Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

“Nigeria has a terrible reputation. Tell someone that you are going to Nigeria and if they haven’t been themselves, they offer sympathy. Tell anyone who has been to Nigeria and they laugh. Then they offer sympathy. No tourists go there”, says Richard Dowden in Chapter 16 of this classic called ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.’

Dowden’s frank assessment of Nigeria is not different from what other Europeans and Americans think of Nigeria and Africa in general. Mention to an European or American that you come from Africa, they will look at you with all the sympathy in the world because it evokes the feeling of fear, contempt, war, corruption, bigotry, backwardness and in a nutshell everything bad and backward to them.

This assessment may not be the whole truth but the fact remains that Africans and African leaders contributed a lot in feeding the west with this type of negative but frank perception of Africa. Think of the corruption and religious bigotry in Nigeria, the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Burundi, the war for diamond in Angola and Sierra Leone, the looting of the public treasury in Kenya, Zaire and Nigeria; all these go a long way to prove that the above assessment is correct and up-to-date.

Despite having the presence of all the mineral resources under the face of the earth, Africa has proved to be a failure, a total failure except for the North Africa which do not actually regard itself as part of Africa and then the South Africa, which still has intact the legacy left by the deceased apartheid regime. The argument being pushed by Dowden in this classic is that there is something intrinsically viral with being a leader in Africa and that is corruption. Corruption is a virus that eats African leaders. Africa leaders are so corrupt that they even lack human sympathy in the art of looting. They wantonly loot to the extent that they do not care about their dying population.

He cited Nigeria, Angola, Uganda, Zaire and Kenya as examples. For instance, while Nigeria is ranked one of the poorest countries in the world, the money coming out of the country proves otherwise. In fact experts are of the opinion that Nigeria has a lot of money to float all the ships in the world and as a witness to the primary election between Alex Ekwueme and Olusegun Obasanjo and the amount of money used to bribe delegates to the conference, Dowden opined that the west should witness this and reclassify most of these countries including Nigeria. He concluded that African problem is not poverty but corruption and to compound the whole situation, the west encourages it by pouring more funds and aids into the pocket of these corrupt leaders. Dowden rightly observed that these aids and funds are not used for the public goods but for the private good of the corrupt leaders which actually entices them to steal more. Aids corrupt and absolute aids corrupt absolutely.

He wondered aloud why the west condoned, supported and even encouraged very corrupt African leaders like Mobutu Seso Seko of Zaire, Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Paul Biya of Cameroun, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and countless others even as he offered the reason as the complexities of the west in this crime of conscience.

Richard Dowden did not like other western writers blame all the evil of African backwardness on the African leaders alone opining that it takes two to tango. Citing the corrupt leaders again, he queried where they keep all these monumental loots from their countries. He offered the answer and the answer according to him is in the western banks with the United Kingdom and dependant territories bearing the biggest blame.

“Africa’s stolen money is often passed through the international banking system without question. Britain and its offshore territories are the worst offenders. Those who stole it are allowed to travel the world unhindered”, he said.

Dowden could not come to the terms that the west could allow this corrupt leaders to stash all these looted funds in their banks whereas millions of Africans are dying daily of hunger, thirst, disease, famine and various other reasons. He lambasted the west and actually heaped the majority of the blame of African woes on them. In a desperate attempt to prove himself right, Dowden evoked the ugly memory of the apartheid in South Africa and queried where the West was when the white minority South Africans were dealing with the black majority. He pointed the accusing finger to the West and pointedly to the Conservative Government of the United Kingdom.

According to Dowden, all efforts made to impose sanctions on the apartheid South African government proved futile due to serious objections from the Conservative Government under Margret Thatcher that the white rulers in South Africa are their kith and kin. He called this evil and wondered why Kenya gave her a rousing reception when she went their on a state visit-her first in Africa-to convince the Kenyan government not to support any regional sanction against the apartheid government. Kenya caved in.

