Africa and the African American
By Femi Olugbile
Recently the celebrated African American boxer, Floyd Mayweather travelled to Africa on a much-advertised ‘Motherland Tour’. He came with a large contingent, travelling in style in his private jet.
Mayweather is known to the sporting world as a talented pugilist who made a lot of money from his sport and retired as an undefeated champion. Many people view his as among the best pound-for-pound boxers in history. His fame is not limited to his accomplishments in the boxing ring. He leads a flamboyant, in-your-face life that is at once exciting and provocative. He is regularly pictured posing with large amounts of cash. It is his lifestyle.
Apparently, somewhere deep within the folds of his narcissistic self-promotion is an urge to do good things for other people, especially fellow Africans.
He set out on his African ‘Motherland’ tour with the stated aim of inspiring and empowering youth in Africa.. He was also promoting and empowering local boxers under his brand, known as ‘The Money Team’. He stopped in various cities across the continent.
The part of his journey that attracted the most attention was his shopping spree in Johannesburg, South Africa. With his large entourage in tow, including a retinue of armed police, and with a huge amount of physical cash in his pockets, Mayweather went to the Gucci store in Sandton City and virtually bought out the entire store, spending seven million US dollars. The press, and the public, could only gawk. The context was in a South Africa which has been going through economic woes, with frequent power cuts and wide-spread unemployment, especially among black youths.
But the Gucci splurge is not what this story is about. It was merely Mayweather being Mayweather.
On his journey, the boxer made a three-day touch-down in Harare, Zimbabwe. His host was local businessman and sporting enthusiast Scott Sakupwanya. Zimbabwe is a country that has been going through a long and difficult passage, which is not yet at an end. Economic woes, turbulent politics, mismanagement of public resources, and widespread corruption are rampant. The Zimbabwean currency is a joke.
The albatross around the neck of the people is, strangely, ZANU-PF, the party that wrested the country from the clutches of the white minority government of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. The Liberation movement that transformed to a political party has since been dominating and plundering the country, treating it as spoils of war. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ‘The Crocodile’ holds the reins of power, after deposing the ageless warrior Robert Mugabe in a palace coup. It is difficult to know whose yoke is lighter on the back of the people of Zimbabwe – the old liberator-dictator or his protégé-turned-nemesis. ‘Elections’ are coming again shortly, but all the old anti-democratic shenanigans against the opposition are at play, and it is doubtful if the process with be ‘free and fair’.
Mayweather, the celebrity black man from America, was led into audience with President Mnangagwa. After pumping the flesh and basking in the trappings of state power, the boxer pledged his support to the President in the forthcoming elections.
It is hard to imagine that Mayweather, living in the razzmatazz bubble of celebrity, would have had the time, or taken the trouble, to study the history of Zimbabwe before landing in Harare and shooting off his mouth. Perhaps he believed that all was well in the land, and the best way to boost Zimbabwe was to support its President. Perhaps he did not think it necessary to walk without his armed guards on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo to feel the pulse of Zimbabweans. Perhaps he did not care.
Whatever his reasoning was, he put his foot in his mouth, to the dismay of a large section of the Zimbabwean population who believed that it was not in the best interests of the country to renew the tenure of a strong-arm dictator who had been accused of corruption. The President and his cohorts celebrated the public support of a black celebrity from America as validation of their credibility.
Mayweather’s behaviour is, sadly, not the only instance of supposedly well-intentioned African Americans taking strong positions on social and political matters in the ‘Motherland’ without digging deep beneath the surface to understand what was really happening, so that they could have a chance to empathise with the sentiments of the people. Many people will remember how the famous black American activist, Louis Farrakhan, offered open and vocal support to the dictator General Sani Abacha during the darkest period of political repression in the history of Nigeria. The Goggled One had despatched Ken Saro Wiwa and was viciously suppressing opposition everywhere. Many of the country’s best citizens were in exile abroad, afraid for their lives. The Nigerian government was widely reviled as a pariah around the world. But to Farrakhan, the face of the ‘Nation of Islam’, being antagonised by America and the West was evidence that Abacha was himself a ‘freedom fighter’. He did not know, or did not care, what Nigerians thought.
Abacha, in recognition of Farrakhan’s support, and to further rile the USA, named the street in front of the American Embassy in Victoria Island after Louis Farrakhan.
In a dramatization of poetic justice, Abacha died shortly afterwards. Lagos State immediately yanked off the street sign bearing Farrakhan’s name, and renamed the crescent after Walter Carrington, another African American who had served as US ambassador to Nigeria, and who had sided with NADECO and the local resistance against Abacha’s tyranny. To this day, the incident casts a pall over the reputation of Farrakhan in Nigeria, despite his undoubted role as a champion of black liberation.
Africans at home and in the Diaspora need each other. Neither will achieve their full human potential without acknowledging and relating with the other. But each party needs to understand what is going on with the other, so that they may get into proper sync and move forward together into a better future.