The forgotten continent speaks out

We don’t seem to pay that much attention to Africa; Hardly a profound revelation. In fact, it’s self-evident to the extent that a lot of us tend to refer to it as a single political and cultural entity. This is perhaps one of the grossest miscomprehensions one can make. One World Week is now upon us, however, so I feel it’s fair to give the forgotten continent the spotlight for a few hundred words.

Having just now lamented the way many of us conceive Africa, I’ll begin by committing the same sin, and refer to it as a whole: With Africa, everything is at once painfully simple and hopelessly complex. I apply this notion to the ongoing confrontation between Nigeria and the Tobacco Giants; a David and Goliath moment of underdog nationstate versus ethically barren corporate monster if ever there was one.

Nigeria is attempting to sue three tobacco companies -British American Tobacco (BAT), Phillip Morris and International Tobacco- to the tune of $44billion, or £22billion. The reason? The federal government claims the companies are trying to hook young Africans on tobacco, in order to compensate for ever-diminishing markets in the West. This accusation would appear to be born out in the World Health Organisation’s estimations of tobacco consumption in developing nations to be rising by 3.4% per year, and in the Nigerian case, by a horrific 20% each year.

Thus we have the painfully simple explanation. After all, one in five under fourteen year olds smoking, with a ten fold increase in female smokers during the 1990s is not a situation to be proud of –unless of course you happen to be in the board room of BAT, in which case pats on the back are merited all round.

Much as I love stark biblical analogy though, the David and Goliath phraseology doesn’t quite fit when we arrive at the hopelessly complex perspective. To start with, the sums don’t add up. £22billion is more than the entire Nigerian national budget, and significantly more than the amount set aside on health care each year. Critics say this legal action rather than indicating a benevolent government looking out for its citizens’ health, merely reflects high levels of corruption and attempts to fill government coffers. Indeed, only six years ago, BAT was given tax breaks to entice it to move a large proportion of its production to Nigeria -not exactly indicating civic health as being high up on the agenda. Not only this, but other countries in Africa have taken more stringent measures to restrict the sale, advertising, and most importantly glamourisation of tobacco than has Nigeria.

Still, to lay the wrongdoing primarily at the door of the African regime, as we similarly lay the onus for economic development, demonstrates one of the West’s less compelling attributes. It’s as if we are trying to somehow absolve ourselves from responsibility for the repercussions of the morally dubious scramble and subsequent de-colonisation of Africa. It fails to indict the tobacco companies, who whilst maintaining the somewhat farcical assertion that they are ‘socially responsible’, also publish documents emphasizing that “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer”. (We have Phillip Morris to thank for that particular gem…)

There are few better examples of capitalism operating without restraint, targeting young and underage smokers with tactics that would cause outrage in any Western nation. The free distribution of cigarettes in tandem with the use of doctored Hollywood posters being a prime example; the sale of single ‘sticks’ of tobacco, facilitating easier access for children being another. Why do we find it acceptable for big business to continue to exploit human life in Nigeria in such an egregious fashion when we would balk at it if they tried it in the West? Maybe for the same reason that we barely raised a finger to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994; Africa isn’t worth a single vote in most countries outside of Africa itself.

Do we really view African governments with such contempt that we expect them to be corrupt, and get offended enough when they reject western corporate interests to denounce them as such? Whatever the motive behind the Nigerian government’s actions, any success would be instrumental for progressive thinking everywhere, and of benefit to more than just Nigerian citizens. To indulge me the biblical analogy once more, it would be the stone loosed at Goliath, the capitalist daemon. Whether the Nigerian David’s stone would kill Goliath is another matter, but the initial confrontation is encouraging at least. To see the confidence in purpose required to challenge the amoral corporate marketplace for the good of its citizens shows some of the fetters of a colonized past are at last being removed.

Nonetheless, as we can see, the situation is not as painfully simple as the David and Goliath analogy allows. I could, for example, contradict myself with ease by saying that on the other hand, Nigeria has allowed in Chinese business to allegedly create jobs and infrastructure in its copper belt, though the reality is one of exploitation of both labour and resource. This would suggest an absolute dependence on the global capitalist system, and perhaps a disregard for its own workers’ labour rights. Hardly a defiant David, catapult in hand. A fairer representation would be a surreptitious David quietly selling out his own people, and this is before we even consider the omnipresent ‘why’ involved in every political issue. Thus, we have the hopeless complexity.

Now that One World Week is here, perhaps we should consider the meaning of that phrase, ‘one world’. It should mean an equal perception of all mankind, not an understanding of humanity as being two-tiered, with one set of accepted rules and practices in one half of the world, and disregard for, and exploitation of another half. The social responsibility demonstrated in Nigeria gives me some hope that we will come to see Africa as a place of immense cultural diversity, yet also of equal political relevance and bargaining on the world stage. Maybe then it will be the forgotten continent no more.

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