Wednesday, January 8, 2014

MINT Nigeria, the problems of meme-economics

Meme economist Jim O'Neil 
Jim O’Neil struck a rather charming note in his BBC Radio 4 programme on Nigeria’s potential.

He lists them among his latest group of growing economic powerhouses; the MINTS.

He was like a kindly, ordinary, bloke wondering around Nigeria saying “wow”.

Of course, his programme was guilty of wearing the same path in the carpet that I’ve seen in so many other reports. I was almost ticking off the things that foreign journalists do on their week-long trips to Nigeria; visit entrepreneurs in Lagos, talk to Dangote, have a meeting interrupted by a power cut, chin-wag with Ngozi, be wowed by Sanusi, visit Makoko, helicopter ride over theDelta

But in other places the programme was very interesting.

Nigerian Dream

He rightly pointed to the mismatch in the west’s perception of the problems and the Nigerian view. Everyone outside says corruption is the biggest problem, everyone inside says it is electricity generation.

And he interviewed one of the new Nigerian national oil entrepreneurs buying up costly and troublesome onshore oil claims from the majors. It was a side I’ve not heard much from before, and wanted to hear more about.

He boldly flexed his Neo-liberal credentials in his appreciation of the way that even the poorest pay for their children’s education. He marvelled at how people are prepared to pay for even the worst kind of schooling because they “believe in the Nigerian Dream, that their children could become Dangote”. (I was interested in how un-problematic this seemed to him.)

"What's next?"

It was great to hear these issues presented for an audience not necessarily familiar with Nigeria already.

But for all the interesting things, there were lots of weaknesses.

These weaknesses are inherent in O’Neil’s approach; the investigation of social science by meme.

That’s what Jim O’Neil does. His reputation is based on identifying the BRIC nations over 10 years ago, and that was well received. It took on a life of its own and the meme dominated discourse for ages. As he says at the introduction to all his programmes this week, he’s constantly asked “what’s next?”

And this is the start of the problem. The MINTs are a group of nations who are only linked by their numbers and some basic geographical factors. The importance of this is that it’s a newly minted (ahem) way of classifying them, and this obsession with “newness” leaks into the analysis.


But really there’s nothing new about the problems Nigeria faces. They are deep-seated, and concern themselves with all sorts of factors apparently outside the scope of meme-economics.  

There was one shocking bit of panglossian analysis, when O’Neil described the solution to the power sector problem as “simple”. Anyone who has looked at it beyond the surface knows it’s a bewildering mishmash of competing and powerful interests, mixed with a potent, reeking, incompetence in government. That’s far from simple to solve.

(Although the current privatisation of the system might be a good start, it might be too soon to cheer. There hasn’t been any delivery yet. I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

Particularly glaring was O’Neil’s appreciation of Aliko Dangote.

At one point, chatting on Dangote’s new super yacht, they discuss how he -kind of- wants to become the richest man in the world. No time was put aside to look at how he has managed to get where he is, what political and economic games he has played to agglomerate so much power, and what effect those games have on the potential for more prosperity.

Ifs and Buts

Although Central bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was right to point out that Dangote's recent investments in local production have improved local markets, but what about the years of rigging markets to favour his imports?

Sanusi is also correct to say there should be nuance in the discussion of corruption, but the particular type of corruption that is so damaging in Nigeria is the kind employed by a powerful elite who actually benefit from the deeply problematic situations that O’Neil sees as “simple”.

His analysis is beset by “ifs” and “buts”. “These countries can be huge if… but…”. And those caveats are pretty big. But the real ifs are not engaged with.

The elites that control political and economic power in Nigeria are promoted and held in place through a complex web of social ties, ethnic politics, relations with former military rulers, and money patronage. 

These ties are hidden to the casual observer, and the meme economist, and mean that the children of Makoko will never be Dangote.

You can listen to the programme here

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Would Aristotle re-tweet? Why we love the Justine Sacco story

The offending tweet that went around the world
When Justine Sacco switched off her phone for take-off, she could not know that at the end of her journey a baying mob would be calling for her head.

Not a bad first line for a story.

This is not a blog post about the tweet itself or the offense it caused, I'll leave that to others. It's about why we responded at all. 

