It turns out that life expectancy in the ancient past was longer than you think

This is from Sapiens:

…. People in the past were not all dead by 30. Ancient documents confirm this. In the 24th century B.C., the Egyptian Vizier Ptahhotep wrote verses about the disintegrations of old age. The ancient Greeks classed old age among the divine curses, and their tombstones attest to survival well past 80 years. Ancient artworks and figurines also depict elderly people: stooped, flabby, wrinkled.

This is not the only type of evidence, however. Studies on extant traditional people who live far away from modern medicines and markets, such as Tanzania’s Hadza or Brazil’s Xilixana Yanomami, have demonstrated that the most likely age at death is far higher than most people assume: It’s about 70 years old. One study found that although there are differences in rates of death in various populations and periods, especially with regard to violence, there is a remarkable similarity between the mortality profiles of various traditional peoples.

So it seems that humans evolved with a characteristic lifespan. Mortality rates in traditional populations are high during infancy, before decreasing sharply to remain constant till about 40 years, then mortality rises to peak at about 70. Most individuals remain healthy and vigorous right through their 60s or beyond, until senescence sets in, which is the physical decline where if one cause fails to kill, another will soon strike the mortal blow.

The whole thing is worth reading. Archaeologists figured out the ages of the ancients by digging out buried remains from ancient cemeteries.

And speaking of ancient cemeteries, one has recently been discovered on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. According to the Independent:


pendants and earrings from a 5,000 year old cemetery in Kenya

An ancient cemetery containing the remains of nearly 600 people has been discovered at a site in northern Kenya.

Constructed near Lake Turkana by the simple herders that inhabited the region 5,000 years ago, the Lothagam North Pillar Site, a cavity in the ground was filled with the dead.

The ancient Kenyans then stacked stones and raised large pillars to place on top. Some of them appear to have been sourced from up to a kilometre away, archeologists said. This kind of monumental architecture has previously been associated with societies governed by strict hierarchies such as ancient Egypt.

The original paper on the Turkana discovery is available here. The paper argues that the cemetery represents monumentality absent a social hierarchy:

Lothagam North’s initial creation and final closure required heavy labor, but during the intervening decades or centuries people assembled for hundreds of mortuary rituals that may have involved little toil. This behavior is inconsistent with nascent elites consolidating authority via recurring large-scale construction initiatives. Communal values were emphasized by placing deceased of diverse ages and both sexes in a single location, without spatial or artifactual patterning that would suggest social hierarchies. Near-universal yet idiosyncratic ornamentation also argues against sequestration of resources by a social subset. Absent other evidence, Lothagam North provides an example of monumentality that is not demonstrably linked to the emergence of hierarchy, forcing us to consider other narratives of social change.

Paul Staniland on the deep flaws of the pre-Trump “liberal international order”

Paul Staniland has a great piece over at Lawfare on the need to see post-war Pax Americana for what it has been:

Pushing back against Trump’s foreign policy is an important goal. But moving forward requires a more serious analysis than claiming that the “liberal international order” was the centerpiece of past U.S. foreign-policy successes, and thus should be again. Both claims are flawed. We need to understand the limits of the liberal international order, where it previously failed to deliver benefits, and why it offers little guidance for many contemporary questions.

…. analysts have persuasively argued that these accounts create an “imagined” picture of post-World War II history. Patrick Porter outlines in detail how coercive, violent, and hypocritical U.S. foreign policy has often been. To the extent an international liberal order ever actually existed beyond a small cluster of countries, writes Nick Danforth, it was recent and short-lived. Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim further argue that “critics exaggerate Mr. Trump’s abnormality,” situating him within a long history of the pursuit of American self-interest. Graham Allison—no bomb-throwing radical—has recently written that the order was a “myth” and that credit for the lack of great power war should instead go to nuclear deterrence. Coercion and disregard for both allies and political liberalism have been entirely compatible with the “liberal” order.

internationalcommunityStaniland makes great points throughout the piece, especially when he looks at the so-called liberal international order from the perspective of people in the Middle East and Asia. The same would be true if he were to look at it from Africa. The Continent’s Mobutus, Bongos, and Biyas have always been loyal water-carriers for the “liberal international order”, which existed primarily to advance the interests of the “international community” as seen in the image above. For this reason, keen observers from countries not considered to be part of the “international community” have repeatedly argued that the current U.S. administration merely presents a congruence of American rhetoric and action on the global stage. For better or worse, the mystique is dead. Western Ambassadors can no longer claim the moral high ground to give lectures on democracy, human rights, and good governance while also facilitating corrupt contracts for natural resources and security assistance to dictators.

Read the whole thing here.

