An examination of evils in Africa
By Kofi Akosha-Sarpong
The eccentric atmosphere following the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's President, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity (short of genocide) in Darfur open the obscurities of evil in Africa for the past 50 years.
In some sort of grim moment, al-Bashir and the ICC are quarrelling over the darkness in Darfur, where the United Nations estimates that over 300,000 people (and still counting) have died in the past six years of the conflict. So, what have al-Bashir being doing in the past years to have prevented such evil? And al-Bashir denies the ICC charges and dismisses any ruling by the ICC as insignificant and rejects the chilling pains, horrors, darkness, and deaths hovering over Darfur.
Africans, who have over the past 50 years seen other horrifying evils across their borders, are a bit relieved over the al-Bashir indictment – at least, for now, psychologically. Al Bashir’s formal arrest and trial will add up to the updating on Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s ex-warlord Thomas Lubanga and Chad’s Hissène Habré. And as Clifton Crais meditates in Politics of Evil, Africans, with the help of the international community, are capable of fighting evils that have destroyed their progress as they did against one of the great evils of the 20th century – South Africa’s apartheid.
For the past decades, from Idi Amin’s Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s Central African Republic (CAR), Samuel Doe’s Liberia, Foday Sankoh’s Sierra Leone, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia to Juvénal Habyarimana’s Rwanda, stains of deadly ethnicity, threats, frightening tension, harassments, massacres, witchcraft, human sacrifices, genocides, deaths, civil wars, famine, murders, floods, locusts and other natural disasters have visited Africa.
With fast developing global communication gadgets, Africa’s evils are being tracked day in, day out by satellites, video clips, radio, mobile phones, photographs, and computers, showing vivid clarities of the heavy suffering of the people of Darfur, CAR’s north-east region, Chad’s Zaghawa and Tama ethnic groups and the DRC’s eastern region. Video clips released by the British-based Aegis Trust show a Sudanese government soldier saying he was forced to rape at gunpoint by a senior officer and other doers said such acts were intended to make babies of a different race.
Now and then, an evil, a true chasm.
An evening newscast would tell the natural tribulations – the Supreme Being (God)’s anger and nature – locusts’ outbreak in Mali, the Gambia, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso, the floods in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia, the deaths by cholera in Zimbabwe, and ebola outbreak in the DRC. As Darfur shows, it would add up to moral evils – the horrors accomplished by Africa’s “Big Men” and their foreign accomplices. After Darfur, Liberia and Sierra Leone, anything new about Africa’s evils? Hackings in apartheid South Africa? The simultaneous assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s President Bernardo Vieira and Chief of its Armed Forces, Gen. Tagme na Waie, on purely tribal hatred? A baby, called Mercy, left to die in Ghana’s Upper West region for allegedly being a witch? Or the constant kidnappings in Nigeria’s fidgety Niger Delta region where pregnant women are raped to death? Its being awhile in 2005 when the charity Medecine Sans Frontieres reported that almost 500 cases of rape against women, children and men in Darfur – the horror is still going on.
From genocide, rape, human sacrifices, floods, moral evils, cannibalism to juju-marabout mediums and witchdoctors messing up families, Africa has seen all evils and appears to have explored all sorts of evil deeds. Villages and farms burned in Sierra Leone and Liberia during their civil wars were evils made noticeable. The evil turned people’s shelters and livehood upside down, with some committing suicide as a result.
Despite highly developed high-tech war gadgets, the genocide in Rwanda saw the use of crude weapons – machetes. In Conspiracy to Murder - the Rwandan Genocide, Linda Melvern explains how machetes were purposely imported from Egypt and France to commit the genocide in an atmosphere of frightful tribalism. In the Liberian civil war, both President Samuel Doe and then rebel leader Charles Taylor used sophisticated weapons and demonized each other as evil. Doe had Taylor as evil, Taylor had Doe as evil. After Doe’s murder and with Taylor confronted with new war as President, Taylor came down as the evil one by rebel forces. Liberian women organized protests that helped push Taylor into exile in Nigeria and later on his on-going trial at The Hague on eleven counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other slaughter.
