African “Causes” and the Tragic White Liberal

Today’s broadcast of Al Jazeera’s The Stream was pretty insightful on a number of fronts. The Congolese journalist and analyst Mvemba Dizolele was brilliantly on point each time he spoke – his point being that a law against conflict minerals passed in Washington won’t do jack for the Congo and its ongoing conflict, rooted in vicious neocolonialism which impact the whole of the Congo (and all of Africa), and not just Eastern Congo and its militia-controlled mines and mass rapes. The broad and insidious roots must be addressed primarily, he asserted. He kept it so real and talked about actual Congolese, the actual experience around the Congo, and the kind of ironic attention and money a Western-led cause brings to certain of these conflicts of Africa. But I really love how he remarks repeatedly that you can’t pretend to solve the problems of all of Congo, or of even Eastern Congo, by having Western activists press for narrowly defined laws and responsibility among Western corporations as if that will save the Congo. But so much of this goes without considering the input, experiences, priorities and insights of the people of the Congo. This Western liberal style wants to deal with gory or salacious particulars and symptoms of the problem upon which to build glamorous and grossly simplified campaigns, such as around the widely known war on women and blood mining in the Kivus. This shows that many of these Western activists are not listening, are paternalistic, and are too timid to address systemic issues which are the cause of much ongoing conflict, exploitation and progresslessness in Africa.

Sasha Lezhnev of the Enough Project insists that to go into the broader reasons for the conflict won’t work. Won’t work for whom? For the mostly privileged white activists in Manhattan or on K Street who need to dumb down their agenda as much as possible so the mindless, wholly bought politicians in Congress or at the UN can understand them? Neither DC nor the UN can legislate any viable solutions for Africa. Africa and Africans are the only people who can push the African revolution forward and save and develop Africa. Africans have fates bound to what actually happens in Africa, in conflict areas or elsewhere. Africans are the ones to be heard for and to enact solutions. We Africans definitely know what’s going on and have thought about and struggled around these contradictions for a long-ass time.

It seems throughout this debate that Mr. Lezhnev is barely listening to Mr. Dizolele and his impassioned articulations of how a conflict minerals embargo is both ultimately useless and reflective of somewhat misplaced energies. What makes this clear is that Mr. Lezhnev frequently refers to vague statements from UN reports about some sort of progress for the new legislation that have moved former miners to other economic sectors. A lot of this evidence seems weak and contrived given the realities Mr. Dizolele refers to about what’s going on at the ground level with people he is connected to as a Congolese.

It is the system that is not working! The system of global parasitic capitalism, neocolonialism, patriarchy, and vicious historical exploitation which have built mayhem and corruption into the DNA of post-colonial societies the world over! The system of deep regional disintegration and woeful underdevelopment toward the benefit of multinational access to cheap minerals, timber, and even arable land that should benefit the Congolese but does not! So-called legit minerals, with the current system left in tact, would hardly lead to much better outcomes for Congolese than whatever prevails today.

It’s not about a single issue! To focus on it as a single issue, I feel, and seems to be true for Mr. Lezhnev and a lot of people like him, is to both attempt at very simplistic, aloof feel-good do-gooding, and to also be engaging in an ignorance of the fundamental histories and challenges of peoples of the third world and people of color while trying to solve their problems as a white liberal. I think this is symptomatic of the tragic white liberal syndrome. Not listening, not having genuine relationships, assuming leadership when it wasn’t asked and isn’t effective, assuming strange powers to solve fundamental problems without even questioning the fundaments of a problem. Especially when you yourself are part of the fundaments of a problem.

It makes no sense to me to assert that it’s more effective to address one single symptom of a failed system (i.e. conflict minerals, blood diamonds, etc.), than to address the political root causes of the system and its failings. It seems to be that you are a much more effective critical thinker when you are able to interrogate and articulate the roots of a systemic problem that manifests in various bloody ways. The disintegration of Congolese society is rooted most deeply in Leopold’s brutal occupation of the country, followed by formal Belgian colonization, the defeat of African liberation represented by the assassination of Lumumba, and war after war in which the West by their African proxies in Rwanda and Uganda greatly benefitted from access to minerals and other commodities amidst the mayhem, not to mention countless oppressive and greedy Africans. Congolese know this. It’s not very different in Nigeria or Haiti. You have to be cognizant of the legacies of domination and their justifications to contemplate why and how they cause symptoms of chaos.

