Wednesday, 16 March 2011

“Cargo cult mentality”, Nigeria, and the illusions of NEPAD

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

The great Chinua Achebe once described as the “cargo cult mentality” the illusion, or rather the delusion of many leaders of so-called developing countries who feel that without sustained hard work, internally, their states could somehow achieve the status of socio-political transformation that they had envisaged in many a “development programme”.

(Father of African Literature)
This mentality manifests in the form of a perpetual gaze across the seas, across the horizon, hoping/awaiting a “fairy ship [to] dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing”. This gaze, as can be imagined, is frustratingly a chore that triggers bewildering ranges of emotion: … When, for instance, is this ship arriving? Where is it coming from? What will it contain that will transform our existence? More loans? More aid packages? A privatisation scheme? Oh! Is that the mast of the mysterious ship coming over the horizon – at last? Oh yeah! The ship is already here… Good news: the goodies are here, fellow countrymen (and women, presumably!). We are now developed, We are a world power… No, not yet… We need the arrival of 3, 4, or 5 more of these ships to achieve this target. Oh dear! How long will this now take? The time span for all these arrivals will be in the order of 10 years… No, twice as long; sorry, to be more precise, 21 years… Therefore, my administration needs another term, maybe two, perhaps three, to oversee these arrivals, the offloading of the goodies, and the sustainable implementation of this multisectoral development programme!

Spurious developmentalism

To focus more specifically on the Africa example, perhaps less humourously, the “cargo cult mentality” is pointedly a perverse case right from the outset. African regimes in the late 1950s/1960s (baseline decades for the “restoration of African independence” after centuries of the European conquest and occupation) uncritically keyed into the Fraudulent Developmentalism music of the age which was trumpeted noisily and widely by the Western World – led strategically by none other than Britain and France, the core conqueror states of Africa. Thanks to the nauseating naivety of these leaderships, Britain, France and other European World states and institutions that had committed heinous crimes of conquest and occupation in Africa for 500 years, were overnight “entrusted” with a role, the central role for that matter, to embark upon Africa’s seeming project of societal reconstruction in the wake of the holocaust.

South Korea, for instance, has demonstrated that if the country’s leaderships in the late 1940s/1950s (after the country’s liberation from Japanese conquest and occupation) had “allowed” Japan to play a similar role in their reconstruction project as the Africa example just cited, their society would not have been “endowed” with the scientific know-how in the very short 50 years time lag to co-stage the recent World Cup Football competition with Japan and with such comparable dazzling technological finesse as the latter.

In Nigeria, in 1979, nearly a decade after it had murdered 3.1 million Igbo people in the most devastating genocide in Africa since the Herero genocide of the early 1900s, few in the country were prepared for the extraordinary pronouncement of optimism on the country’s future from the regime in power. There was no semblance of any reconstructionary programme on the ground to support this claim. Olusegun Obasanjo, then head of the country’s military junta, had, in effect, gazed across the hallucinatory horizon of expectation embedded in the “cargo cult mentality” and made the following prediction with all the certitude at his disposal: “Nigeria will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the century”.

(Olusegun Obasanjo ... genocidist commander: “Nigeria will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the [20th]century”)
Anything but a world power...
Of course in 1999, 20 years later, Nigeria was anything but a world power. This outcome is not because the country lacked a resourceful population nor because it is deprived of an “enabling” natural resource infrastructure to accomplish such a task. On the contrary, many countries in history with a fraction of Nigeria’s staggering human and natural resource capacity as at 1979, not to mention 1999, have achieved major societal development in very limited timeframes. Presently, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan are three examples that illustrate, acutely, this point. On material resources, for instance, Nigeria, the world’s sixth largest petroleum oil producer, had by 1999 earned the sum of US$300 billion from this product after 40 years of exploitation and exports. Unfortunately, this revenue had by and large been squandered by the country’s regimes of the epoch through their legendary, institutionalised corruption and profligacy. They literally lurched ravenously into the public purse in frenzy. Between 1972 (when Yakubu Gowon was in power) and 1999 (end of the tenure of the Abdulsalami Abubakar junta/beginning of the current Obasanjo regime), one fifth of this sum, or US$60 billion, was looted personally by these furacious leaderships and transferred to Western banks and other financial institutions. Elsewhere in the economy, this was the infamous epoch of dubious contractual deals and dealing that yielded enormously-inflated financial returns for thieving public functionaries: the importation of everything from cement, sand, nails and rice to air (?), champagne and lace, and the staging of innumerable feasts and festivals usually dreamt up in a whiff! At some point in 1983, at the apogee of this scramble of an economy, Nigeria’s entire external currency reserves were reduced precariously to about US$2billion. Inevitably, this scramble has churned out the directory of the nouveau riche of millionaires and even billionaires whose names and gory legacy make up the haunting epitaph of a failed state. It is in this context that Edwin Madunagu’s description of this shenanigan as the “political economy of state robbery” could not have been more evocative.

