Africa is People

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In an article published in 1999 by Chinua Achebe called “Africa is People” (see full text: Africa is People ), he tells us about an invitation he received to speak at an anniversary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He had no idea why he was invited, and no idea what he would say. Years later, he was invited again, this time to speak at a forum of the  World Bank chaired by Wolfensohn. The following is an extract from this article: 

“They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specifically designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire. The most recurrent prescriptions for this condition were the removal of subsidies on food and fuel and the devaluation of the national currency. The Governor of Kenya asked the experts to consider the case of Zambia, which according to him had accepted, and had been practicing, a structural adjustment regime for something like 10 years, and whose economic condition was now worse than it had been when they began their treatment.

At that point I received something like a stab of insight. It suddenly became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signaled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, nor more and no less! “Here  you are, spinning your fine theories to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even  have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people? I will tell you the experience of my own country, Nigeria, with structural adjustment. After two years of this remedy we saw the country’s minimum wage fall in value from the equivalent of 15 British pounds to 5 pounds a month. This is not a lab report; it is not a mathematical exercise. We are talking about someone whose income which is already miserable enough, is now reduced to one-third of what it was two years ago. And this flesh-and-blood man has a wife and children. You say he should simply go home and tell them to be patient. Now let me ask you this question. Would you recommend a similar remedy to your own government? How do you sell it to an elected president? You are asking him to commit political suicide, or perhaps to get rid of elections altogether until he fixed the economy. Do you realize that’s what you are doing?

The point of all this is to alert policymakers in such institutions as the World Bank to the image burden that Africa bears into the 21st century and make them recognize how that image had molded contemporary attitudes, including perhaps their own, to that continent.

Do I hear in my mind’s ear someone sighing wearily: there we go again; another session of whining and complaining! Let me assure you that I personally abhor and detest whiners. No, I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings. And I am hard-headed enough to realize that we must not be soft on them, must never go out to justify them. But I am also rational enough to realize that we should strive to understand our failings objectively and not simply swallow the mystifications and mythologies cooked up by those whose goodwill we have every reason to suspect.

My request to the World Bank goes to the very root of the problem: the looting of the wealth of poor nations by corrupt leaders and their cronies. This crime is compounded by the expatriation of these funds into foreign banks where they are put into the service of foreign economies. Consequently the victim country is defrauded twice if my economics is correct: it is defrauded of the wealth that is stolen from its treasury, and also of the development potential of that wealth.

In asking the World Bank to take a lead in the recovery of the stolen resources of poor countries, I am fully aware that such criminal transactions are not made through the World Bank. I am also aware that banks are not set up to act as a police force. But we live in terrible times when an individual tyrant of a small clique of looters in power can destroy the lives and the future of whole countries and whole populations by their greed. The consequences of these actions can be of genocidal proportions.

Let me round this up with a nice little coda. Africa Is People has another dimension. Africa believes in people, in cooperation with people. If the philosophical dictum of Descartes – I think therefore I am – represents a European individualist ideal, the Bantu declaration – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a human is human because of other humans) – represents an African communal aspiration.

Our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We rise above the animal together, or not at all. If we learned that lesson even this late in the day we would have taken a millennial step forward.”

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