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Why is it that Africans never plan for the future?

By Obadiah Mailafia

Cuba

A FEW weeks ago a dear American friend and former colleague sent me an email. Permit me to quote him verbatim: “Hello brother Obed. I trust that you are fruitfully engaged these days. I read an article earlier today that immediately brought you to mind. I want to share its contents with you, as attached.

“My point in sending it to you is not about the article itself, which concerns the potential number of Africans who may emigrate to Europe in the years to come, but the statistics quoted on Nigerian demographics. You are no doubt already aware of this. My question is, who in Nigeria is thinking about the future of the country and what it may look like, if indeed Nigeria becomes a country of 410 million (or even ‘just’ 310 million)?

“What does Lagos need and how does it prepare in order to become a megalopolis of 40+ million? I think these are questions that you are very capable of analyzing and writing about. Perhaps this could be the subject of one or more of your newspaper columns?”

My friend is a distinguished agricultural economist who spent nearly 30 years of his professional career at the African Development Bank Group. We became more than just friends and colleagues. We became brothers. I must say I was deeply touched by his concern. Let’s face it: What kind of country would we be living in when our population exceeds the 400 million mark? How are we going to provide jobs, housing, education, electricity and health for our teeming millions of people?

As I drive round Abuja, I ask myself what kind of transport management nightmare we would face when our federal capital becomes a mega city of 20 million? Is it possible to operate a city of 40 million without an adequate rail network, as is likely to be in the case of Lagos? What are the prospects for electricity and infrastructure? And what are the implications for public management in the twenty-first century? When I begin to reflect deeply upon the future, I become afraid. I had to be honest with my brother. There is nobody out there seriously thinking and planning for Nigeria’s future – neither the intelligentsia nor the political leaders or bureaucratic elite.

It is a truism that, at current path-dependence, Nigeria cannot survive as a corporate entity by 2050. From a purely systems-analytic point of view, our system cannot absorb the relentless pressures of geometric population growth, slow growth, massive unemployment, uncontrolled urbanisation, mounting slums, deepening poverty and inequality, widespread insecurity, violence, criminality and egregious social injustice in the context of purposeless leadership and widespread abuses of civil liberties. In addition, the impact of climate change and the forces of accelerated urbanisation in the context of dwindling public revenues, a weak naira, rising debt, terrorism, lawlessness and divisive politics are leading us down a dangerous road.

I say this not as a pessimist but as a patriot and believer in the Nigeria Project. It seems self-evident to me that no human system can survive overbearing pressures that its institutions are unable to manage or process into positive-sum outcomes for the good of the common people. In our own case, system failure is inevitable if we do not act with wisdom and collective purpose in the years ahead. If there is one area where Africans have failed woefully, it is in thinking and planning for their own future. The Chinese, for example, with their history of statehood dating back to millennia, often think in long-term centennial cycles. So do the Indians, Koreans, Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans. The Gulf Cooperation Countries have made giant strides in economic development by thinking long-term and thinking big.

The nations of the Western Atlantic have always thought in long-term geostrategic terms. Many spurious pseudo-scientific theories have been propagated about race and underdevelopment. The so-called Bell Curve theory places black Africans at the bottom of the human intelligence quotient. James Watson, the biochemist who shared the Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for their discovery of the double helix, told a British journalist in 2007 that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says, not really.” The late Nobel laureate who passed early this year, claimed that although he wished everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

It would seem that the overrated founding-father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was, unfortunately, not immune to the disease. In his autobiographical work, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000, he made reference to “genetics” being the problem explaining Africa’s backwardness.

Racist theories are easy and cheap. But they are also very wounding and injurious to the self-esteem and collective psyche of the African people. They only serve to reinforce what the late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui termed “Global Apartheid”. Centuries of enslavement, colonisation and cruel discrimination have undermined the self-esteem of most Africans, both at home and in the Diaspora. As a consequence, we have lost the capacity to believe in ourselves and to plan ahead.

But we cannot continue to blame others for all our problems. I believe that we are the prime architects of our own collective destiny. Africa’s weak performance in the competitive advantage of nations lies outside simplistic and wicked racial theories. In our day and age, nations thrive and flourish when they make the right policy choices; when their ruling elite share a consensus on progressive market reforms that unleash the entrepreneurial energy of their people within the context of strong institutions, political stability, the rule of law and respect for property rights.

Africa is the cradle of human civilisation. Through the great Pharaonic and Cushitic civilisations, we were the first teachers of the human race. Many of the autochthonous communities of Nigeria – from the ancient Nok culture of my own Southern Kaduna to ancient Ile-Ife and the Benin Kingdom – all trace their ancestry to ancient Egypt. And yet, two billion black people on this earth have been consigned to a status described by the immortal Franz Fanon as “the wretched of the earth”. Our beloved Nigeria, as the most populous black nation on earth, is the model and signifier of Africa’s collective destiny.

The biggest danger facing a free people is when they lose their innate confidence as a sovereign and inner-directed national community.  As a consequence, Africans lack The Courage to Be as understood by the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich.

The late Chinua Achebe warned us long ago that, “Unless the lion learns to tell his own story, his history will always be written by the hunters”. Let it be known to the whole world: Africans are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. I believe in Humanity. But I also take pride in the dignity and indomitable courage of the African people. I believe in Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of “The African Personality”. I am not one of those who blame outsiders for all our misfortunes. I believe in the role and potency of human agency in history. And I believe that we as a people must take responsibility for our own future and for our collective destiny.

Economic science conclusively establishes that nations thrive best when they make the right policy choices; when leaders share a consensus on progressive reforms that unleash the entrepreneurial energy of their people within the context of strong institutions, political stability, the rule of law, human rights and respect for property rights. We must plan for Nigeria’s future otherwise we are doomed!

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