Beware the foreign praise singers; they are up to no good and are not different from the traditional sort. These sang praises for a fee and a livelihood. They were often hired to present the image of the ruler in acceptable light or to satisfy his ego. The modern variety do much the same thing. They are drafted by state agents to polish their image and that of their protégés. In both cases, praise singers cover ugly reality and dress it in more appealing garb, and in the process create a pleasant illusion.
Beware, too, the testimony of strangers. It is never disinterested. Quite often, in fact, it is a projection of the witness’s perceptions, attitudes, or wishes.
Africa has had varied experience with both types over the last fifty years. Some African countries have had many praise singers touting their singular virtues and exceptional achievements they have made in an environment of mass failures by others. This supposedly makes those successes that much greater.
The praise has ranged from economic performance to democratic governance, from observance of human rights to the protection of animal rights.
Most people will remember how the Ivory Coast, under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was flaunted as a model of political stability and economic success. Its capital, Abidjan was the place to be because it was very French. The country was held out as the shining example of what Africa could be if it kept close ties to former colonial rulers and followed their guidance. This was, of course, in contrast to trying to chart an independent path as, say, Sekou Toure had done in Guinea. The message was clear – there are rewards for toeing the line and severe punishment for striking out on your own.
In the mean time, Ivorian success attracted people from neighbouring countries to continue making it thrive. Successive generations of these neighbours soon swelled their numbers as they also became indispensable to the success narrative. But they also created discontent among some Ivorians.
As long as Houphouet-Boigny reined, a lid was kept on a simmering conflict between ‘real” Ivorians and “foreign” Ivorians. The foreign praise singers ignored the signs of discontent and instead composed more praise songs. It is, after all, in their interest to keep the illusion going.
When the old man died, the much vaunted economic success and political stability crumbled. The fault lines that had been papered over emerged into the open and widened, and the country was split into two. It slid into chaos and violence. The very “French” Abidjan turned into a battleground for rival armed bands.
What had happened to the stable, success story of Franco-African cooperation? It turned out it had been largely artificial, created by the praise singers. It also turned out that these same praise singers were responsible for the destruction of the illusion they had created.
And in a further twist of events, the makers and destroyers of an illusion are now busy, trying to rebuild it. It is another vicious cycle designed to keep Africa moving in circles and never advancing.
Not too long ago, Mali was touted as the paragon of democracy and good governance. The praise did not last long. A young army captain did not buy into the song. He overthrew the civilian government, accusing it of incompetence, especially in dealing with a growing insurgency in the north of the country.
He, too, was not allowed to remain in power for long, but it was long enough for the country to be split in half. It remains so to this day. The model of democratic governance in Mali has also been an illusion – created, spread and kept alive by the foreign praise singers.
Again, there are attempts to restore the unity of Mali, whose destruction in the first place must be laid at the feet of strangers bearing false witness. And as is to be expected, the people who caused the split are now calling for reunification by force, and, predictably, they will demand to lead the force. But Mali did not have to be divided first before it could be reunited – except, of course, to maintain that useless run in circles.
There are many other countries in Africa where the illusion of democracy and prosperity is constantly created. They are held out as models for others to follow. But they remain that – illusions, built on false testimony so as to serve the interests of strangers.
As there are people composing praise songs for artificial creations, so are there others wielding tools of destruction to bring down real structures of success. Countries that work really hard to build prosperity for their people and institutions that will guarantee democracy and well-being are routinely attacked and their leaders vilified.
Take heart if you fall in this category. It means you are doing something right. Praise singers do not like that. You are blunting their creativity and denying them artistic (or perhaps artful) satisfaction. They like inventing, embellishing and polishing. They cannot do that with a reality that already has its own shine.
Still, they cannot be denied their say. Their capacity for praise is matched by an equal one for invective and diatribe. Very likely, they will throw mud and other filth to cover the shine.
In Rwanda, we know this only too well. We have earned the ire of praise singers because we will not hire them to peddle an illusion. We prefer reality and take heart from the knowledge that no amount of mud will hide its shine for very long.