The Malformation of West Africa

In 1927, Ladipo Solanke – co-founder of the West African Students Union (WASU) – published a book in which he argued that “It took the white race a thousand years to arrive at their present level of advance: it took the Japanese, a Mongol race, 50 years to catch up with the white race, there is no reason why we West Africans, a Negro race, should not catch up with the Aryans and the Mongols in one quarter of a century.” (Solanke, 1927: 58). All that would be needed to achieve this, for Solanke, would be “a strong self-determination to take up and money to back up,” as well as active cooperation among West Africans. Sir Henry J. Lightfoot-Boston, in an article titled Fifty Years Hence, prophesied a federation of West African territories by 1976 (Boahen, 1982: 40).

The fulfilment of such grand visions has continued to elude the region for decades. West Africans, and indeed many from outside the region, have not only underestimated the difficulty of development in general and in the region in particular, but have understated how crucial it is to examine the difficulties within a regional framework.

Developmental and Regional Difficulties

In the case of the former, the worldwide development experience since the 1960s and the multitude of crises in West Africa have demonstrated that development and stability are not merely matters of “political will” or “strong self-determination”. Particularly for West Africa, there is a reason why the great empires and societies of the interior (the Western Sudan) which had the highest levels of integration with the rest of the world, elite Arabo-literacy rates and the largest empires in the pre-Atlantic period now rank the highest in poverty rates and the lowest in economic production, anglo-literacy rates, and many other measures of human development.

There is a reason why West Africa had the highest incidence of military coups in Africa following political independence (McGowan, 2003: 355); why the region is a major center of diffusive terrorism on the continent; and why it is experiencing a current climate of violence between farmers and pastoralists that is “unprecedented in modern times” (Brottem, 2021: 2). There is a reason why West Africa, along with Central Africa, has the highest transport costs and lowest transport quality in a continent which has the highest transport costs in the world (Teravaninthorn and Raballand, 2009: 17).

There is a reason why, according to the latest attempt to quantify political settlements of developing countries (Schulz and Kelsall, 2020), West Africa ranks the lowest in Africa in terms of virtually all the variables identified by Whitfield et al. (2015) as critical for industrial policy success. Yet presidential elections and development discourse within nations in West Africa continue to be dominated by simplistic narratives of “good governance”, “corruption” and “political will”.

With regard to understating the importance of adopting a regional lens, this has been the case since the late colonial period when self-government began to be extended to the colonies on a territorial rather than regional basis. The movements for West African cooperation fostered by the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), its eventual rival, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and student organizations such as the West African Students Union (WASU) and the Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France (FEANF) (Black African Students Federation in France) went into decline in West Africa as nationalist territorialism spread across the region in response to the expanded opportunities for legislative engagement which followed colonial acquiescence to some degree of self-rule (Boahen, 1982: 15). Efforts at creating regional federations, as pre-eminently envisaged by Kwame Nkrumah, did not succeed, and faded away after the fall of Nkrumah in 1966 (Serra, 2014: 21-22). Since then, “Although rhetorical support for integration exists, there is no dominant personality to articulate a vision and turn it into a crusade the way Nkrumah once did.” (Lavergne and Daddieh, 1997: 105). There is also an absence of an “integration culture” in the region, among governments, business communities and ordinary people (Bundu, 1997: 38).

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The colonial geographies of Kenya’s fintech boom

Digital and mobile finance applications have boomed in Kenya over the last decade. Mobile money, Vodafone’s M-Pesa system in particular, is ubiquitous. Kenyan banks and smaller start-ups have led the adoption of a wider range of mobile and digital financial applications.

For promoters of fintech as a tool for development, Kenya is a paradigm case. Estimates from Tavneet Suri and William Jack – suggesting that the advent of M-Pesa had directly moved 194 000 households, equivalent to 2 percent of the country, out of extreme poverty – have been triumphantly cited across a wide range of media reports and policy documents. The rapid adoption of mobile and digital finance, according to advocates, has allowed Kenya to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental constraints of its existing financial system. In the words of one author: ‘new technologies solve problems arising from weak institutional infrastructure and the cost structure of conventional banking’.

