We were sent the wrong people
We asked for statesmen
And we were sent executioners.
[Wole Soyinka, A Dance of the Forests]
I don’t have much formal education. I have had the misfortune of hanging around academicians and I have come to the conclusion that formal education can be severely limiting to the development of the intellect. A few decades ago I was in the habit of loitering around a certain university in Nigeria while posing as a student. I don’t remember much in terms of acquiring the golden fleece of academic excellence. I do remember spending most of the time dodging my lecturers and live bullets from the dictator du jour’s goons. Even in those days, the distinction between a lecturer and a live bullet was a distinction without a difference. Let us just say that I found the whole exercise of actually stepping into a classroom and learning something from another being an acquired, if not overrated taste, something akin to me tasting expensive caviar for the first time. One wishes for a refund of one’s hard earned money.
I once had lunch with a post doctoral student at which I opined that in a few decades there will be no nations as we know the world today. In my view I felt that our traditional notion of nation states surrounded by physical boundaries would be obliterated by the realization that thanks to advances in technology nations states have now morphed into each other. In other words, the individual would truly become the nation state. I could hear my friend the intellectual mentally rustling through his textbooks before he came to the loudly and firmly held conclusion that I was smoking something particularly harmful to my thinking faculty. I think that African intellectuals should think out of the box and help fashion a new economic blue print for African societies. For we live in a new world that is at once small and big. The miracle of technology has forced us to rethink how we relate to each other. When someone in Australia sends you a libelous email, when did the libel begin, when you opened the email in Lagos or when it was sent? Who has jurisdiction over the alleged crime?
Take the science of economics. What passes for that dismal science is actually common sense. African leaders ought to deploy Western notions of economics with common sense that is firmly grounded in the reality of our condition. The reality, of our condition, should be guided by the belief that it is also possible for us as Africans to negotiate (with the West) from a position of strength. The economic models that some of my compatriots parrot were built decades ago to accommodate commerce within physical boundaries. Within those boundaries it was fairly possible to achieve something close to the nirvana of pure markets. When the walls between countries opened up, these economic theories began to show their flaws and prosperous countries learnt to adjust their practices to shore up the failures of moribund economic theories. And so we now have subsidies to shore up farmers’ prices, we have “tax incentives” to encourage Wal-Mart conglomerates to come into our neighborhoods and to encourage developers to build over-priced homes for the populace. Think about this perversion of economics: Here in the suburbs of Washington DC, if you took out a mortgage on a house say five years ago, and re-sold the house it is mathematically possible that after tax deductions and market appreciation, you would have netted one thousand percent on a one thousand dollar investment. Now that is voodoo economics but it is real. I say all of this because I know an African economist who is considered distinguished in the West who is in the habit of preaching the notion that African societies should allow the efficiencies of supply and demand to lift them out of the doldrums of poverty. Such thinking is dangerous because for one thing, as I have previously indicated, Western societies do not actually believe in pure markets. If they did they have a strange way of showing it. Traditional economic prescriptions on Africa’s myriad ills come across as long on the (economic) bottom line but short on the human bottom line. It is possible perhaps to devise solutions that take into account a harsh reality which is that for many African nations the first task ironically is to build robust infrastructures that can withstand the rigors of the economic pills that Western style economists are advocating. What might appear to be wasteful may well just be a necessary expenditure on the path to true emancipation. In any case, why is it alright for Western nations to “subsidize” the welfare of their citizens but it is economic suicide for African nations to do the same?