On Charles de Gaulle’s Legacy

This is from Ferdinand Mount’s review of A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, by Julian Jackson:

De Gaulle’s coup of 13 May 1958 was equated by many, including de Gaulle himself, with Napoleon’s 18 Brumaire, and led to intensified misery for huge numbers of people. By encouraging the pieds noirs with his famous words ‘je vous ai compris,’ the war was prolonged for another four years and led to such horrific bloodshed that there could be no question of the settlers and the Muslims living side by side after independence. De Gaulle not only betrayed the whites who had brought him to power, he did nothing to help them when they decamped en masse to the mainland, bedraggled and destitute. Nor did he ‘raise a little finger’ to help the harkis – the Algerians who had fought loyally for France and who were murdered in their thousands after independence. These horrors are recounted more fully in Alistair Horne’s unforgettable A Savage War of Peace, but Jackson certainly does not underplay them. The creepy Foccart remained with de Gaulle to the end, as his adviser on Africa, wheeling in assorted francophone tyrants to be flattered by his master, who still had a cloudy vision of la gloire continuing to permeate sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the worst brutes – such as Bongo père et fils of Gabon and Bokassa of the Central African Republic – continued to enjoy French patronage. So much for de Gaulle the decoloniser.

Read the whole thing here.


Mamdani on the African University

Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani has an excellent piece in the LRB on the African University. Here are excerpts:

On the state of affairs:

The African university today is still very much what it was from the start: a colonial project with a monolingual medium of instruction, framed in terms of a European ‘universalism’ from which a large majority of the colonised were excluded.

On language (channeling Ngugi wa Thiong’o — an idea that keeps growing on me with age…):


Makerere University

Is there an intellectual mode of reasoning we can describe as African, in the way Mazrui spoke of a ‘French’ or a ‘Western’ mode of reasoning? Not an ancestral or genetic mode, obviously, but one which weaves together a set of discourses communicated in a common language that presupposes – or suggests – an intellectual community with a long historical formation. Language is our first obstacle here. Most of those of us who have come out of colonialism speak more than one. The languages of colonialism are inevitably languages of science, scholarship and global affairs. Then there are the languages of colonised peoples – languages whose growth was truncated by colonialism. Our home languages remain folkloric, shut out of the world of science and learning, high culture, law and government. There are exceptions. In East Africa, Kiswahili is the language of popular interaction, culture, and official discourse, also the medium of primary and secondary schooling, but not of university education. At East African universities, it has the status of a foreign language, with departments of Kiswahili studies. It is not the bearer of a scientific or a universal philological tradition.

Finally, on decolonizing the university:

What would it mean to decolonise a university in Africa? The East African experience suggests that one answer would be the opposite of what is happening in American and British universities: reducing the cost of a university education, by state grants and subsidies, to make it more inclusive. In the first place, therefore, fees would have to fall. I was at the University of Cape Town from 1996 to 1999; in the years that followed – the heyday of South Africa’s independence – fees began rising. In the second place, there would have to be multilingual projects designed to provide Westernised education in several languages and to nurture non-Western intellectual traditions as living vehicles of public and scholarly discourse in those languages. This is not a demand for a revivalist project, but a call to include the languages of popular discourse, which in South Africa would mean centres for the study of the Nguni and Sotho languages and traditions (the opposite of area studies), and translation units, carrying the best academic literature – global, regional and South African – back and forth between the new linguistic centres and the older faculties. Broadening the referential world of African universities means competence in the languages which embody non-Western traditions.

Read the whole thing here. Mamdani serves a great narrative on the intellectual history of East Africa.

In reaction to Mamdani Chris Blattman makes important points in this thread.

Also, let’s bring Transition back to life.

Getting to know Bessie Head

Those of us who went to high school in the early 2000s know of Bessie Head from literature class. Which is why it was delightful to find this fantastic piece by Nanjala Nyabola on one of the greatest authors from the Continent.

Here is an excerpt:

She couldn’t escape writing. She tried teaching, but despite the promise of financial security, she was unable to give it up. And along with her books, her urge to make sense of her life under apartheid, in exile, and in her own mind fuelled an incredible energy for letter writing. She was an insatiable correspondent, whether writing from her home in District Six in Cape Town, or in the two-roomed house in Serowe, Botswana she called “Rain Clouds.” Some of her correspondents loved to receive the six or more neatly-typed pages she’d send in response to a single page; some found it overwhelming and quickly demurred. You can get the broad contours of her life from books—particularly the 2007 biography by Norwegian writer Gillian Eilerson, Thunder Behind Her Ears—but it’s in her letters that one of Africa’s most captivating wordsmiths bleeds her vibrant heart over the page.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, make sure you buy Nanjala’s excellent new book on how the internet era is transforming Kenya.

