Saturday, June 18, 2005

The World according to Afro- pessimism

I have had many responses to this blog from my middle class professional elite cohort of Nigerians . It would be great to hear from others outside this narrow category which insists on its position but largely refuses to post it on the blog for debate. What is perhaps most challenging about their position is they narrow the debate into the following;

  • Africa is a failing place in deep dooh dooh
  • The government and governance is to blame
  • If we change the character and policy of government then we stand a chance
  • Until then we are depressingly underdeveloped, underperforming and fit the stereotype of Africa that the west portrays.

I think these are all low hanging fruits that require very little intellectual effort and oversimplifies complex situations but has great currency in those of my background and identity. In my view it is also misguided as it provides the excuse for those who utter this position to at best pursue individual gratification without guilt or wallow in blissful mediocrity with impunity because surely they cannot change an entire society. If their characterization about Africa was entirely accurate one could start to move to solution such as proposed by the 'Great Bliarite' Africa commission. They seek refuge in Afro Pessimism the most virulent of which emerges out of the Nigerian cognoscenti or elite class as they pursue their western MBA and salute their Harvard case studies. They find justification for their position in much published statistics which are usually of dubious credibility and are made to say what pleases the those who set the standards.

Lets explore Nigeria and challenge how this most maligned of nations is stereotyped by all and sundry without any real effort at meaningful understanding of context. It reminds me of my recent trip to Cape Town which was delightful for many reasons however I had two meals that stand out one was at Theo's Grill at Seapoint and the other was barbecue Mfozi in the township of Gugulethu, there was over 100% price difference and although both were excellent meals one stood out as an exquisite culinary experience, more on this later.

Lets look at the statistics on Nigeria, few know that in 1975 there were more people in the United Kingdom i.e. 55.4 million than the 54.9 million Nigerians at that time. Today there are over 120 million Nigerians compared to just about 60 million in the UK. In 30 years the population of Nigeria has more than doubled in spite of that over 60% of the population is literate which in absolute numbers is more than the population of the entireUK. Most educated post independence in Nigerian schools through universal primary education and largely free primary schools. Whilst the Millenuim goals is based on statistical comparison it does not compare like for like imagine comparing Nigeria with Ghana whereas there are more people in Lagos State than the whole of that country.

It is also a well established that there is a substantial GDP under reporting because of the large informal Nigerian economy. With that in mind reconcile the fall in per capita GDP from close to $1000 at its high point in 1979 to currently less than $400 in 2004 with a recorded slump in Oil earnings (about 90% of export earnings) from $22.4bn in 1980 to $9.6bn in 1983. Nigerians consistently manufacture as less than 10% of there GDP per sector, it is arguable that whilst Nigerians were in the 10 importers of processed goods especially Lace material champagne et al, they did not export up to a recordeable percentage of processed or produced goods other than petroleum. In the period of doubling population and reducing income government was expanding the state into all sectors to compensate and develop society to meet the over growing ambition and expectation of the Nigerian elite. The government deficit and borrowing grew from 8% of GDP in 1988 to 40% in 1992 alone. Yes there was a lot of pilfering however remember this

' You are living witnesses to the grave economic predicament ... Which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation ... Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged. We have become a debtor and beggar mation. There is an inadequacy of food at reasonable prices... Health services are in a shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs , water and equipments. Our education system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the graduates have reached an embarrassing and unacceptable proportion.'

Many Afro-pessimists will concur and celebrate such candor they in fact did jubilate, this was said by then Brigadier Sanni Abacha during the overthrow of the much maligned Shagari government without really educating his audience that their profilgate procreation could not be fully accommodated in a centrally planned economy. That their obsession with branded western products was not matched by their virtually non-existent productivity. No nation develops with domestic investment at 16% or so of GDP as it has stood in Nigeria. The Nigerian elite of my generation is a spoilt brat the male version is the master who expects respect without ever serving anyone, he is profligate and wicked in his use of power and his sexism bothers misogyny with his everyday celebration of his Madonna/whore dichotomy towards his unmarried middle age compatriots. Yet he laments leadership from others that he neither exercises in his work nor does he exemplify in his home. His female counterpart is only marginally better, ground to a caricature of the generation preceding, mouthing pretensions to equality in the pursuit of middle class respectability and acceptance. She emerges in power more terrifying than her male partner brutal, obsessive, petty and unforgiving. Like spoilt children they are demanding of 'arrival' and acknowledgement without the recognition they need to sacrifice for posterity. My point is that we get the government we deserve, no elite Nigerian especially the Lagos gliteratti has never given a bribe, nor abused power over subordinate, or even not cut corners on due process yet they stand in judgment as if scale of abuse is enough to mask hypocrisy. I ask why don't they become the leaders they seek in others.