It does not require emphasising that with the judicious use of the gargantuan sum of US$300 billion (which few comparable “independent” African countries have earned since the beginning of the European conquest and occupation of the continent in the 15th century), not only Nigeria but also the entire African World would have been radically transformed beyond recognition. No one would dare equate “disaster, degradation, desperation” with contemporary African existence as it is often the norm in many a standard discourse. On this very “squandering of [the peoples’] riches”, ignoring, for once the other striking features of the kleptomania and maledictive incompetence of successive Nigerian regimes of the era, all those who describe themselves or have been so described as Nigeria’s heads of regime particularly in recent decades must be eternally ashamed of themselves. They, as well as those intellectuals who surrounded them as aides and advisors, do constitute the most vivid tragedy of Africa’s recent history. They have frittered away the treasured trove of several generations of peoples. Furthermore, they were and remain a monumental disappointment and disgrace to millions of Africans elsewhere in the world.

Internal logic

In effect, Nigeria’s regimes appear to have ignored the salient feature of the development ethos, any development ethos, that the engine of such an enterprise is anchored internally – right there at the very locale of the projected activity. Or do they? Alas, the “perpetual gaze across the seas” for socio-economic salvation serves these regimes. It absolves them of any responsibilities to their long-suffering peoples or so they imagine.

In the last three years of the 4-year term of his regime, Olusegun Obasanjo has been out of Nigeria at least 80 times on official trips. He has visited virtually every key country in Europe, Asia, North America, South America/the Caribbean and, of course, Africa during the period. As for his European and North American and Asian destinations, he has been to Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the United States and Japan more than twice. The average time duration for a trip is three days and the average number of aides and other officials is 30 except in the North American and European destinations when this figure is often doubled and at times tripled and on some occasions even more.

With 80 overseas trips during 1999-2002, Obasanjo makes a foreign trip approximately every fortnight. He and other regime spokespersons have repeatedly indicated that these junkets are important for Nigeria to attract “foreign investment” and help seek some relief or cancellation of Nigeria’s foreign “debt” of about US$30 billion. Each of these visits costs Nigeria at least US$200,000 on the average and this sum shoots up with the larger entourage that embarks on the North America/Europe/Japan ventures. In total, Nigeria has spent minimally the sum of US$16 million on these trips without any concrete returns especially on the subject of investment or relief on Nigeria’s so-called debt to the West. Indeed on the latter, Obasanjo stated openly during the March 2002 conference on development in Mexico that Nigeria had failed to secure “a single cent of debt relief… In the past three years, Nigeria has had to spend five billion dollars in servicing its foreign debts, even though the same debts had been repaid two times over”.

According to Jerry Gana, the regime’s information minister, Nigeria’s annual “debt service of about [US]$1.5 billion is nine times our budget for health, and three times our budget for education”. But it is Nigeria’s failure to attract meaningful foreign investment (a miserly US$2.25 billion per year on the average in the next four years, according to projected estimates by the London Economist Intelligence Unit) during the period and the direct link of this failure to Obasanjo’s junkets which is most heart-rending. In an interview recently with the London Financial Times, Obasanjo could not but admit: “In three years I went round the world and did not get anything… I went round the countries in Europe, twice over, I went to Japan, to America, to Canada and got good words… but no action at all”.

