Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is There a Link Between Youth Unemployment and Political Instability?

Over at his blog, Chris Blattman takes exception to the notion furthered by popular economist known for his application of economics to social issues Gary Becker that unemployed youth are a source of social instability (In Becker's case, crime).

Applying this notion to social instability in African countries, Blattman points that there's "little evidence to suggest" that that such a link rest on two assumptions: (a) poor countries are more likely to see political instability, and (b) economic shocks raise the risk of said instability. Blattman thinks this is wrong, and makes a point one hardly hears being made, but really ought to be pointed out more often:
I have little doubt that the people who riot or rebel are poor, unemployed young men. We can see that. The problem is that the people who don’t riot are also poor unemployed young men.

Most of the population is poor and unemployed and young. It’s not clear that the poorer and less employed ones are the more violent.

If anything, we see the opposite. In the Middle East, profiles of suicide bombers and terrorists suggest they are typically more educated and better off than the average youth.

In research on riots, whether in Nigeria or India or the US, the instigators are often university students or other elites.

Now, maybe the instigators are elite, but the masses they organize are poorer and less employed. Here the evidence is equally weak. Surveys of combatants in Sierra Leone and Uganda, rioters in Nigeria or the US, or the politically violent in Philippines or Iraq, show little connection between mobilization and incomes. None of this statistical evidence is terribly good,but none of it argues in favor of this huge assumption underlying massive policy and programs.

Of course, one can go from one circumstance to another and find exceptions, but I think the point about who instigates political conflict is important. Blattma is an economist and understandably is hedging on being definitive, but I think he's spot on about who exactly instigates conflict. I'm going to avoid the "when two elephants fight" cliche, but I will say this - every war or politically unstable situation has someone profiting from it one way or another. Hint: It's not the people getting killed in the streets, and it's not even always the young men fed a steady diet of guns with butter.

The rest of the talk is interesting. Read all of it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Anatomy of a Blogpost on Nigeria's Big 50

A reflection post on 50 years of Nigeria's independence is an unnecessarily difficult thing to write.

The funny thing is, I can't even really articulate why. I refuses to believe that what I'm afraid of is an effort at stocktaking devolving into a long post of despair. I write posts about Nigeria all the time, after all. Sometimes these posts do teeter on the edge or actually are one long complaint, but ultimately they get written, posted, filed.

The fear, perhaps, is not so much what the post will ultimately have to say, but of where the country itself, and where it will end up next year, at this juncture in our history.

How much have things changed since last year? Yes, we have a president now. Goodluck Jonathan isn't going to fall terminally ill anytime soon (let's hope, knock on wood). The Super Eagles are not up for qualification for an international tournament with only the slightest chances of getting in. Nuhu Ribadu isn't making demands on Capitol Hill in DC. But all that is circumstantial. How different will things be next year when I have to write another post on Nigeria's independence day since so many of Nigeria's troubles come from the same issues of corruption and complete lack of regard of the governed? A lot of the troubles that Nigeria faces will continue. We probably will find out that still more of our elected officials have been stealing from the public coffers. The militias in the Niger-Delta and the North will probably still exist. Mega-church pastors would still buy expensive cars and houses and there will be few investigations into their affairs. Nigerian movies will still be laughably bad. The economy will still grow, but very few will actually know it.

The weight I am feeling on my fingers that renders this post such a chore is not fear at all, is it? It's fatigue. I don't want to throw my hands up in despair anymore. I'm tired of doing that. Lamenting "No water, no light" holds no interest to me. I'm not Wole Soyinka. Pounding my fists on my soapbox is getting irritating. I admire those among us who never tire of crying for change, but I do.

And yet, as living in the U.S. and knowing a fair amount about EU politics has shown me, every country has its problems. Logic then follows that Nigeria has either this set of problems, or another. So as the big 5-0 approaches, I will this space to hope not that Nigeria gets rid of it's problems, but that it replaces them. And soon.

Is the U.S. Going to Recognize Somaliland at Some Point?

Hard to say, but this is encouraging:
The United States has decided to work closely with semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland states in Somali as a means to defeat Islamist extremists.

The initiative represents a substantial policy shift and a step away from dealing with Somalia only through the weak transitional government in Mogadishu.

The Obama administration’s top diplomat for Africa Johnnie Carson said the U.S would send more aid workers and diplomats to Puntland and Somaliland and support the governments of both regions, in the north of Somalia, with development projects.

This new policy by the U.S is expected to aid the fight to fend off extreme Islamist insurgents in those parts of Somalia that have "been zones of relative political and civil stability". According to Mr. Carson the U.S. believes the zones "will in fact be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south".

I'm really quite pleased about this. Somaliland could use all the help it could get to keep itself stable. While Puntland already seems to have trouble with pirates within its midst, its worth daring to dream to that a more developed region -- who knows, maybe even some investment here and there -- could put people in honest work. Here's hoping.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Poem for Sunday

Goodness me, I didn't even know Amiri Baraka wrote poetry. I was too busy falling in love with his amazing play "The Toilet" to check out his other mediums. I'm glad I found his poetry, or I would never have read this.