The working Nigerian outside the elite is beginning to aspire for the same crass entitlement. Even though they have never made the best employees , their entrepreneurial zeal is world class. Many are still examples that the elites can learn from but deride because they lack the Queens English, diction or grammar erquired to be celebrated, the market women, Okada riders, Nollywood producers, mechanics and skilled artisans whose energies are not part of official statistics nor are they part of the financial system. They are the real engine room for transformation not the government or the rent seeking elites. In fact to become a value generating part of the transformation agenda the elites would have to make a fundamental shift in mind models from looking for others to blame towards accepting responsibility for their own contribution. With all the investment that has been made by Nigerian society in our indoctrination into western ways we are a poor return or very limited value for money. Contrast that with China and you can take one view of an authoritarian non-western society in which the driver is the productive energy and the use of Guanxi network that has delivered the growth and economic expansion of the past two decades. The government has acted by getting out of the way of economic expansion but maintaining a grip on socio-political development. It is most certainly not a liberal democracy but it is consistent with thousands of years of Chinese civilization and the role the Imperial courts and each dynasty ruled. One cannot underestimate the role of the cultural revolution and the brutal treatment of counter revolutionary elements in the confidence with which China ploughs its own unique path towards prosperity and eminence.

In Nigeria our history has shown consistently that the workaday Nigerian has been the genius in all our civilizations rather than the roaming elite who migrated from place to place in pursuit Obaship, Emirate et al. There is ample evidence that prior manufacturing capacity in areas such as Iron, bronze technologies (e.g NOK) Ivory works, glass and beads; pottery/terra cotta; salt , soap and leatherwork, weaving, boat making and wood carving came out of the genius of the everyday Nigerian. The elite in pursuit of quick wealth and in concert with their western allies exported them in large numbers as slaves in the triangular trade. In less than 20 years after abolition of slavery the same people had become the main source of palm oil for the British industrial revolution and leaders like Jaja of Opobo who did not come from the elite but rose from hard work out of slavery emerged but were taken out because they posed a threat to the elite and their European partners. In fact most of the crops that sustained colonial administration and pre crude oil Nigeria especially Cocoa, even cassava, were not indigenous to Nigeria and even where they were like rubber and Palm oil they were not plantation farmed as was the case in other parts of the world. . There was little or no help for the Nigerian subsistence farmer neither was his or her technique changed but for a long time they produced and was number one in the world on most if not all of these products. In fact the supply of these products played significant role in the British efforts and eventual success in the Ist and 2nd World wars.

Back to my meal in Gugulethu I ate on a tray with 5 others, sweet sausage with chicken barbecued to perfection. It was less than 50 Rand and my lobster et al at Theo's was over 1000 Rand. The meal in 'Gugs' was more to my palate, the atmosphere much more in tune with my africaness but I will never find it in any guide book. In fact I would be warned of the danger to my life and consequences of going to a township, with crime statistics and data, news stereotypes and testimony. So I will continue to buy the brand packaged for me and in my ignorance and blind westernisation feed myself with that which even though nice is not spicy nor funky enough to put a spring in my step.

Africa is not in dooh dooh, it underdelivers in relation to some indicators but excels in others. The suicide rate of the West is phenomenally higher than those of Africans, so is depression and other mental ailments, divorce rates, per capita crime and even though people are skeptical happiness and optimism is higher in Africa than in the west. Statistics depends on what defines success and whose standards are applied. At least the Afro pessimist should stop looking for simplistic criticism and identify what works and build on those whilst being unrelenting about failings. I fear that this will never be the case since like their European partners they see things in only simple black and white. Like China, Africa has seen great days and similarly through a realization of her own intrinsic worth will develop and renew its many civilizations based on a love for itself and a commitment to continuously improving. I however fear it will not be in time for its current callous elites but at least there is hope for posterity.


