Who Watches the Watchmen? Pt. I

My little brother’s favorite movie must be Watchmen. I don’t know how many times he has watched it, and I don’t he does either. At the same time, I don’t blame him. I watched it once with him, and I loved the film.

Adapted from Alan Moore comic series of the same name, the movie critiques the American superhero culture in a real world scenario.  It employs a nonlinear narrative to follow the lives of a group of former public superheroes collectively known as “The Watchmen.” The Watchmen worked for the US government, fighting criminals domestically and winning the Vietnam War for them in the international arena. However, the tide of public opinion turned against them and they were forced to retire as superheroes.  Nonetheless, they still continued individually engaging—some publicly and some privately—in what they believe to be the good of the society. Eventually their activities bring them back together in a way they couldn’t have anticipated. That’s I’ll say. If I told you anymore, I’d be ruining a good movie.

As a story, it isn’t all that great as good stories traditionally go. Its quiet complex. There’s a lot of conflict and little resolution, even in the end. But according to Alan Moore that was intentional. It’s a rhetorical film, a theatrical representation of the old Latin rhetorical question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who watches the watchmen? A question with no apparently obvious answer.

But it’s a question that I think is important to explore in the real world African context. Our watchmen? Why, they are many: Kwame Nkrumeh; Julius Nyerere; Jomo Kenyatta; Robert Mugabe; Kenneth Kaunda; Leopold Senghor; Milton Obote. Brilliant men, and I’m sure there are few who would deny their passion for the rise and success of Africa. But Africa is hardly in a better place than it was at independence, vis-à-vis the world. I don’t believe for one second that it’s because somehow African leaders are more flawed as individuals than other leaders. Rather the flaw was the position they tried to play: the superhero.

In the real world superheroes don’t exist. Instead what happens is, as Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  The flaw was that the watchmen of Africa were trying to be something no man, white/black/Asian has ever succeeded in being: superheroes. They proceeded to try and save Africa by single-handedly devising and enforcing the right policies against any resistance. In so doing they actually ended up betraying the common African man and woman. Building a just and functioning society requires the input of every person in the society, no matter how poor and unlearned. For obvious selfish reasons, colonists hadn’t believed in the common African man and woman to develop their own society. Unfortunately, even if their intentions may have been noble, neither did the new African leaders.

At the same time, how could they with all that international pressure? On one hand there was the Communist bloc which was able to convince most of the early leaders that their version of socialism was more congruent to African tradition and thus, the only path to speedy development in Africa. Authoritarian socialist administrations popped up all over the country, claiming to have the people’s interest at heart. But these were riff with incompetence and corruption and the governments soon were heading into bankruptcy.

When they failed, the new generation watchmen were lured by the promise of aid from the West on the premise that they make “structural adjustments” on their governments to allow more privatization. The only thing these adjustments did was allow Western capitalist to begin lining their pockets from investments in Africa. Our watchmen got wealthy from the tips and again “forgot” to include the common African in these adjustments.

In all this, what our watchmen also forgot was that all the ingredients needed for building a stable and just econo-political system could be found in African traditional culture. Contrary to what is presented to the world, the traditional African political system would’ve never allow for tyranny to go unchecked. Laws were not implemented arbitrarily. All across Africa, from the Asante in Ghana, the Gikuyu in Kenya, to the Zulu in South Africa there were functioning democratic governments. Each tribe had a council of elders who represented every extended family in decision making. The head chief had to be approved by the council, and in many communities women played an important role in this decision.

Issues were decided upon by consensus between the council members and the chief. If ever there was deadlock between them, the village was gathered and all labor stopped until a decision was reached. There was no tribe-wide ballot system because it wasn’t necessary.

Chiefs were supposed to rule for life, but only as they cooperated with and acted for the good of the people. History is littered with examples when the people of a tribe dethroned their chiefs because of unacceptable behavior or rule.

As for economics, African socialism was very different from Eastern Communism. There was no central ownership of means of production. Tribal land was held by the chief but only in trust to disperse to families at need. However, the produce of the land belonged to that family. Africans are traditionally highly entrepreneurial and would develop family trades such as basket weaving and ironworking. They would haggle at length in marketplaces to ensure the fairest deals and highest possible profit margins for their goods and services. Taxes were levied only to support the administration and the defense systems.

