Why you should care
Because laughing at a dysfunctional system is the first step toward changing it peacefully.
Michael Soi was hard at work in his Nairobi studio, speckled in acrylic paints, when four unidentified Chinese men and women walked in, demanding to see some paintings. It was July 2015, and Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Kenya.
Soi’s visitors didn’t wait for him to respond. They moved around the studio, shifting cans of paint, canvases, stacks of art pieces, making a mess in their search. The collection they were looking for is one Soi calls “China ‘Loves’ Africa.” Here, in bold hues of pink and green, he paints Chinese men staring lecherously at a nude black woman, hair braided, dancing on a pole. In one piece, a Chinese man is bedridden, hooked up to IVs containing “gold,” “titanium” and “copper.” A Black male doctor administers his treatment.
The Chinese visitors didn’t find the paintings funny. They claimed Soi had been influenced by the West and that China was only in Africa to “help” by building bridges and hospitals in his home country, Kenya. Soi invited the group to get out of his studio.
The 46-year-old Kenyan artist is part of a fresh cascade of creative producers emerging across Africa, using the visual arts to satirize the politics of the day, question their governments and inspire civic engagement. Africa has had a postindependence history of political satire, but mostly through literature and newspaper cartoons. Writers such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o were part of this tradition. Some were at times stopped from producing work, while others were jailed, persecuted or exiled.
We are witnessing that moment in that fairytale when the child points out that the emperor has no clothes on.
Ose Anenih, co-founder of TACT, which recently organized a satire festival
But political satire on the African continent now is moving to the canvas, television and computer screens, counting on the much harder-to-control social media share button that didn’t exist before. In Accra, Ghana, 28-year-old satirist Bright Ackwerh uses caricatures to highlight aspects of Ghanaian life often missed in the simplistic global narrative of the country as a stable, fast-growing economy. Nigeria’s biggest television station, Channels TV, airs a satirical show called The Other News that mocks the corruption and poor governance that hobbles the country. And Soi, observers say, is helping show Kenyan society a mirror.
“We are witnessing that moment in that fairytale when the child points out that the emperor has no clothes on,” says Ose Anenih, co-founder of TACT, a civic engagement nonprofit that recently produced a Nigerian satire festival.
That many of the satirists portray their work more as documenting society rather than looking to change it is in keeping with the self-deprecating humor they want their art to capture. But whether it’s China, their own governments or sections of their societies, opposition or efforts to control satire are a reality too and suggest that these artists are making some impact.
In countries where government commitment to the freedom of speech is often only skin-deep, the threat of a clampdown is also a reality the artists can’t ignore. Critics have suggested, for instance, that The Other News occasionally plays it safe, while Soi and Ackwerh acknowledge their work is making only so much of a dent in their societies.
Still, the artists aren’t shying from taking on powerful actors and asking tough questions. Earlier this year, an image of a Ghanaian teacher went viral. The teacher, Richard Appiah Akoto, was explaining how to use Microsoft Word to students by drawing the interface on a blackboard. The children have no computers to learn on. Microsoft recognized the teacher’s commitment and flew him to Singapore for a conference, but the challenges the children face remained unresolved. That’s the kind of context that Ackwerh likes to bring to his work. “In my work, I want people to consider more than one side of the story,” he says.
His interest in the subject wasn’t surprising. After all, it was angst at injustices in education that first drew Ackwerh to political satire six years ago.
In 2012, Ackwerh was pursuing his masters in fine arts degree when the Ghanaian government cut off a postgraduate subsidy. Ackwerh could no longer afford the tuition. He got by doing odd jobs and getting a special concession from the head of the department to spread out his payment in installments. At the time, he also started to pay closer attention to the politically biting, civically motivated songs of Ghanaian artists like Blitz the Ambassador and FOKN Bois. He decided to add his pop culture–driven messages to the fray of critical artistic voices — with sketches his weapon of choice, and social media his means of communication.
For him too, China’s growing influence in his country is a cause for concern. He argues Ghana’s government isn’t doing enough to stop Chinese companies from illegally mining for gold in its waters, an act locally known as “Galamsey.” The mining compromises the water quality and, in turn, the health of citizens. In one illustration titled “We Dey Beg,” he draws the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, and his minister of natural resources on their knees, holding bowls before the Chinese president who pours brown water (polluted by mining) into them. Xi also appears to be sitting on the Independence Arch, one of Ghana’s monuments signifying its independence struggle. The ambassador of China to Ghana happily waves a gold bar beside him. The Chinese government wrote to Ghanaian media houses claiming the cartoon was defamatory — though it didn’t refer directly to Ackwerh.
