African lives matter

Why African lives don’t matter

Why African lives don’t matter
  • PublishedSeptember 1, 2020

A complex combination of internal and external perceptions and beliefs has led to the devaluing of Black African lives, says Onyekachi Wambu

The global assertion that Black/African Lives Matter is welcome, but the real question is why our lives haven’t mattered to date? The reasons are a complex web of perceptions, stereotypes, practices, and beliefs, manipulated against us, and some of which we sometimes collude with.

Many are not real, existing only in people’s heads, but they do determine real outcomes, which undermine dignity and destroy lives. The following are the externally deployed and internally embraced arguments:

Externally deployed arguments

The defeat argument: African lives ceased to matter since we lost the war against the Europeans and gifted them global governance for the last 400 years. The Chinese and Indians suffered a similar fate but have not suffered the continuing contempt because they have taken resolute steps to recover economically, modernise and defend themselves militarily, unlike us, who remain unable to defend ourselves from a determined enemy or run economies that are not aid- dependent.

The racism argument: This argument is the most frequently deployed – African lives don’t matter because we are victims of the structure of White supremacy imposed after our military/economic defeat.

The saintliness argument: Under White supremacy our lives only matter if we are meek or become saints like a Mandela or Martin Luther King. Our oppressors then behave like the Old Testament God, who commits genocide and  wholescale slaughter against rebellious and non-Chosen communities, but continue to be loved because… well, since they are God and don’t expect to be held to Godlike behaviour from their non-Chosen peoples.

The regard for life argument: Despite the evidence of numerous European regional wars, the violence of slavery and colonialism, the perception persists that it is Africans that are violent, and do not value our lives. We engage in endless ‘tribal’ conflict, ignore the deaths of our fellow Africans – whether crossing the Mediterranean, being hacked by mobs in xenophobic attacks or via abuses by cruel police and military.

Internalised arguments

The self-respect argument: Africans don’t accept that we are at the centre of the universe. Reality is always elsewhere. Our countries or spaces don’t give us the same economic, emotional, social or spiritual return that we receive elsewhere.  For our women, our hair is inferior.

For many others, our gods are not real. We fail the test that if we are truly children of God, our first ancestor must therefore have known God face to face, obviating the need to go to Rome, London or Mecca to find God, instead of just sitting in our villages. 

The self-hatred argument: The assertion ‘Black is Beautiful’ was made precisely because many did not believe it. Within our cultures we are guilty of the same hierarchies and choices we accuse others of making, looking down on the weaker, darker, less modernised believers in traditional gods – in the same way European racists do.

Ultimately our attitude to the weakest amongst us can be judged by our behaviour towards the hunter-gathering Twa or San people.  These are our oldest human ancestors, who should be venerated and respected, but are instead treated with contempt and embarrassment.  The day the least amongst us are treated with love and respect, goes this argument, is the day that African lives really will matter.

The Commons argument: Our notions of success are individualistic, with the constant need for flamboyant show-offs and exhibitions. Efforts are not dedicated to building strong, community-owned social spaces or states. Such common spaces are usually hollowed out. 

A popular joke contrasting African and Asian attitudes to corruption sums up this hollowing of the social space. The Asian points to a well-built road and notes to his African guest that a 10% kickback resulted in his single-sized mansion. On the return visit, the African points to no road, but says 100% went towards his double-sized mansion. Asian corruption maintains a social good, the African denies himself a functional road, even to his own mansion.

Dismantling the arguments

All these arguments inevitably involve a combination of what we think, what we do, what we allow to be done to us; alongside what others believe and do in response to what they think they can get away with. Whether perception or truth, we need to dismantle these arguments to address why we have not been seen to matter globally.


Read more articles from our African lives matter report

African lives also matter

Poverty is why African lives do not matter

Magufuli defies Covid-19

In Uganda, do African lives matter?

Ethiopia: The ethnic tinderbox

South Africa’s ghosts of white supremacy

Why do Black lives still not matter in South Africa?

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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