“We don’t know what we don’t know about Africa” with Ebenezer Obadare

May 30, 2022

Ebenezer Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations discusses economic and political developments in Africa, on the International Horizons podcast.

Africa has grown economically in recent years in such a way that many of its populations now enjoy both the benefits and the drawbacks of a middle-class Western lifestyle. Yet it is also growing rapidly in demographic terms due to the combination of high fertility and lower mortality, raising questions about employment and development generally.  What does the future of the continent look like?

Ebenezer Obadare, Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow in Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the current situation in Africa. The conversation covers Africa’s experience with COVID, the influence of China and Russia on the continent and why they represent a threat to the established order, why Africa suffers from state weakness, the demographic situation and the lack of opportunities for youth, and finally the religious dimension of contemporary African politics.

Subscribe to International Horizons on SoundcloudSpotify, and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:08

Africa has grown economically in recent years in such a way that many of its populations now enjoy both the benefits and the drawbacks of a middle-class western lifestyle. Yet it is also growing rapidly in demographic terms due to the combination of high fertility and lower mortality, raising questions about employment and development generally. What does the future of the continent look like? Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast to the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey. I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 

John Torpey  00:51

We're fortunate to have with us today Ebenezer Obadare, who is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow in Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before coming to the Council on Foreign Relations, he was professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. He's a specialist on religion in Africa and author of a number of books including most recently Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria. Thanks so much for being with us today, Ebenezer Obadare.

Ebenezer Obadare  00:51

Thank you for having me.

John Torpey  00:54

Maybe let's first just check in on Africa as the COVID experience (at least for us) is sort of winding down (we think); that's not necessarily Africa's story. And so I wonder how you would characterize Africa's experience with COVID. I mean, it was thought that the continent might be relatively unscathed, due to the relatively young age structure of the population. And that surely may have helped, but how did the public health infrastructure hold up? 

Ebenezer Obadare  01:54

Thank you, John. So there are two dimensions to that. But before I answer your question, let me try and broadly characterize what seems to be the African experience with COVID. This is one of those classic situations where you don't know what you don't know. At the outset of the epidemic, the expectation was that Africa was going to take a big hit, and the anxiety that Africa was going to be more adversely affected than other continents or other parts of the world, it's quite legitimate, based on the understanding that the infrastructure, especially medical infrastructure, is very weak. And the fact that many people expected, on account of that, African countries were going to struggle. So if you look at some of the earlier modeling on fatalities, hospitalizations, and all of that, they looked really grim on paper, but that appears not to have been the case. And I say appear, again, because we don't really know what are the actual numbers. Many of the countries have struggled to document infection, hospitalization, fatalities. 

Ebenezer Obadare  03:06

But part of the problem is that before COVID, the infrastructure for gathering data, for keeping data, and for exchanging data, that infrastructure was not up to par. And that has affected what we know, or what we think we know, about COVID. So, the way I think about it is this, it's probably the case that more people than we think we know died on account of COVID, that hospitalization was greater than we think it is or it's been. At the same time (and this appears to be a contradiction) it will seem as if fewer people on the whole have died on account of COVID. So in between those two extreme poles lies some truth that I will imagine that over the next 5-10 years, we'll have a better better understanding of it. Having said that, most people, you know, seem to have moved on, because the impression has gathered and formed that Africa has been spared the worst and that seems on the face of things up to be the case. 

Ebenezer Obadare  04:21

The other thing, the other part of your question I think we should talk about is the quality of medical infrastructure, which itself is part of the bigger problem of public infrastructure. I think that's something that still needs to be improved on. Health delivery continues to be a challenge. Allocation of resources, while sometimes formidable on paper, does not necessarily translate into reality. Most people, I mean, don't have access to hospitals, to doctors, so that still seems to be the case across the continent. And in anticipation of the next pandemic, or even in terms of thinking about people's everyday health, these are things that in terms of policy that we need to think about.

John Torpey  05:16

Right. So one of the issues that we're concerned about from the perspective of the global well-being in regard to COVID is getting the rest of the world vaccinated. And so I wonder if you could bring us up to date on the progress of vaccination in Africa? I mean, I know, we're basically talking about Sub-Saharan Africa, but whatever you want to comment on.

