Archive for the 'shockfull of absurdities' Category

Assorted Nigerian Stories

April 9, 2008
  • Ibrahim Sheme posts a Kano State Censorship Board press briefing on the film industry which includes gems like:

    It is professionally a tradition and globally accepted; sensitivities are never compromised in filming projects. Currently, China is a clear testimony where a prominent production company was duly punished and suspended from further filming.

    Gentlemen of the press, I want make it categorically clear that religion, culture and public dignity cannot be compromised by any good Government in the name of economic interest persuaded by certain segment of the society, taking into cognizance the social responsibility being entrusted by our people to this administration which operates within the tenets of Shari’a legal system.

    The official guidelines for registration as a film operative are:

    A film operative must observed and respect religion, Culture and public interest.
    Female artiste, musician and lyricist must be under the care of her husband, parent or guardian (Not independent as the case may be)

    Singing and dancing has been cancelled in Hausa films.

    Producer must discourage free mingling of opposite sexes for the whole night during production

  • Not to be outdone by crazy Muslims, Anambra State outlaws encouraging the use of condoms and bans the advocacy and distribution of “un-natural” birth control to please crazy Christians. The state commissioner for health declares:

    “Instead of teaching children how to use condoms to enjoy sex they should be taught total abstinence”

    “The use of condoms has greatly encouraged immorality.”

  • This BBC story about a jailed rebel leader killing snakes in his cell and accusing the military of attempted murder sounds may be funny but anyone who has read “Bound To Violence” or who is vaguely familiar with semi-mythical historic events that inspired it would think that some traditions never die.
  • In Nigeria too, the far-left continue its tradition of vicious factionalism as the Democratic Socialist Movement-dominated branch of the Lagos State chapter of the National Conscience Party (a leftist coalition) quits to “join and actively participate in a political platform called Campaign for the Formation of a Genuine Mass Working Peoples’ Party. The “anti-masses, right-wing orientation and strangulating bureaucratic conducts of the NCP” and the historical failures of “every attempt to build a mass working peoples party on the basis of reforming capitalism, instead of a conscious strive to overthrow this unjust system” are cited as reasons for the split.
  • Via Loomnie, I learn that the minister of Commerce and Industry announced, at a meeting with the local automotive manufacturers that the ban on importing cars past a certain age will be extended to buses and trucks, to the satisfaction of the Port of Cotonou, the smugglers and the guys who know how to keep this bus on the road:

    Photo by Flickr user zouzouwizman used under a Creative Commons license

  • Perhaps out of boredom, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister advocates appealing the Bakassi judgement. His argument is weak but I guess the goal is to make Nigerians believe that he tries.
  • A deadly clash in Ota over traditional title claims and a weird quid pro quo proves that there’s nothing inherently non-violent about chieftancy politics.
  • Nigeria recently went through one of its recurrent oil shortages. An Irin report from Kano makes it seem like only the North is affected, with local officials as always blaming speculation:

    “the real problem is that IPMAN, which provides fuel to about 90 percent of filling stations in Nigeria, is hoarding fuel in anticipation of fuel price increases.”

    The head of the north-west division of the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN) blaming geography:

    “When it arrives at the ports [in the southern cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt] most of it is distributed nearby and very little makes it this far north.”

    While The Vanguard reports that IPMAN officially blames a N17 billion debt owe to it by the government and Aijustwannawrite explains that it’s a complicated story involving unions and ethanol content limits in cargo. And of course, the effect of price controls is ignored.

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    This is a bit longer.

    April 4, 2008

    I wish I could wrap up posts about really interesting topics like the non-existent Brazzaville-Kinshasa bridge or the real meaning of King Alfonso’s letters to the King of Portugal or the reality of atavistic ethnic voting but they’re in limbo due to constant re-writing propelled by incomplete proof-reads. So instead I’ll just keep wondering about how CATO Institute recruits its African fellows, associates and sponsored writers.

    So today’s topic is Andrew Mwenda wrong argument in this Cato foreign policy brief.

    The World Bank argued that Uganda “deserved” debt relief because government had created a “good policy environment” through macro-economic policy reforms that led to impressive and sustained economic growth rates for over a decade. On the flip side, the World Bank argued that Uganda “needed” debt relief because its debt burden was unsustainable and not only was going to undermine future economic growth but also was going to put economic reforms in jeopardy.

    If Uganda “deserved” debt relief, then it should not have “needed” it. When a government implements good reforms leading to high growth rates, those growth rates should then enable the government to meet its obligations to its creditors. Conversely, countries that need debt relief often don’t deserve it because they have pursued wrong-headed economic policies. In such cases, debt relief could encourage them to continue down the wrong path.

    And later

    From independence in 1962 to 1998, Uganda’s debt grew to US$3.2 billion. In the five years following the HIPC debt relief of US$2 billion, the debt rose to US$4.9 billion. Uganda did not accumulate that debt burden because of “mismanagement” under the brutal regime of Idi Amin. On the contrary, over 90 percent of Uganda’s debt was incurred during the implementation of World Bank– and IMF-sponsored economic reform policies of stabilisation and structural adjustment, beginning in 1981. If those policies had worked as their advocates argued, Uganda should have been able to pay its way out of debt.

    I should start by making clear that this is not his core argument against foreign aid. His main complain is that the share of foreign aid in Uganda’s budget makes the government less accountable to its people and in a way I do agree with that. So this is a side argument set up to explain the unintended consequences debt forgiveness and foreign aid had on Uganda.

    Yet, it’s still wrong. It is true that colonial governments and early independence ones managed to have somehow balanced budgets. And it is true it seems illogical that a country that has implemented reforms that has generated growth shouldn’t need more aid (or debt forgiveness) to sustain itself. But that’s only if you don’t think about how government revenue and some aspects of spending are actually handled.

    To start with spending, at least in the beginning, colonial administrations didn’t face much pressure. Force and patronage were used to extract revenue while spending was either limited to the needs of colonists and their businesses (in infrastructure mostly) or mostly done by religious organisations with their own financial sources (education and to a lesser extend health). That surely makes balancing a budget easy. But as nationalistic political pressure mounted, spending followed. In a the late years most colonies in Africa ran deficits as schools, hospitals were built and civil servants hired in a late attempt to buy off support and coercion was harder to use to generate revenue. The newly independent governments inherited those demands, only exacerbated by the expectations they generated while making their nationalist case. But even beyond that, Uganda’s population went from 5 millions in the early 50’s to almost 30 millions nowadays. So not only the percentage of the population benefiting from government services increase but the total population doubled every twenty years.

    Yet, one could expect the Ugandan economy to have grown and therefore generated more revenue in the same period. Well, that is where the revenue collection side start to matter.
    The Uganda Economy did in fact grow before the Structural Adjustment program but quite slowly (and with downturns like during the second Obote rule). As a result, at best the GDP per inhabitant stayed constant. Not exactly the best way to face ever increasing spending demands (the per capital GDP went from 8% of that of the United States in 1950 to 3% nowadays, compare that to Korea going from 10% to almost 50%).

    And that’s where the main idea insight behind Structural Adjustment Programs comes in. Basically the argument was that low-performing economies were low performing because of policies that distorted economic activity. Such distortions could be labour laws, macro-economic imbalances but also and perhaps most importantly how governments generated revenue.

    Africa, still hasn’t reached the levels of standardisation and bureaucratisation most western economies had when income taxes became the main source of revenue. Because of that, other means have been used. Using forced labour or establishing export monopolies for key products or putting high tariffs in place or selling licences to operate or privatising some social expenses were the ways used to finance colonial states. Independent governments continued to use those instruments, only even more bluntly. “Marketing Boards” notoriously bought exportable products at prices much lower than the market rates, legislation obligated companies to provide housing, healthcare, pay for infrastructure, companies had to purchase a plethora of licences, merchants could only work in official state-owned markets with high rents, firms were nationalised to put more money in the state coffers. As a result, farmers didn’t have as many incentives to produce more exportables, companies concentrated on high-revenue sectors in which high operation costs weren’t that much of an issue, prices of goods in markets stayed high, entrepreneurship was limited to the well-connected, the rich or the very patient, investors were scared off etc.. All those very efficient way to collect taxes were indeed limiting economic growth (the share of government in Uganda’s GDP was the highest during the late 70’s recession).

