How far back to go in telling the stories?

Benson Eluma has done me the honour of writing a long post on Olumide Abimbola’s blog with the same title as this one. I am very grateful to Olu (Loomnie) for his intellectual companionship in general and for this collaboration in particular. Benson’s post refers to my previous one here, Africa’s hope, which in turn took off from Chinua Achebe’s NYT oped piece. I will not tackle Benson’s critique point for point. What follows is only indirectly triggered by what he wrote. It matters more to me to make a positive case than to refute his or for that matter Chinua Achebe’s.

I should begin by clarifying my use of history. For me the point is to realise some version of what is possible while starting from the actual present of our moment in history. That vision of possibility should be grounded in what we know of the past, but such historical knowledge is always selective and relative to the forward-looking project. We can pitch rival stories into competition with each other, suggesting that A is not B. I did that for polemical purposes with Achebe’s historical vision and Benson does it with me; but in practice most stories are not mutually exclusive and it is usually futile to treat them as such.

At the end of Talking World War III Blues, Bob sings:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time.
But all the people can’t be all right all the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,”
I said that.

West Africans have been waiting a long time for political emancipation and this is closely tied to slavery, colonialism and recent aspirations to economic development. Each century, as we go back, reveals further layers of the problem and, to come to grips with the sources of the region’s economic backwardness probably requires us to take in the whole of the previous thousand years. I believe that Chinua Achebe’s version of that history was tired, if not lazy. Depending on what we have in mind, the historical significance of all the key terms needs to be interrogated.

Slavery is endemic to West Africa. I have a post on it here. The slave trade was a partnership between Europeans and Africans. It took most of the 19th century to be officially abolished and it has persisted in places until now. Domestic slavery can only be understood in relation to kinship and that too has not been abolished. It is contemporary in one form or another. The abolition of slavery in the West, especially as a result of the American civil war, generated much turbulence in West Africa during the latter decades of the 19th century, a situation exploited by the colonial scramble for Africa. Slavery is living history in Nigeria (as Achebe’s novels pointed out), not just something to be pinned on Europeans and Americans long ago.

Colonialism too needs to thought about outside the box. As John Peel has demonstrated, many Yoruba intellectuals embraced Christianity, western education and the British empire as a way of taking their nation into the modern world. Ghana had an economy larger than Indonesia’s at the time of independence and per capita income on a par with South Korea. The political and economic failures of the last half-century have cast doubt on how the transition to post-colonial states should be viewed. It is not obvious when in the period from the 1940s to the 70s various colonial regimes started to pull out or how independent the successor regimes often were. What is clear is that political recipes for emancipation lacked an effective understanding of conditions in the world at large and over-estimated local powers of self-determination. The result in the early 21st century is that West Africans, especially Nigerians, are still waiting for political forms adequate to their needs and aspirations as world citizens.

What economic system might underwrite these political aspirations? Rather than invoke “capitalism” as a way of avoiding economic analysis, we need to interrogate this term more than any other. I use it in a way similar to Marx to mean a social complex of people, machines and money that over the last two centuries has driven population growth, urbanization and higher energy use in a very uneven way. It takes many concrete forms and is always combined with other economic forms. Capitalism’s mission is to break down the insularity of traditional communities and bring cheap commodities to the masses. It is not the just society humanity deserves, but a temporary bridge to that society. It is of course highly moot where different parts of the world have reached in this process, where they might want to go next and how.

The present moment is specific in that, for the first time, global capitalism has been diversified beyond its North Atlantic origins. In a book published three decades ago, I argued that modern states were being erected in West Africa on the basis of backward agriculture and that, unless significant progress towards machine industry (in the broadest sense) were made soon, these states would devolve to a level congruent with their economic backwardness. I intend to revisit this argument in the present book.

Once again, I have covered a lot of ground in a very telegraphic way which lends itself to polemical distortion. But what can you do in a blog post? I think the triad — pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial — is a weird periodization of West African history and one that will not serve attempts to improve the region’s political economy well now. Rather than insist on my own highly selective account, I would like to discuss the key relevant terms in an open-ended way. But more than that, I believe there are substantial grounds for hope of significant African development at this time. The politicians and the intellectuals (at home and abroad) will probably be the last to find out about it.

