What Piketty has to say about Africa

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

On 16 June 2014, a post was published called ‘What Piketty has to say about Africa’.


In the post, I argue that there are four main lessons from Piketty’s book that are relevant for Africa:

0 – Africa is able to catch up with the rest of the world.

1 – Foreign direct investment is not the answer for Africa’s problems

2 – Education is the answer

3 – Credible, democratic institutions are essential.

The post then questions if one can ever expect such institutions to come about in countries like Nigeria – and if it is not better to seek a peaceful transition to more logical borders for some of the countries of Africa.

Read the post…

Africa’s failed states: the Central African Republic

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

On 18 April, a post was published called Africa’s failed states: the Central African Republic.

In the post, I argue that the fact that some states in Africa fail is partly due to the fact that the boundaries of these countries are artificial and not related to what the peoples living in those countries would have chosen themselves. It would be better to redraw the borders of some of these countries in order to make them more homogeneous from the ethnic and linguistic point of view.

The post examines the work of ethnologists, who have tried to identify and classify the differences between languages. It argues that from the point of view of building feasible countries, it would be better to look instead at the similarities.

The example given is that of the Central African Republic. It is demonstrated that it would make much more sense to shift that country’s borders to the South, roughly along the lines shown in the map. This would bring all or most of the peoples who speak one of the Ubangian languages together in one country. The country’s name could be Ubangi and the national language could be Sango, a creole easily learned by all who speak an Ubangian language.

There is more – read the post.Image

Let’s look at Botswana!

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 19 February 2014, a post was published called ‘Let’s take a closer look at Botswana‘.

The post describes Botswana as one of the most successful countries of Africa, although it also points out some problems, such as gender inequality and the problems of the Bushmen. The post asks the question why it is that Botswana has had the success it had. It argues that the reason is not in the natural resources of the country – because other African countries with more natural resources have not necessarily done better than Botswana. The answer, the post states, must have something to to with the fact that Botswana is one of the few countries in Africa that makes some sense from an ethnic point of view, with nearly 80% of the population being Tswana. This, the post argues, is still a taboo subject.

What to look for in ‘the next Nelson Mandela’?

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 5 July 2013, a post was published called ‘What to look for in the next ‘Nelson Mandela’?

The post argues that the some of the key traits that made Nelson Mandela such a great leader are rare in today’s African leaders. Yet, the example set by Nelson Mandela should be emulated by leaders in Africa and worldwide.Image 

From tribe to nation?

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 6 March 2013, a post was published called ‘From tribe to nation?

The post addresses some things I consider to be key issues, having to do with ethnic identity, the link with language and thoughts on what a nation needs so that people can feel loyal to it.

The post ends by asserting that  for Africa, there is only one way forward. New forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities. In some parts of Africa, the colonial borders are losing their meaning. Some Africans are starting to see that a radical re-thinking of the current states is necessary. Starting a debate along these lines is, I think inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic has to be broken.

Shell Nigeria convicted in the Netherlands – Why?

My posts will appear from now on on http://www.africaontheblog.com

My most recent post was on the recent conviction of Shell Nigeria in a Dutch court. Apparently, the Nigerian state is unable to give justice to its citizens. What does it mean, if a state is not able to do that? What does it say about Nigeria’s chances of success as a nation?

Read the post…

Is Barack Obama the first African American President?


20 January 2013 is the day is the day that Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term of office as President of the United States. He is widely regarded as the first African-American president of the U.S. But – is this true?

On the face of it, the arithmetic is simple. Obama’s mother was, in the peculiar language of the Americans, ‘Caucasian’. His father was Luo, which by all accounts is in Africa. So, join the two together and what do you get? An African American.

But this is not all there is to it. In general, the term African American refers to a person who is descended from the first Africans who were brought to what is now the U.S. as slaves. These persons share a culture that is distinct from the dominant American culture and that culture is referred to as African American. And that is where there is an obvious problem – because a lot can be said about Barack Obama, but not that his cultural background is African American.

