Monday, July 27, 2015 1:06 pm
By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
I would like to recall an incident that took place at a town hall debate where ordinary citizens could ask questions of the candidates during the electioneering campaign in 2000 that ended with George W. Bush acceding to the presidency of the United States. An audience member turned to the then Governor Bush and said something along the following lines: Your state, Texas, executes the most prisoners on death row in the United States. Do you worry that in your zeal to carry out death sentences a mistake might be made and an innocent person executed? Without pause, the governor retorted: “We follow the law.”
I could not believe what I heard coming from a man who claimed the Christian Bible as his favourite book and Jesus Christ as his hero. Why do these identifications matter? Because if there is a tenet that is at the heart of Christianity, however it is conceived, it is that, as humans, we are irremediably fallible. This fallibility, procured of the Original Sin—remember, prior to the Fall, we were images of God—means, if it means anything at all, that anything that is contrived by us is permanently vulnerable to error and liable to mistakes. However careful, meticulous, or judiciouswe may be, law and all that pertains to it are not exempt from this threat of errancy. The singular acknowledgment of this vulnerability to error that is the ground of that humility, that reluctance to judgment, that tentativeness about truth, that are supposed to be defining characteristics of a true, good Christian. There was not a scintilla of that humility in then-Governor Bush’s answer. What is more, it was singularly thoughtless.
I just witnessed a similar instance of lack of humility and grace coupled with thoughtlessness on the podium at the joint press conference addressed by the American president, Barack Obama, and his Kenyan host and president, Uhuru Kenyatta, on Saturday, July 25, instant, as part of Obama’s visit to Kenya.
The American president, a scion of an ex-colonial Kenyan father whose antecedents included the murderous dehumanization of his people by British colonial overlords, but who himself is also an inheritor of an equally egregious history of racial victimization in the United States that he is still battling even as a twice popularly elected sitting president of his country, cannot be accused of being flippant or trivially seeking to score ideological points when he dared to analogize the struggle for gay rights and the one for civil rights in his homeland. When he then declaimed that unequal treatment of citizens of a polity on the basis of who they are—blacks, in one instance; gay, in another—cannot be good, one does not have to agree with him. But what one is not permitted to do is to treat his remarks as unworthy of more than a rehearsed, to the ready, dismissive response that gay rights “is not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact.”
Like George W. Bush, Uhuru Kenyatta did not skip a beat; there was no pause. He simply dismissed it as a non-issue in Kenya. I have no doubt that he was playing to the gallery. Many had been steeling him for that moment when he would show Africa’s resolve not to be pushed around anymore by “the West”. It was the same way that my own newly-minted president, Muhammadu Buhari, was steeled by so-called public opinion in Nigeria before he left for his recently concluded visit to the United States so that he, too, would push back against the United States’ “gay agenda”.
I think it is unfortunate that in his totally unnecessary show of “resolve” Mr. Kenyatta came across, as Bush did in the earlier incident recalled above, as a thoughtless and arrogant hack. A little thought would have made him first acknowledge the difficult but enlightening history of the struggle against oppression and for human dignity that Mr. Obama referenced and the equivalent of which Kenyatta’s own forebears prosecuted in Kenya, too.
And instead of dismissing it as a non-issue, a little humility would have forced some acknowledgment that some Kenyan citizens—it does not matter how many—may be impacted by Obama’s call but that the government remains committed to full equality for all Kenyan citizens, including those who may be adversely affected by current laws and practices. A little anxiety on behalf of freedom and human dignity can never be out of fashion.
Does Mr. Kenyatta seriously believe that human rights depend on popular preferences? Does he sincerely believe that Kenyan homosexuals are one and all misbegotten and deserving of whatever mob “justice” is meted out to them in the name of a received civilization, Christianity, which is now naturalized as African in order to justify mayhem on a vulnerable segment of the citizenry over which he presides? Is Mr. Kenyatta convinced beyond all doubt that Kenyan homosexuals are all social miscreants, sexual deviants, suffering from a “Western” disease with no recognizable Kenyan aetiologies whatsoever?
When African leaders play to the gallery, when Africans decide shamelessly to play the racism-inflected “Africa is different” card, when we tell the world that we really do not care for or about significant segments of our citizenry, we perform our penchant for moral abdication. It is an abdication that makes us worthy of scant respect from the rest of the world.
At a minimum, our leaders should do better than the rest of us. Mr. Kenyatta just disappointed this simple expectation.
Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.