// archives

Nigeria

This tag is associated with 24 posts

Slavery and History

29 July 2020

“Assessing the people of America’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.” That seemed to be the line taken by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas last week in his opinion piece for the New York Times. It caused great outrage, the Opinion Editor had to resign, and Cotton was roundly abused for ‘defending slavery’.

He probably deserved that. What he actually said was that the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the United States saw slavery as the “necessary evil upon which the Union was built.” That would sound all right in a classroom, if you then explained that otherwise the slave-owning southern states would not have agreed to a federation of all thirteen colonies.

It sounded less well coming out of the mouth of a senator who wants to ban federal funding for a project to improve the teaching of the history of slavery in American schools. Senator Cotton is one of President Trump’s loyal soldiers, trying to whip up a white racial panic and consolidate the boss’s ‘base’. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I changed one word in that quote, and that it wasn’t Cotton who said it. It was Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, and what she actually said, in an opinion piece for the BBC, was this: “Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.”

She was talking specifically about her great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, who was a widely respected trader in tobacco, palm oil, and slaves in southeastern Nigeria in the early 20th century. The Atlantic slave trade had been banned by the European empires a century before, but slavery was still a flourishing domestic business in Nigeria and many other African countries.

Her great-grandfather became famous by defying the British colonial authorities, who were trying to stamp out slavery within Nigeria. They had confiscated some of his slaves, and he marched right up and demanded them back, waving a trading license that dated back to the previous century.

They were taken aback, apologised, and returned his slaves. Indeed, they were so impressed by his boldness and self-confidence that they subsequently appointed him ‘paramount chief’ of his region. So he became a local hero in his own day, and is still a hero to Ms Nwaubani’s family.

Slavery was normal in most pre-modern societies, including almost all the kingdoms and ethnic groups of sub-Saharan Africa. Africans had sold slaves north to various Islamic empires in the Middle East for centuries before Europeans showed up on the coast in ships. They were just another set of customers buying in the same market.

Most enslaved Africans didn’t travel more than a few hundred kilometres from home, of course. It is estimated that in the 18th century one-third of the people in what is now Senegal were slaves who belonged to other Senegalese. But the ones who were sold to foreigners probably suffered even more.

Historians believe that around one-fifth of the ten million Africans transported to the Americas over more than three centuries died on board ship. The fatalities among the estimated 17 million African slaves sold to Arab traders and forced to walk across the Sahara or carried around the India Ocean in ships during ten centuries were probably just as high. What awaited the survivors when they arrived was pretty appalling too.

But Ms Nwaubani is right. The past is a different country, and it’s pointless to judge people by standards they would not even comprehend. Worse, it is a distraction from the business at hand, which to clear up the ghastly heritage of racism that slavery has left in America.

It is noteworthy that there is no comparable heritage of guilt and racism in the African countries that sold the slaves. Everybody, slaves and masters, was from the same group, and everybody was involved one way or another. We used to do it, now we don’t, end of story.

Why is it so different in the European countries, and above all in the United States? My guess is that it’s because slavery, uniquely in the world, had completely died out in Europe by a thousand years ago. When 16th-century Europeans reached West Africa, it was quite new to them.

They took to slave-owning readily enough, but they had no traditional framework in which to think about it. Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku didn’t need to justify owning slaves by telling himself they were inferior. He’d bought them fair and square. What’s the problem?

Whereas American plantation owners had to come up with bizarre racial fantasies to explain to themselves why it was right to own other people – and their great-great-grandchildren are still struggling with those fantasies today.
_________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Historians…too”)

Ambazonia

Sometimes Donald Trump gets it right. In February he cut off US military aid to the central African country of Cameroon because of its appalling human rights record (and didn’t even offer to restore it if the Cameroon government dug up dirt on his political opponents at home). Last Friday he acted again, dropping Cameroon from a pact that promotes trade between sub-Saharan African countries and the US.