Nothing galls me more than this whole issue of debt forgiveness. I am having trouble being grateful for what the leaders did in forgiving these debts. Because I am having trouble seeing them as debts. This is how I see the issue:
1. The debts that we are talking about, at least in the case of Nigeria, were “loans” were made to illegitimate regimes by a scheming West. In the case of Mobutu, we know that the “loans” were just a scheme to fund his reign of terror and his contribution to winning the cold war. In most cases these illegitimate rulers stole these funds and deposited them in private accounts in the West. The Western world wants to eat its cake and have it. They have steadfastly refused to return these funds stolen from African coffers, yet they insist on billing us for money that they already have. I just saw a report that estimates that Nigeria’s rulers may have siphoned funds in excess of
2. The West must learn a lesson that my American bank knows too well and it is this: When you give a military junta a loan, it is analogous to giving a loan to a thief who has stolen my identity. Just as I am protected by the laws of the land, the beautiful people of Africa should be protected from the crimes of the gun-toting thieves and their Western accomplices.
3. The West committed a crime by giving Mr. Mobutu all that money and they know it. The West committed a crime by accepting his stolen funds in their banks and they know it. They are now playing fast and loose with the facts of history by loudly forgiving a portion of these “loans.” I don’t know about you, but they are not getting kudos from me. To paraphrase the late great poet Kenule Saro-Wiwa, someone takes your shirt, gives you back a button and you say “tank you sah!”
4. I would never pay a loan that someone else accumulated by misappropriating my good name. That would be insane and illegal under the laws of the land of my exile. Why should I ask my country to repay loans that a succession of thieves accumulated in her good name? That is insane.
The matter of aid is similarly problematic. Let me be charitable and say that donor nations may be well meaning but the results, the unintended consequences of a vast proportion of that aid are an eloquent testimonial to the donor nations’ arrogance towards and ignorance about Africa’s needs. Nothing illustrates this better than my experience as a little boy towards the end of the Nigerian civil war. At the time, I was a secondary school student in a Catholic boarding school and I remember that we got tons of powdered milk from the West. We happily indulged in what appeared to be a delicacy only to discover that shortly after we were strangely motivated to run a frantic race to the latrines. To this day any discussion of lactose intolerance reminds me of a certain stench borne of the generosity of the ignorant rich.
As intellectuals and as a people we have held ourselves hostage to the best and worst thinking of the West. We have held ourselves hostage to the largesse of the West. We have held ourselves hostage to our fears that we are somehow inferior if we don’t make our own rules for living life on our own terms. And the result is that every day we inch towards irrelevance.
Let me point out that it is not only in the area of economics that we have blindly aped the ways of the white man. I have always believed, and still do, that we are the sum of our experiences. I feel sadly, though, that as Africans, we have allowed alien cultures and norms to totally subsume our collective identity as expressed by our cultural practices. Even as we advocate the acceptance of practices that have enabled certain societies to prosper, there is the ever-increasing reality that African customs and traditions are being wiped out wholesale as unwholesome. That should worry all of us.
Who are we? What do we stand for? What should we stand for? Any thinking African who has watched today’s Nigerian movies should be traumatized by what seems to sell – a caricature of the Nigerian aping very poorly (and comically) the seamy side of Western values. The situation calls for a purposeful leadership that promotes and enforces a return to peace, prosperity, dignity and self-respect for all Nigerians and all Africans of color. Sadly, I see no new leaders in the locust-infected horizon. It is a royal mess.
The new religion that we as Africans have embraced (at home and in the Diaspora) is in my view the most eloquent testimonial to what I am writing about. This new Christianity, this new evangelism that accepts any and everything uncritically is a drug unlike any pernicious addiction before it. It threatens to join forces with AIDS to force our people off the surface of the earth. We ought to fight off this new scourge that threatens to conscript all od our people into the cult of darkness from which there is no reward and no return. For, in this cult, the only winners are the millionaire-high priests, shameless myrmidons of the darkness-god, the almighty dollar. May our ancestors save us from ourselves.
None of this is meant to exonerate our leaders from the shame that Sub-Saharan Africa has become. It is true that we need robust structures, rather than individual leaders to define our individual and collective morality. It is also true that we need men and women of stature to build and maintain those structures. In that respect, our leaders have failed us and failed us miserably. I say a pox on all their houses. Kongi is right. We were sent the wrong people. We asked for statesmen and we were sent executioners.