Jan 28 2012

Manifesto for a new image of Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:38 PM

The importance of re-inventing the image of Africa, in American eyes, has long animated my writing about the people and the region. Elsewhere, I’ve looked in detail at the meta-narratives, or paradigms, that continue distort clear thinking about African affairs -- and that cause otherwise intelligent people to ignore or dissemble about evidence of positive achievements by Africans, in Africa, for Africans. The other night, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, where I teach, I presented some 50 photos and a half-dozen short videos from my various trips in the sub-Saharan. The aim was to present the subject in a fresh way. Click here to view the entire presentation, “Africa: One Journalist’s Journey into a Misunderstood Continent.”

Or read an excerpt from my introduction, which stands as a kind “manifesto” against those who appear committed to diminish and demeaning Africans in order to rouse the world’s sympathy and perhaps assistance:

My aim tonight is to present an alternative way of looking at Africa – a contrarian approach that runs counter to the usual media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Far too often, American journalists meet only sick Africans, murderous Africans and starving Africans – or they meet sick starving Africans murdering each other. I’m bringing you a different bunch of Africans  –  brainy Africans, caring Africans, hard-working Africans, damaged but dignified Africans – Africans who, under adverse conditions, do the best they can to build and sustain a decent life. Hopefully by meeting these Africans, your image of Africa will change and in ways that my surprise you.

The journey I take you on tonight I began myself, some dozen years ago. In 2000, I sat in a shack in the capital city of Burundi, smack in the heart of Africa, smack in the middle of an undeclared civil war, huddled together with a gang of irregular soldiers and their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s who I met with the assistance of Alexis Sinduhije, the leading journalist in Burundi. I sat with these men listening to them talk about mayhem from the heart of darkness – stories about pillaging and killing their ethic enemies – listening to them describing their actions and their motives – in short, doing what a foreign correspondent in Africa is supposed to do – reporting on human suffering, the people who inflict it, and its victims.

I spent three hours in a shack with these men and at the end I didn’t understand anything about who they were, what they did, where they came from, or their world. I wasn’t even sure what they told me was true, or whether that even mattered. So at the end of my carefully arranged encounter with young killers, I sat with Alexis Sinduhije in a restaurant and I told him, I don’t want to do this. Then I asked him a question – a question I would go on to ask many other Africans in many other places  – can you show me something beautiful.

He did. And then on my own I kept looking for the beautiful in Burundi and then the beautiful in everwhere else I went in Africa. At some cost to my standing with editors at the famous publications I used to write for, I decided that far better journalism can be done by reporting on what’s working in Africa – the normal, the successful, the dignified, the beautiful  – than by reporting on the stuff that usually comprises global media coverage of Africa and Africans. I decided that journalism ought not to diminish and demean Africans under the guise of displaying sympathy for them.

African problems need not be exaggerated or invented in order to get Americans to care about Africans. At least not in my own articles.

My purpose tonight is not to suggest that Africa is without problems, or that outsiders cannot help Africans. But the near-exclusive focus on African pathologies – and the media’s absorption on what some call the “pornography of pain” – presents only part of African reality and not the most interesting or significant part either. In these photos and films, I seek to celebrate concrete, commonplace African realities – realities that invite us to understand and engage Africa and Africans more deeply – and on a far more equal basis than we achieve by approaching Africans as objects of sympathy or assistance.


Jan 25 2012

Nigeria and the case for unmaking the British-made world

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:47 AM

Does Nigeria belong in the category of countries that were constructed during the twilight of British colonial rule and have forever after spawned endless crises, partly because the original British design was flawed, perhaps fatally?

I look at the origins of the Nigerian nation-state in a new piece for Atlantic.com. What I don’t share with the readers of the Atlantic — for space reasons, chiefly — is a review of the sorry history of Britain’s efforts at design and re-design of nation-states. The partition of India, which at the outset caused massive loss of life and turmoil, for sometime seemed workable; yet today, facing a failed government in Pakistan, armed with nuclear weapons, and at odds with both its long-time patron (the U.S.) and India, would now be viewed as a travesty of geo-political engineering. Iraq was another country created and launched by Britain. Israeli-Palestine conflict, while imponderable, has roots in British policies of decolonization. In Africa, Nigeria counts as at least the equal of these decolonization cockups.

The point isn’t to hastily argue for the redrawing of the map, anywhere. But we must at least recognize that nations were constructed, and not always long ago. Having been made by humans, they can be unmade and remade by them. Nigeria could well be a good place to begin undoing the warped world that the British made.