Is there more or less evil in Africa today?
Is there more or less evil in Africa today than 50 years ago? As Ghana and Benin Republic exemplify, the past years have brought the triumph of democratic order and freedoms against long years of detestable military juntas and insomniac one-party systems. In Ethiopia and Benin Republic communism collapsed; in South Africa apartheid was toppled; the end of the Cold War freed Africa as the threatre of Superpower rival that left Somalia burnt down and Liberia in the gutter. But state violence persists in most African states – in the style of CAR’s Bokassa, Guinea’s Sekou Toure and Mobutu’s Zaire.
Across Africa, democracy and freedoms are flowering, though with pains, announcing the beginning of history, with mass communications and global prosperity knocking down the old order. Africa can take satisfaction from the progress of Ghana, Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, Benin, South Africa, Botswana and Mauritius, without disparagement, that reason, the rule of law, freedoms, human rights and democracy are pushing out some of its evils into the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and enlightening the continent.
But as Somalia, CAR, the DRC and Darfur show some parts of Africa are concurrently darker. The amputations in Sierra Leone and the dismembering of people in Liberia during their respective civil wars not only announced that each African era reveals its own evils but also the sorting out of different darkness. In some parts of Africa evil may be changing its priorities and intentions but pretty much of it remain the same – human sacrifices remains the same, and is increasing in Gabon over the past twenty years, where Jean-Elvis Ebang Ondo, a school teacher, has been waging national campaigns against human sacrifices after his 12-year-old son and a friend were ritualistically killed, their dismembered bodies washed up on a Libreville beach.
From the African culture to the practices of their nation-states, evil does exist – Africans do not argue about that, they know all about the horrors evil brings, as new killing-fields, from DRC, Darfur to Somalia, show, the level of horrors still shock even the most hardened observers, revealing how violent, corrupt, atrocious and vicious Africa’s evil perpetrators can be. Natural evils or the hands of the Supreme Being? The 2000 catastrophic flood in Mozambique that made many homeless, about 800 people killed, over 1,400 km² of arable land destroyed and over 20,000 head of cattle lost, the worst in 50 years, shows nature’s impulses and brutalities that go past reasoning.
But though Africans know evil exist, they do not give it too much credit, to do that is to give more power to evil than good. Africans acknowledge that their cultural universe is a battleground between evil and good forces, the outcome not in doubt, where good triumph over evil, over witchcraft and demons. As the re-marking of Uganda by Yoweri Museveni shows after Idi Amin’s cataclysm, Africans know evil is temporary but good is permanent. From the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, Africans, who are one of the most forgiving of humanity, do not allow their lower instincts and tragedies grow-up as the dominant idea. To do that is to make evil equal to the Supreme Being. What passes for evil, such as a baby called Mercy abandoned to die in Ghana’s Upper West region, for allegedly being a witch, may be mere ignorance that can be corrected with public human rights education. Guinea-Bissau’s dark metaphysics can be managed by the regional body ECOWAS seeing it as outlandish accidents or absolute stupidity.
Or, for the matter of evil challenging the Supreme Being, Zambia’s ex-Roman Catholic Archbishop, Emmanuel Milingo, talks of the fact that in African tradition, development occurs only when the metaphysical is balanced with the physical. And where there is no balance, crises occur. Here darkness isn’t empowered; the darkness hasn’t the same power as the light.
But as Africans deal with evil, the issue is being moved out of their metaphysics into the intellectual framework, into the human agency, into the ICC, into the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions across Africa, into the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, into the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone and the growing democracies, the rule of law and freedoms across the continent. This means evil as an African dilemma will be solved more intelligently outside the African cosmological context.