Yet if Obasanjo continues his current rate of travel overseas in the remaining 12 months of his regime, he will make a further 30 trips with the whooping cost of US$6 million to Nigeria’s forlorn economy. These visits should now be cancelled and the savings invested in the collapsing primary schools of the country to enable millions of Nigerian children have a better future than is presently the case. Those who advise Obasanjo should for once show responsibility. So, by May 2003, the Obasanjo regime would have spent US$22 million of scarce resources on four years of travel in pursuit of an illusory but calamitous enterprise of “gazing across the seas” for Western “goodies” to salvage an economy that his own regime (twice: 1976-1979, 1999-expected May 2003) as well as others have virtually destroyed in the past 40 years. The gross insensitivity of the lifestyle that encapsulates these junkets at a time when the overwhelming majority of Nigerians have been reduced to dire straits of existence is particularly obscene.

Current key social statistics on Nigeria are disastrous. Seventy per cent of the population of 120 million live below the poverty line of about US$1 a day and the country is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. Forty eight million of the people or “about 40 per cent wallow[…] in abject poverty” – to quote the very words of Obasanjo himself in July 2000. Even though the monthly minimum wage is a paltry US$75, many public and private enterprises have routinely not paid their workers their salaries. Millions are therefore owed several months of unpaid wages and several sectors of the economy are more often than not strike-bound. Two months ago, a group of Nigerian professionals known as “concerned professionals” questioned the regime’s claims to have spent US$100 million on “poverty alleviation” and US$500 million on the improvement of electricity supplies in the past fiscal year. On the former, the organisation rightly observes that no “dent in the poverty profile across the land” has occurred despite the huge sums the regime supposedly spent nor has there been a change in the notorious national electricity power supply. Very worryingly, the professionals conclude, 70 per cent of the regime’s budget allocation goes to recurrent expenditure and the implication of this for the rest of the economy is predictably troubling: “the cost of running government therefore crowds out the rest of the economy even before the budget is implemented”.

Equally concerned, the country’s senate’s public accounts committee has since published a critical report on regime spending. It criticises the large size of the recurrent expenditure and the regime’s concomitant “under-funding of capital provisions”. It also finds serious discrepancies in the accounting of sequestrated funds from the overseas bank accounts of Sani Abacha’s (an ex-head of regime) which had been returned to the Nigeria treasury. The report was so compelling that moves were made in the senate to begin impeachment proceedings on Obasanjo last month. These moves soon floundered due to sustained pressure on key senators by Obasanjo. In the cesspool that is politics in Nigeria, the media has been awash with news of massive bribing of senators by the regime to halt the impeachment.

Never expect progress and development...

It is evident that following the failure of Obasanjo’s frantic and expensive overseas tours in the last three years to secure both the ever illusory “dividend” of international investment and “debt” relief for Nigeria, the regime head has now broadened the parameters of the observation post from where to continue his existential “gaze across the seas” – for the goodies to supposedly transform Nigeria! In other words, Obasanjo has continentalised the quest for the illusion and the name given to it couldn’t even mask its plasticity: NEPAD or New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Just as Nigerians know, unmistakably, that NEPA (Nigeria Electricity Power Authority), an acronym which in fact shares the same root origins as NEPAD, really means Never Expect Power Always rather than any worthy energy generating organisation, we will now show that NEPAD does instead mean Never Expect Progress And Development.

Obasanjo and other African “leaders” have promoted NEPAD as a “neo-Marshall Plan” reconstruction programme for Africa. It envisages the “eradication” of poverty, sustained economic growth, and development. “Good governance” is promised with qualitatively transformed “leaderships”’ accountability and transparency towards both the population (with regards the respect of their human rights) and the management of natural resources, especially the critical revenues derived thereof. But, crucially, the fulcrum of NEPAD’s own sustainability hinges on Africa’s declared partnership with the leadership of the West World.

