Archive for June, 2012

Good grief, another one!

June 10, 2012

Toby Leon Moorsom teaches at Queen’s University in Canada and is an editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies. Credentials established. Judge for yourself. Here’s the opening paragraph of an essay he wrote, recently, for a leading international news organization… “Over the past year, Africa has seen the decomposition of states from coast to coast. A belt of war, coups and large-scale spontaneous demonstrations has emerged across the Sahel, from Guinea-Bissau to Somalia.” Jeebus, didn’t know that…I thought that Somalia had been without a government since 1991 and that Guinea Bissau has been unstable since Independence in 1974, for very particular reasons…but then, I don’t lecture “Africa” at a Canadian university.

National Heroes Square in Bissau. Picture by me, May 2012.

The learned article flits restlessly from one corner of the continent to another. And from one word to another. Capital, colonialism, “Washington Consensus”, neoliberal economic policies and, of course, the obligatory reference to Frantz Fanon.

Oh yes, and we get the catchphrases. Remember “The Coming Anarchy”? Partly based on the amount of dirt Robert Kaplan saw on the walls in Conakry. It’s what happens when you live in a humid seaside city with a lot of pollution from sh!t cars imported from Europe. We’ve had “the band of war”. Well our friend has this one: “a corridor of insecurity”. You need something to get the Pentagon interested… Our university lecturer claims that poverty has increased as a result of the Washington Consensus. That jars seriously with  Binyavanga Wainaina’s verifiable assertion in the Guardian, early June, that Africa has a growing middle class.But that is probably because once again we’re talking “Africa”, that giant amorphous blob south of Europe, instead of 50-plus individual countries with vastly differing circumstances, peoples, ambitions and conditions.

In Yaoundé, December 2009 (pic by me)

You cannot cover that in a few hundred words – or even a book. And so, our learned Canadian friend flits from Somalia to Sudan to Mali to Senegal to Guinea to Guinea Bissau, offering a sentence here, a phrase there, on the condition of each of these complex societies. Later on, he produces a similar flyover – from Angola to the two Sudans to Chad to Mali to Guinea, all affected by miners apparently. Didn’t know that. In four out of his six examples, the problem is oil… But maybe Toby files that under mining too…

Here are a few choice gems from Moorsome’s flyover essay “Guinea Bissau’s coup has disrupted the marketing of cashews…” I wonder where all those trucks laden with tonnes of cashew were going to when I visited the country last month. Bissau Guineans told me that the cashew export was continuing regardless and this would save the countryside from monetary scarcity. Bissau, the capital, would be in trouble, that much was clear. But the markets in-country…were bustling. And if people don’t trade, they barter.

Next. “In these countries (he talks about West Africa), 3,500 year old rice economies are being destroyed in a period of less than 20 years. Of course, it is not simply the rice that has been impacted, but also the cultures that came into being alongside them – along with the complementary grains that comprised a diverse agroecology suited to local conditions. This is what dispossession means.” (By the way he offsets this assertion about West African rice one paragraph down by claiming that in the same region, West Africa, rice production has “begun to rebound”…)

Somewhere between Zwedru and Harper, Liberia, April 2011 (pic: me)

I guess that we are being told that “liberalization”, “globalization”, “the free market” or whatever else evil Western concept must be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. What he fails to mention is that this is the doing of mainly local actors, i.e. big and astronomically rich traders who have earned or bought political patronage and have ensured import monopolies on rice. We are also dealing with an historical heritage: few governments have done anything to stimulate the rural economy because they figured (correctly, mostly) that rural folk rarely riot whereas starved city populations pose a far higher political risk.

How about this one ? The lecturer pontificates thusly: “There are few places in Africa where mineral industries have had a positive impact. 27 years of warfare in Angola is a case in point. More than a million people lost their lives, while another million were displaced in just the last decade of the war – a war that saw the country divided between factions fueled respectively by oil and diamond wealth.”

Missing from this is of course the Cold War, which was anything but cold here and in other parts of the continent. But then, historical amnesia in reporting on and discussing African affairs is depressingly standard… That aside, this is where the passage about Angola ends. Did we just learn anything? Nope, nothing about Sonangol, the highly successful and ultra opaque state-run oil company that determines who gets which part of offshore oil exploration and has all the major oil companies quaking in their boots. Nothing about China’s post-war partnership with Sonangol and the massive Chinese investments that have recreated Luanda’s already spectacular skyline. Nothing about who is harvesting the diamonds now. Let alone anything about Angola’s aspirations to become an African superpower, an ambition that has already deeply affected Guinea Bissau, Sao Tomé and Côte d’Ivoire.

Alright, one more then from the essay. “Guinea has seen one coup after another, with Burkina’s Blaise Campaore (sic) often involved in some way.” Guinea got its independence ahead of Francophone Africa, in 1958. Since then, there have been the grand total of TWO coups, both bloodless and both after the death of a long-time autocrat. The last one was in 2008 and perhaps Blaise has had something to do with that although you can make easier cases for his involvement in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. The first one was in 1984, when Blaise was too busy getting to grips with the result the coup he had helped organize at home, one year earlier…

Cycling through the new Ouagadougou (pic: Martin Waalboer)

Moorsom starts to make a lick of sense towards the end of the article, when he writes: “The US, under Africom, is not likely to be as concerned with women’s safety as they are their oil and mineral operations, and the draw of fundamentalist Islam.”

Who’d have thunk it? Like everybody else, the US of A thinks of herself first and then the rest? But then, gender and Africom need to be somehow shoehorned into all of this and how do you do that? Easy, find a catch-all phrase that has the required dog-whistle ring to it (bad bad men!!! bad bad USA!!!!) and actually means…nothing. Let’s call it…(drumroll) ”The Militarization Of Poverty.”

Small practical problem. Making use of poor people for military purposes is not a US Army monopoly. Check my series “Young, male and disposable” at Radio Netherlands Worldwide. The militarization of poverty is done locally. Any analysis of why and where things are moving begins at home and then ripples out elsewhere. You get to know the movers and shakers and their local, regional, intercontinental connections. The good and the bad and the ugly.

French warships were seen in Cape Verde during the presidential election in Senegal. This one was parked in Mindelo port for a few days. By all means: ask yourself why…

At the end of Moorsom’s screed, the reader is left both exhausted and exasperated. Nothing sticks and the piece is all over the place.

“Africa”, to use the generic term one more time, is chock-full of issues that require careful and detailed hard analysis, not some grotesque train of though such as this: “In other words, the rich have so much wealth they have exhausted places to store it. If it is not invested its value depreciates. This is what has led to land grabbing and investment in grain futures markets.” The biggest land buyers are Arab and Asian. Are they now part of the great white Western neo-liberal conspiracy to divvy up the world?

There is a great need for serious reporting on and thinking about Africa. There is no need for yet another global conspiracy theory. The problem here is of course that the author has an ideological axe to grind. Africa just serves as his sharpener. And once again, I have to ask: what on god’s green earth is it with people who think Africa is some kind of an empty canvas on which you can paint whatever the hell you like? 

And this, disappointingly, appeared on the Al Jazeera website.  Predictably, the online discussion went downhill from there. Another missed opportunity.