Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Genius of Okonjo-Iweala's Economics


By Chuks Isiugo

What is the purpose of governance in Nigeria? That is one question, simple as it seems, that is key to diagnosing Nigeria's worsening ailments. Perhaps it's not being addressed because everyone knows what the answer is: plunder! By some suppressive mechanism, this truth is never allowed to rise to the surface of our national consciousness. And we've had successions of governments going around peddling the bare-faced lie that government is about development.

 Yes, indeed, governance once was about development. When the first human communities were built it wasn't difficult for them to see that individuals needed to cede some of their personal interests, freedoms, to a collective, a sovereign that became the common interest, that worked for the interest of all, with equity and fairness, to avoid a life that was brutish and short. They could see that then, it's now that they don't. 

Well, of course, megalomaniacs always tried to seize that collective power for their personal aggrandizement. History is replete with the many revolutions fought to tame such huge egos and humble them. But when they assumed the nationalist garb, they became justifications for imperialist plunder and fascist atrocities. 

 Thus was Nigeria born: a contraption designed to plunder and rape more than 250 ethnic and language groups, making up a fifth of the population of Africa. At least its creators had a purpose and brought their efficiency to bear. Roads and rails were built to wherever they needed to evacuate resources. Schools were built where they needed to train manpower. Courts were established where they needed to impose order right after the gunboats had passed through. They had a purpose. 

But when they handed over the contraption they had built to the newly trained Nigerian operators, there was a problem. The contraption needed to be re-purposed so that it was no longer a tool for plunder but one for development. That never happened for the leaders could find no better use for the machinery they inherited and couldn't turn swords into ploughshares. 

So, to ask the question again: what is the purpose of governance in Nigeria? Answer: plunder! That explains why a census is not a headcount in aid of management planning but the deliberate inflation of numbers in order to lay claim to a bigger share of the commonweal; that is why people agitate for more states and local governments, not as cohesive units of administration and social organization but as sharing centers for the national cake; that is why David Mark as Minister of Communication confidently declared that the telephone is not for the poor man at the same time the technology to democratize it was far advanced; that is why politics is a do or die affair because you get a chance to be a sharer, dishing out pieces of the national cake however caught one's fancy; that is why more money is spent on defense and national security than education and health, because those who have made it to the round table at the very top need to be protected - and we don't need surplus humanity, so why give them health and education?

 Things have gone so bad with perhaps the most self-destructive political elite in the world that the more revenue that accrues to the government, the worse things have become for their people. Since 1999 Nigeria has earned more money from crude oil exports than all previous years put together, with states such as Delta and Akwa Ibom earning more than accrued to the national coffers at the time General Yakubu Gowon declared that he didn't know what to do with money in 1975. Yet there was no visible impact on basic services and public works.

 It's all too clear now what James Ibori did with Delta's money and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha with Bayelsa's: they stole them. More than 300 billion naira was budgeted to build a major highway linking important economic regions, it remained a death trap for the duration of a regime that made the award - even a successor minister wept over it - and yet no work was done. The man who presided over this got even bigger roles in successive governments. Even the very road to the seaport in Lagos through which they import their luxury goods decayed without eliciting any urgency in them to mend it.

 By the time of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's second coming as finance minister, now serving Goodluck Jonathan, 75-77 percent of the national budget was going to recurrent expenditure, - to pay salaries, allowances, run the office - with the rest invested on capital projects, such as new roads, railways, schools, hospitals. That is, 7.7 naira out of every 10 naira the government spent went to cater for public servants that are not up to two million people, less than 2 percent of Nigeria's 170 million people. Then 2.3 out of every 10 naira went for the rest of the say 168 million people. Can you beat such insanity! In recent years government officials took caprice even further by refusing to dispense capital budgets and sharing the money among themselves at the end of the financial year rather than return it to the treasury. It's been established that our lawmakers are the best paid in the world, our president's kitchen among the best stocked and his aircraft fleet of the most wide ranging brands.

