THISDAY, Lawrence Summers, and the Future of Africa

The popular Nigerian newspaper, THISDAY, does not like to cover events and report the news as is the wont of regular newspapers all over the world. Rather, the Lagos rag loves to make the news it covers. And such news seem to obey only one rule: ensure that the name and picture of its founder and owner, Nduka Obaigbena, appear constantly in the neighbourhood of the globally mighty and famous. In THISDAY events, usually mega-advertised as the second best thing to happen to Africa after independence, it is routine to see Obaigbena beaming in the company of the likes of Naomi Campbell, Sean Puffy Combs, 50 Cents, Snoop Dog, Beyoncé, Vincente Fox, Henry Kissinger, and Paul Begala. I began to pay more than a passing attention to THISDAY’s dilettantism the day I stumbled on a report that arch neo-conservative pundit, Bill Kristol, had been part of an Obaigbena event in New York.

Now, Kristol is as bad as it gets. He is one of those prurient intellects in the fundamentalist fringe of the American far right. He is bad news for Africa; he is bad news for the rest of the world. He is interested in the rest of us only insofar as we are prepared to recognize and accept the essential goodness and desirability of American imperialism and dominion over the rest of us. We are bad news for him if we insist that no one country, no one people singularly incarnates the ultimate and final expression of the human. We are terrible news for him when we insist he sells his exceptionalist delusions to the marines in Kandahar, or when we insist that there is no such thing as an indispensable nation. We are horrible news for Kristol when we insist that folks are welcome to define their own model of society and their values as the end of history, so long as they do not foist such hallucinations on other peoples’ narratives. Now, what could Obaigbena possibly be doing in the company of such a repugnant reactionary in the cozy confines of the Waldorf Astoria?

Then comes this shocker of an announcement by the newspaper that Steve Forbes and Lawrence Summers are the two heavyweights invited “to headline the 3rd THISDAY Townhall meeting on financial and stock markets holding next week in Abuja”. So far so good, you tell yourself. There is nothing wrong with two influential Americans going to discuss America’s sorry economic condition while enjoying African hospitality and sunshine. Summers and Forbes probably need a break from the depressing situation back home and Obaigbena has been known to be his brother’s keeper – if his brother has a name. Then this: “convened by THISDAY Board of Editors, the six-hour meeting will dig deep into the challenges of Nigeria’s policy and market environment, appraise global market conditions, explore options and proffer solutions to one of the fastest growing markets in the world determined to be one of the leading global economies by Year 2020”. In essence, Obaigbena and his editors, in their infinite wisdom, have concluded that two representatives of American market fundamentalism are in the most auspicious position to perorate on “the challenges of Nigeria’s policy and market environment”. If we are lucky, the two Americans may even “proffer solutions” to our market challenges and rocket-launch us into our desired economic nirvana in 2020, ahead of more serious and focused countries like China, India, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates. More on this later. For now, let’s dwell on Lawrence Summers and the culture that has, apparently, earned him an invitation to Nigeria.

It is difficult not to wake up everyday feeling sorry for Africa. Sometimes you are sorry for what others have done and keep doing to that battered continent. At other times, you are sorry for the incredible things we are capable of doing to the continent and ourselves. There is this French colonial-era police officer in Guinean writer, Alioum Fantouré’s 1972 novel, Le cercle des tropiques. Taking one disgusted look at a newly independent African country already in the throes of the sanguinary dictatorship of one of Francophone Africa’s famous pères de la nation (Fathers of the Nation), the police man declares that one thing that has baffled him to no end in all the decades he has spent serving in Africa is that Africans are capable of inflicting such injuries on Africa that even the most wicked white colonialist is incapable of imagining. “You, Africans, secrete your own poison from within”, the policeman concludes.

