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.
I try to maintain a global perspective in my moron-watching, but that’s difficult: just trying to keep track of moronic activity in Europe and the US is hard enough. However, Africa is a continent that has always held great fascination for me, and I’ve enjoyed travelling to a number of countries there. Sub-Saharan Africa is a wonderful place to travel. Sadly, the Western media is interested in reporting little other than famine and war in Africa, ignoring most of the other 99% of happenings there. The BBC used to produce an excellent radio programme/podcast called This Week In Africa, which gave a good, weekly overview of African events – sadly that was lost to the UK government’s moronic austerity measures.
Focusing on African morons may make some liberals uneasy; because African heritage is deeply entwined with racial issues in the West, many will miss the obvious: Africa itself isn’t a racial issue. Furthermore, the politically-correct version of African history tries to explain away every failing of Africa by blaming colonialism. Colonialism did represent resource-theft on a huge scale, and the colonial “scramble for Africa” carve-up by European powers created long-term political headaches that still rumble on; yet the colonial era (approx 1880s to 1960s) was also an unprecedented time of development for the continent, during which the population increased around sixfold and the continent’s great cities of today were born. The “it’s all our fault” school of Western liberal thought is a fine piece of subtle racism; while white supremacists like to say everything good in Africa is a foreign import, liberals say everything bad is. In reality, Africa is capable of both success and failure without our help. Africa is rich in many resources, but perhaps one of its most abundant resources is bad leadership; if moronic and crazy leaders were tradeable currency, Africa could be the wealthiest continent on Earth.
Africans themselves generally have a clear view about where their problems originate: after all, they are the ones who are daily extorted of money by the police, who face discrimination based on which ethnic group they belong to, who struggle to make a living at the roadside while their politicians drive past in fleets of expensive SUVs, who see their countries’ resources skimmed off into Swiss bank accounts. A Sierra Leonean businessman I met was refreshingly straightforward about his country’s problems: “Our leaders are a bunch of illiterate savages”.
The African story isn’t just the gloomy tale of war and famine that’s dripped out through our media. Despite a handful of countries that can truly be said to be “basket cases”, the average African economy is growing at a very healthy pace. Schooling is becoming ever-more standard, and literacy is growing fast. The lack of good communications across the continent has been rapidly solved by the arrival of mobile telephony, with mobile phone ownership approaching levels seen in developed countries. Africa’s final hurdle is to improve its governance. African countries will no doubt soon experience their own civil rights era; with more educated and demanding populations than ever before, we can expect, within a few years, to see black Africa rise up in pursuit of better leadership, as we’ve seen in North African and Arab countries this year.
So here is a brief tribute to a few of Africa’s moron leaders – those people who by theft, suppression of free speech or just downright idiocy, are slowing Africa’s emergence into the developed world.
Robert Mugabe is the perfect example of a revolutionary hero who turned out not to be such a great national leader once the revolution was won. Mugabe served over 10 years in prison during the struggle against white minority rule. In power since the formation of Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe quickly revealed his moron credentials by attacking his opponents and committing mass-murder against a tribal minority, the Matebele. Gradually, Zimbabwean opposition was crushed. Mugabe then set out on a populist land-grab from white farmers, handing land to his friends and supporters, with the result that harvests failed and a once-prosperous country fell into poverty. Indeed, hunger is a favourite weapon used by Mugabe against his enemies. Despite being electorally defeated, Mugabe refuses to let go of power, and will remain until death (he’s 87), or until his ZANU-PF cronies finally find the guts to depose him.
Traditional “medicine” and superstitions are rife in Africa, and this extends even to the ruling classes. Nelson Mandela’s successor in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, allowed himself to be convinced that AIDS wasn’t related to the HIV virus, and acted to prevent antiretrovirals from being made widely available, despite South Africa having the world’s worst AIDS epidemic. After several years, Mbeki’s stance was overruled, and antiretrovirals were made available, but only after an estimated 365,000 people had died due to his ignorance. Mbeki’s successor Jacob Zuma showed himself to be no more enlightened about AIDS when, standing trial for rape, he revealed he’d had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive, and had showered afterwards to “protect himself”.
Resentment between African tribes has often been hugely exacerbated by the hasty drawing of post-independence borders as European colonial rulers left and African leaders replaced them. Every African country is ethnically divided to some extent, and leaders (elected or not) will often represent their own group rather than the national interest. It’s hardly surprising then that African leaders tend to use power to discriminate against rival tribes, which in turn heightens tensions and makes conflict and genocide more likely. This happened most starkly in 1994 in Rwanda, where the minority Tutsi ruling group was suddenly turned upon by resentful Hutus, resulting in the loss of around 800,000 lives.
In Kenya, the 2008 elections collapsed into ethnic violence between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and others; political leaders on both sides were accused of stoking the violence for political gain.
Sierra Leone has racist laws on the statute that prevent any non-native from being born a Sierra Leonean citizen, however many generations his family may have lived in the country.
Africa’s most multiracial country, but also a fragile one, is South Africa; a Cameroonian man recently told me of his difficult experience working in South Africa, saying that black South Africans were the most racist people he’d ever encountered, especially against other black people. South Africa’s ANC leaders have generally been careful to tackle racism, seeing the danger it could cause to such a diverse country, but recently a leading ANC figure, Julius Malema, was convicted of hate speech after leading the singing in public of a song that advocated “killing Boers”. So far, South Africa is largely peaceful and politically stable, with the ANC easily winning every election. But with growing anger against ANC corruption, and the rise of an opposition party led by a white woman, watch out for more race-baiting coming from the ANC as its monopoly on power becomes weaker.
Africa is perhaps the worst place to be gay. While homophobia is widespread pretty much everywhere on earth, African laws against homosexuality tend to be the most draconian, and the most enthusiastically implemented. Liberals often try to blame this on the West, pointing out that many of these laws originate from the colonial era, and that African homophobes are enthusiastically supported by American Christians, but that’s a subtle piece of liberal racism which assumes Africans wouldn’t know how to be homophobic by themselves. The laws may descend from colonial times, but then so do almost all sub-Saharan African legal systems. African homophobia is homegrown. Europe has now abandoned its homophobic legislation, but African nations (with the laudable exception of South Africa) seem to show no enthusiasm in doing likewise.
If one country can sum up the greatest hopes and worst fears for Africa’s future, it’s Nigeria. A large, federal nation of 36 states and 155m people, it has oil reserves that bring huge revenue flows into the country. Unfortunately, much of that is embezzled within the corrupt political system, and rapidly exits the country again. Nigeria has the wealth to build good education, healthcare and electricity infrastructures for its people; but has largely failed to do so. By rights, given its mineral wealth and human resources, Nigeria should be ready for a place in the G20; but that is a distant dream.
A figure that best illustrates Nigeria’s problems is the salary paid to its politicians. Incredibly, while three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 per day, Nigeria’s elected representatives earn around $1,500,000 per year (no, that’s not a typo: I really said $1.5m), and are the world’s highest paid politicians. By contrast, US politicians earn around one-sixth that amount. This huge reward for winning elections helps explain the corrupt and violent mess that is Nigerian politics – and the perks of political life go far beyond the salary.
Nigeria’s economy is growing and the country is becoming more wealthy. But unless its wealth is shared among the population, the nation risks falling back into bloodshed. No country can have a stable existence with the world’s worst poverty sitting alongside enormous wealth. And the oil won’t last forever; if the proceeds are not invested wisely, Nigeria could see catastrophe as production goes into decline. If Nigeria destabilises, the entire West African region, and beyond, would be flooded with refugees and collapse into chaos. Probably more than any other country, Nigeria is key to Africa’s future.