 Okonjo-Iweala was quick to seize on the disparity between capital and recurrent spending, how it was outrageous and needed to be reversed if we should aspire to development, when she took office. She was amply supported by the Central Bank Governor Lamido Lanusi, who questioned why we needed so many states, so many lawmakers, so many ministers (for plunder of course). It was as if he had forgotten the purpose of the Nigerian state; he promptly got chided by the lawmakers, who also initiated a law to whittle down the powers of the central bank governor. (For an example of why the size of the capital budget matters, Lagos state under Babatunde Fashola has consistently spent an average of 65 percent of its budget on capital projects and the impact is clear for allto see; translate the scale to Nigeria and you'll get the big picture).

Negotiations with stakeholders in the three arms of government for a medium-term economic plan initiated under Okonjo-Iweala could only secure a concession to reduce recurrent from 75 percent to 68 percent over three years from 2012 to 2015. Anything more would have rocked the machinery of plunder badly, putting its passengers at great risk. It was best to proceed delicately. At that point it seemed to me that Okonjo-Iweala had failed in her bid to transform a reprobate.

What has since emerged instead is indeed evidence of her genius. Loans, loans, loans of various kinds have been arranged from mostly the Chinese and other multilateral lenders to finance infrastructure projects without tampering with the recurrent funds available to public officials. In fact they may even get more. Chinese funds will now build us four brand new airport terminals, build us new railway lines and power stations, help us develop our economy without the rigour of financial discipline. Hopefully we will emerge from it a diversified, flourishing modern economy, one of the top 20 globally by 2020. A win-win situation, as they say. A looter continua! And there lies the genius of Okonjo-Iweala!












Friday, March 29, 2013

The Significance of Achebe as an African Writer

(A tribute to Chinua Achebe who passed on at the age of 82 last week.)

By Chuks Isiugo

In the early 1980s along thecorridors of the English Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka on one certain day, an argument ensued between Esiaba Irobi and Maxwell Ihedioha on whether Achebe had won the Nobel Prize or not. I can't quite recollect who was canvassing what position, but I remember clearly how it ended.
     "Let's ask him!" I quipped to the two combatants as we watched Achebe step out of his office about to go out."Let's ask him!" they chorused.
     So we all strayed a bit uncertainly towards him.
     "Good morning, Prof" It was Esiaba who spoke up on our behalf."
    "Good morning. How are you?" He turned to us with his soft voice and the faint smile of a writer imagining a funny scene that he seemed to wear always.
      "We've been having an argument that you have won the Nobel Prize. Then we thought we should ask you as we saw you coming out of your office."
     Achebe's smile widened and became ironical as he detected humor. "Not yet. I haven't won that. But thank you for wishing it for me," he said as we went off in laughter, the matter finally resolved.
     Achebe’s one great trait was his simplicity, showing that a writer can be a normal human being. He can raise a family and stick with his wife without being moralistic about it and still abound with a liberal dose of naughty humor. A writer doesn't have to be full of himself and unapproachable. At the same time a writer can drive a nice car if he wants to (he drove a Mercury Monarch in those days) as he was to tell Esiaba in a subsequent interview. In short, that a writer is a man, a member of his community.
     I was to see this significance in his conduct and interventions during those years we as students were able to mingle in his company, whether in the classroom, at social events or at home. I remember one occasion he held a lecture at the Margaret Ekpo Refectory in those days. His had been preceded by visit by Wole Soyinka, the eventual winner of the Nobel Literature Prize a few years later. We had all thronged to Soyinka’s lecture and were not disappointed. There was Soyinka standing at the lectern, filling the hall with his presence: his uniquely cut, dark jumper top, his hirsute Afro then devoid of grey, his booming voice and very impressive diction. He did fit the bill and we were all excited to see him, even though we couldn't make much sense of what he said, we were all satisfied with the performance.
     Then came the Achebe lecture and we expected something similar. But we were disappointed. His was rather a self-effacing presence. He wore a printed Ankara top over grey trousers, his voice rather high pitched (with none of the boom of Soyinka’s), his gestures rather reserved. All his efforts were geared toward focusing us on the subject of his discussion. We were disappointed as it wasn't as colourful a show as Soyinka’s. It took me years of added maturity to appreciate how important it was that Achebe remained himself and didn't try to be anyone else. I also began to reflect on how lucky my generation was to be mentored by the likes of Achebe, Soyinka and J.P. Clark, all strong, unique examples of what it meant to be an artiste.
     In April 1990, I was in the swirl of activities to mark Achebe’s  60 years and had managed to door-step him for an interview. Days later I had gone to his Nsukka home near the campus stadium in the company of the painter Greg Odo, who was well-known to the family.  It was four days before the road accident that was to cripple him for the rest of his days, I remember very clearly. And after we sat down and made introductions, Achebe asked me if I found the interview he gave me useful. I was surprised he still remembered me. I said I did, though I was still struggling to get any publisher interested in the story I had written.
     While most of the conversation went on between his wife, Christie, Greg and I, Achebe sat quietly listening. His only intervention was to ask Greg, who had been describing the plot of a novel he planned to write, to get on with it and talk less about it.
     "If you keep talking about it, you may feel you have done enough and end up not writing it," Achebe said.
     The writer should always be aware that he is engaged in a solemn, serious business, was a message Achebe always harped.As he said in an interview, his advice to aspiring writers is that they should know it’s a very difficult business:
     “They have to know that before hand. Because if they're going into it, they should know that what it takes is not just the fanciful notions, you know, especially how writers look, what they wear or something. They should really have the energy plus the stuff. You know the story of a young  man who became mad? He just became mad, and he was just stamping up and down the market. And the older mad man who was just watching him after a time called him and said: ‘This thing you entering, do you think you can do it?’ He told him this thing is for life and you're already wasting so much energy on the first day.”