On the political instability in Africa, Richard Dowden in his proverbial razor tongue did not mince words in accusing the west of all the political problems in Africa. He cited shameful roles played by the United States CIA, British M16, Russia KGB and many others in destabilising the African government. In fact at one time the CIA, M16 and KGB, were jostling over themselves in a desperate attempt to get control of the oil and diamond rich Angola and used all available resources to arm various militia and rebel groups in order to achieve their aim. They would repeat such in Sierra Leone and played vital part in overthrowing most of the democratically elected African governments between 1960 to the late 1990s when coup d’état became unfashionable.

Against this background then, Dowden opinionated that the west has no moral compass to condemn Africa for whatever happens in their own backyard even as he reprimanded the African leaders to wake up and take responsibility the survival and well being of their people. He lamented the erosion of good African qualities like brotherhood, honesty, uprightness and love he witnessed as a young teacher in Uganda in the early 1970s and traced it to the present problem besieging Africa as a continent at the moment.

He did not shy away from stating as a matter of fact that the pre-colonial African societies were marred incessantly by interethnic rivalries and wars but found it completely difficult to understand the Hutu genocide against the Tutsis, the internecine war for diamond in Sierra Leone, the greedy and hopeless war for diamond and oil in Angola as well as the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the black Sudanese by the white Arabian rulers. In fact at one time in the 1990s about 30 African states out of 53 states were either experiencing wars or one form of conflict or the other. After seeing all these, Dowden asked if Africa would ever be the same again. He answered in affirmative.

He postulated that Africa has finally come to that point where it has to take her future in her hands. Political interference by the west on African affairs is one of the major reasons for the present African turmoil and for Africa to rectify this she needs to eschew all forms of foreign interference in her domestic affairs. Against this background, he praised the African Union as well as the Peer Review Mechanism of the Union and noted strongly that if the dreams and aspirations of the Union is pursed vigorously by all African leaders, it would be a matter of time before Africa is transformed entirely into something more than Europe and America.

In a prophetic manner, Richard Dowden who is at the moment the Director of the Royal African Society after many years of journalistic endeavours with The Times of London, the Independent of London and the Economist, said that he sees a brighter future for the African continent but on the condition that the leaders begin to be accountable to the people and fight corruption by all means.

Having read this about 500 and something page book in a matter of few days, I do not have a doubt that it is among one of the best classics on Africa of the 21st century and I do not have any slight hesitation in recommending it to any serious scholar looking for something positive, critical and fresh out of Africa.

Cover Photograph Courtesy of Portobello Books.


  1. I like this analysis. It agrees well with my convictions: Bad African leadership and their greedy opportunistic Western allies are the conspirators to the demise of Africa.

    In the shadows of all these insurmountable web of confusion and hopelessness, lies a faint film of hope bequeathed to us only by the stroke of sheer optimism, begging silently, but persistently at the call of our collective might and strength as one African people. As the writer asserts, there is still hope for Africa! But I believe that hope is shrouded in United States of Africa - the postponed gateway.

  2. Bidi,

    Thanks a lot for you nice comments and be aware that I share your visions and passions. The problem facing Africa today is poor leadership and nothing more. Just put in good leaders here and there and yonder and things would begin to take shape. The present leaders we have are just not fit for purpose; they are simply square pegs in round holes and with due respect, it is only few of them who are sane and in their compos mentis. Most behave like thugs and touts intoxicated with skunk and new wine. Besides, just like you, I also see a light at the end of the tunnel and I have no doubt that the light would come to stay only when we achieve that unity and oneness dreamed by our founding fathers of which Kwame Nkrumah takes an eminent position.

  3. Bidi,

    Meanwhile, the young boy in front of the book is actually from Ghana. He was nine when the picture was taken and he is from Konkomba in Accra. His name is Baba and he is a fanatical fan of the Arsenal Football Club.