Our prison of poverty: yes, it hurts much more

An oft-quoted line by President Paul Kagame, printed on tee-shirts and pinned on Twitter handles, implores Rwandans to “work hard until it pains because poverty hurts much more.” It is everywhere.

An oft-quoted line by President Paul Kagame, printed on tee-shirts and pinned on Twitter handles, implores Rwandans to “work hard until it pains because poverty hurts much more.” It is everywhere.  

And it is not out of blind following that Rwandans identify with this quote from a man they deeply admire; rather, it is the power of the quote which lies in its ability to capture the entire range of sensibilities around poverty, a range that goes beyond the physical, pains resonating across the spiritual and cognitive realms.


Understanding the different forms of poverty and conditioning each produces in human beings is important in efforts geared toward fighting it. For instance, chronic poverty is the worst form of poverty.


It is passed on from one generation to another in a vicious cycle that reproduces poverty. This is contrasted with a virtuous cycle of inter-generational wealth. In other words, much as the rich bequeath wealth to their offspring, the worst form of poverty is inherited by future generations.   


Poverty pains much more because of its debilitating potential. It clogs every possible escape route in the reproduction of the cycle.

It distort preferences and confounds decision-making; it blurs the distinction between short-term and long-term interests even when it is clear that the former will keep the beneficiary in the cycle of poverty while the latter will end it. It is a condition that leads economists and political scientists to conclude that the poor often vote against their interests.

Once it has gained the upper hand in the cognitive realm it morphs into a poverty of ideas. At this point, the process of incapacitation is complete. The cycle becomes rigidified and readily bequeathed. That is because ideas are what is needed to think our way out of a poverty of ideas. Think about that!

Africa is poor. But how poor is Africa? Africa suffers from chronic poverty and it is stunted and malnourished. Africa is ideationally deficient. In 2011 Africans on the UN Security Council voted for the assassination of Gaddafi.

Once the bombs started raining on Tripoli, Africans claimed to have been duped by Western powers about the real aims of the resolution they had just signed. Others celebrated the tactical victory because Gaddafi had been a thorn in the neck of many due to his flamboyance.

However, it was a tactical victory that came at the cost of a strategic imperative of ensuring the existence of a stable state in North Africa that is entirely behind the Pan African cause in recognition of the huge void that is yet to be filled since the passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1970.

In 2011 Africans supported the military intervention to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power in Ivory Coast to “restore democracy.” Soon thereafter the French troops took over the frontline with verve. This raised red flags about the real motives of the resolution.

It turns out the French had been increasingly weary of Gbagbo and had come to perceive him as a threat to their strategic interests in the Ivory Coast as well as in the entire Francophone West Africa.

A decade earlier Africans had enthusiastically signed up for membership to the ICC. The excitement was around an instrument that would ensure “universal justice.”

They signed unaware who the court was being set up to prosecute. Now they know they were hoodwinked and want a mass exodus that increasingly seems unlikely to happen.

Yet again, excitement is in the air. Africans are elated about the forced removal (on a wobbly legal basis) of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. They don’t see the long term consequences of the decision to enforce “democracy and the rule of law.”

For the most part the West has been conspicuously silent. This silence ought to have been a smoking gun for Africans. Why is the West silent? Because it doesn’t want to mess up a good thing. Africans are making history. They are creating a precedent that will come back to bite them in the rear.

Who will stop a challenger in a future election from any part of the continent from asking for military intervention to remove the incumbent president because in their perception the election has been stolen? Moreover, how often do challengers accept electoral defeat?

And will it be difficult to find a willing enforcer of an election outcome if and when the interests of the challenger and those of the foreign force coalesce? The fact is that as long as our socio-political-economic context remains neo-colonial in nature – which it will for the foreseeable future – eager enforcers will always lurk like a vulture over its prey.

It won’t be smooth at all. Not like it was in the Gambia. It will be the kind of civil unrest akin to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. That’s because the socio-political dynamics in Kenya, unlike those in the Gambia, are closer to those in most African countries.

But everyone is busy congratulating the other for “restoring the rule of law” in the Gambia. Celebrations! Africans are sacrificing strategic interests at the altar of tactical victories and will later claim to have been caught unawares.

The sanctity of sovereignty – a European invention –has been the only thing standing between the West and its desire to control Africa. It is respected because of its historical utility in stemming the rise of interstate warfare in Europe.

By undermining sovereignty –especially on flimsy grounds –Africans create a dangerous precedent. In one move, the moral imperative that the West always thought it had over Africa and could not openly exercise has been legitimated and is now enforceable.

Poverty hurts.

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