‘I will serve you with love,’ Emmanuel Macron, the youthful new President of France, said in his victory speech. This has been widely derided and dismissed throughout the world as the sort of cheesy statement that only the leader of the cheese-addicted French people could utter in a political context. As a black African, I beg to differ.
All people in general, and black African people in particular, must be fully aware of the instances when politicians and other powerful individuals have not treated them with love, and they should relentlessly strive to change this state of affairs. For centuries and centuries, black Africans have been depicted and treated as uncivilised, subhuman, barbaric and contemptuous creatures that were unworthy of love and only fit for abject abuse and servitude.
The association of black Africans with mistreatment and scorn was such a deep-rooted tradition that the English word kaffir, which is derived from the Arabic term kafir (unbeliever), was –and is still- used as a contemptuous and insulting word for a black African. Furthermore, it is not as rare as it ought to be in the 21st century for you to come across Arabic speakers using the term abeed, which means slave, to refer to people of African descent. Bearing in mind that the Arab conquest of Africa began in the 7th century, you can imagine how long these prejudices against Africans have been in existence, and why it is so hard to get rid of them.
Worryingly, there was a recent report of the International Organisation for Migration highlighting the fact that West African migrants are being sold openly in modern-day slave markets in Libya (see for instance, BBC News Online, 11th April 2017). This shows that in addition to the persistence of the prejudices against black Africans, the enslavement and other mistreatments meted out to them by Arabs in the past are alive and kicking. I am tempted to throw my hands up in despair and shout: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!’ -the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Arabs are far from being the only people that have a track record of abusing black Africans. Westerners adopted many of the Arab prejudices against black Africans. This explains, for instance, the existence and use of the word cafre in Western languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, as a derogatory term for a black African. Furthermore, Westerners developed their own set of harmful narratives and prejudices to justify their enslavement of black Africans on an industrial scale during the transatlantic slave trade. Among other things, they presented slavery as a form of salvation and a beneficial introduction to civilisation for the black African savages.
Westerners subsequently used these racist discourses to legitimise their brutal colonisation of black African territories, as well as African territories inhabited predominantly by Arabs such as Algeria, Egypt etc. This should be a salutary lesson not only to Arabs, but also to all of us: if you base your relationship with other human beings on discrimination, prejudice and mistreatment, these practices could, sooner or later, come back to haunt you in unforeseeable ways.
Back in February 2017, while he was campaigning to become president, Emmanuel Macron caused uproar among his fellow citizens when he referred to France’s colonial past as a ‘crime against humanity.’ The fact that this did not prevent him from winning the election shows that many French people are ready to do what we must all do: acknowledge and denounce our historical mistreatment of others and then, more importantly, adopt new and better ways of dealing with them in the future.
The inclusion of a black African like me in the group of those who have wronged others in the past may come as a surprise to many. This is because the domination of the modern world by Western powers has often led to a Western-centric interpretation of history, and the misrepresentation of imperialism, colonialism and abuse of power as the preserve of Westerners. Nothing could be further from the truth. The imperialistic expansion of Arabs in Africa and their mistreatment of black Africans, which I mentioned earlier, are cases in point.
But black Africans also have a track record of abusing their power and mistreating other black Africans. I will cite only three examples for the sake of concision. In his eagerness to expand the territories controlled by the Zulu Empire in the 19th century, Shaka slaughtered hundreds of thousands of black Africans. Historically, the Bantus –a big group of hundreds of millions of people to which I and most sub-Saharan Africans belong- have always viewed and treated the pygmies as inferior, subjecting them to abuses including slavery, mass killings and systematic discrimination. The Kanem-Bornu Empire, which existed from the 9th to the 20th century, and whose rulers were mainly from present-day Chad and Nigeria, thrived on the enslavement and selling of black Africans.
I know that it is anathema to many people to acknowledge the atrocities inflicted on Africans by other Africans. They fear that doing so will weaken or even justify the mistreatment of African people by non-Africans.
I disagree. Nothing can mitigate or legitimise the brutal treatment of some human beings by others. More importantly, acknowledging their past mistreatment of fellow Africans will prevent modern Africans from repeating these mistakes.
For instance, denouncing the enslavement of black Africans by the Kanem-Bornu Empire will give us the moral authority necessary to tell the Boko Haram militants, who are currently abducting, enslaving and selling other black Africans that they cannot behave like their ancestors did in the past and get away with it in the 21st century. Condemning the past enslavement and selling of sub-Saharan Africans by North African Arabs will put us in a better position to stop a repeat of such atrocities. So, treating people with love is indeed a political issue.
Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell is Director of the Policy Centre for African Peoples www.policycap.org and Founder and CEO of Medzan Training www.medzantraining.com