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“The notion, still popular in the west, that Africa is a lost continent, somehow cut adrift from global moorings, is given short shrift in this provocative assessment, which manages to combine a deep understanding of the way in which history informs the present with an appreciation of the enormous change that globalization is bringing.”— Economist, on the UK Edition
“In this thought-provoking book of modest length, Stephen Ellis dispenses with Afro-pessimism, neocolonialism and leadership failure and takes an extended historical view. Africa, he argues, is functioning much as it always has. Times change, but the relationship between the continent''s elites, the rest of the world and the mass of its people has not.”—Natal Witness (South Africa)
“The notion, still popular in the west, that Africa is a lost continent, somehow cut adrift from global moorings, is given short shrift in this provocative assessment, which manages to combine a deep understanding of the way in which history informs the present with an appreciation of the enormous change that globalization is bringing.”—Financial Times
'The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered history', France's newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told an audience in Dakar on 26 July 2007 during his first trip to Africa after his inauguration. His speech provoked fury among intellectuals in both Africa and France. He continued: 'The African peasant, who for centuries has lived according to the seasons, whose ideal is to be in harmony with nature, has known only the eternal renewal of time via the endless repetition of the same actions and the same words. In this mentality, where everything always starts over again, there is no place for human adventure, nor for any idea of progress'.
President Sarkozy and his speechwriters are probably not the only people who believe that Africa South of the Sahara never made any progress until Europeans proclaimed their formal rule over most of that vast area in the late nineteenth century and that even now Africans are reluctant to contemplate change and self-improvement. it is quite likely that many Europeans and Americans still hold fairly similar views, although few historians today would support views like Sarkozy's.
It is important to make a careful distinction at this point. What president Sarkozy, like many before him, was asserting is not that nothing ever happened in Africa before colonisation. Rather, he contended that earlier happenings did not constitute history in the modern sense, which is more than just a chronicle of events. According to a point of view widely held for at least two centuries by many Europeans, North Americans and others strongly influenced by emigration from Europe, 'real' history is a record of progress. even if, as Sarkozy went on to do in his Dakar speech, Western believers in history-as-progress recognise the errors and brutalities of colonisation, they nevertheless regard the colonial moment as Africa's true entry into time.
Colonisation came rather late to sub-Saharan Africa and arrived rather suddenly. Before about 1850 there were a few port-towns that had become European possessions years or even centuries earlier, like the four communes controlled by the French in Senegal and Portuguese settlements in Angola and Mozambique. Europeans had settled in the hinterland of Cape Town and at a few other points around Africa's southern tip. The descendants of slaves from North America had established a chain of precarious settlements on Africa's west coast, and in 1847 some declared themselves to constitute the Republic of Liberia. This and the ancient empire of Ethiopia were to be the only African territories that never came under the formal political control of one or other European country.
If anything has perpetuated the idea that Africa must be helped to enter real historical time, it is the concept of development. This has dominated everything said and done concerning Africa since the mid-twentieth century. The reality, though, is that old Africa was in constant mutation and its legacy is very much alive today, to the extent that it is illuminating to work out the relationship between what is new and what is old in Africa. Grand statements about what it all means, Sarkozy-style, are worth little if they are not based on a careful examination of the dynamics of change.
King Jaja and His Kind
Let us go to the hot, green, humid delta of the Niger river, in Nigeria. the name of King Jaja is widely remembered there. His career and subsequent events in that troubled region tell us something about how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same, during the last 150 years.
Jaja was born into a family of slaves in the land of the Igbo people, to the east of the Niger river, in 1821 or thereabouts. It was one of the most densely settled areas of what, in those days, was a thinly populated continent. As was quite common in a region that was for two centuries a prime source of supply for the Atlantic slave trade, Jaja was sold to a trader when he was hardly past boyhood. He was taken to the port of bonny, situated on an island at the mouth of the River Niger downstream from the point where it splits into the vast maze of creeks and islands that make up the Niger Delta. Unlike many others, Jaja was never loaded on to a slave-ship bound for the Americas.
Bonny was home to some 10,000 people in Jaja's time. As the slave trade declined, the port continued to serve as a leading outlet for the produce of the interior, becoming a hub of the palm oil business that flourished from the mid-nineteenth century as British consumers began to buy soap made from the products of the palm tree. Since then, Bonny has switched businesses again, becoming an oil export terminal. 'Bonny light crude' is an oil industry standard, prized for its easiness to refine. They may not know it, but many American drivers ride on gasoline from bonny. Today, the town has a population of some 100,000 although it remains unreachable by road, accessible only by air and sea. From slaves to palm oil to crude oil, Bonny has been a mart for international business.
