Discussions under the mango tree – part 2


By this time the sun had long ago said its final goodbye. There was one lantern hanging from a wayward branch that allowed the waitress to cast a large, sporadic shadow over us. Hospice was on his fifth Awayoo (which, when pronounced by a curious Nina scanning the bottles on the table, sounded a bit like an English greeting uttered by a French exchange student), but remained startlingly fluid. He started up his defense of Gadaffi by pacing around the issue under the guise of setting the context.

“To understand the Libyan issue you had to look further back – to 9/11. When the Americans were chasing al-Qaeda, who was it that was giving the Bush administration all the info they needed? The CIA? Haha, no. The fools. The Libyan intelligence agencies were much better informed. They had their ear to the ground whilst the Americans were flying overhead. Yeah, Gadaffi indulged in some practices that weren’t in the US interests, but he was an indispensable ally during that period.

“Then he started becoming a bit more independent and backing away from his western sponsors. That was when the trouble started for him. By 2011 he’d lost all of his friends and that was the cause of his destruction – if you take away the food you’re feeding the vicious beast, it’s going to get mad and chew your arm off. Or if you’re Gaddafi, it’ll just turn a blind eye whilst you get pumped full of bullets. The entire Western media turned against him as soon as he stopped being useful. He had no chance. There’s no wonder you all hate him. You don’t understand him like we do.”

            He was finally getting towards an interesting point. The whole ‘Gadaffi was a friend then an enemy’ spiel has been gone over so many times that it stops sounding original as soon as anyone brings it up. No, what I was interested in was what Hospice, as a Beninian citizen, thought of him as a leader. I tried to put this across to him.

“I should probably outline the issues that the west had with Gadaffi. For one, he spat in the face of democracy on a national level. That pisses us off, but doesn’t make you enemy number one in one move. The irony that he was then the elected head of the African Union didn’t make us want to depose him either, though that is an interesting question. Why did Africa elect a dictator to head a democratic regional organization tasked with making Africa more transparent?”

Pierre joined in.

“If I may add something – in my opinion, electing him just reeks of pragmatism. People saw him as strong, and the classic picture of a leader, so they chose him. It had nothing to do with the Union or what he pledged to do as its leader. Agree, Hospice?”

Hospice could see that he was going to have to fight against opinions that were already well entrenched. He wasn’t defensive, but his sighs increased in frequency.

“Ok, look. I’m not an idiot. We know that he was a dictator. We know that he suppressed the political opposition in his country, and we know that had plausible terrorist connections. I’m not going to try and explain those points away by pointing to similar practices in the West that are carried out more covertly using apparently more legitimate means. No, I’ll accept them. His leadership was tainted.

“But you have to understand how African nations function. We talked briefly about the difficulty of importing European ideals and assuming that they should just take hold here. I’ll go over that again.

“Take the issue of women’s rights. Quite rightly, we laughed at Sanni’s ‘sincere’ commitment to that cause. He talks the talk and organizes séances in which his employees stress that “your wife has the same rights as you” and then goes home to his two wives that haven’t been treated as equals with him since the 20th Century. And why? Because that’s what everyone does here. Wives do menial tasks around the house and a man has a legal right to own four of them. Why should he treat them as something other than what they are – people that keep his family clean and put food in his belly? Men in Djougou might say they’re committed to equality, but when they’ve come back from a hard day of work they just want to find a clean house, smiling children, and food on the table. If he finds that that’s not the case, his wives have reneged on their side of the deal, and he has a right to be angry with them right?

“In terms of the women themselves, there are simply too many obstacles in the way between what they are told to dream for and reality. It’s all very well for SNA to hold a séance and tell women that they should demand to have the same freedoms as their husbands as soon as they get home, but when they get there they find that their youngest child has fallen over in the dirt and needs washing, or there has been a spillage on the floor that needs to be mopped, or their husband has left a message saying that there will be someone else joining them for dinner so she’ll have to prepare some more food. In such an environment the higher ideals are left by the wayside for the time being in the name of balance. He brings home the bacon, she cooks it. That’s just how the family dynamic works.

