Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tolu Ogunlesi on Africa

An interesting and provocative piece here. I'll just make a few comments/initial responses.

1. On white people at the airport. There are all kinds of foreigners who visit or come to stay in Nigeria. Quite a few are not lured by financial gain however. "NGO types" rarely get paid very much. There are foreigners who come and make good money in Nigeria, but perhaps not as many as people think. Meanwhile, many of the Nigerians you see at the same airport are economic migrants, returning home not for love of country, but motivated by the same financial gain. To be fair, a good many are also looking for opportunities racial glass ceilings denied them elsewhere.

2. Aid money. Aid money from Western governments is insignificant in the scheme of things. In most Western countries, its a fraction of 1% of the annual budget. Aid money into Nigeria is a meaninglessly small amount of the Nigerian budget. Donors have very little say in what goes on and are only given lip service. The big government spending decisions are made by Nigerians alone. Also, aid money to Africa is under threat right now thanks to most Western governments being heavily in debt. If Africa didn't exist, it wouldn't need to be invented right now.

3. The Angry African. I'm not sure many Africans are all that angry. Certainly, not enough are angry enough for the rest of the world to really take note. Far too few Africans are politicised. There is scant mobilisation or collaboration between different groups at play. Where there are angry Africans, they often work alone or are isolated and then alienated. This can create a shrill voice where exaggerations of the truth can fill in the gaps. And it can lead to its own forms of passivity and futility ultimately.

4. Africa of the past and future. If Africa is China's future (the Dambisa Moyo argument) we should all be worried. One only has to see how China does its internal repression (Tibet and elsewhere) to see that China is a strange sort of friend. China's real interest is to appropriate natural resources and increase the market for its shoddy goods, rather than develop Africa in any way.

One should also note that global warming and desertification is sadly going to hit many parts of Africa harder than elsewhere and is hardly a future to look forward to. Food and water security are set to become serious issues, as they already are in Niger. Better Internet access is going to take years to penetrate beyond the continent's large cities and towns. Increased power generation is decades away. The satellite image of the world at night that we have all seen will remain dark over Africa at least until the next generation.

5. How to read about Africa. There is another type of Western commentator on Africa Tolu doesn't refer to. These are the scholars of Africa. They often speak one or more African languages fluently. They have had access to information, analysis and other resources on Africa that most Africans have never seen, and in turn they create more information, analysis and resources. Some of them are even African. The scholarship on African society, economy and lived realities is much more extensive in the West than elsewhere. African philosophy, where it exists, takes place on American campuses. All that is to say: a key missing pillar of a publishing infrastructure is academia and the critical discourse it makes available.

My final thought. Africa should look to India perhaps more than anywhere else. The Indian sub-continent is more populous than Africa by around the population of Nigeria or perhaps more. India is engaged in many forms of internal conversation and doesn't look to the West for recognition or affirmation. India has excellent universities and a thriving internal publishing industry. It is not clear who the 'you' is in the title of Tolu's essay (I would imagine a pretty sophisticated readership for 3QD). However, its besides the point.

The African internal conversation is only just beginning. That's where the real action is at.


Opium,  1:54 pm  

I don't know why but I am yet to read anything from Tolu Ogunlesi that does not come across to me as one of boring, mediocre, unoriginal or hot air. He has won enough awards to be deemed a good writer/journo/commentator but his talents are completed wasted on me.

His essay was interesting enough but, in my opinion, hardly provocative. Despite the heading, which actually implied more that we were given, the five points were unoriginal. He might as well have titled 3. The rise of Dambisa Moyo and her ilk, and spared us the dry joke or bad attempt at sarcasm/irony at 2.

Tolu Ogunlesi 3:46 pm  

Very interesting comments Sir J. I agree with most, if not all of your arguments. And I'm delighted that we can have this debate.

One thing that bothers me is how the continent is always the passive partner in all of the talk about global business and development. The West in Africa, China in Africa - the continent is a mostly a mute participant today, just as it was at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85. It's disturbing. But perhaps there is some good to be derived from China. Certainly China can't be much worse than the West has been, eh?

