The Cruel Hoax of Development

Basil Davidson

  • Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone by Paul Richards
    James Currey/Heinemann, 182 pp, £35.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 85255 397 8
  • A Claim to Land by the River: A Household in Senegal 1720-1994 by Adrain Adams and Jaabe So
    Oxford, 300 pp, £50.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 19 820191 5

Those who wander in the great forests of the African tropics do not always manage, like Conrad’s storyteller, to make it home again, and the likelihood of their ending in terminal disaster has become greater than it used to be. Whether threatened populations in these forests and their neighbouring savannahs can still be sheltered from destruction, or even self-destruction, is pretty much an open question. Against this now customary pessimism, optimists, such as the authors of these books, argue that the long process of imperialist dispossession has begun to give way to another, contrary process and that Africa’s peoples are retaking possession of themselves.

Paul Richards is a veteran British anthropologist whose special interest is the rainforest peoples of Sierra Leone and Liberia: groups which have spent most of the Nineties in apparently fruitless pestering or killing of themselves and their neighbours. Richards sets himself to explain why teenage ‘rebels’, and some who are even younger than that, have turned their guns and matchets against the very persons on whose survival their welfare depends, regardless of ‘tribe’ or ‘clan’. Is this the reversion to a ‘new barbarism’, as some safely cloistered academics have claimed, or a dark, Victorian intimation of ‘old Africa reverting to type’?

Richards argues that in Sierra Leone this chaos and self-destruction is ‘best understood as a drama of social exclusion’ enacted by all those ‘in the forest’ who have come to feel themselves deprived of access to ruling networks of ‘patrimonial’ support. The ancient system of patron and client was hugely revised and reinforced by the colonial transfer of power, which replaced one authoritarian and bureaucratic leadership with another. Since when President Y has succeeded President X in his state-supplied capital city surrounded by his bureaucratic and commercial beneficiaries, while the excluded, out there ‘in the bush’, have been left to devise their own means of self-defence. They become desperate with frustration or impotence, and their despair leads them to hatred. ‘Society at large,’ Richards translates, ‘must be made to feel the destructive anger’ of those for whom the system does not work and cannot work. They can beat the system only by joining it; but joining it seems impossible and the result, all too often, has been limitless mayhem. Yet to see this as ‘mindless violence’ is to abandon good sense. On the contrary: the actual practice and teaching of the ‘rebels’ – for example, in the most important of their groupings, the Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh – is consistent with a vision of general ‘participation and empowerment’.

Surrendered captives report a movement that redistributes food, drugs, clothes and shoes ‘liberated’ from government sources. Sankoh seeks medical supplies for a popular health programme as part of hostage or peace negotiations. Neatly planned lines of huts in [rebel] camps speak of a desire to supply model housing for all. The movement attempts mass literacy training with whatever scraps of books and paper it can obtain. Girls as well as boys are trained as RUF fighters. The RUF, seemingly, has no truck with tribalism. In regard to religion it is vigorously ecumenical.

My own experience has lain entirely outside these tightly corralled forest enclaves, but an extension of this report to the no less dense forests of Guinea-Bissau, during its own struggle against the now defunct Portuguese colonial empire and its armies, would suggest many parallels. There the outcome, years later, has been broadly one of peaceable settlement even if the ‘system’, always liable to throw things off course, still has the upper hand. With great command of the social background in the rainforest, and considering a balanced spread of evidence, Richards feels able, writing early in 1996, to entertain a cautious hope not easily thinkable before. After some truly dreadful years of uncontrolled killing, there is, he finds, a ‘mood of optimism’ taking hold of Sierra Leone: an end to the conflict may even be in sight. Confirming this forecast, a peace accord was signed on 30 December last year between the President of the country and the RUF leader, and the five-year-old war was ended. If this accord continues to hold, as at present, it will be because ‘the system’ of utterly corrupt ‘clientage’, or ‘patrimonialism’ in Richards’s preferred usage, will have ceased to wield an all-compelling power and will have given way to some effective spreading of benefits among the excluded.