The ‘true’ African Americans know this, of course, but there seems to be a silent conspiracy not to talk about it. One comedian has dared to challenge the dominant beliefs, using the known facts, but presenting them in a tongue-in-cheek way. Look at this video. Comedian Chris Rock, in a ‘special message for white people’ shows how the young Barack (then called Barry) was raised mainly by his grandparents from his mother’s side (who were, of course, white) and spent most of his childhood years in Hawaii. It is good to note that Hawaii (where I am actually writing this post) is very different from the U.S. mainland. Hawaii is a true melting pot of cultures, with strong influences from the U.S. mainland, but also the indigenous Polynesian Hawaiians, Japanese, and many others. There are, as one might say, fifty shades of brown on the island. On Hawaii, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to know somebody’s culture by looking at the skin tone. You have to wait until a person opens his mouth. In that sense, Hawaii is just like many African countries, where the same is true.

This means that in Hawaii, Barry Obama was raised the Hawaiian way, by his ‘caucasian’ mother and grandparents. (See also his own highly readable memoir, “Dreams from My Father”.) This happy state of things only changed when the young Barry moved to the U.S. mainland. It is there that, sadly, he was confronted with the ‘normal ’ skin-tone related American prejudices. He saw himself forced to make a choice: would he identify himself more with the dominant white culture, or would he adopt the African American one? He chose the latter, but of course retained many of his old, ‘white’ cultural traits.

Therefore, Chris Rock is totally right, although he seems not to believe it himself. Barack Obama is indeed, culturally speaking, a white American, not an African American.

But the story does not end here. Of course, Obama has developed a deep understanding of the African American culture, through his long interaction with African Americans, and not least through his wife, Michelle. Many African Americans felt that Bill Clinton was the first President who understood them. That may be true, but I would venture that Obama’s understanding is bound to be much deeper and more intimate. In that sense, he IS unique. Not, as popular belief would have it, because he is the first African American President. He is not. What he is, though, is perhaps even more important: he is the first President who, because of his background and because of the choices he has made, has an understanding not only of the dominant white American culture, but also of the African American culture. He is, in that sense, a true American.

Whilst that may be a positive message for Americans, it is not good news for the Luo. The Luo who celebrated four years ago when Obama was first sworn in where misguided. Culture is not, as some will believe, in the genes. It is part of the upbringing. Obama is lots of things – but certainly not Luo, and in that sense they cannot expect anything more or less of Obama than they could expect from any other American President – preciously little, in fact.


            “There is only one race – the human race” – Oliver Tambo.

‘There is only one race – the human race’. The statement is attributed to the deceased long-time leader of the ANC in exile, Oliver Tambo. He is not the only one who has said this – many others have said it as well – and in doing so, they have only stated what is blatantly obvious from the zoological point of view. In fact, from the time that the first European sailors set foot on African soil, they have been actively contributing to the massive body of empirical evidence that underpins this statement.

But of course, this is not the same as to say that all human beings are equal. There are important differences. These differences are not based on skin pigmentation or genetic differences. They are based on language and, more importantly, on culture. Europeans know this, of course. Polish, Germans and Dutch all look alike – but they are very different from one another. Africans, of course, know this as well – see this post from Minda Magero for example, for a moving illustration. Communicating in spite of these differences is always a fascinating and very often surprising and rewarding experience.

Why, then, is there still so much talk about race and racism in the United States? Why, for example, are people with different shades of pale skin colour supposed to be ‘Caucasians’? The US is probably the only country in this world where this type of designation is used.  What makes the US so obsessed with this notion of ‘race’, even to the present day?

One explanation can be found in the history of the United States. Like Apartheid, slavery made use of an irrational ideology of ‘racial’ difference to justify a rational but immoral system of exploitation. But slavery was abolished in the US in 1865 – almost150 years ago. Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – almost 50 years ago. Are Americans so stupid that it takes them such a long time to learn the necessary lessons?

No – there must be another reason why racial prejudice is regenerated and reinvented in the United States generation after generation. This reason cannot be based on differences in skin colour – that factor by itself is too trivial, is literally only skin-deep. The reason must, therefore, be based on something much more important – on cultural differences.

It’s pretty obvious once you think of it –  African Americans use the language differently, have different likes and dislikes, behave differently from other Americans. They form, in effect, a different cultural group within the U.S., just like, for example, the Jewish and the Italian Americans. Anthropologists know this and have documented many aspects of African-American culture. Many people think of culture as something that has to do with art, music and the like. But culture permeates everything and shows itself as soon as, or even before, a person starts to open his/her mouth.

