Democracy Lab

Let's Stop Miscasting Africans

Africans are way past the victim thing -- but Westerners don't seem to be there yet. A tale of two films.

There's this movie about Africa that everyone's talking about. In case you haven't been paying attention, it's Kony 2012, a 30-minute video by the California-based humanitarian group Invisible Children that found millions of viewers around the web last week. The film describes the group's efforts to end the activities of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, one of the most vicious insurgent armies in the world.

I don't think I need to go on at great length about the video, since Michael Wilkerson has already dissected it so deftly for FP. He notes that the film, in its eagerness to woo supporters to its cause, distorts the current reality in Central Africa on several important counts. I'm inclined to agree - not least because my two Ugandan colleagues here at Democracy Lab, Denis Barnabas and Jackee Budesta Batanda, have also told me that they don't really understand why the film makes it look as though northern Uganda is still suffering from Kony's ravages. (In fact, as critics point out, Kony likely left Uganda six years ago, and the LRA is probably down to a force of a few hundred by now.) While all of us have been talking about Uganda over the past week, it's striking, in fact, how few Ugandans have had a chance to participate in the conversation.

If you don't believe me, just take a look at this video by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, in which she chides the makers of Kony 2012 for portraying Africans primarily as powerless victims who have to wait for the white people to ride in and save them. "You shouldn't be telling my story if you don't believe that I also have the power to change what's going on," she says at one point. Sounds valid.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Africans are tired of being typecast as victims. The sad fact of the matter is that we in the West (if there still is such a thing) still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers. You'd think we'd be way over this by now. By now we've had countless books that deflate Western myths about Africa -- including the sometimes distorting effects of well-meaning development assistance and humanitarian aid. And you'd think that we'd be ready to move on to serious solutions for the problems that undeniably exist.

Old habits are hard to change, apparently. One thing that's conspicuous about Kony 2012 is the way that it spends more time on the activists campaigning against Kony than it does on the people who live in the places where he's committed his crimes. Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, his equally appealing young son, and their legions of twenty-something supporters around the world get far more footage than any Africans. It doesn't seem like a stretch to assume that this (in addition to its amazing production values) is one of the reasons why Invisible Children's film has struck such a nerve. People would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer's depressing victims.

As far as I can tell, no one is making a movie about the many African countries that aren't suffering from war or ethnic conflict. No one's making a movie about Ghana, which recorded a Chinese-style growth rate of 13.5 percent last year. Nor are the filmmakers gravitating to Botswana, which, according to the World Bank, has a per capita GDP higher than several countries in Europe, and boasts a corruption rate lower than Israel's. I got that last fact from Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, which also gives Rwanda a more favorable ranking than Hungary or the Czech Republic. South Africa (along with the other African countries mentioned here) does better than Italy.

Activists, of course, don't have to make stirring crusades for countries that succeed. Yet those success stories - achieved primarily through the hard work of Africans themselves, not Western development assistance -- suggest that Africans might just be capable of finding their own solutions.

This is not a conclusion that fits into the world of Kony 2012, which strongly suggests that 100 special forces operators dispatched to the region by President Obama last year will easily solve a problem that has eluded local African governments for the past quarter of a century. (The film mysteriously alludes to high-tech capabilities that will enable the 100 Americans to ferret Kony out of hiding. Now that would be powerful medicine, wouldn't it? But I'm not holding my breath.)

And yes, Africa has its disasters, obviously enough. But do we really want to know what they are?

The other Western-made movie about Africa I watched recently has not triggered a mass campaign. It hasn't even found a distributor in the U.S. (though it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year). Called The Ambassador, it was made by Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist who specializes in pretending to be someone he isn't, and then filming the results with hidden cameras.

In the film, Brügger (shown in the photo above) actually purchases a diplomatic passport from Liberia (with the help of various slippery middlemen of various colors). He then uses his bona fide diplomatic status -- which he has obtained under his own name, mind you -- as cover for the establishment of several shady business ventures in the Central African Republic, including diamond smuggling. (He never quite carries them out, but, of course, that's beside the point.) The CAR, as we experience it in Brügger's film, fulfills every horrible cliché of the corrupt, brutish, resource-cursed version of Africa that we have so long been accustomed to. (The CAR, indeed, is one of the countries that Joseph Kony may now be hiding in.)