Africans are socialist in the sense that the produce and profits earned are used on the basis of need rather than accumulated by the owners of the means of production. Families looked after its members, and tribes looked after its families. It was system that worked perfectly and everyone was provided for.

Unfortunately such an efficiently running society would probably have never had the chance to mature and develop into a modern state because of foreign interference. And that’s where we needed our watchmen, to protect this engine of development, to remove anything that impedes its growth and to provide strategic planning and infrastructure to facilitate it. Instead they interfered in ways that were often more crippling—economically and politically—that colonialism.

But better the wounds of a brother than the kisses of a stranger. Even though it was crippling, the emancipation from direct foreign interfering was important for Africa to explore and develop its place in the world. I believe Africa still has the ability to draw from its rich traditional past and implement it on a new platform: the network.

To Be Continued

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History That Is Worth a Tinker’s Damn

I love me a good spirited conversation. I think it might be in my genes. My dad loves a good spirited conversation and so do my brothers. My uncles and cousins love spirited conversations and quite number of them are lawyers by profession. It might have something to do with our strong opinions—which we tend believe aren’t opinions at all: they are facts.

Recently I had one of those conversation with my cousin. It was after he had watched the National Geographic documentary on Jared Diamond’s acclaimed work, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I was the one who gave him the DVD after I had watched it. Just to make things clear, I’m not the scrap-the-book-and-get-the-movie type of guy. I HAD started reading the book, but I came to realize as a full time graduate student you don’t get to decide what you want to read. But I was enjoying it so much that I decided I’d make a rare compromise and get the documentary.

Needless to say, I loved it. I thought it was a documentary that every African need to watch (or book to read if they had the time). It was liberating! It answered some of the biggest questions I had on why the world is the way it is.

So the first person I gave it to was my cousin, to watch and join in my liberation. I gave him the DVD and then I went shopping. When I got back, I eagerly asked him what he thought about it: “It pissed me off.”

That took me by surprised and I was confused. When I asked why, a two-hour long spirited discussion ensued. But I didn’t enjoy this one at all. I found it rather disappointing. I was disappointed and confused to why what I had found liberating, he had found insulting. The more I tried to show him what I saw, the more insulted he got. I finally realized why.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Professor Diamond wasn’t on a morality mission to condemn the West for imperialism. He was simply trying to discover why there was such huge disparity between the developed and the underdeveloped parts of the world. It was an objective quest for an ultimate cause, nothing more. My cousin had found that insulting, because to him it ended up looking like a justification to the history of what happened in Africa. It turned out we were both disappointed—he was disappointed in me for embracing this explanation.

But the last thing I’d ever want to do is justify the atrocities that West has committed against Africa. My own life is a constant reminder of their cruel effectiveness: the clothes I wear, the language I speak, the food I eat often say nothing about my African heritage. I know that I live in a world where the West writes the rules, and the rest of the world follows or get cut to the side. I have experienced and observed all too well, that even when we give our all, we are treated at best as second-class citizens. That is the sad reality that history has handed to us.

However inasmuch as I understand that, I don’t see what we can gain from dwelling on that history.  Nothing we can ever say can change the past. No amount of foreign aid and apologies can ever undo its effects.

On the other hand, if we understand why history turned out as it did, we can learn to rise above our current predicament. I must say the explanations are actually quite empowering.

Professor Diamond demonstrates very effectively how the people who settled in Western Europe and the Middle East had immense environmental advantages because on their geography. That tells me that we aren’t stupid or genetically inferior. In fact genetics show that Sub-Saharan Africans are the most genetically diverse people group on the planet. The genetic makeup of all other groups is only a subset of the African genome.  If the Out of Africa theory is true (as the majority of Anthropologist believe), then there is a really blurry line between who is “black” and who isn’t—which only gets blurrier with history. Egyptians were descendants of humans from Africa, as were the Greeks, as were the Norse, as were the Incas.

How then was geography such a huge factor is the uneven development of human societies? Well, I’ll leave that to Professor Diamond to explain in his book (or documentary). But his explanation doesn’t justify anything. Instead it helps us realizing that our situation has nothing to do with the color of our skin. It tells me that we Africans have inherent the capabilities that have allowed humanity to rise above the limitations of environment.  We are genius, we are industrious and we are innovative enough to break off the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. The future is too crucial for us to waste time mulling over the past. What happens next is up to us.

Henry Ford once said, and I paraphrase: “The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” I couldn’t have said it better.