Why is Africa failing?

We are often asked how Africa, with so many bright and intelligent people, can be so badly governed. This note is a brief essay on thinking carefully about this issue.

Our first port of call is to understand that the damage done by an institution is not directly related to itself but to the context. An institution may do more harm than ever intended, particularly if by accident, the ability to reform escapes the community.

Our first post-war generation of leaders faced a brutal colonial empire. Just as in S E Asia this gave rise to comprador situations. The collapse of colonialism was so sudden and unexpected that it led to a misunderstanding. Empires are global enterprises, and the global enterprise’s failure was not fundamentally a result of local conditions. European colonialism in Africa was a very recent phenomenon, and on Independence Day in Nigeria some local rulers could recall the arrival of the British administrators.

In order to encourage future influence, British administrators cultivated those ‘natives’ who would be more pro-Britain after Independence. A whole generation of comprador middle class had arisen who told themselves, with a little encouragement from their British administrators, that the British were asked to leave and agreed. Domestically in Nigeria, there was a failure to understand the geo-political situation and its implications. The failure of French ultra-colonialism in Algeria, the dangers evidenced by the Land Freedom Army in Kenya, and the hostility of the US to European colonies, put the writing on the wall. Among the local comprador class of the 50’s and 60’s in Africa, the phrase ‘our friends, the British’ was common and popular.

In most modern countries, the formation of the intellectual and academic elite is a matter of national security. It would be unheard of to allow the next generation of academic and intellectual leaders to be fundamentally educated abroad (rather than post-grad horizon broadening etc). In Africa’s case, the cultural dominance of American and British academia led to an idea that these institutions were ‘neutral.’ This idea was utterly naive. It led to a comprador competition of young scholars to show the Oxbridge/ Ivy League elite who could be more comprador than the others and who should therefore win prizes. Nothing is done because for the political class academia has become a certificate-granting ponzi scheme not worthy of respect. Foreign academics and intellectuals say one thing to the press and then behind closed doors recommend to the politicians outrageously immoral options.

An earlier generation of fiercely nationalistic scholars was countered by a next generation posse of utterly comprador scholars. For every Cesaire, Diop , Eric Williams, there were hundreds of comprador scholars covetting academic accolades. Whereas earlier African scholars were challenging Western Academia by 1980’s they were totally captured. Their total pride was their positions at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, UCLA etc. This may not seem strange if one does not recall that an earlier generation had their pride in their work and its impact. Earlier scholars were proud to show that their latest book had changed discussion in this area of research. You could encounter a bio chemist who would explain that Aflatoxin is so named because he discovered it and so had naming rights etc . That he was working at an African university at the time meant nothing to him. He made the discovery. On a visit to MIT a Chinese researcher warned him that attempts were being made to strip him of his rights. Another generation would simply be proud to be at Yale. If you ask what they have done to change their academic field they look blank at you as if you don’t understand: ’I am a professor at Yale, what else do I need to do?’

Whereas British public administrators were steeped in the ancient classics and the arts of power, their proteges were not so taught. It was the hope of the British administrators to teach them enough to be loyal servants of the British power elite and not be its opponents. However, their lack of political training meant they were not just open to manipulation by the British power structure but easily manipulated by bad local leaders, particularly brutal army leaders. These army officers sensed the administrators’ political naivety and, treating them with contempt, rendered the entire administrative structure their plaything. Though this was the consequence it was not the intention of the British administrators.

My father was himself a senior administrator (Permanent Secretary). By the time I arrived at Cambridge University, I had been brought up within a British elite to believe that the administrators of Britain 1900-1950 were largely incompetent as illustrated in the work of Correlli Barnett. It was therefore a piece of theatre to see my father bumping into old English colleagues during a visit to see me at Cambridge and treating them as great leaders of administration and watching the embarrassment in their eyes as they realised I looked on them as every other informed Cambridge undergraduate did.

Because the army, as created by Britain in Nigeria, was an army of occupation it lacked prestige and the children of the elite were steered away from the armed services. Whereas in Russia and China the army was the source of the nation’s survival, in most of Africa the army was viewed as askaris. Even in countries with liberation armies the West adopted a two fold attack. Firstly, the civilian kleptocracy was promoted as against the virtues of the liberation army and then ‘in extremis’, use of the external force was used to dishonour the soldiers of liberation. This happened most spectacularly in Zimbabwe but also in South Africa under the guise of ‘unifying ‘ the armed forces.

In Britain and USA, serving in the armed forces is a badge of honour for the elite. Many members of Congress are ex-Marines, many members of the Houses of Parliament in UK are ex-Sandhurst. This generates a diffusion of understanding of military matters within the civilian leadership. In Nigeria the civilian leadership are almost totally ignorant of military matters. It is not a badge of honour in the civilian sphere to have served in the Nigerian armed forces. Our Nigerian army is under trained , under resourced , under respected. Consquently, the officers of the armed services have low respect for the civilian leadership and join in the game of kleptocracy when the opportunity arises.

Lastly, we consider the business elite. After Independence, a nationalist business class arose that introduced indigenisation to nationalise the business environment which had been reserved for a foreign, mostly British, elite. A vigorous start at manufacturing began. Then arrived the IMF and Structural Adjustment, which completely destroyed the latent manufacturing class. The only business people to survive were rent seekers and comprador business people. To be a successful businessman was to be either an agent for foreign corporations or the recipient of contracts from Government due to political connections. If you tried to be independent your competitor would use political connections to deprive you of foreign exchange, government authorisations and a thousand other means in order to ruin your business through political action.

Politicians were neutered by the army during the period of structural adjustment. When they returned to office they found there was little apparent room to manoeuvre due to IMF rules and the neo-liberal consensus. In the absence of a political role to play in a neo-liberal world where the private sector is made into a ‘golden calf’, the politicians sought their own retirement plans. But their self-respect meant they were unwilling to allow their nakedness to be openly shown and so only selected members were allowed into the room. The political class have sealed the entrance in the belief that the ship is sinking without hope and that anyone entering will only seek to steal for themselves, so they might as well hold on for as long as possible. They are also deeply contemptuous of the academic class. They are astonished that they are in control, in power, despite their appalling academic records ( we have debates about whether a senior politician has in fact graduated from secondary school!) and that they can run rings around their academically smarter siblings.

Thus is created stasis: a web of self-correcting, self-serving institutions that resist change to the death.

At no point do we have a source of change: academics and intellectuals are captured by American academia and value their reputation in US more than benefiting Africa or Nigeria. Politicians are not seeking to challenge the IMF, or the neo-liberal consensus or in the least interested in any global role for Nigeria and their most urgent objective is to close the door to any new entrants that cannot be trusted to play by the rules of the kleptocracy. Business class members have siphoned funds abroad and own property in US and UK. Their only ambition is to have access to rent seeking opportunities. IPO’s are not future seeking embryonic enterprises but rent seeking shareholders secretly selling the nation’s data to Amazon or Google. Our administrators have been gutted and turned into servants of politicians, holding their political leaders in deep contempt and competing to siphon funds. Politicians cannot siphon funds without assistance from administrators, so we have a ‘pas de deux’.

Thus the general myth that the issue for reforming Nigeria is about moral issues and honesty is complete nonsense. There are serious issues that need careful thought. The meme that the problem is about ‘corruption’ is a form of misdirection. Our problems are deep and structural, involving ALL spheres of our society, from academia to politics to business to administration.

31 July 2022