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Updated signs of underdevelopment



In July 1988, I wrote a column in Newswatch titled “ The Symptoms.” It was inspired by the uproar generated on the African continent which had been turned into a toxic wasteland by the Western industrialized world led by Italy but with the active connivance of indigenous Africans.  

That year, an Italian business man had illegally dumped more than 2,000 drums, sacks and containers of hazardous wastes labelled as fertilizers  n the fishing village of Koko near Warri. It was the Nigerian students in Italy who alerted the media.

These toxic wastes, according to media reports, were to be routinely shipped into the country. Sunday Nana, the first Koko man who gave out his compound as storage facility, was paid a princely sum of only 100 dollars after protracted haggling. But when the drums of waste started to leak, many people in the community took ill. Some of them, according to medical reports, suffered nausea, paralysis and premature birth. But government officials moved in swiftly to halt the lethal transaction with the repatriation of the toxic wastes back to the senders in Italy.


But this audacious invasion did not end in Nigeria. It spread to many other African countries which allowed these toxic materials to be dumped on their soil purely for economic reason. Greenpeace, a Global Climate Emergency, regarded the dumping of chemical wastes in the Third World countries as “toxic colonialism.” I saw the sordid episode as a manifestation of Africa’s chronic underdevelopment. 

In addition to toxic waste dump, the continent is still languishing under many other noxious afflictions as a result of its underdevelopment. Some 33 years after its publication, the column in question remains relevant, necessitating its reproduction today.

“Current events in some of the developing countries make it mandatory that elementary textbooks on economic development be revised and updated to reflect the realities of the moment. For instance, students of economics are already familiar with the symptoms of chronic underdevelopment: poverty which breeds other symptoms like ill-health with its paralytic effect on productivity. This leads to stunted growth, hunger and malnutrition. Which in turn leads back to ill-health which cripples one’s ability to produce. And the circle gets back to the starting point: poverty. 

It appears that those economic writers who specialize in writing on the poor, pathetic countries, countries which live the lie  by claiming to be developing when, in fact, each step they take forward brings them many years back, have been gracious enough not to call a spade what it really is. Because they do not seek to demoralize them. Poor countries need hope and they, therefore, humour them by giving them hope. But it is the kind of hope given by Tantalus, as tantalizing as the will-o’-the-wisp. Nothing to it because the poor themselves do not inspire hope by words and deeds, especially deeds.
In the past, it was convenient to put the blame at the doorsteps of the colonial masters and their first cousins, the economic predators who engaged in the systematic despoilation of the colonized territories and bled them into comatose. But that was in the past.

The colonialists have long been gone. But not so the predators. The ex-colonies were invited into the world market to trade because they had been told that was the fastest way to develop their economy and become truly independent. But it turned out to be a trade between two unequal partners. The rich came to the poor to buy his raw materials but at the price it dictated; it was a buyer’s market. When they turned these raw materials into finished goods and shipped them back to the poor, still dictating the price, it became a seller’s market, with the poor still holding the short end of the stick. Tail or head, the poor was bound, hopelessly, inexorably, to lose. 


But it is not all the fault of the smart Alecs in the industrialized world. They understand the psychology of the poor and they exploit his poverty to advantage. They know that the elite among the poor are greedy and avaricious and unpatriotic. They know that for the love of money they can sell their birthrights. They then lure them into an unholy alliance, a conspiratorial partnership to maim and kill so long as the maiming and the killing benefit only the rich from the industrialized world and so long as their collaborators from the poor communities are assured of the crumbs falling from the table. That makes them happy and contented.

Economic textbooks on Africa and other poor continents of the world should be updated to take into account the role of indigenous exploiters who use their positions to pauperise their countries and kill their fellow human beings because of their insatiable appetite for money and the good things money can bring. Is it a surprise that toxic wastes are being dumped all over the poor countries of the Third World with reckless abandon? If, as it is alleged, the Republic of Benin was paid $84 million to accept the killer waste, do you think the dumps in Nigeria and Venezuela and most of other countries serving as refuse dumps are in exchange for peanuts?

Symptoms of underdevelopment do not begin and end with poverty, ill-health, declining productivity, low technology and the crippling viciousness of hunger and malnutrition; they extend to the national celebration of mediocrity and the enthronement and the worship of Liliputanism. While other countries reach for the best and their brightest, the poor countries settle for the tenth grade. Leaders come, not because they really want to lead, not because they have the means and the know-how, the experience and the political clout, they are pushed to the fore, reluctantly, because they are favoured by accidents of birth and geography and religion. 

It is a system that favours mediocres and sycophants. Those who show signs of genius are marked down as dissidents. When they can’t bend them, they break them.


It’s only in the poor countries that small minds who find themselves in the positions of influence by accident or by mistake proclaim from the roof top that pettiness and meanness are virtues to be worshipped; that their inanities qualify as the most sublime of intellectual pronouncements. 

The vicious circle of poverty is not a term to be applied exclusively to the economics of underdevelopment. It is relevant to the discussion of the poverty of intellectualism that has come to characterize politics and the art of government in the poor countries of the Third World. Lacking all the necessary ingredients of democracy  –  openness, tolerance of other people’s opinion, freedom in all its ramifications  –  politics has become a game of blood and fire. Those in authority do not brook opposition and dissent; only they are patriotic. Everybody else is a subversive element and all his moves and even his demeanor must be closely watched. 

Unfortunately for the poor African countries, too much attention is focused on such harmless rabble rousers at the expense of fundamental national security to the extent what the real enemies are almost always left to wreak havoc while those paid to secure the interests of the larger society are given to shadow-chasing. It is a mark of poverty of thoughts, of ideas and of knowledge; it is the most frightening symptom of underdevelopment.

It is because the enemies of Africa know how amateurish its intelligence network is that they feel bold enough to slap us on one cheek and ask us to turn the other. They can dump the killer toxic wastes in the day time unchallenged because they are not students, journalists, lecturers or trade unionists. It is safe for them to go in and out because they do not appear to the security apparatus of the poor countries as extremists of any particular moral or political suasion.
Is it not the immortal Shakespeare who said ages ago that “security is mortal’s chiefest enemy”? 


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