Black Panther, Black President


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Hidden Figures

“[T’Challa] doesn’t live in a regular tribe and so forth; he is the prince of a nation, and the nation is hidden under the ground. It’s a country called Wakanda, and he is one of the greatest scientists in the world and his area; his country is more scientifically advanced than any. When you get to the hidden entrance and go down to Wakanda, it looks like you’re in a scene from a science-fiction movie of the thirtieth century! But, in order not to be discovered by the rest of the world, ’cause he doesn’t want his nation contaminated by today’s civilization, it’s hidden underground, and up above it looks like just thatched villages where nobody would ever suspect what’s really below.”
Stan Lee talking to ‘AlterEgo’ magazine, 2005.

Often, in the tortured relationship between Africa and Europe, the exchange has been one way. The self-evident facts of human and resource exploitation have been occluded by a mega-collapse of the world’s collective imagination. Africa ‘the continent without a history’, the blank slate, has been a valuable myth to many, because why ask too many questions when there’s nothing to know?

At the start of his formative book on Belgium’s colonisation of the DRC, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost‘, Adam Hochschild relates how Edmund Dene Morel, in 1898 an agent of the Liverpool Shipping company, made weekly trips to the port of Antwerp in Belgium to take an inventory of his employer’s goods. Dene Morel observed rubber and ivory arriving from the Congo, but only arms and soldiers boarding for the return trip. King Leopold wasn’t trading with the Congo. It was slave labour. This was 120 years ago, my great grandparents’ generation. It’s not ancient history.

In a no-kidding Walt Disney make-believe super hero movie about a storybook Africa, full of computer-generated spaceships, bald warrior women with futuristic sonic spears, and armoured black rhinos – only endangered in Wakanda in the sense that they go into battle – there are a lot of thoughtful references to the real Africa, to the real problems the continent faces, and to the real vitality and futuristic sophistication of its fashion designers and artists.

(Though, unlike both ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies and ‘Luke Cage’ on Netflix, the soundtrack doesn’t make any great impression. With any luck this is something that ‘Black Panther II’ will improve on, since with a $700 million gross in two weeks – making it one of the highest grossing films of all time – sequels are a foregone conclusion).

Many of these references to the real Africa in the film aren’t to the DRC, though the comparison with Wakanda is more obvious, but are referring to an oil-rich country that lurches from one crisis to the next, and which is also Africa’s most populous nation: Nigeria. “When Nigeria sneezes, Africa shakes” the saying goes. When T’Challa and his General Okoye (Danai Gurira) extract Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from a spying mission, to return to Wakanda, it’s from a convoy of jeeps containing kidnapped young women, their heads covered. The reference, obviously, is to the April 2014 kidnapping of 219 women students in Chibok, Borno State in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram insurgents. Nyong’o learned some Hausa to deliver her lines in the scene.

The real kidnappings transfixed social media at the time, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls making international headlines for weeks. Since then, the persistent mega-collapse of the world’s collective imagination when it comes to Africa has meant the ongoing crisis in Borno has been generally under-reported. The kidnapping last week of more women students from a school in Dapchi in the northeastern state of Yobe by a Boko Haram faction (the loose movement has split into 3 warring sub-groups) is a re-run of history for campaigners from the #BringBackOurGirls movement. “It’s like we have been thrown back to the abysmal darkness of April 2014 all over again,” Aisha Yesufu, one of the hashtag movement’s co-founders told Canada’s CBC News.

Like the 2014 kidnapping, there was an initial scramble last week by the Nigerian government to get names of the kidnapped women and to establish how many of them had been taken. As in the 2014 Chibok case, parents of the women in Yobe grouped together and collected the key facts before government officials such as the police did their jobs. In 2014, this ground work was done by a local official near Maiduguri, Baan Lawan, who created a dossier that became the basis for the Nigerian Federal government and international effort to find the 219 women. Lawan hasn’t been credited by anyone since for this basic, fact-gathering work. The Christian Association of Nigeria had even circulated a fake list of names in 2014 which – falsely – showed Christian students among the women kidnapped, in an effort to exploit the kidnappings to create more conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. The truth is that the victims of Boko Haram are, with very few exceptions, fellow Muslims.