Colomentality (apologies to Fela Anikulapo Kuti) is one of the most lethal poisons we secrete from within. It is a pernicious form of coloniality that Fela defines as the refusal to cure oneself of cultural and intellectual dependency on – and fascination with – everything and anything Western. It is an abdication of initiative, a voluntary surrender of agency to Western actors. Hear Fela: Oyinbo don release you but you never release yourself (the white man has freed you but you are yet to free yourself). In Nigeria, colomentality is, to some extent, coterminous with Yankeephilism. Some of the world’s most uncritical Yankeephiliacs are in Nigeria. In government and elite circles, Yankeephilism is an epidemic. One comical instance: on assuming office, Segun Adeniyi, President Yar’Adua’s public microphone, immediately ran to Washington for a training course and told critics that Americans were in the best position to teach him how to communicate effectively with the Nigerian people. Had his Yankeephilic exuberance not been checked by critics, he was well on his way to declaring that the Americans were the most qualified to teach him the accent and inflections of Warri and Sapele pidgin.

This is the culture that has ensured that any American that is fortunate enough to land in Nigeria becomes a demi-god. Where the American is white, they sky is the limit. Colomentality is what makes us assume that every American, from the uncultured college dropouts at the consular section of the American Embassy in Lagos to the highest placed World Bank or White House official, is either an Africanist proper or an Africanist honoris causa, and therefore deserves a platform to “proffer ideas” on the way forward for Nigeria and Africa. Folks who should be flipping burgers in New York are chauffeured around Lagos and Abuja as American expatriates, sometimes with police guards. Regular Joes and Janes who, back home in the US, wouldn’t have access to the Mayor of Altoona, Pennsylvania, enjoy unfettered access to our Ministers and Federal Government officials who suddenly become obsequious.

When colomentality sets in and surges on all cylinders, we fail to ask crucial questions about the bona fides of the Americans we are granting a platform to tell us about our lives. We fail to ask the sort of questions that would have led Obaigbena and THISDAY to Lawrence Summers’s terrible record on Africa and the global South. Obaigbena was perhaps too smitten by Summers’s profile – former Vice President of the World Bank, former Clinton Administration official, former president of Harvard University, former this, former that – and the prospects of photo-ops to bother with trifle details in the man’s trajectory. Trifle details such as what Summers thinks of the brains of American women. Fortunately, American women did not take his insults lying low. They exposed him as a radioactive male chauvinist and got him thrown out of office as President of Harvard University. Deservedly.

Yet, those angry American women ought to consider themselves lucky that Summers only believes that their brains are biologically inferior to those of their husbands, sons, and boyfriends. Africa and the global South fare much worse than biological inferiority in Summersville. While American women deserve some space in the sun as cerebrally inferior human beings, Summers doesn’t extend the same generosity to Africa and the global South. In the most cynical version of economic Darwinism ever to assault our sense of decency, Summers authored – or merely signed as he later claimed – a World Bank memo that outlined the economic benefits of dumping the toxic and industrial wastes of rich Western countries in the less developed countries of Africa and the global South. Summers’s memo leaked and caused a tsunami in global environmental circuits. It is worth reproducing in full for the benefit of Obaigbena and THISDAY:

DATE: December 12, 1991

TO: Distribution

FR: Lawrence H. Summers

Subject: GEP

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.

Summers’s esoteric World Bank-speak needs to be translated to English. He is simply making an economically sound argument for the violation of the environment and humanity of the peoples of Africa and the global South by the rich countries of the global North. Africans already live short, nasty, and brutish Hobbesian lives anyway. They are ragged and hungry and disease-ridden anyway. Their environment is already polluted anyway. Their life expectancy is nothing to write home about anyway. Why not save superior, more valuable lives and the environment in the West by taking the industrial wastes of the West to Africa? No crime would have been committed, no moral considerations violated, since they die down there like fowls from poverty, hunger, and disease anyway. There can be no better toilet for the rich global North than the poor global South. The Third World’s response to Summers’s lunacy came from Brazil. After the memo became public in February 1992, Brazil‘s then Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, fired an angry and well-publicized letter to Summers: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane. Your thoughts provide a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness, and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in. If the World Bank keeps you as Vice President, it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said: the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear.”