This may prove a fragile optimism, signalling only a momentary exhaustion, but it may also be a consequence of the success of the outside world in restraining its habit of showing ‘them’ that ‘we’ know better. The explanations that Richards offers have a wide validity in Africa. What we are seeing in Rwanda now (and perhaps grimly far ahead) indicates a comparable breakdown of social cohesion resting, again, on the consequences of the actual or expected social exclusion of a large minority, even perhaps a majority, of the population – with all the fissiparous complexities that this entails. No one who knows anything of Rwanda, or of its sister-case Burundi, can explain the so-called ‘tribal’ hatreds between a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority on some kind of ‘ethnic’ basis; and what in any case can ‘tribal’ mean here, where the Tutsi have long since lost their own language and speak the language of the Hutu? It is much more that the colonial and para-colonial dispossession of a people’s sense of safety and self-value have been relayed from one phase of alienation to another – rather worse – one.

What the outside world can do is to stand by with abundant humanitarian aid while strongly repressing any thought that ‘we’ can show ‘them’ how to join the human race and be saved. The useful thing now will be to step back and allow ‘them’ to get on with the job of saving themselves, even if the process will take longer than we would like. This points to the lesson to be learnt from the very unusual book by Jaabe So and Adrian Adams, not by any means an easy work to digest but powerful in its conclusions. Jaabe. So is the veteran leader of well-settled farming families and communities living along the south bank of the great river which divides Senegal from the neighbouring and far more arid grasslands of Mauritania, and, in ‘ethnic’ terms, parts the local Soninke, whose ancestors ruled the ancient empire of Ghana (nothing to do with the Ghana of today) from their ‘Moorish’ neighbours to the north. Adrian Adams is his wife and companion of some twenty years and was, in an earlier time, a distinguished teacher at the Sorbonne and the University of Aberdeen. She is, furthermore, a fluent speaker of Soninke, and this book was initially composed in that language.

The central farming problem in these largely tree-less grasslands seems not in itself very hard to solve, and Soninke farmers have long since shown that they can solve it. Erratic and often poor rainfall needs to be supplemented, if possible, by irrigated water fed by rivers, in this case by the Senegal itself, especially if great reliance is to be placed on rice cultivation. Colonial rule tried to raise dams along the Niger River to the east, but this was largely a failure, for various reasons linked to colonial indifference to ecological research. Vast sums of money were wasted, and ambitious farming schemes had to be abandoned. Many years later, no longer in colonial times, the same approach was applied to the Senegal River. Local objections on the same ecological grounds that had applied to the Niger dam schemes were thrust aside, but the après-barrage outcome has not been promising so far, and seems unlikely to improve. Nothing new in this either. ‘All the big schemes for helping Africa’s pastoralist peoples,’ the ecologist P.W.T. Baxter has recently said, ‘have turned into expensive failures.’ But, while Jaabe So and his associates have shown that useful success can be achieved with modest schemes of irrigation, the Senegalese administration, true to form, has wished to think and act big. The result is discouraging and, in the circumstances, amazingly wasteful.

Summarising the documentary evidence in 1994, Adams reports that the total funding of these big schemes on the Senegal between 1974 and 1990, money provided largely by the US Agency for International Development, amounted to the equivalent of $151/2 million, a whopping sum for the area and population involved. But ‘its only visible traces in 1993 were the irrigation pumps along the river, most of them ten years old or more, and the almost empty [administrative] buildings just outside Bakel, stripped of the panels for the solar pump that never worked.’ The new local irrigation systems built by the imported administrative staff had been ‘substandard from the outset, were by then largely unusable, or required considerable work and expense to operate’. By the early Nineties, some of the imported equipment had been abandoned and some had been sold off. ‘The rest of the money had been spent on salaries and working expenses for local officials, for US hired personnel, for US consultants; or remained unused, meant for irrigation systems that were never built.’

If you think of the comparable administrative ‘failures’ and wastages elsewhere in Africa you begin to see why ‘development’ has been so hard to come by and why so few African farmers now believe in its promises. So describes the scheme on the Senegal as ‘administrative development’ rather than ‘peasant-based development’, meaning that local farming experience and knowledge were thrust aside in favour of expert opinion and the political preferences of largely urban-based politicians. As so often up and down Africa ‘since independence’, the solutions adopted were ‘neo-colonial’, in the jargon now commonly used. As Adrian Adams reminds us, the outcome of this post-colonial dispossession was accurately defined by the memorably abrasive René Dumont as early as 1972 in his Paysannerie aux abois. The reasons for peasant opposition to official schemes of development, he argued to a then sceptical audience, were that the schemes represent a form of ‘progress’ which makes farmers ‘ever more dependent, lowers their standard of living, and compromises their very dignity’. These schemes continued to be put forward because, with independence from colonial rule, ‘privileged black urban minorities have in part taken the place of the white coloniser. Through their plundering of funds, their disregard for the common interest and their alliance with neo-colonialism, they constitute for the most part a parasitic class which deserves to fall.’