When the world seems incapable of imagining an African country with the resources of Nigeria resolving its own problems with some international assistance, it’s good to see an African female super spy kicking ass and taking names, even if it’s a fiction and in a Marvel movie. “We would have been cheapening what Wakanda meant if we didn’t tackle that, because this is a real thing that people should be aware of if they are not. We didn’t want to exploit it, we wanted to shine a light on it,” executive producer, Nate Moore has said, discussing the scene in ‘Black Panther’ which references the Chibok kidnappings.

In the outside world’s coverage of the seemingly endless Boko Haram conflict in northern Nigeria, both the successes and failures go unreported, mostly.

There is good news. Of the 219 women kidnapped in 2014, 114 are still missing but 105 have escaped or have been found. Haruna Yahaya, 35, was recently sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by a court in Kainji, Niger state Nigeria for his role in the 2014 crimes. This may seem lenient considering the wave of frenzied virtue signalling that circled the globe after news of the Chibok kidnappings became an international cause celebre, drawing support from everyone from Michelle Obama to Justin Timberlake. But Yahaya’s 15-year sentence is important because – when Nigerian soldiers have been exposed by Amnesty carrying out extra-judicial killings of suspected Boko fighters, some of them children, and sharing grisly footage of killings on their mobile phones – the judicial ruling shows that the Nigerian justice system works, and can be proportionate in administering justice.

In December, Nigeria’s President Buhari told the BBC that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against the Boko Haram militants, insisting that the group can no longer stage “conventional attacks” against security forces, towns or villages and has fallen back on improvised explosive devices. Within a week of the President’s remarks, Boko Haram leader (who has “officially” died so many times at the hands of the Nigerian army that he’s been compared with an iPhone battery) Abubakar Shekau issued a video claiming successful attacks in Maiduguri, Gamboru and Damboa, leaving 25 loggers murdered, four food aid workers killed and three people burned to death, the last incident taking place on Christmas Day.

The military operation to stem Boko’s spread across the whole region – the Chadian-led Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), backed by the African Union, UN and ECOWAS, with UK, French and US Pentagon-funding – is having to deal with the insurgent movement splintering and changing tactics: from mass mobilisations of loosely-coordinated units of irregular fighters targeting towns, to a return to much lighter, ‘asymmetric’ high speed attacks on relatively small targets like individual schools as occurred in 2014. The multinational force is necessary due not only to Boko Haram’s expansion beyond Nigeria’s borders, but also to the US Department of Defences’s long-term reservations about working with the Nigerian army. In testimony provided to the US Senate’s Africa subcommittee by Alice Hunt Friend, who under President Obama was the Pentagon’s principal director for African Affairs, Hunt Friend said “Nigeria has failed to mount an effective campaign against Boko Haram”. Then-acting assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Robert Jackson, told the hearing “when soldiers destroy towns, kill civilians and detain innocent people with impunity, mistrust takes root”.

One million children have no education in Nigeria’s North East, and the cost of the crisis to the region has reached nearly $9 billion, according to the UN. While Nigerians aren’t all “living in huts” as President Trump has chided, and while people took to social media to share images of mansions in Lagos that could easily be Atlanta, Georgia, in Nigeria’s impoverished North East many people are still living in rudimentary houses, with no plumbing or electricity. The political energy expended in selling gunships and aircraft to Nigeria’s military, to satisfy politician’s vanity, distracts from the root cause of the Boko insurgency and from the work of the UN, ECOWAS, African Union and MNJTF in trying to deal with the economic and social causes of mass youth unemployment and chronic lack of basic amenities, the pervasive sense of frustration and futility which recruits for Boko Haram and other violent groupings across West Africa. UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said in September: “poverty, weak state authority, insecurity and climate change explain this situation, with women and girls being the first victims”.

(As a UK Business Minister, British Lib Dem leader and former Shell Chief Economist Vince Cable approved the export of armoured speedboats to a notorious Niger Delta gangster, nearly jump-starting a new war in the oil-producing Niger Delta in Nigeria’s ‘South South’. There’s there’s been a fragile peace in the Delta since 2009, maintained by the government paying protection money to criminals to not attack pipelines.