    The Washington Consensus proposed to remove all of those distortions. Governments were supposed to generate revenue through a simplified tariff system and the two modern forms of taxation: Value Added Tax and Income/Corporate Tax which all grow as fast as the economy without slowing it down (as far as the rates are reasonable) But may be because the people are the IMF are actually a bit realistic, they did realise that there would be an imbalance in government budgets in the short run. After all, it would take time for the growth to happen, it would take even more time for the economy to formalise and the relevant services to modernise. Furthermore while public service wages were frozen and some expenses cut, it would have been politically impossible to cut spending enough. Making the transition too hard is the best way to nurture nostalgia for the inefficient good old days, just look at Russia. That’s why budget support and more loans and aid were a crucial part of the package even if the new policies are designed to eventually generate the necessary growth.

    I’m not sure I emphasised enough on how much modernisation is necessary for an African state to rely exclusively on VAT, income and corporate taxes. Only people and companies in the formal economy pay those. You’ll need your petty merchants and your small farmers to actually keep accounting books and have an incentive to declare high profits or an incentive not to lie. You’ll need every worker to declare most of his income and yes that include the money one makes from import 5 phones during a vacation to London or the wages of your cook/cousin/baby sitter/gardener. You also need your civil servants to be trained to analyse and understand the paperwork and probably pay them well enough to make bribes less tempting. You also need them to actually be present outside of Kampala. In this context, tax evasion may even happen involuntarily. That’s why simply reducing the highest marginal rate is not really the solution, especially when one says that “the rich and politically well connected don’t pay taxes”. If one can get away with not paying thanks to political connections, one wont pay no matter what the marginal rate is. And improving spending will require as much effort and investment since someone would have to be paid to properly clear an update those military payrolls.

    Andrew Mwenda however does make some interesting point like when he mentions total military spending or prestige expenses. However I strongly doubt that someone who believes basic health or primary education are a waste of money and who is capable of making as dogmatic and uninformed arguments as the one I discussed really wants to discuss government efficiency, accountability, growth and modernisation and is not just trying to please the crowd and advance his own political status. And CATO still looks desperate by publishing any pro-market anti-government African argument no matter how wrong it is.

    Isn’t this how it always starts ?

    March 17, 2008

    from the BBC

    Bundu Dia Kongo (the People of Congo) challenged the state’s authority and tried to impose its own rule in the villages of western Congo.

    This included levying a fine of a pig on those who cheated on their wives, and whipping teachers whose schools were not well-maintained.

    But the religious group also has its own militia made of young men armed with sticks and machetes.

    First of all, that’s bad translation. Bundu Dia Kongo means People of Kongo, not Congo. The difference being that Kongo is an ethnic group and a former kingdom based around the lower part of the Congo River.

    The Kingdom officially converted to Christianity in 1491 and Kongo nationalism has that interesting tendency to express itself through messianic Christian movements (here, here, here, here, here, here, here). That’s for people who haven’t read this.

    That said, this is not the point of this entry. I guess the cause of concern is that Bundi Di Kongo seems more active than its predecessors in establishing itself as the legitimate rulers of Kongo both politically and religiously. And the failure of DRC as a state and the absence of any national Kongo political figure makes success a lot more likely.

    I don’t have much sympathy for colonial borders and post-colonial states and I think there are strong arguments for most calls for autonomy and independence. But I value secularism even more and this smells like the beginning of something nasty.

    Why can’t we have better intellectuals ?

    February 16, 2008

    In the same week, two of Africa’s leading intellectuals have managed to publish pieces on the Kenya Crisis that I wouldn’t have saved, let alone published on this uniformed and amateur blog.

    Ali Mazrui, takes a break from defending sharia in Northern Nigeria and discussing identity to ask “Which prince charming will revive democracy in Africa ?“. The list of “murderers” of democracy in Africa is problematic but the conclusion that implies that South Africa can give it a “kiss of life” is even worse both because of the choice of “prince charming” and because of the idea that democracy can somehow be imposed in a top-down way by some benevolent foreign intervention.

    George Ayittey, take a break from talking about corruption to say, with a profusion of caps and exclamation points that “Kenya does not have to re-invent the wheel” since there is an African solution to solving the crisis: holding a national conference. In this case too, there are all sorts of problems with the arguments and the analysis of past events. But this sentence, taken from the piece, says in a succinct way how I felt while reading it:

    We need an intelligent opposition to make democracy work in Africa – not the rah-rah noisy opposition

    This is all very disappointing. If our respected intellectuals are too lazy to make well-thought and patient analysis and can’t write it soberly, how do we expect our politicans and our voters to somehow show restrain and not behave in a reckless manner ?

    I will probably write more about the arguments later but for now, read them yourself and just for fun, try to guess which arguments disturbed me so much.