Arriving in Bonny, Jaja was attached to one of the so-called 'houses' that were an important form of political organisation in the Niger Delta during the time of the slave trade and the palm oil trade that succeeded it. At the core of each house was a body of men sufficient to equip and paddle one of the huge canoes that were the main form of river transport. Together with wives, children and dependents, a house could include hundreds of people. Each such establishment was headed by an entrepreneur with the commercial acumen necessary to succeed in the import-export business that was Bonny's speciality, plus the political skill to build a clientele. Despite his slave origins, Jaja worked his way up to become head of the Anna Pepple House, absorbing a number of Bonny's other factions until he broke away to set up a new settlement at Opobo in 1867.
Now operating as a more or less independent ruler, Jaja saw the potential of his position as a middleman in the palm oil business. He adopted an aggressive strategy, aimed at keeping British traders arriving by sea cut off from suppliers of produce in the interior of the country so as to create his own monopoly of export products. British oil merchants complained to their home government. After the famous international conference held in Berlin in 1884–5—the event marking the beginning of formal colonial control in most of Africa, when the continent was partitioned into spheres of interest associated with rival European powers—British officials claimed that Jaja's taxes were now illegal under the terms of international agreements. This was an early example of Africa's fortunes being connected to a set of rules that was held to be universally binding but that was largely of European origin. In 1887, Jaja was arrested by a British vice-consul and exiled to the West Indies. He died four years later at sea on his way back home to Africa.
Seventy years or so later, Nigeria's first generation of professional, university-educated historians saw Jaja as a patriot who had dared to fight against British imperialism. He has a place in popular memory. There are songs about Jaja and, according to one newspaper, even a three-act opera about him in the language of the Ijaw, Nigeria's fourth-largest ethnic group.
As for bonny, it is now situated in one of Nigeria's thirty-six federal states. The Niger Delta has become notorious as the scene of complex struggles that are sometimes considered as a violent political contest, at other times as a low-intensity war, and quite often as an epidemic of crime. Every night, barges loaded with oil stolen by illegal tapping from pipelines chug downriver to rendezvous near Bonny with larger ships that take the oil out to tankers lying off the coast. Cargoes of stolen crude oil are paid for with arms, cash, and, some people say, cocaine. Very senior Nigerian state officials, military personnel and politicians have interests in this trade that may be worth a billion dollars per year. These officials are stealing money from the state they were appointed or elected to serve. The guns are used in local conflicts. Some of the cocaine is trafficked to Europe. The oil passes through various hands until it ends up on the international market. Whether by the oil companies, the traders or the smugglers, a lot of oil gets spilled. Over five decades, the amount of oil leaking into the Niger Delta has been about thirteen times that of the 2010 Deepwater horizon spill in the gulf of Mexico, as of early June 2010.
Hostilities in the Niger Delta feature most often in news headlines when militants kidnap an oil worker or do battle with the Nigerian armed forces. The group that is most adept in the single most important technique of modern political-military contestation—presenting a bold image to international media—is an outfit calling itself the movement for the emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Glossy magazines like to print high-quality photos of MEND's muscular young men, sometimes with torsos bared, wearing balaclava masks and military fatigues, cartridge belts draped over their shoulders, skimming over the creeks of the Delta in speedboats. Oil company executives, prime ministers and presidents in the world's richest countries worry about the fact that the mysterious activists of the Niger Delta are sabotaging a sizeable portion of Nigeria's potential two million barrels a day oil production, putting further pressure on oil markets that are already volatile.
In 2009, the Nigerian government reached a peace agreement with some MEND leaders, but few people doubt that a new generation of young militants will take their place. A political solution to the conflicts of the Niger Delta is made exceptionally difficult by the factional nature of local politics. Particularly during election campaigns, politicians sometimes hire as thugs the very same militant leaders who at other times are officially described as crime bosses. These local and state-level politicians have connections to the highest levels of the Nigerian state, and in many cases also to some of the world's major oil companies. In recent years, governors in some of the oil-producing states of Nigeria's centre-south have been charged with massive corruption, accused of stealing millions of dollars of state funds. Although certain individuals and institutions make a more positive impression than others, it becomes impossible to make sharp divisions between the forces of stability and equity, represented by those who are officially pledged to uphold the rule of law, and the forces of disorder. Governance and politics in the Niger Delta are not conducted via a model bureaucracy, rule-bound and predictable. They still bear some similarity to the houses of Jaja's day in the sense that individual entrepreneurs who are able to carve themselves a position through the adroit use of commercial and political connections, in which violence is sometimes instrumental, can aspire to become major players in regional politics. Given the importance of oil, they can even gain national status.