Obituary: Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, the motor-park economist, 1942-2003

By Chuks Isiugo





     Long before I met Ashikiwe Adione-Egom in 1987,  his name had preceded him. I  first encountered him through the numerous articles he wrote in The Guardian newspaper of Lagos in the mid-1980s challenging the military-backed, IMF- and World Bank inspired economic orthodoxies of the time, which later became encapsulated as the Structural Adjustment Pogramme (SAP). What they essentially said was that the market was supreme, and the ultimate regulator. So everything - health, education, infrastructure, the entire development process - had to be left to the market to determine. And whatever the market decided was God's will. Q.E.D.
     It was a convenient argument for someone with a fat wallet. Even more so when he was armed and had filled his pocket from the public coffers, as was the case with the soldiers then seized power under the leadership of Ibrahim Babangida. The argument was never won with logic but with the power of the gun and the weight of the Western powers who wanted SAP to impoverish Africa and continue the 500-year-long rape of the continent. Adione-Egom was one of those (along with Adebayo Adedeji of the UN Economic Commision for Africa) that railed against the callous argument. Thus he styled himself the motor park economist, who thought about the full ramifications of the harsh measures on the disadvantaged, even the touts in the motor parks.
     And when eventually I met him, the circumstances were somewhat dramatic and less than edifying. I had gone to The Guardian with an old friend to visit a common friend who was working then in the now defunct African Guardian magazine. At the reception we had  found no one, and while we waited a staff member came along. While we were asking from him the whereabouts of the object of our visit, along came another man dressed in khaki shorts pulled up to his belly, into which his shirt was tucked in. He wore socks that stopped just before his knees and a pair of shoes. The only thing missing was a helmet to complete to look of an old British colonial officer.
     It was Ashikiwe Adione-Egom. He glared at us while we made our inquiry and interrupted.
     "You guys should stop disturbing him, you didn't keep any receptionist here," he said.
     "But I'm not talking to you!" I shot back at him.
     "Then go! Then go!" He said, flailing his arms as he walked away, not waiting for my next response.
     My friend and I looked at each other and the man we had been talking to and we all burst into laughter.
      "Don't mind Ashikiwe," the fellow we had been talking to said to us. "He's a trouble maker."
     That was my first encounter with his eccentricity. Years later, when he had become familiar with my writing and sought me out, we became great friends. I never reminded him of that first encounter. It was not necessary and had been overtaken by events. I was always amazed by how much I learned from every conversation I had with him, no matter how short.
     Adione-Egom's main preoccupation was how the global financial system was rigged ab initio by being founded on the gold standard, a derivative of the global trading system created from the proceeds of the Atlantic slave trade. His argument was always that Africa and the global south would never find economic freedom unless they freed themselves from this system and founded an alternative financial system.
He spoke with a deep knowledge, having studied economics at Cambridge University and the best institutions of the the West and excelled. But he was like a prophet not reckoned with in his own country. He had the misfortune of being in Nigeria at a time of the most brutish anti-intellectualism, during the reign of military rulers from Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida and Sani Abacha, who decided that those with the requisite knowledge to move Nigeria (and Africa) forward were not needed since they were bent on putting the country in reverse gear (apologies to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti).
