By Tafi Mhaka
ON April 14, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus rebuked the world for treating crises differently depending on race. “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way,” he said. “Some are more equal than others. And when I say this, it pains me.”
Tedros’s heartfelt plea embodied deep unease with inadequate responses to health and social crises beyond Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine. The UN, for instance, is struggling to get aid into the conflict-hit Tigray region of Ethiopia — a crisis the WHO chief previously described as a “forgotten” one that is plainly “out of sight and out of mind”.
That said, Tedros should not have claimed the “world” is perpetrating systemic racism and ignoring “ongoing emergencies in Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria”. It is the West that is in fact so unapologetically indifferent to the many urgent crises engulfing black and brown people.
Tedros had a front-row seat to the West’s unapologetic spectacle of medical colonialism during the COVID-19 pandemic. The US, for example, acquired enough vaccines for three times its 250 million adult population at a time when 130 countries had not administered a single dose. To be precise, the West collectively treated millions of desperate high-risk people, including Africans, as undeserving and ostensibly dispensable second-rate world citizens. Besides, Tedros is a former foreign minister of Ethiopia and should understand the absolute futility of merely appealing to the West’s moral sentimentalities.
Indeed, Western leaders rarely arrive at and implement decisions affecting Africa or the African diaspora on just humanitarian grounds. Many decisions, such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial plan to “process” possibly “tens of thousands” of asylum seekers, more than 6 000km away in Rwanda, are immoral and clearly lack compassion and common sense. They are designed to pander to racist predispositions and please voters at any cost.
This explains why the WHO chief, no less, has to beg “world leaders” to demonstrate strong and inclusive leadership as Tigray endures a catastrophic disaster. As this “third-world” crisis is sidelined and millions suffer unfathomable hardships, unendingly, only an organised and comprehensive Pan-African response can help to fight endemic racism and whiteness.
The demise of Pan-Africanism is regrettable
The global anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements of the past fought hard to get Western leaders to act against colonialism and apartheid in Africa. They did so in a hostile climate. America, for example, maintained deep economic ties with apartheid South Africa.
Yet, the mostly British and American pressure groups persevered because they demonstrated a steadfast commitment to promoting progressive ideals and Pan-Africanism. In America, for instance, the Council on African Affairs, the American Committee on Africa and TransAfrica were established to promote independence for African and Caribbean countries and all African diaspora groups.
Today, however, Pan-Africanism is in the doldrums. In June 2020, George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer triggered a renaissance of classic Pan-Africanist actions around the world. Demonstrations against the police murder of Floyd were held in Ghana, Kenya, Brazil, France, Jamaica and South Africa, amid complaints that “a black man is hated everywhere.” Crucially, America’s Black Lives Matter movement inspired protest groups, such as #EndSARS in Nigeria and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, across Africa.
Nevertheless, the global solidarity did not last or lead to the establishment of permanent support mechanisms or organisations similar to the traditional Pan-African movements of yesteryear.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, for example, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr had cultivated a constructive relationship with Ghana’s founding President Kwame Nkrumah.
In March 1957, King and his wife Coretta Scott King travelled to west Africa to attend Ghana’s independence ceremony. On returning home, King lamented the devastating effect of slavery and the 1884 Berlin Conference that established European colonies in Africa. He described Africa as the continent that had “suffered all of the pain and the affliction that could be mustered up by other nations”.
King was inspired by Nkrumah’s arduous journey to emancipation and drew parallels between resistance against European colonialism in Africa and the struggle against racism in the United States. And he hoped to expand America’s civil rights movement to Africa. And so did Malcolm X, the widely lauded African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist. During the 1960s, Malcolm visited several African countries to meet African leaders and give speeches.
Today, however, African-Americans do not exhibit the Pan-African spirit that Malcolm and King espoused. An explosive 2021 report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed systemic violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent. Yet, African-Americans reportedly believe that “Africans” the world over do not share common struggles.
According to Alden Young, assistant professor of African-American studies at UCLA, contemporary Afro-pessimist intellectuals see no shared identity that can serve as the basis for solidarity between Africans and African-Americans. This, he argues, is because “Afro-pessimists insist on the particularity of enslavement in the Americas and reject the equation of the struggles of a permanent minority with anti-colonial nationalism in Africa and Asia.”
The struggle’s not over
The Biden administration (and others) can deliberately “ignore” crises in Africa, partly because African-American lobby groups are mostly silent on and impervious to our struggles with white supremacy. They are not, unfortunately, sufficiently empathetic towards Africa’s challenges and pretty much toe the official line.
“US foreign policy experts relegate African affairs to a position of secondary importance, only significant as it relates to the US-China competition or the spectra of terrorism,” asserts Young. Likewise, US domestic policy has long consigned African-American affairs to a position of lesser importance, only significant as it relates to city, congressional or presidential elections.
The same dubious modus operandi that protects white privilege in America is being deployed abroad. Nevertheless, Africans have not forgotten about the African-American struggle for equality and social justice. In September 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa suggested the UN should discuss reparations for the African diaspora.
He said: “Millions of the descendants of Africans who were sold into slavery remain trapped in lives of underdevelopment, disadvantage, discrimination and poverty. South Africa calls on the United Nations to put the issue of reparations for victims of the slave trade on its agenda.”
And conscious that a protracted and highly regrettable preponderance of whiteness is nurturing overtly exclusionary practices, just as Tedros so painstakingly bemoaned, Ramaphosa added, “Let us all allow humanism to be our guide and solidarity be our strongest force.”
King would definitely condemn the lopsided global responses to human crises and lobby for change, because he believed in equality for everyone, regardless of race. And he would not exclude Africans from the African-American agenda. The struggle is clearly not over, and Africa’s star is rising.
Going forward, Africa can contribute much to the African-American agenda and vice-versa. It is time for African-Americans to rekindle their passion for Africa and direct it towards establishing a fair and inclusive world. African-Americans should strive to ensure that America’s foreign policy truly demonstrates that black and brown lives matter, too.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.