The Social Divide in Africa

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I recently attended a discussion hosted by the Royal Africa Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

Even though the stated title of the event was meant to bring attention to the recently passed Anti Gay Marriage law in Nigeria, the discussion became overshadowed by the presence of the rising Nigerian writer and lawyer, Ayo Sogunro, who used the opportunity to read from his latest book: The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales.

The animated discussions were really enlightening, especially with inputs from the award winning moderator Funmi Iyanda.  The reasons cited for the deviation were the fluid nature events in the country, and that a lot of these, including the anti gay bill, can not be viewed in isolation.

One issue raised most often albeit in various disguise was the changing African values. Africa is undergoing a stage of its developing where some are questioning while other are nervously protective of what they consider to be core African values. Take the issue of homosexuality, the line of African governments is that it is a western imposition, and those leaders who sign off the aggressive anti gay bills are seen as patriotic and able to stand up to the West. And very often, Africans’ deep religiosity  is cited as a motivation. What is missing is that, as rightly noted during the discussion, both Christianity and Islam are foreign to the continent.  This means that foreign imposition cannot be a good excuse.

Still on values, there were questions on what values we place on education. The consensus was that there is so much emphasis on paper qualifications and academic titles instead on the ability to reason and conduct thought experiments.  People are so keen to quote the scriptures, their pastors and ancient traditions to justify their actions instead of having  the kind of open-mindedness that gave us the Enlightenment. The leaders are seen as Lords rather than servants that have to give account of how public funds are being spent.

An interesting challenge of core African values was recently brought up regarding the refusal of the renowned writer, Chimamanda Adichie, to change her surname after marriage to her husband’s surname.  This is indeed thought provoking! Do we even know when African started having surnames in the first place talkless of wives taking their husbands’ surnames? Even though this has come to become a tradition all over the world, it is really important to understand that we did not invent it, and that people have the right to deviate from this norm if they so wish.

Very often, it is the Africans in diaspora that seem to exhibit this kind of free thinking? They are sometimes called the lost generation who have lost their roots.  Who then is the custodian of African values?  The answer is probably in the fact that values are dynamic, and if you go back in time you only get to realise that a lot of them have been borrowed.  Nobody has ownership of any values, and we are where we are because some people challenged the status quo when they were no longer suitable. So even if we discovered that our ancestor did things in a certain way, it is not a mandate for us to follow suit.

There needs to be an open discussion about what these values are. Just as the West have summarised the “killer apps” that gave them the advantages they enjoy in the world today, we need to decide on what qualities have kept us where we are, and which ones we need to move forward. I propose that our  “killer apps” will have to include openness and challenge of the status- quo.

The major conclusion from the event, however, is the great divide that the “Africa Rising” story is creating.  This divide is not just economic as you might expect, but social. It is especially social because the dividing line is the social media.  Those on social media seem to have meaningful discussions that hardly reflect the situation on the ground. Governments feel they can easily ignore them as empty noise makers. The results of elections and popular rallies reflect this fact.  Is is then time for all the African social media activists to sign off once in a while and turn to those people on the ground for a debate on what our values are? As more and more people move to social media, this equilibrium might change.  However, coming out as a “free thinker” in any form can be dangerous as noted by one of the participants in this discussion, Bisi Alimi.  Bisi Alimi was the first Nigerian to openly announce he was gay. He did so on national television. Since then, he has been on exile for fear of his life. This only shows we still have a long way to go.

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