Is malaria responsible for underdevelopment in Africa?

According to a paper by Depetris-Chauvin and Weil, the answer is no.

Here is the abstract:

We examine the effect of malaria on economic development in Africa over the very long run. Using data on the prevalence of the mutation that causes sickle cell disease, we measure the impact of malaria on mortality in Africa prior to the period in which formal data were collected. Our estimate is that in the more afflicted regions, malaria lowered the probability of surviving to adulthood by about ten percentage points, which is twice the current burden of the disease. The reduction in malaria mortality has been roughly equal to the reduction in other causes of mortality. We then ask whether the estimated burden of malaria had an effect on economic development in the period before European contact. Using data at the ethnic group level, we find little evidence of a negative relationship between malaria burden and population density or other measures of development.\

And here’s a summary of the main finding:

With estimates of the extent of malaria mortality in hand, we then turn to look at the impact of the disease on economic development. We present regressions of a number of measures of development within Africa on a malaria burden measure that we create based on sickle cell prevalence. Of particular note, we apply our analysis to a data set measured at the level of ethnic groups as an alternative to more common country-level analyses. We present simple OLS results, as well as results in which we instrument for malaria burden, using an index of climactic suitability for malaria transmission. The result of this statistical exercise is that we find no evidence of malaria burden negatively affecting historical economic development.

Read the whole paper here.

And here, here, and here are related posts on mosquitoes and malaria.

Is Somalia’s Al Shaabab better at tax collection than most low-income states?

Most low-income states rely on trade taxes (at borders) rather than on income taxes. A common explanation for this phenomenon is that these states lack capacity to collect income taxes among largely rural populations that rely on subsistence agriculture.

The idea here is that it is easier to collect taxes in economies with large firms that act as fiscal intermediaries. But as it turns out, the case of Al Shabaab — the Somalia-based terror group — shows that it is possible to raise non-trivial amounts of revenue from rural populations.

This is from the Hiraal Institute:

Zakawaat is collected by troops mobilised from different AS departments, assisted by clan elders; they are put into action during the collection season, which is traditionally the month of Ramadan. The starting rate is one camel out of every 25 camels owned and one goat out of every 40 goats. Collection is done uniformly across all the regions in south and central Somalia, including in the districts that AS does not control. Collectors issue receipts to pastoralists; those who lose their receipts are made to pay the taxes again in the next year. This ensures that pastoralists who were away from AS territory during the preceding year do not escape payment of Zakah.

Amounts collected vary by district. For instance, in Bardale in 2017, AS managed to collect 2200 goats and 171 camels. In the area around Mogadishu in the same period, 100 camels and 1500 goats were collected as Zakah. This is a relatively small amount of livestock because the area is mainly inhabited by non-nomadic farmers as it is close to Mogadishu and surrounded by urban areas. Likewise, Zakah collection in Barawe in 2017 was 600 camels and 8000 goats; in Wanlaweyn it was 700 camels and several thousand goats. The livestock is auctioned to ASlinked businessmen at an amount that is generally just below the market rate, at $400-$600 per camel according to the animals’ age and $30 per goat. The districts named above are not controlled by AS, yet the group managed to collect more than $1mn in Zakawaat in those regions in 2017. This would translate, at a conservative estimate, to about $8mn annually from livestock Zakawaat throughout South and Central Somalia.

Revenue leakages are rare:

The financial system is tight, with only one known case of a collector who defected with $2800. The auditors in the districts, who receive the monies from the checkpoints, are rigorously vetted before being employed. They declare all their assets, including land, cars, and cash in the bank. They declare their wealth again after being relieved of their duties; any unaccountable wealth is repossessed.

Auditors, some of whom receive up to $50,000 a month, are unable to defect with the money for a number of reasons. First, they are on 24-hour watch by the Amniyaat: in their offices, there are four known members of the Amniyaat. Additionally, other hidden Amniyaat operatives keep watch of their movements. Moreover, they are relieved of their duties every few months and sent on leave.

Finally, Al Shabaab regularly balances its budget:

The AS tax revenues are estimated in this paper at $27mn while its expenditures are at around $25.6mn. While our estimates are conservative, the group breaks even on its balance sheet every year. This is shown by the fact that the emergency tax collection is not done on a regular basis, and not in every region. On the other hand, the fact that emergency collection is sometimes needed shows that AS profits are not significant and its income is just enough to cover its expenses.

Read the whole thing here.

H/T N. Lidow.