And I'm putting this up quite late. Yeesh.


"A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.

Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.

We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new

Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy,and create. What will be

the sacred word?

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Via the good bloggin' people over at Shadow and Act, a trailer for a Nigerian movie I -- and here's a shocker -- actually want to see.

RELENTLESS from LluĂ­s Prieto on Vimeo.

I'm excited about this. It's got the ubiquitous Nneka, yes, but it's also got Andy Amadi Okoroafor. I can't tell much about her acting job from the trailer, but I just love the quiet expressiveness of Okoroafor's face. As Rilke would say, not everything is as 'sayable' as people would often have you believe.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What Somali Piracy Hath Wrought

In a great article over at the New York Review of Books, Jeffrey Gettleman follows a charismatic Somali pirate chieftain Abshir Boyah to tease out some rare insight into how piracy and the inflow of money has affected society and culture in Puntland.

This excess has created a budding pirate culture. Pirate weddings are elaborate two- or three-day affairs, stretching deep into the night, with bands—and brides—flown in from outside Somalia and convoys of expensive 4x4 trucks. The prettiest young women in pirate towns dream of a pirate groom; little boys can hardly wait until they are old enough to sling an AK-47 over their shoulder and head out to sea. In these places, the entire local economy revolves around hijacking ships, with hundreds of men, women, and children employed as guards, scouts, cooks, deckhands, mechanics, skiff-builders, accountants, and tea-makers.

There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does. There is even a functioning pirate stock exchange in Xarardheere, where locals buy “shares” in seventy-two individual pirate “companies” and get a respectable return if the company is successful. Most of the money, though, is frittered away. Boyah, who personally has made hundreds of thou- sands of dollars if not millions, asked me for cigarettes when I met him. When I asked what happened to all his cash, he explained: “When someone who never had money suddenly gets money, it just goes.” He also said that because of the extended network of relatives and clansmen, “it’s not like three people split a million bucks. It’s more like three hundred.”

Gettleman also considers the parallels drawn in Martin Murphy's new book Somalia: A New Barbary? between the Berber corsairs who rose to prominence after the Muslim conquest of the much of North Africa came under Ottoman Empire. My first reaction -- and Gettleman writes as much -- upon hearing even the title of the book was that there was tacit approval on the part of the Ottoman authorities who made money off of the abductions and ransoms, whereas the piracy situation in Somalia is helped along by the sheer lack of government structures.

Even with recent efforts by the Puntland government against piracy, I share Gettleman's pessimism on the prospects of peace in Somalia anytime soon, what with the current state of affairs where the TFG is merely hanging on in Mogadishu and the strength of al-Shabab and, to a lesser extent, Hizbul Islam.
There’s very little hope, in the near future, of the transitional government in Mogadishu becoming strong enough to wipe out the pirates’ bases. The government is simply trying to stay alive. The hard-line Islamist insurgents who control much of Somalia have flirted with dismantling the piracy business, but the money is too good. One group, Hizbul Islam, recently moved into Xarardheere and now gets $40,000 from each ransom. The more powerful insurgent group al-Shabab made a deal with the pirates in which they will not interfere with the pirates’ business in exchange for 5 percent of the ransoms. This seems to be the beginning of the West’s worst Somali nightmare. The country’s two top exports—piracy and Islamist radicalism—are at last joining hands.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Geek Players, Love Slayers -- In Africa.

In a creative writing workshop in college, a professor had us read Steve Almond's "Geek Player, Love Slayer". I loved the somewhat disturbing ease with which he depicts the unnamed female character and her crush on the computer geek in her office, loved the first person narration, the generous layers of humor over all that longing. Then I read the rest of the stories in the collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, and loved them, too. I'm yet to get around the next short story collection he's got, The Evil B.B. Chow, but I suspect that one is also well worth reading.

I knew, based entirely on his writing, that Almond would be hilarious, but this video where he takes on Toto's hit with that infectious "I bless the rain down in Africa" hook I've heard drunkenly bellowed at the top of youthful lungs at many a karaoke event in my college years puts it beyond all doubt. Just like his work, this is hilarious, but with an unexpected depth.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death of Export-Led Growth?

Especially because the economic crisis has dealt such a shock to the U.S. economy, which accounted for much of global consumption, the market for developing countries' exports going forward is not going to be as robust as it was before due to the economic flatness that, in the medium term, will be the "new normal" in developed economies.

The recommendation from analysts in the report, which was released last week (yes, I know, but I'm clawing my way out of the wilderness one item in my inbox at a time), is that developing countries need to "boost domestic consumption and allow wages to increase in line with productivity growth". In a story from IPS, UNCTAD's director called for a "paradigm shift" on labour that ensures more formal work, as, according to the report, "There is not a shortage of employment in absolute terms in African countries, but a lack of productive and decent jobs".