There is something of a meta-debate going on these days about what makes a “good story”. It’s inherent in much of the coverage about the many media stories happening. It is never far from the coverage of the News of the World hacking affair, for example. There seem to be endless debates on whether the media should cover certain stories and not others. This is given added vim because it is going on at a time when old forms of media are changing to new ones.

Take the popularity of the "selfie at Mandela’s funeral" story, for example. The author, an AFP photographer, wrote about his dissatisfaction that of all the pictures he has taken, this one caught the imagination of the most people.

Some say a good story should be one that conveys information about weighty subjects, the important public affairs of the day. Others say that that “a good story” is full of salacious detail about celebrity, sex, or other moral quandaries.

I say: A good story is one that simply wants to be told.

Years ago when I worked for a local newspaper we would take interns for a week, usually young people from local sixth-form colleges. Usually their work was pretty dull, but really important. They were charged with transcribing the handwritten letters the paper received every week. Some people moaned about it, but it was essential. The letters page was the heart of the newspaper.

One work experience person who particularly objected to this menial task was older than the rest. He was in his mid-20s and had dreams of being a serious political journalist. One afternoon, as he was typing, he said out loud to no one in particular in the packed office: “I can’t believe you’re going to publish this letter, it’s ridiculous.”

I stopped what I was doing and listened as he read the letter. It was from an 12-year-old girl who was complaining she had really wanted to go and see the a public appearance by the boy band Blazin’ Squad at Brent Cross shopping centre, but had missed it because the (locally notorious) C2 bus had been late.

“You’re right, we’re not going to only publish that as a letter,” I said “You’re going to take it to the editor and suggest that this would make a good story for page three. He’ll give you a camera.”

“But that’s ridiculous, surely?” he said, almost offended. It wasn’t worth his considerable intellect and valuable time; “It’s just a silly story. Isn’t it?”

Whatever he personally thought of the story was irrelevant. Silly or not, what he had done proved it was a good story. He had stopped everyone and diverted them from what they were employed in doing to draw their attention to this particular story. That alone qualified it.

A good story wants to be told.

Would Aristotle re-tweet?
Why did everyone want to share the Justine Sacco story? If we pick it apart we can come up with many reasons why it could have “gone viral”. Is it the new fear that people have of saying something dumb and offensive on Twitter? Is it about race in South Africa? About white privilege in a heterogeneous media space, or about the ease people get offended?  

I think while all these things are important, there is something else. The story has a quality that demands of the reader that they share it. Was it something about the delay in the story’s resolution? We all knew what was going on while the protagonist was blissfully unaware. This dramatic irony triggered our mind's story response. Everyone looking for updates on twitter was seeking catharsis. This quality transcends the medium that the story is being told in. It was as true for pre-historic fireside tales as it is for Twitter sensations.

I can hear you: Surely such a “silly” story can’t be analysed in the same terms as Greek tragedy? What was cathartic about the story of the young girl and her boy band obsession?

But that’s part of my point, however "high" or "low" the story is, it conjures things that work on us in the same way. I couldn’t say for sure what is cathartic about missing Blazin’ Squad, but who wouldn't identify with the young girl who refused to suffer lying down the injustice of her thwarted, 12-year-old, hopes?

A friend said it best. We were talking about the Fenton! YouTube clip. Why did people want to share it? Was it because people could identify with the man chasing after his out of control dog? Or the danger set up and then averted as the deer cross the road? Was it something about the opportunistic nature of the recording?

“No” he said, “There’s something really basic about it… It’s just really, really, really basic.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Boko Haram: Who's afraid of Foreign Terrorist Organisation designation?

Over two years after Boko Haram attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja, the question of whether the United States should designate them as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation has returned.

African Arguments has published a good assessment of the situation by Christopher O’Connor of the National Endowment for Democracy.

He weighs the pros and cons of such a designation; there is a great desire from some quarters of Nigerian society for the US to do so, it would be a marked gesture for the US to “call a spade a spade”. 

But there has also been a concerted lobbying attempt form foreign observers to hold off on making a full declaration of FTO status. These observers say, and O’Connor agrees, that it will make a peace settlement harder.

