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Unbundling the dynamics of transition in Africa -Part 1


Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region; Ejeviome Eloho Otobo; AMV Publishing, Princeton, New Jersey; 2017; 358 pages

It is not often that one encounters a bird-eye view, incisive and richly illuminating dissection of Africa’s epochal moments and commentary on their implications. It is not common to be placed at the front-row seat to observe how somewhat scenarios of doom, predicted decades before, play out almost in the exact form they were envisioned. It is rare to find one, who sat at the table where marshal plans are drawn and who goes on to see them implemented, relay it to a reader in blow-by-blow episodes how everything played out; how the choice of Africa’s leaders, have, by omission or commission, spelt the progress or lack thereof in the continent today. And all of these delivered with a substantial dose of the socio-political cum economic undercurrents that have led to intermittent fall, rise or distress that African countries are faced with.

This is what Ejeviome Eloho Otobo does with his Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region, a 358-page treatise dedicated to enriching intellectual discourse on and of the mother continent, providing careful insight on the ‘who’ and what has shaped development in Africa, and how changes and choices would define its future in years to come.

Africa in Transition is, in spirit and letter, a book of transitions: from “one party or military regimes to multi-party democracy; from state-dominated economies to market-oriented economies; from civil wars to durable peace; from commodity dependence to diversified economic structure; from aid dependence to reliance on domestic resource mobilization; from high to relatively low fertility rates; from high-carbon intensity (brown) economy to low-carbon intensity (green) economy; and from rural communities to urban settlements.” The diversity of the concerns addressed demands a mastery of politics, economics, sociology and innovation diffusion, and the theories underlying socio-political change and economic advancement. Otobo’s handling of the analyses brings to bear his multifaceted experience in matters of development.

He is currently a non-residential Senior expert in Peacebuilding and Global Economic Policy at the Global Governance Institute in Brussels, Belgium. At the peak of his sojourn at the UN, he was director and deputy head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. This is after he had traversed several commissions of the United Nation, working in Addis Ababa and in Nigeria. And the average reader is treated to a humbling delivery of these issues in the most disarming of presentations, which are often rare for such intellectual matters. So, the book is not just a package for the grey-haired academic, it is also a labour of love for the average Joe to be kept abreast of the dynamics of development across the continent. Like bread knife smoothly gliding through a soft loaf, the professor tells the story of his experiences in such a beautiful prose.

The arguments and analyses in his book remind one of the painstaking efforts to unravel the tragedies and missed promises explored in Walter Rodney’s Book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. However, while Rodney’s book underscored how the ‘other’ might be responsible for the misfortune of the African continent, Otobo’s arguments hinge on how African countries are masters of their own destinies, explicating on how missed opportunities in the past, and unpleasant experiences in wading through the challenge of development could still be upturned for the good of Africans, if only policy responds to the needs of the moment, if leaders placed the primacy of technology, education and institution building at the heart of their interventions in political, economic, and social realms of their individual countries, and if those who preside over the various shades of transitions ongoing in different parts of Africa build on principle of equality, foresight.

As a caveat, Otobo acknowledges the argument that Africa might have arrived late on the threshold of development, but insists that the continent’s peoples cannot wait for the centuries Europeans had to endure to transit to the level of advancement that they enjoy today. According to him, “it took the countries of Europe centuries to transcend their transitions; from feudalism to market economy; from absolute monarchies to pluralistic democracies; and from internecine inter-state wars to the peace and stability that prevail in that region today.” He insists instead that Africa can only spare compressing these transitions into decades, as it ought to learn from the experiences of Europeans as well as from the Asian Tigers.