This moves the evil discussions out of African fatalism and “na god mak am” (God has destined it) syndrome, as the Sierra Leonean would say, to the holistic, making the evil-doers responsible for their actions, as human agencies, and not some demons, evil spirits influencing malevolent perpetrators. When in DRC’s Ituri province between June 2007 and June 2008, 6,766 cases of rape were reported, according to the UN, with 43% involving children, the evil debate was being addressed outside demonology to the intellectual framework, to the real world. Despite that, as Lance Morrow explains in Evil: An Investigation, evil is amorphous, intellectually unmanageable, an anonymous, hideous charm, difficult to comprehend, and no explanation as to what it is despite attempts by geo-politics and sociobiology to do so.
Evil is alive in Africa
Despite the years of Mobutu, Bokassa, Idi Amin, and Siad Barre that saw more mayhem in Africa and sown the seeds for much of today’s Africa’s evil – collapsed states, murders, deaths, civil wars, human sacrifices, negative superstitious beliefs, corruption, deadly ethnicity, frightening tension, genocide, crime against humanity – the understanding was that Africa’s evil will recede with new generation of elites. But evil is still wandering across Africa, where in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Zimbabwe, the CAR, DRC cholera outbreaks are denied, ritual murders on the rise, babies’ skulls are dashed against rocks, attempts to twist off the heads of toddlers, girls, their mothers, grandmothers and their male relatives raped at knife or gunpoint, the weapons then used to inflict mutilation.
Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh, whose rebel group the Revolutionary United Front amputated people, mutilated opponents, engaged in sexual violence, and burnt down villages and farms, raised atavistic questions about evil. But Africa is confronting new forms of evil – corruption, tribalism, fear of military juntas, threats of one-party regimes, the environment/poor sanitation, Pull Him/Her Down (PHD) syndrome, drugs, HIV/AIDS, deadly superstition, child abuse, genocide, the “Big Man” syndrome. The fear of military juntas and one party regimes that saw Africans looted, insulted, harassed, threatened, abused with impunity, and killed are receding with remarkable speed. Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha, who ruled from 1993 to 1998 and perhaps the most brutal and looting military figure of Africa’s recent memory, robbed over US$4 billion with his family and cronies within a short four years, against the backdrop of abject poverty and despair, fear, deaths, mindlessness, harassment, threats and Big Man’s syndrome.
For the past 50 years, much of Africa’s evils have not been from nature, or the Supreme Being, but from Africans themselves. The evil has been Africans destroying each other as they attempts to progress in the fashion of PHD. In Ghana, the John Atta Mills administration, aware of the micro-level PHD projected into the macro-level, that have seen the destructive practice of new regimes either discontinuing or destroying development programs of the previous regimes, says “policies and programmes currently in the pipeline, initiated by the last administration, which supported positive national development, must be thoroughly reviewed, preserved and added to the new initiative that would be recommended.”
Whether by nature or African-made, new evils raise new moral queries. Why destroy the African each other? Why Darfur? Why PHD? Who is to blame? Does evil sorely emanates from certain parts of the African culture or not – where do you put responsibilities? Are evils, whether by nature or the African, the act of the Supreme Being and, therefore, not Africans responsibility? Or if Africa’s evils are the actions of Africans, then they have moral responsibility to answer?
Does evil exist in Africa?
To be convinced that evil exists in Africa, just look at the rapid spread of churches and mosques across the continent. In a culture where evil spirits and demons are everyday discussions, where people attribute their misfortunes to them and struggle to seek protection against them, and the churches and mosques becoming refuge, evil does exists. In Ghana, the suggestion has been made by Akanayo Konkronko, director of Black Herbal Clinic, a traditional medicine clinic that among other activities battle evil spirits, for the establishment of National Spiritual Courts to try traditional spiritual cases.
Why are Africans obsessed with evil? Who created evil? What does evil look like? If evil is a mystery, as some thinkers argue, can it be scientifically or systematically proved? When Africans speak of evil, what do they mean? Is traditional sense of evil the same as modern sense of evil? Can we know evil; can the African know what drive Sudan’s Arab janjaweed militias to engage in racially motivated rape against African fellow Muslims in Darfur? A dilemma! But we can know the works of evil and the fact that it is strange and understated. President Charles Taylor used to enforce discipline in schools by canning his daughter publicly for indiscipline but is on trial for crime against humanity in The Hague.