Ogatee said...

"To dooh or not to dooh dooh" In search of Afro-realism.
I must immediately confess to a mischievious itch to first take some poetic liberties with the "dooh dooh' hypothesis. Looked askance, we might well be talking about "du-du" as a colloquial yoruba contraction that means black, with all that that can evoke. But in its more acceptible meaning it means sh*t, lots of it.
Now Sh*t is not inherently a bad thing, if it is converted to fertlizer and other interesting bio-chemical byproducts. For one as fertilizer it can help feed millions, and for another, as composted mulch for a bio-mass conversion plant, it can indeed generate electricity and therefore light. The only missing ingredient in this equation is that factor of production that thinks through and harnesses all the other factors of production to produce value-added goods and services.
This at the point where Africa fails itself. I agree with Wale's characterization of the Nigerian elite, which can stand as cipher for the rest of Africa. This is where the dooh dooh is thickest. The pharsing of statistics and relativistic interpretations of Africa's economic development indicators (or lack thereof) in my view only blows more smoke in an already acrid room. The challenge put another way Wale, is how do we bridge the culinary divide between "Theo' Grill" and "Gugs alfesco." Both have relative value and can produce delectable meals (admittedly at varying pricepoints), and each feeds respective diners; which overall is a good thing. You know the old saying, if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Now, if life gives you dooh dooh, you make....?

Asala said...

Okebadan my brother and friend

Jesus is the key
Jesus is the answer

To the “elite/gliteratti” who value material possessions and “arrival” more than all – Seek ye first the Kingdom of God …….”
To the working Nigerian who aspires to become (like) the “elite/gliteratti” – Seek ye first the Kingdom of God ………..
To the literate or illiterate – Seek ye first the Kingdom……….
To the Nigerian, British, American, Spanish etc – Seek ye first the Kingdom …….

If you love God, then you must love your neighbour as God loves him and as yourself.
If you love God , then you will aspire for excellence in all you do
If you aspire for excellence in all you do, then you will seek to be like Christ the greatest leader.
If you exhibit all the characteristics of Christ in leadership you will know that “He who would lead , must be the servant of all”
If you would serve all men irrespective of race, tribe, creed, color or religion, and do so passionately then your country (wherever it is) will be the best
As you do so you will walk worthy of the Lord, unto all pleasing, being fruitful unto all god works and increase in the knowledge of God.
That I believe is what we should aspire for!

I must ask this too – There will be a wedding supper one day, sooner than we all think we know. Will you be there?
Please make sure your garments are washed white, without blemish or stain
I pray I will see you there. In Jesus name. Amen.

OdoAkete said...

I find a very close association on the points raised here and some of those addressed in The New 'Orishas' and will therefore attempt not to duplicate my previous comments here.

I find some of the statistics used here highly enlightening especially those that address the unrealistic comparison of Nigeria with UK especially since the former's population had more than doubled in the same period.

While the initial points raised capture a natural response of the Nigerian middle class elite who seek to narrow the depth of this debate, I have a slight disagreement (or better put, some pertinent questions) in some areas. The question of whether Africa is a failing region with both government and governance to blame is open to different interpretations. Are we truly underdeveloped and under performing? More importantly, do our responses to issues addressed simply suggest a degree of westernization? In other words, is your stand indicative of your social-economic status or level of indoctrination? While this may in fact be true to some degree, it would be reckless to suggest that every opinion that does not endorse or affirm our system of governance is pessimistic. By not refraining from such assumptions, we are unconsciously attempting to gag those who might not share the same passion that we may have or those less ‘patriotic’. We then stand the risk of loosing objectivity in this debate.

