The Coming West African Spring

President Jammeh: Africa's Most Moronic Leader?
President Jammeh: Africa’s Most Moronic Leader?

West Africa is probably my favourite part of the world. It contains some of the oldest, most stable and (therefore) most developed human cultures on the planet. Its economic development (it probably goes without saying) lags behind much of the world; but in spite of this (or more accurately, because of this) West African societies are culturally more developed than many other societies on the planet. Tens of thousands of years of uninterrupted cultural evolution have created beautiful musical, dance, language and social skills – which explains in large part why I go there. I’ve spent part of winter there for most of the past few years, dividing my time over six countries.

This year, I’m freshly returned from The Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country (with under two million people) – a bizarre side-effect of the British/French scramble for Africa whereby the river Gambia (and a little land either side) was carved out of French Senegal by the British. Although Gambia comprises the same main tribal groups as Senegal, and Gambians typically have family ties with Senegalese, Senegal has managed to create some form of democracy, and forms part of the wider community of French West African nations. Gambia meanwhile has effectively been the private plaything of one man, Yahya Jammeh, since he was “elected” in 1996.

Gambians take great care when speaking out against Jammeh. In a nation so small, political rivalries are personal ones. Anyone who raises a voice against his bizarre behaviours will quickly reach Jammeh’s attention, and run the risk of vanishing in the middle of the night. I previously mentioned Jammeh’s magical ability to cure his citizens of AIDS; it seems that his near-insane behaviours have only increased since then. On this trip, I noted a change in tone when talking to Gambians about local politics. They are angrier, and less reticent about sharing their views on Jammeh.

Last summer, Jammeh got rid of a few minor problems by reinstating the death penalty and having nine prisoners shot by firing squad. This led to some unusually outspoken opposition, in particular by the leading Imam Baba Leigh. The response was sadly predictable; Imam Leigh was taken from his home in early December, and has not been heard from since. In turn, this has led to Imams uniting to call for Leigh’s release, and growing organisation of ex-pat Gambians in New York and elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, most ordinary Gambians live on the verges of poverty. Electricity is only widely available along Gambia’s short coast (which serves its tourism industry). While some African states (notably Ghana and Rwanda) are introducing near-universal healthcare, Gambian healthcare remains for the wealthy. And there are plenty of wealthy Gambians; the contrast between rich and poor is striking.

And in yet another insane presidential decree, Jammeh has declared each Friday a public holiday (to increase mosque attendances) and decreed that public workers should work longer days over a four-day week instead, and schools should open on Saturday. He has imposed a new Valued Added Tax. While African states undoubtedly need to increase their tax take in order to build desperately needed infrastructure, Gambians are under little illusion that much of their tax will go to help build the nation.

The 2011 uprising in North Africa led to hopes of an “African Spring” in sub-Saharan Africa too. There were protests in Uganda, but these were viciously suppressed by President Museveni (also a contender for most-moronic leader). Black Africa was not quite ready for its “Spring” moment. The Arab/North Africa uprisings were driven, in large part, by the rise of instant communication. While most people in sub-Saharan Africa now own a mobile phone, the services are limited, and most important, the region is not well-connected to the Internet. Access is usually via Internet cafés, and is extremely slow.

Or at least, was extremely slow. France Telecom has invested heavily in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) project, high-speed connectivity between Europe and the West African coast. The first phase of this project went live in December. While South and East Africa already have high-speed connectivity, this is West Africa’s first real access to the global Internet. The impact can’t be understated; since Europe and West Africa first met each other 500 years ago, the relationship has been asymmetrical  to say the least. For the first time in human history, the playing field in communication has been – to some extent – levelled. Simultaneously, African economies are growing at breakneck speed. Education levels are rocketing, and many wealthy ex-pats are returning home from Britain, France and the USA, bringing skills, investment and employment.

West Africa is on the verge of emerging as a global force, primarily via its biggest member state, Nigeria – ACE may represent the tipping point. While European morons attempt to drag the continent back into nationalism and isolation, Africa rises and joins the global economy (indeed – for the first time, I met several European ex-pats living in West Africa not for travel or charity, but for work).

All of these factors mean the writing is on the wall for Africa’s moron leaders – especially Jammeh, perhaps the most moronic of them all. A seismic event is about to happen; as with all earthquakes, we can predict where, but not when. Perhaps Jammeh, Museveni and their like have another decade to rob and brutalise their people, but I predict it won’t take that long.

At long last, Africa’s lagging economic development can start to catch up with its unparalleled cultural leadership. The Western world has a surprise coming.