No. 1: Peacemakers and Ancestors / Kaye Whiteman / Business Day, Nigeria / March 2014

Published in: Business Day, Nigeria, 11 March 2014

Africa's Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent, Adekeye Adebajo (ed.), Zed Books, 2014

The Nobel Peace Prize is a rather peculiar institution. One among several prizes awarded annually since 1901, funded by the fortune of the Swedish pacifist inventor of dynamite. It has acquired a remarkable pre-eminence among all international awards. The prizes are, as has been said, a "gold standard" in spite of the fact that, for example, the Peace Prize is awarded by five Norwegians. It may be the Scandinavian aspect that gives it a kind of moral authority, even when, as in the case of the Peace Prize, some of the decisions are odd and sometimes controversial.

I raise the subject because I came here to Oxford to take part in the launch of an exciting new book with the title of Africa's Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent, a collection of essays edited by my old friend Dr Adekeye Adebajo, Director of the Centre for Conflict resolution in Cape Town for the past ten years who has carved out a real role for himself as a Nigerian voice in the far south of the continent. The book, published by Zed Books in London deals with fourteen Nobel Peace Prize winners of African descent, beginning with Barack Obama, and passing through iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche and the four South Africans — Luthuli, Mandela, Tutu and De Klerk, as well as the two Egyptians Sadat and El Baradei, and concluding with Kofi Annan, Wangari Maathai and the two Liberians — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. The contributors are a distinguished cross-section from academia (especially), politics, and the international bureaucracy, and the book is remarkable in the objective way it largely eschews hagiography, although some of these figures have had more than their share of lionisation.

Where there might be a tendency to lean towards too much favour, you can be sure that in Adekeye's own introduction, the balance is corrected as he is a great believer in the exploding of myths and the exposure of sacred cows. This is a book to be read and argued with, essentially because it is dealing with the true nitty-gritty of political reputations based on ideas. In the space available I want particularly to draw attention to the chapter by Ali Mazrui on Barack Obama — 'Between Racial Compatriots and Nobel Ancestors' — which gives us the old master on best form.

I like the attention he draws to Gandhi's inspirational non-violent doctrine of satyagraha, which actually translates as 'soul force', giving it a direct connection to both the African Americans and the South Africans, especially King and Luthuli. Gandhi, of course, probably because of the suspicion with which he was held in the British Empire, never received the Peace Prize, although arguably the most deserving of it in all the 20th century, Mazrui comments drily that the 'ancestors ' are almost entirely of the Anglo-Saxon connection with no francophones and lusophones (found equally in the Literature Prize by such absences as Césaire and Senghor).

Mazrui asks mainly questions on Obama, especially toying with the problem of whether in the end we are going to be disappointed in Obama. This is an issue tackled more directly by Adekeye in his introduction where he expresses disappointment with the latter's Nobel acceptance speech on such matters as echoing George W. Bush's "pre-emptive force" doctrine. I have to say that in giving the prize to Obama in advance, before he even took office, disappointment was almost certain to be guaranteed. And the debate on Obama's successes and failures is sure to continue with greater intensity through the remainder of his second term and beyond.

Adekeye's criticism of some of the subjects springs from his profound desire that this should not be a volume of praise-singing. Even the saintly Mandela's track record is (correctly) not entirely immune from his searching gaze. His remarks on Archbishop Tutu's self-seeking publicity stunts will be particularly controversial, and I found, for example, his strictures on both Kofi Annan and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to be on the harsh side. It may be justified, however, to say that it was not necessary to single out Liberia for an award, given the extent to which Liberian politics is a real snakepit. One has the feeling they were looking for someone to provide gender balance, and then brought in a relatively minor, even if highly commendable, figure from civil society (Gbowee). If Liberia, why not also Sierra Leone, which might mean bringing in Sani Abacha and Tony Blair?

It is an illustration of the moral dilemmas of the Nobel Committee when giving the prize as an encouragement rather than a reward. It brings in dubious characters simply in the hope that impossible situations (such as the Middle East) might somehow improve. Maybe the ethical aura surrounding Scandinavia provides cover, but the risk of farce is ever-present. It was the singer Tom Lehrer who said that awarding the prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973 "made political satire obsolete."

Kaye Whiteman

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