The result concisely captures that atmosphere of jovial menace that permeates similar places around the world. (Burma and Afghanistan were two that came to my mind as I was watching the film.) Brügger, clad in a sartorial style that evokes one of Graham Greene's African novels, tells the story as a pitch-black comedy. We watch him handing "envelopes of happiness" stuffed with cash to government officials, conducting contract negotiations with a spectacularly unsavory local diamond mine operator, and consulting with the CAR's Head of State Security -- a fat, sweaty white man, an ex-Foreign Legionary, whose French citizenship, he explained, was revoked by Paris a few years back. Near the end of the film we discover that the man has just been murdered (a factor that figures in the filmmaker's decision to quit the country). If these were characters in a fictional story, they'd be dismissed as crass and overdrawn.

"A lot of the film is definitely outside people's comfort zone," Brügger told me recently. Just when you think his ambassadorial persona can't get any sleazier, one of his friends in the film pops up to outdo him. The white men come across as proudly corrupt, eager to do whatever they can to contribute to the CAR's continuing dysfunction. His African interlocutors figure as unapologetic con artists, happy to sell their compatriots down the river for a chance to fleece the rich and clueless European. But all of them seem real, because they are. (The Dutch businessman who is shown helping Brügger get his passport tried to prevent a prestigious documentary festival from showing the film, asserting that it besmirched his reputation.)

You never know quite what you're supposed to think -- and that is precisely the movie's achievement. "Documentary films about Africa aren't supposed to be funny," Brügger says. "You're constantly being told how terrible it is. It's all supposed to be about victimization -- NGOs with teary eyes. And suddenly you have this film that also has its fun moments. This is difficult for people to deal with."

As such, The Ambassador is a welcome provocation. It probably won't get anyone to take to the streets for a good cause, and I doubt very much that it will solve any problems. But perhaps it will make some of us think a little bit harder about African complexities. Surely that would be a good thing.

Johan Stahl/Winthereik

Democracy Lab

The Personality Problem

In an age of globalization and revolutionary upheaval, grand impersonal forces might appear to be winning out. But don't discount the human factor.

Burma is a big country, boasting a population of some 60 million. It is also sandwiched between India and China, the two rising powers that will define global politics in the 21st century. Depending on how things turn out, Burma could become either a bridge or a battleground.

So it comes as a bit of shock when you realize that the fate of this rather important country rests largely on the shoulders of two people. One is President Thein Sein, the ex-general who is cautiously trying to push the country toward greater openness. His countrymen are hoping he's serious, while the senior military officers who once ran the place are watching from the wings, alert to any signs that his present course might entail a diminishment of their status or wealth.

The other is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose long years of opposition to the military regime have made her a hero in her homeland and around the world. For the past few weeks she has been out on the campaign trail, running for a seat in parliament. If she wins, she will gain a powerful platform for her message of change, one that could have a profound effect on her country's political future.

These two leaders are very different characters. But they have one very specific thing in common: they are both 66 years old (having been born just two months apart, back in that fateful year of 1945). Partly for that reason, their stories also overlap in another point -- the many lingering questions about their state of health.

Thein Sein has a bad heart. Aung San Suu Kyi recently had to cut short a campaign appearance when she experienced a bout of dizziness. In 2009, when she was still under house arrest, there were serious concerns about her health, with doctors warning about stark dehydration and weight loss.

Burma, it should be mentioned, also has a long and dismal history of political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, a hero of Burma's campaign for national independence, was assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been the subject of many threats, and she was the target of at least one attempted assassination that we know of. As for Thein Sein, many of his brother officers have fallen prey to power struggles that have curtailed their freedom, or their lives, over the years.

I cannot pretend to state with any authority what would happen to Burma if either the ex-general or the Lady were to disappear from the scene. And that is precisely the point: The power of personality is one of the great wild cards of modern politics.