Last year the US Department of State compromised. Instead of putting full FTO status before Congress (which Congress would have likely approved), it placed sanctions on key Boko Haram and splinter group Ansaru leaders as individuals

Congress is now looking to raise thequestion of FTO designation again, after another spate of violence.

But I think the African Arguments piece has missed a key point about FTO designation.

On the face of it, its hard to see why Boko Haram aren't on the list already. If organisations like Kahane Chai and Aum Shinrikyo are on it, why would the Obama administration shy away from Boko Haram?

Could it really have been that the objections of a well meaning group of Nigeria watchers was sufficient to prevent the White House pursuing Foreign Terrorist Organisation designation for Boko Haram?

The US Department of State might have had to listen to the wishes of another party who has a say in this –the Nigerian government themselves.

Why would the Federal Government of Nigeria object to the US designating Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation? 

As O’Connor says, FTO designation is not just a matter of calling a spade a spade. It is a legal definition that triggers a list of things that would suddenly come under the purview of the US Congress, among them is tight restrictions on international funding of the group.

Its not hard to see why the Government will not be entirely enthusiastic about this renewed question of FTO designation. What effect would it have on the government's plan for an "amnesty" for Boko Haram? The plan is along the same lines as it abated militants in the oil producing south, ie shovel cash at them and hope the problem will go away.

Wouldn't it scupper it completely?

Many people have questioned if this amnesty will be effective in its stated aims. They warn the river of cash could be diverted. But with a serious split in the ruling party troubling the PDP as the 2015 elections loom, who's to say that the stated aims are what they say they are?

The Nigerian government really hasn't had a lot to say on the record about Foreign Terrorist Organisation status. 

Last year, in one of the only public pronouncements on the FTO matter by a Jonathan-administration insider, then Ambassador to the US Adebowale Adefuye indicated to the Nigerian media that the Federal Government itself was resisting the designation.

Reports quoted him as saying designation might “add to Nigerians woes when travelling through international airports”.

Longtime watchers of Nigerian politics know this is a kind of dog-whistle phrase. Something that might impede travelling through airports is certainly eye-catching to Nigeria’s big men.

Designation of FTO status would clearly necessitate closer scrutiny of financial flows in and out of Nigeria. This would not only be in connection with Boko Haram specifically, but almost certainly have to take in Nigeria in general.

Put it this way:

The question is not what effect designation would or would not have on Boko Haram.

The real question is: “who is it moving the most suspect money in and out of Nigeria; Boko Haram or… who?”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Localise and dull down"

Another mass shooting in the US. The media schedule for the next few days will be familiar. Roll out the  blanket coverage, cast away all other stories. Experts, talking heads, politicians, moments of silence, a roll call of names. funerals. Lots of crying people. The repeated and mostly unanswered question "why?"

People find this sort of coverage distasteful. Watching the clips of snatched mobile phone footage rolling over and over through the night only adds to feeling of desolation.

I was reminded of this part of Charlie Brooker's Newswipe today, where a forensic psychologist says that the coverage of violence should be "localised and made as boring as possible" to avoid future massacres.

This made me wonder what localised and dulled down coverage would look like. Something like this? "An incident occurred last night in a place you care absolutely nothing about. An undisclosed number of people were casualties. We cannot reveal the identity of the instigator of this incident..." But then I realised I didn't have to imagine it.

Two weeks ago in Nigeria there was a massacre of around 70 people on the Jos Plateau. It didn't get a huge deal of coverage in the UK, but that's not really  surprising. 

I asked the Guardian correspondents on Twitter if the paper was going to cover it. One responded that there was only room for one African crisis at a time. "Unfortunately Jos will prob be in the news again soon" she said. To be fair to them I'm sure they were keen to cover it. But to the news desk, was the killing of scores of people in a corner of Nigeria too local, too dull? 

In fact, the Nigerian media itself does its best to localise and dull-down coverage of massacres. 

There are few really thorough investigations. You never really hear anything detailed about the perpetrators. Numbers of the dead are always wrong, usually played down. The victims are hardly ever individually named, unless they are somehow connected to politics. Indeed, if a journalist did go into detail and examine the situation on the ground, it is seen as "mischief making". It is assumed that the journalist, or whoever it is delivering the information, has an angle of their own to grind.