President Donald Trump’s recent decision to unfreeze export approval for weapons, including 12 Brazilian-designed and Florida-made Embraer A-29 Super Tucano planes has also raised eyebrows. The deal – which is Trump following through on a promise made to Buhari in a telephone conversation to help in the fight against Boko Haram – accounts for half of Nigeria’s US $1.3 billion 2017 defence budget. The export approval had been frozen by Obama when the Nigerian Air Force accidentally bombed a refugee camp for people internally displaced by the Boko Haram conflict in January 2017, killing 236 people and injuring several others, among them 20 aid workers.

Matthew Page, an independent analyst formerly with the State Department who is opposed to the arms deal has noted that the rebels now operate “in the shadows, conducting suicide bombings and other kinds of asymmetric attacks. Since the fall of its … stronghold, Boko Haram hasn’t been vulnerable to the Super Tucano’s powerful air-to-ground attack capabilities.” The planes, designed for pursuing small units of fighters in the Amazon jungle are of little or no use in preventing kidnappings at schools. Given what is apparently the increasing resolve of Nigeria’s military including the air force to prosecute at least five internal conflicts at once, the purchase should be a cause of alarm. The deal seems to have more to do with Trump’s ego and with retired General Buhari’s prestige as he goes into national elections in 2019, fighting a war in Borno state which the Nigerian military lost four year’s ago).

The current political crises of Trump and Brexit show that Nigeria is hardly alone in being “fantastically corrupt” and suffering from poor governance. However, it says a great deal about the present state of the world and about our relationship to deep imagination – to myths and stories interconnected through digital media – relative to the disconnect felt everywhere with elective politics, that the United Nations and a Marvel super hero film seem to be offering far clearer moral leadership on the imperative need to tackle Boko Haram than either the former coloniser, Britain, or the current, aggressively Islamophobic US President.

‘Black Panther’ shines a light on another powerful symbol of the former coloniser’s amnesia about its past exploitation of Africa, when Erik Killmonger (Michael Jordan) visits what is clearly meant to be the British Museum and ponders, among other artifacts stolen from Africa, one of the Benin bronzes. Part a vast horde of treasures looted by Admiral Harry Rawson in 1897 as part of a punitive expedition to the Benin Kingdom (not to be confused with the country of Benin, Benin City in Edo state is part of the Niger Delta which is – for the time being, at least – part of Nigeria) the objects were subsequently divided between various European museums, British government offices and auctioned to private collectors.

One part of the horde became a focus of the wider “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign in 2016, when students at Jesus College, Cambridge voted to return a brass cockerel to Benin City. The college has since put the cockerel in storage, so now no one can see it – including visitors to Cambridge from Edo state, who it really belongs to – while museums attempt to find a way return Benin City’s stolen objects.

If Jesus College puts it back on display, it’ll be accused of endorsing white supremacy. If it returns the object to a museum in Lagos, there will be a sentiment in the Niger Delta – where long-held secessionist feelings are rising as the movement for a second breakaway Biafran state in the neighbouring South East of Nigeria also grows in strength – that former colonisers have simply handed Benin City’s treasures to another set of meddling foreigners. The risks of the cockerel being stolen or ending up on the illegal international art market are also considerable in a region rife with corruption and perpetually on the verge of a resumption of armed conflict. If the college leaves the cockerel in storage then they have to endure snarky blogs by the likes of me. There’s nothing Jesus College, Cambridge can do right under these circumstances, in other words.

Even in ‘Black Panther’, Benin City and its long history of bronze casting – widely acknowledged as priceless works of Art with exceptional value to world heritage – are seen through the filter of symbolism, rather than as objects with their own interior voices and complex relationships to exterior histories. In a sense, the lives of people from present-day Benin City are being side-stepped by this mass-media discussion about some old bronzes. It’s an easier – especially for white people – to adopt rehearsed, virtuous positions about statues than to practically address Britain’s role in global imbalances of power and justice. Which also include patriarchy. Which also involves corruption and incompetence on the part of the descendants of the colonised as much as that of the descendants of the former colonisers.

In December, CNN reported on the trade in Nigerian trafficked women forced into sex work in Europe, a trade which begins in Benin City. Europe and Nigeria are connected in 2018 though organised crime, modern day slavery affecting living women. Why are we fretting about bronze figurines and events more than a century ago?


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