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Season of Rains: Africa in the World

Season of Rains: Africa in the World

by Stephen Ellis, Desmond Tutu

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 Africa is playing a more important role in world affairs than ever before. Yet the most common images of Africa in the American mind are ones of poverty, starvation, and violent conflict. But while these problems are real, that does not mean that Africa is a lost cause. Instead, as Stephen Ellis explains in Season of Rains, we need to rethink Africa’


 Africa is playing a more important role in world affairs than ever before. Yet the most common images of Africa in the American mind are ones of poverty, starvation, and violent conflict. But while these problems are real, that does not mean that Africa is a lost cause. Instead, as Stephen Ellis explains in Season of Rains, we need to rethink Africa’s place in time if we are to understand it in all its complexity—it is a region where growth and prosperity coexist with failed states. This engaging, accessible book by one of the world’s foremost researchers on Africa captures the broad spectrum of political, economic, and social foundations that make Africa what it is today. Ellis is careful not to position himself in the futile debate between Afro-optimists and Afro-pessimists. The forty-nine diverse nations that make up sub-Saharan Africa are neither doomed to fail nor destined to succeed. As he assesses the challenges of African sovereignties, Ellis is not under the illusion that governments will suddenly become more benevolent and less corrupt. Yet, he sees great dynamism in recent technological and economic developments. The proliferation of mobile phones alone has helped to overcome previous gaps in infrastructure, African retail markets are becoming integrated, and banking is expanding. Businesses from China and emerging powers from the West are investing more than ever before in the still land-rich region, and globalization is offering possibilities of enormous economic change for the growing population of one billion Africans, actively engaged in charting the future of their continent. This highly readable survey of the continent today offers an indispensable guide to how money, power, and development are shaping Africa’s future.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew Feinstein

“Ellis has written a timely and nuanced book on Africa in all its ambiguities and contradictions. His remarkable historical knowledge informs his acute insights into contemporary Africa, reflecting over three decades of searingly honest and perspicacious engagement with the continent. His analysis is required reading for anyone who cares about Africa and its role in the world.”
Adam Ashforth

 "[Ellis] succeeds brilliantly in showing that the need to find a new way of understanding African politics is neither a merely academic question, nor a reason for the rest of the world to disengage with Africa. For while African states since the ending of empire may not be exemplars of sovereign virtue and while some may remain seemingly bottomless pits for the rich world’s largesse, they are, nonetheless, integral parts of the planet’s social, political, economic, and natural environment. What happens in Africa matters for everyone, not just Africans. . . .The author engages the subject from a decidedly African perspective, based on a deep knowledge and commitment to the continent and its people.”
Michela Wrong

“One of the most insightful and thought-provoking analyses of Africa of the last decade. Stephen Ellis mercilessly exposes the outdated preconceptions that mold outsiders’ interactions with the continent and the yawning gap between what statesmen, diplomats, and aid officials would like the continent to be and what it really is. His conclusion is refreshingly upbeat.”
Sir Edward Clay

“This book is a lucid and brief analysis of Africa in the world. It is a subversive masterpiece, undermining stereotypes of and about Africans. Everyone interested in Africa should read it to give their assumptions an invigorating cold shower and to modify their own policies.”
Daniel Branch

“An outstanding, original and provocative work. . . . The breadth of Season of Rains is extremely impressive. . . . its greatest strength is the way it manages to convey a sense of both continuity and change. . . .  a considerable achievement.”

on the UK Edition Economist

“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.”

William Reno

“Stephen Ellis has produced a masterpiece. Season of Rains is the product of Ellis’s innovative and imaginative analysis of the mainsprings of Africa’s contemporary political and economic trajectories.  This book takes the reader over the horizon to peek at Africa’s place in a new world that is just coming into being and a clear-headed view of where it really has been. Ellis stands out as a pioneer analyst and scholar of a post-post-colonial Africa; an Africa that acts for itself in a world that cannot take this continent for granted.  Ellis writes in a manner that is equally accessible to professional scholars, policy experts, and the broad learned public. In this masterful book, he provides readers with the analytical framework for understanding the game-changing developments such as the aftermath of devastating wars, collapsing bureaucracies, the emergence of dynamic economies, and the arrival of China and other countries on the African stage that are affecting Africans and the rest of the world today.  It will be this book that will set the terms of debate for years to come.”


"Stephen Ellis has written an intriguing, beautifully written book. . . . It makes a compelling and challenging main argument: that the Western-dominated vision of Africa-as-incompetent has to be replaced or at least challenged by new thinking to more accurately reflect the continent's place in a fast-changing world. . . . Recommended."--Choice

“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

Foreign Affairs

“Ellis is attentive to the changes that have marked Africa in recent years, and he concedes that meaningful economic growth has resulted in higher standards of living. . . . His in-depth knowledge makes [this book] essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Africa’s evolution.”
International Affairs

“Season of Rains brilliantly succeeds in its goal of providing a succinct introduction to a continent which is still all too often conceived by external observers in stereotypes inherited from the post-colonial period, or indeed much further back in the history of ‘the dark continent.’ Especially since the end of the Cold War, or perhaps still more important since the appearance of the mobile phone, most of Africa is now far removed from the pictures both of wild animals and of starving children that continue to provide the overwhelming weight of coverage on western television screens. The central message of the book is that it is long past time for a decolonization of the western mind—and especially the minds of diplomats and aid officials, for whom this should be a compulsory text—from preconceptions of the continent as a backward zone in constant need of firm but sympathetic moral guidance by richer and more ‘developed’ powers.”
Natal Witness

“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)

Financial Times

“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

Natal Witness (South Africa)

“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.”
National (UAE)

“Although this tome is succinct, running in at only 170 pages, Ellis convincingly deconstructs postcolonial pessimism that the region is a lost cause.”
Wall Street Journal

“Stephen Ellis’s short book—just six chapters—is calmly analytical rather than alarming or predictive. He has an eye for inverting widely held beliefs. He attacks, for example, the militant pan-Africanists who blame the continent’s predicament on colonialism and neocolonialism. On the contrary, he says, it is the African rulers who were always in control, deftly manipulating former colonial masters into giving aid or else. He recalls Claude Ake, a Nigerian academic, who showed in the 1990s that it was often in the interests of African rulers to keep their countries from developing. The aid relationship offered them funding ‘beyond the limits of any tax contract with their own citizens,’ and they used the threat of chaos to warn donors that the aid must keep flowing.”

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Season of Rains

Africa in the World


Copyright © 2011 Stephen Ellis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20559-5

Chapter One


'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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Stephen Ellis is a senior researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden and the Desmond Tutu Professor in the social sciences at the Free University of Amsterdam.

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