In Africa, many cultures co-exist – and everybody knows that culture and skin colour are not related. The same is true in Europe. But for African Americans, this is not the case: there, uniquely, skin tone does overlap very largely with cultural difference. This explains why, in the U.S., racial stereotyping continues to exist and is constantly reinvented. Encounters between African Americans and other Americans are experienced as encounters between people of different cultural backgrounds. And because, uniquely, skin colour helps to identify the other person’s culture – skin colour is identified with difference and thus, racial prejudice is reproduced time and time again. The illusion is created that the difference in skin tone is, somehow, a cause for the other differences – whereas Africans know that this is not the case.

So – “it’s the culture, stupid!”. It would be good if this mechanism would become a much more explicit part of the American consciousness. Americans should accept and understand the cultural differences that exist in their country in a much clearer way. Then they will realize that the challenges blacks and whites face are related to the universal challenges that people of different cultural backgrounds face in communication, independent of skin colour and no matter where they are from. Challenges, yes – but opportunities for enrichment as well.  This insight, I believe, would go a long way to help to heal some of the wounds that exist in the U.S. Wounds that currently cannot heal, because the mechanisms I described above continue to rip them open.

It is this challenging but essentially optimistic lesson that Africans have to offer Americans. Once one starts to think about this, a host of other questions come to mind. There is the interesting case of Barack Obama, for example. But that will be the topic for my next post.


The sad story of Kivu – where to look for a solution?

The M23 rebellion in Kivu, Eastern Congo, has shown the instability of Congo as a nation once again. Or at the very least, it has shown how far away the Kivu provinces are from the capital and how small the control is that the central government (or anybody else, for that matter) has in that region.

In the international media, M23 is portrayed as a group that is dominated by Tutsi nationals and receives support from Rwanda. Their opponents are not mainly the Congolese army troops – because they are not effective in the area – but they are, rather, the Hutu-led FDLR rebel group. Thus, it is safe to say that the M23 rebellion is, if nothing else, another expression of the bitter and tragic Hutu -Tutsi conflict that has caused so much damage in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Congo in the past decades.

This means that a solution for the rebellion cannot be found in Kinshasa. M 23, together with the major part of the international community, are mistaken when they believe that a solution can be negotiated within the framework imposed by the current boundaries in the region.

Of course, the Hutu and the Tutsi are considered to be one ethnic group and they have lived together for centuries. Given the recent history, however, it is very hard to imagine how they can live together ever again. It is being tried: both Rwanda and Burundi are, in theory, multi-party states with no dominant ethnic group. However, most observers concede that both countries are, in fact, currently Tutsi-dominated. Thus, it seems only a matter of time before violent conflict erupts again either in Rwanda or in Burundi or in both countries.

It might be a much better solution if there would be two separate states, one in which the Hutu is clearly the dominant group, one in which the Tutsi are. Perhaps Rwanda and Burundi should consider joining forces and becoming a federation. Perhaps North and South Kivu, or large parts of it, could do the same and become an independent country.

In a way, this would be similar to Croatia and Serbia in Europe. The Croats and the Serbians think they are very different from one another – but they are the only ones who think so. They also think they speak different languages – although they understand one another perfectly.

The two-country solution has worked for the Croats and the Serbians. It could work as well for the Hutu and the Tutsi. Breaking the taboo on this subject is the only way forward and the quickest way of avoiding another decade of turmoil and misery in the region.

The other question then is – what would such a split mean for Congo as a country? That might be a suitable topic for a next post…

When will the African Union receive the Nobel Peace Prize?

In October 2012, the Nobel Committee surprised the world by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. The Committee explained its decision by pointing out that the EU seems to have put an end to war in Europe, at least in Western Europe. In the 70 years before the start of the EU, so in the period between 1880 and 1950, Germany and France had fought three wars. And of course, the Germans and the French were by no means the only Europeans involved in fighting in that period.

In 1880, there were 15 independent countries in the part of Europe now divided up between the European Union’s 27 nation states. Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia did not exist yet. Bulgaria, Greece and Romania had only just gained independence and did not have their present borders yet. Finland and Ireland still had to fight their bitter wars of independence. Austria-Hungary, the most multi-cultural of the countries that existed in 1880, was completely broken up in 1918, after the First World War. The many wars in Europe led to enormous streams of displaced people and refugees, as more homogeneous states were formed, with one dominant ethnic group per country. Not all ethnic groups survived the upheavals – who, today, has heard of the Friulians, the Livs or the Sorbs? And of course, even today, the process of forming nation states with one dominant ethnic group per country in Europe is by no means over. In the Balkans, the process is continuing. Within the EU, the Basque, the Catalans, the Flemish and the Scottish are clamouring for independence.

