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The Unstoppable Rise of English

16 October 2008

The Unstoppable Rise of English

By Gwynne Dyer

Just over half of Africa’s 52 countries speak French, but the number is dropping. This month Rwanda defected, announcing that henceforward only English will be taught in the schools. It would not be overstating the case to say that this caused alarm and despondency in France.

You couldn’t help feeling, either, that Rwanda’s trade and industry minister, Vincent Karega, was deliberately rubbing salt in the wound when he explained why French was being scrapped. “French is spoken only in France, some parts of west Africa, and parts of Canada and Switzerland,” he said. (In parts of Belgium, too, actually, not to mention Haiti, but you get the point.) “English has emerged as a backbone for growth and development not only in the region but around the globe.”

No country cares more passionately for its language than France, and it has waged a long and expensive campaign to guarantee the survival of a French-speaking zone in central and west Africa. It even provided the bulk of the foreign aid for the former Belgian colonies that spoke French: Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. But the present government of Rwanda has special reasons not to be fond of France.

Getting very close to the regimes in African countries that have French as an official language, even sending troops to protect them from their domestic enemies, has always been part of Paris’s strategy for preserving the status of French as a world language. In Rwanda’s case, that put France in bed with the extremist Hutu-dominated regime that ruled the densely populated country before the genocide, to such an extent that Paris largely paid for the tripling in size of the Rwandan army in 1990-91.

When the Hutu regime began murdering the minority Tutsis in industrial quantities in 1994, France did not abandon it. The French president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, is alleged to have remarked that “in such countries, genocide is not too important…” And a principal reason that France overlooked its Rwandan ally’s ghastly behaviour was that the Tutsi-led opposition in exile mostly spoke English, because its members had found refuge in English-speaking Uganda.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 1994, but the Uganda-based Rwanda Patriotic Front put an end to the genocide by invading the country and overthrowing the regime. Even a direct French military intervention in Rwanda (thinly disguised as a humanitarian operation) could not save the Hutu “genocidiaires,” as they are universally known. So it was not to be expected that the new, mainly English-speaking government in Rwanda would have warm feelings towards France.

Fourteen years later, more than 95 percent of Rwanda’s secondary schools still teach mainly in French, although an alternative English instructional programme or intensive English language courses are usually available. Knowledge of both English and French is required for university entrance (and for most government jobs), but the government’s own statistics say that only 3 percent of the population are fluent in English. Nevertheless, the new decision ends the teaching of French in Rwandan schools.

The government defends it as a purely business decision, driven by Rwanda’s membership in the largely English-speaking East African Community (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), but there is no question that resentment of France also plays a role. This is a country that has already expelled the French ambassador and closed down the French cultural centre, international school and radio station.

But can an African country just switch from one European language to another like that? It can if, like Rwanda, it only uses one language domestically. Almost all Rwandans, whether Hutu or Tutsi, speak Kinyarwanda, so they have no need for a lingua franca to communicate among themselves. Only those going into higher education or working with foreigners need any other language at all — which is why only 8 percent of Rwandans speak fluent French after all this time.

This is far from typical of African countries, most of which have many different ethnic groups, each with its own language. Such countries use the language of the former colonial power as a neutral “national” language, and have such a large investment in teaching it by now that switching is out of the question. The Congo will always use French; Nigeria will always use English; Mozambique will always use Portuguese.

So francophones can relax: their language is not about to be vanish from the African continent. On the other hand, French will always lose out to English in situations like Rwanda, where there is a single national language and the main reason for learning a foreign language is communication with the rest of the world. Vietnam, an ex-French colony, has long taught English as the main foreign language in its schools, and Madagascar, also formerly ruled by France, made English a national language last year.