Ebenezer Obadare  05:39

So again, that seems to be partly related to my answer to your first question, which is that it's not just that people think or are behaving as if the pandemic is over. One of the concrete actions that they're taking in respect to that is that people are not diverting it; if you don't think COVID is still a problem, then you don't think that you should get vaccinated. I think the last numbers I was looking at, I think less than 1% of the African population has been vaccinated. Interestingly enough, I read more about COVID in Africa in Western newspapers than in African newspapers, which in itself is a commentary on  people's perception of the pandemic. And for good or for ill, and again, maybe in the course of time, looking back, we'll be able to determine what went right, what went wrong. One other thing is why COVID appears not to have done the kind of damage we expected that it might. People have spoken about, relatively, the fact that Africa is the youngest continent. People have spoken about the weather. I mean, there are all these theories and hypotheses. And again, you know, I'm on the side of we don't know, because we don't know what we don't know, but time is going to tell us a lot of things.

John Torpey  07:07

Right. So, you know, what's the economic impact in? And I mean, it sounds like, in certain respects, people haven't been terribly affected, in effect, by COVID. It's not the scourge, perhaps in Africa that it was for us. And so maybe the economic impact has been limited. But what would you say about that?

Ebenezer Obadare  07:31

So, it's interesting that you're asking, that we're having this conversation in May 2022. So any answer to the question has to roll in, has to factor in the fact that something happened earlier this year that has also complicated the economic climate, the economic situation, Africa. And I think we should roll that to this question, which is the Ukraine conflict. So the economic situation in most of Africa now is very grim. Inflation is at its highest in decades. I was looking at the numbers for Nigeria yesterday; I think 16.4% or something in that neighborhood over the last three or four months. So average life, average everyday life has become very, extremely difficult for most people. Industries are experiencing shortages. 

Ebenezer Obadare  08:23

The fact that countries can no longer import grains from Ukraine, something we didn't know was actually the case. You're talking about Egypt, you're talking about Nigeria, Senegal. So all those things are happening at the same time, the long story short is that, economically speaking, there is a lot of distress, which countries are scrambling to manage what is not just due to COVID is my point. So long before COVID the economic prospects of African countries were very grim. And we can go into the reasons for that. COVID complicated an already dire situation; the Ukraine conflict has hardly helped matters. So you have to think along those three lines in thinking about the current economic predicament of many African countries.

John Torpey  09:14

Sure, yeah, I definitely wanted to get into the question of the effects of the Ukraine war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Africa. We had an interview, I don't know, a month or so ago with a former director of the UN World Food Program, who like basically everybody else is predicting pretty dire consequences of the war because of the enormous amount of global wheat and other grains and things that Ukraine and Russia have long contributed. I mean, something like half of Egypt's grain, or wheat anyway, comes apparently from Ukraine. So that's going to be a big problem for the people who live in, particularly the poorer people who live in Egypt, and I guess you're saying, of course, throughout Africa. 

John Torpey  09:59

But one issue that arises in regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been that African countries have been, in many cases, reticent about taking sides against Russia. And I wonder how you would explain what's going on there. I mean, there's been, of course, a great deal of talk about the way in which Vladimir Putin may unexpectedly, unintentionally, unpredictably have brought the West back together, but that's not necessarily what's going on in a lot of the Global South.

Ebenezer Obadare  10:32

So that's a very interesting question. Um, there's a lot to dive into it. And I'll try to be as brief as possible. Well, I guess the first observation I would like to make is that anybody who has been paying close attention to African politics would not in the least have been surprised at the way things have turned out. The fact that some African countries decided to bat for Russia, or at least decided that were just going to stay on the fence, shouldn't come as a surprise, if you know just the ABC of African politics. And what do I mean? A couple of things, one, that historically, the Soviet Union, now Russia, if you will, has been very influential in African countries: giving support to nationalist groups, groups fighting self-determination, groups fighting against apartheid in South Africa, you know, is the classic example. So there's a lot of political and ideological sympathy that has been for the Soviet Union and for Russia. 

Ebenezer Obadare  11:38

So, the other thing is that, when we think about external influence in Africa, we think about the West, we think about, over the last 20 years, we've paid a lot of attention to China, we’ve paid less attention to Russia. Russia has been flying under the radar, but has been quietly effective. All of which is to say that when you now think about the way African countries have responded to this conflict, that shouldn't be a surprise at all. So that's one point. 

Ebenezer Obadare  12:05

The other point is to think about the substantive questions that African countries are using these opportunities to raise. So I can talk about maybe three or four of them. One is the perception generally, that Western rhetoric and Western action haven't always converged; that the West tends to say one thing or tend to behave in another way. That has come true in many of the things that we've seen in the grievances of African countries over the last three or four months.

Ebenezer Obadare  12:38

The second one is the perception that African countries are inferiorized, or juvenized: that they're treated not as fully developed moral agents in the international system, but as less developed agents, or should be spoken to, but who should not be heard from. Just a third point, African countries they have a - the rap sheet is very long - list of grievances. Think about what Western countries did in South Africa; think about what it did in Libya. So they have all these examples. And, finally, there is the complaint that Africa continues to be treated as a no man's land. When Western countries need to take something, they just come, they get it, and they go away. 

Ebenezer Obadare  13:31

So, and then all those things have come together, or those grievances coupled with the Russian influence that I spoke about earlier. All those things have converged at this very moment to produce what many have come to the reticence of many African countries. And I think that's why we are where we are right now.

John Torpey  13:56

I'm sure that's right. I've heard that kind of answer to this kind of question in the past, but notwithstanding your emphasis on the importance of the relationship with Russia, I do want to ask you about China, which is also a country that has come and taken a lot of resources, because it needs them in order to run its economy. And unlike Russia, as far as I'm aware, it's left something of a footprint. I mean, it doesn't seem to be settler colonialism, but there are, in various contexts, a lot of Chinese who will be sent down to work on this project or that project. And there's a lot of talk of a kind of debt-colonialism, I mean, creation of obligations on the part of countries not sufficiently well-off to pay for the kinds of things that the Chinese are doing for them. And so that puts them in the Chinese debt and gives China leverage over them. I mean, how would you characterize China's posture in the continent?

Ebenezer Obadare  14:13

So that's a great question. I'm going to give you two responses. One is, I'm going to respond to your question. And then, on the back end, maybe offer a little bit of criticism, not of you, but of the African response to sort of give you a more comprehensive picture of what I'm talking about. 

Ebenezer Obadare  15:20

So China has been extremely effective at cultivating in many African countries. But why it's been successful, I think, is the key point, which is that, I think for many of these leaders, China offers a model of intervention, a model of relationship, and domestically in China, a model of governance, that is in contradistinction with the model that the West represents. 

Ebenezer Obadare  15:50

So here is a way to think about it. John says give me 50 bucks, I say, "Oh, you can have 50 bucks, you can pay me back or this very interesting low rate by the next 30 years or so". That's music to the ears of many African leaders who are not necessarily- and this is an important point and I will absolutely talk about it -accountable to their own people. So if you're an African leader, you want a railway built from destination A to destination B, no questions asked. China is where you want to go, and China is ready, is willing. Oh, and it ponies up money, not only that, it gives you human labor to do that. It's like sort of like a turnkey project, as Americans call it. 

Ebenezer Obadare  16:36

On the other hand, Western assistance is often bound up with some things that are required of you: "Oh, we need to think about your human rights record"; "you need to do an environmental assessment before we build a road"; "we need to make sure that you're not using this military equipment that you're asking for, we need to make sure that you don't use it to pacify groups that you perceive to be opposition that is legitimate but that you are characterizing, you know, as mischievous". The West tends to ask those questions. 

Ebenezer Obadare  17:15

Now, it is true that it's those questions often asked are hypocritical. That's true, but at least those questions are often asked. And for me, that's a good thing. So we are then seeing at work two contrasting philosophies of governance, two contrasting philosophies of relationship and intervention. On the one hand, there is China, I'm asking, you know, questions, "you want the road, a big road, thank you very much, goodbye." And then you have the Western thing, which is as moral. And I think if there's anyone that is aware of this, it is China. China is basically aware that African countries have this history of grievance against the West. And it's been exploiting that. 

