FROM HERO TO ZERO: Our age of moral persecution

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Is it possible for us to celebrate and perpetuate someone’s achievements whilst condoning that person’s human failings? The world has become very condemnatory, lately. And viciously so. If we read more or less the same newspapers, watch more or less the same TV shows and use more or less the same social media, then we have been made more or less part of the burgeoning, universal inquisition.

It’s guiding tenet is simple: if evidence is found of past ethical misconduct on your part, no matter how long ago, then you must be ‘outed’ at the earliest opportunity, stripped of all your prestige, if any, and dumped into the dustbin of social opprobrium for onward transmission to a special place in hell.Wow! Tough, hey?

This stance has been evidenced dramatically in recent times by the #MeToo movement, but is no way limited to it. So, let’s play a fun game to see whether you can identify whom I am talking about, mainly from ‘Showbiz News,’ in this succession of exposés.

An Oscar winning Best Actor has his career ended precipitately after accusations of sexual impropriety. He is deleted from a hit series where he plays the president of the USA and another actor takes over his role in a film.

Still in the USA, a governor is accused of being one of two people featured wearing either black face or a Ku Klux Klan outfit in a high school, year book photo. His speaker admits that he, too once wore black face. His deputy is accused of sexual abuse. All are called upon to resign. The mind boggles when one thinks about how many powerful men in Africa would survive similar scrutiny of their past, to say nothing of their present.

Allow me, by an association of ideas, to catapult myself to the issue of statues in honour of people who are meant to have led exemplary lives. I dare say that many Africans, and others besides, applauded the news that a statue of Cecil Rhodes had come down at the University of Cape Town, as the result of continued protest against the historical pillager of the continent. Although I have never been there, I doubt highly that statues can still be seen  of King Leopold II of Belgium in DRCongo, as he was not at all nice to the natives, to put it euphemistically.

In the USA, I ask whether native Americans take kindly to seeing a statue or statues of Christopher Columbus who, set in train the decimation of 56 million of their kind. In today’s America, we have witnessed deadly confrontations between those who would retain statues of pro-slavery, civil war generals in the south and those who cannot stand the sight of them. Those in favour of their preservation argue that the generals were key players in American history. And history cannot be erased or ignored. In Kenya, where I live, we have removed a statue of the colonialist Lord Delamere from public view, despite his manifest social contribution, particularly in the field of agriculture.

Now, always in search of relevant subject matter for this column, my ears perked up when, during a conversation with a South Asian friend, I learned of a development of which, up to that point, I had been unaware: sustained activism had lead to the pulling down of a prominent statue of Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul,’on the grounds of the University of Ghana. How could that be? Was Gandhi not the subject of the eponymous film by David Attenborough, starring Ben Kingsley, which I had found so inspirational in my youth? Was Gandhi not the pioneering light of non-violent protest, imitated subsequently by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr, whose own moral image has become increasingly tarnished, with time?What had Gandhi done to so offend a segment of African society? Well, it turns out that there is copious evidence, much of it written by Gandhi himself, to prove that Gandhi considered Africans savages, akin to animals. The same is said of Winston Churchill, undeniable hero of World War 11, who, incidentally also considered Indians as being worthy of dismissal into a subhuman category.

So what is one to make of all this self-righteous condemnation? Well, as an African, I must say that I find it very difficult to continue to revere and  venerate someone who thought that people who looked like me were a bunch of savages. However, that attitude begs the question: whom are we, collectively, to revere and venerate? Who would pass the test that would declare him or her, wholly perfect, in moral terms, apart from the founders of great religions, criticism of whom would be considered an act of blasphemy, punishable by death?

Kwame Nkrumah? Gamal Abdel Nasser? Dedan Kimathi? Jomo Kenyatta? Julius Nyerere? Milton Obote? Tom Mboya? Oginga Odinga? Nelson Mandela? To be discussed.

What I would say is that this emerging standard of perfectionism is quite impossible to meet. The solution, to my mind, is to be rid, progressively but ruthlessly, of the cult of the personality, in all its forms. As that applies to statues, the decree would have to be: ‘off with their heads!’ So that, many years from now, there will be none of them, anywhere in the world.

Their substitutes would have to be our history books, both for adults and children, always under constant revision, from generation to generation, allowing our revered and venerated to emerge ever more as flawed but consequential human beings.                                                           

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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