Comments |11|

  • Keith:
    Clearly you don’t get it. So let me help you out.
    A) As a Westerner you CAN NOT TELL US OUR STORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    B) Loomnie and other bloggers from the poorer shores of the world are heavily jaundiced by ethnic biases and strive for “approval from the West.” I am sure that if this article was written by one of his Yoruba kparakpo he will be singing a different tune
    C) The 900 million Africans would rather, any day, hear from Achebe rather than a patronizing Westerner who believes he needs to tell us what to do
    Good Grief

    • I am telling my story, not yours. And who I am is for you to find out, not to read off from your lazy categories. My primary audience is in Europe and America, but I am happy to learn from Africans or anyone else and some readers might learn something from me.

  • Nnena Orji,

    “A) As a Westerner you CAN NOT TELL US OUR STORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    In all fairness, nobody really holds the authority to claim they understand the one and only version of the truth, whether insider or outsider–at least that’s how I see it. Stories all come from certain perspectives, have certain omissions and gaps, and tell parts of the “truth” while missing others. Of course being an “insider” matters, and has its strengths and claims to veracity–but this doesn’t really guarantee either accuracy OR consistency. Sarah Palin, Michael Moore, Thomas Sowell, and Paul Krugman are all from the US–yet their “stories” certainly do not tell us everything we need to know about what the US is really all about. And none of them provides a clear version of the supposed truth. Sometimes it’s a good idea to not only be open to multiple insider perspectives, but also views and stories from outside.

  • @Keith Hart, I agree with you that ‘in practice most stories are not mutually exclusive’. I also agree with you that Africans were complicit in the slave trade and in the enterprise of colonialism. These are historical facts. I did say in my rejoinder that ‘local and foreign malevolence brought us here’. That telegraphic expression admits that Africans were complicit all the way. However, I don’t think that Achebe’s version of the trouble with Nigeria is tired or lazy. The world is changing. China and India are coming into prominence. Achebe did not mention any of this in his op-ed. But did he have to? The history of the trouble with Nigeria has little or nothing to do with China and India emerging into economic prominence in the world. Achebe said long ago that colonialism was not preparation for independence. Many other scholars, brilliant social scientists, have made the same point. For instance, Richard Joseph, Richard Sandbrook, Claude Ake, Mahmood Mamdani, etc., have argued convincingly that the nature of the post-independence African state replicates or reflects the damaging legacies of colonialism: prebendalism, patrimonialism, the bifurcated state, etc. Indeed, Segun Osoba once observed that independence was but a ‘cosmetic transformation both of the mode of capital accumulation and the structure of governance’ prevalent under colonial rule in Nigeria. That cosmetic transformation is a legacy that is still with us in Nigeria even in 2011. And it is not as if the ‘long but uneven engagement’ of the West with Africa ended with the granting of flag independence in the 1960s. Now ‘long but uneven engagement’ is a phrase that telescopes a lot. Unwrapping that phrase will involve ‘coming to grips with what has been going on in the last century and is going on now’. Well, Africa will have to come to terms with the emerging capitalist powers. That is one point you have emphasised throughout; and it is a point that has to be taken, especially in light of our experiences with the regnant capitalist powers during colonialism and ever after. You are looking towards the ‘possible’ future and Achebe looks at the ‘real’ past. What I don’t understand is how you can say Achebe is lost when the problems caused by the past are still with us. The world is moving ahead, but Nigeria is not because of its troubles from the distant and recent past. Already the Chinese and Indians are penetrating our economy. That penetration alone cannot be a sign of hope for Africa—how can it be when we know that the mission of world capitalist powers has often been to subject other countries to their dictation and remote control. It could even be a portent of more despairing times ahead that China is rising to economic prominence, with Africa now caught between the Eastern Scylla and the Western Charybdis. Substandard and dangerous medications manufactured in India to the specifications of Nigerian businesspeople for use by Nigerian consumers are one instantiation of the despair we might be faced with. Chinese factories in Lagos paying survival wages and exposing people to mortal risks every second of the working day are another. These are the portents that make Achebe’s plea resonant, namely, that the kind of help Africa needs ‘will require good will and concerted effort on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical albatross’ (emphasis on ‘all those’). I really don’t think Achebe is wrong just because he has put forth a similar argument before, some forty odd years ago. And really your positions are not mutually exclusive, especially your common belief that Nigeria is destined for greatness on the continent. I don’t share in that belief. I don’t think that what Africa needs is an imperial power whose citizens have a heightened or ‘new patriotic consciousness’.
    @Nnena Orji: Your statement is shameful.

