I guess it is in the character of my friend, Sharif Khalill, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation Canada, to put one on a podium before a distinguished assemblage of guests comprising members of the diplomatic community, Members of Parliament, Directors in the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry, staff of international development agencies, CEOs from corporate Canada, senior academics, and ask one to get the discussion rolling with a ten-minute opening address! As if it wouldn’t take the whole day to thank him, Rishma Thomas, Jennifer Pepall, and the wonderful staff of Aga Khan Foundation Canada for the extraordinary honour of being asked to share my thoughts with you as one of two guests of honour for today’s event!
As if it wouldn’t take the whole day to thank the co-organizers of this event, the High Commission of the Republic of South Africa! How can I possibly thank my sister, Her Excellency Mohau Pheko, the High Commissioner of South Africa in Canada, in just ten minutes? Her service here in Ottawa has been marked, among several remarkable firsts, by robust efforts to harness Africa’s intellectual energies in the capital city. Although I carry a Nigerian passport and a Canadian passport, her leadership and vision are such that I am regularly solicited to be part of an unending run of Africa-focused intellectual initiatives emanating from her table. If you feel Africa constantly vibrating intellectually here in Ottawa, you need not look beyond the leadership provided by the South African High Commission. I must add, though, that her Excellency is a bad businesswoman! You see, the first rule of business is to discourage competition. The South Africans are very huge players in the Nigerian economy. She should keep that a secret from Canadian competition, no? Now she’s given me an opportunity to tell all the Canadian CEOs present here to go to Nigeria and compete with the South Africans!
And how can I thank my dear brother, Anesh Maistry, Deputy Head of Mission at the South African High Commission, in just ten minutes? If I am going to be talking about “Africa’s hope” here today, it is precisely because I have been privileged to encounter the future of that continent in intellectuals like Anesh Maistry! Don’t be fooled by the cool diplomat! I always have to ensure that my Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are in good shape before every encounter with Anesh. Yet, I am supposed to be the literary theorist! I won’t tell you that this great son of Africa hosts the most extensive collection of Cuban cigars I have ever seen at his home. Every time Anesh runs the latest collaborative effort on Africa by me, I always wish he would rent out a room to me in the library, winery, and Cuban cigar museum he calls home here in Ottawa.
I must confess that the advertised theme of today’s event, “Africa’s Promise, Canada’s Opportunity: A Conversation with Pius Adesanmi and David Creighton” unsettled me a bit. I could understand my fellow guest of honour, David Creighton, being at home in this environment. He is a powerful Canadian CEO whose empire is active more than fifty countries in Africa and the rest of the developing world; he is a top player in Nigeria’s mouka foam and Diamond Bank. That makes him a prime candidate for the hardware language of business and international investment. He is going to be able to break Africa down to figures and statistics and speak the language of investment opportunities, risks, returns, dividends, and profit. Where is the place for my software language of literature, culture, and the imagination in all this? When, for instance, I saw the name of the President and CEO of Bombardier on your guest list, I wondered if it wouldn’t be more appropriate to have Nigerian state governors, prosperity Pentecostal pastors, or even President Jonathan, who keeps a harem of presidential jets and feels morally obliged to buy new ones every now and then, address him instead of a poor teacher like me.
Rishma allayed my fears during our telephone conversations in the build-up to this event. I saw a lot of sense in the fact that the organizers wanted my own historical-culturalist perspective to serve as context for David Creighton’s statistical and empirical CEO-speak. I took solace in the fact that Chinua Achebe, long before me, also had the same experience in Paris. In his essay, “Africa is People” –now you know where my title comes from! – Achebe narrates his bewilderment at being invited to address a parley of the Organization for Economic Corporation and Development (OECD). Lets listen to Achebe in some detail:
“I believe it was in the first weeks of 1989 that I received an invitation to an anniversary meeting—the-twenty-fifth year, or something like that—of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. I accepted without quite figuring out what I could possibly contribute to such a meeting/celebration. My initial puzzlement continued right into the meeting itself. In fact it grew as the proceedings got under way. Here was I, an African novelist among predominantly European and American bankers and economists; a guest, as it were, from the world's poverty-stricken provinces to a gathering of the rich and powerful in the metropolis. As I listened to them—Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians—I was left in no doubt by the assurance they displayed that these were the masters of our world savoring the benefits of their success. They read and discussed papers on economic and development matters in different regions of the world. They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specially designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire. The matter was really simple, the experts seemed to be saying; the only reason for failure to develop was indiscipline of all kinds, and the remedy was a quick, sharp administration of shock treatment that would yank the sufferer ad of free market economy.”
