In the fifties and sixties, the peoples of the newly independent African countries were told Western values would inspire modernization and lead oppressed people to demand the human rights enjoyed by people in the Western World. Today Africans find it ironic that the values broadcasted from the West represent oppression of the poor and the decay of civilization. Consequently, Western values are fast becoming discredited and devalued in the eyes of many Africans.
When women in Western popular culture, broadcasted throughout the globe, increasingly become sexual objects, it logically becomes harder for women living in traditional, patriarchal societies to claim basic rights such as dressing as they like or the choice of their partners on their own.
When the World Bank and the IMF – due to their structure, totally dominated by Western powers in decision-making – demand higher prices of basic goods in Nigeria while subsidies on the same goods are accepted in rich countries, thus preventing imports from poor countries, Western economic liberalism is not seen as a freedom, but as oppression.
When the veto holders of the UN Security Council, 55 years after the Second World War are still composed of four Western powers and one Eastern power, African countries and their citizens have no illusions about which culture represents power and thus oppression. It is clear that when it comes to important decisions, their voices are not heard.
Naturally, Africans are losing their faith in the economic values represented by Western countries, values that had indeed “developed” these countries over the last two centuries. Attempts to copy these values in Africa have failed partly because market structures imposed by Western powers did not permit equal access to Western markets. Similarly, protective measures, historically used in the West, naturally promote and protect Western investments.
In the seventies, African governments put their trust in international agencies, such as the UN and the World Bank, and tried unsuccessfully to gain some influence by adapting Western economic values to serve their own needs. They were allowed to talk, but were not heard. Instead, they found themselves in the debt trap of the nineties, again demonstrating that Western economic values were meant to exploit them.
Several attempts to alter the power-sharing model of international agencies have utterly failed, lowering confidence in the Western values promoted by UN agencies as a whole. Western domination over world agencies and treaties is demonstrated clearly by the failures of Kyoto/Marrakech last year, as well as the failure to establish an international tribunal of war crimes and the trends in world trade policy.
Why should Gambia (in West Africa) listen to UNIFEM’s (UN agency promoting women’s rights) demand for an abandonment of the harmful tradition of female genital mutilation when the United States uses its muscles to prevent the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol against global warming, which could result in the flooding of half of Gambia’s territory?
Why should Guinea spend enormous resources on hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees when rich Australia, seven months ago, simply ignored calls by the UNHCR (UN refugees agency) to let a ship with some hundreds of desperate Afghan refugees enter its territory?
UN agencies represent humanist values defined by the West after the American and French revolutions, though most of these values are rooted in non-Western societies and religions. These agencies however promote their Western interpretation and classification. Respect of these values is undermined by the language of power, expressed louder and louder by Western governments when international agreements go against them. It seems critics are only “allowed” when their criticism is expressed towards Sudan, Rwanda or Somalia.
Human rights for several decades have been the flagship of Western values among oppressed masses in Africa. People demanded political representation and democracy. Opposition politicians demanded freedom of speech and association and a free press. Workers demanded labor and social rights. Women demanded gender equality. Western governments, the UN and organizations willingly supported them.
But somehow, Africans found out, not all human rights were equally important to Western pressure groups and governments. Social rights, it appears, are sleeping human rights outside the Western world. Labor rights were from time to time branded as communism, which was bad. So bad, that not even the other human rights counted if a dictatorial African government did all it could to fight communism.
Human rights did not matter that much if Western economic interests were substantial – oil being the most important example. Nowadays, human rights do not matter at all if a government is totally dedicated to wage “war on terrorism.” Worst of all, human rights groups now stand increasingly isolated, as they have had to criticize growing human rights violations in the former model democratic states of the United States and Great Britain. In November 2001, Amnesty International cried out about the trend in Britain, complaining about the then proposed emergency legislation and a “shadow criminal justice system” where “indefinite detention” without trial could become the result.
The United States started the trend of reversing the human rights situation long before September 11th. Its record of capital punishment, outlawed in most of the world, generates constant criticism and for decades has complicated the promotion of human rights on other continents. The United States support for repressive, anti-communist regimes further discredited its engagement in human rights.
Not surprisingly, African people, aware of these trends, are losing confidence in the Western expression of values relating to “freedom.” These days, African Governments can easily and rightly point to the United States or Great Britain to excuse their own human rights violations. A legitimization of human rights demands can no longer be found by pointing to Western, successful values. They are discredited. Ongoing demands for rights must thus search for other sources of legitimization, such as traditional values or simple logic.
On the other hand, Western materialism and popular culture appears to be among the few Western values still reaching out to the African masses. Propagated worldwide through radio and television, Western life has been seen as an ideal – especially Western consumption.
In its heydays, American entertainment reached out to a global audience. Nigerians cried when Rocky got beaten and youngsters in the streets of Lagos knew how to dance exactly like Michael Jackson. Nowadays, the vulgarity routinely displayed by many Western pop stars is shocking to both Africans and Westerners alike. Surely Western popular cultural values are in decay.
But what is there to fill up the vacuum of decaying Western values? The expression “African values,” now typically propagated by Zimbabwean dictator Mugabe, is generally discredited as being the government propaganda of dictators.
There is indeed a general confusion about which set of values might take the place of the once universal Western value set. However, the search for new or old values is ongoing. A search for historic, cultural roots can be observed in all non-Western societies. Predictably, any revivalist movement is bound to meet resistance especially since “Asian,” “African” and “Muslim” values have also been questioned as a result of their use of the most repressive parts of their cultural roots.
Even so, the peoples of Africa nowadays act more self-confident on behalf of their roots than only a decade ago. Local cultural expressions, beginning with the arts, lead on a path towards cultural autonomy, which again should influence the value set.
Might one, therefore, express a hope that the bearers of liberty and true cultural values in this century will not be the Western world? The fight against repression, increasingly without significant Western support, still is in its beginnings in many African nations. Fought with more truly indigenous values, it might even have a better chance of succeeding. Then the answer to the question may very well be positive.
Wole Akande lives in Nigeria. He writes for YellowTimes. Akande encourages your comments: wakande@YellowTimes.org