Yet there is also a younger generation of sophisticated politicians who believe the area would be better served by more conventional forms of politics and administration. Prominent members of this cohort are former employees of one or other oil company. Sitting with dark-suited businessmen and bankers at a lunch-table in one of London's most elegant hotels, a new-style politician from the Niger Delta can be articulate, charming and persuasive.
The Past in the Present
If there is some similarity between the Niger Delta in Jaja's day and the same area now, the differences are probably more evident. There has been a massive change in the scale of operations in the intervening century and a quarter. The sovereign state of Nigeria is far bigger than Jaja's micro-kingdom. Market disruptions caused by events around Bonny now impact the price of oil worldwide immediately, and therefore the world economy. Local and global elements affect one another as the fine-grained societies of the Niger Delta adapt to changing international conditions of communication, commerce and diplomacy and, by the same token, heads of state and chief executives the world over are obliged to take account of the militias and money-grubbing politicians of the Niger Delta, however exasperating they may be. Violence in Nigeria is increasingly linked to world events, as when an attempt to hold the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, in 2002 led to violent protests in the north of the country in which over 200 people were killed.
Among the tangled strings binding the people of the Niger Delta to world affairs is ethnicity. Ethnic factors play a political role in many of the world's countries, but they often seem to be particularly important in Africa. Clearly this has something to do with the way that its political boundaries are drawn. Nearly all Africa's national frontiers are of colonial origin and owe their ultimate paternity to the 1884–5 Berlin conference, a gathering of European statesmen that, in defining European spheres of interest in Africa, divided existing groups and obliged others to become neighbours with people they didn't particularly like. Nigeria is reckoned to be home to over 250 distinct ethnic groups as defined by reference to language and cultural traits. It was described by the colonial administrator Lord Hailey as 'perhaps the most artificial of the many administrative units created in the course of the European occupation of Africa', while his contemporary Margery Perham, an academic specialist on African affairs, referred to Nigeria as an 'arbitrary block'.
People often suppose that each ethnic group in Africa has a continuous history as a sort of mini-nation, with its own language, distinctive cultural institutions and political authorities surviving more or less intact over time in spite of the administrative arrangements imposed on them by outsiders. They therefore think that the fundamental error—sin, even—of the Berlin conference was to divide existing ethnic groups. This is not in fact true. It is inaccurate to think, as people both inside and outside Africa often do, that ethnic groups have existed there for centuries as political units. Every single one of the communities in Africa that are today designated by an individual ethnic label has been transformed or even created by the experience of bureaucratic government, in colonial times and subsequently. In the case of Nigeria, one of the country's largest such units, the Yoruba, nowadays numbering some thirty to thirty-five million people, easily enough to qualify as a nation, was essentially created by the experience of Christian evangelism closely followed by colonial rule. To be sure, there were people called Yoruba even before the nineteenth century, but they had no more idea of political unity than the ancient Greeks. Like the citizens of the old Greek city-states, the Yoruba of old often made war with and enslaved each other while remaining conscious of their common cultural attributes. The style of political ethnicity that is such a distinctive feature of African politics, often described as tribalism, is in fact a product of the very colonial government and nationalist politics that brought Africa into the legally constituted world order that is still with us today.
If ethnic labels did not have the same meaning in Jaja's day as they do in our own time, then Nigerian national identity is an entirely artificial innovation. The word 'Nigeria' was invented six years after Jaja's death by flora Shaw, a pioneer female journalist on the London Times, the most influential newspaper of its day. 'Nigeria' appeared in print for the first time on 8 January 1897, when Shaw proposed it as an easy-to-remember term for the British protectorate on the Niger river that was then administered by a business concern, the Royal Niger Company, which had received a charter from the British crown. In 1900, the Royal Niger Company was wound up and its assets taken over by the British government, and two years later Shaw married Frederick (later, lord) Lugard, a former army officer who had originally been hired by the Royal Niger Company and, since its demise, had transmuted into a civil servant. He went on to become an administrator of the jumble of colonial possessions and protectorates that Britain had acquired in the Niger valley and adjacent areas in the previous three or four decades. Aiming to merge these territories into a single administrative unit under his own authority, Lugard was able to count on his wife's influence to generate political support in London. On 1 January 1914, he announced the amalgamation of the British-ruled territories of the Northern and Southern protectorates to create a single colony and protectorate of Nigeria, with himself as governor-general. The scale of this innovation, creating a vast new country bearing a name coined just seventeen years earlier, has to be set alongside the continuities in local histories if we are to get a sense of how the forms of Africa's insertion in the world have changed.
Excerpted from Season of Rains by STEPHEN ELLIS Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Ellis. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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