Aliko Dangote lunches with the FT

This is Pilling in the FT:

As a rule, I don’t get worked up over oil refineries. But the one gradually taking form on 2,500 hectares of swampland outside Lagos, Nigeria’s Mad Max commercial capital, is so big, so audacious and so potentially transformative that it is like Africa’s Moon landing and its Panama Canal — a Pyramids of Giza for the industrial age.

If Aliko Dangote, the billionaire businessman behind what even he calls his “crazy” $12bn project, can pull it off, he will go down as the continent’s John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon combined. And once he’s built it, he intends to treat himself to a small indulgence: he’ll buy Arsenal, his favourite football club.

The whole thing is worth reading. Dangote is a fascinating individual with a very interesting life story (are there any bios out there?) This paragraph caught my attention:

There is not enough industrial gas in the whole country to weld everything together, so Dangote will build his own industrial gas plant. There aren’t enough trucks, so he’s producing those in a joint venture with a Chinese company. The plant will need 480 megawatts of power, about one-tenth of the total that electricity-starved Nigeria can muster. You guessed it. Dangote is building his own power plant too.

Peace is coming to the Horn and beyond

This is from The Economist:

Isaias Afwerki Abiy Amhed Eritrea…. In a display of unexpected warmth, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, embraced Issaias Afwerki, the ageing Eritrean dictator. In the Eritrean capital, Asmara, which no Ethiopian leader had visited since the war, the two pledged to normalise relations, putting an end to one of Africa’s most bitter conflicts. “There is no border between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Mr Abiy declared in a televised address. “Instead we have built a bridge of love.”

After a long war for independence, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, following the toppling of the former Marxist regime and a referendum. Ethiopia was the largest trading partner of the newly independent Eritrea. With the first gunshots, though, centuries of commerce abruptly ceased. Lucrative potash deposits straddling the border have since been neglected. Eritrea’s enormous potential for tourism—a sparkling coast and, in Asmara, one of the continent’s most beautiful cities with a wealth of Art Deco buildings—has been mostly squandered. Renewed ties with its much larger neighbour now offer Eritrea’s ailing economy prospects of revival. Ethiopia has already promised to buy a 20% stake in Eritrea’s national airline.

The piece dividend from the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war will extend beyond the two countries. Eritrea has been linked to armed groups in Somalia and Ethiopia. Egypt has considered Eritrea as a check on Ethiopia. And Sudan has seen tensions rise with both Eritrea and Egypt as it has drawn closer to Ethiopia.

“Find your passion” is bad advice (according to research)

Here is the abstract from a study by O’keefe, Dweck and Walton:

People are often told to find their passion as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered. This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications. Five studies examined implicit theories of interest—the idea that personal interests are relatively fixed (fixed theory) or developed (growth theory). Whether assessed or experimentally induced, a fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests (Studies 1–3). Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties (Study 4). Moreover, when engaging in a new interest became difficult, interest flagged significantly more for people induced to hold a fixed than a growth theory of interest (Study 5). Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.

Here is the story from Quartz:

O’Keefe says that these findings can be applied to our individual lives and society. By encouraging a growth mindset in schools, demonstrating it in our approach to information, and minding our mantras, students and all of the other people we encounter might be more inclined to adopting a growth mindset, too. “There’s no problem with encouraging students to pursue that one ‘thing,’” he says, “But why can’t that ‘thing’ be informed and complemented by the world of knowledge that exists?”

Adopting a growth mindset won’t turn you into a superficial generalist. But it could help you better understand the topics you’ve chosen to master. “Our work shows that a growth mindset increases interest in areas outside of students’ pre-existing interests. Furthermore, this newly developed interest does not appear to detract from their pre-existing interests. In other words, by encouraging a growth mindset, we don’t see evidence that students become dilettantes. Instead, they might be seeing connections among new areas and the interests they already have. That’s a powerful learning tool,” says O’Keefe.

Which diseases are likely to elicit the highest levels of media hype?

This is from the Visual Capitalist:

The death count for Ebola did eventually hit 11,310 globally, and Swine Flu resulted in 18,500 lab-confirmed deaths (and potentially many more). However, most of these outbreaks were relatively harmless in relative terms. The Zika Virus, for example, resulted in only a handful of deaths.

The figures below show the relative intensity of media coverage of specific disease outbreaks versus the actual number of deaths:

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Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 1.07.18 AM

H/T Luis F.

