Monday, July 03, 2017

The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

A History of 50 Years of Independence

The book treats all of Africa, including Arab and Egyptian regions. It’s about a dozen years old now, and things have not gotten better. It is too early to say if the partition of Sudan will help—I hope so. Not every place went to hell, but enough did to show patterns.

Some stories differ dramatically from the others. The history of Algeria makes grim reading. South Africa seemed to show a spot of hope, but the intervening years since the book was published brought little encouragement.

Iron smelting and forging technology spread through Africa long ago, but the various industrial revolutions passed by Sub-Saharan Africa—until the last one, which spread imperial Europe everywhere. (It seems odd, because fairly simple constructions like water mills can send your iron smelting temperatures much higher, to give you more iron at once, and of better quality. Persian windmills ground grain easily—it wouldn’t have been hard to duplicate. There was trade across the Sahara, and across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. A puzzlement. But perhaps the crops in some areas aren’t as suited to grinding. At any rate...)

What happened after independence?

The imperial powers infamously divided everything up with little regard for tribal or language affinities, except insofar as they helped them govern. Since they preferred to concentrate trade and industry in their own hands (and all the good land), at independence there weren’t many paths to success. “Forced labor” shows up repeatedly in the history—and that doesn’t mean desk jobs or entrepreneurs.

Though Africa has had large kingdoms and even empires before, recent history was all about the European nation-state model—and each new country needed its own government. Participation in which would represent one of the very few paths to success. Moslems often talk about the Ummah and deprecate nations, but in practice they like running the local show themselves just as much as the infidels do. So, the areas had themselves nation-states.

The imperial/global economy defined success and wealth in terms of consumption of Western goods, and offered tantalizing stuff to consume. More temptation, that you need a revenue stream to participate in.

Despite an initial bonding of “us against the imperials” a man’s loyalty was not to a country but to his family, tribe, and hangers-on. And you cannot rely on the support of your tribe if you are stingy.

What followed from this was: mismanagement from the get-go thanks to a lack of managers; concentration of power and ambition in the central government—universal control nominally to have disparate tribes work together for a common goal but in practice for rent-seeking; pretty much universal corruption; “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—just from a neighboring black tribe instead of a white one. Making a nation a “democracy” merely changed the emphases, and didn’t generally have any effect on the “my tribe in power” corruption.

Some leaders took the European ideologies of socialism and Marxism seriously, as opposed to as bargaining chips in getting aid. Their subjects generally paid dearly for the experiments.

A lot of the details in The Fate of Africa weren’t covered in the news of the day: sometimes out of fear, sometimes because of entrenched lies (e.g. Rwanda genocide), and sometimes because Western news teams couldn’t be bothered. Quite a few people look very different (some worse, quite a few better) than they were originally reported. Lots of heroes had feet of clay, and unfortunately circumstances often brought out the flaws in a big way.

Read the book if you’ve any interest in Africa.

Because there is rarely a sense of nationhood, the obvious path to organic development and to reducing friction would seem to be through a different model of government, with federated statelets based on tribal affiliation, with a relatively weak central government. (Sort of Swiss style) Unfortunately this tends to leave you at the mercy of neighbors that cultivate a large army (African leaders are no more moral than those anywhere else when it comes to a neighbor’s easily stolen stuff). The only way to guarantee the integrity of such federations, at least at first, is for external parties to guarantee them. France has a record of this, and it usually works OK, though there’s a price to pay and they sometimes misfire very badly (e.g. Rwanda).

But—how do you get there from here? You don’t. The local powers-that-be aren’t going to give up their power and iron rice bowls, and (e.g.) European powers have no great interest in enforcing somebody else’s borders for no benefit to themselves.

What could help? The author suggests that industrial countries could cut back on farm supports, and let African exporters sell renewable crops and not just raw materials. That seems reasonable, though politically complicated. The Cold War is mostly over, and the proxy conflicts are done--that helps too.

I’d suggest learning a little more about the full situation before we try to throw food aid at a famine—often that makes the long-term situation worse as it ruins local farmers who tried to produce a surplus, and famines tend to be political creations anyway. And funding tiny projects, not big tempting cash cows (though lots of tiny projects get to be very expensive, since you need more people on the ground to investigate). The expectation is that if you get a degree you deserve to get a government job—that expectation has to change. Define educational objectives and focus on those, with the goal that the farmer will be a citizen farmer, the clerk a citizen clerk, and that education will not be a job training program.

All easier to say than do... The book does not depict Africans as puppets, but as their own agents, working with the environment they found themselves in, or which they helped create. The important changes have to come from the African groups; they can't be imposed. And some will turn out better than others.

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