On NYT’s Misguided Nostalgia for Conrad

The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.

I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle.

These are the opening paragraphs of Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff‘s piece on the Congo River in the Times. In the piece Prof. Josanoff seeks to uncover what has changed (or not) since Conrad was in the Congo a century ago. She has a forthcoming book titled The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

The piece reads like a satirical rejoinder to Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa.

Why did Jasanoff decide to embark on this mission? In the third paragraph we find out:

The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was “a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,” where “man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.” This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come.

I would like to think that Prof. Jasanoff consulted more than a guidebook to find out more about the Congo before her trip. But I digress.

The whole thing is worth reading. After which you should write the New York Times editors to let them know what you think.

The point here is not necessarily to call out Prof. Jasanoff, but to highlight what seems to be an insatiable demand at the Times for orientalist pieces on Africa and Africans.

And while on the subject of Conrad and the Congo, a fitting antidote is by none other than Chinua Achebe. In his review of Heart of Darkness, Achebe laments the use of Africa and Africans as background against which Europeans act out their neuroses:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

Read the whole review here.

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Is Civil War in Africa Unique?

Paul Staniland raises important questions in his review of Philip Roessler’s latest book (highly recommended):

I just finished reading Philip Roessler’s excellent book for my graduate Civil War seminar. Already a fan of his 2005 piece on electoral violence, I learned a lot from the new book and highly recommend it. But, just as when reading major work by Will Reno, Reno and Chris Day, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Collier, Jeffrey Herbst, and others, I had the reaction that “This looks nothing like the places I study.” At least in the stylized world of African politics presented in these projects (I have no idea if this is accurate), Hobbesian insecurity preys on all in the absence of any real institutions, ethnic balancing and calculation dominates any other form of politics, and regimes are held in place by fluid, shifting alignments with “Big Men” rooted in local power bases.

As a result, we get shambolic and weak central regimes prone to either coups or revolts, and rebels easily bought off by patronage or co-optation. Weinstein highlights the inability of ideological rebels to overcome waves of material resources that eliminate discipline or politics, Roessler’s regimes are simply what Skocpol calls an “arena” for political competition between social actors rather than possessing any institutions or interests autonomous from social forces, and Reno’s civil wars (with the exception of “reform rebels”) are simply a grim game of bargaining over patronage between states and insurgents that are more similar than different.

Is Africa that different?

Roessler, indeed, argues that Africa has a “unique institutional structure” in which external conflicts are rare and internal disorder common. If Africa is indeed unique, it is hard to know how arguments rooted in the African context can travel beyond Africa.

Read the whole thing here.

I would argue that there is not a uniquely African civil war story. Weak states everywhere, including in Africa, are gonna weak state.

A more useful analytical delineation is what Staniland suggests:

At minimum, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that research on civil war needs to become at least partially bifurcated into work on its dynamics in very weak states (the representation of African conflicts dominant in the literature, plus Afghanistan and a few others) versus those in medium-capacity states (India, Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, etc) that possess large, centrally controlled conventional an

Think of the Nigerian Civil War between 1967-1970. The Biafra War involved a relatively strong state facing a relatively well-organized and disciplined secessionist army — much in the mold of middle income conflicts. In the same vein, countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have managed to quell rebellions in Mt. Elgon & the south coast, and in the Ogaden, respectively, in ways that would look very familiar to Staniland.

Completely anarchic conflicts involving collapsing states and incoherent hyper-localized rebellions — your stereotypical African conflict, if you will — are a unique historical experience rooted in the states that did really fall apart in the late 1980s to early 1990s (pretty much in the midst of Africa’s continental economic nadir). It is instructive that these states were concentrated in the Mano River region and Central Africa, some of the regions worst affected by the socio-political challenges of Africa’s lost long decade (1980-1995). income

And given recent economic trends in Africa (see image), it is not surprising that conflicts are becoming rarer in Africa (much in line with Fearon and Laitin). I would also expect markedly different kinds of conflicts should they emerge. There is a reason Boko Haram has never posed an existential threat to the Nigerian state, very much in the same way that India’s Maoist rebels are a peripheral matter.

I always remind my students that the Africa they know is more often than not the Africa that existed between 1980 and 1995. We all need to update.