     So any intellectual who was worth the name had to brain-drain to other countries (often in the West), where their knowledge was appreciated and eagerly deployed. The rest put their knowledge to the service of the military in exchange for filthy lucre. Those who did neither became sidelined. And that became the lot of Adione-Egom. It was a difficult fate, devoid of material rewards. But Adione-Egom bore that fate with dignity and never for once stopped telling truth to power.
     In the last decade or so, his writing took a decidedly Christian, religious tone. His preferred name became Peter Alexander Egom. But the substance remained the same. It became a variant of the liberation theology pushed by Catholic priests in Latin America in the 1970s. Unlike the prosperity preaching of the Nigerian pentecostals that provides succour to the hearts of thieves and looters of public property in government since the 1980s, which justifies wealth and luxury irrespective of the manner of acquisition, Adione-Egom's economic theology was bottom-up. He argued against the economic philosophy of might-is-right and insisted that God's plan is that none of his children shall sit in the sidewalk and beg bread (to borrow from Bob Marley). It is a simple truth, so simple to be derided by those in power, but equally an enduring truth that would survive their reign, even though Adione-Egom is no more.
   













Sunday, November 6, 2011

Abuja: The Quintessential Apartheid City

Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, is the quintessential apartheid city! It is the biggest achievement of the country's ruling elite and the biggest illustration of its folly. Eager to recreate the look of their favorite cities in Europe and America, they decided to build something of their own to mimic their masters. So they built Abuja, the apartheid city, from where the poor will be banished and the thieving oppressor won't be tormented by the sight of of the effect he wrought  - the hordes of the hungry thronging after their sleek cars, or shanties standing next to their mansions and detracting from their concrete beauty. That was the mistake of Lagos that won't be repeated in Abuja.

A view of Maitama, a favorite perch of Abuja's rich
So in Abuja, workers pour in every morning from the various satellite towns that ring the city, do their bit and troop out at dusk.  As they leave every evening, the wide, tree-lined streets of the central district look even more empty, lined by huge, silent buildings. It is estimated by an official, who seems to know, that more than 60 percent of the buildings in the city are vacant. The workers who take leave of the beautiful city at the end of everyday, make their way towards Mararaba, Nyanya, Keffi, Kubwa, Zuba, Suleja, Mpape, in crowded, rickety buses, taxis, motorbikes, covered in a cloud of exhaust fumes, all potential candidates for the daily carnage of accidents on the city roads.

Where the minority government in apartheid South Africa took the trouble to build relatively decent houses in the satellite towns, with covered drains, regular power supply and reliable transportation (often trains) to the cities where they worked, the Nigerian rulers have gone a step further. They've saved the money that should've gone into all that and put it into the cost of governance. That's money spent maintaining officials, their advisers, special assistants, assistants to special assistants, assistants to advisers, their secretaries, office assistants, and providing all these officials with officials cars, official housing, foreign travel  and other privileges of office. The result is that currently, 75 percent of the national budget (more than 80 percent of which comes from crude oil exports) is spent on maintaining the government and bureaucracy.
This has been the steady trend of these past several years of civilian-guided plunder of national resources.