Achebe could have been describing you, my audience here today! Almost ten years later, in 1998, Achebe delivered a Presidential Fellows Lecture at the World Bank in Washington and expressed pretty much the same apprehension. On both occasions, my famous compatriot appealed to “the masters of our world” to think of Africa as people and not just resources and the promise of profit, hence his topic, “Africa is People”. Since you have asked David and I to lay out broad parameters and provocations that would guide our day-long conversations and interactions in the morning and evening schedules of this event, my first provocation of the day is to ask you to seriously consider Achebe’s plea to the OECD and the World Bank. I know that you are precisely the kind of actors that African states have in mind – especially Nigeria – when they mouth the endless rhetoric of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). I know that you have been invited here to listen to new insights about where resources and profit abound in Africa and how to reach those in the context of new global dynamics. But I say to you that there needs to be a shift from the paradigm that always privileges Africa (resources) over Africans (people). If the model of
Africa before Africans worked, we wouldn’t be here today essaying a rethink, would we?
When I ask you to think of Africa as people, I am not asking you to see one billion people and immediately begin to dream of a market that now rivals the economies of the BRIC and the Asian Tigers and is even now more positively discoursed in global geopolitics than those two players are. Therein lies my second provocation of the day: if Africa is people, she is also history and culture. You cannot get at our resources by ignoring those two elements. When you try it, there are guys out there in the field waiting to teach you that their history and culture constitute who they are; and who they are is more important than copper, crude oil, and coltan. Go and study Ken Saro-Wiwa’s rhetoric and praxis.
So, what is the history of this one billion people? How have we arrived at a situation where that talented one billion is now whetting appetites here in the West as the market of the present and the future? Well, you must understand that they moved from four centuries of the trans-atlantic slave trade to one momentous century that my friend, Okwui Enwezor, has famously described as “the short century”. The short century extends from the Berlin conference in 1884 to the independence of South Africa in 1994. In other words, it is the century of colonialism. At the end of all these experiences, this one billion people became humanity’s byword for poverty, disease, famine, malnutrition, civil wars, corruption, illiteracy, and a million other registers of negativity and underdevelopment that are trafficked ceaselessly by the western media. In May 2000, the verdict on Africa came in: “The Hopeless Continent”, screamed The Economist in a famous edition of the magazine.
Fast forward to 2010 and we arrive at my third provocation. The McKinsey Global Institute released its famous report on Africa entitled, “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies”. I implore you to google and read that rigorously researched and exhilarating report. It’s eighty-two pages brim with sweet music for the ears of an African public intellectual like me. What detains me here, though, is the cognitive and descriptive shift of the report. African Lions versus Asian Tigers! How did we move from a summation of Africa as a “hopeless continent” in 2000 to a situation where we now speak of viable “economic lions” that would have surpassed the BRIC and the Asian Tigers by 2040? What happened in just ten years in Africa? That is something I want us to ponder seriously as we get down to business today.
