After reports that President Trump had characterized African nations as “shithole countries,” the people and governments of Africa forcefully responded. Botswana published an official statement that condemned the remarks as “highly irresponsible, reprehensible and racist.” Twitter blew up as many used the #shithole hashtag to post pictures of skyscrapers in Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi, while others, such as Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi, used Trump’s remarks as a springboard to criticize their own leaders whose corruption fuels this perception of the continent as a place of despair.
African responses to Trump are not just random expressions of disdain for the president’s comments. Rather they draw on a shared understanding of the history of decolonization. Colonialism on the continent was fueled by a persistent myth that Africans were incapable of self-government. Postwar African leaders set out to smash that myth by developing public diplomacy programs that strove to reclaim the ideas that had been used to colonize the continent.
Negative imaginings about Africa are the product of a complicated intellectual history, but their modern origins trace to Biafra, a state in Nigeria that seceded in 1967. During the war and famine that followed, U.S. media outlets were flooded with pictures of starving African babies, part of a public-relations campaign organized by the Biafrans with the help of Markpress, a Geneva-based PR firm. Biafra sought to win over international public opinion to pressure the federal military government in Lagos. For many Americans, these images became synonymous with Africa, and they would lead the U.S. government to slowly evolve from a position of neutrality to a policy that supported relief efforts in Biafra.
This sense of despair was cemented during the 1970s when U.S. experts began to abandon modernization theory, the notion that all societies were developing along a common path and would ultimately converge with the social practices and living standards of the West. The belief in the technocratic state-led project of development, epitomized by the programs for the Third World developed by President John F. Kennedy and adviser Walt Rostow, was replaced by the austerity measures of the World Bank in the 1980s, which ravaged African societies.
While the Kennedy government had funded development projects like the Volta River dam in Ghana in the 1960s, African leaders were forced in the 1980s to approach the International Monetary Fund for loans. When they did, they were confronted with a list of conditions they had to meet to receive relief. It forced African governments to cut back on public spending as the idea of funding modernization abroad came under fire from Ronald Reagan’s White House. Austerity damaged Africa’s dynamic reputation, just as Trump’s are doing today.
But both austerity measures and Trump’s comments have been challenged by Africans who view the president’s discourse as the latest installment in the longer history of their struggle to combat the notion that they are helpless. Despite political, ethnical and cultural divisions, the postwar period did see the emergence of a continental political identity, one rooted in the shared experience of racial oppression as well as discussions about the contours of the Pan-African project. This is what African audiences draw on in their response to Trump.
First and foremost, words carry special meaning in the history of African liberation as it unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s. They were a weapon to expose the immoral character of colonialism. Liberationist thinkers such as the Algerian doctor Frantz Fanon and Martinique thinker Aimé Césaire railed against European claims of moral superiority. Leopold Senghor — who became president of Senegal in 1960 — attempted to counter the claimed universalism of French culture with his own claim to universalism for black culture by writing poetry and reflections on African art written in French.
Similarly, Kwame Nkrumah, the then-leader of Ghana, a country that gained independence in 1957, worked to mobilize public opinion to strengthen African unity and spread the assertive Pan-African project in international affairs. In a meeting of the Afro-Asian group at the United Nations, for instance, Nkrumah spoke about how international public opinion forced nations to act in more ethical ways.
Trump’s statements also tap into a particular understanding of African history in which slavery implicitly or explicitly plays a big role. President Barack Obama’s speech at the African Union in July 2015 played on that shared story of slavery, stressing how it had “skewed Africa’s economy and robbed people of their capacity to shape their own destiny.” Slavery is considered the starting point of a long history of exploitation, an interpretation that already had political currency in 1958 when Nkrumah gave a speech at the Conference of Independent African States arguing that the “slave trade and the rape of Africa” by the European powers were the decisive factors that had shaped Africa’s history.
If African countries were struggling economically, it was because of a long history of Western oppression, not some inherent continental shortcoming.
In other words, to comprehend Trump, Africans draw on a shared history of liberation, one in which a war of words against colonial ideas as well as a continuous history of exploitation are key components.
Nonetheless, what might ultimately be most striking about the indignation felt by many Africans in 2018 is its implication for U.S. soft power. The enduring appeal of U.S. ideas is captured by the disappointment that is felt about a man in the White House who does not live up to the values espoused by the United States. Why else would an entire continent care about a conversation behind closed doors?
Even Nkrumah, who had studied at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in the 1930s, was attracted to U.S. ideas, arguing for the creation of a Monroe Doctrine for Africa. “Our attitude,” he said in his speech before Congress on July 24, 1958, “is very much that of America looking at the disputes of Europe in the 19th century. We do not wish to be involved.”
The indignation felt across the continent, therefore, is not simply a matter of prestige, but a continuation of the work of Nkrumah and others who adopted what they called, the “African Personality” — a term coined in 1893 by Edward Wilmot Blyden, an American Liberian educator — to emphasize the autonomous role of Africans on the international stage. As Nkrumah claimed on Ghana’s independence day in 1958: for “too long in our history, Africa has spoken through the voices of others.”
Despite their differences, Africans from every part of the continent seem determined to take that lesson to heart.