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Africa to the World: "Don't Tell Us Who We Are or What To Do"

January 22, 2013 ·

British objections to how Algeria handled its hostage situation and a recent visit by one of its boy bands to Ghana highlight U.S. and European condescension towards Africa.

British objections to how Algeria handled its hostage situation and a recent visit by one of its boy bands to Ghana highlight U.S. and European condescension towards Africa.

Algerian flag (albeit customized)Last week, two completely different events demonstrated how sensitized Africans have become about Western attitudes toward them. In the first example, Algerian troops attacked Islamist militants holding hostages inside the Tiguentourine natural gas complex. Among the 700 hostages were Malaysian, Japanese, Norwegian, American and British citizens.

In his most upper-crust accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament, “Mr. Speaker, during the course of Thursday morning the Algerian forces mounted an operation. Mr. Speaker, we were not [my italics] informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.”  Cameron said that during his conversations with the Algerian PM he had emphasized the paramount importance of securing the safety of the hostages. He offered “UK technical and intelligence support” – including experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution.

The Algerians might have posed two questions in response to PM Cameron: First, would you consult us if you had an unfolding hostage situation in England involving Algerian citizens? Second, have you forgotten, Mr. Cameron, that during the 1990s, we fought a bitter battle with Islamist insurgents within our own country? The reaction of the Algerian authorities to this attack on the gas plant was hell no, particularly with the looming possibility that the militants might try to escape across the border with the hostages. Since the vicious War of Independence from France, Algeria is prickly about getting instructions from its ex-colonial power, France, never mind the British. Firmly against intervention by Western powers, Algerians would have rejected outright the idea of foreign security forces sweeping in to liberate the hostages.      

One Direction recently visited Accra.The second instance could not have been more different from the Algeria siege. The boy band One Direction paid a visit to Ghana on behalf of Comic Relief, a UK-based charity dedicated to alleviating poverty. Some Ghanaian readers were indignant at an article on E! that described Ghana’s capital, Accra, as an “impoverished village.” The population of Accra, a bustling, traffic-choked city, is about 2.3 million.

But that wasn’t the end of the outrage. Niall Horan, a One Direction member, tweeted of the trip to Accra: “I’ve seen the slums right in front of me! This is no joke! They really need your help! Poverty is real!” Several commentators objected to that characterization, prominent among them Ama K. Abebrese, a British actress of Akan origin. The thrust of her objection was that Accra is not one big slum, that there are beautiful and upscale areas, and that One Direction’s fans would immediately form an erroneous impression of the city. A blogger raised the question of the white savior complex or syndrome, the idea that indigenous peoples of color can do nothing for themselves until a white person arrives to show them how. Controversial rapper Wanlov the Kubolor sarcastically tweeted in response to a published photo of the boy band clapping with a group of young Ghanaian kids, “Ghana is getting worse so heaven sent 5 downcut jesuses to teach us clapping.”

Clearly, Niall meant no harm and he was probably expressing his heartfelt sentiments. In any case, since the band was in Accra for charity purposes, it would hardly have helped if he had tweeted, “Having a great time in our luxurious suite at the Mövenpick!" [or wherever they stayed.]

It is not untrue that sections of Accra such as Agbogbloshie are in appalling shape, but arguments over factual details are really quite beside the point. Ghanaians were reacting to a Westerner – a boy, no less – appearing to set Ghana’s agenda. Niall decided that Ghanaians really need help. Niall defined, in effect, that Accra was a representation of poverty. Africans are less and less willing to be defined by Westerners. As countries like Ghana steadily grow their economies, their citizens and governments feel more confident and empowered about their future, even though no one would deny that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Kwei Quartey is a physician, novelist, and Foreign Policy in Focus columnist.