Africa as the World’s Problem Child

Africa as the World’s Problem Child

Before I came to London to study for a Masters in International Development at the London School of Economics in September 2019, I had never been to Europe — or to any part of the Western world for that matter. The “Global North”, if you like. However, I never thought that the fact that I had lived the entire two decades plus of my life on “the continent” was a problem for me in any way. I considered myself very well read and somewhat well spoken, as were all my friends. I had never been to England but I had stayed up to follow the Brexit vote, watching the numbers change on The Guardian in 2016 and understood the issues (including the psychological tactics used in the campaign) as well as the next guy. When Donald Trump won the American elections, I usually pointed people to some of the other nationalist movements in the West as evidence that surely the world must have seen this coming. Why was everyone pretending to be shocked? I passionately discussed the Gilet Jaune in France with French friends. When there was a terrorist attack in a New Zealand mosque, I pointed people back to a New York Times article about Le Grand Remplacement ideology, and how I had known it would become a real problem very quickly. Debates about world politics were very commonplace in various African spaces. We were Africans living in Africa but we regarded ourselves as being on equal footing with the rest of the world.

Make no mistake though, I was not unaware of all the things that were wrong with my continent. I however had a more optimistic approach to things. I sat in roundtables, conferences and restaurants and argued vehemently with academics, colleagues and friends against “African exceptionalism” — this idea that there was something uniquely wrong with Africa. I spoke up whenever I felt a fellow African was being too negative or defeatist. I made statements like “We die here” — a popular Nigerian phrase that was used to express a deep commitment to a person or cause. I was acutely aware of the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Northern Nigeria caused by the Boko Haram insurgency. How could I not be, when I had visited Internally Displaced Persons camps and interacted with girls with wide eyes that only wanted to go home. I knew we had a problem. I was working in development and I knew all the important numbers.

Then I moved to London, and I started studying International Development at LSE.

Raise your hand if you’re from a poor country

There’s this graph. It’s pretty much one of the first graphs you’ll see, if you ever decide to venture into the deep waters of International Development. It shows how some centuries ago, the world economy was basically in a pretty bad shape. Then some economies took off, leaving some behind. Then some other economies took off, leaving one particular macro-region behind. And that macro-region continues to get poorer. I could give you one guess what region it is, but because I’m a nice person, you can have two.

I like to say, and have had to say a few times since I got here, that I don’t think anyone is better informed about the “African problem” than Africans themselves. We may not know the numbers, we may not be aware of our global rankings, but we know that yesterday our neighbour Sandra died in the hospital because there was no doctor available to see her. We know that a family in Onitsha died from carbon monoxide poisoning because of the electric generator there were using to provide power for themselves. We know how many of us have been defeated by our countries. You want to tell me about corruption in Nigeria? My own father produced and supplied solar powered street lights to the Lagos state government in the 90s. The payment for his hard work as the founder of what was a young engineering start-up was shared amongst the government officials, leaving him in debt.

You want to tell me about poor public service administration? I left my job as an Aide in the Office of the Senate President with a two-month salary arrears. Poverty? My family was probably lower-middle income, but there were times when as an 11 year old, I had to cook a meal for my family with less than $2. I will forever be grateful for my parents though, and their stubborn insistence to give their children quality education that they could not afford. I went to one of the best private secondary schools in Lagos, and that is one of the reasons why I can write this article today. I have since gone ahead to have a somewhat privileged adult life in Abuja with a car, a nice apartment and all the works.

On the other hand, just behind my lovely gated housing estate on the beautiful Katampe Hills is a rural settlement where most households are definitely living on less than $2 a day. It doesn’t matter who you are in Africa, you know for a fact that things are not as they ought to be. I remember distinctly, how when one night in Dakar as a group of us were walking to a club after a nice apero, an Italian girl screamed after she almost stepped on some sleeping street children. I walked past the boys, asleep on the side of the road and huddled up against the cold, and I felt a helpless kind of sadness. About 30,000 Talibes live on the streets of Dakar, and the government has not been able to do much about them.

So, we know. We know we have a problem. I guess we just didn’t know we were the world’s problem. At least, in the way that it is presented in the field of International Development. Remember how I complained that Africa either didn’t show up or was at the bottom of most graphs? Well, that’s not quite true.

Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth?

The two graphs above are from the 2018 Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report by the World Bank. The long story short of it is that global poverty is now more an African problem. I remember some of the headlines — “The New Face of Poverty is African” “Nigeria has Overtaken India as the Poverty Capital of the World”. The second graph is the scariest. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s poor will live in Africa by 2030. Poverty is declining in Africa, albeit slowly. However, high fertility rates mean that the absolute number is going up. My beloved country, Nigeria, the so-called “Giant of Africa” appears to be living up to this name in more ways than one. What a curious position for a country to be in — the biggest economy on the continent but at the same time its poverty headquarters. I’m reminded of an exchange that happened in one of my classes where a student asked the lecturer why the current growth rate of the global economy was a problem. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I knew the answer. The rate of population growth in Africa meant that it represented a burden and challenge to the global economy. “The Hopeless Continent”, if you like.