In 1880, there were no independent nation states in the modern sense yet in Africa, with the exception of Liberia and Morocco. Colonisation was about to begin. It had started in South Africa, and European fortresses dominated parts of the Africa’s coasts – the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Pepper Coast and of course the Slave Coast.

In the 70-year period between 1880 and 1950, the colonisation of Africa was completed and decolonisation was about to begin. In 1950, Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tunisia and South Africa were Africa’s independent states. The rest were colonies. And even though the European nations were busy establishing their peace in Europe, they were not about to let go of their African possessions without a fight. Bitter colonial wars were fought in many countries, a process that lasted more or less for thirty years, until Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

The outcome of the process of forming nation states in Africa was very different from what happened in Europe. Most of Africa’s states do not have a dominant ethnic group. Ethnic groups are referred to as ‘tribes’ in articles about Africa and the urge to form a nation state and the right to self-determination are taboo subjects. Anybody wishing to discuss the subject is branded a ‘tribalist’ and a ‘racialist’. Europe’s five million Slovaks were free to secede from Czechoslovakia – nobody thought it was bad to strive for independence or that Slovaks were particularly racialist for trying to achieve their independence. When Nigeria’s almost fourteen million Igbo seceded to form the state of Biafra in 1967, they were scorned internationally and lost their independence in a gruesome war.

Nevertheless, some states were formed in Africa after 1980: Eritrea in 1991, South Sudan in 2011. In addition, some territories now exist as de-facto independent states, even though they are not recognized internationally: Puntland and Somaliland in Somalia and Azawad in Mali.

In Europe, the process of nation-building also led to an amalgamation of related, though different ethnic groups. In a country like Germany, the Prussians and the Bavarians were long seen as ethnically and linguistically different, besides many other groups. Today, differences remain – but there were enough commonalities to build a strong, shared German identity. This amalgamation process did not happen in Africa. In fact, to this day, ethnographers go to great lengths to describe what distinguishes the ‘tribes’ from each other, rather than looking at what unites them and sets them apart from their neighbours. Thus, Eritrea is seen as a heterogeneous nation, with approximately half of its population belonging to the Tigrinya people and a further 30% belonging to the Tigre people. But the Tigre and Tigrinya languages are closely related. One cannot help but wonder if there is not a strong basis for a similar amalgamation process as what took place in many countries in Europe.

Of course, it is a fallacy to assume that all peoples of the world will naturally follow the same development path as the peoples of Europe. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to assume that Africans are so radically different from Europeans that they do not, or do not need to, or should not aspire to form states with one dominant ethnic group.

In any human society, development goes hand in hand with the forming of allegiances and identities that go beyond family and clan allegiances. In many countries of Europe and elsewhere, it has been demonstrated that some degree of cultural homogeneity is a precondition for forming effective nation states, with effective governments that can act in the interest of the nation’s citizens. In some countries in Africa, with Somalia as the clearest example, no or very weak allegiances exist beyond the clan. These countries cannot function as effective states. In other countries, the state power has been usurped by small élites whose loyalty is only to themselves. In countries such as Kenya, a careful divide and rule act has taken place to appease the most powerful élites of the most important ethnic groups – with varying degrees of success. However, success in these countries is defined as stability – meant, in the first place, to create optimum conditions for self-enrichment by the élites, with the development needs of the wider population as a secondary concern at best.

The experience of the European Union has shown that constructive and peaceful international collaboration is possible, at least to a larger extent than what was thought possible sixty years ago. However, this collaboration is founded on well-established democratic nation states which, internally, have a certain degree of cultural and linguistic homogeneity. Only where such nation states exist can national allegiances and national identities be formed that are strong enough to withstand the pressures of clan and élite interests.

For Africa, the consequence of this is that new forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities. In Europe, this process took seventy years. A huge price was paid in terms of human lives and suffering. If the African Union could help to manage this transition in a more peaceful way – it will certainly merit a Nobel Peace Prize. As a first step, one thing is inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic in Africa has to be broken.