On Donald Trump’s “Shithole” Comment

By Tope Oriola

The Washington Post’s report on Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries has understandably reverberated around the world. Trump allegedly asked a bipartisan group of lawmakers “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Trump expressed a strong preference for immigrants from Norway and Asian countries. Once again, Trump has demonstrated his street credibility as the symbolic leader of right-wing fanatics and all the hue of the KKK. This is remarkable given the fortunes of his birth and his business stature. Money indeed buys neither class nor dignity. The fallout has been swift. Botswana has recalled its ambassador to the US, the UN has described the comment as “racist”, and the African Union has strongly condemned Trump. Of course, Nigeria’s lethargic government (at the time of writing this) has yet to string together a response.
Trump’s latest vitriol calls for much more than condemnation from countries that have been disparaged. Recall that only a few days ago Trump stated that Nigerians in the US would not like to return to their “huts” in Africa. He has never hidden his disdain for peoples of African origins although African immigrants have significantly higher educational attainments in the US than most groups—immigrant and non-immigrant. Nigerians, for instance, have been consistently high performers. The Houston Chronicle reported as far back as 2008, “Although they make up a tiny portion of the U.S. population, a whopping 17 percent of all Nigerians in this country held master’s degrees while 4 percent had a doctorate, according to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, 37 percent had bachelor’s degrees.” In contrast, the paper notes that among white Americans, only 8% had master’s degrees, 19% had bachelor’s degrees while 1% had doctorates. The closest competitors of Nigerians in the US are Asians. The Houston Chronicle stated that 12% of Asians had master’s degrees while 3% had doctorates. Recent evidence provides a solid backing to the 2008 figures.
Of course, none of these statistics matters to Trump. The perspective of Trump and his ilk speak a clear and unambiguous language. It is easy to simply dismiss Donald Trump as a world-class bigot. Of course, he is but countries like Nigeria that have been described as “shithole” by Trump ought to have a strategic response. As a friend recently argued, you cannot simply expect to enjoy somebody else’s civilization. You have to build one that is authentically yours. Diaspora life cannot protect you from the dastardly human conditions in your home country. Trump’s comment is a reminder that although Africans’ kith and kin contributed to building the US, the reality is that the underdevelopment of many African countries is an embarrassment. African-Americans unfortunately share in the disdain when they are told to “go back to Africa if you don’t like it here”.
Africa has long been the metaphor for an incomprehensible lack of development and dependency. To be clear, Trump has merely expressed a widely shared sentiment. Although few persons in his position would be as uncouth as Trump, we delude ourselves to think that it is an isolated sentiment. Many people around the world have taken a decidedly pessimistic view of Africa. They may not use Trump’s exact words but even those who purportedly mean well for us express similar feelings through deodorized statements. They are astonished at the continuing economic problems, ethno-religious conflicts and the cluelessness of many of those we elect as leaders.
Haiti declared its independence in 1804 — the first country led by peoples of African origins to pull off the shackles of colonialism. Nonetheless, Haiti has earned a reputation as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Haiti needed major foreign intervention to help with its January 2010 earthquake. The humanitarian crisis from that earthquake continues to this day and compounds generational issues of poverty and economic depression.
Spare me the whole colonization defensive strategy. Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent country, was never colonized except for a five-year period (1936-1941) in which it was occupied by forces of Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Pictures of starving Ethiopian children are still occasionally used to raise money for humanitarian organizations. The CIA’s World Factbook estimates that the GDP per capita of Ethiopia is $1,900; therefore, Ethiopia is ranked 208th in the world. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have demonstrated that it is possible to rise from the ashes of colonization. Thankfully, African countries like Botswana are some of the leading lights on the continent. Botswana’s GDP per capita is estimated at $17, 300. Clearly, Botswana must be getting several things right.
Rather than an outpour of rage on the grand patron of the alt-right movement, this should be a wake-up call. Respond to Trump by being engaged in the democratic process. Ensure that you register to vote. Vote for only competent persons regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation. Those who regularly sell their birthright and mortgage their children’s futures through a collection of small quantities of rice, gari, and five yards of cloth must be made aware of the broader implications of their actions. We need to inform them that there is a correlation between those gifts from politicians and persistent fuel crises as well as perpetual interruption in power supply.
Trump’s comment about Africa is unlikely to prevent Nigerians who have visa interviews at the US embassy from attending. They will in all likelihood honor the visa appointments in the hope of enhancing their prospects in life. Even some of those who are evidently doing well in Nigeria wish to get out or resettle their families elsewhere. Our citizens are perishing in the Mediterranean Sea; they are being enslaved in Libya and some are granted a modicum of dignity after death in Italy. This is the civilization we have built. Do we wish to continue this way? Trump’s comment signposts what many around the world are discussing in hushed tones in the privacy of their homes: What is wrong with this people? Let the people rise up and act.

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