“What I’m getting at is that Africa is used to those practices that the west abhors, but just accepts them. That’s just how we function. But more importantly than that, we exist in the same balance with our leaders that wives do with their husbands. There are certain things that we need (or believe we need), and if there’s someone that can provide, we’ll turn to them first – even if our ‘womens rights’ continue to be violated for another day. You seen many satellite dishes on houses in your time in Djougou?”

“Yeah, a third of all houses seem to have one”

“All of them – make no mistake, all of them – were funded by the Libyan state. All of them were funded by Gadaffi. Want to know why we don’t think of him in such a negative manner? He actually gave us the stuff we wanted! He was strong, he put Africa first, and he actually spent money on what we wanted. We can forgive him a bit of repression because that’s the price of strength. So when it came to choosing a representative for Africa, we chose someone we have ultimate faith in. Someone that would put Africa first.”

“Ok. Ok. But you surely can’t have maintained that positive image during the Arab Spring though right? Say what you will about a biased media, but there were recorded images of the state military killing civilians. He ordered the death of his own people. There’s a difference between being a bullish leader, and killing anyone that opposes you. The west had to intervene to stop that right?”

“Again, you’ve got to understand the African perspective. And in internal affairs, it’s sadly only those that have gone through the same journey as Africa that can understand. Only Africans know what it’s been like to finally be released from the jaws of European colonialism. Only Africans understand what its like to be constantly seen as the sick man of the world, to be constantly playing catch up with a set of countries that hate you for what you are. Only Africans know what Africa needs.

“Therefore, no other continent should ever intervene in our domestic affairs! It’s only ever a question of oil or revenge anyway for the West. What do they care about finding a solution that works for us?

“You can say, yes Gadaffi had to be removed. I’d even agree with you. But I’d fucking sacrifice thousands more Libyans for the sake of removing him in a manner that was in Libya’s long term interests. Where is the country at now? Holding elections that carry the same guarantee of stability as those in Egypt. The west did its ‘job’ and is now at pains to cut its ties. Fuck the western idea of necessity! You simply can’t impose what you think is right on another continent simply because you’re white and richer. European values don’t work here! It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about intervention or democracy. Africans alone know what Africans need. That’s all there is to it.”

Everyone stopped to think for a while. His argument was so full of emotion that it he seemed to say  “how dare you think differently? You’re full of those ideas we’ve been fighting against”. However, someone had to say something. Ever the supporter of international law, I started there.

“I understand the basic premise, and I have to admit that at first – maybe even now – I couldn’t understand why ideas that I accepted as necessary truths were treated with a cold indifference here. But the fact is, people have other more pressing needs. I get that. But what I will say in terms of the ‘only Africans now what Africans want’ spiel is that Africa is not an isolated continent. It hasn’t spent 50 years cutting off ties with the West and those European ideals that you abhor. In fact, it has actively embraced them. Whether through engaging in the decisions of international courts or by signing international treaties, Africa has signaled to the world that it has exactly the same opinion in regards to many universal truths.

“For instance, most countries in Africa have signed the Rome Statute that brought the International Criminal Court into existence. They accepted what constitutes an international crime, and under what circumstances other countries have a right – even a duty – to ensure that that those crimes are put to an end. The entire international community accepted that the actions of Gadaffi constituted international crimes. Therefore, how can you say that only Libya should deal with him? If Gaddafi violates the international ideals that the majority of Africa has pledged to support, he forfeits the right to national sovereignty. Africa can’t claim to be playing the international game and hope to operate according to its own rules.”

“Christy, you asked me for my opinion. I’ve given it. I don’t really care about treaties and whatever – I’m taling generally. We accepted that Gadaffi had committed crimes and that yes, maybe another country needed to step in to help. But why did it have to be France and the US? Why not just African countries? That’s what I’m saying. The west is so quic to impose its own solutions that it forgets about the existence of local alternatives.”

Given the time and the emotional strain, I was willing to concede that point and accept that the conversation was drawing to a close.

We roused a zem out of bed to tae us home, paying him a bit extra for his troubles, and bid Hospice and Pierre farewell for the day. Ah, I thought. Although confusing and irrelevant in parts, I’d learned a lot. Good stuff.


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