African development is the subject of great discussion around the world, and many factors and elements arise in this discussion. The subject of race and racism rarely does any longer. Claims of the inferiority of Africans — common a hundred years and even made on the eve of the independence of Europe’s African colonies 50 years ago — are no longer cited by professionals and politicians as reasons for the region’s uneven or slow development.
Privately racist talk continues, and Africans still labor under the burden of their blackness. That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the comments of the eminent biologist James Watson published on Sunday in the Times of London. One zinger: Watson told the Times he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”
However wrong Watson is about the biological basis of race and intelligence, his comments are welcome reminder that thinking about Africa’s history and development remains mired in attitudes about race and identity that need reform or even revolution. Western (ie, white) analysts of African problems rarely cite racism as one of the hurdles facing the region. Even the subject of race and identity is rarely broached by development economists, sociologists and advocates of the region’s advance. In truth, race is not irrelevant to the story of African development. Racism is indeed a factor in the region’s socio-economic performance. Awareness that racism is indeed a drag on Africa and Africans is made all the easier to attain because of Watson’s strange and ill-timed comments.
“Here’s your most important client, Africa, with its most important sector, agriculture, relevant to the most important — people feeding their families — and the [World] Bank has been caught with two decades of neglect.” — William Easterly
Last night I had as a guest for dinner a new arrival in America from the Delta, an Ijaw women who until recently worked for Michelin in Port Harcourt. She came with a sad story of Michelin closing its tire plant (which used locally sourced rubber). One thousand workers have been let go, this in the middle of a booming oil-economy. But of course the very oil boom has raised prices and instability, thus making Port Harcourt the least likely place for a manufacturing operation. How Michelin soldiered on for so long — amid the curfew and electricity outages — is itself a small miracle. The loss of important manufacturers in Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa, is a reminder that de-industrialization continues apace — and underscores the importance of a vital agricultural sector. Impressively, Nigerians are growing food crops at a faster pace than population increases, so the real secret of Nigeria’s endurance as a society and phantom state is not oil but a vital rural sector. Nigeria is thus surviving on the backs of peasants, not petro-capitalists. It is time to celebrate these “peasants,” and reward them even with their own political party. If class-based politics were to replace regional and ethnic-based factions, Nigerian politics might radically change for the better. Certainly, sharpened class conflict — or at the least, the rise of a farmer’s political party that crossed regions and ethnicities — could deliver no worse results than now.
This morning this note came to me from a young friend in Europe who is studying international affairs. One of his professors is a former European oil executive who had this to say about oil and Nigeria:
“He told me there is the view by some in the industry that corruption is good for business: a destabilized Delta [oil-rich region of Nigeria] is in their interest to get as much oil out as quick as possible. Sure the region is getting a lot of press, too
much press, but if the situation can get just a little quieter then business as usual is much preferable to a strong, accountable government.”
“Since exaggeration is the norm in that region, to call a lie a lie is not the best way to establish friendly relations with anyone.” — Che Guevara, Congo diary, 1965
Comparing the achievements of writers is difficult, yet one cannot help wondering why the Nobel committee could not select Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s great writer of realistic fiction, for its literary prize this year. Without denigrating the work of Doris Lessing, a writer of great talent and insight, is not Achebe’s literary legacy more worthy, more universal, and certainly more specific to one of the great historical movements, that of the colonization and de-colonization of black Africa. The Nobel has a well-established taste of course for white writers who found their voice on African soil. Is it not time for Achebe to receive the sae recognition? Is it possible to imagine the current outpouring of African literature — and especially young women writers of realistic fiction — without Achebe? His slim novel, “Things Fall Apart,” is a masterwork and his later books and short stories, while also slim, further distinguish him as a writer of rare story-telling gifts, conscience and insight into both the human condition and the African predicament. In the light of Achebe’s enduring achievements, Lessing seems a lesser light.
The New York Times published a fascinating story about the debate in the humanitarian community over how best to distribute bed nets — treated with insecticide. The bed nets are crucial to impeding malaria, and their use has been rising dramatically in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, albeit from a low-base. The Times article, co-written by tireless-malaria-watcher Donald McNeil Jr., reports that advocates of free nets have won out, and that net distribution through “social marketing” schemes — in which recipients pay a discounted price — is on the decline. The debate — free versus subsidized — obscures the underlying issue of the importance of Africans using bed nets and why usage is relatively low in the region. One thing the article makes clear — and no one disputes — is that bed nets work to reduce malaria. In my recent trip to East Africa, I spent a month of nights under a bed net and never received a single nocturnal bite (all right, maybe one) even though the heavy rains during my visit meant excellent breeding conditions for mosquitos. The case of bed nights represents an instance of a wider issue in Africa: mental attitudes towards preventative actions. The failure of bed nets to spread in Africa isn’t merely a question of poverty: even well-off people avoided using them until fairly recently, when anti-malaria campaigners raised the profile of bed net use. In this regard, social marketers may be at least partly right. Even if bed nights are given away free, mobilization campaigns — using media, village meetings and demonstrations by leaders and role models — are important to raise adoption rates.
“I stepped on the toes of some top security agents and politicians who are threatened because I took information directly to Obasanjo.” — Judith Asuni, American jailed in Nigeria for alleged espionage in oil-rich Delta region.
Frustration with the fragmentation of Darfur’s anti-governnment forces may be creating a new attitude toward the troubled and troubling Sudanese region. The BBC reports today that one former U.N. envoy is accusing Western aid groups of “pandering” to armed rebels. And former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, reacting to growing evidence of violence by rebels and government alike, has declared: “There is a legal definition of genocide and Darfur does not meet that legal standard. The atrocities were horrible but I do not think it qualifies to be called genocide.” Carter is certainly no wimp when it comes to labeling immorality, so his statement deserves further reflection. The language of genocide, as I have argued elsewhere, makes pragmatic approaches to reducing conflict in Darfur more difficult, not easier. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of the “G” word in the Darfur conversation — and that could be a good thing.
“We went into the heart of Africa self-invited — theirein lies our fault.” Henry Morton Stanley