The way this sounds to me is that economies that are mostly agrarian are to shift away from jobs that are mostly agrarian.

UNCTAD believes that "sustainable policies for wage increases need to cover both formal and informal labour markets and there needs to be a linkage between the two of them." For those among us who speak economics a bit more fluently, this from STWR teases the labour stuff out a bit more:

A promising strategy for rapid employment generation could be to focus more on investment dynamics, and to ensure that the resultant productivity gains are distributed between labour and capital in a way that lifts domestic demand," UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi writes in the overview to the report.

To strengthen the contribution of domestic demand to employment creation, the principles and objectives of monetary and fiscal policies need to be redefined, the TDR says. These areas of macroeconomic policy also need to be combined with what the report calls an "incomes policy" -- a set of instruments and institution-building measures that would ensure that mass incomes in real terms rise along with average productivity growth.

If rising wages and increased employment in a period of low demand for goods and services sounds like a recipe for inflation to you --

At the same time, [an incomes policy] serves as an instrument to control inflation. As labour costs are the most important determinant of the overall cost level in most economies, adjusting wages to productivity prevents both increases in production costs and demand growth in excess of the supply potential and also widens the room for investment-friendly monetary policy.

I don't really have an opinion on this because, while a lot has indeed changed for developed countries, not a lot has changed in the relationship between emerging markets and developed ones. The skew towards established markets, in terms of needed investment capital and investment dollars/euros/pounds/yen, is very much still there, even in the major seemingly-invincible emerging markets like Brazil, China, India and South Africa. Until that changes, any really good idea in global trade, like free trade on commodities and agricultural products, is just going to get stuck like a hamster on some wheel of paperwork and stalled talks, like Doha.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Aid and MDGs - The Point of It All

The UN's Millennium Development Goals Summit in NY is running until Wednesday, and has brought development issues again to the fore. Bogged down as I am these days, I'm yet to check out the webcasts of what happened at the TEDXchange or the Clinton Global Initiative Summit 2010. Still, I have had the time to take a peek at the Financial Times, where Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly show up on the pages with two different takes on aid and MDGs.

Sachs wrote a few blogposts on MDGs for the FT you can read over at their awesome emerging markets blog Beyond Brics. He sums up the conference thus:

The message from world leaders was clear: the MDGs are at the centre of national objectives in poor countries, and remain at the centre of global cooperation of rich countries. But the rich countries were also clear: we need a new financing system to ensure the success of the MDGs. The current approach is simply not adequate.

From the op-ed in FT, here's Sachs on the trouble with aid now:

Most aid has remained bilateral, making it hard to monitor and largely unaccountable. Shortfalls are attributed to problems in recipient countries. Even when aid is disbursed, these programmes are scattered among many small efforts rather than a unified national plan, and include an endless spectacle of visiting dignitaries from donor countries, politicised negotiations, and countless headline announcements of support that all too often fails to materialise.

He wants aid to be provided in pooled funds from donors, much like The Global Fund for TB, Malaria, and HIV/Aids.

The fund pools resources from many donor nations, with an independent review board approving national programmes according to scientific and management criteria rather than bilateral politics. The fund thereby provides aid in a scaled, systematic and predictable way. And while a decade ago all three diseases were running out of control, now all are being reined in with millions of lives saved.

Of course the fund is not perfect, but the programmes it supports are transparent and easily monitored – meaning that when corruption occurs, as it sometimes will, a programme can be halted and the malefactors removed. The fund’s design is a profound improvement over traditional donor aid. But it and efforts like it are chronically underfunded, largely because the US and European donor countries keep too much of their aid budgets in bilateral programmes.

I'm pretty sure many would disagree with Sachs on the Global Fund and the effectiveness of pooled funds. I'd provide examples but the FT later points some out.

In a bit of a face-off, William Easterly also at the FT contends that "The Millennium Development Goals tragically misused the world’s goodwill to support failed official aid approaches to global poverty and gave virtually no support to proven approaches." Only the eighth of the MDGs, he continues, even broaches the topic of private investment. Further:

This is all the more misguided because trade-fuelled growth not only decreases poverty, but also indirectly helps all the other MDGs. Yet in the US alone, the violations of the trade goal are legion. US consumers have long paid about twice the world price for sugar because of import quotas protecting about 9,000 domestic sugar producers. The European Union is similarly guilty.

Equally egregious subsidies are handed out to US cotton producers, which flood the world market, depressing export prices. These hit the lowest-cost cotton producers in the global economy, which also happen to be some of the poorest nations on earth: Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

According to an Oxfam study, eliminating US cotton subsidies would “improve the welfare of over one million West African households - 10 million people - by increasing their incomes from cotton by 8 to 20 per cent”.