Even where money is voted for capital projects, such as roads, or even investments in health, education and other basic social services, the bureaucracy has in recent years found a way to subvert them. Such projects are simply not implemented, and monies voted for them are simply shared among officials in the concerned ministries, agencies or departments. Or where it can't be shared, the money is returned to the treasury, or rather a show is made of returning the funds to the treasury, from where it is put back in the pipeline for the next budget process, until it's flow is diverted to irrigate private pockets, estates and libidos. Awash with cash, government officials have created Abuja's artificial economy, where prices have no bearing to the legitimate income of the participants in that market, but is propelled by its abundance in the pocket of government officials (their wives or concubines) who have lost their heads at the sheer amount of money within their reach.
Mpape, a satellite of Maitama.

So while Abuja's streets are among the cleanest, widest and most beautiful in the world,  while its hotels and nightclubs are brimming with revelers and prostitutes, there's no decent road connecting the city to any other part of Nigeria. Any visitor to Abuja will no doubt be impressed by the eight-lane highway running from the airport into the city. But it will take only a few kilometers drive beyond the airport on the way out, to realize that the main road linking the administrative capital to the country's entire south, including the economic capital of Lagos, is a snaky  two-lane highway, dotted  liberally with craters and potholes, bumps of warped tarmac and sandy portions where the tar was washed away by rain. Indeed there's no road built to link Nigeria's economic capital with its political capital. But why should the ruling elite care, when the very road that evacuates their massive imports of luxury goods from the ports of Lagos have failed completely in the past decade and have been abandoned in perverse neglect?

Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that every generation must, out of relative obscurity, realize its mission, fulfill it or betray it. The Nigerian ruling elite, out of relative clarity, chose obscurantism, enthroned greed as a guiding principle and betrayed its mission to advance the liberation of the African continent from a 500-year-old grip of invaders and plunderers.  While the Afrikaners in South Africa, having seized political power and the commanding heights of the economy felt a dire need to justify it ,and invented apartheid, the ruling elite in Nigeria doesn't feel obliged to to think, except when applying cunning to thievery. They just show power,  and are keen to make it brutal to make the point.

In Nigeria, the ruling elite, bereft of any ideas, has been content to play the role of warrant chiefs, doing the bidding of their masters in London and Washington, hoping it would be enough to give them free rein to ride roughshod over their people. While Nigeria was under colonial rule, the British built  a railway and road network designed to aid the colonial enterprise. Two rail lines, one running from the northeast to the southeast, and another running from the northwest to the southeast, ensured that all goods meant for export got to their intended destination. Similarly, goods imported by the colonists used these  same transport arteries to reach their intended markets. However, under self-rule, little or no improvements have been made more than 50 years on.

What's more, a succession of military rulers starting from the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida in 1985, sabotaged the country's skeletal rail system in order to create road haulage contracts for friends and cronies. Sheer creativity, that is! Within a few years, all the goods and passengers that previously relied on the railways, now had to be transported by the roads. Trunk roads built around the country in the first oil boom years of the 1970s, rapidly failed, as everything including fuel, goods arriving the ports, farm produce moving from the countryside into the cities, now had to be hauled by road. At the same time the regimes in  power didn't care about investing in either maintaining the very roads now carrying the burden of the country's transportation or about building news ones.