This “partnership”, a term we should stress emanates from the African side of the bargain, operates or is actuated in the format of a quid pro quo: African “leaders” embark on providing “good governance” and the like to their people and the West would, in return, “invest” in Africa. The amount of investment the leaders claim they require is US$64 billion per annum. This will take the form of substantial “debt” relief package for the continent where most countries spend about 70 per cent of total annual export revenues in “debt”-servicing obligations currently. Africa is also asking the West to cut vast agricultural subsidies that the latter pays its farmers. These limit “fair competition” to the detriment of African farmers who in the past 10 years have lost virtually all subsidies, thanks to the eagerness of their states to implement IMF-World Bank directives of “structural adjustment programmes”. Finally, African “leaders” want the West to cut the high duties that African manufacturing exports are subjected to in the former’s markets. If there is any of the unrelentingly statistical surveys churned out on contemporary Africa by studies after studies, the latest from the World Bank captures the severity of the Africa situation and its projected “hopelessness”. According to the bank, about half of Africa’s population of nearly a billion presently live on the “equivalent of [US]$1 a day or less”. More seriously, the bank forecasts that the number of people within this poverty bracket will increase by about 60 million in the next 15 years. For its African proponents, NEPAD assumes that the West World is particularly concerned by the ever-worsening condition of African socio-economic life.

For the West, on the contrary, Nigeria, just like the rest of Africa, “works” – in the sense that the humanity of this country (and continent) has not ceased to create wealth for the West in spite of the obvious deterioration of local social existence. The European World, it must never be forgotten, created and sustains the tragedy that is present-day Africa. The principal beneficiary of this tragedy both in material and philosophical terms remains the West. Africa has yet to recover from the West’s half a millennium-long brazen conquest and occupation of Africa. The West’s perpetration of the African holocaust during the period (the most dehumanising and extensive in history) and its seizure and transfer to its homeland of Africa’s immense wealth, ensured that it catapulted to an unassailable global power where it has since remained. Despite the so-called restoration of African independence, the West’s exploitation of Africa has worsened, thanks to its implanted “Berlin-state” murderous contraption in the continent and the lobotomised creatures that parade as African leaderships.

In the past 20 years, Africa has consistently been a net-exporter of capital to the West, a trend that has been accentuated by the debilitating consequences of Africa’s servicing of its so-called debt to the West. In 1981, Africa recorded a net capital export of US$5.3 billion to the West. In 1985, this transfer jumped to US$21.5 billion and three years later it was US$36 billion or US$100 million per day. In 2000, Africa’s net capital transfer to the coffers of the West stood at US$150 billion. (We should stress that these figures refer to 48 African countries including Nigeria and do not include the national accounting of the five Arab states of North Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.)

It has taken 10 generations of West governments to accomplish their control and exploitation of Africa, and no future government there would voluntarily abandon such a lucrative harvest of conquest. The West will always wish to exploit Africa. It does not have any other choice, except, of course, it is stopped. For a typical Western government therefore, including the present one whose majority of members were ironically born on the eve of the African “restoration of independence” 50 years ago, the West’s continuing control of African resources does not cease to be an ontological preoccupation. In emphasising that NEPAD is a “partnership” between Africa and the West, the African regimes have essentially tried to re-enact the Fraudulent Developmentalism of the 1950s/1960s. But everyone knows, including the West particularly, that the African version is a desperate one indeed. If Fraudulent Developmentalism I is a tragedy, Fraudulent Developmentalism II, its sequel, is more of a hallucination than a farce in the sense of that marxian negation!

None of the West leaders who met Obasanjo and the other African “leaders” during the June 2002 G-8 summitry in Kananaskis, Canada, really thinks or feels that the latter are their partners in the sense of the mutual pursuit of a commonly agreed cause and outcome by two or more parties. West leaders, who strive and age overnight in office as the continuing responsibility and accountability to their electorate and population take their toll, are understandably contemptuous of African “leaderships” who always appear rejuvenated, as if they have walked out of cosmetic surgery every Friday lunch time! West leaders therefore lecture these imposed heads-of-regimes-of-Africa anywhere and anytime: “Respect the Human Rights of your people”; “Stop murdering your people – you have slaughtered 15 million from Biafra to Darfur since you took over power from us in 1960”; “You are corrupt, very corrupt! You steal your peoples’ money – Stop it! You must be transparent and Accountable!”; “Institute a bill of rights, Respect the rule of law”; “Run free and fair elections! Don’t turn your presidency into a life-long estate as we really don’t want you to deal with our own next generation of leaders, our sons and daughters”…

There is of course nothing in these apparent pro-African sentiments by Western leaders to suggest that the latter really look forward to the day when they will deal with a democratic Africa where its leaderships are accountable to their home publics. If that were to occur, the West would cease to exercise the stranglehold it currently has on the continent. No responsive leadership will play the overseer role which these African regimes engage in.