Summers’s bona fides as an Africanist can thus be summarized in two words: psychotic Darwinism. This is the sort of character THISDAY is inviting to Abuja to help Nigeria figure out a way of becoming one of the best economies in the world twelve years from now. Apart from the sense of continental pride and dignity that should make any self-respecting African want to keep a character like Summers as far away from the continent as possible, it is ironic that Obaigbena and THISDAY could find no other saviors for Nigeria’s market and financial system other than two apostles of the philosophy that has ruined the economy of the world’s most powerful state in a little less than eight years. Summers and Forbes are epistemic participants in the process that has produced the world’s biggest mendicant economy, totally dependent on loans and handouts from China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to be able to continue to live above its means. Given the current situation in the US, are these two American prophets of capital really in the position to lecture Africa about finance and economics? Shouldn’t Americans rather be learning one or two lessons from the rest of us at the moment? Given their belief in market fundamentalism, what exactly are Forbes and Summers going to say in Abuja that Obaigbena could not have downloaded for free from the websites of the World Bank and the IMF? The good news about Washington’s arrogant neo-liberal prescriptions for Africa is that they never change. Bretton Woods and her prophets have only one all-purpose aspirin for every African ailment and the prescription is available for free on any good financial website.

If Obaigbena and THISDAY are that desperate for neo-liberal prescriptions, I can save them some money by telling them – for free – what Summers and Forbes will tell them in Abuja. Here we go. If you guys want to join the Ivy League of global economies by the year 2020, more deregulation is the answer! Open up your markets to our products. Market! Market!! I say m-a-r-k-e-t!!! Somebody shout amen!! What is this we hear that your Federal government still subsidizes petroleum products for the Nigerian people? When did government become Father Christmas? What is this we hear that you still have Federal Universities that receive government subvention? Nonsense. Open up your educational sector to market forces. Open up health, environment, natural resources – everything – to market forces. Export more of your raw materials and skilled labour at cheaper prices to the West. And what is this we hear about boosting local production? Nonsense. Import everything from us at market-determined prices. Labour in Nigeria is unionized? You guys are kidding, right? And we hear that Chevron-Texaco, Halliburton and other American multinationals pay taxes when they do business in Nigeria. Bad idea. You must make Nigeria more tax and investment friendly. By the way, you must open up the Niger Delta to AFRICOM so that your problem of terrorism can be solved once and for all. And while we are it, why do China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba have Embassies in Nigeria? You cannot achieve your Vision 2020 if you associate with such vermin.

There is so much resentment, helplessness, and gnashing of teeth in Washington over the intolerable ascendancy of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). BRIC is seen as the most formidable threat to America’s global dominance. While it is already too late to contain BRIC, Africa is still containable. Why anyone would imagine that two products of America’s ideology of dominance would go to Abuja and teach Nigerians how to become a viable threat – like BRIC – to America’s economic dominance by the year 2020 beats me. Professor Ngozi Okonjo Iweala would have offered more genuine insights to Obaigbena and his audience. She has a stake in Nigeria’s and Africa’s progress that Summers and Forbes will never have. And if we must bring non-Nigerian experts, we should have assembled some of the best brains and economists from Ghana, Botswana, and post-war Angola, three better-organized and more successful countries that have relevant lessons to teach Nigeria. Perhaps I’m dreaming. It is more likely that the folks at THISDAY would look down on those African countries. The giant of Africa may only learn from the giant of the world!

Written by
Pius Adesanmi
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1 comment
  • I could not agree with you more about Colomentality however let us give credits where it is due, The US have a lot we can learn from, Our tasks and goals should be to emulate some of the good parts of their system like building and maintaining good infrastructure, stability of government and less corruption and discard the bad parts like heavy drug dependency. You have written an excellent paper, which I shared with a Jamaican colleague of mine and he said Jamaica could have been substituted for Nigeria in the article and all the same points you raised would still apply. Good work Pius.