The same fate befell the countries refineries. Four refineries with a capacity to process 445,000 barrels of crude oil daily had been completed during the first rush of oil money in the '70s and '80s. For many years they provided enough fuel for domestic use until the mid-80s under Babangida, when balance of payment difficulties (essentially importing more than you had foreign currency to pay for) resulted in the enforced devaluation of the naira under World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic prescriptions, essentially designed to retard Africa's development and reduce value of its people's labor value. Of course, being the top warrant chief of the time, Babangida heartily fed the nation the ugly, ineffective medicine. Then began the logic of petroleum subsidy, whereby fuel prices were raised periodically either to bring them in line with international prices or to discourage smuggling to neighboring countries where the prices were higher. By the time Sani Abacha took over  the plundering contraption called government in Nigeria, in the late '90s, all refineries in the country had stopped working, interminable amounts were being spent fixing the refineries without success, while fuel was being imported from refineries owned by top officials of the same government, including Abacha himself and his national security adviser, Ismaila Gwarzo, from neighboring West African countries including Sierra Leone.

What was true for the railways, roads and refineries, was also true for power supply. The country's last power stations were built in the early '80s. No new additions were made and the people lost hope when they saw that the government itself now depended on generators to run. Then everybody went for generators, thanks to Chinese manufacturers who built cheaper alternatives that became available to a wider number of people. Now the country is not only the greatest importer of power generators worldwide, but also own the highest number per capita, spurning its riches of natural gas, coal, biomass, wind and solar powering the rest of the world.

Unfazed by its monumental failings, the ruling elite, like an unrepentant prodigal, is ever seeking new ways to create the money to feed its rapacious greed, usually with the advice of their masters in London and Washington. The latest top warrant chief, Goodluck Jonathan, is now touting the failures of several administrations, including his own, as a basis to increase fuel prices. Having spent hundreds of billions every year to pay the difference between the international price of crude oil and the local cost of fuel, the government now wants to stop the payment in order to use the difference to build the country's infrastructure, officials say.

No mention is made of any plan to cut the bloated bureaucracy and government, with legislators that earn the highest pay among their peers in the world. There is no talk of rebuilding the refineries to ensure domestic processing of fuel and tackling the cartel the government admitted was controlling fuel importation and taking most of the fees paid as subsidy. There is no plan to rebuild the railways, to shift the burden of transportation from the roads and guarantee cheaper movement of goods and people, before thinking of increasing fuel prices. Even the government's plan to revive the power sector is now dependent on foreign investors, as if foreign investors built the functioning power infrastructure of the rest of the world. Roads and railways are now to be built through public-private partnerships, which means that the contract will be sold to companies in which they have interests. The only thing they won't seed the private sector and foreign investors are the armed forces and the police. They need armed protection to maintain their plunder. That's the game plan of the apartheid regime in Abuja.




Thursday, November 12, 2009

The jealous God is an imperialist

One of the concepts that have come in handy for the imperial subjugators of African and black people is the concept of a jealous God. It has been applied to devastating effect on Africans by Arab and European predators that for long coveted Africa and its riches, using Islam and Christianity. Incidentally both are Abrahamic religions, which along with its third leg, Judaism have been deployed for violent purposes over time. Their pretention has often been that their aim was to enthrone monotheism, but in reality nothing was further from the truth. The true aim was to conquer and and enslave African people and take the riches found in their land.



The African people they claimed they were teaching about one God, had always known about the Creator. I am yet to find an indigenous African language that doesn't have a word for the Supreme Being, and proceeding on simple logic, it's not possible to name what you don't know. The name you give reflects the way you apprehend what you name, and while the African may pay obeisance to some natural objects or animals or other natural phenomena, he was aware that the Supreme Being manifested in everything in creation and appreciated the Creator in like manner. Indeed, Africa, as the home of mankind and civilization had given the concept of one God to humanity. From Ancient Egypt, Greeece learned and handed over to Rome,; and till date we remain captive to the Greco-Roman epoch..



Yet, the descendants of Rome and Mecca come running to Africa to teach the original source of the knowledge - one of the great ironies of life! But indeed the true aim was to conquer and dominate the African, dominate his mind and dominate his resourcesand keep him in perpetual servitude. Therefore, the Chrisitians say, the African must have no other God except the Christian God, as if there was any other God but God. In turn the Muslim insists that Allah is the only way, when he means cultural imperialism, a sharia that denudes the individual of all that makes him original and turns his gaze perpetually to the east.