How to write about Africa in one picture

This is a story about Kenya building the first new railroad since the British built the old one more than a century ago. The new line goes through a National Park. A watchman was attacked by a cheetah. No one was mauled by lions. The attempts to link the current project to the Man Eaters of Tsavo trope is noted, but that happened a century ago when the lion population in the Protectorate was still quite big, and rhinos charged mail cars.Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 11.33.38 PM

The rest of the story is here. Please skip through the Conrad-esque first paragraph.

Achebe (on Conrad’s racism) and Binyavanga (on how to write about Africa) should be required reading before some of these correspondents (and the social media interns) are inflicted on the world.

Chinua Achebe, dead at 82

Renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe passed away last night in Boston, Mass. He was 82.

Achebe was the father of modern African literature, and a fearless critic of dictatorships in Nigeria and across Africa.

His last book, “There Was a Country” gives a moving personal account of the Biafra War. It is a great book (just read it a couple of weeks ago), and a fitting closing chapter to Achebe’s career (see Chimamanda Adichie’s review in the LRB here).

Achebe is most famous for the classic “Things Fall Apart.” The book has sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

My favorite of his many books is “A Man of the People,” an astonishingly prescient critique of politics and governance in Nigeria (and by extension Africa) written in 1966. One of the characters, Chief Nanga, could have been a typical politician in many an African country today. The book ends with a coup, presaging the high levels of political instability that rocked much of Africa into the mid 1990s.

Chinua Achebe will forever be immortalized in the hearts of those of us who loved his work and admired his activism.

Together with those who wrote in the immediate post-independence era like Soyinka, Ngugi, Bitek, Tutuola, Okigbo, Ba, Armah, Liyong, and others, their works inspire and challenge us in equal measure; with reminders that there was a time in the giddy early sixties when things could have been different for Africa, that it wasn’t inevitable that things would fall apart.

Did European Colonialism Benefit Africans?

“We find it difficult to bring the available evidence together with plausible counter-factuals to argue that there is any country today in Sub-Saharan Africa which is more developed because it was colonized by Europeans. Quite the contrary.”

That is Leander Heldring and James Robinson writing in a new paper on the negative impact of colonialism on Africa’s economic prospects.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Interesting attempt at positive analysis of a difficult subject (esp. with regard to counter-factuals), although normative undertones drive most of the analytical narrative.

The negative legacies of colonialism – despotism, negative ethnicity, aid dependence, and general underdevelopment, etc – certainly do persist.

But for those unwilling to submit to the gods of path dependence, the question remains one of how long incompetent African leaders will continue to blame outsiders for their own ineptitude. After half a century of independence, many Africans are wary of being the only ones left in the “bottom billion” once the East and South Asians climb up.

When will African leaders (and elites more generally) realize that a generator, a borehole and a septic tank, and a security guard at their mansions on dusty streets are not substitutes for well functioning power grids, water and sanitation systems, and general security?

To paraphrase Achebe, the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African character. There is nothing wrong with the African land or climate or water or air or anything else. Even external conquest and subsequent colonialism was not unique to Africa.

H/T Chris Blattman.

On Rwanda’s brand of Developmental Authoritarianism

Many, including yours truly, have a love-hate relationship with Paul Kagame and his RPF regime in Rwanda.

On the one hand, his adventures in eastern DRC; alleged involvements in the assassination of opposition figures both at home and abroad; and overall restriction of political space in Rwanda are cause for concern. But on the other hand, he seems to be doing a marvelous job on the economic front (see here and here, for instance).

Source: Kigali City Official Website

In the latest issue of African Affairs, Booth and Golooba-Mutebi explore the nature of state-led development in Rwanda, with particular attention to how state-run companies are “ice breakers” for private sector firms in different sectors of the economy. The paper also observes Kagame’s strict separation of state and private accumulation of wealth, a fact that is demonstrated by Rwanda’s comparatively good performance on corruption indices. It is definitely worth reading.