For my views on aid, here and here. All I would add to that is that I, like Easterly, believe that if the U.S. and EU really want to help Africa out, easing up on (better yet, stopping altogether) the cotton subsidies would be a big boost to the industry. I would go further and say that all food subsidies would help, as would emphasizing farm technologies to increase commercial -- as opposed to subsistence -- agriculture in Africa and decrease the need for food aid, particularly in countries whose economies are almost entirely agrarian. It will also help if the U.S. were to boost exports from Africa in more than just oil and gas.

People have been emailing me this Lancet study, and I see A Bombastic Element also takes it on at his blog. It has some interesting things to say about the point of MDGs, and wonders if compiling the list was ever a good idea. The meat of it:

The very specific nature of many goals, reflecting their diverse, independent origins, leaves considerable gaps in coverage and fails to realise synergies that could arise across their implementation; we draw attention to particular synergies between education, health, poverty, and gender. In some cases, targets present a measure of goal achievement that is too narrow, or might not identify a clear means of delivery. Other challenges encountered by several MDGs include a lack of clear ownership and leadership internationally and nationally, and a problem with equity in particular.

Issues of equity arise because many goals target attainment of a specific minimum standard— eg, of income, education, or maternal or child survival. To bring people above this threshold might mean a focus on those for whom least effort is required, neglecting groups that, for geographical, ethnic, or other reasons, are more difficult to reach, thereby increasing inequity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The West African Drug Peddlers

From 234Next:

According to a statement released by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the US President, Barack Obama, said that this was the first time that Nigeria would be delisted from the drug majors list since 1991. The anti-narcotics agency stated that Mr Obama said that Nigeria was a onetime drug trafficking focal point but that the country had taken a lot of drastic steps to make counter narcotics a top national security for the country. He said that international data showed that there was a strengthening of illegal drug trafficking between Latin America and West Africa, especially via Brazil and Venezuela, with a considerable portion of illegal product destined for Europe.

Indeed. From the Economist earlier this year, via The Moor Next Door (whose blog is great, by the way):

WEST AFRICA has become an attractive trade route for Latin America’s cocaine smugglers in recent years. On June 8th two tonnes (2000kg) of the stuff (with an estimated street value of over $1 billion) were seized in the Gambia. While cocaine use in America has fallen by 50% over the last two decades, some European countries have seen consumption rates double or triple. Aided by its corruptible police and flimsy money-laundering laws, up to 150 tonnes of cocaine are estimated to pass through the region a year. In 2006 36% of the cocaine carriers caught in one network of European airports had come from west Africa. In 2008 this had dropped to 17%. Whether this reflects a drop in trade or the traffickers’ increasing skill in avoiding capture is unclear

Here's James Traub with his great report in the NYT in April this year:

According to U.N. reports, as well as American law-enforcement and intelligence officials, cocaine crosses the Atlantic from South America either in small planes, including Cessna turboprops outfitted with an extra bladder of fuel, or in commercial fishing vessels or cargo ships. The drugs are then transported in bulk along one of several routes. Some are taken to the international airports in Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana or elsewhere, where they are generally swallowed in relatively small amounts by couriers and flown to European cities. Other shipments are transported northward by truck or carried overland across ancient smuggling routes before crossing the Mediterranean into southern Europe. The African couriers and crime syndicates are often paid in “product,” which has the additional effect of creating a local market for cocaine.

There was a huge drug bust in Liberia in June this year you can read about here.

Drugs funneled from the jungles of Brazil and Colombia, through to West Africa (often with the help of armed groups) and into Europe. There's globalization for you.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jammin' With Jimi

I'm far too big a fan of Jimi Hendrix not to mark the anniversary of his passing on my blog. One of my favorite blogs Shadow and Act has the scoop on two movies currently in development on the man himself, and I'm psyched.

It's been a slow week of blogging, thanks to my life being constantly in flux. I'll try to get back to this house on a semi-regular basis. Above is one of my favorite songs. Enjoy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Obama the Anti-Colonialist

Lately in the United States, it seems as though a day does not go by without someone saying something breathtakingly stupid and unfortunate. Or, you know, both. Like this "intellectual" slandering Obama as a "Kenyan Anti-Colonialist". The offending article by Dinesh D'Souza, via Adam Serwer:

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America. In his worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America's power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe's resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet.

For Obama, the solutions are simple. He must work to wring the neocolonialism out of America and the West. And here is where our anticolonial understanding of Obama really takes off, because it provides a vital key to explaining not only his major policy actions but also the little details that no other theory can adequately account for.

This was the hot topic around the American blogosphere, and D'Souza was -- thank God -- roundly criticized. Over at one of my favorite blogs, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights a Kenyan reader's comment that highlighted the fact that colonialism in Kenya was, well, bad.

