Obama, the black race, and Africa

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kenneth Amaeshi

Obama’s image is malleable. He has come to represent and mean different things to different people. To some he is a socialist, a democrat, a freedom fighter, a leader, and a president. To others, he is an outsider, a black man, a spineless leader, an anti-Christ, and a representation of many things anti-America. Surprisingly, there are many more views of Obama lurking around out there; what is not surprising is that these views are constructed, re-constructed, and consumed in many different ways.

Undoubtedly, Obama gets massive support from the blacks – both inside and outside America. In these different locations, Obama means and represents different things. For the average black American, he may represent an aspiration and a realisation that a black man is the president of the most powerful country on earth. It can be seen as a dream come true; a re-imagination of a reality that once seemed far-fetched. He may also symbolise and embody the success of the freedom struggle of the black man in a foreign land. This American representation of Obama is likely to resonate well with many black people outside the shores of Africa and in other developed economies like the United Kingdom and the rest of Western Europe.

On the contrary, the Obama phenomenon in Africa, as one would imagine, does not share such similarities with the Obama of black Americans and Europeans. It neither represents an aspiration nor a freedom struggle from non-blacks. It is far from those. In the main, one might be inclined to interpret it as an outlet of a kind – something akin to a catharsis of those who for a long time have been bruised by bad governance and inept leadership. It is a psychological participation in the freedom and good leadership they very much miss in the continent; a view that the black race has something to offer to humanity after all. No matter how short lived, Obamamania comes across as a feeling that will always be entertained, fed and cherished, as long as the memory can sustain it.

In addition to his phenomenal attributes, Obama is a master orator.  What probably would rattle his distant brethren in Africa is his ability to wrap his views of America around some identifiable ideology and vision for the future. In his recent victory speech, he saw a united America where blacks, whites, rich, poor, gays, straights, religious, non-religious, et cetera, shared the vision of a united society – a patriotic acceptance to be in it with and for all. Supposedly, the speech was watched and listened to live by many. Thanks to the wide and deep penetration of the internet and mobile telephony in Africa. As the speech went on with passion, emotion, eloquence and gravitas, one couldn’t but wonder if his extended relatives in Africa can think in the same way. Do African leaders and politicians have the ability to ideate and idealise? Do they have the ability to envision and create a future? Can they ever lead with vision and hope? What is wrong with Africa and Africans? These are very strange but real questions.

Unfortunately, Africa has come to represent the Dark Continent of David Hume – an 18th century Scottish philosopher – in many ways. Africa is the undisputed global face of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, sickness and cruelty. In some ways, it comes across as a jungle mutilated by self-inflicted wounds. Despite its horrible and pitiable situation, it is seen as the context of the next wave of economic activities. Africa has significant natural resources to support the grinding machine of the global capitalist system. Pitiably, Africa has the population, but lacks sufficient human capital required to participate in, and benefit from the fruits of globalisation. Western and now Eastern multinational corporations and entrepreneurs understand the opportunities in Africa – opportunities which sadly often elude the consciousness of many African elites.

Despite their contributions to Africa, foreign firms in the continent are sometimes looked upon with great suspicion. They are often perceived as economic raiders, who are mainly interested in repatriating wealth to their home countries. They are sometimes accused of doing very little to empower their host countries, being reputed for exerting negative influences on local politics and the environment. This space which was once inhabited by Western firms has now attracted the attention of Eastern firms interested in African natural resources to support their rapid economic growth. The latter are often reputed for the use of cheap labour and have often been accused of turning a blind eye on human right issues. In both cases, Africa becomes a victim of exploitation and expropriation by the business elites (indigenous and foreign firms), and the political elites. In some instances, the business and political elites selfishly connive to further plunge the continent into the abyss of self-destruction. To reverse this trend requires enlightened citizenship and benevolent leadership in the interim and strong institutions, in the future.