OK, it probably wasn’t really Trump’s idea. There’s still a few professionals left in the State Department, and it was probably one of them who pushed it through. The appeal to Trump may just be that he is punishing a country that is expanding its trade with China – but the human rights abuses in Cameroon really are off the scale.

Cameroon’s main claim to fame until recently was its ruler, Paul Biya, the oldest and longest-ruling dictator in the world (86 years old and in power for the past 42 years). But Biya wasn’t all that bad, apart from the usual corruption and the occasional political murder, until the downtrodden English-speakers started protesting seriously about two years ago.

The ‘anglophones’, as they are known in majority French-speaking Cameroon, have been pushed into a corner basically because they don’t fit the mould. A century ago hardly anybody in the region spoke either English or French, but the vagaries of colonial policy put some of the locals into the British empire and some into the French – and then independence brought some of them back together again.

More than four-fifths of the 25 million Cameroonians live in French-speaking parts of the country. Only one-fifth live in the anglophone region – but that region is right up against the border with Nigeria, where around 190 million people use English as their lingua franca.

That shouldn’t have been a problem if Cameroon had respected the rights of its English-speakers, but having giant Nigeria right next-door made the country’s francophone ruling elite uneasy. Predictably, but very stupidly, Biya and his cronies saw separate institutions for the anglophones as a potential cause for division, and started eliminating them.

They unilaterally changed the country’s federal structure into a unitary one, ending anglo self-government. They replaced English-speaking judges and English common law with francophone judges and French law. Government jobs automatically went to ‘loyal’ francophones even in anglophone areas.

Every step they took to erase the differences between anglos and francos only deepened the divisions between them. Finally the anglophones began publicly protesting – and when their representatives were all jailed, more radical protesters began demanding independence for the anglophone region, which they dubbed ‘Ambazonia’. They got arrested too, and the next wave of protesters turned to violence.

It wasn’t very effective violence at first, because they lacked weapons, experience and organisation, but you can always buy the weapons in Nigeria or take them from dead regime soldiers and police. For the rest, you just climb the learning curve – and by now, two years in, it’s a full-scale insurgency, so both sides are behaving with extreme stupidity.

The regime should be making the kind of concessions that would reconcile its anglophones to being Cameroonian citizens, but it’s doing nothing of the sort. The thugs have taken over, and its soldiers and police are acting as unpaid recruiters for the rebels, killing young anglo men at random and burning whole villages where some local resident is suspected of being one of the ‘Amba-boys’.

The rebels are equally devoted to self-harm. They have closed down all 6,000 schools in the anglophone region because the national curriculum requires the students to be taught French. Not taught IN French; just taught to speak French. If the teachers try to keep the schools open, the rebels burn them down. Sometimes they kill the teachers too.

The original blame for the breakdown rests almost entirely with the Biya regime, but the rebels are catching up fast in the stupidity stakes. It has become a classic guerilla war, in the worst sense of the word, and it could blight the lives of an entire generation.

What makes it even more bizarre is that it’s not even about genuine ethnic, religious or linguistic differences. Cameroon has enough of those: many different tribes, Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, and around 250 different languages, some spoken by only a few thousand people. But this war is about which FOREIGN language people speak!

It is a mercifully rare problem in Africa, because while most African states contain many languages, they have kept the borders that the colonialists imposed. Everybody living inside those borders has therefore inherited the same colonial language, usually French, English or Portuguese, and uses it to communicate with their fellow-citizens whose home language is different.

It’s an arbitrary solution with its roots in tyrannical oppression by foreigners, but there’s no other way that large numbers of Africans could share a modern state together. Most of the linguistic groups are too small. And Cameroon shows what is all too likely to happen, human beings being what they are, if that situation does not prevail.
_________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“OK…scale”; and “It wasn’t…stupidity”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Nigerian Election

Lengthy delays before announcing the results of African elections are commonplace (the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, Zimbabwe last July, etc.). It just means that people voted the wrong way, and the government needs time to re-arrange the results before publishing them. Postponing the vote at the last moment is much less common, and not so easy to explain.

