In September, when former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe died, I found myself in the weird situation of seemingly defending the honour of a legendary African dictator. Apparently, the mere fact of insisting that the entire story be told, as against merely trotting out a common narrative made me a “Mugabe apologist.” On both sides of the highly polarised discourse were two camps insisting that he was, on the one hand, a blameless African Hero and victim of white demonisation, and on the other hand, a gormless devil with horns growing out of his head.
As a journalist, my instincts were to present the facts and let them tell the story, which is what I tried to do. The full Mugabe story, which includes an 11-year stint in prison under the racist Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith, the Lancaster House Agreement which Tony Blair’s UK Government unilaterally violated, seven university degrees, messy populism, disaster economics and a desperation to hold on to power indefinitely, is by no means a simple one. When the facts are taken into consideration it is impossible to present Robert Mugabe as saint or demon because he was simply neither of those things.
In the process of having that conversation however, I started to understand two key self-limiting features of African public discourse. The first was that the simple narrative – no matter how far removed from reality or easily disproved, always beats the more complex and nuanced ones that tend to be more factual. The second thing I noticed was that African public discourse is interminably tribal – people keep holding on to certain beliefs and positions long after the facts have proven otherwise.
Your perception is probably wrong
Last week’s column about Rwandan President Paul Kagame travelled around the continent and became something of an albatross around my neck for those exact reasons. On the one hand, there was a simple existing narrative of Kagame as the African leadership equivalent of a sexy, innovative Silicon Valley startup disrupting a stolid industry. This compelling narrative had been embraced wholesale across the continent and outside it by people hungry for a 21st Century African success story.
On the other hand, here was this Nigerian writer quoting publicly accessible facts to make the argument that neither Kagame nor the supposed “African Switzerland” are anything close to what they are cracked up to be. The discourse quickly degenerated into the post-Mugabe conversation all over again. This time, rather than being a “dictatorship apologist” for insisting on including the name “Clare Short” in Mugabe’s story, I am now apparently an “agent of Western imperialism” and a “democracy apologist” – whatever that means – because I dared to question the myth of Kagame’s Rwanda.
It may come as a surprise to those who do not have a Marketing or PR background, but these beliefs are all manifestations of strategic campaigns and media astroturfing carried out by shadowy “Communications Agencies” that African dictators pay huge sums of money to. For those who do not understand how political lobbying and strategic communications works in an African context, google “Bell Pottinger” and read up on the now-defunct PR agency’s dangerous activities in South Africa. Incidentally, despite being exposed and consequently going under, Bell has effectively reformed under another name, and is back at its old tricks, seeding African media with whatever narratives suit its political clients’ aims.
Kagame’s government has several such agencies working for it, each one charging US dollar fees in the six and seven-figure range every year. There are dozens of such agencies dotting Africa’s political landscape; seeding public discourse and narratives across Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Cape Town, Accra, Abuja and Kigali. Some of them even work for several established and nascent African dictatorships at the same time, aggregating their resources to push narratives like “Countries make quicker progress without the burden of democracy,” “Africans are too diverse and “stubborn” to be governed democratically,” and my personal favourite, “Africa does not need democracy right now.”
My point? Many of these opinions and viewpoints that you hold are not really yours at all. Politicians like Paul Kagame pay incredible sums of money to those who work in the shadows to seed traditional and social media, and they, in turn, have seeded your mind with such propaganda – without your knowledge or consent. The genius of this scam is that people end up fighting passionately on behalf of those enslaving them because they think that the ideas they are defending are their own.
Meanwhile, given enough of a budget and the right connections in the shadowy world of PR, anyone can implant any idea into your head and make you believe that you came up with it independently. I would know because I myself used to be the Head of Content at Nigeria’s busiest (commercial) PR agency. I myself did such work for (non-political) clients.
If you think your mind is impregnable, then you are not paying attention.
Narratives help dictators, not you
One common thread running through many of the furious responses and death threats over the past week has been the idea that even if what I am saying is true, I should not say it because doing so somehow hurts Africa’s image and slows our development. Once again I point to this as proof of the sheer legwork that Kagame’s army of PR agencies and media shills have done. One of the pillars of this propaganda effort is the false idea that development is a function of optics, and that “Western imperialists” carry out regime change operations regardless of whether the people in that jurisdiction agree or not, given enough media criticism.