Not to go too deep into it, but Colonialism was horrible. In Kenya, blacks were forced off their lands (there is a reason the most agriculturally productive part of Kenya was called 'The White Highlands'), subjected to harsh rules (pass laws, head taxes, enforced segregation, concentration camps etc), and during the Emergency, an estimated 70,000 - 200,000 blacks were killed (torture, malnutrition disease in concentration camps etc). I could tell you my parent's stories and my relatives stories, but that would take too much time. A good book on this is Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya - Caroline Elkins

And just because D'Souza is Indian does not mean he has the first clue about African Colonialism. There are some similarities between African and Indian colonization but given the fact that the British had a racial hierarchy (whites, indian and then blacks at the bottom) means there are things the British did in Africa that they never would even have considered doing in India.

Suffice it to say Colonialism was truly evil. Essentially Britain treated Kenya and Kenyan people as possessions to be exploited by any means possible. The only reason that Britain let Kenya go is that after WW2 Kenya begun being a net drain due to the Mau Mau uprising (whose core group was formed by African WW2 veterans who has been conscripted into WW2 on Britain's side and learned military skills and lost their awe of the white man once they saw that he too could be killed just like any man). And even then, they handed the country to people they knew who would be friendly to their interests (Jomo Kenyatta etc).

At independence, most of the wealth and the land in Kenya was in white hands. The Kenyan govt, over the next few years, took ruinious loans from Britain to buy back the land from those same British land owners. Keep in mind that this is land that had been previously stolen from us. In addition, a huge part of the Kenyan economy has been (and is still) foreign owned leading to a huge outflow of capital.

Stupidity shouldn't be given an audience, this is true, but it is times like these that me wonder if our long years of imperialism where people with a bit more melanin had to endure everything from Tuskegee to Mau Mau has rendered us incapable of equality. As horrible and inhuman the treatment could be of those who wielded their "civilization" like a sword over those who they mercilessly ruled, it still bears reminding that even after all this, people like Obama's father had to go to Western world for his education. People like Obama's father understood that they were living in a world that they didn't create, and had to learn its rules. They were like Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart" watching the world change before their very eyes, and they could either change with it, or die along with the past. To move forward is to go 'there', whether by physically moving from Kenya to Hawaii, or by learning to speak the language. And even after you do, there's no guarantee you would be seen as who you are. The cruelest irony of the post-colonial years is that people keep running into the arms of those who pushed them away.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Femi Kuti's former drummer Tosin Aribisala seems to be doing big things. Via OkayAfrica, here's him with one of his two bands Elikeh performing at the Kennedy Center. Enjoy.

Poem for Sunday

I was what mattered in the end.

Truly, first lines don't get better than that.

I came across Sarah Arvio's "Matter" via the NYT, where you'll find this and other poems. Enjoy.


I was what mattered in the end. Or if
I didn’t matter then nothing mattered,
and if I mattered, well then all things did.

O miracles and molecules, dust, rust.
It was always a matter of matter.
It might be meat or else it might be love

(if I was meat, if I was fit to eat).
What had never been matter would never
matter: you might say this was a moot point.

Clay and dust, ash and mud and mist and rust,
blood-orange sunsets and turning maples,
apples and cherries, sticks and trash and dust,

rumpled papers blowing across a street
(dead letters sent to him that lives away).
There was life, there was loss, there was no such

thing as loss — there was nothing that wasn’t
both life and loss. No, it had to be said,
in questions of matter, nothing was lost.

It might be a matter of carnal love.
This was textual and material,
and for once the facts-of-the-matter were

both heartfelt and matter-of-fact. (Oh,
matter of course was always the mother.)
These were the facts of life, this was my life,

and there I was, right at the heart of it,
my own heart — at the heart-of-the-matter.
And did I matter now or in the end?

O mother, maintainer and measurer,
mud and fruit of the heart, meat of the heart,
the question might be asked, what was the end.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is Globalization Making Literature Dull?

Digging through the crates at the New York Review of Books, I came across this article by Tim Parks on how globalization is affecting literature by creating work conscious of its international audience, which may mean that "the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture" is bound to -- in his words -- disappear.

The proliferation of international literary prizes has guaranteed that the phenomenon is not restricted to the more popular sector of the market. Despite its questionable selection procedures and often bizarre choices, the Nobel is seen as more important than any national prize. The Impac in Ireland, Mondello in Italy, International Literature Award in Germany are rapidly growing in prestige. Thus the arbiters of taste are no longer one’s own compatriots—they are less easily knowable, not a group the author himself is part of.

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

The form-fitting of one's work to appeal to a large audience has always seemed to me to be a bit of an insult to the reader. Still, it's a writer's decision. There are stories from African writers one can think of who obviously try to make the surroundings and names accessible, but I can surely think of quite a few who do not. It doesn't seem to me that Ngugi Wa' Thiongo'o cares either way what you think. I had to google "sadza" when I read Tsitsi Dangaremgba's Nervous Conditions. Sefi Atta and Brian Chikwava are equally unapologetic. Still, I'm not sure that it will be true to say foregoing cultural exclusivity necessarily takes away from the writer's ability to produce "the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really live". This line of thinking to me gives too much of an alibi for bad writing.