That’s what happened in Nigeria last Saturday. Only five hours before the polls were due to open, the Independent National Election Commission postponed the election for a week, citing as reasons attempted sabotage, bad weather and problems with delivering the ballot papers. It’s weird, but it’s hard to see who benefits from it. It may be down to simple incompetence.

There are 79 candidates for the presidency, but only two count. The incumbent, former general Muhammadu Buhari, is running again despite a less than stellar performance in his first term as an elected president. (He also held the office as a military dictator for twenty months in the 1980s, before being overthrown by another general.)

Buhari won power in 2015 by claiming to be a born-again democrat and a ‘new broom’ who would sweep away corruption, and many Nigerians dared to believe him. He was the first opposition candidate ever to win a free presidential election. But four years later Nigeria has fallen another twelve places on Transparency International’s corruption index: it now ranks 144th out of 180 countries, just ahead of Mauretania.

Buhari is personally clean, but his anti-corruption measures almost exclusively targeted politicians of other parties. Nigerian average incomes fell by more than a third and unemployment doubled on his watch (mostly because of the collapse in oil prices). He didn’t deliver on his promise to eliminate the Islamists extremists of Boko Haram, affiliated with ISIS, who have terrorised the north-east of the country.

He is also so lethargic, perhaps due to chronic illness, that he is popularly known as ‘Baba-Go-Slow’. He took six months to name his cabinet, and he was abroad so long on sick leave (five months) that when he finally came home conspiracy theorists claimed that he had died and been replaced by a body double (‘Jubril from Sudan’) who had undergone plastic surgery.

Buhari should lose, and he probably will, because three ex-generals (all former presidents) who once backed him have switched to his challenger, businessman Atiku Abubakar. ‘Atiku’ is a billionaire who started out as a humble customs officer. People speculate that this made him very useful to generals and other powerful people who wanted to parlay a small fortune into a big one.

Be that as it may, Atiku then went into the oilfield supply business and prospered mightily (maybe with a little help from his friends). He served two terms as vice-president, after the first of which he was accused of having diverted $125 million of public funds to his own business interests.

A US Senate report in 2010 accused him of having transferred $40m of “suspect funds” to the US, using his American wife’s bank account, but he has never faced a court. But he vows to use his skills as an entrepreneur to sort out the country. If he succeeds, and some of the money sticks to him, who cares? At least it can be said on his behalf that he supports Arsenal.

This is the choice that faces Nigeria, and it’s really no choice at all. Both candidates embody exactly the characteristics that define the country’s problems.

First, they are very old – Muhammadu Buhari is 72, Atiku Abubakar is 72 – in a country where half the voters are under 35, and half the population is under 18. The country is run by a congeries of mostly rich old men, mainly for their own benefit, and it has been thus ever since the return of democracy twenty years ago. Before that it was run by a bunch of somewhat younger soldiers, also mostly for their own benefit.

Nigerian politicians switch parties as often as they change wives, and show only rhetorical concern for the ten million young people who are unemployed. You would think that such a system could not survive, and perhaps one day it will be swept away, but there is no sign of it happening in this election.

The other thing the two chief presidential candidates have in common is a plethora of children. Buhari has ten offspring from two marriages (one after the other). Abubakar has 28 children from four marriages (simultaneous). Humbler people can’t afford quite that many, but most people are doing their bit to ensure that Nigeria’s population outgrows its resources.

This is a sensitive topic, obviously, but not to talk about it is to ignore Nigeria’s biggest problem. In 1960 Nigeria had a quarter of the population of the United States. Now it has more than half as many people, and by 2050 it will overtake the United States to become the world’s third most populous country.

At that point it will have over 400 million people. Nigeria is only slightly larger than Texas (pop. 28 million).