English-speakers often assume that this world role for their language owes something to its huge vocabulary and wonderful literature, or at least to the fact that Hollywood speaks English. Nothing of the sort. The sole reason is that the world’s dominant power for the past two centuries has been English-speaking: Britain in the 19th century, and the United States in the 20th. Timing is everything, and English just happened to be the leading candidate when globalisation created the need for an agreed global second language.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“No country…France”; and “The government…station”)

The Population Boom

12 March 2007

The Population Boom

By Gwynne Dyer

You look at the numbers and you think: “That’s impossible.” Uganda had about seven million people at independence in 1962, and in only 45 years it has grown to 30 million. By 2050, just over four more decades, there will be 130 million Ugandans, and it will be the twelfth biggest country in the world, with more people than Russia or Japan. Its population will have increased eighteen-fold in less than ninety years.

Many people think that population growth is no longer a problem, and everybody somehow knows that it is politically incorrect to talk about it. Back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich terrified everybody with his book “The Population Bomb,” it was seen as the gravest long-term threat facing the human race, but now it scarcely gets a mention even in discussions on climate change — as if the number of people producing and consuming on this planet had no relevance to how great the pressure on the environment is.

True, the population explosion has gone away in large parts of the world, in the sense that most developed countries now have birth-rates well below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), and that the global average, including the developing countries of Asia and South America, is now down to 2.3 children. That’s pretty impressive, given that it was 5.4 children per woman as recently as 1970. But there remains the problem of what you might call “inertial growth.”

My own mother had five children, which was not seen as at all unusual at the time. (There was one year when Newfoundland, my birthplace, beat Guatemala for the honour of having the highest birth-rate in the Americas.) The next generation of our family, by contrast, dropped to 2.0: we five brothers and sisters and our five spouses have had a total of just ten children. But that doesn’t mean that our population boom stopped.

If we had just spawned and died, it would have, but we insisted in living on after our children were born. In fact, we’re all still here, although the first grandchildren are already starting to appear — so where there were once ten of us, there are now twenty-three. It takes two full generations at replacement level before the population finally stabilises.

That accounts for about half of the anticipated population growth in the next forty years, which will raise the total number of people on the planet from 6.5 billion to about nine billion. (In other words, we will be adding as many extra people as the total population of the world back in 1950.) But the other half of the growth comes mainly from Africa, already the poorest continent.

This may explain why it became politically incorrect to talk about population growth around 25 years ago. Nine out of the ten countries in the world with the highest birth-rates are African (the other is Afghanistan), and it seemed uncomfortably like pointing the finger at the victim. But runaway population growth is a big factor in making so many Africans victims, and it doesn’t help to stay silent about it.

Sometimes the steadily worsening ratio of people to resources just causes deepening poverty, as in the case of Nigeria, whose population by 2050 will reach 300 million. That is the same as the current population of the United States, but Nigeria, apart from being virtually without industry, does not have one-tenth of the natural resources of the US. If those 300 million people live at all, they will live very badly.

Often, however, the growing pressure of people on the land leads indirectly to catastrophic wars: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Somalia, Congo, Angola and Burundi have all been devastated by chronic, many-sided civil wars, and all seven appear in the top ten birth-rate list. Rwanda, Ethiopia and Mozambique, which have suffered similar ordeals, are just out of the top ten. Africa, which accounted for only eight percent of the world’s population when most of its countries got their independence in the 1960s, will contain almost a quarter of the world’s (much larger) population in 2050.

This will have remarkably little impact on the global problem of climate change, since most Africans will still be very poor and have a very small environmental “footprint.” They will be very poor mainly because their populations are growing three times faster than the average in the rest of the world, and you cannot say that this is nobody’s fault. It is a failure of government.

The reason birth-rates dropped in the rest of the world was that cheap, effective means of contraception became freely available and that child death-rates plummeted. Once women realised that they didn’t have to have many children in order that at least some would survive to adulthood, they took advantage of the contraception and brought the birth-rate down with little urging from above. A few well-run African countries, like South Africa, have succeeded in stabilising their populations in this way. The great majority have not.