Part of my reaction is my resignation to thinking that the question of how much to "explain your country/region/culture" versus simply telling your story has always been and always will be an issue for the non-Western European/non-English speaking world. Globalization as it concerns literature is the embrace of the Western European and American literary canon, while globalization in general is the spinning of the world towards an "end of history" type conclusion where we've all agreed that these Western norms are the best way for the world to be, in terms of economics (capitalism) and social mores, and the metric against which we will measure our respective civilizations. While you may see these Western styles "remixed" with local flavor and form-fitted for its new surroundings, I don't see this careful consideration ever going away for the West. The way things have been set up from our collective history, non-Western peoples have to play catch up and seek validation "there". That's not new. And it will only have an effect on our stories if we let it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Chinese Experience in Africa

Over at Al Jazeera, their show Witness has an interesting 23-minute documentary on Chinese people who've made a life for themselves in Senegal.

A few observations:

I liked how Witness spent half the show humanizing the Chinese experience in Senegal. It was a nice juxtaposition - a people who really are seeking a more stable economic situation for themselves and their families, and the economic ruin they (perhaps unwittingly) wrought on the local population that they were so isolated from by virtue of language and other barriers.

I couldn't but compare this to the New Yorker audio slideshow on Nigerian immigrants in Chinese city Guangzhou. Evan Osnos points out here that it's almost always a African buyer and a Chinese seller, showing what I think is the biggest difference between the obstacles that a Nigerian, say, in China has to overcome, and that of the Chinese in an African country. The speed with which Chinese populations grow in African countries ensures (a) they always have a market for Chinese-made products, which allows for (b) growth in Chinese purchasing power.

Of course, Nigerian populations in China grow as well and will ensure a market for popular Made in Nigeria products like Milo, Nido, or Indomie, but that is only true within the Nigerian -- and larger African -- community. The strength that Chinese people have is that they can count on a market, not just from fellow Chinese, but also with the locals as well. With this influence, Chinese people have an upper hand in business dealings that locals don't.

When the Senegalese merchants complained about the quality of goods coming into the country from China, I didn't so much blame the Chinese as I blamed the Senegalese government that allowed such low quality goods in the first place, and the inability of Senegalese government to create a regulatory framework to protect local businesses. Wade's government is probably reluctant to do anything to anger their Chinese benefactors, and I understand why they won't. Individual African countries have a lot more to lose than the Chinese do, and they won't get a better deal on infrastructure and trade with the Europeans or Americans.

Dr. Deborah Brautigam, who blogs here, has a favorable view of China in Africa, and talks about the benefits in the video below.

On Religion and Morality

Dr. Lionel Tiger takes on the weighty topic of how and why people find reasons to divvy themselves into groups, and the importance of groups to individuals. An interesting interview.

What if Zimbabwe Adopts the Chinese Yuan?

Zimbabwean Vice President Joice Mujuru seems open to the idea:

Mujuru says this would be a “natural progression and offshoot of the Look East Policy” which has seen China emerge as the country’s biggest trading partner, absorbing most of the agricultural and mineral produce.

"I don’t see why we should not use the Chinese Yuan when most of what we are producing in the country like our tobacco and minerals are ultimately being bought by the Chinese.

She said China was not only a vast market but also the world’s fastest growing economy that needs to be deliberately incorporated into Zimbabwe’s production, manufacturing and marketing matrix.

Maybe the economists among us can better parse the details of this, but from my haven't-taken-economics-since-sophomore-year-college perspective, it is not the changing of currency that makes this a bad idea. Some have argued that the reason Germany is doing so well is that the Euro was down against the dollar for much of the early part of the year, which drove down prices and strengthened their GDP growth through trade (The Economist has a few quibbles with this theory, mind you). The Chinese currency is pegged low relative to the U.S. Dollar or Euro right now and, holding constant the possibility of further shocks to the Zimbabwean economy -- Mozambique-style food riots, droughts, a bad harvest, a more extensive ban on Zimbabwean minerals -- I can see a situation where it's not totally hare-brained for Zimbabwe to peg its currency to the Chinese Yuan. The only question I have is this: Why the yuan? Why not a currency of one of their Southern African neighbors? From their shift on Sudan, China has shown that it can be shamed, so it's not clear if China would even go for that with a country that's not in most of the world's good graces.

I'm trying to engage the idea on a policy level, but I don't see what the Chinese would gain from this that they don't already have from a political and economic standpoint. Mujuru must know this too, and it is this complete lack of feasibility and ability to think clearly on policy issues that is truly scary. Nowhere is it shown that the Vice President even thought to put the shoe on the other foot and think this issue through in a manner that betrays that this VP understands issues that affect the country's economic future. The changing of one's currency to another is a serious economic decision and has widespread ramifications for trade and food prices, among other things. And all Mujuru can come up with is some drivel about a "Look East policy".

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Poem for Sunday

From Jonathan Wells, courtesy of the New Yorker.