Presumably, the “Western imperialists” who fund nearly half of Rwanda’s budget every year through foreign aid need the help of a Nigerian columnist to depose Rwanda’s leader if they wanted to. Those who have detailed records of the Rwandan regime’s atrocities in the Eastern DRC – and turn a blind eye to it because they benefit from it – would apparently need David Hundeyin’s BusinessDay column to get rid of Mr Kagame if they so wished. If you interrogate this idea for even thirty seconds, it falls apart on account of being incredibly stupid, but then the essence of PR is to make you believe a narrative – not for said narrative to necessarily stand up to the slightest scrutiny.
Predictably, some accused me of being paid to carry out a hatchet job against a “successful African country,” which Rwanda supposedly is. What such accusations do not account for is that development and foreign investment are products of figures and facts – not narratives and feelings. For all of Rwanda’s continent-leading efforts in astroturfing and media buying, the country’s total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2018 stood at $305 million. For reference, Zimbabwe – a similar-sized country with very bad PR in comparison – recorded $745 million FDI inflows in the same year.
If the frenzied efforts to build a castle of lies and furiously attack anyone who criticises it were working for Rwanda (population 12 million) and helping its development, why did Zimbabwe (population 16 million) – a country that is seemingly only in the news for bad reasons – record more than double Rwanda’s FDI inflow last year? Why are investors more willing to put their money in an unstable economy that is only just reintroducing its own currency after ten years, than in the shining city on the African hill offering fantastic investment opportunities that is apparently Paul Kagame’s Rwanda?
If the millions of dollars spent on buying Paul Kagame positive coverage in African and global media, and putting “Visit Rwanda” on Arsenal FC jerseys is not helping Rwanda attract more FDI than Zimbabwe, then who exactly is this expenditure helping? Is it merely helping Paul Kagame, ex-warlord and lifetime maximum ruler, to escape scrutiny and criticism? Is it just helping PR executives fly business class and take holidays in Rome and Zanzibar after getting paid $10,000 to write propaganda articles to be placed in foreign media?
Whatever it is doing, it is certainly not helping ordinary Rwandans who want clean water, access to education and economic opportunities.
I wanted to tell the complete, factual story of Robert Mugabe, not because I hold any personal investment in Mugabe’s life. In fact the only personal connection I have to Zimbabwe is that I once dated a nurse from Kwekwe for just over a year – I did not have a horse in the race. Similarly, my interest in telling the factual story of Kagame is not driven by a personal or pecuniary agenda. As a journalist and as an African with an implicit interest in improved continental leadership, it is my business to ensure that young Africans like myself are having the right conversations – conversations centred on facts and figures, as against rhetoric and narratives pushed out by obscenely compensated PR agencies working for totalitarians.
The reason I wrote the now-infamous article was to shake my Nigerian audience out of the dangerous narrative romance with dictatorship being promoted here – a narrative that was being pushed by some of these shadowy agencies working for dangerous politicians. Other writers and journalists had already pointed out that statistically, dictatorship has failed far more often than it has succeeded in Africa, so I decided to interrogate the most popular of the so-called “success stories,” and let the facts and numbers speak for themselves.
Cognitive dissonance has nasty results
The furious reaction has been very telling. If I had written an article arguing that Denmark is a third world country, or that Nigerians are quiet, self-effacing people, the response would have ranged from polite shunning to open mockery – nobody needs to get angry when someone says something that is clearly and unambiguously not true. When one knows deep down, however, that certain facts – 8.3 percent of roads paved and $850 per capita GDP after a quarter of a century – clearly tell a story that is at sharp variance with the popular narrative, one either has to change one’s mind or defend one’s position using aggression.
That is why I hold no ill feelings toward the hundreds of people from around the continent who have bombarded me with venomous messages and threats over the past one week. I understand that cognitive dissonance – the situation of trying to concurrently accommodate incongruous beliefs – often leads to anger, and that is what they are manifesting. They do not really hate me, because I am not important enough for anyone to hate.
What they hate is the idea that the carefully cultivated myth of Rwandan leadership excellence that exists in their minds will be destroyed, leaving them without an African city on the hill to look up to.
All because some Nigerian fellow just had to write an article.