As the destructions of the cities and plains in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire show evil is easier to undertake. And as attempts at reconstruction of the cities and plains in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire show creativity is harder. African dictators, who have caused immense destruction of the continent, normally have leisure time while their countries burn. Samuel Doe has nice time drinking whisky while Liberia implodes. Kutu Acheampong entertained women with alcohol and cigarettes at the Osu Castle while Ghana’s socio-economic affairs collapsed.
As the hearings at various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions across Africa revealed evil is the dread projected to the category of the incomprehensible. When the rebel forces neared Monrovia, Samuel Doe and his associates fatalistically shouted, “No Doe, No Liberia,” and they destroyed Monrovia. Despite the atrocities some Liberians were prepared to forgive. Part of the reason may be their inability to understand why brothers and sisters will easily destroy each other for nothing. And sometimes, as the ICC, the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions across Africa, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the ICTR indicate, evil is actions we cannot forgive. Thomas Lubanga, a DRC ex-warlord, is on trial at the ICC for recruiting children under 15 to fight. To Lubanga and his likes of Foday Sankoh, what has children got to do with DRC’s troubles that they should be used to fight?
Evil and the Other
Nowhere in Africa is evil the Other than in Darfur, Rwanda and Burundi – evil is the one outside the ethnic group. As the Rwandan genocide revealed evil works by dehumanizing the Other: The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw the mass killing of between 800,000 to 1,000,000 of Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by Hutus under the Hutu power ideology over the course of approximately 100 days, from the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April up until mid-July. Its rapidity reveals its vicious and well-organized logic, where recognizing others as evil justified further the mass killings against them.
In Benin, one of the reasons for its stable democracy for the past 16 years, is its ability to highly integrate its over 42 ethnic groups, thus moving beyond people thinking in terms of deadly ethnicity, of categories, one of the methods of evil. In the Ethiopia of 1974 to 1991, true to its Marxist-Leninist thinking of categories, not human beings, saw the ruling Marxist Derg, under Mengistu Haile Mariam, used cruel tactics, including executions, assassinations, torture and the imprisonment of tens of thousands without trial, most of whom were innocent, to enforce its categories.
In either Rwanda or Ethiopia, and by extension other African states where the evils of the Other is a pressing issue, evil hardens into the fixed, creates chemistry that brews into obliteration of the Other, by becoming pitiless, persistent. Here comprehension reaches its limit and evil, ever charismatic, lures the mind to destruction. Guinea-Bissau’s tribalism is so deadly that President Bernardo Vieira instructed elements of his Balante tribe to kill Chief of Armed Forces, Gen. Tagme na Waie, whose Papel elements in the army retaliated by killing President Viera. Once again, Benin has superbly integrated its ethnic groups, and despite evil and good still circling in people’s mind, like any human being, it has been able to deal with the evil of tribalism by its ability to let its citizens think not in class or categories, despite being a former Marxist ideologue. Such skillful ethnic integration cures evil as a malady.
Evils in Africa – a metaphysical dilemma
If in the horrors of Darfur and eastern DRC we see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown where there is Satanic revelry in the wood and the devil proclaims, “Evil is the nature of mankind. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race,” can the Supreme Being be faulted for the evil nature of the perpetrators since He/She is the creator? In African cosmology, the existence of evil (or demons) explains the existence of the Supreme Being, making the Supreme Being meaningful in a world of evil. Whether in African cosmology or other worldly theologies, there have long been attempts by theodicy to grapple with the good Supreme Being and dreadful evil. As the revulsions in Darfur and eastern DRC show, people cannot come to terms with such evil, making any explanation of theodicy unpersuasive.