  • @Benson My case rests on a characterization of Achebe’s position as backward-looking (more concerned with the past’s grip on the present than with any developed scenario for future progress) and unconcerned with the economic conditions of political emancipation. I don’t dispute that many writers now say that political independence made little difference to the forms of domination, but I would dispute that independence ushered in only cosmetic change. Colonial regimes restricted themselves to nugatory public service provision. The first two decades of independence saw the extension of education, health, transport and other services on a mass scale never seen before. This was the result of African governments emulating the developmental state of western social democracy and Soviet communism on a scale never attempted by colonial regimes, but in some cases initiated by them after the second world war and before formal independence. This phase unravelled in the 1970s and came to grief in the 1980s. But it was a period when many African governments enjoyed considerable legitimacy as protectors of their own people and the heirs of the anti-colonial revolution. The last three decades have seen a different story. The question for me is why this fall took place and of course it has something to do with the global shift from social democracy to neoliberalism that occurred after the watershed of the 1970s. I believe that the answers should be sought in political economy, not just in political and legal measures. I have written and intend to write more about this.

    The question of China’s and India’s role (or South Africa’s for that matter) is not just a matter of another set of imperialist capitalist powers replacing their western predecessors. I have in mind that any programme to instal a more progressive political economy should take into account that the western-dominated divergent world of a century ago is rapidly becoming a multi-polar convergent world for the fist time and that should be grasped by anyone proposing new strategies. What opportunities are there now for Africans to make a living by selling commodities to the world as a means of paying for what they hope to import? You say that Nigeria is going nowhere, yet it was one of the 7 out of 10 fastest-growing economies in the world that came from Africa in the decade 2000-2010. I claim that the most promising sector of the world market is for cultural commodities (entertainment, education, media, information services). The USA’s three leading exports are movies, music and software. Nollywood is on a roll and has recently surpassed Bollywood in total sales. So where do you get the idea that Nigeria’s economy is stagnant, even if its politics seem to be same old same old?

    As for Nigeria’s part in continental development, size matters in economy. Keynes knew that purchasing power drives modern economies and, even if Africa’s current 2% of global consumer demand is pathetically small, it is unlikely to stay that way for long. The South Africans think of themselves as a big player in world economy, a potential fifth BRIC etc. But with a population of 50mn, most of whom are very poor, their home market is small potatoes. Places like Bangladesh have bigger economies just because of population size. I mentioned the incredible statistic that Ghana’s economy was bigger than Indonesia’s 50 years ago. Not so today. This question of exports in relation to the size of the home market is critical. It is the reason why some Asian exporters are eyeing Africa for its potential purchasing power with 25% of the world’s people projected by 2050 and not just as a source of minerals or cheap labour. This is why market integration at the regional and continental level will become a far more important factor than the nationalists could ever imagine. Panafrican resistance to colonial rule was a serious political movement before the nationalists banished it from view and then the post-colonial theorists discovered that nothing really happened in the twentieth century. I prefer to read Gandhi, Fanon and James on that topic. In any case global capital is pushing for African integration now whereas once it went in for balkanization.

    I could go on, but I will stop there and perhaps try to develop part of this argument in the next blog post. But thank you for your serious engagement. I hope we might continue this exchange or that others might join in.