Some of this is to do with a natural fear of reprisals. But when you ask people about the causes of violence many shrug and say "it is all political" or they might say bigoted things about the ethnic groups responsible. It's a local problem, they say. It will never be solved, they say. 

What can we say about this localising and dulling down? Is it showing us something? A terrifying thought: if  you accept that killing is dull and is another locality's problem, are you quietly accepting that violence is legitimate?  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Islamic healing and Bori spirit possession in Kano

How does Islam encounter traditional beliefs in Kano? The following is taken from Susan O'Brien's PhD thesis Power and Paradox in Hausa Bori, published by the University of Madison, Wisconsin in 2000.

It is a transcript of a discussion between a Malam -an Islamic healer- and a number of spirits dwelling inside a young girl called Fatima. She has been divorced and has had trouble finding a new husband, she also suffers from headaches and bad dreams. She has come to the clinic of the Malam and he and two assistants have read out verses from the Holy Qur'an to draw out the spirits.

A spirit "appears on Fatima", O'Brien says. He identifies himself as a Sarki (king) called Sarkin Duna.
Mallam: Are you a Muslim?
Duna: No
M: So you are an unbeliever.
D: Yes, of course.
M: I want you to accept Islam.
D: In Islam, there is no power.
M: You can retain your power if you become a Muslim, nobody will stop your leadership.
D: I want to become a Muslim but in Islam there is no wine and women, and these are my favourite things. I cannot do without them.
M: Of course there is no wine nor women in Islam, but if you accept Islam, God will provide you with something more sweet than alcohol and women. Islam is a simple religion. God created Adam and the spirits so that they could worship him, and that is why we want you to accept Islam. Accept Islam and you will become our brothers and we will forgive you all of your sins.
The Malams convince Duna to convert and he takes the Muslim name Umar.
M: I am very happy to hear that Umar is an important name in Islam. Now Umar your religion will not be complete until you stop what you are doing?
Duna/Umar: What am I doing?
M: You see your presence in the body of this woman is not good because you are causing her to suffer and prevent her from getting married. Therefore we want you to leave the body of this woman.
U: It is a difficult thing.
M: It is simpler than accepting Islam and when you accept Islam. If you leave her body, God will provide you with something better than her body.
U: I swear it is difficult.
M: Why did you enter into her?
U: I saw her and fell in love with her.
M: Now how old are you?
U: I am forty years old.
M: Umar, please, how many are you in her body?
U: We are seven.*
Not all of these kinds of exchange are as lucid, O'Brien says, some of these exchanges are done with the supplicant emitting only growls, howls or cries. I presume that this exchange is done in Fatima's voice. This exorcism continues and Umar is persuaded to leave. At one stage O'Brien describes what happened to Umar as a "beating". Fatima herself reports no memory of the exchange. During the next two hours the other spirits who reveal themselves include Duma's daughter, then a sun-worshipping spirit called Sanusi who lives in Fatima's left leg and a spirit called Saudatu who lives in Fatima's back. Saudatu confesses that she is in the habit of "inviting our men into her [Fatima]" a revelation that shocks the Malams. A Muslim spirit called Mero tells the Malams he causes her to "do whatever she wants". Eventually, a spirit of a christian preacher called John reveals that Fatima's susceptibility to spirits is caused by her aunt, who cursed her before she was born by concealing charms in her father's well.

O'Brien's work on this subject explores the way the Islamic healing practice of rukiyya, or recitation of the Qur'an sanctioned by Wahabbi scholars, has met the Hausa belief in bori spirits. I read it as a kind of compromise that has provided what she calls a "narrative of inclusion" for people who may have transgressed societal regulations or drifted into societal marginalisation due to their spirit possession.

This is particularly important for women, who live perpetually in what O'Brien says is a near impossible situation of being a good Muslim woman in northern Nigeria.  

* O'Brien, S Power and Paradox in Hausa Bori, University of Madison Wisconsin, 2000, page 259.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

USIP report on Boko Haram

Here you can find a link to the report I have written for the United States Institute of Peace on Boko Haram.
It's a review of what we know about the group's history, and what has contributed to the situation as we find it. I looked at what some other researchers in the field say and spoke to many journalist friends in Nigeria and outside who have covered the group.
You can also find it here on my archive page.
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