Ebenezer Obadare  17:55

So this is the back end of the thing I said I was going to talk about. It's important when we think about Africa and China to make a separation between what African leaders are doing with China, and what the people of Africa want from China. So there are two layers: on the one hand, African leaders, who are not necessarily accountable to their people, are getting all these huge investments apparently for their people. At the same time, because China does not ask questions about social justice, about human rights, about the rule of law, about democracy in those countries, ordinary people then think that China (and I don't think they're necessarily wrong) that China is not interested in those things. They admire China for what it's been able to achieve, especially over the last 30 years. So if you look at patterns of emigration from Africa over the last two decades, it's interesting how increasingly, more and more people have gone to Shanghai, and Beijing and major centers in China. 

Ebenezer Obadare  19:00

So, that's a tribute to the fact that people actually recognize that the Chinese economic miracle is real. But the political difficulties remain; that most people don't see China as a model of political governance that they should emulate. And that when they think about Chinese leaders, they know that African politicians like Chinese leaders, because they don't ask the same kind of difficult questions that Western leaders tend to ask.

John Torpey  19:30

Fascinating. So I want to switch gears a little bit and ask about demography. You know, everybody, I think not everybody, but many people are aware that Africa is growing demographically rather dramatically. And this basically it has good causes in certain ways, right? People are living longer and living healthier lives, but their fertility is outstripping mortality, and that means population growth on a pretty dramatic scale. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see the demographic challenge developing? And can there be a kind of demographic dividend, so to speak, rather than this being simply a problem?

Ebenezer Obadare  20:16

That's a great question. And for me, the answer is actually very simple. And it's simple because I'll give you the same answer if you asked me about demographic boom in another region or cultural context, which is, it depends. What does it depend on? Depends on the quality of the population. Having a big population, the kind we're talking about in Africa, can be a good thing. Because if you have good human capital, it translates into everything positive for the country, for the region, or for the continent. So it's always about the quality of the population. 

Ebenezer Obadare  20:50

I think the problem with Africa is that because of all the problems that the continent or the region currently has, it's not been able to capitalize on this demographic boom. And and what do I mean? If you think about the continent that is hemorrhaging human capital the most it's Africa. And I think followed closely by Latin America. What ties those two regions of the world together is poor governance; the fact that people because of persistent political abuse and repression, because rule of law is not secure, people do not necessarily see their future in those countries. 

Ebenezer Obadare  21:35

So think about the lines of immigrants constantly flowing from Central and South America trying to cross the border into the United States. It's a very complicated process. And I don't think I'm trying to simplify something that is extremely complicated, but one main reason that tends to get left out of this conversation is that these are very poorly governed countries. And if there is anybody who realizes that it is the very people who are the most vocal opponents of those regimes, and who bear the brunt of political maladministration in those countries.

Ebenezer Obadare  22:10

So let's come back to Africa. I was just reading the report of about, I think, three days ago of a boat that capsized off the coast of Tunisia, trying to make its way to the Mediterranean. Every year, John, hundreds, if not thousands of people, young people, die trying to cross the Sahara, so that they can go to the Maghreb, and then cross over to Southern Europe or try to make the journey across the Mediterranean. What that tells us is that young people, the very core of that demographic boom that we were discussing, they don't necessarily feel that their futures live in Africa. And because of that, they don't feel invested in those countries. 

Ebenezer Obadare  22:58

So the short answer to your very interesting question is that human capital, population itself, it's just the beginning of what should be a very interesting conversation about human capital, and how you invest in human capital. The sad truth, the unfortunate truth right now is that Africa is unable to capitalize on this very expansive population, because the conditions are not there for young people to actualize themselves. The way to change things is to come back to the question I was raising earlier in the context, in relation to China to make sure that the rule of law is obeyed, that the rights of individuals are respected, that women are allowed to be entrepreneurs and are not treated as second class citizens, and that the dead weight of the state on everyday individuals that that dead weight is removed, so that human enterprise, in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Togo, wherever, can be liberated. This is a very complicated issue. But that's the best way for Africa to be able to make sure that what appears this demographic exclusion is translated into an advantage for the region.

