Sep 18 2009

Beyond Africa’s national electricity grids

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:40 PM

Lacking the billions of dollars necessary to expand creaky national electricity grids and build large power plants, Africa’s political and economic leaders are experimenting with alternatives. Electricity is increasingly being generated by microdams, solar cells, and microturbines.

Is the next big thing in Africa, technologically-speaking, off-grid electricity?

I give a tentative “yes” answer to this question in the new issue of Technology Review, under the hopeful headline of “Giving up on Grids.”

Sep 16 2009

Kabash on Kibera?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:48 PM

Rem Koolhaus, the Dutch architect, has celebrated the poorest neighborhoods in some of Africa’s most densely populated cities, such as Lagos and Nairobi. Stewart Brand, another cutting-edge thinker, has identified these African cities as hothouses for grassroots urban innovations. Yet popular media calls these areas “slums,” and concentrates on the crime, poverty and lack of basic hygiene in these often chaotic, dangerous and tense neighborhoods.

African central governments periodically determine the need to clear, or at least, sanitize these “slums,” hoping to impress foreigners who often see the slums as breeding grounds for human indecency. Their own citizens, however, often view slums as essential compromises between living altogether on the streets and possessing the basic middle-class living quarters.

The debate is now urgently expressed in Nairobi, where the government of Kenya is moving to clear the entire Kibera settlement over the next five years. With an estimated one million residents, Kibera is the largest “slum” in East Africa and one of the biggest shantytowns on the planet.

The government this week unveiled 300 new apartments for people evicted in the first round of slum-clearing. Resistance has already surfaced, principally from residents of Kibera who have called the neighborhood home for decades.They argue that many years of living in a place — even a Kibera shack — entitles them to some right to remain, if not permanent legal rights.

I’m rooting for “Kiberans” to win a reprieve and to find ways of improving their shantytown at least enough to silence advocates of government clearance. Perhaps the none-too-effective Kenyan government will remain true to form — and somehow not follow through on threats to demolish any more of Kibera than the little it already has. Kiberans deserve a better reward for enduring the hardships of living in East Africa’s biggest experiment in urban camping and improvisational living.

Sep 04 2009

Goodnight Gabon

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:43 PM

The election results are official: Omar Bongo’s son is the new president of one of Africa’s most beautiful, resource-rich and least-densely-populated countries.

The victory by Ali Ben Bongo is being greeted by protests in Gabon’s second-largest city, Port Gentil. Bongo’s father ruled for decades and on his death earlier this year could boast to being the African ruler with the longest tenure. Might Ben Bongo, only 50 years old, hold power for decades as well?

Civil society is almost non-existet in Gabon. France maintains about 1,000 soldiers in Gabon, whose aim is to keep order, which in Gabonese terms means the continuation of the Bongo dynasty.

France’s attachment to the Bongo family is beyond utilitarian explanation. The government France, and the French corporations it promotes, do not receive enough material benefits to justify the cost of doing business in Gabon. Therefore France’s attachment to the idea of a Gabon loyal to France is beyond calculation. France’s attachment to the Bongo family — to Gabon as a stage in which to play out French fantasties of omnipotence — is beyond rationality. It is a kind of leap of faith, a kind of religion.

The people of Gabon, in the terms and mentalities of the religion which governs this central African country, do not exist. There are no citizens of Gabon. There are only “interests.”

Ben Bongo is a self-styled reformer who failed to achieve 50 percent of the vote. Under election rules, he didn’t need a majority, and opponents of the Bongo dynasty could not unify behind a single candidate. Bongo now faces the task of consolidating power. If the past is any guide, once backed by the machinery of the Gabonese state, Bongo may find — through a combination of patronage and economic liberalization — could move the country out of France’s political-economic orbit. Popular animus toward symbols of French hegemony in Gabon — notably the French oil company, Total — give Bongo an opportunity to reach out to a wider range of international investors. Whether more diverse foreign ownership of Gabonese assets will produce broader economic benefits, for a population still consisting mainly of have-nots, is the looming question.

