Written by Abimbola Adelakun
Former Vice President Abubakar Atiku, over the weekend, went to a cinema in Abuja to see the Marvel Cinematic Empire’s latest offering, Black Panther.
Atiku, to be honest, came across as a prepared candidate in 2015. He had done his homework far much more than Muhammadu Buhari. But, what counted against Atiku and all those who stood against Buhari then was corruption. Buhari only needed to shout “corruption,” and his followers would take up the refrain without asking him what he meant by corruption and what innovative ways he had designed to counter it.
One of the most significant failings of Nigerians in 2015 was allowing Buhari to get away with not debating with his opponents. If we had stopped to ponder then, we should have asked what manner of officer runs away from battle? From 2015, the cowardice that made Buhari skip an essential ritual of democracy has been a defining trait of his Presidency. From avoiding talking to Nigerians, to the aloofness that has kept him away from those who have been slaughtered in their homes because his government has done poorly on security, Buhari has checked every box.
The lessons he took away from the fictional country of Wakanda are the “safe” ones, the kind of things that say a lot without saying anything tangible. While films are soft power political projects, they are also just entertainment. They condense realities and therefore can oversimplify things for its audience. One of the criticisms of some other films now showing in the theatre such as Victoria and Abdul and Darkest Hour is how they bury the rubble of painful history under the gloss of cinematic representation of colonial nobility. Victoria and Abdul talks about an unlikely friendship between the Queen of England and an Indian servant in an era where India was being plundered by rapacious colonialists. The film does not see or hear or talk of the great evils of colonialism to Indians. Instead, it features the trope of a noble savage in an Indian man elevated to civilised western standards and who, in turn, elevated the Queen’s virtues with his earthiness. Darkest Hour narrates the iconic leadership of Winston Churchill in an era darkened by uncertainty; where crucial choices were defining. It carefully elides his racism, imperialism, and penchant for eugenics.
Films are great places to look for inspiration, but no country needs leadership that takes its lessons from films. Africa needs leaders that have read widely, and who, like the sons of Issachar, have an understanding of the times and what a country needs to do to raise its head. They should have read the history of all cultures from Africa to ancient Greek, philosophy, and also have an understanding of how the modern world functions. A popular fare like Black Panther is highly unlikely to fill in those gaps.
He would understand why the vision of Africa he wants us to aspire to in Wakanda came from America, and not among Africans themselves. Black Panther was a comic started in the 1960s by a group of young men who were incidentally Jews. More than 50 years after they first dreamt of a sophisticated African future, no African country has come near to inhabiting that vision. We are poorer than ever, our population is outpacing resources, and we still look towards the west for everything — from food to technology, and even to a vision of the future. Our writers hardly write futuristic stories or science fictions; our stories instead are full of pessimism: poverty, corruption, disease and dehumanising spectres. To write stories like Black Panther, we will need to have given our children quality education that premises scientific thinking and its endless possibilities.
Then, they would ask why our schools are so decrepit, and why our children are given an education so poor and outdated that dreams of the future are almost an unaffordable luxury. Recently, a Ghanaian teacher went viral on social media for drawing a computer on the blackboard for his students. In 2018, African children are being made to learn computer in a way it would not have been done even in the 80s. If African leaders gave up some of their vainglorious superfluities, they would be able to provide standard schools to children and hopefully even buy them computers. But no, never, they will not do that because they are too selfish and myopic. They will rather spend the money on frivolities, travel abroad, and try to impress western leaders who already think of them as “shithole” tropes.
A future like Wakanda is worth aspiring to, but the path to that kind of future will take much more than drawing apparent lessons. It takes a lot of work; self-introspection, building a new political and social culture; and a leadership that has cultivated enough self-mastery to challenge our social culture, and rightfully too.
– by Abimbola Adelakun for The Punch