    A bad idea from Kenya

    February 5, 2008

    Via Global Voices, Oscar Obonyo says:

    Judging from events of the just concluded presidential polls I opine that Kenyans ought to change the existing electoral laws to subject the holder of the Office of President to elections only after a straight term of ten years.
    Why cant we face it? That an African President “cannot lose” an election and revise our electoral rules accordingly.

    I agree that the possibility of reelection for incumbents in countries with a strong executive is a recipe for meaningless elections. And it does make sense to set up term limits accordingly. What I don’t understand is why Obonyo proposes a single ten years term and not just a single five years one. May be he simply doesn’t know that some countries did or do set up limits on consecutive terms. As a matter of fact, most latin american countries have during the past century adopted such a measure to prevent election-related troubles and the rise of life-presidents. Venezuela from 1959 to Chavez, Costa Rica since 1948, Panama since 1989, Colombia from 1910 to 2005 all have experienced stability and peaceful regime changes (and even economic growth) thanks to it. Mexico went even further as it bans any previous president, even provisional ones from assuming office a second time. Why don’t we learn from those examples ?

    I also think the talk about term limits is a bit overrated. For one, changing the president is not changing the regime, as the long rule of CMM in Tanzania, BDP in Botswana or the even longer PRI rule in Mexico has shown. And even in real competitive set-up, nothing prevents the incumbent from rigging elections to favour his hand-picked successor (Preval’s first term in Haiti and the most recent Nigerian election come to mind). And I’m really surprised designing systems that would limit presidential powers is never part of those debates.

    African libertarians need to revisit their classics..

    January 31, 2008

    Franklin Cudjoe, editor of African Liberty, a CATO-sponsored african libertarian platform offers us yet another of those convulted long essays mixing up a bunch of different arguments in order to attack some government policy. The policy, a plan to directly give $8 to $15 every month to the poorest Ghaneans, is described as a “centrally-planned waste”.

    See, as far as I know, the libertarian critic of central planning is that markets, the sum of individual decisions, are the most efficient way to allocate ressources. And that’s why, if there has to be social policy, poverty-alleviation measures, direct cash transfers are usually prefered to more market-disrupting measures. School vouchers, for instance, are considered a better way to provide education to the poorest than public schools. After all giving vouchers or money directly to the poor is trusting individuals to make their own decisions instead of governments inefficiently allocating ressources. That’s why I’m confused when I read:

    How much of all the money sourced above and the one for merry-making every other month will go into agricultural reforms? Would it ensure secure land tenure for farmers to enhance large scale production? Train agric extension officers to advise farmers on best farming practices, provide soft loans, reduced prices of agricultural inputs, support infrastructure to facilitate storage and movement of goods, so that our energetic rural youth will not flock to the cities in search of absentee jobs?

    My guess is not much. But then again, that’s because I’m one of those socialist/collectivists/statists Cudjoe is supposed to rant about. One who think that government intervention, via infrastructure, via education, via fertilizer subsidies, would work faster and may be better than market-based allocation. However if you value freedom, liberty and all that, why would one be concerned about how the money is used. And why would one think the energic rural youth would flock to the cities and not use their cash to buy agricultural inputs, build storage facilities, roads or invest in training ? Isn’t that the magic of the market ?

    So yeah, I’m disappointed. Can’t the western libertarian network find smarter and more principled writers and thinkers to promote their cause in Africa ? May be, we’d get some interesting debates and may be one or two good policy initiatives could be squeezed out of it.

    PS: to be fair, most of the article is dedicated to describing make-work schemes, utilities subsidies and other programs that are more deserving of libertarian attack but I did call it a “convulted long essay mixing up a bunch of different arguments” for a reason.

    criticizing the results of one’s own actions…

    January 21, 2008

    Every now and then, for laughs, I quickly browse the website of the Republic of Congo’s semi-official pro-government newspaper, les Depeches de Brazzaville. Its publisher, the french political consultant Jean-Paul Pigasse writes those hilarious editorials ranting about neo-colonialism and french arrogant involvement everytime there’s a negative mention of his boss in the french media.