Uganda’s birth-rate is seven children per woman, little changed from thirty years ago. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, believes that his country is under-populated, and told parliament last July: “I am not one of those worried about the population explosion. It is a great resource.” He has done many good things for his country, but this one blind spot could undo them all. And he is far from alone.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“This will…havenot”)

Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

10 February 2006

Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I became a good man after I’d been a bad man for twenty years,” Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC last year, recalling the days when most people saw him as a dangerous rebel. “When I was a guerilla fighting the regimes, I was always being called…all sorts of names, until my usefulness showed up much later. Therefore if I’m being reviled now, this is one of the phases of being misunderstood because the people have not seen what you’re trying to do.”

Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should stay in power for more than ten years, is now in his twentieth year as president, and he changed the constitution last year so that he could run for election yet again. He faces a serious challenge from Dr. Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician, but most people assume that he will win another five year term on 23 February. They also assume that if necessary he will cheat to win.

There is a strong sense of disappointment with Museveni. He took power at the head of a rebel army in 1986, ending twenty years of nightmare rule by two dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin, who had wrecked Uganda’s once-thriving economy and murdered hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. Most foreigners had seen him as just another killer on the make during the years when he waged a guerilla struggle in southwestern Uganda, but once in power he convinced them that he was much more than that.

For ten years he ruled as an autocrat while he restored order to the country, but then he held free elections in 1996 and won the presidency with 74 percent of the votes. Uganda remained dependent on foreign aid for about half of its budget, but Museveni became the aid donors’ favourite recipient.

He won their respect by running a relatively honest and competent government. He invited the Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin to return to Uganda and reclaim their property (though few chose to do so). He waged the campaign against HIV/Aids with an openness that few other African leaders have been able to match, and actually managed to bring the rate of infection down in Uganda.

Bill Clinton held him up as the leading example of a new breed of African leaders, and Britain started giving its foreign aid directly to his government to spend as he wished, abandoning the usual process of choosing specific projects to support and closely supervising how the money was spent. It seemed that Museveni could do no wrong — and then he began to do wrong.

It started with the genocide in Uganda’s southern neighbour, Rwanda. Museveni had given shelter and arms to the Rwanda Liberation Front whose invasion finally ended the killing. The defeated Hutu militia that led the massacres retreated into the eastern Congo, and when it began guerilla attacks from there in 1998 both Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Congo to suppress it. But they stayed to loot the Congo’s mineral riches.

The result for the Congo was an all-against-all civil war that killed several million people. For Uganda it was a huge inflow of illicit funds from stolen Congolese mineral resources, and a huge rise in the wealth and power of the military. Museveni’s Presidential Guard Brigade grew to over ten thousand soldiers, and many of the senior soldiers who had been with him from the earliest days acquired major financial interests whose protection required that Museveni stayed in power.

As late as the 2001 election, Museveni was promising to retire after the five-year term now coming to an end. But Kizza Besigye, who ran against him in that election on an anti-corruption platform, subsequently contested the results on the grounds that Museveni had won by violence and intimidation. He then fled the country after receiving death threats from the military: “I left in order to continue to be politically active rather than being behind bars or six feet under as had been threatened.”

Kizza Besigye returned from South African exile in November to contest this month’s election, and was almost immediately arrested and charged with treason, rape, terrorism and illegal possession of firearms. (There was no room on the charge sheet for the double-parking offences.) He spent December in jail, but the high court freed him on bail in early January despite Museveni’s best efforts, and he is campaigning vigorously for the presidency.

Opinion polling is in its infancy in Uganda, but it seems clear that Besigye leads among the educated, urban section of the population, while Museveni still commands a stronger following among the poor and the uneducated. There are more of the latter, so maybe he can still win honestly. Either way, he is expected to win, and much of the good he has done will probably be undone before he finally goes. Already half a dozen of Uganda’s leading foreign aid donors have suspended direct aid to his government.

What went wrong, above all, was the war in the Congo. Museveni’s senior soldiers, many of them his old companions from the guerilla war days, have grown too rich and powerful, and in a sense he has become their prisoner. It is a sad ending to his story.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“For ten…recipient”; and “As late…threatened”)

Africa: Debt, Aid and Race

16 June 2005

Africa: Debt, Aid and Race

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are very sorry and apologise to viewers and other people who felt offended,” announced the Japanese cosmetics firm Mandom early this month, but mass ritual suicide would have been a more appropriate form of apology. The company had aired a TV commercial that showed several black people wiping the sweat from their brows with a Mandom facial wipe while a chimpanzee wearing an afro wig imitated them.