If there is good Supreme Being then why the horrors in Somalia, Darfur and eastern DRC? Why the use of child soldiers and sex slavery by supposedly adults who should be responsible? Why outrageous believe in witchcraft? Why do some Africans engage in human sacrifices? Why albinos should in Tanzania, Ghana and other African states be killed for rituals and in Ghana hunchback’s hump ritualistically cut off for rituals and the “murder of physically challenged persons for superstitious reasons?” Short of clearer theological explanations, thinkers such as Elie Wiesel, the American Nazi holocaust survivor, argue that either the good Supreme Being is in “exile” or “retracted himself,” and so the issue of tackling evil, either in Somalia, Darfur or eastern DRC, rest with responsibilities, that will redeem Africa’s evil, and “even God himself.”
For, whether by the Supreme Being or not, both evil and goodness is in our minds, and will need the ICCs and African civil societies to wash the evil parts for the good of the African in the face of lack of freedom, poor rule of law, certain cultural practices that violate human rights, paternalistic “Big Man” syndrome, and authoritarianism in most African countries. A former DRC vice-president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, an example of Africa’s “Big Man” malady, will know soon whether he will be tried for war crimes stemming from rapes in the near-collapsed Central African Republic. Africa’s evil have brought out the African condition and helped the growing of the ongoing human rights, the rule of law, democracies and freedoms across the continent. At the same time, these reveal the amorphous nature of evil, its corresponding mysteries, and the dilemma confronting theodicy in addressing evil.
Taking on the evil in the African culture
Martin Meredith, in The Fate of Africa, recount that between 17 to 19 April, 1979 the President of CAR, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who had been accused of cannibalism as part of his juju rituals, participated in the massacre of a number of elementary school students after they had protested against wearing the costly, government-required school uniforms. Around one hundred were murdered and Bokassa personally beat some of the children to death with his cane.
Over the years, it appears the Bokassa evils have been growing in some parts of Africa where juju help massage the Big Man’s ego trip. Africans talk of how some of their leaders appropriate the dark parts of their culture for evil – human sacrifices, charms, ritual blood bathing, burying of persons alive with juju-marabout charms, and other fearsome rituals that block general enlightenment. Tune into the Charles Taylor trial in The Hague or the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown and you will be shocked beyond believe about the immense dominance and power of juju-marabout practices, savageries, horrors, the despising of the Supreme Being, the filth and the demonism of Africa. But such negative practices playing with the positive parts in the African culture remain constant and familiar, the proportions roughly the same over the years.
How does Africa contain the proportion of God and evil in the horrible deeds that happened to Rwandans, Congolese, Darfuris, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans? Why should God allow Bokassa to have such evil thoughts and practice them with the state’s instruments of coercion? If culture is the construction of people, why the construction of these destructive parts that appear to turn some Africans evil?
Aware of certain destructive parts of their culture and the rest of Africa, Ghanaian public intellectuals – academics and journalists - have rolled out some sort of 17th century European Enlightenment campaigns to refine certain aspects of their culture they deemed destructive, and move their society from the shadows of evil, mal-development, negative superstition and unreason. Using universal human rights values as tools to address these evils, Ghanaian public intellectuals are taking on juju-marabout mediums messing up their system; early marriages and betrothal of women that obstruct their progress such as going to school; female genital mutilation and its physiologically negative implications; human sacrifices that are murders; witchcraft as responsible for varied misfortunes that destroy human agencies; the killing of people (mostly women) accused as witches; the cultural dictation of the beating of wives, sometimes resulting in death; the killing of twins that are deemed evil, among others.
By actively engaging the destructive parts of their culture, Ghanaian public intellectuals are revealing the ascendancy of Africans civilization, as an enlightenment act, despite the Darfurs shattering reason. From Kwame Nkrumah to Nelson Mandela, the struggles have been to throw light into Africa’s evils and help deal with its mysteries. Nkrumah embodies the struggles against the evils of colonialism part of which consequences are responsible for today’s Africa’s evils (as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagama will tell you). Mandela personifies resistance and challenges to creating democracy as anti-dotes to Africa’s evils.
