Last month, I began writing what promises to be a series of articles on African affairs for Atlantic.com, the digital footprint of the venerable monthly literary magazine. I’ve never made the printed pages of The Atlantic under my own name (though in the year 2000 the magazine published a shockingly appreciative and deeply curious article about my distinctive intellectual trajectory). Digital publishing has become the heartbeat of the sort of public engagement that I seek (at least, that I seek through writing; in a modest way, I seek the same ends through teaching and quiet consultations with others). My second article for Atlantic.com, on President Obama’s approach to U.S.-Africa relations, prompted a valuable and pithy private response from George Ayittey, a political economist who hails from Ghana and whose books have exerted an enormous influence on a rising generation of African policymakers and businesspeople because of his emphasis on freedom, responsibility, and the crucial importance of rule of law and honesty in government. Ayittey, who has a new book on defeating African dictators coming this fall from Palgrave, takes issue with my sense that Obama possesses an evolving sense of African borders, and the possibilities of more split-offs in the style of South Sudan, which will become formally independent next month.
Writes Ayittey: “I think you read too much into Obama’s non-doctrine of self-reliance. I don’t think you can equate that to self-determination by a people and, hence, encouraging secessionist bids. In many parts of Africa, self-reliance is generally interpreted as relying on oneself, rather than foreigners or foreign aid. “Self-reliance” was the slogan of many military leaders in the 1970s. I remember Col. Acheampong of Ghana, who championed self-reliance. A particular program of his was called “Operation Feed Yourself,” which was intended to reduce Ghana’s dependence on food imports.”
“Nonetheless, the issue or artificial borders and the potential for break-ups are real but the issue is not being handled properly. I opposed the split of Ethiopia into Ethiopia and Eritrea, just as I oppose the secession of South Sudan because if we take self-determination of a people to its logical limit, we may end up with over 2,000 little Djiboutis all over the continent — each with a Swiss bank account for the president, a one-plane fleet and a state-controlled television station. Nigeria alone has 250 ethnic groups. The source of the problem is not artificial borders but rather strong centralized rule that is produced by the unitary state system — a colonial relic. Remember, in pre-colonial Africa, Africans of different ethnicity have lived peacefully together in large polities — the Ghana Empire, Songhai, Mali Empire, and Great Zimbabwe. All these were confederacies which were characterized by a great deal of decentralization of power and devolution of authority. They allowed heir subjected the local autonomy to maintain their own distinctive ethnic identities. The solution, to me, is a confederation of African states, not secession.”
California, where I’m spending the summer, efforts to ban circumcision are gaining ground. Devotees of sparing pain to children are persuaded that circumcision is a barbaric practice which infant boys should avoid. In sub-Saharan Africa, the credo — “no pain, no gain” — might explain why the best and the brightest in the region are promoting circumcision as never before. Circumcision undeniably reduces the risk of acquiring HIV, by at least as much as half; and circumcised men are less likely to pass along the virus as well. The double-bonus is now amply documented by scientific studies (stretching back to the mid-2000s) and explains why, all across Africa, communities with high levels of circumcised males show much lower incidences of the HIV infection than those where males do not have their foreskins removed.
These are early days for promoters of circumcision. Traditional ritual practices, such as those performed by the Bugisu of eastern Uganda, represent important coming-of-age experiences for rural males. “Graduates,” whom I interviewed several years ago during the Ugandan “cutting” season, invariably emphasize their personal bravery and — because the entire community witnesses their shearing in a raucous party atmosphere — there’s also the honor that their families receive from their sons’ acts of dignity (among the Bugisu, for instance, males are not to show any fear and should remain silent during the cutting). But the traditional justifications are not especially compelling for urbanized young African men who view the count the benefits of circumcision in medical, not spiritual, terms. Clever tactics are needed to convert the unshorn. One such instance, smartly described by Max Fisher in theatlantic.com, is the “Be Smart, Get Circumcised” campaign in Zimbabwe, built around a leading entertainer in the country.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is playing an important role in promoting circumcision in Africa, along with the U.S. government, through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), initiated by President George W. Bush.
In California? A diverse coalition of people oppose the practice, and a risk in the rise of HIV transmission does not appear part of their public-health calculus.
One common misunderstanding of wildlife protection in Africa is the less protection means more wildlife. Not necessarily. There’s a growing body of evidence that when Africans receive certain benefits from protecting wildlife, the protection of wild animals improves — even when the incentives are payments to foreigners for the right to hunt animals.
To be sure, permission to hunt in the African wild is a controversial subject, not only because hunting means death to an animal but because organized “safaris” in Africa have a troubling history. In a new article provocatively entitled, “Shoot an Elephant, Save A Community,” Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, makes a persuasive case for providing “the the right incentives to protect wildlife and its habitat” in Africa. Central to those incentives is the sale of hunting permits. “Wildlife in Africa needs economic value to survive,” Anderson writes, and hunting permits provide a baseline for valuing wildife in monetary terms.
Anderson’s paper falls squarely in the mainstream of new approach to environmentalism that sees protection as a primary responsibility of Africans themselves. He echoes the findings of the landmark work of re-thinking African environmentalism, The Myth of Wild Africa, a classic study of how the power of local control of environmental resources can be directed at worthy conservationist aims. Anderson cites the experience of Zimbabwe, where elephant populations rose in tandem with managed hunting. Give communities a material reason to protect wildlife, and they will.
Just how many elephants should be sacrificed to fee-paying hunters remains a matter of debate. But for sure, do not kill an African elephant with a Kalashnikov. The activist Peter Thum has launched a compelling campaign against these deadly weapons, and recently he and his associates have tried buying some in the Congo to get them off the market. Thum’s group then destroys the weapons so, as he has tweeted, they will “never kill again.”
Curiously, Thum takes a page in his anti-Kalashnikov campaign for market-friendly environmentalists who long have argued that people need rewards for good behavior; we cannot rely on them to simply be good. Might the same be true for reducing deadly weapons in African countries? And if shooting elephants (selectively) helps elephant herds thrive overall, perhaps paying humans for their guns — and then destroying them — will help those without them.