Sep 04 2009

Africa’s misunderstood political challenge: ethnicity, federalism and the nation-state

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:14 AM

In my book “The Diversity Advantage,” I looked at the various approaches that wealthy, “developed” countries have taken towards accomodating the divergent needs and aspirations of ethnic and racial groups in their countries. I questioned at the outset the validity of frozen definitions of ethnic groups, pointing to the ways in which mixture, inter-marriage and other forms of “mongrelization” can undermine traditional notions of ethnicity. The core concept of “hybridization,” of an individual having “roots and wings,” or allegiances to both an ethnic group and a cosmopolitan project, was central to my analysis of how societies should organize themselves in an era where identities are fluid and traditional ways of accomodating ethnicity is breaking down.

In Africa, ethnicity is often either ignored or considered a threat, and political arrangements to accomodate ethnic groups are largely absent from formal structures. At best, informal arrangements between groups maintain some sense of proportion between them. At worst, ethnic differences grow. The failure of most, if not all, African countries to address ethnic differences, and especially grievances, remains a negelcted problem in the region.

In a new study, the International Crisis Group identifies a set of problems with Ethiopia’s effort to politicize ethnicity and use federalist structures to apportion political benefits among definable ethnic groups. ICG insists these arrangements are making ethnic grievances grow, rather than recede, and the think-tank may be correct. But the cause of the rise in grievances may well be the result of poor implementation, not anything inherent in the linking of ethnicity and political capital. Too often, analysts of Africa dismiss any attempt to priviledge ethnicity as a step backward, as an endorsement of dreaded “tribalism.” I respectfully differ. The biggest problem in African politics is not too much tribalism, but too little.

Ethnic differences in Africa cannot be wished away. They must be accomodated either through creative political and social frameworks, or by new political bodies, which might include new nation-states. It remains one the great contradictions in the world political system that Africans are not “permitted” to organize nations along perceived ethnic lines, while Europeans are allowed to do so. Virtually every new nation formed in Europe since the break-up of the old Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc is defined by a common ethnicity or a set of ethnicities in interation. Why are Europeans permitted the priviledge of living in political union with “their own tribe” when Africans are not?

Of course, the parallels between Europe and Africa are difficult to sustain. Yet serious political analysis of Africa continues to ignore ethnicity in the search for elusive “structural” explanations of state failure. The case of Togo is illustrative. This Western country is clearly a failed state. A dictator father gives way to a dictator son (both of whom rule and ruled with the assistance of a legal imprimatur). The answer, say experts, is to strengthen “rule of law” and civil society in Togo. Yet the neoliberal answer has been tried for decades and never gained traction. Perhaps the answer in Togo to political failure is to revivify the ethnos rather than to continue to deny its power. In Togo, the dominant ethnic group is Ewe. Ewe also dominate in eastern Ghana, the region bordering Togo. Why not an Ewe state? Could an ethnic-Togolese solution really be worse than the terrible tiny Togo of today.

For those who track Africa’s crises, the work is hard and the crises are many. Yet ethnicity itself cannot be viewed as a source of crisis. Neither can the expression of ethnic pride or grievance be equated with crisis. Ethnicity can be a source of strength in Africa, but it will never be as long as Africans and their distant friends view ethnicity as a symbol of shame.

Sep 01 2009

Kadafi’s secret sauce

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:38 AM

My former colleague in Ghana, Daniel Morris, has written a provocative column about the abilities of Libya’s Kadafi to benefit from sowing disorder and confusion. Kdafi’s role in Africa remains a sideshow to his image in the U.S. as a repugnant moral monster. Yet as Morris adroitly shows, Kadafi’s tactics have kept him in power for 40 years. Whether these tactics amount to the propagation of “disorder,” as Morris contends, or whether Kadafi actually is orchestrating a different kind of order, is almost besides the point since his consistent capacity to both profit from the West, and seemingly despise it, offers African leaders to the south of the Sahara another model in approaching the rhetoric and symbolism of democracy and development.