Over a week ago, the lawmakers of Enugu State had the opportunity to consider what was termed the “Equal Rights and Opportunities for Men and Women and other Matters Related Thereto Bill.”
These lawmakers, however, were not in the mood for opportunities—equal or otherwise—and the bill was “stepped down.” I have not seen a copy of this bill but, judging from the title alone, it would have seemed to be the type of legislation that we Nigerians need to see more often.
What struck me, however, in the rejection of the bill was the reported outburst of Sunny Ude- Okoye (he of the Awgu North constituency) to the effect that “Here is Africa and not America… I have risen to declare my stand. I have risen to take my stand that this is a colossal waste. The bill is talking about the women, the women. Who is deceiving whom? Here is Africa. Anybody who wants to practise what President Obama and Americans are practising should go to America.”
Now, I am almost always confused when people drag “Africa” and its corollary phrases: “our values, culture, and tradition” into a developmental debate, especially in order to justify what is often their own bigoted perspective. Such persons assume that there is a fixed or unified definition of what can be considered as “African.” And they are often quick to summon this imaginary definition of “Africa” to oppose ideas that do not fit into their own worldview.
This limited understanding is further demonstrated by the follow-up argument that conflates human rights with “America” in particular and Westernisation in general. Any good student of history—and even current affairs—knows that the United States has rarely ever been the model of equality across board—Native Americans, blacks, migrants, Muslims, women, and sexual minorities have all been victims of the inequalities of the American legal system at various points. America still falls short of human rights values. This is because human rights are not Asian, African or European; they are simply human values.
These ideas seem very ordinary, but it is complicated reasoning for the majority of our legislative policymakers. Sadly, Nigeria’s anocratic system of government attributes omniscient infallibility to the actions and decisions of persons at the helm of affairs. We tend to treat presidents, governors, legislators and a lot of public officials like reservoirs of all human knowledge—at least until they are out of office. Accordingly, it is the rare public official that admits ignorance in an existing field, or indicates a willingness to try out a new field. The more likely scenario is for media teams to travel ridiculous lengths in order to justify the irrational decision of a public official rather than admit a lapse of judgement.
And so, we often assume that the people saddled with the task of deciding our fate—on matters like gender equality, for example—have the necessary knowledge of facts and theories that is required to make an informed decision on these matters. But, there can be no debate without education. It is easier to debate with public officials who are knowledgeable and can shed new light on existing facts than to persuade public officials who want to remain stuck in “our African ways”, whatever that phrase may mean.
Yet, this is not to say “African” is necessarily a bad thing. The point is that there is no one identity that fits the word “African.” The things we refer to as “African” vary both in space and time. The continent features diversity in skin tone, language, environmental conditions, religious practice, and social traditions. More importantly, these cultural features are in continuous change, evolving through internal and external factors. It is ridiculous to state that the gender perspectives of a village in 18th century Africa are more “African” in nature than the gender perspectives of a country in 21st century Africa. Africa is not a sealed and labelled medication that can be picked up and administered whenever a convenient argument is required.
Unfortunately, the lawmakers in Enugu—and, very likely, across Nigeria—know only the Africa of their politically and religiously colonised imaginations. They think they speak for an “African” identity when, really, they are advertising their ignorance. And we see this across the continent, too. Mugabe, for example, talks like Mugabe because he is basically ignorant of a lot of things. Debating such people is a brave but futile exercise. What they need is a teacher.
Yet, who can teach our leaders when they assume the positions of omniscient authority? The problem with the leaders of the African continent is that they have almost all become “un-teachable.”
In any case, with the type of parochial reasoning that is still being displayed by our leaders, we would probably have to turn to the next generation for any hope of general development.
Assuming, of course, that there’s anyone left to teach these children the true “African” value of all inclusiveness.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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