Why Nigeria’s Credit Rating Matters More than Oil

How can something intangible (credit) matter more than a real resource (oil)?

I just finished a book that changed, or at least makes more dynamic, the way I view African development, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Sometimes we get so ensnared in the details of social analysis that we forget to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Harari’s historical account helps us to do just that. His research deepens our understanding of the complexities of the resource course in oil-rich nations without strong democratic institutions.

He argues that one of the key turning points in human history was when we stopped viewing world resources and money as finite, and instead recognized that trust in imaginary future goods could create infinite economic expansion. These imaginary future goods were represented with a new kind of money: CREDIT.

Although we hear of the dark side of credit often—consumer credit card debt, credit on a loan to buy a home that the consumer could never pay off—credit is actually miraculous. As Harari phrases it, “credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.” In it, there is implicit hope that future resources will be more bountiful than current ones. That hope in the hypothetical is just so….human. And it has allowed the world’s per capita production to grow at a staggering rate over the last several centuries.

Although he doesn’t mention Nigeria specifically, a section of the book lucidly argues that a country’s credit rating, or the shared belief that a country will pay back its debts, matters more to its economic development than any other factor—including natural resource endowments.

Here is a grossly over simplified explanation using a feedback loop of why a nation’s healthy credit matters so much:

A) People have faith in the future economy —> B) credit is given out —> C) credit allows us to grow current businesses —> D) this growth is invested in new businesses —> E) businesses create goods that can be sold to pay back loans to creditors —> F) these pay backs fortify faith in the future economy.

And we are now back at the beginning of this cycle.

For those familiar with Nigeria’s economic history, any moment in this cycle can be, and has been, interrupted because of its unhealthy oil economy. In 2004, Nigeria required international debt relief after sovereign defaults on what it owed to the IMF. This was due to “heavy borrowing, rising interest rates, and inefficient trade” (see D). When the country suspended the national fuel subsidy in January 2012, no one wanted to expand their businesses that required gasoline, which is all of them since electricity is unreliable (see D). As I have mentioned in another post, oil can create a dangerous mono-economy in developing countries because it replaces the drive to produce anything aside from the oil itself (see E). Because so much of Nigeria’s economy is based on oil, its unstable pricing erodes the “faith in the future economy” that is the basis of credit extensions at all (see A).

Here is the excerpt of Sapiens that struck me as so pertinent to Nigeria:

A country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating. As a result, it is likely remain relatively poor since it will not be able to raise the necessary capital to make the most of its oil bounty.

Based on the description below, would you trust Nigeria to pay back money you gave it as a loan? Or as a business owner, would you trust its economy to grow, and give you returns on a new business you started with money you got from a creditor? Not many people would.

 

What is a country’s credit rating anyway?

In general, a credit rating is used by sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors to gauge the credit worthiness of a country—thus having a big impact on the country’s borrowing costs.

Standard & Poor’s credit rating for Nigeria stands at B with stable outlook. Moody’s credit rating for Nigeria was last set at B1 with stable outlook. Fitch’s credit rating for Nigeria was last reported at B+ with negative outlook. Overall, there are 11 ratings of stable, 9 rating of negative, and just rating of positive for Nigeria

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As an aside, anyone who witnessed the 2008 American economic meltdown based on home loans can appreciate that these credit ratings are hypothetical. All of those agencies above, those “experts,” failed to change their credit ratings, would could have helped alleviate the devastating U.S. housing crisis that negatively impacted every country in the world.

So, if Nigerian policy makers are to take Harari’s purely academic arguments to heart, they’ll stop writing checks they can’t cash and pay back creditors.

Trust matters.

Idrissi Artfully Addresses Perceptions of Africa

 

The Beauty of African Literature, Ready to Be Explored

Welcome to the Africa Reading Challenge. This will be the fifth time that I’m hosting the Africa Reading Challenge. Details and requirements are the same this year as for the 2012 Africa Reading Challenge, which started with: “I have absolutely no reason for hosting nor urging you to participate in this challenge save for the […]

via 2017 Africa Reading Challenge — Kinna Reads

This is a great blog post about African literature. Take the Kinna challenge and read up!

Korea’s Few Muslims, and Few Africans

I recently published a piece in The Islamic Monthly about Muslim immigrants and refugees in South Korea. A good number of these Muslim immigrants to Korea are African, and East Africans have been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of Korean refugee policies. For clarification, an immigrant chooses to leave their home country, often for improved economic opportunities. A refugee is forced to flee their home country out of fear of violence or persecution.  An asylum seeker is a refugee who has officially applied for protection in the country that received them. South Korea has all of these.