However, we should not discuss the rise of what I call Africa’s post-mendicant economies in a vacuum. Here, I am almost tempted to gloat! We should discuss Africa against the background of what is happening on the economic front in your own home continent: Europe. Fate and irony have a way of playing funny games. The continent that enslaved and colonized us, the continent that proceeded to describe us as the hopeless antithesis to civilization and modernity, is now home to the world’s mendicant economies. From Greece to Britain via Italy and Ireland, the spectre of a beggarly Europe cannot be divorced from the spectre of a rising Africa, what with prosperous Angola now even considering giving financial aid prostrate Portugal. Ah, life! One must however warn our brothers in Angola to learn from the tragedy of Nigeria, whose charity always begins abroad, before shipping bucket loads of dollars to aid poor Portugal.
But I ask again: how did Africa achieve this extraordinary reversal of fortunes? Specialists speak of the expansion and consolidation of democratic ethos across the continent. From South Africa, to Ghana, Botswana to Zambia, Rwanda to Benin Republic, elections and other signposts of democracy are getting better, never mind the persistence of election basket cases like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. Other factors suggested for the rise of Africa as a global economic player include the emergence of a vibrant civil society, the rise of the Africa middleclass, and the expansion of options of international competition and viability with China and Brazil becoming major players in the continent’s economies. I have no problems with all these explanations proposed by relevant literature but I want us to reflect further particularly on just one – the middle class.
I do not want to bore you with a rehash of the historical role of the middle classes in the rise of the modern nation-state. It is history too well-known. Suffice it to say that one of the tragedies of postcolonial Africa is precisely the systematic destruction of that class in the period known as post-independence disillusionment. My own country bears testimony to this tragedy. The military, especially, Ibrahim Babangida, destroyed Nigeria’s middle class. The highpoint of the destruction of Africa’s middle class also coincides with the era of the wholesale application of the moronic prescriptions of the IMF and the World Bank. The structural adjustment programmes prescribed by your people really ruined us in Africa.
Today, we speak of a billion people. We say that sixty-five percent of that billion people is under the age of forty-five. Some figures even put it at thirty-five! That’s a lot of people in a very youthful middleclass. They are the ones who have risen from the ashes of structural adjustment to build the Africa that we encounter in the McKinsey report. They are educated, urbanized, resourceful, adventurous and very cosmopolitan. In Nigeria, they wield two or three blackberries per head. They are all over Facebook and twitter. They are changing the modes and content of urbanization in Africa. In a number of cases, they are even in charge of the state. Their tastes and cultural habits represent the opportunities that you, Canadian investors, are going to meet on the ground in Africa. But it should be clear from my submissions thus far that you cannot go and engage them on the terms of yesterday.
I must end these provocations by saying that a huge chunk of this vibrant African middle class is domiciled in Nigeria. We’ve got the population and we tend to remind people of it as a mark of our importance. You will also have noticed my reluctance to talk about Nigeria when talking about the positive indices from the continent. That is due to my low opinion of the political class in Nigeria. I hold the rulers of Nigeria in utter contempt. They are corrupt and intellectually inferior.
They run a moribund state. They have nothing to offer Nigerians and the rest of the world. In my own intellectual praxis, I discourse Nigeria as a case of 160 million good people strangely held hostage by the worst characters among them. If you are looking for an example of their intellectual impecuniosity, think of President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposed solution to the security challenge posed by Boko Haram: ignore it! Yes, you heard me right. You just go into Nigeria, invest your billions, ignore Boko Haram, and every other thing shall be added unto you.
My challenge here, as we go on to discuss and reflect on issues after David’s opening remarks, will be to get you to look beyond these characters and see the Nigerian people. If Africa is people, Nigeria is Nigerians. And the reality on the ground is that the contribution of the Nigerian people, especially the Nigerian middle class, to Africa’s economic rebirth, has happened in spite of and not because of the Nigerian state. Despite insecurity, despite corruption, despite unimaginative rulership, there is no speaking of Africa’s promise without the Nigerian people. You are going to have to cut through the challenges to deal with us because all 160 million of us are a people before we are a market. I look forward to fruitful deliberations for the rest of the day.
Thank you for your time.
(Keynote Remarks at Aga Khan Foundation Canada’s Parley. Monday, November 28, 2011)