  • It is clear that we read the histories differently. From what I garner from the accounts, by the mid-1960s the bubble of independence had burst, politically, economically. Nkrumah’s Ghana had become an economic failure even though the administration had experimented with both ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist’ models of economic development. Much of the trouble with the Ghanaian economy had to do with the corruption of its political overseers as much as it had to do with the failure to break away early enough from the neo-colonial framework. There was also the problem of an economy that lacked a diversified structure, and that could not match its infrastructural base with a manufacturing sector, to say nothing of the pattern of morbid development in which suppliers’ credits disguised as foreign investment quickly led to an unbearable debt burden. As cocoa revenue began to stagnate, Ghana had very little to fall back on. In Nigeria, by the mid-1960s, the African political elite had likewise proved themselves to be inept and corrupt overseers of the economy. By that time, the people had begun to see through the myth of their nationalist leaders. Yes, there was a quantitative increment of infrastructure and services, but to what ultimate end? What was the point in building infrastructure as one-off projects with little or no thought as to maintenance? What was the point in neglecting the rural areas? Even when there was growth and improvement in GNP per capita and in the terms of trade, there really was very little change in terms of the improvement of the social character of production and distribution. The Agbekoya revolt in southwestern Nigeria should alert us to the ‘pork barrel’ logic that sometimes guided the extension of development to the rural areas. With the discovery of petroleum, the neglect of the rural areas took on a new dimension in Nigeria. Freund has shown how the outlays on road construction and education were misapplied. For instance, what kind of educational expansion would neglect ‘actual educational facilities’? Roads were constructed not because the government was really thinking of linking up the districts of Nigeria for the purpose of horizontal development. There was no attention to the quality of surfacing and the contracts were over-inflated. Again there was no provision for maintenance. Roads were made just because there was money to spend, and it provided a ruse for stealing public money. The drift to urban centres is a survival strategy more or less forced upon rural dwellers in Nigeria as a result of lopsided development in the country. In the colonial period, such a drift to urban centres was strictly controlled by the colonial administration even though the pattern of exploitation and development during colonialism was starving the rural areas to death. Today in many states in Nigeria the capital city is the only place any action is. There is even already a salient trend in urban-urban drift as many state capitals and major towns inexorably devolve into the rural category, and people find that they have to move elsewhere to get a piece of the action. The urban devolution is on too. Today, Lagos feels the burden of overpopulation. The case has often been made about how Nigeria is on to something big, and very soon, too. 34 or so years, we were by Jean Herskovits, writing partly on how the Nigerian economy has better prospects than that of apartheid South Africa, that

    Nigeria is the second largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. One out of four Africans-nearly 80 million people lives in Nigeria. Its economy is growing at over 10.3 per cent a year (in contrast to South Africa’s 1.4 per cent). Nigeria is a large potential market and provides the opportunity for sizable returns on future U.S. investment, particularly welcome since Nigeria admires American technology and expertise. American exports to Nigeria have doubled in the last two years, but oil imports still make the balance unfavorable to the United States.

    After the New Year’s Eve coup that brought in the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, Herskovits, wrote thus:

    Nigerians knew that they were passing through a critical year, even before the bloodless coup of December 31, 1983, removed the civilian government of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Nigeria’s 100 million people were struggling with fledgling democratic institutions amid devastating economic conditions brought about by world recession and the soft oil market and compounded by out-of-control government extravagance.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Where did all the optimism go? Well, I don’t have much by way of economic theory but I want to believe that population is not the decisive factor in generating purchasing power. Population alone does not account for the differentials in economic performance between Ghana and Indonesia fifty years ago and now. The stupendous growth of population in Africa does not mean that the potential of large purchasing power will be actualised at the end of the day. But what actually exists now are mineral resources and cheap labour forces and governments that are inept corrupt and/or and desperate, and a population, like Nigeria’s, on which can be dumped all manner of goods, regardless of quality. I think the emergent capitalist heavyweights can see the real situation clearer than they see the potential one. As the first quote from Herskovits shows, the Nigerian potential has been there for donkey’s years. Why hasn’t that potential been realised, with Nigeria’s promise of a large market, much larger than South Africa’s, the largest in Africa, soon to be one of the five, or is it third?, largest in the whole world? We need a proper economy that is diversified and equilibrated; politics and laws play a vital role here—they contribute to economic policy making and policy implementation. The euphoria over ICTs is not anything new. We saw the same thing with television which was supposed to take traditional societies into modernization. On Nollywood, I prefer to reserve my comments. But do you think that Nigerians should hinge their economic hopes on what is largely a caricature of a film industry, an industry plagued with the problems of poor education and bad technology? I doubt that Nollywood earns more money than Bollywood; what Nollywood has more than Bollywood is proliferation. But do you really think that earnings from Nollywood will soon suffice to invigorate Nigeria’s ailing sectors, a truncated laundry list of which I tried to draw up in my rejoinder? Obviously, you believe that the Nigerian economy is buoyant—not just that it could become buoyant. I would take any figures coming from officialdom in Nigeria as regards the country’s economic profile, or as regards anything for that matter, with a generous pinch of suspicion. Economies that can pay for what they import have quite a number of things going for them, not just the production of cultural commodities.

