Such are the changes in the African scene that the stunning evidence of declining child mortality in nearly all sub-Saharan countries is the source, not of disbelief or skepticism, but a serious, robust debate over what caused the decline: rising economic prosperity in Africa or improved international assistance.
To step back a moment: credit for attention to the improved health of African child goes to Michael Clemens, who in early May published an assessment of a World Bank analysis that prompted him to comment on what he described as the “stunningly rapid decline” in child deaths. “Nothing like it was occurring even as recently as the first half of the [last] decade,” he added.
The underlying evidence comes from two World Bank researchers based in Kenya who ask in an exhaustive comparative paper, what has driven the decline of infant mortality in Kenya.” Gabriel Demombynes and and Sofia Trommlerova find a complex set of reasons, including rising incomes and the targeted use of antimalarial bed-nets, prompted by aid agencies trying to combat infant deaths from malaria.
The debate over causes is nicely summarized by The Economist, which concluded: “The broad moral of the story is [that] aid does not seem to have been the decisive factor in cutting child mortality. No single thing was. But better policies, better government, new technology and other benefits are starting to bear fruit.”
The relative effect on child mortality of aid versus growth may never be sorted. More critical is the new image of an Africa that is starting to address the importance of improving lives for ordinary people even as the sub-regional economies of Africa continue to boom. The whole affair is “is startling news for anyone who still thinks Africa is mired in unending poverty and death,” Clemens tells The Economist. “That Africa is slipping quickly away.”
In his comment, Clemens, whom I’ve actually never heard of before, is echoing my own perspective that the real problem of Africa today is wealth — what to do with it — and not poverty — which remains a scourge in Africa but which I believe will be most effectively addressed as a consequence of better management of African wealth
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The stylish and relentless African writer, Xan Rice, provides a revealing window on Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency in a new article in the Financial Times. Boko Haram, which has carried out increasingly violent terrorist attacks on civilians and the government in Nigeria, remains poorly understood, its aims and objectives unclear. While Rice does not clear up any urgent issues, he presents an indendiary quote from a Nigerian journalist, Ahmad Salkida, who often speaks on behalf of Boko Haram and is believed to be a credible source. Speaking of Boko Haram’s links with Islamicists around the world, Ahmad Salkida says, “In the past few years the relationship with al-Qaeda has been about ‘capacity building’. But the links are growing.”
That mere statement, if true, could well indicate that a shift in U.S. strategy towards Boko Haram is already underway. To date, the Obama administration appears to have taken a hands-off approach towards Nigeria’s internal insurgencies, which unfortunately are not limited to Boko Haram. Yet as the Nigerian government continues to fail to build a credible response to Bojo Haram, the opportunities arise from the U.S. to fill this policy gap — and perhaps in a way that brings Nigeria’s many problems to the forefront of the American polity.
Rice, by the way, is a welcome addition to the press corps in Nigeria. He spent some highly productive years based in Nairobi for the Guardian newspaper. His addition to the FT’s African team makes the paper’s already stellar coverage of the sub-Saharan even stronger.
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My dear friend Alex Pang brought me an especially charming gift from a recent sojourn in Britain: a late-colonial relic of a bygone time for the benighted land of Nigeria. The map is from early 1960, a twilight time in British rule when the design of independent Nigeria remained a bit of a mystery. The map includes full details of what is today western Cameroon, includng the lovely Anglophone cities of Buea and Bamenda. The British awarded Nigeria independence in October 1960, but left out western Cameroon, whose denizens voted to unite with the francophone (eastern) portion of Cameroon. The map thus represents an artifact of counter-history: what might have been had the English-speaking portion of Cameroon not voted against joining Nigeria in early 1961 (Curiously, the Islamic-majority northern area of western Cameroon did vote for union with Nigeria, though the largely Christian and English-speaking southern portion did not).
The question of colonial maps of Nigeria, at least to me, is no mere antiquarian’s passion. Given the hardships experienced by ordinary Nigerians today, in part because of then unwieldy and perhaps failing governing structure of the country, the manner in which Nigeria, as a nation, was imagined in the past — imagined even in maps — strikes me as of great consequence. How might the past help illuminate the present crisis in Nigeria. How might maps of the late colonial period — before the advent of the Nigerian nation and its quixotic forms of nationalism — provide insights into roads not taken, options ignored, paths traveled briefly and then abandoned?
When I witness my wife, Chizo Okon of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, suffer along with her fellow Nigerians, I am also moved by the plight of Africa’s largest nation — and wonder whether Nigeria is not too large to govern. Or rather, is the design of Nigeria somehow fatally flawed?
The old colonial maps are reminders that Nigeria was constructed by colonizers and constructed in haste as well. Colonizers after all conceived of the alien notion of elections to determine the nationality of peoples, as if their ow sense of identity was so plastic as to mold to whatever options they chose from the “menu” provided by their departing European rulers.
One final point about thoughts engendered by a random frayed road map. Having been engineered, Nigeria can be re-engineered. In this exercize, of re-engineering Nigeria, old maps — especially old maps from colonial Nigeria — may be no guide to those who wish to create a new Nigeria — or even many new Nigerias. For even the act of re-naming Nigeria — or the many parts that emerge from this corrupted whole constructed by ill-informed colonizers — can be grounded in the past.
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Contrary to conventional wisdom, wars are not “endless” in Africa, as some respected observers insist. In a new paper in the latest issue of African Affairs, my favorite academic journal on the subject, Scott Straus, a professor of politics at the University of Wisconsin, advances a cogent case for the view that African wars are growing less frequent, fierce and problematic. Summarizing his important findings, which essentially expose as empty and misguided much of both the academic and journalistic writing about African wars, Straus writes:
“The principal finding is that in the twenty-first century both the volume and the character of civil wars have changed in significant ways. Civil wars are and have been the dominant form of warfare in Africa, but they have declined steeply in recent years, so that today there are half as many as in the 1990s. This change tracks global patterns of decline in warfare.6 While some students of African armed conflicts, such as Paul Williams, note the recent trend, it is fair to say that the change in the prevalence of civil wars is not recognized by most Africanists and generalists. Equally important but even less noted is that the character of warfare in Africa has changed. Today’s wars are typically fought on the peripheries of states, and insurgents tend to be militarily weak and factionalized. The large wars that pitted major fighting forces against each other, in which insur- gents threatened to capture a capital or to have enough power to secede, and in which insurgents held significant territory – from the Biafra seces- sionists in Nigeria, to UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique, the TPLF in Ethiopia, the EPLF in Eritrea, the SPLM in Sudan, the NRM in Uganda and the RPF in Rwanda – are few and far between in contem- porary sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia’s Al-Shabab holds territory and repre- sents a significant threat to the Somali federal transitional government, but given the 20-year void at the centre of Somalia the case is not repre- sentative. In April 2011, rebel forces in Co?te d’Ivoire captured Abidjan, but they did so with external help and after incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, facing a phalanx of domestic, regional, and international opposition, tried to steal an election.
More characteristic of the late 2000s and the early 2010s are the low- level insurgencies in Casamance (Senegal), the Ogaden (Ethiopia), the Caprivi strip (Namibia), northern Uganda (the Lord’s Resistance Army), Cabinda (Angola), Nigeria (Boko Haram), Chad and the Central African Republic (various armed groups in the east), Sudan (Darfur), and South Sudan, as well as the insurgent-bandits in eastern Congo (a variety of armed actors, including Rwandan insurgents) and northern Mali (al-Qaeda in the Maghreb). Although these armed groups are in some cases capable of sowing terror and disruption, they tend to be small in size, internally divided, poorly structured and trained, and without access to heavy weapons.”
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