True, aid money is insignificant in Nigeria, but in a Uganda, it is huge. Which is why Museveni had to back down quickly during the criminalisation of homosexuality debate, when foreign governments threatened to cut off his aid.

Compared to the number of Africans that exist, the number of angry Africans is minute. But compared to the number of angry Africans twenty or thirty years ago, the number of angry Africans today is significant. Because of the internet.

Increased power generation MAY NOT BE decades away. 100% power generation may be decades away, but Nigeria for example could do with even a 20% increase. If all Nigerian cities were assured of only 12 hours of power EVERY DAY, imagine how much transformation that would amount to.

My point is this: one small step FORWARD here, one small step FORWARD there - is what Nigeria and a lot of other African countries need. Let's forget - for the moment - the talk of Revolutions.

Is Africa China's Future, or is China Africa's future? :-)
Time will tell. One thing is certain, in the long-term we will not merely speak of China in Africa we will also speak of Africa in China. Long-term though.

Better internet access may take years to penetrate beyond the large cities and towns but it will still make a lot of difference in the short term. We all know how much crappy internet there is even in Lagos, that could do with some speeding up. We don't need nationwide change at the beginning.

CodLiverOil 5:51 pm  

Jeremy, you alluded to India’s self-confidence and increasing stature on the world stage. This could partly be put down to a number of reasons:

Unity: Indians (for the most part) are united. People from Southern India do speak and understand Hindi, which was previously the preserve of the North (they still retain their own indigenous languages) when communicating with their Northern compatriots.

Professional attitude: This can be increasingly seen in the products they offer to the world, not just call centres, but now software companies Infosys etc, they manufacture goods for international export eg Tata Steel.

Education: Is taken seriously, the universities staffed by professional people and respected. In turn the universities produce candidates who are as good as those produced anywhere else in the developed world. They are then absorbed by the economy to spur growth on even further witness the universities in Southern India in the fields of science and technology

Well founded confidence: As you rightly pointed out, India does not look outside for initiatives they are comfortable with home-grown initiatives.

You mentioned it will be a generation before internet penetration becomes widespread in Africa. For Nigeria in particular there is no sign that the above steps will be taken soon. It has nearly 50 years and counting…and you say we are only just beginning to talk amongst ourselves about what others have already agreed upon and are forging ahead with. So how many years behind the world will that leave Nigeria?

Anonymous,  11:13 pm  

I do on the whole agree with Tolu. I work in International Development and I am tired of another so called expert usually from the West pontificate about what people in Africa have to do to develop and eliminate poverty. Africans have the solutions to their own problems. China is not a perfect country but it is offering a different set of options from the standard Western offerings.

amide 2:21 pm  

'Africa should look to India perhaps more than anywhere else. The Indian sub-continent is more populous than Africa by around the population of Nigeria or perhaps more. India is engaged in many forms of internal conversation and doesn't look to the West for recognition or affirmation. India has excellent universities and a thriving internal publishing industry.'

As a diasporic African (Nigerian to be precise) from the UK currently doing an elective on health and development in India I agree with you completely. Indians are mercifully devoid of the chip on the shoulder that seems to plague many Africans, making people obsess over image to the detriment of accuracy and true progress.

I was also glad to see someone acknowledge the work that scholars do in helping to understand African affairs. I hope you'll forgive me for plugging opportunistically on this blog but I believe this story is of interest to everyone with an interest in understanding Nigeria.

My mother is one such scholar, having recently devoted academic rigour to writing the previously untold story of the history of television in Nigeria. Nigeria was the first African country to get television and in a sense the history of the broadcast medium mirrors the nation's social and political history as you learn in the book, which, despite its academic background, is written for public understanding. I certainly enjoyed it despite my scientific background (and that's not just filial piety speaking)!

Here is a link to the e-book. Once again I apologise for hijacking your very original and insightful blog but I hope people find this useful and interesting.

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