January 24, 2014[NAIROBI] — In 1967, three years after winning the World Heavyweight Championship from the dreaded Sonny Liston, Mohamed Ali refused to be drafted in the US Army to fight in Vietnam. “Why should they ask me to put on uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he quipped, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong has called me a Nigger.”
The war in Vietnam (1956 – 1975) was one of the many proxy wars that the United States and the Soviet Union fought allover the world. Avoiding direct confrontation and engagement, the two Super Powers of the Cold War Era (1945 – 1989) elected to pitch the theatre of war elsewhere. They also used other countries’ armies to fight. And so their ideological war burst into violence in Korea, Angola, Mozambique, Iran, the Ethiopian Ogaden, Somalia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq – and God knows where else.
While direct engagement was thus avoided, the sending of troops to the theatre of war could not always be avoided. The American War in Vietnam was different ballgame. The Soviet communist backed Vietcong in South Vietnam were a veritable headache. I suspect we have not heard the whole truth about the casualties in the killing fields of Vietnam. It is believed that more than three million people died. Whatever the case, Vietnam will always remind us that war is about killing and getting killed. Most knew nothing about the conflicting capitalist and communist ideologies in whose name they died. They had no stake in this war.
Young Mohamed Ali was only acutely aware of the fact that war is about killing or getting killed. The 24 year-old was a conscientious objector. He cited his religion and what he saw as the unjust nature of the War of Containment in South Vietnam. He took a thorough beating from the government and an outraged public alike. The state stripped him off his heavyweight title. His passport was withdrawn. Never mind that only two years earlier, he had failed the military conscription test. Now that things were truly bad, the self-same test results were reversed. He was now “Grade A” material.
Ali enjoyed the support of fellow conscientious objectors from across the globe. In his autobiography, he notes the special courage of resolve that he got from the English Philosopher Bertrand Russell. When Prof Russell sent him a brief missive on his force of courage, Ali did not even know who this man was, until much later when he read of his death in the newspapers!
So much for that! Wars can sometimes be very difficult to justify. From Erasmus of Rotterdam to Thomas Aquinas, it remains difficult to tell when we can say this is a just war. There is universal agreement, however, that if people must go to war, there ought to be some compelling things that you want to die for. Chinua Achebe has told us of a war that the Igbo people of Nigeria used to call “ a war of blame.” The Igbo did not fight a war of blame. But they were not alone. Everywhere in Africa, elders consulted to satisfy themselves that they were enjoining their youth in just war.
When the United Nations asks Kenya to send troops to fight in South Sudan, does the UN pause to ask what is South Sudan for Kenya? President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was swift to tell Dr Riek Machar that Uganda was “going to crush him.” There are others who have joined Uganda in agreeing to send troops to fight in South Sudan. They probably know what is in it for them. In Kenya, it has been a relief to hear Foreign Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed say that we will withhold sending our soldiers to South Sudan. Pray, why does anyone want Kenyans to fight in South Sudan? Why would we want to send our youth to kill or get killed in South Sudan?
When we sent our soldiers to Somalia, we understood that we wanted to put to rest once and for all the gratuitous assault that we kept getting from Al Shabab. We no longer get feedback from Somalia. But we trust that all is well with our soldiers. We also know that the menace from Somalia remains real. Out troops must therefore hang in there for us. The poet George Gordon, aka Lord Byron, famously said that if you have nothing to die for at home, then die for your neighbour. But what is there to die for in South Sudan?
South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation state, has taken the wrong template from those who have meddled with building nations and new states in Africa. The independent African state is an exploitative, extractive and corrupt institution. It is informed with avaricious struggle for political power so that those who accede to power can own public finance, public procurement and public audit.
Once in charge, the institution of government is a gravy train for a minute tribal elite that uses the institutions of finance, procurement and audit conspire to fleece the country, jointly with thieving foreigners who pretend to be donors, development partners and other such nice sounding idiom. However, stripped to the basics, they are just international thieves and honourable criminals.
The thieving takes on the disguise of national development and international cooperation. The state secures its avaricious interests by controlling the organs and instruments of organised violence – such as the disciplined forces, often better known for indiscipline. You add to this state propaganda to the effect that anyone opposed to what you are doing is a tribalist. Crown it with lying to the tribe of the man at the top that the state he presides over belongs to his tribe. Pepper it with regular whining by the political elite from other tribes about tribalism – both real and imagined. You have the perfect recipe for unrest in the country.
The big difference is that in Sudan, even those outside the matrix of political power have their own armies. They don’t just whine. They engage in violence, again with vested foreign support. So, what is there for Kenyan youth to die for in South Sudan? Your neighbour had better have something worth dying for, if you must die for him.
I pray the peace accord signed this week holds. If it does not, the Kenya Government must do for her uniformed youth what Mohamed Ali did for himself. It must represent our conscientious objection.
The writer is a publishing editor, special consultant and advisor on public relations and media relations