Monthly Archives: January 2018

Africa is not an expletive and poverty isn’t confusing

It has been weeks since Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and African states “s*hole countries” in a White House meeting on immigration. Many have been waiting for the denial, the justification, the spin, or an apology. We certainly got the first and then some degree of the second and the third. On Friday when Trump met with the President of Rwanda and the new head of the African Union in a friendly meeting in Switzerland, one where he ignored the shouted questions about “s*hole countries”. The President’s lack of comprehension of world economies is troubling on many levels, but for me, largely on an intellectual one. You see, although fixing poverty is extremely difficult, understanding it is not.

Poverty is really quite simple: Being poor means you spend your life choosing the least awful of two or more awful choices in an environment that constrains your options at every turn. The countries that Trump referenced in his comments are so unmeritocratic that they disincentivize working hard, following the rules, and being innovative in business.

Why invest your hard-earned money in order to buy a house when the government could seize your property on oil-rich land, or refuse to compensate you for environmental damage? E.g. Nigeria. Why would an individual citizen pay their income taxes when even the state oil company doesn’t? E.g. Angola. When you live at the poverty line, why risk starting a new business when it might fail and cost you everything, and your innovation is likely to be appropriated by others? E.g. Sierra Leone. Poverty deeply entrenches the status quo because it makes us risk-averse when our choices are limited to begin with.

Amartya Sen argues that economic development isn’t just about average salaries. It consists of interconnected freedoms: a) political freedom and transparency in relationships, b) free of opportunity to access credit, start businesses, engage in trade, etc., and c) freedom from abject poverty that can be eased with state income and unemployment assistance.

He says that all three must be present for people to rise out of poverty. If any are missing, people suffer from exclusion, coercion, and predation that impedes their ability to increase their incomes. That describes Haiti and most African countries.

Trump’s lack of understanding of poverty is not just alarming internationally but domestically too—America has a stubbornly high poverty rate. Just under 15% of the U.S. population, 45 million people, live below the American poverty line. These urban and rural poor are Trump’s constituents, and confusingly, his supporters. His obligation to understand the realities of being poor apply to his own country as well.

Cameroon: Nigeria’s Crisis Next Door

 

Oil platforms outside Limbe, Cameroon, near the Nigerian border.

There has been little media coverage of Cameroon’s 2016 Anglophone insurgency against the Francophone majority, when separatists declared their own state of Ambazonia. English-speakers near the Nigerian border constitute 20% of the country’s population and have long complained of political and resource marginalization. Now, there are concerns that this civil unrest is causing a potential refugee crisis.

Cameroonian English-speakers have a strong trade relationship with neighboring Nigeria, with large ships and small speedboats regularly traveling between the Nigerian port of Calabar and the Anglophone city of Limbe in Cameroon. I took both these forms of transport during a visit to Cameroon in 2012. Then, the water vessels were stockpiled mostly with raw goods to trade and sell, while passengers tried their best to find a spot to sit or nap wherever they could. Aside from some troublesome mechanical troubles, the journey did not feel terribly dangerous. The border was porous, interactions amiable among passengers, and there was little sense of an impending refugee issue.

Since then, separatists have targeted Cameroonian state agents, and those agents have in turn pursued rebels across the border into Nigeria. Tens of thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians have reportedly fled towards Calabar to avoid violence. So many refugees crossing into Nigeria exacerbates long-standing ethnic tensions in the Niger Delta, even those apart from the oil issue. It also strains resources and is a burden the Nigeria government is not prepared to bear, with much of its focus still on Boko Haram in the north.

Voice of America reported on the political backlash within Cameroon. Some argue that Paul Biya is using the separatist movement as a reason to militarize Anglophone areas even further and cement his 35-year rule. The text of that story is below.

Cameroon’s main opposition party on Thursday accused the government of having “militarized” two regions shaken by unrest among the country’s anglophone minority.

“The Northwest and Southwest regions are heavily militarized,” the head of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Jean Tsomelou, said in an interview with AFP, describing the situation as “worrying.”

“We have observed troop movements in both regions. The government has spoken of thousands [of troops] who are in the Southwest and Northwest,” he said.

“Abuse has been committed” against local people, he said.

In September and October, “live fire was targeted against people who were simply carrying a message of peace,” he charged.

Since November 2016, resentment has fed demands for autonomy or a separate state to which the government has responded with a crackdown, including curfews, raids and restrictions on travel.

International monitors say at least 20 and possibly 40 people have been killed since late September.