It will probably be a ‘free and fair’ election next Saturday, but it won’t change any of that.
___________________________________
To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6, 9 and 12. (“He is…surgery”; “A US…Arsenal”; and “Nigerian…election”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Absent Presidents

Newspapers still need copy to hold the ads apart even when nothing much is happening. So I was quite pleased when I noticed that the presidents of two African countries, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, were both “missing in action”: spending most of their time in hospitals overseas, while their spokespersons denied that there was anything wrong.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with the continent’s biggest economy. Zimbabwe is dirt poor and dead broke, but its president, Robert Mugabe is Africa’s longest-ruling leader. So you call the piece ‘Absent Presidents’, you do a few arabesques around the themes of absolute power and irresponsibility, and you get to go home early.

There were even a couple of juicy quotes to lead with. One of the supporters of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Senator Shehu Sani, had warned publicly: “Prayers for the absent Lion King have waned. Now the hyenas and the jackals are scheming and talking to each other in whispers; still doubting whether the Lion King will be back or not.”

And President Buhari’s wife Aisha replied, also in public, that he would soon be back to clean house: “God has answered the prayers of the weaker animals. The hyenas and jackals will soon be sent out the kingdom.” How deliciously ‘African’. The piece practically writes itself. It couldn’t be simpler.

Unfortunately, it’s too simple. It feeds into all the stereotypes about feckless African presidents who cling to power too long and lead their countries to ruin. In fact neither Buhari nor Mugabe is a thief (although some of the people around them are), and Buhari’s illness is a real misfortune for his country. Whereas Mugabe’s demise would not come a moment too soon for his unfortunate country.

Robert Mugabe’s life has been a tragedy. He led Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, and in the early days he was sometimes even compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a wise and generous man who relinquished the presidency after only five years in power to let the next generation take over. But although Mugabe was clever, he was never wise.

Zimbabwe flourished in the early years of his rule, with high education and living standards, but he has now been in power for 37 years and his increasingly arbitrary actions have wrecked the economy. Few people have real jobs, hyper-inflation has destroyed the national currency, and about a quarter of the population has emigrated in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Mugabe is now 93 years old, but he talks of living and ruling until he is 100, and is certainly going to run again in next year’s election, which will be rigged as usual. His wife, Grace Mugabe, says he should run “as a corpse” if he dies before the vote (but she might just decide to run herself.)

So the fact that Mugabe is now in hospital in Singapore, for the third time this year, is not causing widespread dismay in Zimbabwe. Opposition leaders complain about him “running the show from his hospital bed,” but they wouldn’t actually mind if he died. They think nothing could be worse than more of Mugabe – although they could be wrong about that. The scramble for power when he finally goes could turn very violent.

If Robert Mugabe is a classic case of a good man gone bad, Muhammadu Buhari may be just the opposite. He first came to public notice as one of Nigeria’s revolving-door military dictators, seizing power in a coup in 1983 and losing it to another coup in 1985. The one thing that distinguished him from all the others was that he actually did fight the rampant corruption that has kept the great majority of Nigeria’s 180 million people poor.

Buhari, who calls himself a “converted democrat”, ran for the presidency unsuccessfully in 2003, 2007 and 2011 before finally winning in the 2015 election. There were high hopes that he would be the one who finally brought corruption under control, and perhaps he could have been – but nothing actually happened. In fact, it took him six months just to select all his cabinet members.

In retrospect, it seems likely that Buhari fell ill not long after he took office, and has been severely distracted by his health problems since mid-2016. He has been in London for medical treatment more than half the time since January, and has not been seen in public at all since early May. Despite his wife’s assurances to the contrary, it is unlikely that he will ever really run the country again.

This is not necessarily a disaster for Nigeria – the graveyards everywhere are full of indispensable men. But it may represent a lost opportunity, for Buhari did really sound like he meant it. Better luck next time.

There, you see. I did get an article out of it after all.
______________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“There were…simpler”)