Much as the book touches a myriad of issues, such as economic growth, foreign policy, political development, women empowerment and peacebuilding, the underlying string that holds all together is the intricate challenge of transitions, that careful stage of a change process from one state of thought, structure or series of actions to another, all of which are expected to engender positivity and development. The book’s analyses run deep, wild, and wide, and the author draws from a sea of source materials, which includes his experience as a participant observer — as he had traversed the heights of the diplomatic corps and the development world, having worked with the United Nations in various capacities — policy documents, historical documents, paper presentations and other relevant documents. This enriches the discourse, as well as brings a refreshing perspective to many contemporary issues that plague Africa, providing a rich oeuvre that speaks to the critical, bold steps that African countries have to take if they are ever to make up for lost time and transcend the existential deficits in institutions, infrastructure and capacity they are faced with today.

This book is divided into six parts, with chapters. All through, themes of transition, peacebuilding, private and public-sector issues, reflections on foreign policy and the challenges of development at the sub-national level take center stage. While Otobo takes an expansive look at Africa in his analyses, he equally tries to engage the matter at close quarters with Nigeria as a case study, and even engages with some of the issues at the sub-national level, particularly the Niger Delta.

While some parts of the book are in print for the first time; some parts have earlier been published but have been substantially revised for publication in this book, while other parts were published either as journal entries or book chapters. Running against the train of writing a personal memoir as many with his experience are wont to do, Otobo rather considers his treaties as an intellectual memoir, one that shies away from mere storytelling, but brings the intellectual bite to the political and economic performance of the continent.

Managing transition
A COMMON string of thought that runs through the book is the dynamics of managing transitions captured in a most illuminating scrutiny of the choices, structures and conditions that engender either a fated doom or promised Eldorado. In what can be described as one of the most incisive analyses on the nature and scope of current transitions in Africa, Otobo notes that political, economic and social changes in Africa depend largely on how each government manages the peculiar realities they are faced with. However, further delineating the characteristics of transitions, he identifies structural deficits in stability, organization and technology as the most critical factors that could either lead to radical change for the better or worse for these countries.

Maintaining democratic, economic and peacebuilding transitions as the framework of his argument in the book, Otobo identifies the challenges, and pinpoints the complicating and reinforcing trends in each of the frameworks that engender development. He argues that this tripartite framework is intricately linked as efforts to tackle one invariably affects others in the chain. Noting that institutional reforms are imperative to consolidate democratic transition in Africa, he maintained that, “This will entail significant political commitment and popular support for creating or protecting the integrity of independent judicial institutions; effective and independent electoral institutions that can conduct free, fair and transparent elections; and law enforcement agencies that are both capable and less capricious in maintaining law and order. The absence of instructions with these characteristics, or the inability of such institutions to perform these essential functions, has led to a pervasive sense of lack of safety and security especially in conflict-afflicted or violence-ridden countries, or countries with seriously flawed elections on the continent.”

This charge is not without cause. In the course of Otobo’s analyses, he points to the fact that much as many African countries are undergoing different shades of transition, the primacy of the rule of law and safety are lost on most countries. And this is not far-fetched. Much as it can be said that many African countries are transitioning to become better societies, there still persists the ominous feeling of danger, occasioned either by armed conflict on the one hand, or the fact that justice exists only for the highest bidder on the other. This, often, foments distrust for institutions of state and causes a ripple of socio-economic setbacks that impacts on delivery of good governance, as well as consolidation of peace-building initiatives in post-conflict situations.

It is not surprising that Africa’s military rulers are trying to ingratiate themselves to their citizens either to elongate their reign or to perpetuate themselves in office. This has come in several shades, but Otobo, warns that the distortion of democratic ideals to favour sit-tight rulers is latently inimical to progress, when he notes that, “While military regimes and one party states have become a rarity in Africa, the trend of elongation of tenure beyond constitutional limits, through a variety of legal devices and political maneuvers, could have analogous effects.”

CONTINUES on Thursday

Book to be launched at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos on Monday August 28, 2017. Former Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyaoku and P-resident of the African Roundtable/Chairman of NEPAD Business Group, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur will ‘host’ the book launch.

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Ejeviome Eloho Otobo
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