Meanwhile, Augsburg city zoo in southern Germany has just finished a special event in which an “African village” was erected between the baboon cage and the zebra cage. Black people living in Germany were persuaded to populate the village wearing various sorts of “tribal” regalia and playing drums, cooking food for sale or selling curios. The good citizens of Augsburg were astonished when people from elsewhere took exception to this display.

Germans and Japanese are less sensitive about race in general and about Africa in particular than, say, people in France or the United States, where a significant minority of the population is of African descent, but patronising attitudes about Africa are chronic in all the rich countries. Take, for instance, the current debate about increasing aid to African countries and cancelling their debts.

The leaders of the eight biggest developed countries will probably make a deal at next month’s G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, that doubles aid to Africa and slashes the debts of its poorest countries. Prime Minister Tony Blair, this year’s host, is determined to make Africa a priority, and Bob Geldof is seeking to repeat his success with the Live-Aid concerts twenty years ago by staging Live8 concerts. But what good will they actually do for Africa?

This is where the debate begins, and most people on both sides seem to see Africans as wayward children. Africans are just as intelligent and resourceful as other people, and if their countries are still poor it is because they face special and very intractable problems, but the argument in the rich countries takes almost no account of this.

The pessimists point out that vast amounts of aid money have been poured into Africa over the years — around $5,000 per African — without relieving the continent’s poverty. The problem, they say, is the near-universal corruption of Africa’s ruling elites: there are 100,000 millionaires in Africa, and yet an African child dies of malnutrition or preventable disease every three seconds. Cancel the debts and pour more aid in, and the same elites will steal that, too.

No, say optimists like Blair, things have changed now. A new generation of African leaders is bringing democracy and good governance to the continent, and so long as we put strict conditions on how the new aid and debt relief will be used, this time round most of it won’t be wasted.

It is a debate in which both sides essentially believe that Africans are childlike. One side assumes it openly: don’t give them any more aid until they behave better. The other side is subtler: yes, they are backward, but now they have better leaders who won’t steal the money. We give monkeys in the zoo more respect than that.

Africa’s problem isn’t dishonesty or immaturity, which are fairly evenly spread around the planet. It is too many relatively small ethnic groups trying to share the same country. Social traditions that expect successful people to support even distant relations often make the situation worse, but no other continent has such extravagant ethnic diversity, so it’s really up to Africans themselves to overcome the problem. The G8 can help, but only in limited ways.

Much of Africa’s debt burden was not really aid in the first place, but money that the West (and the old Soviet Union) handed over to keep their African clients loyal during the Cold War, knowing full well that it would be stolen. A lot more was “tied” aid that funded foolish mega-projects in order to create work for Western companies. So cancel the debt with no nonsense about the beneficiaries proving that they can behave “responsibly.” And if you do give aid, give it without crippling “conditionalities.”

This is where Africans really get treated like backward children, forced to privatise everything in sight in obedience to the fundamentalist market doctrines that now hold sway in most of the West (which, by the sheerest coincidence, creates new investment opportunities for Western companies). Consider Uganda’s experience, for example.

Uganda, a reasonably well-run country, was forced to impose “user fees” on basic healthcare and primary education in the late 1980s to qualify for World Bank debt relief and aid — so school attendance collapsed and the death rate among the rural poor soared. Eventually, in 1997, President Yoweri Museveni rebelled and restored free primary education throughout Uganda. Primary school enrolment more than doubled. In 2001 he restored free basic healthcare, and the number of hospital outpatients almost doubled.

There will be an orgy of self-congratulation at the G8 next month as African debt is allegedly cut and aid is allegedly raised, and many well-meaning people who have pressured their leaders on this issue will feel that something has been accomplished. It can be, but only if they insist on knowing what strings are attached to the help. Africa is not poor because Africans are more stupid or less honest than people elsewhere.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The pessimists…wasted”)