Despite complications with the Supreme Being, this is a way of bringing order, either scientific or moral, in DRC, Somalia, Darfur, CAR, western Chad, Burundi and other parts of Africa. Beyond Nkrumah’s era, Africa has much more being integrated into the world system, taking in light as well as darkness and its corresponding evils. The weapons used in DRC, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia or Darfur were imported from abroad, and so are Sierra Leonean rebel groups being advised by their foreign backers to amputate their opponents to send strong signal home and abroad. Africa’s evils have also increased due to increases in African population and the world’s supply of weapons, and as Sierra Leone and Liberia revealed, drugs, as instruments of evil.
Evils perpetrated in Africa swing between certain practices within its culture and tribulations spewing from the outside world. But at the centre of Africa’s evils is the idea that Africans are responsible for the actions that results in their evils. This means, aside from natural evils, the supposedly God’s evils become Africans’ responsibilities and this explains all of Africa’s future results. As Amnesty International reported, it isn’t only outrageous but also irresponsibility that the death of the Gambian President Yahyah Jammeh’s aunt will be attributed to witchcraft and result in over 1,000 Gambian villagers seized by witch-doctors with the help of state police, the army and the president’s personal security guard to secret detention centres and forced to drink traditional juju-marabout potions (some developing kidney complications and some dying) to confess.
The Gambian incident reveals Africa’s real evils and false evils. In the Gambian episode, agents of objectivity, rationality and reasoning are mixed in a bizarre cocktail of superstition, irrationality, darkness, and primitiveness – and the results are irresponsibility and false evils.
Why should the president’s aunt’s death be attributed to witchcraft? Is the aunt immune from natural death? Upon what mechanisms did the witch doctors accuse the poor villagers of bewitching the aunt to death? Who told the witch doctors that the villagers are witches, evil and, therefore, death merchants? Where is the proof, where is the beef? Will a European think like the Gambian President or Gambians? Are the differences between the Gambian mind and the European mind due to their respective cultures, and, therefore, that determines, in some aspects, what is evil? Does the Gambian culture stifle the human rights of the villagers accused of bewitching the President’s aunt? How do we resolve the contradictions between human rights values and the Gambian culture in relation to accusing an innocent person of being a witch, as evil, a killer?
In Imagining Evil, Gerrie Ter Haar and associates explain that in Africa witchcraft is a way of imagining evil, and as the Gambian episode reveal, it can result in death, terrorization, harassment, psychological damages and threats to society, thus making “witchcraft is a human rights issue” and a development challenge. At higher thinking, this is not different from President al-Bashir’s crimes against the Darfuris. And like most of Africa’s evils, witchcraft becomes simultaneously a spiritual problem as well as material one, as Haar and associates argue. Yet still, as President Jammeh’s actions reveals, “both dimensions are significant, but it appears that no lasting solution to the problems posed by witchcraft beliefs and accusations will be found unless full account is taken of the spiritual dimension of the matter,” argued Haar and associates
How do African policy-makers resolve the “full account is taken of the spiritual dimension of the matter”? A conundrum, isn’t it? As a Ghanaian traditional spiritualist had suggested, should there be a Spiritual Court to address this aspects of Africa’s evils? In the Gambia as in other parts of Africa, Africa’s evils become a mystery, and Africans are yet to liberate themselves from it no matter how necessary some see evil – some argue Idi Amin’s evils produced the good works of Yoweri Museveni and that South Africa’s horrendous apartheid created the grace and love of the Nelson Mandela legend.
Minimizing evils in Africa
Whether small or big, part of Africa’s evils emanate from its culture, part due to the gloomy side of globalization, part from Africa’s ancient traces, and part from Africa’s reptilian brain – the tribal hatred, the will to mindlessness, the drive to self-destruction. As Benin Republic, Mali, Cape Verde, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, and Ghana demonstrate, Africa’s evils could be contained with greater dialogue, healthy rule of law, bigger freedoms, vigorous democratic consolidation, dynamic civil society, objective engagement with traditional values and institutions, and active human rights practices. This will help strain out the evils, the Darfurs and the DRCs, and boost the much-praised African humanism.