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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