While I accept the analogy of the two South African restaurants, there are many reasons why one restaurant may be found in a travel guide while the other wasn’t. Perhaps the 'africaness' of 'Gugs' stems from its non-availability in travel guides. Perhaps the writer did not look well enough. Or perhaps he just does not belong to that social class exposed to that kind of material. I personally would not draw any inference from not finding 'Gugs' in any travel guide, certainly not a debate of this magnitude.

Amongst Africans I think I will be right in saying that some of the most passionate people I have come to meet are Nigerians. They are passionate about their nation, passionate about their government and system of governance. They make futile attempts at solving all the problems of their country by passionately debating the state of their nation. I have found that wherever two or more Nigerians are gathered, a discussion on the subject of this article cannot be entirely absent. Visit an 'isi ewu' spot in Ajengunle or 'Mama Calabar' in London and you will understand the point I am trying to make. While the ones that your article describes as middle class elites may eloquently put their points across in refined Queen's English, the local 'isi ewu' man is as passionate (if not more) especially after he has probably downed a few bottles of Gulder or 'odeku'.
I have found that the comments largely credited to large middle class elite are equally shared by the 'real engine room' of the Nigerian economy. They say what has gone wrong with the system. They are quick in pointing out how Nigeria should manage its economy. Through their experiences of business management (devoid of western MBAs that we are increasingly eager to obtain) they understand how wealth can be spread more evenly. They may not grasp the concept of GDP or understand what many economic terminologies stand for, but they genuinely simplify the Nigerian problem. They may not be able to commit their views in writing, but they break down all national problems in Pidgin English. Simply put, they appear to have the solution in simple layman's language without a need for words only found in the Oxford dictionary. You may describe these ones as the true champions of the Nigerian economy. But they have strong opinions too, which are not too different from those regularly addressed by the ‘elites’ earlier addressed. It is therefore dangerous to suggest that your degree of westernization has all to do with opinions on passionate issues that plague Nigeria and the entire African region.

To a large degree I think our problem lies in our proximity to the western system of governance and monitoring. Take the example of the working class Nigerian again (the ones describe as the real engine room of the Nigerian economy). He prides himself in his understanding of the system. He understands how the system works. He has beaten all odds to survive. In his own right, given the obstacles he had to overcome to come as far as he has, he is successful. But he is plagued by two voids; one that the system imposes on him and worse still, one that he imposes upon himself. The system tells him that his half-baked western education means he cannot be part of government or even serve on the sideline and he believes it. He comes to a conscious conclusion that his best contribution to governance is from the ‘isi ewu’ spot. So he goes there every night to pay his due. He understands the whole problem of the nation, so he sits there and solves them. By so doing he condemns himself even more.

So who are the real afro pessimists? We all are. It’s not the MBA elite alone or the entrepreneurial ‘obioma’ on the streets of Lagos. We are the afro pessimists. We are the ones who have been so indoctrinated that we have passed a western legacy to coming generations at the expense of our culture.
We are the real afro pessimists who have believed that our western education has to pay dividends by placing us over those not so privilleged. We constantly solve the problem of our plagued region from the western shores. We have quenched a thirst to deal with real issues by engaging in the system daily. We are best at solving all problems through the power of the pen. We are the real pessimists!

Are we truly underdeveloped and under performing? It depends on what this is being measured against. But to me it does not matter that more than the population of UK has achieved literacy in 30 years. I will answer in the affirmative. Recognizing this simple truth should help us in addressing why we failed, why we did, and how we can get out of this predicament.

Asala said...

I have read Odoakete's comments, as well as digested Onibudo's private communication to me, and one thing is clear, we have all done well in diagnosing the symptoms, manifestations and finally disease that plague us in Nigeria.Irrespective of socio-economic status. But at the expense of sounding world weary, I agree that you are all right, from your patch in the sun, But I say "So What ?"
By this I mean, what are you going to do to change what you can, when you can, where you can, how you can and while you can?
Enough of our pontificating on the value of a western MBA or not? (though as a die hard Ekiti kete indigene, I must say aspiring for a Harvard MBA in itself is not an unworthy cause, though I like to see it not as the end, but a means to the beginning).
How and where are we going to start to make the changes we are fully committed to, and in so doing make a difference even if only to one person at a time?
If others see your passion, they will follow suit.

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