Black skin, white mask: the metaphor of Makau Mutua

There are two kinds of African intellectuals. One whose western education has not washed away their parental upbringing, wisdom from elders, guidance from leaders and the cultural sceneries described by elders Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in many of their tales.

There is a second breed, totally mystified by everything western: Their way of life, thought process and mostly recognition. The type that’s described by Jean Paul Sartre, in a preface of Frantz Fanon’s ‘The wretched of the earth’: ‘hired kinglets, overlords and a bourgeoisie, sham from beginning to end, which served as go-betweens.’


‘Promising adolescents; branded with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, mouths stuffed full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth…’ Sartre was a white man, but even he was repulsed by these pseudo-intellectuals who contributed nothing to knowledge but only mimicked other peoples’ cultures.


Growing up, I used to admire Professor Makau Mutua. Early in University, I stumbled upon his excellent essay on the irony of skewed relationships between white and black intellectuals.


Focusing on human rights, he titled it: ‘Savages, victims and saviors: The metaphor of human rights’.

Mutua explained that London or Washington-based think-tanks portrayed African leaders as savages, hell-bent on oppressing powerless and victimized Africans and that only they – the west-based human rights ‘Saviors’ were to deliver us from our leaders’ oppression.

As someone who was studying to become a human rights lawyer, the article spoke directly to me.

Having worked in the NGO world, I had experienced it first hand. I ended up quoting much of the Prof’s article in my thesis on: ‘Advocacy in Sub-Saharan Africa’, arguing that African leaders had clear priorities and interests to which activists ought to respond, to sway their decisions, instead of using unsavory language towards them or wave the aid card, both of which are ineffective to countries led by freedom fighters and those with natural resources.

Lately, Makau Mutua has moved from being a dispassionate observer, a referenced academic, towards a populist politician and businessman. In Kenya, for instance, I was shocked by his openly tribalistic positioning during presidential elections.

Now that he has announced his intentions to run for president of Kenya - all the way from his base in America, he kick-started his African political expertise with a typical ‘Muzungu’ depiction of Rwanda’s President Kagame in an article he titled: ‘Love him or hate him, Kagame could be Africa’s Lee Kuan Yew’.

Acting as a ‘go-between’ he parrots all western labels: Our government is called a ‘dictatorship’ and a ‘regime’.

‘Kagame has stifled all basic freedoms.’ ‘Rwandans live in fear.’ but not to worry: Rwanda is a ‘darling of the Bretton Woods institutions’ and Paul Kagame will be Lee Kwan Yew and turn Rwanda into Singapore; before signing his piece as a ‘Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School in America.

There is something fundamentally wrong, when a Kenyan from Kitui County, describes a Rwandan using Asian references and European labels, all this in a Kenyan newspaper.

It is hard for a young African like me to tell whether the man is himself, or someone else inhabits him; someone from far. I was left wondering if we Africans were the intended audience of his diatribe, or if there were distant masters who needed pleasing by using familiar language.

While Prof. Makau Mutua projects good knowledge of Mr. Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore, and President Kagame and Rwanda, he is in fact unfamiliar with both and his article is merely relying on the usual dystopian accounts abundantly propagated by the western media.

His analysis is too simplistic for a man of his academic calibre. Rwanda isn’t an island with five million people, deep-water ports and isn’t strategically located at a historical trading route linking major world economies for two centuries.

In other words, Paul Kagame faces otherwise different challenges to those once faced by Mr. Lee Kwan Yew and his worth mustn’t be indexed on a leader from overseas to be validated, nor should our country be ‘baptized’ and ‘hellenized’ with eastern or western names to become what it wants to become. Rwanda is no Singapore, nor Switzerland, just like the reverse isn’t true.

Singapore isn’t Rwanda either.

More importantly, Rwandans do not live in fear. They are perfectly capable of choosing a leader who is suitable for them and change him or her when and how they see fit. They did not wait for a Makau Mutua to advocate on their behalf.

Had this article been written by a British professor and published on the website of Human Rights Watch, I wouldn’t have reacted. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who mocked western saviour complex in his young activist days.

There is a saying in Kinyarwanda satire: ‘beware to age gracefully’. A Rwandan elder once told me that at the University of Dakar, all young students revered Professor Cheikh Anta Diop in their early years and systematically deserted him upon graduation to access the favours of his nemesis Leopold Sedar Senghor,  the then Senegalese President and a known puppet of the French.

To young Africans, Makau Mutua is a great example of that ‘Promising adolescents; branded with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, mouths stuffed full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth’; a coconut, a ‘Black Skin in a White Mask’, as Fanon would put it.

The author is a Corporate lawyer with Gateteviews Law Firm and a political analyst based in Kigali.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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