Jan 17 2012

Winter in Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:23 AM

My wife Chizo, from Port Harcourt Nigeria, went to Moneygram this morning. She sent money to her brother, a front-line oil worker, who is the mainstay of the domestic economy of her extended family. Because of the strikes in Nigeria, her brother isn’t working — and isn’t earning. He does have savings, but no ATM card, and his bank isn’t open. The bank’s workers seem to be on strike. Meanwhile, prices are soaring for essentials; the rises are probably temporary, but they bite. In a country where most ordinary people live close to the edge, a few days without pay can send a person hurtling towards oblivion.

I don’t claim to understand why Nigerians are revolting over the sudden and misguided decision by the government of Goodluck Jonathan to dramatically raise the basic price of petrol. In Nigeria, as in many African nations, government sets the price of petrol. In Nigeria, petrol prices have long been set well below market prices. At first, the subsidies to fuel were intended for the wealthy. Forty years ago, only the wealthy could afford a car, only the wealthy could even use any form of transport to travel on a regular basis. Rather than a subsidy for the poor, the freeze on fuel prices were intended to help the rich.

The strange history of fuel prices highlights the diffculties of analyzing what the protests portend. In the broadest (and ideal) sense, pegging fuel prices at market levels will promote more efficient use. That’s good in the abstract. But in the real world of Nigeria, there are two problems with raising fuel prices abruptly. First, the effect on the poor — and that’s most Nigerians — is awful. A decent government would take immediate, firm and effective steps to mitigate, if not remove, any adverse impacts of the fuel increase on poor Nigerians. No such plan or actions are in the works.

More significantly, the Nigerian government has no moral, political or pragmatic credibility. Critics rightly argue that the government could simply raise fuel prices and pocket the increase. There are enough examples of government officials stealing government funds to make such a scenario seem inevitable, not just probable.

The solution to the problem is actually easy to locate. The government of Goodluck Jonathan should declare that the refinery capacity in Nigeria — the lack of which forces the government to import petrol at market prices — should be expanded before any fuel increase occurs. The Nigerian government, in short, should function here on a “prove it to me” basis. Once petrol is being refined in Nigeria, by Nigerians, on a sustainable basis, then the fuel subsidy can be eliminated.

Even opponents of the elimination of the fuel hike know well that Nigeria, a major world producer of crude oil, ought to have the capacity to meet its own domestic needs for refined gasoline. The failure of Nigeria to meet its own needs holds up the country to ridicule. The question is not whether to remedy this failure, but how.

In implementing the fuel hike, Nigeria’s finance minsister deserves special criticism. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is an internationally respected economic thinker, a former senior official at the World Bank and a former finance minister in Obasanjo’s important transitional government. She should know better than to impose, without conditions on the government’s own energy bureaucrats, a dramatic and sudden rise in fuel prices that do not also include some penalties and some incentives for the Nigerian government to expand its domestic refining capacity quickly and surely. How she, with her past accolades, could design a program that gives the government perverse incentives is a mystery.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala must explain to her own people, and the international community, why the fuel increases must come before the improvements in government services. Nigerians of all persuasions are justifiably concerned that their state apparatus has failed. They are rightly suspicious that government is a mere formality in Nigeria and that any increases in government revenues will be looted.

To be sure, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala can argue that the government of Nigeria needs the funds to restructure its domestic energy economy. While true, those funds can and should come from existing crude-oil revenues. Those funds should come out of the massive existing government expenditures which are directed towards the benefit of a few.

As the most respected member of the current Nigerian government, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala cannot pretend that Nigeria is a blank slate on which to write. Resistance by the people of Nigeria does not have long roots and the year 2012 may not bring the so-called “Nigerian sprng.” Yet even if the fuel-subsidy protests would end tommorrow — and even if the government makes good on suggestions that the increases may be rescinded or cancelled — they have already delivered an undeniable verdict: for the Nigerian government, it is winter.


Jan 15 2012

Praise the ANC, if faintly

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:00 PM

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress – the ruling party in South Africa — brought forth earlier this month, in British and America media, an onslaught of negative, pessimistic and downright damning portrayals of a political party that carries the mantle of Nelson Mandela and post-apartheid reconciliation. South Africa may be ungovernable, and the country’s ruling elite may be as corrupt as Nigeria’s. Nevetheless, the achievement of ending the African variant of “Jim Crow” in Africa’s richest country — and ending this odious apartheid without resorting to a civil war or the planned liquidation of the Afrikaaner leaderships — was an accomplishment of world-historical dimensions. As disappointing, disorganized and downright dystfunctional as the African National Congress appears to be, the party has been in power for less than 20 years. While nearly a generation, and longer than a single election cycle, 18 years is too short a period with which to indict and convict the ANC of irremediable mistakes and even crimes.

