Earlier this month, the Nigerian opposition politician Peter Obi delivered the 60th Founder’s Day lecture at the University of Nigeria. In his talk he took a swipe at the incumbent government’s handling of the current economic crisis, saying that instead of taking loans from China, Nigeria should borrow its development ideas.
What followed would be familiar to anyone who has ever sat in on a China-Africa development seminar: a mind-numbing raft of statistics on how Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) boosted Chinese growth, pushed GDP per capita from X to Y and blahblahblah, all dressed up with the usual rhetorical questions: Why not here? Why not us?
Two weeks later, as if in answer, Nigeria is on fire. It started off with the country’s young people protesting outrageous police brutality and corruption, and has widened to reflect their general unhappiness with how the country is run. The authorities responded brutally, opening fire on an unarmed crowd singing the national anthem.
One of the clichés of African development discourse (one I’m certainly guilty of using) is the ode to the youth of Africa. Time after time, development experts point out how the average African is a teenager – so much potential! Nothing is inherently wrong with this trope – Africa does indeed have a major youth dividend. But in casting it only in terms of the future, it contains a kernel of cheery obtuse optimism that borders on cruelty. It’s a not-so-distant cousin to the horrifying tic that littered Africa coverage in the 90s: praising the traumatized refugees fleeing some of the worst crimes in human history for being so “resilient.”
So – to slip back into the development seminar – will the current crisis in Nigeria lead to ‘build back better’ solutions that will ‘future-proof’ the country through the obligatory adoption of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise-based development? Uh – no.
Anyway not until they address the ugly flipside – one frequently hidden by the youth dividend discourse: that the youth revolution across the continent is held back by the actual living conditions faced by actual young people. These don’t just include the corruption and crappy policing, but also the power cuts, the lack of schools, the price of mobile data, the dirty water, the psychotic levels of gender-based violence and homophobia and, oh yes – the politicians running everything, and their international ‘partners’ complicit in the fact that in 2020 Africa’s largest economy is still a creaky petrostate hellbent on pumping oil into the world until climate change takes us all out.
No amount of quoting Chinese MSME statistics will help that.
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