism levelled at the AU for its intention to withdraw from the ICC is not without merit either. Without a court of this nature, many people – not just in Africa – are likely to escape accountability for actions that violate human rights, leading to gross impunity and the failure of those who suffer abuse to access justice.
The debate on the conduct of the ICC towards Africa is, undoubtedly, critical. But if it excludes a much stronger focus on the need to review and strengthen local justice systems, doing away with the inherent structure and culture of colonial oppression, effective access to justice and legal protection of citizens’ rights will remain a pipe dream from many on the continent.
This debate also has to analyse the complicity of Western powers in propping up regimes that are profoundly anti-people but can afford to do so because they know they receive protection for the services they render in guaranteeing the West’s geopolitical and other strategic interests. Some crimes against humanity, according to Western definitions, have taken place with the blessing of the West.
Ultimately, decolonising ‘international’ justice requires the building of stronger South-South relations and fostering a more holistic approach in decolonising language, history and ideology. It will not happen overnight, and the resistance to such efforts will be great. But it is the only way towards a more just and moral world.
Main Pic: Amnesty International campaign