  • Meanwhile, Nigeria is a-fallin apart, sinking while we fiddle. ‘War in the east, war in the west, war up north, war down south, war, war, rumours of war…’

  • Benson, I am travelling to give guest lectures and will reply in detail later. There is a lot to agree with in what you write and I will do my best to identify the main areas of agreement. But you seem to think that to debate is to take the opposite position every time or to pick holes that demean your opponent’s intelligence. Do you think I imagined that Ghana’s economic superiority to Indonesia was based on population size? I mentioned the relationship between exports and the home market, but this format does not allow for judicious balance. Unlike you, I am not trying to paint a monochrome picture of recent history. I wrote about Ghana’s unbalanced political economy at the time, not just with hindsight. But the collapse of the world cocoa price because of Ghanaian oversupply in 1965 was unexpected and its economic conseqences, leading to the coup, even more so. Rural children in the 60s usually had a functioning school to go to. Two decades later, they didn’t. The state apparatus worked and was staffed by people who enjoyed some public recognition for what they did. Not all of them were corrupt, lazy and incompetent. It was a different story again under Rawlings. The western powers encouraged overspending then, the OPEC surplus was recycled through dodgy bank loans in the 70s and the plug was pulled with a vengeance in the 80s, with the World Bank and IMF as enforcers. All of this is easier to see with hindsight, but some important changes took place in these decades and I don’t get a sense of your willingness to acknowledge that, at least in part. What’s the point of filling the page with selective anecdotes used to support polarised positions on a complex history? This is not just a criticism of you. It leads me to wonder if the way I have set up my argument invites such a response.

  • Benson, There was a lot of substance in what you wrote and I thank you for it. I can only point here to some of the areas of agreement and possible divergence between us.

    Yes, the Ghanaian economy was on the rocks by the mid-60s for reasons that I don’t really dispute with you. But the developmental state was being built up throughout the 50s with Nkrumah as prime minister. The winning coalition was everyone else against Ashanti to use the cocoa revenues to build up neglected regions. This did bring schools and roads to many rural areas and bought the CPP considerable legitimacy there even after the economy started to fall apart. A lot of what you say about infrastructure is undeniable, but the story with education probably varies more than you allow.

    The issue of development through exports or through the home market (with population only a weak proxy for the latter) is more complex than i was able to explain. My main source is Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia whose subtitle is something like the formation of a home market for capitalist industry. We would probably find substantial room for agreement here. It was one of the main themes of my book on West African agriculture (1982).

    I do not think that the Nigerian economy is already launched on a self-sustaining development curve right now nor that Nollywood is at this time a main driver of the national economy. I use it as an example of the potential for cultural exports. Hollywood before the first world war might not have looked too different. South Africa is trapped in what was a mining export enclave economy with the vast bulk of the population denied any spending power worth the name. The Afrikaners succeeded within their own limits in an ISI program which has subsequently been replaced with financial services, shopping malls and Chinese imports. I can’t see any future for them outside a regional strategy involving SADEC as their home market. But rampant nationalism gets in the way of that. Nigeria already has one, but the political system holds it back, as you eloquently say. But we agree that the Nigerian economy is growing fast and it would pay to examine more closely how and why.

    The whole question of rural-urban dynamics has been my main focus from the beginning and I haven’t blogged about it seriously enough here. That should be remedied soon. Again, thanks for your engagement which is priceless to any writer and sorry for the note of petulance in my last comment.