Eastern Africa’s Heroine Coast

ENACT has a great report out on heroine trafficking along the eastern seaboard of Africa (most of the heroine comes from Afghanistan):

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 10.28.08 AM.pngIn recent years, the volume of heroin shipped from Afghanistan along a network of maritime routes in East and southern Africa appears to have increased considerably. Most of this heroin is destined for Western markets, but there is a spin-off trade for local consumption. An integrated regional criminal market has developed, both shaping and shaped by political developments in the region. Africa is now experiencing the sharpest increase in heroin use worldwide and a spectrum of criminal networks and political elites in East and southern Africa are substantially enmeshed in the trade. This report focuses on the characteristics of the heroin trade in the region and how it has become embedded in the societies along this route. It also highlights the features of the criminalgovernance systems that facilitate drug trafficking along this coastal route.

The report provides a detailed analysis of the political economy of drug trafficking in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa. Among these countries, only Tanzania’s political elites appear to not have links to known drug barons.

In the specific case of Kenya:

Between 2001 and 2008, there were numerous public allegations of drug trafficking in Kenya, and several MPs and their associates were named. Of those listed in a US embassy report, and subsequently named in Parliament as being linked to the narcotics trade, six are current or former holders of political office. Among them, five have held (or still do hold) political office in Kenya’s Eastern Province: William Kabogo, former Kiambu County governor; Gideon Mbuvi (alias Mike Sonko), 2nd Governor of Nairobi; John Harun Mwau, former assistant minister and former MP for Kilome; Simon Mbugua, former MP for Kamukunji (in Nairobi); and Mary Wambui, former MP for Othaya.

From the coastal region, Ali Hassan Joho, Governor of Mombasa, and his brother Abubakar, as well as Mombasa businessman Ali Punjani, were also named as prominent drug traffickers in the same report (in fact, the US report allegedly claims that Punjani and several other traffickers funded Ali Hassan Joho’s 2007 campaign to win a seat as an MP for Mombasa). Harun Mwau, along with businesswoman Mwanaidi Mfundo (alias Mama Lela), who is now in prison in Tanzania on drug-trafficking charges, were listed as drug ‘kingpins’ by the US in 2011. All have denied these allegations. A subsequent investigation into claims made in the Kenyan Parliament by police was said to have absolved them, but in very controversial circumstances.

Harun Mwau, perhaps the most prominent figure caught up in these allegations, has been widely cited by our interlocutors as an early ‘model’ of how to combine the shadow economy, politics and business. Mwau has repeatedly denied being involved in drug trafficking. He is a prominent businessman and former shareholder in the region’s biggest supermarket chain, Nakumatt (holding shares worth US$10 million, which he has since offloaded). He owned a bank (Charterhouse), and has had a varied political career: he headed the anticorruption agency and was a national lawmaker; he also ran for president. He was a major funder of Mwai Kibaki’s election campaign as president and was subsequently appointed as assistant transport minister, a position in which he appears to have been responsible for Kenya’s container transport arrangements and for the Kenya Ports Authority, which controls all ports of entry and inland container terminals in Kenya. Mwau resigned from this position after being named in Parliament as being linked to drug trafficking. For many years, Mwau operated an inland container depot at Athi River on the outskirts of Nairobi, known as the Pepe Container Freight Station.

The whole report is worth reading.

Extreme Tibout? To avoid sanctions Iranians bought Comoros passports

This is from Reuters:

The Comoros Islands, a nation of about 800,000 people, began its programme to sell passports in 2008 as a way of raising much-needed cash. The islands arranged a deal with the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait, who wanted to provide stateless inhabitants there known as the Bidoon with identity documents, but not local citizenship. The governments would buy the Comoros passports, and then distribute them to the Bidoon.

In return, the Comoros was meant to receive several hundred million dollars to help develop its economy, whose output amounts to just $600 million a year.

At the time, the Comoros was also forging ties with Iran. The islands’ president from 2006 to 2011 was Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, who had studied for years in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

… In all, more than 1,000 people whose place of birth was listed as in Iran bought Comoros passports between 2008 and 2017, according to details of a database of Comoros passports reviewed by Reuters. The majority were bought between 2011 and 2013, when the international sanctions were tightened, particularly on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

By the way, Comoros has since cut ties with both Iran and Qatar.


How resilient is the Kenyan economy?

The FT has a great special report on investing in Kenya. Highlights include pieces on devolution, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “Big Four” legacy projects (including an ambitious plan to build 500,000 new homes), and the promises of the tech sector.

Meanwhile, nominal GDP growth is projected to remain respectable, despite sky-high corruption and generalized administrative failures in both the county-level and national governments.Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 6.28.18 AM.pngAnd here is an excerpt from one of the pieces:

A 2016 report from New World Wealth, an independent South Africa-based research group, found that 8,500 of Kenya’s roughly 48m people controlled more than two-thirds of the country’s wealth.

Highly recommended.