    So while looking for my funny irony fix, I stumbled upon something even weirder. This article (in french), beautifully titled “Minister Criticizes Cement Price”, discusses the speech Minister of Industrial Development and the Promotion of the Private Sector Emile Mabonzo gave at the official annual ceremony its ministry (and others) organizes to exchange new year wishes or something (i have a really hard time translating the concept, but yeah it’s stupid and wasteful and pointless and stupid). He apparently attacked cement traders and retailers for charging high prices in Brazzaville and in rural areas, particularly the enclaved North. Current prices apparently (loosely transpated quote) “don’t guarantee peace and social egality those populations are entitled too” and traders were encouraged to “provide cement to Brazzaville, be fair and equitable, ask the right price for cement, show solidarity with your countrymen“.

    What’s really interesting is that in Congo-Brazzaville, cement production and importation is a (semi-private) monopoly and so is transport to Brazzaville. The northern rural areas are dependant on air transport from Brazzaville and some recent decisions didn’t really help reduce transport costs.
    And guess what ? Our smart minister says “huge parts of the nation’s industry has suffered and keeps suffering from CFCO’s (the railroad) troubles. The slow delivery of cement to the cities helps a frightenning and shameful speculation on a basic product” and adds “our production has been limited to 40% of its capacity due to a lack of fluidity between input importation and production areas, cement production areas and cement sale areas.“.

    Now let’s get it right. Because of “difficulties” in the government-owned and managed railroad, production of cement is low. Delivery to main cities is irregular for the same reason. On top of that, non-existence of roads and railways makes more expensive air transport the only choice in some parts of the country. But then air transport itself gets irregular because of recent policies. That’s without mentionning the fact that the option of importing cement through other sources is made impossible. And with all that, our dear minister blames traders and their shameful and terrifying speculation for rising prices ?

    See, that’s why the talk about corruption and swiss bank accounts and missing oil money bores me to death. Incompetence and ignorance of basic economic concepts is a much, much better explanation.

    The size of government fallacy

    January 8, 2008

    Ben Ofosu-Appiah makes the mistake in a long article on the socio-political and economic environment in Ghana :

    Again, government needs to downsize. The current size of the government is too big and costly, in fact over bloated. Japan runs the World’s second largest economy with just 17 ministers. How come a country like Ghana has over 70 ministers and deputy ministers not counting the nephews and nieces who double as special assistants? (..) The people are overburdened with taxes while government displays a great deal of fiscal indiscipline. (..) Elsewhere taxes are cut to spur growth, but in Ghana, an economic team that lacks fresh ideas always look up to increased taxation as a way of generating revenue. Government needs to simplify taxes, lower tariffs on imports, and clear away red tape to encourage entrepreneurial skills. Too much taxes stifle growth.

    It’s far from being a frindge opinion. Ugandan journalist and activist Andrew Mwenda has similar views in his infamous TEDTalk speech (for some reason, I can’t embed the video). His argument about government waste in Uganda is based on a few facts:

      – 25% of the government budget goes to “public administration”
      – 70 cabinet ministers
      – 114 presidential advisors
      – 81 units of local government
      – 333 members of parliament
      – 134 commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies

    The fact is, in Africa, cabinets do tend to be extraordinarly large. 40, 50 ministers is the norm with many countries having more. The notable exception (apart from loose federation that is Comoros where only 9 ministries cover all federal competences) being Africa’s growth and governance success story: Botswana and its 14+3 members cabinet.

    Of course, years of budgetary crisis and payment emmergencies, millions in aid and debt without much to show for it have made us all wonder where the money went. And since anyone on the continent can tell you long stories of state largesse, especially at the highest level a narrative based big governments and big cabinets is appealing.

    What makes it even more appealing is that Botswana is a success story and even bigger and richer countries like Japan or the US (or even France and the UK) are indeed governed by small cabinets. So yeah, Mwenda, Ofosu-Appiah and many other think that growth, government expendure and cabinet size are perhaps correlated.

    The problem is that such correlation simply doesn’t exist because government are usually a bit bigger than Cabinets.

    Take a look at goverment expendure as a percentage of GDP which in my opinion says a lot about the importance of government in the economy.
    According to the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom Ghana and its 50 ministers stand at 33% which is slightly lower than the USA’s 36% or Japan’s 37% but higher than the 23% of GDP spent by Uganda’s 70 ministers and much lower than Botswana’s wooping 43% (and just for your information, Zimbabwe is 25%). And the tax revenue as a percentage of GDP ? 25% in the US, 25% in Japan, 22% in Ghana and then 11% in Uganda and 40% in Botswana.