And Africa is thorn, warped, twisted and befuddled by this so-called war between two civilizations, which is actually a war over who should control the booty that they saw Africa to be. A war with origins going back to some 500 years ago when Europe found a sea route down to West Africa and undermined the erstwhile middleman position which the Arabs occupied for centuries as traders of the treasures of Africa to Europe and the Far East. Most recently China has joined the scramble, but as with the longer-standing predators, the aim is also the same: to take what Africa has, and inevitably in the process, find a way to denigrate Africans as people who lack humanity and for that reason don't deserve the riches of the continent.

So what should be the best response from Africans in the face of the hypocritical but nonetheless grievious onslaught by the socalled Arab and European civilizations on their African forbear? Stand firm, don't doubt yourself because the life of God is already in you through creation. The fact of being alive justifies all existence and one owes the Creator a duty to live life fully. Don't be lazy, don't flee from work and most of all seek knowledge of that which is true. That will lead you to the knowledge that there is only one humanity and that Africa was the route humans walked as they came out of creation. With that knowledge at the back of your mind, please forge ahead to the promised land.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The onslaught on our African past

One of the biggest ironies of our time is that the very Europeans who denigrated Africa as the very heart of darkness, without a past, found possession of African art objects as evidence of high-minded civilization. In Western European homes, offices and establishments, having an African art object, especially an original dating hundreds and thousands of years back, is the height of cultural sophistication. It is a form of schizophrenia that I think hasn't been paid enough attention in current psychiatric scholarship.


It's other half, equally meriting psychoanalysis, is the fervour with which Africans are destroying their own cultural objects and other evidence of how their ancestors lived, perceived and celebrated their existence. With our governments busy with the plunder of our national treasuries, indifferent to the meaning of our past, various Christian denominations of the pentecostal bent have been on a spree of destruction cloaked with the hypocritical cloak that characterizes their evangelism, burning up and smashing up artefacts of African material culture that have not been stolen by thieves selling to Western buyers or that were spared the looting of the colonial phase of European passage through Africa.




As often happens with things African, Nigeria presents some of the worst examples of the ongoing despoilation.


Some two years ago, the authorities in in Lagos state suddenly decided that art traders selling modern copies of ancient African sculptures that are often mixed with originals trafficked from the interior where they were plundered by thieves, constituted squatters that needed to be removed in order to go on with the usual land rackets for which the Lekki Peninsula corridor has become famous. What did they do? The mobilized bulldozers to the scene while the art dealers were away, smashed up their shops and crushed the items on sale with the chain wheels and the metal excavators of the bulldozers. They couldn't be bothered whatever the historical significance of the works or even their commercial value to those who trade in them. Items damaged included artworks that had travelled from different parts of Africa through traders to come and meet their mostly Western buyers by the Lekki beach in Lagos, like slaves of old, enroute to Europe and the Americas.



A few years ago the Christian envangelist pastor Uma Ukpai boasted that he and his followers over a few weeks in one December were able to destroy scores of shrines across Igboland in southeast Nigeria. What did these places of traditional worship consist of? Usually made of mud houses, with walls decorated by Uli writings and paintings, they often contained naturalist carvings of African figures, featuring the cubist styles that became the inspiration of Pablo Picasso and modern Western art. These shrines, which exuded the deep, close, communing relationship between the African of old and his environment, that saw the unity of all things whether plant, animal or inanimate, were destroyed by triumphal philistines of African extraction in the name of evangelism.

This particularly corrosive form of evangelism has bred individual variants of the "prayer-warrior" - note the belligerent tone of the name - who wouldn't brook any sight of any of the items that formed part of the spirituality of his ancestors, whether personal or communal. Among the Igbos of southeastern Nigeria, where a thwarted variety of Christianity harking back to puritn inquisition has taken hold, individual prayer-warriors regularly invite pastors of similar ilk to make bonfires of cultural and spiritual artefacts they inherited from their forebears. Frequently they also form savage bands that steal out in the middle of the night, especially during the Christmas season, to burn and destroy communally owned artefacts.