Much of the social stigma Muslim immigrants to South Korea experience is not unlike that Nigerians and other West Africans face when moving abroad. See below for the text of the article.

Korea: A Land of Few Muslims
I took Ramadan for granted when I lived within the diversity of New York. Even as a non-Muslim, it was a beautiful time of year. I remember the explosion of smell of cumin and curry wafting from family-owned restaurants just before sundown. I loved hearing the noisy laughter of families as they lingered over their Eid tables, allowing their playing children to stay up later than usual. It buoyed me to see posters reminding everyone to pay their zakat (alms) for the year to charities. The contemplation the holy month inspires in observers somehow made parts of the city more sober, yet also more joyful for the same reason.

But after moving to South Korea last year, this Ramadan was a very different experience. There are so few practitioners of Islam here — Muslims comprise less than 0.5% of the population — that one must know how to search for acknowledgement of Ramadan at all. The small-but-growing Muslim community is largely centered in the capital, Seoul, on a hilly street hosting the Central Mosque and the core of Islamic culture for the country. The mosque is over-capacity each Friday, with worshipers sometimes laying their pray rugs on the sidewalk outside, an indicator of the slowly rising number of Muslim immigrants in the city.

Seoul’s Muslims have created their community in the international Itaewon neighborhood, interestingly, right near the Yongsan U.S. Army base. A stroll up a colorful side street reveals halal restaurants and grocers, electronics stores, pilgrimage travel agencies, offices of immigration attorneys and cosmetics vendors. The range of Muslim immigrants is so great here that one can eat Malaysian-Egyptian food, exchange Thai baht for Emirati dirham and book a trip to Bahrain or Brunei. Some women wear gauzy shayla veils barely covering their hair, a few others a black niqab revealing only eyes. The street very much flows with the rhythm of daily prayer, and many of these doors are closed during salah (prayer) times, which I noticed confused some Korean visitors.

As-salaam alaykum” (peace be on you) is the most common greeting on this street, one I have seen embraced also by non-Muslims doing business here. There are Chinese tailors, Nigerian cell phone salesmen and Korean nail salons alongside these Muslim shops. They buy, sell and trade among each other. Many long-time Muslim residents — I spoke with Pakistanis who had been in Seoul for 20 years — speak Korean, and they benefit from and contribute to the local economy. Spending just a day on this peaceful street might lead a visitor to believe these Muslim immigrants have a solid foothold in South Korea.

However, this religious minority must tread softly. I have written elsewhere about my outreach efforts to a local mosque here, which were not welcomed by mosque leadership. In better understanding the complicated terrain Muslims navigate in South Korea, I can appreciate the leadership’s defensiveness. I received a distant reception (admittedly due in part to language barrier) again when I recently visited the mosque to try to learn more about the history of Korean Muslims. I understand: They are trying to practice a marginalized religion in a country unaccustomed to diversity. The small number of Muslims in South Korea, and the country’s uncharted path to dealing with them, is precisely why the Muslim presence here is so intriguing.

We read often of the unstoppable tide of Muslims migrating to Europe, but little of those who seek out developed countries with few practitioners of Islam at all. What follows is the background story of how Muslims experience this vulnerable social space in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. It also explores the inconsistent way in which the government approaches immigration, and a few of the factors influencing policies toward outsiders. South Korea struggles to maintain social harmony and economic prosperity in the face of unprecedented immigration, which is difficult.

Who are the Muslims of South Korea?

 There are approximately 250,000 Muslims among a population of about 51 million, largely non-religious, South Koreans. A small fraction of these Muslims, up to 75,000, are ethnic Koreans born in the country. A spokesman at the Seoul Central Mosque says this number is even smaller, about 40,000.

Middle Eastern traders and later Mongols introduced Islam to the Korean peninsula beginning in the 9th century. The greatest rise in the number of Korean Muslims occurred in the 20th century, after Koreans fled to Muslim areas of China to escape Japanese occupation, and later returned converted. At the same time, Turkish troops stationed by the United Nations during the Korean War had an Islamizing effect.

Yet, there are three times more foreign-born Muslims than ethnic Korean ones, numbering about 150,000. These are Muslims living and working on that Itaewon street with the Central Mosque. There is a steady rise in Muslims each year in the form of foreign university students and Muslims staying in the country as they intermarry with Koreans. These spouses are from other Asian countries typically. These two groups have helped quadruple the number of Muslims in South Korea since 1994. Admittedly, the size of the Muslim population is challenging to verify because the government has not done a census on their numbers in five years, and just under 20% of Muslim immigrants are in the country illegally (an issue explored in the latter half of this article).

The burdens of trailblazing

 The challenges begin for many Muslims upon arrival at Seoul’s Incheon airport. For hopeful Muslim refugees who don’t have all their necessary paperwork, some of whom stayed during a layover or traveled via a “safe” country, their arrival is a grim one. Hundreds of immigrants have been held at the airport in a space meant for 50, for up to six months at a time. These have included men from war-torn parts of Africa and Syria. During their weeks and months of wait, they are given three meals per day of only a hamburger or chicken burger with a soda. There are reports of devout Muslims living off just the bread to avoid non-halal meat. There are no beds, so they sleep on the floor. There are two showers, one for each gender. They take occasional walks through duty-free stores to look at goods they will never be able to afford.

When the government announced plans to build a “Welcome Center,” a refugee housing facility called Young Jong Reception Center, nearby residents protested. They voiced concerns about a flood of immigrants and a rise in crime in the area, the general concern of many Koreans. This backlash was unsurprising to many. According to a 2013 WorldValues Survey,more than 1 in 3 South Koreans responded they didn’t want a neighbor of a different race.

In trying to better understand the experiences of those who make it past the airport, I spoke with Aman Ullah Khan, a Pakistani Ph.D. candidate and a Korean-Urdu interpreter and translator who has been living in Seoul for almost five years. He described to me the challenges of practicing Islam in South Korea.

He has found that many Koreans don’t understand the basic tenets of Islam, and a lack of legal protections allows some to deny religious freedoms to those Muslims who work under them. For example, the most pressing of these is the need to pray five times per day. Some employers deny Muslim employees prayer breaks during the workday, and no law explicitly protects this right, he says. Ramadan is always particularly difficult. Koreans work extremely long hours typically; 10 hours per day is not unusual. Muslim employees do not have shortened workdays or days off for fasting or Islamic holidays. He feels that “the belief among many employers is that religious needs are not their problem.”

In addition to rights protections, religious infrastructure is lacking in this largely secular society. While Muslim migrants account for two-thirds of all Muslims in South Korea, they make up over 90% of attendees at religious services — meaning immigrants are far more actively engaged in the religious community outside their homes than Koreans of any religion. Yet there are only about 15 mosques and 60 Islamic centers in the country. There is no Muslim cemetery, even for Korean Muslims, and there is a single halal chicken slaughterhouse run by a Pakistani-Korean.

Yet for many, it is difficult to make the argument that South Korea has an obligation to meet the religious needs of foreigners, especially those who were not invited in the first place. Any public relations campaign for foreign Muslims in South Korea would be a challenge. In addition to a pervasive desire for sameness-based harmony, Koreans have reacted strongly to reports of Islamic violence. There was the 2004 decapitation of a Korean missionary in Iraq, then the 2007 kidnapping of Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. South Korean news was flooded with reports in 2015 of an 18-year-old Korean man who traveled to Turkey, a post-exam gift from his mother, and then purportedly disappeared into Syria to join ISIS. Last year, it was widely reported that ISIS hackers had gained information to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea. These incidents have fueled the notion of the “Islamic terrorist.” Islamophobia is as prevalent in South Korea as anywhere in the West.

Refugees to an unwilling refuge 

Khan is certainly not the typical Muslim in South Korea. Even a cursory glance at population statistics demonstrates that the country does not open its doors to immigrants, and it certainly doesn’t do so for Muslim refugees from the Middle East or Africa. Although South Korea legally could begin accepting refugees in 1994, it didn’t take in the first one, an Ethiopian, until 2001. As of August 2015, only 600 non-ethnic Korean refugees have been legally admitted, out of 18,800 applicants. This makes South Korea’s refugee acceptance rate 3% to 4% overall. In 2014 alone, the U.S., a close ally, accepted 745 refugees for each one that South Korea did — 70,000 by Washington compared with 94 by Seoul. South Korea has the highest denial rate of refugee applications in Asia, after Japan.

South Korea has granted asylum to only three Syrians, ever. Almost 700 are there on temporary humanitarian and G-1 temporary residence visas, but these visas limit their access to employment and complete social services. Those Syrians and other refugee applicants denied protection have been told that fleeing civil war is not considered grounds for refugee status by the Korean government. This reaction to Syrian refugees indicates that Korean officials see far-off humanitarian crises as, in Khan’s words, “not their problem.”

“Foreign wars don’t wait for domestic bureaucrats”

Here is the rub with asylum applications in places like South Korea: Applicants are given a small stipend to live on while their cases are evaluated and are not permitted to work for up to six months while awaiting approval. If they do work, they are deemed an employment migrant. These people are seen as exploiting the asylum application system. However, what applicant from Africa, the Middle East or South Asia shows up to a country of possible refuge with enough supplemental money for six months? The system puts applicants in a position in which they need to find illegal work, but then uses that illegal work as proof that they really only came to South Korea for employment, not safety. The application can then be denied.

Khan, in his interpretation work for the High Court, estimates that 99% of immigration appeals are denied. “Those who appeal never win,” he says. Indeed, 2015 was the first year that an asylum seeker won an appeal to even have his asylum case reviewed, after the Immigration Authority had refused to process his application because he had been in the country over a year.

Ha Yong-guk, a Justice Ministry official, reported that 4 out of every 10 people who applied for asylum last year did so while staying in the country illegally. It is understandable that a government doesn’t sympathize with an illegal immigrant, but it is this same government that constructs the laws that make this immigrant an illegal one to begin with. Simply put, foreign wars don’t wait for domestic bureaucrats.

A visitor to Seoul, however, doesn’t need these numbers. Even a day riding on the metro system shows how few foreigners are allowed into the country.

A legal paradox

South Korean notions of immigration, specifically of refugee seekers, are still focused on an outdated ideology of anti-communism. During the Cold War, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was mostly concerned with those fleeing communist countries to seek asylum in the West. Refugee protections were expanded in the past decades to cover those forced from home due to violence and war. The UNHCR’s convention, which South Korea ratified in 1992, has moved past this 20th-century Cold War perspective while South Korea has not. This disadvantages Arab and African Muslims who do not come from socialist or communist states. The country readily accepts defectors from North Korea (as it should), but denies the urgency and relevancy of other immigration cases.

However, here is the contradiction. South Korea actually has one of the most progressive immigration laws in Asia. The Law on the Status and Treatment of Refugees, or the Refugee Act, enacted in 2012, was the first set of refugee protections separate from general immigration laws in East Asia. The Refugee Act allows for refugee applications on arrival at the airport, bans deportation until a final decision is made and allows the applicant to work after six months if no decision is made. It is a vast improvement on immigration laws that were in place before, but Korean refugee activists argue it is still not nearly comprehensive enough to protect the thousands of refugees who arrive each year. Yet it was a clear step forward considering how South Korea came to have such closed borders to non-White immigrants to begin with.

A country ready for refugees?

By exploring the Korean perspective, and the perspective of countries like it, we can better understand its tightly secured borders. There are historical, economic and cultural reasons why the government strives to firmly control incomers from developing countries, particularly those from a minority religion. Here are questions to ask when considering why some populations of developed countries may be hesitant to accept refugees and other immigrants.

How long has this country been dealing with immigration issues?

We need to consider the level of experience a country has with integrating refugees. WWII forced Europe and the U.S. to resettle Jews, Roma and other displaced people, and they have been doing so for over 70 years. The current refugee crisis with Muslims, especially out of the Middle East, has been ongoing for five years, perhaps longer if one also considers East African civil wars. In fact, until the democratic transition of the 1980s, South Korea was an origin country of refugees, rather than a recipient. South Korea simply hasn’t had decades of practice with immigrants.

How long has this country been a developed one?

South Korea is extraordinary in the speed with which it pulled itself out of poverty in a single generation. After the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea had a GDP and per capita income similar to that of North Korea. South Koreans labored with great intensity, sacrificing even individual liberties to meet economic goals, and turned their country into a fully developed one within about 40 years. They did this without bountiful natural resources or helpful border neighbors. Based on the work ethic of today’s pensioners, who can still remember childhoods of food insecurity, South Korea is now one of the Four Asian Tiger economies (along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan). Those pensioners, and the country as a whole, are understandably slow to share that hard-earned prosperity with outsiders. The collective memory of poverty still lingers.

How do the people believe the country came to be developed?

South Korean society is based on harmony, and many see Muslim refugees as a threat to that harmony. The country struggles to overcome its emphasis on racial purity, minjok, and only within the past few years were such concepts removed in writing from schools and the military. Its only experience with non-Koreans was the brutal Japanese occupation, a traumatic one that contributed to an aversion to outside ethnicities.

In addition to racial attitudes, some Koreans fear that current social welfare systems are not sufficient to support refugees. Social welfare programs are not as expansive as one might expect based on the country’s wealth, perhaps since unemployment is only a significant problem among youth and familial ties are often strong enough to support those who would otherwise seek government help. Some worry that if immigrants couldn’t support themselves, perhaps they would turn to crime. The rate of stranger-on-stranger crime is low in South Korea, and citizens understandably want to keep it that way.

What do the government and the people fear most?

Many countries in South Korea’s position, developed but not yet home to many outsiders, have a clear anxiety about a flood of immigrants. Most pressingly, an inundation of refugees from North Korea would be highly problematic for Seoul. It’s easiest for governments like these to deny asylum applications as much as possible.

“Not their problem” until it is

As an admirer of South Korea, I have thought about how the country could change its policy to benefit from the rapid increase in Muslim immigrants. There is a population gap due to low birth rates. Maybe accepting refugees could bolster the number of employees in low-skilled jobs? The country will need 15 million immigrants in the coming years to maintain the balance of the labor force. Koreans have an appetite for English. Perhaps immigrants could contribute to an increase in English acquisition among the population as they seek a common language? As the economy continues to grow, it will need to expand its reach of trading partners. Could taking in Muslim refugees help do this, and increase goodwill with countries in the Middle East? I don’t believe immigration is a zero-sum game in which taking in a refugee means fewer resources for a citizen.

Here is the challenge for newly developed countries like South Korea, trying to maintain the population status quo: A government can’t both seek to be a global player and then close its borders to global forces. One of the realities of being a developed country is that people from underdeveloped countries will try to come to build a better life. So, the best course of action is to create policies and infrastructure that galvanize the power of immigrants advantageously. In these times of unprecedented migratory patterns, developed countries can do their best to keep outsiders away for only so long. No government can avoid refugees in the 21st century because they’re “not their problem.” Refugees are everyone’s problem.

*All images via author. 

What is the Population of Nigeria? Maybe 182 Million, Maybe.

The Economist published a comprehensive and clear piece on Nigeria’s struggles to understand it’s own population numbers. It is a more concise version of my previous post on what even makes Nigeria a state at all. It is something we may not think about often, but an accurate and up-to-date census is vital to a strong democracy.  It helps determine which representatives get power, where social and public services need to be implemented, and, truly, it separates a well-functioning government from the Wild West.

Nobody knows how many Nigerians there are.

No census has yet arrived at an accurate figure.

NIGERIA is Africa’s most populous country, a designation it wears with pride. It had more than 182m citizens in 2015, according to the World Bank, and is poised to have the world’s third-largest population, behind India and China, by 2050. But that figure and the extrapolation are based on Nigeria’s 2006 census, which was probably exaggerated. Parliamentary seats and central government money are handed out to states based on population, giving politicians an incentive to inflate the numbers. In 2013 the head of the National Population Commission (NPC), Festus Odimegwu, said that neither the 2006 census nor any previous one had been accurate. He resigned soon after (the then-government said he was fired).

Counting Nigerians has caused controversy since the colonial era. The country was stitched together from two British colonies: a largely Christian south and a Muslim-dominated north. In the lead-up to independence in 1960, the British were accused by southerners of manufacturing a majority in the north, which they were thought to favour. In 1962 unofficial census figures showed population increases in some south-eastern areas of as high as 200% in a decade. The full data were never published and northern leaders held a recount, which duly showed they had retained their majority (their region had apparently grown by 84%, rather than the originally estimated 30%). This politicking led to coups, the attempted secession of what was then known as the Eastern Region and a civil war.

The north-south divide has remained salient; there is still an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between a northerner and a southerner. Allegations that the north has manipulated its way to a majority continue. The censuses of 1973 and 1991 were annulled. In 2006 arguments flared when 9.4m people were counted in the northern state of Kano, compared with just 9m in Lagos, the commercial capital. The Lagos state government conducted its own, technically illegal, census and came up with 17.5m (probably a vast overestimate). A new national census has been repeatedly delayed. It is now scheduled for 2018, but the NPC’s estimate that it will “gulp” 223bn naira ($708m) may mean the count is put off indefinitely.

Even by other methods, Nigeria’s population has proven tricky to pin down. Africapolis, a French-funded research project, used satellite mapping to estimate the population of towns and cities in 2010. It found several cities, mostly in the north, had hundreds of thousands fewer people than the 2006 census counted. But even those data are not entirely trustworthy: it later transpired that the researchers had underestimated urbanisation in the densely populated Niger delta. Until there is an accurate, impartial census it will be impossible to know just how many Nigerians there really are. That means government policy will not be fully anchored in reality and it will not be possible to send resources where they are most needed.

Homi Baba: Why We are Still Afflicted by Colonialism Everyday

For Bhaba, would internalized oppression be a form of mimicry? Or, can someone engage in mimicry outwardly while still be unaccepting inwardly of their inferior status? I have observed Nigerians engaged in what seems to be mimicry, while still maintaining intense tribal pride, e.g. the Ogonis.

The paragraph on revolting against “doubling” in India, or indigenous clerks realizing they no longer wanted to perform colonial functions, is also applicable to Africa. It is a catalyst for self-emancipation when men go away to foreign wars as soldiers. Anglophone West Africans who fought for the British during WWII returned to their countries after fighting side-by-side with White European comrades; they had been brothers in battle. Those African men reclaimed their homes with a new sense of autonomy that contributed to the golden year of independence later on—1960. I would argue that WWII helped to end some of Bhaba’s manifestations of oppression, like doubling, in that sense.

The Conversation Room

Author: Anand Bose

Homi Baba is one of the foremost thinkers of Post Colonial Criticism and belongs to the school of thought known as Post Structuralism.

Homi Baba has made intrusions into the philosophy of language where texts become constructs for post colonial criticism. For Baba Colonialism has not been a straight forward clique between the oppressed and the oppressors but an evolving semantic machine marked by psychological anxiety and tension between the oppressor and the oppressor.

Here in this article I would like to articulate some ideas of Homi Baba on Post Colonial Criticism. They are hybridization, mimicry, uncanny, doubling, difference, ambivalence and anxiety. For Baba, a nation is always in the process of evolution and a nation is not a fixed entity.

Hybridization is a process through which cultures interact, mix and develop new cultural and evolutionary tendencies. A common example can be taken is that of the…

View original post 650 more words

Some Kidnapped Chibok Girls Released by Boko Haram

Last month marked the three-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls from a government school in Borno State in northern Nigeria. The Islamic fundamentalists recently released 82 of those girls who have been missing since April 2014, allegedly after the Nigerian government released five of its fighters from prison. There are 113 girls still living among the fighters who haven’t been returned to their families.

 

 

What major news outlets haven’t shown is why rebels take “bush wives” at all. The coverage has tended to portray the kidnapping as a purely political act. However, for my M.A. thesis I researched the role of both female child soldiers and bush wives in West African civil wars. (For a book review I wrote, click here.) I found that kidnapping of girls goes beyond just the political.

bushwives

The civil wars of the 1990s in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast saw unprecedented use of child soldiers. While the boys were often trained as fighters, girls fulfilled various support roles.  They cooked and cleaned at rebel camps.  They acted as porters for goods in and out of camps. They engaged in espionage at times. Some researchers pointed out how the girls helped meet the emotional needs of fighters, many barely adults themselves.

They also had children with the fighters, which entrenched a cycle of dependence on their captors. They had little chance of fleeing the camps with a child on their back, or did not want to endanger their child’s well-being (one Chibok girl allegedly chose to stay with her husband and child in Boko Haram). After three years, we now know that many of those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have also had “bush babies” (the African term).

The humanitarian community now has the chance to apply lessons from the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs of the 1990s to the Nigerian situation. Then, kidnapped girls were often given a cursory physical evaluation upon their release or cessation of hostilities, with little follow-up care for their children and absolutely no therapeutic care for their mental health. A significant obstacle for girls of the 1990s was also reintegration back into their home communities. After having conceived children with the enemy, families and neighbors were often hesitant or unwilling to welcome girls home. The International Committee of the Red Cross, a leader in helping care for the Chibok girls, must tend to the social and psychological after-care of today’s Nigerian girls in a way that was overlooked twenty years ago in other West African countries.

However, the situation for the returning Chibok girls is more complex than “us versus them” like in previous conflicts. Most people of Borno state come from a more cohesive ethnic group, the Hausas, and share the religion of Islam. The lines between the rebels and villagers may not be as clear as in West Africa. Also, the international attention on the Chibok case may lend families in their home communities a greater sense of sympathy for the girls’ plight. This sense of sympathy will be much needed in the coming years as they rebuild their lives.

The West and East African Slave Trades, Compared

For those with an interest in colonial history, the West versus East African slave trade is a compelling comparison. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Fort Jesus stands as probably the best-preserved site at which to understand the difference between the two different slave trades on the opposite coasts of Africa. Here is what I considered during my visit, and some thoughts I had on the differences between West and East African slave history. All of these facts are taken from written citations, signs, or conversations with local experts, and not confirmed in publications, so they should be considered carefully.

640px-fort_jesus-map-xviis

1. Routes: In the West, slaves were sent to the Americas as part of a triangle of trade. Men and women were kidnapped from West Africa and sent to North America, South America and the Caribbean. Then, the raw goods they produced, such as cotton and tobacco, were shipped to Europe. In turn, refined goods, such as lace, liquor, weapons, etc. were used to buy further slaves in West Africa. This sustained the triangle of exploitation.

However, slaves in East Africa were sent primarily to Middle East, and to Asia to a lesser extent, in more linear routes. Fort Jesus is important because it fortified the first Western domination over the Indian Ocean slave trade, by Portugal over Oman.

2. Mortality Rates: In East Africa, 4 out of 5 slaves died just during the journey from the interior to the coast, not including shipping. During the West African trade, 2 of 3 captives died during the entire passages across the Atlantic, including shipping. This means that the East African trek across land had a higher mortality rate than the entire transcontinental passage.

I would guess that the Portuguese and the Arabs had to venture farther into the eastern interior to get their captives, perhaps due to less densely populated coastlines in East Africa. Populations tend to congregate and grow around port and coastal areas. Or, because countries like Nigeria have an ample network of connecting creeks, using the creeks as transport routes would have facilitated kidnapping coastal peoples via boat from the deep interior. The East African trek was simply longer due to population spread over more challenging land routes. Having to travel further inland would also require Middle Eastern and Portuguese slave traders to expend more resources per slave, decreasing the overall quantity they could take from the east. This would just be my hypothesis.

kenya

3. Duration and Intensity: The West African trade was shorter in duration and more intense in terms of number of slaves shipped per year than the East Africa one. The West African trade lasted about 300 years, with Portugal being the first trader in the 1400s, finally ending right around the time it lost control of Kenya in 1700. Perhaps the West African slave trade was more “professionalized” and thus able to export more slaves per year because each European power had its own territory and business venture clearly defined.

In comparison, the East African trade was lower impact, but sustained for longer.  Arab settlements in places like Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which was the largest source of slaves for Arabs, created the Swahili culture and language. Arabs established an African slave trade to the Middle East long before the Europeans did, as early as the 7th century. Trade reached its peak in the 18th century, but there is even a story of the Sultan of Oman bringing slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, long after the trade had ended.

It is important to note the difference in the nature of the two slave trades.  The transatlantic trade was chattel-based and slaves were worked to death with hard labor in the Americas. Those slaves, owned by Christians, were rarely able to keep their families together or buy their own freedom.  Slaves in the Arab world often had families and were able to possibly buy their own freedom over time, based on Quranic principles. East African slaves had a small degree of rights, and much of the female labor came in the form of domestic servitude rather than agricultural.

4. From Slavery to Independence: While exploring Fort Jesus, I wondered why West African countries seemed to gain independence just slightly before East African ones.  Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria gained independence in 1957, 1958, and 1960 respectively, while Tanzania didn’t become independent until 1961, and Kenya until 1963. A possible explanation for this is pan-Africanism and the effects of the American Civil Rights Movement. The exchange of ideas, ala Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, was geographically easier between West Africa and the U.S. than it would have been between East Africa and the U.S. simply because of proximity. Conversely, East Africa has much stronger ties to the Arab world, where slavery was still even practiced into the 1950s, e.g. Yemen, Oman. In other words, the Arab influence slowed down the independence movement in East Africa.

One of the true pleasures of being in the field is the freedom to consider history as it lies in front of you.  There seems to be less pressure to make sure your ideas are always “right,” and there is greater space to allow your thoughts to meander through the centuries.

Peace Corps’s Grassroots Diplomacy Done Right in Africa

The above video is an example of the finest of volunteers produced by the U.S. Peace Corps. I served with Baktash Ahadi (Mozambique 2004-2006) and saw him embody the three goals of the organization: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. As his TED Talk demonstrates, Mozambique was a better place, and he was a better person, because he was there. So, why isn’t the program everywhere in Africa?

Although Nigeria has a domestic Peace Corps staffed by young Nigerians, the United States has had a very tenuous relationship regarding PC since the founding of the American program in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The international outreach program was plagued by a problems in its first year in Nigeria, when anti-colonial sentiment was running high. In the first months, a young volunteer dropped a postcard to her friend describing squalid living conditions there. A fellow student picked it up and upon its release, University of Ibaban students accused the volunteers of being American spies intent on a neocolonial agenda. Such political tensions remained until the program was then closed down in Nigeria in 1976. It again operated briefly from 1992-1995. Since then, there have been no substantive talks to reinstate the volunteer program there.

There are certainly challenges that the Peace Corps faces that must give us pause.  It does not tend to go to the neediest countries, hence its continued programs in Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., and a lack of presence in most of central Africa. Volunteers are young and inexperienced (for who else has the luxury of giving up their entire U.S. life?). I can personally attest to the disappointing medical care available to volunteers. I witnessed volunteers who faced mental health challenges living out in the bush all on their own. (However, admittedly, our 20s are often not the most stable of times anyway, and many a post-graduates in the U.S. faces their own personal stumbling blocks even at home.)

But, ultimately, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons, if only for the immeasurable and profound symbolic force that is the Peace Corps. Development and measurable impact aside, it says an immense amount about the American psyche that we can even produce thousands of young people willing to go live in poverty of their own volition. It says an immense amount about U.S. values that we spend tax money on such a program. I truly believe that Peace Corps helps improve the view of Americans in most countries that it operates in, reducing potential military expenditure based on potential tensions. In Mozambique, it makes rural villagers feel good that they are worthy of a college educated American’s talents and time. It makes them feel they matter.

I have heard the sentiment that Nigeria is too corrupt to host a U.S. Peace Corps program, and that the rate of kidnapping for ransom of foreigners is too high. There is the argument that Nigeria is too far removed from independence, that if the U.S. doesn’t implement a program in the years following independent statehood, then the country becomes intractably entrenched in its ways.

My feeling is that if the Peace Corps doesn’t go exactly where the challenges are, exactly where it is most needed, what is the purpose of the program at all?

 

What If You Held An African Summit And No Africans Could Come?

From NPR’s 

Photo illustration by David Malan

The African Global Economic and Development Summit took place at the University of Southern California from March 16th to 18th.

None of the approximately 60 invited guests from Africa were able to attend.

The problem was that none of the African delegates were able to get U.S. visas.

Humphrey Mutaasa from the mayor’s office in Kampala, Uganda, had organized a delegation of 11 business leaders from Uganda to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California.

He says it was a very high level group of leaders from private businesses, the Ugandan ministry of trade, chambers of commerce and the Kampala mayor’s office.

“The delegation that was coming from Uganda to that summit was very, very disappointed,” he says.

The conference was first held in 2013 and seeks to strengthen business ties between U.S. investors and African companies, says summit chairwoman Mary Flowers.

Visa problems have been an issue before, she says. In the past, she says roughly 40 percent of African invitees are unable to get the papers they need to attend, mainly due to a combination of red tape and bureaucracy.

“This year we were thinking there are going to be some rejections but some will still come,” she says. “But it was 100 percent blocked across the board.”

It’s hard to find out exactly why.

Delegations were invited from 12 countries across the continent. None of them were from the three African nations (Libya, Somalia and Sudan) covered by President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from 6 majority Muslim countries.

Flowers speculates new vetting procedures put in place by the Trump administration are discriminating against travelers from Africa.

“Obviously because this has never happened before,” she says of the inability of anyone to come.

The White House has called for “enhanced screening and vetting of applications for visas” worldwide as part of stepped up efforts to keep out terrorists.

A State Department official on background tells NPR that they can’t comment on any individual visa applications but says all applications are screened on a case-by-case basis. And the eligibility requirements for getting a visa haven’t changed.

Some of the African delegates to the summit say their visa applications were denied because they didn’t show a compelling reason why they would return home after the event. Others say bureaucratic hurdles were so big that they were not able to submit a visa application in the first place.

Humphrey Mutaasa in Kampala says the online application is complicated. You can’t even see how long the process will take until after you’ve paid a $160 application fee at a local bank. Then you have to wait a day to get a confirmation code to book an interview at the U.S. embassy.

“Then when you’ve finished that and you have the codes from the bank … there are the challenges of internet connectivity,” he says. “When you get online then the calendar [from the Embassy] will tell you the whole of February, there are no appointments, You can only secure an appointment after the 15th of March.”

Which meant he wouldn’t have a ruling on his visa until after the three day conference had concluded.

The end result of this year’s visa outcome, says Flowers, is going to be fewer connections between American business and the continent.

“I don’t know whether there’s some secret message going to the U.S. embassies in these African countries but it’s ridiculous,” she says. “The [visa] process was already somewhat discriminatory against the African nations in the past. We don’t know what the story is now but I do hope that America remains open to the world.”