The Man With Many Pens

With one he wrote a number so beautiful

it lasted forever in the legends of numbers. With another

he described the martyrs’ feet as they marched

past the weeping stones and cypresses, watched

by their fathers. He used one as a silver wand to lift

a trout from its spawning bed to more fruitful waters

and set it back down, its mouth facing upstream.

He wrote Time has no other river but this one in us,

no other use but this turn in us from mountain lakes

of late desires to confusions passed through

with every gate open. Let’s not say he didn’t take us

with him in the long current of his letters, his calligraphy

and craft, moving from port to port, his hand stopping

near his heart, the hand that smudged and graced the page,

asking, asking, his fingers a beggar’s lucent black,

for the word that gave each of us away.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

UN's Soapbox and the Trouble with Bashir

The fallout from Sudan's al-Bashir's trip to Kenya to celebrate the constitution may be more serious than the Kenyans themselves probably anticipated. A Kenyan Capital FM report says that the ICC has reported Kenya to the UN Security Council and may face economic and travel sanctions, while this report at Kenya's Daily Nation makes it seems as though Kenya might just get away with a slap on the wrist. For more on what the ICC may or may not do, complete with legalese, read Making Sense of Sudan's take.

In his defense of the invitation to the notorious Sudanese president, Foreign minister Moses Wetang’ula made the case that the invitation was necessary to straighten out some issues with Sudan's upcoming referendum. This strikes me as good regional politics -- the less isolated Sudan is and the more greviances between Salva Kiir and Omar al-Bashir are out in the open, the more likely the referendum gets carried out with as little bloodshed as possible. Kenya and Sudan share a southern border, let us not forget. The less bloodshed, the less likely that Sudan's 2011 referendum will result in a refugee crisis for Kenya, who is already in for it Somali refugees. The impression that one gets from UN is that Kenya is supposed to consider the UN's issues with Sudan over issues of regional importance.

I find it curious that the ICC thinks African leaders will go ahead with their plan of persecuting al-Bashir when the AU countries have a resolution pledging to take no action on the arrest warrant. The logic for the AU resolution seems to be the belief that the UN had no grounds to pass any judgment since some AU members had not ratified the Rome Statute which established the ICC. I haven't checked to see how many AU member states have ratified the Rome statute, but every leader, African or otherwise, has their own domestic politics to worry about, and nowhere on the African continent would it look good for them to get too friendly outside of an economic context with international organizations. This, taken together with the AU making their own resolution, should show that Jean Ping et al are sensitive to questions of their autonomy from Western organizations. The UN Security Council that signed off on the arrest warrant does not have many African countries in it, and I have not seen anything indicating that the ICC reached out to the AU to ensure its full cooperation following the AU's resolution. If they had done that, perhaps they would have been spared this situation. Knowing what we know of the AU's stance on Sudan, it was ill-considered of the UN to make announcements of arrest warrants without first checking with the individual countries and the AU that they will be respected and adhered to.

Going forward, the likelihood of the an ICC warrant carrying any weight has never meant less than it does now. If Western countries show a distaste for shaking your hand in public, the logic goes, you could always go to East and deal with China or India, and maybe even Brazil. Rwanda's current problems with the UN report showing the extent of their dealings in the DRC shows that you can house all the refugees asked of you in good conditions, do trade with EU and the U.S., be useful in UN peacekeeping operations, and still be called out in a report. A leader would want to be immune from such scrutiny as much as possible. It is true that the report was leaked and was never intended for release in its leaked form, but if I was an African leader with a few skeletons in my closet I would sleep far easier if I thought that such a report did not even exist.

The UN's soapbox status does not absolve it of the responsibility to not -- I'm paraphrasing from Bombastic Element's headline here -- mouth off checks it can't cash. The body should really only make threats that it can carry out. The sooner they learn that, they better for their credibility.

Nigerian Movies Are 'Bad'

Over at Africa Works, G. Pascal Zachary highlights this essay from Emily Witt review in The Nation of an essay collection on Nigerian movies. In this thorough review, she wonders aloud about the move away from the Ousmane Sembene movies with an idealogical bent that made up much of the first wave of African cinema, to the popularity of home video movies that critics usually deem technically and artistically "bad".

what does "bad" mean in a global film economy when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—in which various main characters function as product placement for General Motors—can pull millions of moviegoers from the deepest recesses of their couches? In the case of Nollywood, "bad" means, on the technical side, a home video aesthetic, poor sound mixing, blinking special effects in primary colors, jarring lapses in continuity and boom microphones sinking into the frame. In the realm of the artistic, "bad" means wooden acting, excess melodrama, displays of consumerism that make Imelda Marcos look like Mother Teresa, baroque screenplays that don't always cohere into a narrative whole, failure to suspend disbelief (indeed, an active effort to encourage it), wailing, catfights and evil mothers-in-law.