There are good reasons to question this rosy narrative, as recent critics have demonstrated compellingly. Among others, Milford Bateman and colleagues raise a number of important methodological and other objections to Suri and Jack’s claims, and Serena Natile shows how narratives of ‘inclusion’ mask the perpetuation of gendered patterns of exclusion and inequality. Wider applications of fintech in Kenya have come in for critique as well. Kevin Donovan and Emma Park highlight emerging patterns of digitally-enabled over-indebtedness. Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino trace the emergence of monopolistic corporate power enacted through the extension of digital platforms (including for finance) in Kenyan agriculture. Ali Bhagat and Leanne Roderick show the emergence of new forms of racialized dispossession and exploitation through efforts to extend fintech applications to refugees in Kenya.

On a more basic level, ‘leapfrogging’ narratives have to contend with the fact that the geography of Kenyan fintech looks a lot like that of the financial system more generally. The fintech boom is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and especially concentrated in Mombasa and in and around Nairobi. Data from the 2019 national ‘FinAccess’ survey shows that 6.6 percent of respondents currently or had previously used of mobile lending services, and 6.4 percent reported the same of digital lending apps. The corresponding figures among urban residents were 17.2 and 11.4 percent. The proportion of residents in Nairobi Metropolitan Area and Mombasa using mobile money services (25 percent) and digital lending apps (18.2 percent) is more than double the respective use rates of mobile (12.3 percent) and digital borrowing (7.1 percent) among urban residents elsewhere.

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 A People’s Green New Deal: A Symposium

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal intervenes in current debates regarding green planning, green future, green stimuli, and eco-socialism. It surveys a wide range of existing literature on the ecological and social crisis, ranging from ruling-class “great transitions,” to eco-modernist elixirs of the right and the left which bank on technological solutions to today’s social and ecological problems. It then considers and critiques an array of liberal, left-liberal, and social democratic proposals, some of them going under the eco-socialist moniker, and shows how they rest on continued exploitation and primitive accumulation of the periphery. 

A People’s Green New Deal contributions lie in, first, using frameworks of dependency theory, accumulation on a world scale, and ecologically uneven exchange to illuminate the costs and consequences of distinct approaches to the climate crisis, left and right. Second, the book’s emphasis on agriculture, land use, and agro-ecology makes it unique amongst books on the Green New Deal and parallel debates. Its emphasis on decolonization, national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and climate debt repayments from the North to the South is a third contribution. A fourth is how it deals with technology. 

This review forum assesses the contribution of A People’s Green New DealSakshi situates APGND in terms of a counter-epistemology to Eurocentric and empire-blind resolutions, if not really solutions, to the social and ecological crises to which mainstream Green New Deals are addressed. Sheetal Chhabria assesses APGND’s contribution to thinking on a planetary scale about appropriate planning for a just transition, while criticizing the book’s uncritical embrace of certain Indian nationalist tropes. Güney Işıkara raises questions regarding political agency and organization, the role of national-level planning in any form of national-level green transition, and how to approach anti-imperialism on a world scale.  

Read the contributions:

Dismantling and transcending colonialism’s legacy

In “decolonial” discourse, the African leadership landscape is flattened to the point of becoming a caricature. In an earlier variation of this caricature, Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction of “seek ye first the political kingdom” was presented by political scientist Ali Mazrui as a deficient obsession with political power to the neglect of the economic. In the current variation, the neglect of epistemic “decoloniality” is characterized as the deficient underbelly of the “nationalist” movement.

Kwame Nkrumah, Sédar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere are not only three of the most cerebral figures of Africa’s “nationalist” movement, but unlike Amilcar Cabral they lived to lead their countries in the aftermath of formal colonial rule.