Now, I don't share Thomas Carlyle's long-discredited Great Man theory of history. Not everything depends on individuals, and to argue for their importance is not to discount other elements. I happen to believe that institutions, economics, and culture all have hugely significant effects on the development of societies. Yet we should never neglect the human factor.

Indeed, at this very moment in history we are seeing abundant examples of this principle at work, for better and for worse. Like Vladimir Putin or loathe him -- yet it is extremely hard to deny that the ex-KGB officer with the Machiavellian mindset has left a deep personal stamp on modern-day Russia.

Similarly, today's capitalist-communist China remains on the path mapped out for it by the ruthless pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. Nowadays it is easy to forget that there were many senior members of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of the 1970s who wanted to see China continue on the course of orthodox Maoism, rigidly wedded to stubborn isolationism and central planning. There was no inherent reason why they could not have done so; just take a look at North Korea. But Deng gained the upper hand, and China has been correspondingly transformed.

Imagine a Cuba without Castro, or a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. It is simplistic to say that their compatriots would have been better off had these two men never existed; democracy would never have come easily in countries where the baggage of the past weighed so heavily. But it is extremely hard to picture how either of these countries would look today had it not been for these all-too-dominant leaders.

The reverse is also true. One of the most distinctive features of the so-called Arab Spring has been the lack of dominant revolutionary figures who could serve as rallying points for the forces of resistance. This absence attests, of course, to the long years of authoritarian rule in the region. The Qaddafis and the Mubaraks devoted enormous effort and expense to ensuring that eloquent and charismatic dissidents were nipped in the bud. We do not know the names of the most devoted foes of Arab autocracy; many have long since expired in the dungeons of the mukhabarat.

Syria's protean opposition is a case in point. It is filled with brilliant human rights activists, but most of them have spent long years in exile, and no longer share a common language with the people currently suffering at the hands of government troops. The new crop of grassroots activists inside the country boast little experience or name recognition.

Revolutionary situations are by definition exceptional. The confusion that results from sudden upheaval often gives an edge to radicals, who capitalize on the hard-edged clarity of their programs, or to demagogues, who seduce through charisma. Indeed, one can argue that the factor of personality becomes especially important precisely in transitional situations, when institutions are weak, lines of authority get wobbly, and accustomed norms come under attack.

Yet personalities can also play a beneficial role under such circumstances. Earlier this week I spent an evening listening to F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president, as he ruminated about his own experience in that country's transition to democracy in the early 1990s. It was de Klerk, as leader of the South African government and the dominant National Party, who made the strategic decision to surrender white minority control over the political system and pave the way for black majority rule.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that de Klerk would attribute great significance to the power of personality. Surely, cynics might say, he has an interest in talking up his own role in the abandonment of apartheid, which the forces of history ensured was going to happen sooner or later. Why should he take credit for being in the right place at the right time?

This argument is lazy. It is easy to forget today, decades later, that no path was preordained for South Africa at the time. There were moments when violent anarchy, civil war, or stubborn stonewalling by the white minority all seemed equally likely options.

And I believe that de Klerk, at the same event, was quite right to say that "bad chemistry between people can prevent negotiations, can become a big stumbling block to negotiations, can be a negative in the process of building a consensus about the way forward." (In this respect he bemoaned the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which he rightly described as a "tragedy" for the Middle East peace process.) If anyone knows the value of personalities, it has to be de Klerk, who still speaks of Mandela with palpable respect.

We have seen something like this same principle at work in Burma, where Thein Sein's attempt to establish cordial relations with Aung San Suu Kyi (rather than vilifying her as his predecessors had done for decades) established a vital precondition for progress. This is no guarantee that everything will work out smoothly -- far from it. But at least there are grounds for hope.

The picture presented by the countries of the Arab Spring is a far more dispiriting one. As de Klerk put it, "[L]eaders aren't manufactured. You can't order them on the Internet." He's right about that. Still, for the sake of future generations, this would a good time to start thinking about how new ones might be produced.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images