The slow rate of socio-economic development in Africa, together with its consequent implications – e.g. high rate of poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, and poor infrastructure, still remains a sore on the conscience of the world.  This ugly situation in Africa persists because most economic and political policies in the continent are short of clearly articulated philosophies and ideas, as well as the enlightenment and moral character to envision a progressive society. As such, their policies, where they exist, remain disjointed with very negligible impacts. For Africa to rise up to the demands and challenges of the globalised world order, her leaders, economic elites, and citizens need to think inwardly and deeper than they currently do. Education will definitely help here. However, I do not mean mere certificates; there are many of those in Africa already. The continent needs genuine education that will truly liberate the minds of Africans from gross ignorance.

As Obama said on one of his trips to Africa, the continent needs strong institutions and not strong men. This couldn’t have been better said. As Africans reflect upon and consume the Obama construct, may they be reminded that their destinies and fate lie in their hands; and only that realisation anchored on a better vision for the future will set them free. Obamamania will always be a façade and will not liberate Africa. This is very sad but true.

Kenneth Amaeshi is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Strategy and International Business at the University of Edinburgh, a visiting professor at the Lagos Business School, and a member of  the Thought Leadership Forum, Nigeria. www.kennethamaeshi.com

The culture of private jets: who are the real beneficiaries?

November 13, 2012 § 7 Comments

Kenneth Amaeshi

PJs once had a dominant meaning – pyjamas. Today that meaning is contested with something much more exotic and flamboyant – private jets. Coincidentally, both rest on hangers. However, the latter meaning has become one of those very expensive toys in town. They are not just ordinary toys. They embody status, competition, aspiration, and supposedly a sophisticated taste. They are the preserve of an extraordinary class who can afford to spend an awful lot of money to buy one of these toys. A Gulfstream G550, for example, costs about $50m. This amount conservatively translates to about N8bn and does not include the cost of monthly maintenance, crew and others. Some people have more than one of these toys and still crave for more.

This flamboyant consumption often evokes three intertwined sentiments: surprise, understanding, and numbness. First and foremost, the existence of such opulence amidst abject poverty in Nigeria is remarkably very surprising, and raises some intriguing questions. Where do these monies come from? Why are they only in the hands of a select group of people? Could it be that these individuals are smarter and more hardworking than the rest of the country? In line with the theistic inclination of an average Nigerian, could it also be that God loves them more than others? Obviously, genuine businesses and enterprises account for some of this wealth. These entrepreneurs understand the needs of the people and offer valuable products and services; and in turn, they make big bucks and are adequately rewarded for their creative entrepreneurship. Some of these rewards are then expressed in the acquisition of private jets and other conspicuous lifestyle choices.

Finding such people amongst bankers and businessmen is not usually surprising. It is rather strange to find politicians and pastor who are supposedly meant for public service in such company. What on earth does a pastor or a politician need a private jet for? This question is more worrying when one juxtaposes the politicians’ and pastors’ obvious ostentatious lifestyles against the penury that ravages most members of their constituencies and congregations, respectively – the people they are meant to serve, lead and protect. Could it be that the shepherds have turned to feed on the flock entrusted to their care? The same question applies to the politicians. How do they convince themselves to indulge in such lifestyles amidst poverty and still sleep peacefully at night?

On a second thought, one might be inclined to see reason with the members of this extraordinary class, and show some sympathy and understanding. These guys, like the rest of Nigerians, are human; sometimes they are afraid and safety conscious. Again like any other Nigerian, it is only reasonable for them to minimise the risks they go through in life. Unfortunately, flying in Nigeria has become a very terrifying and traumatic experience. The poor maintenance culture of the public airlines together with the poor aviation infrastructure in the country makes flying an obvious death trap. Faced with such risks, who wouldn’t want to buy a private jet, especially when it is within reach and affordable?