Here is part of the abstract:

This article addresses one thematic gap – the distinctive approach of the RPF-led regime to political involvement in the private sector of the economy. It does so using the framework of a cross-national study which aims to distinguish between more and less developmental forms of neo- patrimonial politics. The article analyses the RPF’s private business operations centred on the holding company known successively as Tri- Star Investments and Crystal Ventures Ltd. These operations are shown to involve the kind of centralized generation and management of economic rents that has distinguished the more developmental regimes of Asia and Africa. The operations of the military investment company Horizon and of the public–private consortium Rwanda Investment Group may be seen in a similar light. With some qualifications, we conclude that Rwanda should be seen as a developmental patrimonial state.

I often tell my friends that at the end of the day, really, all that matters is that we bring down infant mortality to under 10/1000 live births [this is a good proxy for quality of life] and improve the standards of living for the average person, everywhere.

With that in mind, the favored retort among anti-democracy crowds in Sub-Saharan Africa – that “you can’t eat democracy” – has some truth in it. I bet most people would rather live in authoritarian Singapore than democratic Malawi (feel free to disagree).

The point here is that good governance (and for that matter, democracy) are means to an end, and we should never forget what the end is – that is, the improvement of the human condition for all. And yes, I agree that democracy, i.e. political freedom, could also be an end in itself, with the qualifier that those most likely to enjoy freedom are those that are already fed, clothed and housed, with a little more time to spare to blog and read Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Okot P’Bitek.

China and Vietnam in Asia, and now Rwanda and Ethiopia in Africa, are cases that will continue to invigorate the debate over how to improve living standards for the largest number of people in the least amount of time.

For now my love-hate relationship with Paul Kagame and Meles Zenawi [of Ethiopia] continues….

Achebe’s take on the trouble with nigeria

Chinua Achebe has an editorial piece in the NY Times on the prospects for economic and political development in Nigeria. Below is an excerpt that I think applies to most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

During the colonial period, struggles were fought, exhaustingly, on so many fronts — for equality, for justice, for freedom — by politicians, intellectuals and common folk alike. At the end of the day, when the liberty was won, we found that we had not sufficiently reckoned with one incredibly important fact: If you take someone who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years and tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.

This is how I see the chaos in Africa today and the absence of logic in what we’re doing. Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves, forgotten their traditional way of thinking, embracing and engaging the world without sufficient preparation. We have also had difficulty running the systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our colonial masters. We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body.

HT Erin.

 

a very nigerian affair

The BBC reports that the Nigerian state owned oil company (NNPC) is insolvent, with a US $ 5 billion debt. Most of the money ($ 3b) is owed to the Federation Account a lootable cash cow that distributes money to different levels of government within the Nigerian state. The country is divided into 36 states (and one federal capital territory, Abuja) and 774 local governments, all of which have legally guaranteed claims to oil revenues.

The report also notes that: Despite Nigeria being a major crude oil producer, it must buy almost all the oil it uses on the international market because its own refineries are insufficient and dilapidated.

Recently the Nigerian government signed a deal with the Chinese that hopefully will result in the construction of an $ 8 billion refinery in Lagos to ease the country’s dependence on imported petroleum products. 80% of the cash will come from the Chinese and 20% from the Nigerians.

No prizes for guessing why on earth A LEADING INTERNATIONAL OIL EXPORTER should import almost all of its petroleum products or why it took so long for the Nigerian leadership to start thinking of expanding Nigeria’s refinery capacity…

Achebe’s assessment of the Nigerian condition in the early 1980s still rings true: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.

“the town seemed to exist only for sickness and death”

Time has this story about the “most malarial town on earth,” Apac in Uganda. The pictures tell it all, life in Apac appears to be singularly harsh.

The story also reports that malaria steals away 1.3 percentage points off Africa’s annual growth rate. It is encouraging, though, to know that the fight to eradicate malaria is not yet lost because “the logistics of such a plan are less complex than they seem, because while malaria affects half the world’s countries, just seven — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, southern Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — account for two-thirds of all cases.”

As is the case with most failures on the Continent, failure to eradicate malaria can be attributed to bad leadership and state incapacity. Time reports:

What do these failures have in common? Bad government.

To paraphrase Achebe, the trouble with Africa is STILL simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African character. There is nothing wrong with the African land or climate or water or air or anything else. The African problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership . . . . in the meantime, millions on the Continent continue to die of treatable illnesses while tens of millions more live like it’s still 1600.