BusinessDay
NigeriaDecides2023

“Going native” and the racism of low expectations

In the 19th Century during the colonisation of Africa and Asia, European governments began noticing a strange phenomenon taking place in their far-flung imperial territories.

It started with a noticeable spike in the number and frequency of interracial relationships between European men and local women – a concept that was still very much frowned upon and in some instances, actually illegal.

Some of these men began to integrate themselves into the ways of the locals, adopting their cultures and becoming to all intents and purposes, light-skinned locals.

Colonial governments were at first alarmed by this phenomenon dubbed “Going Native,” but they slowly learned to turn a blind eye to it once it became apparent that it in fact assisted them in their colonial pursuits.

Local populations were much less likely to engage in organised or violent resistance against the occupying empire when the racial caste system that ordinarily demarcated both groups of people clearly, became blunted by interracial relationships and a growing number of biracial children.

Nonetheless, at the very top, it remained official policy that Going Native was a thing to be frowned upon, because nothing could make a man forget his oath of service to his European monarch like the shapely hips of his African or South Asian consort, and the laughter of the biracial children he had with her.

And when individual bad actors from those environments find their way to the already distressed African operating landscape and decide to ‘Go Native’ in their inimitable manner, God help anyone unfortunate enough to end up in their way

Going native in 2022 – a different scenario

While Going Native in the Pocahontas era can be viewed in hindsight as a broadly positive thing, the same cannot be said of what the same concept has evolved into 200 years later.

In this era, when ⅔ of humanity is a single 8-hour flight away from each other, and the internet and social media have severely reshaped erstwhile notions of culture, identity and nationhood, ‘Going Native’ has taken on an altogether different meaning.

Instead of being a journey of discovery, love and acculturation, sometimes taken in the context of a life-and-death colonial struggle, ‘Going Native’ in modern day Africa refers to something much darker and more menacing.

In our day, a European or North American expatriate who takes a job in Africa is coming from an environment where a lot of things are taken for granted. A reasonably dependable justice system. A system of reward for good behaviour and punishment for bad behaviour.

A social contract and a societal safety net. Many of these things are still in development or entirely hypothetical in our neck of the woods, which presents an interesting ethical dilemma to a person coming from a different environment.

Assimilate and operate at a lower level, or insist on the standards of the place you come from, and potentially make the world a slightly better place.

Read also: Nigerians and electoral decisions: The struggle to prove Lugard right

In far too many cases, the decision taken by this person who is privileged enough to be able to make this choice, is the first option. Iam Bremmer and Eurasia Group are an example I will use as a case in point, but they are just one among many.

Based in Washington DC, Eurasia Group bills itself as a “Political Risk Consultancy,” which is a fancy term for “Lobbyist and Jobber.” Having taken on an engagement with the Buhari administration, this Mr Bremmer and his firm proceeded to enthusiastically advocate for some of the very worst policies of the administration, some of which have tolls that can be calculated in quantifiable human death and devastation.

He could at any point have exercised his privilege to choose how to make his money and avoid helping to get people killed on another continent, but when the colonial officers of 2022 decide to Go Native, they do so with a fearsome energy, recalcitrance and maliciousness that would put even the likes of Frederick Lugard to shame.

Unlike the likes of Captain Smith in the Pocahontas legend, these neo-Natives are not interested in merely existing at the same level as the locals. They want to become even more native than the natives.

If Nigerians behave badly, they want to be twice as bad. If the environment enables bad behaviour, they will exploit it 3 times more than any local would dare. After all, what is anyone going to do about it?

BBC Africa, Amnesty International Nigeria – same problem

In February 2022, when I published the results of an investigation into the inner workings of Amnesty International Nigeria, one of the key findings was that while AI had no expatriate presence in Nigeria who could Go Native, AI actively enabled malfeasance by simply refusing to offer any significant oversight.

As one of the sources stated in the story, this could be explained as “the racism of low expectations,” whereby the parent institution based in a jurisdiction where things work, does not expect anything similar from Africa, and will not commit any resources to try to ensure such an outcome.

This “racism of low expectations” is why AIN – supposedly the premier human rights defending CSO – ended up in partnership with the DSS, of all institutions, and the director under whom this took place still retains her job despite having been exposed.

It is the same reason why despite several public and embarrassing failures of oversight and management at BBC Africa, nothing is ever done to correct the course of what is clearly one of the most dysfunctional influential media organisations on the continent.

It is “just Africa” after all, so who cares? Certainly not the decision makers at Bush House and Salford Media City, that’s for sure.

And when individual bad actors from those environments find their way to the already distressed African operating landscape and decide to ‘Go Native’ in their inimitable manner, God help anyone unfortunate enough to end up in their way.

The locals end up as roadkill while the Charlie Northcotts of the world get to live out their African Safari adventure cosplay for a few years before heading back to their real lives.

Except of course, someone stands up to them.

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