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The Future Is Africa: Time to Understand Its Past
Reviewing Dipo Faloyin’s ‘Africa Is not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent’
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver thought he was sharing a novel twist on a beloved West African rice dish. It was more like throwing a dinner party and insulting the guests. Jollof rice varies country to country; Ghanaians make it one way, Nigerians another, Cameroonians still another. But West Africans were united in saying Oliver got it wrong.
Journalist Dipo Faloyin covers the story toward the end of Africa Is not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent, but it could stand as shorthand for his entire argument. Not only did Oliver fail to recognize the importance of the distinctions between countries; he also assumed he was free to do whatever he wanted with what he found there.
From a certain angle, there’s nothing wrong with Oliver’s dish. “Cultural appropriation” can be gauche at times, but it’s also how some cultures spread their influence and others evolve. We are all beneficiaries of this dynamic in countless ways, including West Africans; tomatoes and chilis aren’t native, after all. But Oliver’s mistake nonetheless represents a larger problem, exemplified by Africa’s history of unfortunate interactions with Europeans.
White outsiders treat Africa as if it were one homogenous mass they are free to plunder. Faloyin’s title gets at the first half of this problem. Africa is not a country—not one thing—even if we tend to think and act like it. Rather, it’s nearly 12 billion square miles of earth, home to 1.4 billion people, divided among roughly 3,000 tribes, speaking more than 2,000 languages, living in fifty-four individual countries. Instead of recognizing this diversity, Westerners tend to see only “poverty or safari, with nothing in between.”
Carving up a Continent
If you notice a proportional discrepancy between tribes and countries, you’re onto a major challenge the continent faces and one which reveals the second half of the problem. To introduce it, Faloyin takes us into the Berlin Conference of 1884, where representatives of European nations and United States gathered to decide how best to carve up Africa without sparking unnecessary conflict with each other.
Incursions had already begun. The British had, for instance, toppled the Ashanti Kingdom in 1874. General Garnet Wolseley’s aide described some of the spoils seized from the capital.
Here were found those gold masks, whose object it is so difficult to divine, made of pure gold hammered into shape. One of these, weighing more than forty-one ounces, represented a ram’s head, and the others the faces of savage men, about half the size of life.
Box after box was opened and its contents hastily examined, the more valuable ones being kept, and the others left. Necklaces and bracelets of gold, Aggery beads, and coral ornaments of various descriptions, were heaped together in boxes and calabashes. Silver plate was carried off. . . . Swords, gorgeous ammunition-belts, caps mounted in solid gold, knives set in gold and silver, bags of gold-dust and nuggets; carved stools mounted in silver, calabashes worked in silver and in gold, silks embroidered and woven, were all passed in review.
Amazingly, the British billed the locals for the inconvenience of the struggle (“50,000 ounces of approved gold”) and justified later aggression and looting because the bill went unpaid. Such prizes paved the way for the “Scramble for Africa” that ran 1885–1914.
Faloyin starts with the image of a large, “impressive and inaccurate” map of Africa that hung on the wall above the conference delegates. The inaccuracies didn’t much matter; it was the idea of Africa that counted. The Europeans would sort out the particulars as they sliced up their bits and pieces, staking claims to property that wasn’t theirs.
Ironically, the proposed land grab triggered the objection of the American representative. Shouldn’t natives be free to determine their own lot, he asked in a display of conscience Native Americans would have welcomed several decades earlier. While international agreements might support his objection, the potential upside was too tempting to ignore.
The great powers sketched arbitrary borders through other people’s lands—sometimes dividing tribes from themselves, other times joining them with mortal enemies. “Today about 30 percent of all African borders are straight lines,” writes Faloyin. “Just long, straight lines, purpose-built to cut through everything in their way.”
The artificial nations that resulted served European purposes as they exerted control and extracted wealth. At the start of the conference 80 percent of African lands were self-ruled; thirty years later European powers controlled 90 percent of the continent.
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By the middle of the twentieth century, however, those nations began winning their independence, inheriting the poorly drawn borders and all the strife that came with them. “Only 30 percent of all borders in the world are in Africa, yet nearly 60 percent of all territorial disputes that have made it to the International Court of Justice come from the continent,” says Faloyin.
Borders running through tribes destabilized the states in which they lived. Idi Amin was able, for instance, to rely on tribal support from Sudan when he seized power in Uganda. Meanwhile, the Igbo of Nigeria tried breaking away to form their own nation, Biafra, sparking a three-year civil war when Nigeria fought secession.
In 2011 researchers from Harvard and New York University studied the impact of arbitrary borders on political and economic stability. “They measured two different functions: the effects of straight-line borders, and the erratic separation of ethnic groups,” writes Faloyin. “Countries with unnatural borders and divided communities tend to have greater economic problems and political violence.”
The consequence of men scheming under an “impressive and inaccurate” map all those decades before has had lasting, disastrous results. “Nine of the thirteen most arbitrary states in the world are in Africa—Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Sudan and Zimbabwe,” says Faloyin.
European powers created these messes but didn’t stick around to deal with them. When they left, the lands they drew up for themselves had been substantially looted. Ninety percent of African cultural artifacts are now housed outside the continent. “The list of lootings,” says Faloyin, “are endless.”
Why aren’t these artifacts returned? Because western officials don’t trust Africans not to lose or damage their own heritage. They might have a point.
Living in the Aftermath
Post-colonial African nations have generated a number of tyrannical leaders who have pillaged their own nations’ wealth. Faloyin doesn’t skirt the problem. In the longest section of the book, he relates “the story of democracy in seven dictatorships.” In his telling, however, leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika emerge as transitional figures.
“Democracy is a great revealer,” says Faloyin. “A country’s chosen approach to the balance and distribution of power speaks to what—on its best day—the nation wants to be.” By that standard, nations across the continent are moving in a positive direction, though perhaps haltingly. Faloyin covers several movements that signal hopeful change. And it’s inspiring to see these movements are homegrown.
Faloyin decries the kind of “white savior” complex that would pretend to solve crises—many precipitated by prior interventions—with telethons and pop songs. Just contemplate the absurdity of singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” when there are roughly twice as many Christians in Africa as in Europe. Yes, they’re aware. The Band Aid effort was well-meaning—and also cringingly out of touch and patronizing.
Faloyin critiques the song and the wider movement that gave it so much airtime. Against those sorts of efforts he presents his beloved city of Lagos, Nigeria, an icon of pure verve and possibility. No one can provide a clear answer on how many people live there because new people are always coming in and the city is always pushing out. The place would seem to have more problems than you can count, especially if you’re a city planner. But the locals aren’t slowing down.
As a result Lagos, along with the rest of coastal West Africa will soon be a “Megalopolis.” By the end of the century, demographers expect the 600-mile stretch between Lagos and the port city of Abidjin in Ivory Coast to become “the largest zone of continuous, dense habitation on earth, with something in the order of half a billion people,” reports Howard French.
And the whole continent is growing like that. By 2100 four in ten humans will live in Africa. Might be time to learn how to make jallof rice, preferably from a more authentic recipe than Jamie Oliver’s.
Unlike so many of the continent’s borders, if you graphed the success of this breakneck urbanization you won’t see straight lines. There are too many legal, political, economic, and ecological factors for that. But it’s exciting to witness, and I hope Faloyin keeps telling the story. I’m ready for his next book.
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