But China isn’t the only bug bear for Africa’s new breed of satirists. In one series, titled “Fat Cats,” Soi paints Kenyan political figures growing obese off bribes and corruption scandals. He also documents Kenyan society’s inflammable relationship with elections where the political class exploits ethnic tensions and spreads fake news to win power.
The politicians don’t even care.
Bright Ackwerh, Ghanaian satirist
Some sections of ordinary society at times find his use of nudity problematic. “His work is infuriating at first, but for only those who are easily offended,” says Enos Nyamor, an art critic based in Nairobi, via email. “He demonstrates that the public is as corrupt as the political class.”
But politicians — often the butt of his humor — are usually willing to laugh at his work, Soi finds. To him, that shows that the country’s political elite don’t find satire in the form of illustrations and art a threat — though Nyamor insists Soi’s work represents important civic education for Kenyan society. “Our politicians don’t seem to view art as something that can be used to voice dissent,” says Soi in a phone interview. “This is why we have been able to get away with so much, addressing issues that revolve around bad governance.”
Ackwerh too grapples with the contradiction of wanting to urge democratic citizens to voice their concerns publicly, even as he believes there’s only so much impact he can make. “I am aware that there is very little I can do. The politicians don’t even care,” he says in his studio in Accra.
But other observers believe they are making a difference. And in Nigeria, Channels TV, one of the country’s few independent channels, is seeing the impact of satire on how its viewers respond and connect with the channel.
The idea for The Other News was developed by PMI, a social enterprise that touts the idea of “comedy for change” as among its guiding philosophies, and was sold by them to Channels TV. Patrick Obuseh, assistant manager of international operations for Channels TV, says the show wants to “influence the governing class, make sure they are representing the citizens as they were elected to.”
When veteran Nigerian stand-up comic Okey Bakassi, the show’s host, gets in front of the camera, the station’s legal department watches closely. They know there’s an opportunity to gain audiences and make a difference — but there are also risks.
Every Thursday evening on television, and weekly on YouTube, Bakassi reads the “news.” He ribs legislators who are suspected to have mismanaged relief funds meant for victims of natural disasters and asks why the government is investigating underage voting in northern Nigeria when it allows girls under 18 to be married by law. The country’s struggle against Boko Haram terrorists, the government’s claims in that fight and a growing sense among ordinary Nigerians that the economy isn’t working for the majority are some of the other themes the show addresses.
Shows like this can galvanize a critical mass of people.
Nkechi Nwabudike, producer of The Other News
The show started airing mid-2017 and is starting to gain traction in a traditionally contentious time in Nigeria: election season. Nigeria will go to the polls to elect a new president in 2019 amid critical security and economic uncertainties.
“Shows like this can galvanize a critical mass of people who are informed, who care, who care enough to do something,” says Nkechi Nwabudike, producer of the show, in an interview at the show’s studios.
And viewers are buying in. Recently, after a skit on electoral participation aired, a Nigerian based in Italy messaged the show to ask how the diaspora may be able to vote. Nigerian law currently doesn’t allow it.
Some viewers think the show lacks bite. “The show has the potential to be a vital tool for citizen engagement with government, but it can’t do much if it is trying to play safe,” says John Adewusi, a Lagos-based film and television producer, in a phone interview.
Nwabudike concedes that even though the show vets all content and isn’t afraid of being sued, Nigeria’s history of discarding press freedoms means the show can only go so far. She recalls a time when she wanted to air a joke about a Nigerian senator but didn’t go ahead with it because she was warned that he had a reputation for kidnapping journalists.
Despite these constraints, the work that the satirists and television show producers are bringing out is significant, say analysts. In Ghana, for instance, Ackwerh’s work highlights poignant issues in a timely manner, evoking responses from the country’s officialdom, says Dr. Joseph Oduro-Frimpong, a media anthropologist and assistant professor at Ashesi University, Accra, in an email interview.
And the emergence of these satirists may well portend a demise of the dysfunctional governance that has marked many African countries over the years, suggests Anenih. “The rise of one usually indicates the fall of the other,” he says. The continent will wait and watch. Satirists may not prove the ultimate agents of change that help some of Africa’s major economies shed poor governance. But they’re helping societies laugh at their leaders — and at themselves — till then.