    While the 2 to 1 ratio between government spending and tax revenue in Uganda definetly support Mwenda’s narrative about Aid and free-lunch politics, the fact remains that Uganda’s government is a low spender by international standards. And Ofosu-Appiah’s comparision between Ghana and Japan is problematic as Ghana is neither spends nor taxes more than Japan. It’s not particularly more fiscally irresponsible either (though the 15% inflation has to come from somewhere).

    The focus on the number of ministers is indeed strange as it says nothing about the size or the cost of civil service or the budget. And I mean, when one even implies that technocratic Japan could be an example of limited government, you have to be suspicious.

    Yet, the size of cabinet is not totally irrelevant. While it says nothing about expendure, it does say a lot about affectation of those ressources. Mwenda’s best argument is the fact that a quarter of Uganda’s budget goes to what is basically overhead costs. Now that could be related to the size of the cabinet.
    Basically, when you take a closer look at the ugandan cabinet, you see a lot of doubles and a lot of specialization. A president, a Vice-President, A Prime Minister and 3 deputy Prime Ministers is a bit much, especially when there’s a Minister for the Presidency and (*takes a long breath*) a Minister-for-General-Duties-Office-of-the-Prime-Minister. At best those are people paid to do nothing. At worse, they are actually doing something: producing a lot of bureaucratic white noise.
    The other issue with such configuration is the political appointees to technocrat issue. In short, when Japan limits its cabinet to 14 ministers, it actually limits the number of non-civil servants in the government. Everyone below the ministers are professional technocrats. And to an extend when you have a Minister of Roads & Highways, a Minister of Ports, Harbors, & Railways, a Minister of Transportation, a Minister of Aviation like Ghana does, instead of just a Minister of Works & Transportion like in Botswana that means a lot of political micromanagement and probably serious coordination issues.
    And even assuming the political appointees are technocrats, a new ministry means more investment at the top level, that is a building in the capital, a ministerial staff, cars, whatever. Each of those dollars is one that doesn’t go to doing real government work that the population actually needs.

    But see, the issue is that talking about inefficient government doesn’t hit the same way. After all, what could happen is your government actually listenning and getting its thing together. And when you’re a professional barker or you have your own political ambitions, that’s not acceptable.

    The problem with Ayittey

    December 20, 2007

    I had a lightbulb moment when I read this:

    “if political elites spent less time criticizing government and more time setting debates within the context of the institutional structure and demands of the lawmaking process, citizens might not be so critical of the political process”

    The sentence is totally unrelated to anything african. It’s from a political science study examining american citizen’s relation to the belief that government should be run like a business. But yet it applies.

    Since the first time I’ve stumbled upon George Ayyitey‘s work something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on had disturbed me. After reading more articles, watching more speeches, listenning to more interviews, I started to think it was small factual mistakes or suspect little rhetorical figures or his nativist libertarianism. But I just realized it’s somehow bigger.

    Ayyitey is one of the rare african voices heard in the “why is Africa so bad ?” big debate. Of course, him being African and all that, he wouldn’t touch the racial-cultural-iq-savages-nigger angle with the ten feet pole. And he’s definetly not part of the “save them by sending billions” advocacy group. He starts by tautologically stating that Africans are poor because Africa (as an economy) is poor. That statement is more brave than it seems to be. A lot of us have a hard time wrapping our minds around the simple idea that oil, diamonds, timber or cocoa are already part of that low GDP. But the real fun is into looking for explanations.

    Basically, when facing an economic failure, one has few options: it could be a government failure, an institutional failure, a market failure. Ayittey goes for the government failure but not in the sense that would include the failure of governments to prevent market failures, instead we’re talking about the narrow sense, failure caused by governments and their policies. And when talking about bad policies, one can wonder if they were badly planned, unplanned or if something else went wrong, Ayittey goes for badly planned from the start. But then, where they badly planned because of incompetence or malevolence ? Ayittey focuses on malevolence. But malevolence can take many forms and have many motives, is it self-serving ? Is the benefit political or personnal ? Here Ayittey seems to say personally self-serving, namely, corruption. But even corruption includes a large array of practices from the custom officer taking a bribe for looking the other way to the minister receiving a kickback on a government contract to pure looting of the national coffers. Ayittey’s articles mainly mention the latter.