Contrary declarations notwithstanding, Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere were acutely aware of the colonial epistemological project and the need to transcend it. Indeed, philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s re-reading of Negritude as epistemology argued that its salience lies in the dissolution of the binary opposition of subject and object in the logic of René Descartes. Whatever one’s take on the specificity of Senghor’s claims of Africa’s modes of knowing—by insisting on the interconnectedness of subject and object—he deliberately sought to mark out what is deficient in modern European epistemology and valorize African systems of knowledge. This epistemological project is built on a distinct African ontological premise.

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National Fiscal Redistribution as “International” Development Assistance

The histories of international development and foreign aid often focus on aid between independent nations. Williams’ (2013: 234) history of international development aid only begins from the British Colonial Development Act of 1929. Markovits, Strange and Tingley’s (2019) history of foreign aid focuses on aid between “nations” or empires. Helleiner (2014), for instance, traces the origins of multilateral development finance proposals to China’s Sun Yat-sen in 1919.

There is, however, a major problem with these histories. Their starting points reveal a methodological nationalist approach. The history of states and societies since the modern era, is however more complex. The early modern era is well known for the spate of state consolidations and national formations. It may be argued that intra-national transfers within modernizing nations may represent important forms of regional development assistance that have been left out of the consideration of the history of development assistance.

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The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism

By Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo

How is imperialism relevant today? How has it mutated over the past century? What are different theoretical and empirical angles through which we can study imperialism? These are the questions we deal with in our edited volume on The Changing Face of Imperialism (2018).

We understand imperialism as a continuing arrangement since the early years of empire-colonies to the prevailing pattern of expropriations, on part of those who wield power vis-à-vis those who are weak. The pattern of ‘old imperialism’, in the writings of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, were framed in the context of the imperial relations between the ruling nations and their colonies with political subjugation of the latter, captured by force or by commerce, providing the groundwork for their economic domination in the interest of the ruling nations. Forms of such arrogation varied, across regions and over time; including  the early European invasions of South America, use of slaves or indentured labour across oceans, and the draining off of surpluses from colonies by using trade and financial channels. Imperialism, however, has considerably changed its pattern since then, especially with institutional changes in the  prevailing power structure.

The essays in the volume offer a renewed interpretation, which include the alternate interpretations of imperialism and its changing pattern over space and time, incorporating the changing pattern of oppression which reflects the dynamics underlying the specific  patterns of oppression. The pattern can be characterised as ‘new imperialism’ under contemporary capitalism as distinct from its ‘old’ form under colonialism. The varied interpretations of imperialism  as in the literature do not lessen the significance of the common ground underlying the alternate positions, including the diverse pattern of expropriations under imperialism.

The volume offers fourteen chapters by renowned authors. In this blog, we organise them in the following manner: the first five of those deal with the conceptual basis of imperialism from different angles, the next three chapters deal with contemporary imperialism, and then the rest six chapters of book deal with India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism.

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Enduring Relevance: Samir Amin’s radical political economy

By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Maria Dyveke Styve, Ushehwedu Kufakurinani and Ray Bush

In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.

The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.

Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.

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Knowledge Divides

This post was originally published on Menelique Magazine, issue #3 and menelique.com.

#Black Lives Matter highlights the suppression of black lives in all aspects of society, but the public interest in the movement has been limited to systemic state racism involving the brutality of white police officers against black people. The visible and visceral discriminations in the public domain are serious and warrant such interest and concern, but this focus leaves out several other issues that are of interest to the movement. 

The intellectual marginalisation of black people is one of such relatively overlooked areas. When black intellectual suppression is recognised, it is commonly held to be a mere supply problem. In this sense, black people produce little or no knowledge, there are few or no serious black scholars to engage, or the work of black scholars is not good enough. Conventional indices appear to bear out such claims. From 1987 to 2016, for example, a World Bank report suggests that the share of Africa’s contribution to the global pool of scientific knowledge as measured by scientific databases such as Web of Science declined from 1 to under 1 per cent. 

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