In the case described by Jaabe So, the administration, chiefly from Dakar, moved in intending to take over effective responsibility. The foreign development experts duly fell into line, there being nothing else they could do save go home, while the local farmers tried to defend the validity of their judgments. Being long accustomed to seasonal labour in France or, in Jaabe So’s case, seaman’s work on the Messageries Maritimes, they argued their case in good French – unlike many of the development experts – and they also had the polyglot and highly educated Adrian Adams to help them. This of course tended to infuriate the administration and its experts. When urban condescension failed to discourage, other arguments were found. Adams says that in early November 1982 she was ‘summoned to Kidira, sixty kilometres from Bakel, by the Commissioner of the sûreté Nationale. I was questioned there for four hours: first about my background, my presence in the country, my everyday life, then about my interest in the farmers’ Federation affairs’ – her husband was the Federation’s founder – ‘and my opinion of [administrative] plans for River development. I was not told why I was being questioned.’ When this didn’t work, they tried again: ‘In June 1983 four gendarmes called on me’ with a copy of a letter to the provincial governor. Handwritten and misspelt, ‘this accused me of bringing matériel de guerre into the country,’ as well as meeting ‘Libyan agents’; the letter said ‘il faut l’a surveillé’ [sic]. When invited to search the premises of her house in Koungani, ‘the gendarmes demurred. I made a statement formally denying the allegations contained in the letter.’ The gendarmes, who clearly had a lot more sense than those who wandwe had sent them, then left without another word, and Adams proceeded to lodge a suit for defamation of character against persons unknown. End of story-one familiar to anyone who ever suffered such treatment during the Cold War and its colonial-style equivalent. I can remember receiving treatment of this kind in the Fifties.

It makes one tired, and then it makes one angry. It made Jaabe So angry, but he admirably kept his temper. The general conclusion could only be, as the farmers had long understood, that ‘developmental’ success in such situations must depend on local initiative and control. When these are usurped by foreign experts, no matter how well qualified they may seem, the outcome is likely to be failure. The Niger schemes had amply shown this; now the Senegal schemes looked set to underline it. Towards the end of the book, Jaabe So’s feelings at last break through. ‘As it is,’ he notes early in 1996, ‘we are like hungry dogs, fighting over what little the tubab’ – white man, in this context – ‘throws us. It has gone on for thirty years’, since formal colonialism came to an end, but in 1996 ‘there is a colonialism ahead worse than any other, because now they can say: do this, or we won’t give you anything.’ But, in this case, as Adams concludes,

we do not know how the story will end, and that in itself is a victory; for we know how it should have ended. A thousand books have shown that development is a cruel hoax. This story has not been told to make it a thousand and one; but for its own sake, and to give our experience of what it is like to live through, why it continues, how it might be made to cease.

This may still prove another fragile optimism: but perhaps its difficult lesson is beginning to be learnt. Recent comments on the mess and misery of Rwanda, following donkey’s years of confident ‘guidance’ from the ‘developed’, claim that no quick fix can be assured by sending in the troops or simply throwing money at the ‘problem’. It seems no longer to be taken for granted that Euro-American wisdom can provide the answers for Africa that African foolishness and incompetence are said to have failed to discover. It may after all be better if we can manage to steel ourselves to allow the natives to settle their own disputes. No new colonialism, no matter what its motivation, can do any good. The nation-state can be made stable and progressive, and therefore liable to be able to keep the peace, only in the measure that it can win for itself the sense of legitimacy it has lost or never sufficiently possessed.

A hundred years ago, in what was then the British Gold Coast, the prophet of post-imperialist liberation, Casely Hayford, fell to arguing the urgent need to understand where the abiding crime of colonial dispossession really lay. It was, he said, that colonialism had thrust aside or crushed ‘local institutions’ as the useless constructs of a savage people. It had then replaced these indigenous controls, not with effective modernisation, but, simply and blindly, by forms of alien dictatorship.

What may still be done to rescue Africa’s future, and even perhaps make its present less painful, has long been the subject of a vast clamour of voices of every kind. Yet nearly always, listening as well as one may, there is a missing voice. Here for once, with Jaabe So and Adrian Adams, that missing voice is heard to speak for itself.