One instance of this madness was played out in the town of Achina in Anambra State in December 2008. One morning the town woke up to find that the ikoro had been destroyed, butchered and burnt by a group of prayer-warriors. The ikoro was a giant wooden gong, reputed to be at least 400 years old, which sat in its own house at the edge of the Oye, the town's market. It was an instrument of mass communication for which a specialist player was appointed by the town in the olden days. It's sounds could be decoded by most people in the village. And whenever there was an emergency, the job of the ikoro player was to mount it and beat out messages which could be heard and intepreted by town people whereever they may be in distant farms or streams. It was a means of communication and mobilization and wasn't even as a religious object, apart from the fact that in the traditional concept of the people every aspect of life was infused with some spirituality.

Anyway, the ikoro of Achina was destroyed. It had survived previous murder attempts, when the prayer-warriors had attacked before and fortunately were seen by other town people who resisited them and stopped them. After one unsuccessful attempt, one of the age-grades in the town had contributed money to build a fence around the ikoro and put a lock on the gate into where it was housed. Then the prayer-warriors adopted stealth and came like a thief in the night to destroy the ikoro.

With an indifferent government concerned only with the plunder of national resoruces and doing the bidding of their masters in Western capitals, it's no wonder that the common good has gone to the dogs. Even officially designated government museums, where artefacts are supposed to be preserved for posterity, over the years became conduits for wholesale plunder of Nigerian art and cultural objects. The result is that there is a tripple onslaught by state officials, art thieves and evangelists against articles of Africa's past material culture that show who we are, what we were and where we're coming from. And as the reggae singer Ziggy Marley asked: "Tomorrow people, where is your past? ...If you don't know your past, you don't know your future."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Our leaders as modern day slavers

One thought that has often worried me about Africa's slavery experience, the biggest holocaust in human history, is the role Africans themselves played in the tragedy. I always found it difficult to understand how Africans could sell their fellow Africans to European slave traders. My reading of history tells me it was mostly the chiefs and kings that controlled the trade. Armed with guns they had received from Europeans on the coast, they launched raids on largely defenseless hinterland peoples to procure the valued human cargo that wast then shipped to the Americas. As they made more money, they became more powerful, more addicted to the trade and inflicted more terror on their hapless neighbors.

It wasn't long before the trade became the order of the day as powerful men built their own slave-raiding armies, attacking their neighbors, pillaging and plundering. It must have been a period of great insecurity, war and pestilence, ravaging a huge and healthy African population that had been built up during the preceding successful agricultural revolution that had brought stability to many African societies and propelled the flourishing of a great world culture.

Yes, it was hard to imagine how Africans could easily ruin their land by their own hands, until I compared them to Africa's present crop of leaders. Like the slave dealers of old, they're allied to Europe, essentially Western Europe, whose ordered prevailed then as now. The slaving chiefs were beneficiaries of the slave system, just in the same way our present leaders are beneficiaries of the present-day slave system. So the powerful, ruling minority collaborated with the West, just in the same way the tiny ruling minority of today are colloborating with the West and profiting from the suffering of the majority. By so doing the best interests of African people are negated and thwarted and people are forced into crushing poverty, permanently enslaved to disease, hunger and ignorance.

The more I think about the similarities, the more it occurs to me, with some sense of horror, that another 300-400 years down the line, our children are going to wonder how on earth our leaders allowed the criminanlity that has passed for governance in Africa since the end of the slave epoch. They're going to view us with utmost contempt as a generation, who failed,, despite the relative clarity (to put Fanon's famous phrase upside down), to realise our destiny and to pursue it. And they would condemn us, like we've condemned our forebears, not realising that a majority were mere victims of a plundering, unthinking elite so carreid away by the joys offered them by the toys that the West brought.