It can only be dishonest to do otherwise, to focus on a single issue. Of course we might struggle in particular against something, but we must acknowledge as dishonest and ignorant any attempt to assert that to struggle against the systemic historical and socio-political roots of the problem is too difficult or counterproductive. In fact, to dismiss the primacy of struggling against whole systems of oppression is downright counterrevolutionary. Hanging on to symptoms only is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy and even collusion with the corrupt system.

I detest conflict minerals and the war on women in the Congo. But the answer to those things is not a law in DC or white liberals campaigning about one single issue as if in a vacuum. That’s the problem – posing the entire challenge as “rape in the Congo” or “conflict minerals in the Congo.” It causes some to ignore the roots and broader manifestations of the crisis. People are dying in the Congo, across the whole of the territory, and while it is crucial to highlight some of these glaring symptoms, ignoring the neocolonial system and its super-exploitation and underdevelopment is ridiculous. A Western law against conflict minerals, as Mr. Dizolele notes, only leads to more smuggling, different but equally brutal manifestations of exploitation and war, and so on.

It’s better to study the ideas and examples of, and participate directly in the struggles of, the revolutionaries and activists in Congo and from Congo, who understand things systemically and whose fate depends directly on deeply understanding the problems rather than only attacking symptoms. Take the lead of Congolese and African strugglers. Listen to them and share their fate. This is more effective than peripheral laws somewhere far away that sidestep the issue and demonstrate paternalistic, ineffective and willful ignorance of failed social systems that some of these white liberals seem content only finding politically-palatable bandaids for.

Shout out to the awesome sista Latoya Peterson for helping host the show – excellent work!

One response to “African “Causes” and the Tragic White Liberal

  1. Sasha Lezhnev has lost all credibility when it comes to the Congo. Enough Project is in denial about the de facto embargo on central Africa, so we had a five-way conference call with them. The purpose was to find out what smelters/buyers of tantalum/coltan they knew were still buying from the Congo. Our artisanal miners could not find a single one in the world who was buying.

    The answer? Enough Project and Sasha Lezhnev told us to sell our artisanal coltan to the Chinese, some of the worst human rights violators on earth. The Congolese Chief we had on the phone went off for 2-3 minutes on why he would never sell to the Chinese because of their human rights record.

    Ever since Enough Project demonized minerals (“cell phones are evil”) instead of demonizing the militia, the artisanal miners of Congo have been starving. Our Chiefs and their tribes have not been able to sell their minerals for 16 months now. It is the emphasis that “minerals are evil” which is destroying trade in central Africa. The two largest smelters in the world have already said they will NEVER buy minerals from central Africa, no matter what compliance process is put in place. Why? Because Enough Project has demonized the minerals instead of the militia. No company in the world needs activist breathing down their backs when they can buy all of this somewhere else with no PR issues.

    Enough Project knows their position is untenable, and the last thing they want is social enterprise companies like ours telling the truth – there is an embargo – absolutely no one has been buying artisanal coltan from central Africa for 16 months. They want to pretend that demonizing the minerals instead of the criminals has had no impact on the innocents, when in fact 400,000 innocent miners, most who have never been in the conflict area, are out of work as a direct result of Sasha Lezhnev demonizing minerals.

    So in response, Enough Project and Lezhnev leave all human rights values behind and suggest we sell to the Chinese so they can claim there is no de facto embargo.

    Lezhnev and Enough don’t care at all about the human rights of 10 million people in the Congo who get their living from mining (World Bank stat). They would rather people starve to death in the Congo because the simplistic fundraising chant “cell phones are evil” is too alluring to leave it behind.

    Sasha, all of your railing against giant multi-national corporations for their unwillingness to care for the local economy and the people – applies as much to you as it does to them. Your hypocrisy is unconscionable.

    I’m glad to debate you any time on any stage, and the offer to pay for your expenses to get there (anywhere) stands. Your simplistic “cell phones are evil” fundraising chant is killing people in the Congo, not helping them. I’ve offered in the past to pay Enough’s way to debate me. Funny thing, I can get anyone from Enough Project or Global Witness to show up in public where they can’t control the conversation and have to answer questions. Enough also claims to have a blog, but won’t allow comments. You can see why after watching this video.

    Sounds a lot like the multi-national corporations they love to vilify. Colonialism is out of the hands of the multi-nationals and in the hands of Enough Project.

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