Needless to say, this was a lot for me to take in. I would sit in class after class, lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar and be confronted with charts, graphs and all the other forms numbers take all repeating the same chorus — Africa is a problem. In fact, at one public lecture on feminism where Rwanda showed up on a chart of countries with better female representation, the presenter expressed her shock and asked for an explanation of this anomaly from the audience. At a seminar, my Teaching Assistant said to me “It appears Nigerians are very proud of their country, but with all due respect, it is lower middle income and cannot be used as an example.” This time I am reminded of a verse I read in the Bible a long time ago when I used to read it more often, “Can anything good come out of Africa?” I imagined the world’s face turned to me, in question.

What is wrong with you?

I didn’t have to imagine much longer. “Why hasn’t Africa developed?” This question was thrown in my face during a meeting with one of the Professors in my department. I had asked for the meeting because I had some general concerns about the “body language” of my program, and specific concerns about his choice of words in the delivery of one of his lectures.

“Africans need to stop denying that they have a problem.” Like I need to stop denying that I have black skin? Everyone with eyes can see. It is a fact and is not up for discussion. It is also not why I asked for this meeting.

“Africans need to stop blaming their problems on colonialism. South Korea had a more brutal colonial experience under Japan. Look where they are now.” Many things wrong with those statements. But also, I might be wrong but not many African governments reflect much on colonial history. Again, this is not why I am here.

“Why has Africa failed to develop?” I just got here Professor. I don’t know. In fact, this is what I am in this university to find out. But it is not why I am in your office.

I was in his office because I was worried that the characterisation of Africa as a continent in development discourse was seeping into the characterisation of African people. Africa was poor relative to the rest of the world. Yes. But were African people inherently “less able” relative to the rest of the world? No. In summary, Africa wasn’t poor because Africans were stupid. I realised that it was an inference many people made subconsciously and it sometimes found its way into their speech and attitudes. My concern was also because many of the Westerners in my class (future African expats and development workers) were in their formative stage with regards to their opinions about the continent. It was crucial to present a balanced perspective. My fellow African colleagues were already experiencing the consequences of this and were complaining about being talked down by Western peers.

“We need to teach the Africans how to govern themselves.” Depending on who you are and what you’ve read, you may or may not have a problem with that statement. I had a problem with it. Now I am reminded about a peer reviewed paper I found during my undergraduate studies that argued that the average IQ of the sub-Saharan African was 68, reviewing it downwards from a prior measurement of 80. Yes, you read me right. There was a study carried out by researchers simply to prove that black Africans were in fact more stupid than was earlier thought. Google the keywords ‘the average IQ of sub-saharan African’. Please bear in mind that with an IQ below 70, you are considered intellectually disabled with significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning. Or mental retardation, if you like.

Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud

The African American experience is not the African experience, but I daresay, there are many points of intersection. Struggling with the added component of my identity — being black in Europe — and at the same time getting bombarded by so much negativity about Africa was overwhelming. It was hard. Why was Africa lagging so far behind? Why were we unable to negotiate good deals for ourselves? Why was Africa plagued with low productivity? Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson published a paper in 2010 titled “Why is Africa Poor?” But also, why did so many people think they could solve the “African problem”? Everywhere I turned, there was someone prescribing something — “What Africa needs to do is to….” “African leaders just need to….”

I couldn’t run away from it. Running away would’ve been like trying to scrub the brown off my skin. Now I am reminded of a seminar where three of us Africans were working on a task as a group. The seminar leader came to assess our progress then disclaimed loudly “You’re lagging behind!” The thing is, we probably were lagging behind. Partly because I was being argumentative and challenging the opinions of the others. The other thing, though, was that his declaration hung around us like a stubborn odour. Africans lagging behind? What else is new.

I have now since coined the phrase — defensively African. Hello, my name is Teni and I’m from a poor African are you?

Alright, I’ll stop now

How do I end this? I guess by clarifying who I hold responsible. I don’t blame my Professors. I don’t blame my seminar leaders. I don’t blame my coursemates. I don’t even blame the Western society. The people that I blame, are my African leaders.

Yes the IMF might have gone crazy ruining some African economies but who let them in? Or who put us in a position where we had no choice but to let them in? Slavery? We were introduced to the international market and decided the most lucrative thing we could sell was our own people. Colonialism? I haven’t made up my mind on that one. But I am reminded that just recently, the United Kingdom missed the deadline set by the United Nations to return one of its overseas territories.

I blame my African leaders for the past and the present but I’m looking to them for the future. One of them, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, said something that has stuck with me. Yes, the world might see Africa as its problem child but it is essential that we do not see ourselves that way. Many things have gone wrong with regards to African development but some things have gone right. While it might be sexy to discuss what is wrong with Africa, it is more important to roll up our sleeves and work at replicating what we have done well. Let us learn from the African countries that are leading the pack on economic growth and diversification, poverty alleviation, political stability and others.

I would like to say more on this but I really have to stop.