Of course, the ANC’s shortcomings are legion. Mandela himself failed to properly respond to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Violence against women and children, while not caused by the ANC, are a scourge on South African society and should be the reduction of violence against women and children should be a primary goal of the government. Policing is appalling in the new South Africa; any government must make improving policing to be a foundation for wider social and political reforms. The government’s failure to re-distribute wealth and opportunity is a bigger problem than the corruption of its leaders. Chinese elites are thoroughly corrupt and yet poverty has dramatically fallen in China during the very period when the ANC has presided over an enormous increase in inequality in South Africa.

Certainly, the ANC’s failures are seminal, yet the party’s accomplishments are also monumental. Whites and white priviledge, while challenged in the new South Africa, have not been eradicated or even drastically reduced; the effect is to create consistency and stability in a South African economy still highly dependent on the skills of white settlers and their descendants. The foreign policy accomplishments of the ANC, notwithstanding the grievious failure to break with Zimbabwe’s tyrant, remain formidable. South Africa has emerged as a consistent voice in favor of more level playing fields in various global arenas, from trade to climate-change. And crucially, South Africa’s decision, made personally by Mandela, to destroy its arsenal of nuclear-weapons, stands as a singular victory for human values over technocratic power.

That I believe that the African National Congress deserves to lose the first and next fair and free election in South Africa does not prevent me from disagreeing with the recent reviews in The Economist (“Disappointment”), Time magazine (“How the ANC Lost its Way”) and elsewhere about the ultimate legacy of this most political of African movements. Make no mistake about decolonization in the sub-Saharan. Sekou Toure of Guinea famously declared that freedom was worth more than wealth, and Nkrumah, his Anglophone contemporary, insisted that political liberation would inevitably unlock productive economic wealth. But both knew well, and repeatedly reminded their audiences, that so long as the southern cone of Africa was a virtual plantation where white overlords dictated the terms of existence for indigenous people, then all of Africa would neither realize political freedom nor economic sustainability. Until the ANC broke the will of the Afrikaaner/apartheid regime to persist in its awful brutality, no one knew how long the rest of Africa would be held hostage to the rank evil that permeated South Africa. Perhaps the world’s gratitude towards the ANC has an expiration date; but if it does that date remains in the future.


Jan 04 2012

In African politics, smaller is more beautiful

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:05 PM

Seccession, or making African countries, smaller and more responsive to their polities, was perhaps the biggest story of 2011 in a region where the top-down, unitary nation-state remains the default option. My own preferences — for more nations in Africa, smaller nations, more geographically coherent nations, and even ethnically-coherent nations — are well known. The birth of South Sudan, in the summer of 2011, served as a powerful reminder that redrawing Africa’s map is a living project, not an exercize in empty speculation.

Opponents of redrawing Africa’s map come from many perspectives, including the “progressive” desire f0r Africans do endure no more political harm. Adam Hyde, a doctoral student in international development at the London School of Economics, reminded me of the risks involved in any rejiggering of African borders in an essay of his own, which he brought to my attention this week.

Hyde argues against cutting down the size of African nations, many of which are physically large by global standards, grounding his position in a single, simple proposition: “the reality is that separation often leads to increased conflict.” Yet conflict is also spawned by maintaining the current borders of some conflict-riddled countries, such as Congo and Nigeria (to cite only a couple of obvious cases where refusal to accept the need for splitting nations into smaller parts is leading to persistent, long-term conflict).

Even worse, Hyde’s position reflects the egregious double standard that often infects the reasoning of many staunch advocates of political stagnation in Africa. Hyde is entitled to argue in favor of denying africans what the people of the former Yugoslavia have achieved.  He is entitled to tell the people of Czech and Slovakia that their achievement cannot be duplicated by any Africans. He is more than welcome to explain to the denizens of South Sudan that their new nation shall not teach the world anything new.

Analysts of African politics continue to deny Africans the chance to achieve better lives, and better institutional arrangements, based on the spurious notion that they cannot risk creating new sources of instability. Yet other people, and nations, can and do. Are not Africans normal? Are they not entitled to the same freedoms, to construct and deconstruct their political arrangements, as Europeans?

The answer is yes, yes, yes.

My declaration is by no means unqualified. Look I’m married to a Nigerian. I know secession is not a panacea. I know that in a country, such as Nigeria or the Congo, sub-national strife often reflects as well as obscures other problems. For healthy nations, big or small, many factors must come together, along side the process of “right-sizing” African nations. But because re-thinking African borders is not a panacea for what ails African politics, the legacy of political borders inherited from colonial masters need to be tolerated, indefinitely, at any cost. Dare to dream a little. In sub-Saharan Africa in the midst of an economc boom of global import, imaginative ways of thinking about the future should be encouraged.

And that includes thinking about the birth of new nations.