What the West has obviously done (as expressed above) is to appropriate the popular language of disgust against African “leaders” across Africa. Even the innocence of African children has not been spared the disastrous blunders and disgrace that African “leaderships” have now come to represent to the eagle-eyed scrutiny of a global audience. Two months ago, during the UN children’s summit in New York, Joseph Tamale, a 12 year old Ugandan delegate stunned the audience when he made the following declaration on African “leaderships”: “When you get the money, you embezzle it, you eat it”. The proceedings and outcome of the Kananaskis conference sum up this contempt. The African “leaders” emerged from the proceedings with nothing concrete to show from their hosts except promises of a modest increase in the overall Western “aid budget” to Africa which had been in fact mooted earlier on in the year during the Mexico conference on development.

The visiting African heads of regime in Kananaskis had been noticeably unimpressed by the total sum of US$6 billion involved which wouldn’t even be available till 2006! The West once again tabled this dubious package at Kananaskis but this time round none of these African “leaders” dared show their disenchantment. It was left to Phil Twyford, a director of OXFAM (the British non-governmental organisation), to bellow with anger: “We’re extremely disappointed… They’re offering peanuts to Africa – and recycled peanuts at that”. There was no mention at all in the summit communiqué on the vexed subjects of investment, “debt” cancellation or the opening up of Western markets to African exports. On the latter, both the United States and Canada had announced substantial increases in subsidies to their own farmers on the eve of the summit, dashing any hopes of any concerted accommodation to the African “leaders”’ so-called demands for access to these important Western markets. For Messrs Obasanjo & Co, the humiliation at Kananaskis means a return to the observation post – and the resumption of the gaze until the next ripples of movement across the waves… Never Expect Progress And Development, after all, has been what NEPAD has been all the while since its inception…

“Berlin-states” can't do it; African constituent nations are bases for transformation

In 1987, I held a wide-ranging weekend interview in London with Abdulrahman Mohammed Babu, the eminent Zanzibari public intellectual. On Africa-European World relations, I had asked Babu what he thought was the essence of the West’s thinking on Africa at the height of the IMF/World Bank-driven devastating “structural adjustment programme” on the continent. His reply is deftly panoramic:
Quite simply, the West sees Africa as the rural sector of Europe… to guarantee Africa’s historic role as the supplier of cheap labour and raw materials to Europe… This remains the West’s view of Africa. Definitely the West is hostile to Africa’s development. We continue to fool ourselves if we think the contrary is the case. The West will never develop Africa. Our under-development is dialectically linked to their development. Europe is aware of this historical relationship and cannot do otherwise.

Despite NEPAD, or precisely because of the very assumptions on which NEPAD is frantically pursued presently by the failed crop of the imposed heads-of-regime-of-Africa, nothing in the past 15 years since Babu’s observations gives cause to suggest that that definitive trajectory of the West’s mission in Africa is about to change course. The more pressing point to note, however, is that the immediate emergency that threatens the very survival of African peoples is the “Berlin-state” encased in African existence coupled with the pathetic bunch that masquerades here and there as African leaderships but whose mission is to oversee this enthralling edifice. African women and men will sooner, rather than later, abandon this fractured, fracturing, conflictive, alienating and terror contraption. Africans must now focus on real transformation – the revitalisation and consolidation of the institutions of Africa’s constituent nations and polities, or what Okwuonicha Nzegwu has described, succinctly, as the “indigenous spaces of real Africa”. In these institutions and spaces of African civilisation lie the organic framework to ensure transparency, probity, accountability, investment in people, humanised wealth creation, respect for human rights and civil liberties, and a true commitment to radically transform African existence.

*****(This essay is a slightly amended version of a study first published,, July 2002)

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