    In short, Ayittey again and again states that Africa is poor because it’s ruled by kleptocratic dictators. It’s not exactly a dissenting opinion. The majority of the population anywhere in Africa agrees and the minority that doesn’t agree would about a past leader or someone they don’t have a (political, financial, ethnic) tie to. Yet, it’s not a new or interesting opinion either. Sure you can spend days discussing the Mobutu-Abacha-Mugabe-Idi Amin axis of evil or the Babangida-Bongo-Moi school of corrupt political trickery but how it won’t show you there’s a way out, let alone showing you the way out.

    My problem with Ayittey is that he’s distracting. As a scholar, an economist, I somehow expect him to properly analyze problems and carefully propose solutions. Yet I don’t even see the beginning of an attempt. And no, motivational talks about the existence of “cheetahs” who are about to take on “hippos” have no other effect than to make a few geeks important about themselves. Likewise, pessimistic predictions about prospects for undescribed “reforms” that end up with suggesting a reduction of the political offer (you have to read it) are not a way to start finding solutions anymore than an eulogy that quickly mentions misguided policies but really focuses on corruption, democracy and corruption (did i mention corruption ?).

    There is a real urgency, people. With commodities prices going up, governments in Africa are engaging in yet another round of underfunded mamouth infrastructure projects, multi-billion ambitious industrial plants, renegotiations on mineral ressources royalties or city beautification and there’s no one to explain why it didn’t work before. Nor there’s really anyone to explain and discuss which ideas from Asia would really make a difference and which wouldn’t. And the discussions about the IMF and World Bank recommandation remain emotional because no informed african voice is evaluating the policies themselves and their effects.

    So yes, it may be fun to think of new ways to use the word “vampire” or it may be challenging to stuff every editorial with examples of corruption in 5 different countries and 5 different decades or it may make sense to scream “small government, now !” while praising Botswana (one of the higher rate of public investments in the world) and it may be lucrative to recycle the same speech for myriad of organizations. But it’s all a waste of time, as constructive and relevant as blaming the West / Colonialism / IMF / Multinationals / Slavery / Racism like so many of his fellows do. May be that’s the real issue, not a failure of leadership but a failure of the intellectual sphere.

    How did they get away with it ?

    December 3, 2007

    1887, in Congo Free State, King of the Belgians Leopold II’s private propriety, a company was created to build and mantain a railway which would bypass the fierce (videos) 350 kilometers rapids cutting off the huge naviguable Congo River basin from the ocean.
    Lasting from 1890 to 1898, the works on the 366 kilometers railway ended up costing 1,932 lives and were mentionned in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness“.

    In the early twenties, on the other side of the river, in French Congo, colonial concession companies are getting tired of using the belgian railroad and demand their own railroad bypassing the rapids. Built from 1924 to 1934, the 502 kilometers Congo-Ocean costed the lives of 17,000 people by conservative estimates and was mentionned in nobel-prize winner André Gide’s “Travels in the Congo“.

    In short, a project conducted at the end of the 19th century by a colonial regime that managed to horrify and disgust fellow colonial nations by its brutality and greed only caused a fraction of the human loss caused by a similar project implimented 30 years later by a colonial regime generally viewed as benign who also had, because of progress, access to better technology and knowledge about the difficulties. (to be fair, on the belgian side, alteration works on the railroad in the 20’s caused 7,000 deaths)

    So how is that possible ?

    The story is simple: costs.
    For a few reasons, the Congo Free State was able to attract far more capital than the neighbouring french colony and therefore, at least for that project, used more machinery and less (forced) labor. Albert Londres who visited the Congo-Ocean site wrote:

    “I’ve seen railways built, you usually see machinery. Here, only negros. Negros replace machines, trucks, crane; why not dynamite too ?
    To carry 103 kilograms loads of cement, “Les Batignolles” (the contractor) only used a stick and the head of two negroes !”

    Furthermore, local labour being already used by Concession Companies, most of the workers were “imported” from what is nowadays Chad and C.A.R. to remedy the shortage. Congo being hot and wet was (and still is) a high malaria risk area, while the workers being from dry regions had little immunity caused even more deaths than the brutality of the work.
    And several other “low-cost” decisions were made: making the workers walk from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire with the loads instead of using the belgian train, a completly inadequate food supply, choosing the hardest possible route because it was shorter and ended in a natural deep-water harbour..

    My question however is how did the french get away with that ? Why isn’t that cited as often as the Leopold attrocities as example of the horrors of colonialism ?