By Adagbo Onoja
It must take extraordinary faith to talk about 2015 if one is a Nigerian and an African. This is not just because Nigeria is confronted by a horrific insurgency or because governance has gone mad again in Nigeria.
It is also because, as those who might have read or would soon read The Economist‘s “The World in 2015” would find out, there is basically nothing to cheer in the section on Africa. Someone may ask why we need to bother about what The Economist said or didn’t say about Africa.
But that would be missing the point. For, the point is that the winner in today’s world is the one who has the narrative. We should, therefore, not only be interested in every platform where narratives are on parade, we should also seek the capacity and the institutions that deal with narratives. This is more so that Africa still lacks the voice and the organs through which to articulate own narratives, internet or no internet.
But in the case of the edition of The Economist in question, the tragedy is not so much from the magazine but from the framing of the African crisis by the Africans. Paired against a frightening piece there by a non-African titled “The Coming African Debt Crisis” is another piece titled “The Rise of Africapitalism”.
It is by Tony Elumelu, a face of emergent capitalism in Nigeria. Underlying the piece is the mentality that seems to say ‘we too will get there’, the ‘Africa Rising’ stuff. But can we just get there like that without doing what others who made it from our type of circumstance did?
Elumelu might be right. He has a fellow traveller in Dambisa Moyo, the activist Zambian economist once described by the CNN as the ‘poster child’ of the new Afro-optimism industry. Both speak the language of ‘Africa Rising’ though with slightly different angles of emphasis.
Who am I to argue that ‘Africa Rising’ discourse isn’t important in the struggle for a new Africa? Moreover, it’s always great to see one of ‘us’ being part of the conversation in an edition of The Economist or the CNN but while the guys behind The Economist or CNN know about the essential illiberalism of capitalism at this point in history, both economically and politically, it is doubtful that ‘ours’ appreciate such. So, ‘ours’ ends up prompting us to ask, which Africa are we are talking about? In other words, their conceptual jump off point almost always becomes part of the problem.
In an informed reductionism, I would isolate Nigeria and South as the referents that capture Africa. Nigeria is the nerve centre you cannot talk of Africa’s progress without taking into consideration. This is not because of any national pride but simply a restatement of its irreplaceability. No other country on the continent has that demographic profile, the sort of demographic stature that enabled China to do what South Korea, for example, cannot do because it lacks it.
Countries do not need to have China’s billion plus population or vast territory but it is difficult for countries to go beyond a certain threshold if they are just 40 – 60 million citizens. So, one should be right in selecting Nigeria as the quantitative model and South Africa as the one that best tells the African story in History.
But, in both countries, decline is the story. And with decline comes a continuation of the disturbing heritage of suffering in Africa. Dambisa Moyo does not think the dominance of stories of wars, diseases, corruption and poverty in the narrative of Africa is warranted.
We all used to think so and still do, especially the way this went on in the global media. But we also think that there cannot but be a relationship between these stories and the reality, especially as they come out of Nigeria and South Africa today. Interestingly, the stories are no longer in the global media but in the WWW, especially the ones run by ‘us’.
How would a blogger in Maiduguri not reflect poverty in, say, northeastern Nigeria where, for five years on, an insurgency has reigned basically unchallenged? And how would diseases not follow that? And we are talking of an insurgency in an African super power state, if there is anything like that. If such a state cannot overwhelm or quickly but skilfully negotiate an end to an insurgency as threatening as Boko Haram to its very fabric, then what are we talking about?
Minus Nigeria, Africa stands with difficulty. That’s the claim above. Yet, here is Nigeria brought down on its knees by a curious combination of factors, chief among them the quality of political leadership and the consequential inability of Nigeria to rally the kind of interests and forces around itself to deal with a threat, irrespective of who is sponsoring it and for what purposes. The same Nigeria that was able to do so several decades earlier when faced with a similar threat.
Over two hundred Nigerian girls forcefully taken away from the country for nearly half a year and there is no rescue? How can we ever surmount this sort of historical humiliation of a country of Nigeria’s stature in the 21st century? Add that to a number of things happening in Nigeria which are beyond anybody’s imagination. It is exactly the sort of situation the late Professor Claude Ake referred to in his work, “how politics under-develops Africa”.
Again, the tragedy is that the story is not qualitatively or fundamentally different across much of Africa. In both Nigeria and South Africa, patriotic national labour organisations that anchored the struggle against Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP) in the late 1980s have all collapsed. Some people might argue that South Africa has so much to celebrate between 1994 and 2014.
Such arguments would hold water substantially. Whatever one may against the ANC, it is still a national liberation movement in power. South Africa remains a global African statement on reconciliation and management of cultural diversity. It has a far more vibrant knowledge industry than most other African countries, with universities of global reckoning.
The Mandela brand is exclusively it’s as much as Mandela is a global citizen. South African wines are served even on state ceremonies across the world. Whatever one may say too, every leader of South Africa since 1994 had the right political education and induction.
Jacob Zuma, the incumbent president might not have gone to Oxford or the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies but he has tendency grooming for power, his current low performance rating notwithstanding. Above all, South Africa is the face of Africa in BRICS, a very crucial achievement. But how far can we talk about these if the ANC government is enmeshed in corruption as we read in newspapers and on the internet and if COSATU is crumbling?
Again, the tragedy is that the kind of solidarity that existed between Nigeria and South Africa at some point in the recent past doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Under Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, there was a symbolically glowing togetherness between Nigeria and South Africa and the necessary though subdued sparks when they engaged the G-8, for example.
It is true that Obasanjo and Mbeki basically worked to give Africa the unhelpful NEPAD, it is nevertheless true that they were not ideologically ignorant, perhaps tactically naive that foreign investment could do the job without asking an important question such as, where has capitalism ever taken roots without the state?
In other words, they were correct to decide not to attack globalisation. After all, is it not by globalisation that China undid the past on such an amazing scale? However, the question Obasanjo and Mbeki didn’t ask themselves is whether China could have done that if it didn’t have a structurally intelligent machinery made up of a dedicated core of meritocrats in control of state power?
But now, even the Obasanjo-Mbeki level of Nigeria – South Africa interaction isn’t there. Yet, this is when foreign military intervention in Africa is rising as well as local insurgencies, all within the context of a so-called ‘War on terror’ framed in a way that it can assume any shape.
So far, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Mali, Libya and Nigeria have or are experiencing insurgencies. This is not to talk of DRC and Somalia/Kenya which have permanently been at war. These cannot just be coincidences. In this regard, we should all aspire to read Professor Horace Campbell’s oven fresh book titled Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya.
So, we may join others in welcoming 2015 but only because doing so demonstrates our determination to survive against all the odds. But this determination must go beyond an ‘Africa Rising’ stuff. ‘Africa Rising’, a very fascinating discourse is, nevertheless, but a celebration of consumption, not of manufacturing of a sustainable nature.
Taking to it beyond its limits demonstrates a poor understanding of capitalism.
Yea, (foreign) investors all over the place but it is still up there in the sky, not down here yet. Still, and apparently intoxicated by ‘Africa Rising’ brew, African political leaders have basically lost the opportunity to convert the convergence of interests of global powers, particularly ‘China in Africa’ into anything transformative. Aside from the Africa Mining Vision, for instance, the African agency is still not coming to globalisation with the negotiating logic that positions it to define the agenda, using its strategic advantage of being the ‘last frontier’. Rather, the convergence seems entertaining to us. Welcome 2015!
ONOJA is at the Global Governance programme at University College London.