Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience. Continue reading

How English-medium education is hobbling Tanzania’s children

Imagine yourself as a 12-year-old. Perhaps you’ve just squeezed your first zit or been crippled by your first crush. You’ve also just graduated from primary school, and are about to begin secondary.

You haven’t learnt that much during your first years in school – the teaching is so bad that half your colleagues failed to graduate. From primary school. Class sizes averaging 50 and sometimes hitting 200 didn’t help, nor having to share a textbook with four other students.

Often there weren’t enough chairs or desks in class, so you would have to stand all day at the back in the 35-degree heat (the fans overhead never turned). Your teachers were poorly paid and trained, demotivated, often absent, and when they did teach they used such antiquated methods that all you ever did was copy down whatever they wrote on the blackboard and, if you had the time or energy to study in the evenings, try to learn it by heart without ever understanding what it meant.

Not surprising, then, that some of your 12-year-old peers can barely read a word in your own language, much less a whole sentence. And forget other languages – although the study of English was obligatory in primary school, the teacher masked his weak grasp of his subject by conducting lessons entirely in your mother tongue. Since you could barely read or write in that, there was little hope that you’d be able to do so in a language of which you knew nothing.

So you’re getting ready to start secondary school, probably feeling a little daunted after just scraping through primary. Possibly feeling more daunted still because the rest of your schooling is to be conducted not in your own language, the language you’ve been working hard to familiarise yourself with for the past few years (it is itself not the language of your tribe, and not always spoken at home), but in English, a language neither you nor anyone you know speaks.

And you won’t just be studying the subject of English in English – this might actually be useful, or it would be if your teacher were better trained – but all other subjects too. And if you thought your English teacher had a weak knowledge of English, wait until you hear how your biology teacher speaks it, or your maths teacher. Most of the time they won’t bother, of course: they admit to using the local lingua franca – in Tanzania’s case, Kiswahili – reasonably arguing that since their students don’t understand English there’s no point trying to educate them in it.

But the textbooks you share with your colleagues are written in English. Your homework is supposed to be written in English. All the exams you take are in English. Throughout your secondary school career, therefore, you will be taught in one language but expected to produce the outputs you need in order to progress through the levels in another.

In theory, increasing your exposure to English makes sense. It’s the most important global language, after all, and while research shows that you will learn more effectively in primary school if you’re taught in your mother tongue, it also shows that young people can learn a second language well if they are confident in their first language and if it is introduced gradually, “in carefully managed stages”.

There is nothing gradual or careful about the introduction of English in Tanzania. English is supposed to replace Kiswahili wholesale. Students have a six-week English crash course before they begin secondary school, delivered by a teacher who has been through the same dysfunctional system. After that they are left to fend for themselves. The old-fashioned teaching methods, with a distant disciplinarian handing down diktats to cowed and silent subjects from the front of the classroom, allow no scope for thrashing out an understanding during an interactive discussion.

Teaching is bad enough in Kiswahili – asking teachers to use an unfamiliar language makes it worse. Asking children to learn in one language while they take exams in a different language that they can’t speak is likely to be a fundamental reason why 60,000 drop out of secondary school every year, why only 12% complete lower secondary education when they should, and why only 1.9% enrol in upper secondary school.

Before Tanzania’s last election, in October 2015, the ruling party suggested that it would ditch English-medium education and revert to using Kiswahili at secondary as well as primary level. No progress has been made on this pledge, and the new government has had little to say about it. This was one of the previous administration’s better ideas. Tanzanian students are hobbled by the current system. Teaching English well as a subject and teaching everything else better in Kiswahili will free them to realise their potential.

[This article first appeared on Daily Maverick, and is reproduced here with permission]

Investing in our soft power assets – the BBC World Service & the Spending Review

This is the third in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the BBC World Service, “Britain’s gift to the world”. Find the others with the following links: FCO, British Council.

Other UK soft power assets fall into the “unprotected” category and are at risk of cuts. Since the Chatham House / YouGov Survey began polling in 2010, BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting has been seen by UK opinion-formers as the UK’s top foreign policy tool, consistently ranking higher than all other foreign policy “assets”.

Broadcasting to 210m people every week and with a budget less than half that of BBC2, the World Service faces increasing challenges in the form of domestic and international competition, technical change, and a legacy of underinvestment. FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of bbcits staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. In contrast, there is increased competition – following a 2007 directive from Premier Hu Jintao, China has been investing heavily in soft power assets with state journalists now pumping out content in more than 60 languages. Lacking first mover advantage, it is clear that competitors have strategic ambitions. Yu-Shan Wu of the South African Institute for International Affairs comments, “Since the Beijing Olympics, we have seen increased efforts to provide China’s perspective on global affairs, signalling relations with Africa have moved beyond infrastructure development to include a broadcasting and a people-to-people element. There are now regular exchanges between Chinese and African journalists, and it is clear that China is stepping up and laying the foundations for a more concerted public diplomacy effort in the region.”

From April last year, the World Service ceased to be funded by the FCO, and is now resourced by a share of the BBC licence fee. Although its budget was increased by the BBC in 2014 (up by £6.5m to £245m), the BBC itself faces many of its own funding challenges. In July, the Chancellor called on the organisation to make savings and make ‘a contribution’ to the budget cuts Britain is facing. Ministers asked the BBC to shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s, and later that month unveiled a green paper on the future of the broadcaster which questioned if it should continue to be “all things to all people”. In the same month, the organisation announced that 1,000 jobs would go to cover a £150m shortfall in frozen licence fee income.

The World Service is somewhat insulated from wider BBC cuts, as the BBC has to seek the Foreign Secretary’s approval to close an existing language service (or launch a new one). Nevertheless, in early September, Director-GeneraWorldsNewsroom1l Tony Hall made the first of a series of responses to the green paper. Making a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”, he unveiled proposals for a significant expansion of the World Service, including; a satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers, a daily news programme on shortwave for North Korea, expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage), and increased digital and mobile offerings for Indian and Nigerian markets. Interestingly, the proposals sought financial support from the government, suggesting matched funding, conditional upon increased commercialisation of the BBC’s Global News operation outside the UK.

More on the expansion plans here.

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

Why Witchcraft Works

lakevUkerewe, the island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria where I am currently spending a few months, is famous for witchcraft. Witches are found in every village, in every street. They earn a living by selling curses. If you want to punish a friend or destroy an enemy, you pay a witch to smite him with some misfortune – illness, injury, impoverishment, death. Because these things are so common anyway, it is easy for witches to claim that it was the curse that did the damage, and easy therefore for them to stay in business. And there begins the vicious circle – bad things sustain belief in witchcraft, belief in witchcraft absolves you (or your government) of any responsibility for your lot, so more bad things happen, and the witches grow ever more powerful.

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground

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Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading