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.
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.
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.
*This also appeared in the Language Compass published by the National Language Service Corps.
I saw the filming of a “Nollywood”, or Nigeria’s highly profitable film industry, movie for the first time a week after moving to eastern Nigeria. I was passing through a neighbor’s grassy yard on my way to a party one evening, and I heard heated yelling that alarmed me. I was surprised to peer around a corner and find a camera crew flooding lights on two young actors filming a dramatic fight scene. As I watched, I was impressed with the innovative electrical set up of the camera crew, attention to detail of the makeup artists, and vibrant energy of the actors. I was in Nigeria to learn a local language and was pleased to overhear that the characters’ names were of that tongue, Igbo.
I gained a greater appreciation for Nollywood during my time in Nigeria. I think it makes the cinematic representation of Nigerian life feel accessible to the audience. Unlike Hollywood, Nollywood movies are made on small budgets, often in people’s homes using amateur actors, and without any visual or special effects. It was easy for me to have friends point out filming scenes to me as we explored Lagos. Also, because of their modest funds, scripts often focus simply on the dynamics of human relationships—marriage, parenting, siblinghood, etc. Although these relationships are highly dramatized in sometimes silly ways, they are still ones that many of us have.
I saw that Nollywood gives Nigerians a way to tell their own stories in their own way. Historically, so much of what the rest of the world has understood about them was narrated by Europeans, by outsiders. This was the basis of my academic research before I arrived. However, these films are a way for Nigerians to be their own storytellers. Then, at the same time that it narrates what West African culture is like, Nollywood also helps create it. Often, the clothes that I saw friends wearing there were fashionable because of a certain Nollywood star, and I heard idiosyncratic phrases in daily conversation that I knew had been popularized by a local movie.
Years later, I still try to watch Nollywood cinema to practice listening to Igbo. I also do so because it reminds of the moment I realized that I was no longer watching Nigerian films from the U.S. as a way to understand a foreign culture, but actually living that culture.
Here is an excellent short documentary on Nollywood:
Where does Nigeria fit into a discussion of how states are made? It is weak by nearly all measurements, and Foreign Policy magazine even labeled it a “failed state” based on its poverty and governance in 2010. To answer the Nigeria question, we might look to the institutional approach of state theory. It asserts that institutions—the way societies are organized—are the fundamental cause of countries’ underdevelopment. This traditional institutional explanation, built mainly on case studies in European countries, offers a helpful but incomplete framework for analyzing current conditions in Nigeria. It is deficient due to Nigeria’s unique human geography, colonial history, and resource endowment.
To remedy this weakness in institutional models, Jeffrey Herbst makes two key arguments about African state formation. First, he identifies population density as the causal factor behind institution building and a source of institutional comparative statics, not institutions themselves. His story is that Europe was scarce in land and high in population, whereas Africa had abundant land and fell short in population. This meant that Africans did not have to wage wars of land seizure or land defense that led to state-making and institution building, alá Charles Tilly. Furthermore, colonization in the name of resource plunder replaced the phase when institution building should have taken place. Colonization was followed by the Cold War in which the Western and Soviet powers were vying for allies in African countries, and this Western or Soviet financial support also replaced what would have been a period of institution building.
In Robert Bates’ state-centric mixed method analysis, he argues that the collapse of the state causes war and then violent political disorder, and not vice versa. The author focuses on what he identifies as the three keys to state failure in Africa aside from the destructive force of colonialism. The first is ethnic tensions, which are the result of state failure and not of ancient hatreds, and the second is natural resources, which he finds to be a correlate but not a cause of war (as opposed to Collier and Hoeffler, or Fearon and Laitin). The third cause for failure is a lack of strong democracy, and he maintains that competitive parties are required but not sufficient for order. Lastly, he concludes that public revenues matter more than private income, which is essentially an issue of poverty levels (Bates 2008). Bates and Barzel both think that strongly democratic states have greater productivity because individuals enjoy residual claims, thus giving individuals an incentive to be efficient (Barzel 2002). Conversely, without rule of law the government keeps residual resources for itself, giving individuals no incentive to be efficient. Propositions by the two can aptly be applied to a reading of Nigeria.
Nigeria’s current economic, political and social conditions are best explained by research on oil politics specifically. For one, the stimied capacity of the state to raise revenues and its growing reliance on powerful interest groups conspire to limit the range of policy choices open to the government, paralyzing the process of institutional development. Thus, most extractive states like Nigeria develop similar institutional frameworks that encourage political leaders to pursue politically painless policy solutions. The end result is an institutionally weak state reliant on oil rents and beholden to rent seekers (Karl 1997).
Some argue that oil revenues interfere with state evolution—the competition for the survival of the fittest country. Most of Europe’s states did not survive because most of them were weak and unorganized; those that still exist today were simply better than the others. Conversely, all of Africa’s modern states have survived, even bad ones. Foreign influences and oil revenues has allowed weak states that should have died out continue on (Herbst 2000). Soares de Oliveira claims that oil may very well be the single factor allowing weak African nations to survive despite failing to meet Weberian criteria for stateness. He calls these “successful failed states” because they have immense amounts of money and can at times use ample force, yet are barely functional (with functionality defined by their institutionalization, legitimacy, and degree of rentierism). Their failure is a continuation of politics by other means (Soares de Oliveira 2007, 56).
Such a portrayal of African oil-rich countries accords with that of Scott, who conceives of the state as being an inherently extractive entity (Scott 2009). He adds to the discussion by describing how countries will use resources, e.g. oil revenues, to invent development schemes that inevitably fail because they ignore the complexity of practices, processes, and relations present in those environments, the value of everyday local knowledge. They continue to push forward these improvement plans because of their ongoing attempts at being more modern, which means greater “stateness” that justifies their own governance (Scott 1998). Oil actually exaggerates the phenomenon that Scott describes by providing almost limited resources. Nigeria has engaged in these modernizing development projects and virtually of them have been a failure.
A colleague of mine casually asked me yesterday about Nigeria’s oil economy after independence. Many isolated events and economic explanations came to mind, but I was surprised when I couldn’t give her a succinct chronology. I thought I would write a paragraph or two to remedy this.
More Nigerians slowly moved from subsistence agriculture to private enterprise around independence in 1960. Oil, which had been discovered three years earlier, quickly become the basis of mono-economic growth. Shell had been the first to commercially drill in the country, but other companies such as Mobil and Agip were competing for their own stake. Hopes were high. Oil profitability was greatest during the “Golden Decade” of the 1970s, when Nigeria became the wealthiest country in Africa. Between 1958 and 1974, production rose from just over 5000 to 2.3 million barrels per day and government revenue increased from N200,000 to N3.7 billion. Within two years, state profit increased by almost 50%, to an all-time high of N5.3 billion in 1976. Nigeria bolstered profits when it joined OPEC in 1971, an organization which helped to construct the global petroleum scarcity, and thus the massive profitability of fossil fuels at the time. The economic prosperity was short-lived however.
In accordance with the resource curse, the 1970s oil boom led to a near complete economic crash in the following decade. Nigeria had made an almost total shift away from the traded and diversified agricultural sector to the non-traded sector of petroleum, and projected revenues for petroleum were high. Based on this, President Murtala Mohammed spent and borrowed billions on grand-scale modernization projects. However, such spending and borrowing in a mono-economy proved highly problematic during the sharp decrease in world oil prices under Babangida in the 1980s. Domestic inflation became so high that even basic food stuffs become too expensive for consumers and Nigeria had to default on numerous debts. To create more jobs for Nigerians, the government forced out the thousands of West African workers who had immigrated to the country to take advantage of the employment in the formerly booming economy. Rather than take a conditional IMF loan like Ghana did, the government implemented a controversial Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) that proved unsuccessful. The economic decline was so severe that by 1989 Nigeria was labeled a low-income country and qualified for World Bank assistance.
Despite a slight revival in the 1990s, the economy has yet to recover to early 1970s levels of prosperity. Today, ¾ of Nigerians live below the poverty line, in a country that produces around 1.3 million barrels of oil daily (it was 2.6 million a decade ago). Petroleum accounts for 80% of budgetary revenues and as a result, high inflation has hurt investments for the average Nigerian and made international investment aside from fossil fuels a near impossibility. Few jobs in the oil sector have been created for Nigerians and wealth distribution is grossly unequal. Robert Bates argues the Nigerian oil crisis and subsequent loss of export taxes is what caused the state to become predatory for its income, thus laying the groundwork for today’s poor and often corrupt governance.
So, there is the short of it, more or less. There was steady growth of the oil sector in the 1960s, a complete boom in the 1970s that created the “oil state” as we know it, a crash in the 1980s, then a slight improvement in oil revenue in the 1990s that leveled out to what we have today.