A lot of criticism about Nollywood, therefore, concerns itself with resolving the fundamental question of why these usually not-very-good movies (judged, perhaps harshly, according to the above criteria during a few Saturday afternoons spent on YouTube) are so very popular. Their home-video aesthetic isn't just tolerated but relished by viewers, and there is evidently some consternation in certain circles that the postcolonial African tradition of lush, 35-millimeter, French Embassy–funded allegorical films and centralized-government-sponsored Marxist epics has been eclipsed by films like Baby Police, a popular franchise starring a dwarf who harasses unsuspecting citizens at roadblocks (think Gary Coleman as a Nigerian police officer who occasionally leads Bollywood-style group dance numbers).

Zachary on Witt's take:

Witt shrewdly observes that African movies of the sort made by such celebrated Francophone directors as Sembene are “burdened with ideology” (doing what elite Africans think Europeans consider to be art) and far more popular abroad (with the very Europeans who often funded the films in the first place) than at home in Africa, partly because the high-minded pretensions and “puritanical didacticism” of the films drove audiences away. By contrast, Nigerian films about everyday urban life – these are do-it—yourself videos without pretensions and frankly pandering to mass tastes – represent a radical re-ordering of African cinema. Hence the prominent role granted the supernatural, romance, corruption and crime. Unfortunately, Witt’s actual experience viewing Nigerian movies seems limited to rummaging through clips available on Youtube. As a result, while trying to defend the value of Nollywood content, she unfairly stereotypes and denigrates Nigerian films, fixating on the themes of juju, magic and mayhem that do indeed dominate many Nigerian movies though hardly all. Witt even dismisses the content altogether, seeing the films instead as chiefly valuable as signs of rebellion. Yet Nollywood content, while often trivial and offensive, sometimes rises to the level of art and social criticism.

The thing is, I'm not sure that she is unfair to Nigerian movies. I'm a bit tired of people using the success of Nigerian films as a reason to excuse how bad they actually are. From Soulja Boy to junk food, there are lots of things in the world that are bad but popular in mainstream culture just about everywhere. I belong to the "Nigerian movies suck" school of thought, but I don't really care too much that there are a lot of people that enjoy it. I'm more concerned by the fact that so many do not ask for more from Nigerian films than they do from films from, say, the United States or India. If these same people that are comfortable with Nigerian movies as they are will not accept the bad sound mixing, below par acting, and woefully terrible plots that you find in a lot of Nigerian movies, then the audience reaction to Nigerian movies hints at a larger problem of what Nigerians, perhaps even all Africans, expect from their own people.


I stumbled upon a documentary of the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora. A late bloomer, she began singing in Paris some 22 years ago and never looked back. Now she's definitely one of the top female voices out of Africa. Check her out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Generator and Petroleum Importers in the Nigeria's Power Industry

The glaring omission of generator makers and importers of diesel into Nigeria seems to me to be a lack of real politique on the part of analysts of Nigerian politics.

If there are 18 local and foreign companies vying for a share in a privatized Nigerian power sector, it should not be ignored that all the companies involved in generator-making are necessarily foreign companies: Perkins, Volvo, Honda, Deere (I believe), among others. As I said in a previous blogpost, the Nigerian power industry already has private interests vested in it. It is estimated that U.S.$13 billion a year to fuel generators, which is good business on the part of generator-makers and importers of diesel. As is all too often the case when writing about Nigeria, hard data is hard to come by on who exactly does big business and in what sector, but it will be very curious to me if a lot of moneyed, government-related Nigerians are not already investors in the generator industry, not to mention questions of trade and foreign direct investment from countries these generator companies come from. More urgently, if Nigeria does pull off a better power grid and improved power industry, it could affect the importation of diesel and generators into Nigeria, and thus could impact trade relations.

Also of concern is the government's ability to uphold rules to make sure that its interests align with that of these companies investing in the industry. Nigerian lawmakers do not have a good track record in showing resolve in their dealings with foreign companies. Take gas flaring, for example. There have been promises by many companies to stop gas flaring in the Niger-Delta most recently one from Shell in 2010. Still, a Federal High Court ruling in Benin in November 14, 2005 ordered the company to stop, that gas flaring was a "gross violation" of constitutionally guaranteed rights. What hope does one have that the most recent promise from Shell will be upheld without government pressure if they have been flouting court rulings for at least 5 years without penalty? All this is to say that there have been no systemic changes, in the oil industry or anywhere else, in how business with large companies has been conducted. Mind you, the new power industry will be full of them. One cannot but worry when one sees more foreign interests coming into the Nigerian industry and the government has no ways in which to tweak the incentives so that the interests of the market and the consumer are not at such cross-purposes.

More worrying than political analysts ignoring the reality of the industry is the fact that there has been no indication by President Goodluck Jonathan that he has taken this reality of the Nigerian energy market into consideration. Nobody feels sorry for generator-makers -- I certainly do not -- but it is hard to take seriously a new privatization scheme in a key industry that does not acknowledge the trade relationships that it will affect.