Understandably, you might expect such reach and affordability to come through legitimate means. Yes, you are right. However, if that is your main concern, then you have ready-made answers: the politicians can easily fall back on their security votes, and the pastors can point to tithes and ‘gifts’. Good market arguments and business cases are always within the reach of the bankers and businessmen; after all, that’s what the reward for hard work and successful entrepreneurship looks like. At the end, the kind of legitimacy you are looking for is reduced to a theatrical performance created by an extraordinary class for the consumption of an uncritical audience who are endlessly entertained and enthralled by exotic tastes.

With sympathy and understanding, surprises fizzle into numbness. In this state one is tempted to close one’s eyes and ears to the poverty in the land. This temptation is powerful and pervasive. It is often an expression of frustration and powerlessness – a false acceptance of the status quo informed by the belief that there is nothing much one can do to initiate a positive social change. This state and feeling of helplessness is unfortunately dehumanising and debasing. How long shall things continue to be the way they are? What sort of society do Nigerians want to live in? What values should hold us together as a country? Unfortunately, we cannot run away from these questions. They will continue to haunt us until they are laid to rest.

Upon further reflection, the co-existence of the private jet culture and abject poverty in the country reveals a miserable sore on our collective conscience in a country where most people live below $1.25 per day. The private jet culture embodies a form of consumption that is symptomatic of a much more underlying malaise, grandiose naivety, and spiritual impoverishment in the society. Our rich elites have the resources and power to fix our airports and ensure a viable aviation sector. What stops them from pulling their resources and power for the public good? Will this threaten their power, self-worth and respect?

Whilst the attitude of our rich elites, in general, remains a mystery, it is obvious that the foreign firms are the main beneficiaries of their ostentatious consumption and display of wealth, albeit silently. We buy the toys from them. We employ them to maintain and run some of these toys. In the process, we help them sustain their industries, and create jobs and good life for the ordinary folks in their countries. We enjoy their expensive toys and remain collectively poor afterwards, whilst they create and redistribute wealth in their countries. We end up being consumers and a market to be explored and exploited. They feed on our rapacious and ostentatious desire for anything foreign. We see it as an expression of class and sophisticated tastes. Many of our folks languish and die in poverty. We continue to forsake our public good infrastructure, enjoy the status symbols, and line their pockets. At the end, who is smarter; who loses, and who wins?

Kenneth Amaeshi is a visiting professor at the Lagos Business School, and member, Thought Leadership Forum, Nigeria.

Death, Oh Death!

November 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Kenneth Amaeshi

Then I shall be no more and breathless. May be, I shall go through the cold storage machine, before my body goes under the earth to be feasted upon by ants and worms.

I guess they merely do their work in line with their position on the food chain pecking order. Their work is  to return the body I have so much loved and tended to into dust; for dust I am and unto dust I shall return. Then my body shall serve as a nutrient to other beings, including the trees and grasses. My body may even in the many years to come become part of the fossil fuel to be extracted. We suck out a lot of past bodies today in the Niger Delta. That’s what it means to be an oil producing State.

My loved ones and friends will cry; my foes will rejoice, for I will be no more with them in my earthly garment. Will I be able to witness these emotions? Will I be lifeless or alive in other forms? Shall I be able to comfort and scourge? These are unknowns.

This end makes a mockery of my current quests and desires. Of what purpose are they? What is the purpose of life on earth? Is it to be rich, comfortable and have fun? Is the comfort of life on earth not temporal and short-lived? Why should I pre-occupy myself with that which doesn’t last? But what if there is no eternity to look forward to?

Life on earth is a mystery and can also be a misery. However, death appears more mysterious and miserable. These gory characteristics make me shudder, and I wonder why I ever exist. If I had a choice, would I have accepted to be born? Yet, the God who created me without my help cannot save me without my help. Yes, Jesus has died for us; but that salvation will not be yours unless you reach out for it. So the holy writ says; we are subtly encouraged to accept that by faith, but is it a fair proposition? Is God fair? He that created me without my help!

The reality of death makes life on earth meaningfully meaningless. Oh death where is thy victory and sting?

Nov 2. 2012 (All Souls)

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