In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Western officials accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of kowtowing to China, which for several weeks had concealed the facts about the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, even criminalising medics who had leaked information about a strange serious and highly contagious disease in the Wuhan area.
The integrity of the director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom, was on the line for maintaining that China had not (knowingly) covered up anything about the outbreak. Adhanom had previously served as Ethiopia’s health and finance minister.
A former Nigerian finance minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was recently appointed director-general of the World Trade Organisation; the first African, and the first woman, to head WTO.
Now, I have no reason at all to doubt the qualifications and competence of Adhanom or Okonjo-Iweala. Even the pre-Biden US objection to Okonjo-Iweala was probably more about Trump’s idiosyncrasies than about her abilities.
However, there is something both encouraging and depressing about the temperament of our times; the feeling of a special moral obligation to incorporate the Black identity into the management of the world’s affairs.
In short, as Black lives matter, Black excellence must be acknowledged. But the deserving can still be exposed to prejudice associated with affirmative action and tokenism, with their positions undermined because their colour is thought to have given them an upward push.
When the Black is an African, as opposed to, say, an American or a Caribbean, the perception of a special balancing act (however unjustified) can rise. The world is not like the fictitious biblical heaven. It is a real place. Apart from running their organisations, the African honchos at WHO and WTO have the challenge of navigating the prejudices and politics of that world.
In the heat around Covid-19 vaccine development, reasoning much like some other Black conspiracy theorists, Adhanom rather tactlessly opposed the inclusion of African volunteers in the test stages of the vaccines. With the vaccines beginning to come out, the same chief has been demanding that African countries be given equal access to the vaccines as the countries that have invested money, done the science and taken risks during development. The global trade chief, Okonjo-Iweala, has quickly joined the call, demanding that African countries be given equal procurement access.
The charge of ‘vaccine nationalism’ – or plain selfishness – is levelled mainly against developed Western countries.
But what is the responsibility of African governments? Their odd priorities and cynical corruption; the multi-faceted cost of keeping their barbaric regimes in power; if Adhanom and Okonjo-Iweala do not highlight the perennial governance ills that have crippled Africa and left much of the continent plying the beggar’s groove, they will not be much better than erudite exhibits to show that Africans have not been excluded.
The dragon is watching. China is an authoritarian state. It is not faking an attitude if it is attracted to Africa’s tin-pot dictators.
Fortunately for China, natural resource-rich Africa has serious shortcomings in technical expertise and investment capital. Africa’s weakly states are, therefore, fodder for Chinese imperialism. The official word is ‘friendship’.
African global civil servants come from that background of generalised weakness. Usually backed by the governments of their motherlands, which are beholden to an ascendant China, these civil servants will face another challenge.
Taking positions on health and trade that are ‘fair’ to ordinary Africans and most of mankind might often mean antagonising both African bigwigs and Chinese officials. Your African icon up there may not necessarily be a matter for Black celebration.
Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.