The Gall of the West–On State Visits to Nigeria

Emmanuel Macron's Lagos visit came and went in a long tradition of diversionary state visits by Western politicians who condescend to Nigerians.

Image via Twitter (Akinwunmi Ambode, Governor of Lagos State)

During a recent state visit to Nigeria, French president Emmanuel Macron managed to tweet a series of remarks that, though flamboyantly tone-deaf, only echoed the rhetoric of so many other Western politicians who have traveled to the country, and who, like the smiling Macron, have taken it upon themselves to attempt to “inspire” the local population. Ostensibly motivated by the current refugee crisis, Macron’s trip to Africa’s most populous country pivoted around the French government’s growing commitment to “containing” that crisis, including by “supporting” African economies in ways that will allegedly create jobs and thus obviate the need for Africans to flee to Europe in search of better, more solvent lives.

Macron’s tweets from Nigeria (identified as such by Twitter’s GPS-dependent Location Services, which the French president enabled for his African expedition) were initially relatively innocuous, with Macron offering such embarrassingly impoverished capitalist claims as “Helping Africa to succeed is good for Europe and France” and the Nike-inspired “Just do it” (Macron’s smug advice to “young African entrepreneurs,” whom he enjoined to avoid “listen[ing] to people who are telling [them] to wait,” as though patience–an individual personality trait–could possibly explain a fatal absence of startup capital, or an inability to survive the anti-competitive practices of multinational corporations that exercise monopoly power in so many sectors, especially in Nigeria).

Then came the reference to Steve Jobs. Tweeting from Lagos, Macron told what he apparently takes to be the universally inspirational story of a white-passing man whose “father was a Syrian refugee,” but who nevertheless managed to transcend nationality (and associated prejudices) in order to become a legendary business success. “It would seem,” Macron tweeted with strategic obtuseness, “that nationality has nothing to do with the ability to succeed. If you think that being a Nigerian means you can’t succeed, then you won’t. If you fight and you do succeed, you will be a role model!”

Macron’s message was clear, and it inevitably recalled U.S. president Barack Obama’s remarks (delivered in the wake of a state visit to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania) regarding the putative need for Africans to “get over” colonialism–finger-wagging, ahistorical rhetoric shared by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Africa should stop blaming history for its economic problems,” Obama declared, advising Africans to “stop making excuses” for what was simply, in the president’s typically neoliberal telling, a series of individual failures of nerve and initiative. (For her part, Clinton cried, “For goodness’ sakes, this is the 21st century! We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago, and let’s make money for everybody! That’s the best way to try to create some new energy and some new growth in Africa.”)

When Macron went on to tweet about the alleged exoticism of so “ancient” a practice as colonialism, then, he was very much in the company of Clinton and Obama, plainly taking a page from their neoliberal playbook. Macron’s own colonialism-themed tweet reads, “60% of the Nigerian population is aged under 25. That’s 60% of the population which, like me, did not witness colonisation. We are the new generation. We are going to dispel prejudice by rebuilding a new future through culture.”

Macron’s words are, of course, even worse than those of his American counterparts, in that they insist on an equivalence between European and African, white and black, based solely upon generational factors–on, specifically, Macron’s having been born in 1977. False, racially insensitive equivalences aside, Macron’s tweet is outrageous for the way in which it elides the actual history of decolonization: Zimbabwe, for instance, did not achieve internationally recognized independence from Britain until 1980, three years after Macron’s birth. The notion that Macron was born into a world without European colonialism is thus multiply false–and, of course, multiply offensive. That he feels free to tweet such flagrant historical inaccuracies speaks to the sheer disrespect that continues to be accorded Africa and Africans, and that is clearly rooted in the assumption that no one knows or cares about the continent’s actual past. Periodizing African history is admittedly challenging, and it is an endeavor best left to those of us who are not European heads of government.

Shamelessly insulting, Macron’s tweets throw into sharp relief the long and ignoble history of self-serving (and often nakedly oil-hungry) Western state visits to Nigeria, and they evoke, as well, the country’s complicated ties to France. In 1963, just three years into the First Republic, Tafawa Balewa’s government was forced to sever diplomatic ties to France over the latter country’s decision to test nuclear weapons in the Sahara. In response, a miffed French government breezily, in self-exculpating rhetoric that anticipated Macron’s own, dismissed Nigerian concerns about nuclear fallout, purporting to “teach” geography to Nigerians by pointing out the vastness of the Sahara, and claiming that nuclear testing there posed no threat to them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Cheerfully assuming Nigerian ignorance has been a theme of Western state visits to the country ever since. Of all U.S. presidential administrations, those of Kennedy, Carter, and George W. Bush have arguably been the friendliest to Nigeria, though Bush’s father, when he was vice president, extended his own state-sanctioned olive branch by visiting the country in 1982, on the pretext of assisting the president of Nigeria’s Second Republic, Shehu Shagari, in his Green Revolution agricultural policy, but essentially in order to ascertain Nigeria’s capacity to continue to meet America’s growing oil needs amid Reagan’s unprecedented military buildup. Thus if Macron feels the need to deflect attention away from, say, France’s reliance on Nigeria’s huge reserves of crude oil and liquefied gas, or from the fact that France continues to collect colonial-era taxes from African countries, he is undoubtedly in a long tradition of diversionary state visits by Western politicians who condescendingly trumpet the “drive” of “everyday Nigerians.” The only new variable here is Twitter.

Further Reading

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