West Africa’s Illusory Development

Twenty-two  years ago, I sat on a bench in Lomé, Togo watching a stream of people running in anger toward the central marketplace. Moments later, black smoke was billowing from the market. Soon, the panicked crowd was moving in the other direction as police reacted to the rioting. The government of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, controlled by his Kabye ethnic group, was tottering. I thought it would fall. It did not.

Today, in The New York Times, I read:

Where legitimacy has been questioned from the outset, leaders can expect trouble. That series of events has been playing out for weeks in the small coastal nation of Togo, where antigovernment demonstrators have repeatedly filled the streets of the capital, Lomé. The police fired tear gas at hundreds of them last week, just as they had the week before.[…]

The country has been run by the same family for more than 40 years. When the dictator Gen. Gnassingbé Eyadéma died after 38 years in power in 2005, the military put his son Faure Gnassingbé in power. Not surprisingly, he won a dubious election later that year — a victory accompanied by the deaths of nearly 800 protesters and the flight across borders of thousands more, according to Togolese human rights groups — and again in 2010.

Things haven’t changed much. The illegitimate government of then is the illegitimate government of now.

And the talk of an African “miracle” then is the talk of an African “miracle” now.

I remember listening to American ambassador Rush Taylor talk of Togo as the next “tiger,” referring to the Asian nations whose economic growth was a major story of the time, the late 1980s. AfricanEconomicOutlook.org is almost as optimistic today, projecting 4.2% growth this year and slightly higher, next. The organization writes:

Reforms are under way to improve the business climate and parliament approved a new investment law in January 2012. These changes, backed by the country’s development partners, will continue in 2012. A milestone in the fight against corruption was creation of a court of accounts and general finance inspectorate. A three-year programme to modernise the state bureaucracy through “e-government” began in 2012.[…]

Many opposition parties staged protests in 2011 and student strikes, sometimes violent, occurred in the capital, Lomé. The government reacted calmly and sought reconciliation and direct talks with the protesters.

This is nonsense, as the current rioting shows. And almost all of our talk about West Africa has been nonsense since long before I sat on that bench drinking coffee from a street vendor and watching a riot.

As the Times article points out, there is upheaval in West Africa far beyond Togo. In Guinea, in Gabon, in Ivory Coast rioting is going on almost as we speak. And Mali, which so recently seemed a bastion of stability and even democracy, is degenerating into a civil war that may end up in Somalia-like chaos. Nigeria contains constant strife brought on by religious, economic, and ethnic problems.

What goes on? Why do things not change? Why are the people at the bottom so continually poor while the rich make great claims of progress?

There are myriad reasons, of course, but a major one is that these are not nations, but are states created by colonial masters with no consideration of the peoples to be governed. With no national cohesion, no sense of identity or commonality, the only way these states can be controlled is through force. There have been exceptions, but the exceptions have not held. Look at Liberia, look at Mali. Today, Senegal and Ghana seem to be doing well. Tomorrow? Who knows?

According to AfricanEconomicOutlook.org, over 20% of urban Togolese youth are unemployed. I’d bet the real number is much higher than that. And I’d also bet that rural employment is primarily in subsistence agriculture of the most back-breaking kind. Is it any wonder so many want to leave, to get to the United States or to Europe? Is it any wonder that frustrations explode into rioting?

Let’s stop the applause for African states whose only means of survival is draconian abuse of their own populations and corruption that keeps the petty bureaucrats and low-level police and military in line. The growth and progress we see will always be illusory and temporary until there is systemic change that wipes away the legacy of colonialism–that breaks down the “states” that England and France established and replaces them, somehow, with real nations of African design.

If this does not happen, someone who observed the rioting in Lomé this year will surely be writing, 22 years from now, exactly what I am writing now… for the same thing will be occurring.

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