I have been disappointed at the low-key response by African leaders in condemning Israel's war on Gaza over the past two weeks compared to the street protests in countries across the continent. So far only one African government, Mauritania, has recalled its ambassador from Israel. In the case of Egypt, the Government has been positively hostile towards demonstrators, who have protested in their thousands. Egyptian bloggers have been particularly strong in their condemnation of Israel and in the criticisms of their own Government, with some calling for an all-out revolution in the Middle East.
Some leaders have spoken out. Desmond Tutu of South Africa has not hidden his disgust at Israel's actions, which he considers to be war crimes: 'In the context of total aerial supremacy, in which one side in the conflict deploys lethal aircraft against opponents with no means of defending themselves, the bombardment bears all the hallmarks of war crimes.' In 2002, Tutu visited Palestine and said that it reminded him of South Africa under the Apartheid regime as he saw 'the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.'
I do find it somewhat sickening to see Sudanese people amongst the protesters, given the 'crimes against humanity' being committed by their own leaders. It would have been far more meaningful if they had also protested against the genocide in Darfur. We cannot be selective about injustices. Writing in Pambazuka News, Tajudeen Abdul Raheem develops this idea in his article Saying no to the Israeli massacre, in which he refers to the global protests taking place since the beginning of the war, and in particular the one in London last Saturday in which I also took part:
'This is a massacre perpetrated by the mighty, merciless Israeli army, a force armed and actively supported by the US and NATO, with the supine collaboration of Arab leaders, including the so-called moderate Palestinian leadership under the main Fatah organization from its Bantustan enclaves in the West Bank... There were initial fears that the cold would deter many from turning up for the march, but so deep is the outrage of many that they poured out in their thousands in all the major cities of Britain to call for an immediate ceasefire and end to the blockade.'
Tajudeen goes on to explain that the importance of these and other demonstrations against injustices is not necessarily that they will bring immediate change or end the war. Rather they need to be seen for their cumulative impact:
'It is not enough for us to just look on and say to ourselves that what is going on is bad and simply change the channel. You can join the protest or organize one wherever you may be, write letters to newspapers and make use of feedback sessions in the media. You can also boycott Israeli goods like Jaffa oranges in the shops. Even if our governments, much like their Arab counterparts, are too compromised and cowardly to stand up to Israel, what about you and me? There are many Africans who are confused about the Israel-Palestine conflict, believing it to be purely a case of Islam against Judaism or Arab against Jew. As a people who have known slavery, colonialism, and apartheid, how can we be so complacent about the right of others to a life of dignity and sovereignty over their own affairs?'
Tajudeen raises some important issues here on the notion of 'rights' and 'justice'. How do we Africans view the rights and oppressions of others? Even within our own communities 'human rights' are selectively applied (LGBTI people are continually excluded and vilified both by leaders and society at large). It disappoints me that every time I write a post on my blog about the occupation of Palestine, I invariably receive at least one response stating 'this is not our struggle' or 'these people (Arabs) enslaved us' and so on, as if there is a hierarchy of rights and justice. Are we so full of our own oppression that we cannot see that of others and feel their pain?
In another Pambazuka article, Mukoma Wa Ngugi reflects on African people's general response to the struggles of others.
'Africans have come to believe they have the monopoly of suffering, and as a consequence expect others to struggle on their behalf, without Africans showing the same solidarity to others. For example, we expect African Americans to struggle on our behalf but not we for them. We expect them to rally around our political prisoners, yet Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been a political prisoner since 1981, has more support in France than in most African countries.'
We in Africa cannot expect others to work with us against oppressive governments such as those in Zimbabwe and Central African Republic unless we are ready to contribute towards internationalizing the movement.