John Torpey  24:16

Right, indeed, many people have argued that one of the main problems in terms of military conflict has to do with youth bulges, and precisely the kinds of problems that you're pointing to that are not enough jobs there people who are educated, but no relevant jobs, sort of for the kind of training they have. And that creates frustration. And, you know, just as in the United States violence is associated with youth, basically, a certain age bracket of the population. 

John Torpey  24:46

So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the conflict situation on the continent. I mean, Ethiopia is going through a pretty bad time right now. Congo still simmers. Sudan is having unfortunate problems. Somalia is back in the news for bad reasons. Nigeria, of course. So maybe you can talk about how you see this. I mean, I know, again, it's a big continent and it's a complicated place. But so I don't want to assume that Africa is one thing, but maybe you could talk a little bit about the areas you think are most concerning.

Ebenezer Obadare  25:21

I mean, these are conflicts taking place in different states, widely dispersed regions of the continent. So they don't necessarily have the same reasons; they don't nicely originate from the same set of reasons. So I think it's important to start with that; there are very local, and very specific genealogies. Some of them have been going on for a long time. Some have only occurred very recently. And we should be very careful not to put all those conflicts in the same book. The only common factor that I think I see in all of them (and I'm, I'm saying this very carefully) is what you might call the crisis of the state. Right? And what do I mean by the crisis of the state? What I mean is, what is it that the state is supposed to do? What kind of relationship should the state have with society, you know, with everyday people? 

Ebenezer Obadare  26:16

What you have in most African countries, again, going back to the crisis of the rule of law that I said earlier, is political centralization. Political centralization means that power is deeply concentrated in center is normally distributed. And because of that, a lot of tension and antipathy is built into the system. And the one way to think structurally about some of these conflicts is that the explosion of some of those tensions is bringing out all kinds of forces that are hostile to the state, and are therefore either seeking to restructure the state or totally disestablish the state. 

Ebenezer Obadare  26:55

So think about Northern Nigeria, for instance, Boko Haram has been going strong for almost two decades now. When it started, everybody thought this was something that the state was going to be able to deal with very quickly, over a very short period. But what we found is that, because of the crisis of the state itself, because the state itself has lost considerable capacity. The armed forces, the military that used to be in power, on account of being in power, is now a shadow of what it used to be as an institution, as a corporate body, that that institution is no longer the same. The chickens are coming home to roost. So many of these states are considerably very weak, even though the state, in theory, the ability for many of these states to project power over their physical territories is extremely limited, which explains why some of them are they using mercenaries, which explains why some of them are drawn to China, because they can get, you know, military equipment. 

Ebenezer Obadare  27:58

So it's a very interesting, it's a very complicated process, but at the center of all of this I'm postulating is the crisis of the state. And the way to solve that, militarily in the short-term, you have to engage and neutralize the forces that are arranged against the state. But there is no long term solution that does not include having the rule of law, making sure that citizens have a buy in, making sure that you build infrastructure that would give people any sense of security and stopping them from wanting to leave the continent because they don't see their futures in those places.

John Torpey  28:43

Very interesting. And of course, this draws us in the direction of your own specialty, which I do want to ask you about, and, of course, that's religion. And especially in Nigeria, but I'm going to ask you to talk about this a bit more broadly. I mean, Christianity has been sort of flourishing in Africa, it's really many people would say, it's kind of the future of Christianity as compared to what's going on in places like Europe, and even the relatively religious United States. But it has a competitor on on the African continent, which is, of course, Islam. And so I wonder if you could talk about how the two religions are doing, so to speak, and how are they getting along, shall we say, and to what extent is the encounter between these two fates, you know, a source of conflict, which of course it is in Nigeria and elsewhere?

Ebenezer Obadare  29:41

Yeah. So, I guess one could start with speaking in a primarily Nigerian context, but something that may as well apply to other African countries. That there's a backdrop of mutual competition for resources, for recruitment of members in a very lively religious marketplace between Christians and Muslims in different parts of Nigeria and different parts of Africa. So that backdrop I think is very interesting. So that it's important to establish so as to make sense of whatever we say about interreligious rivalry, competition for power, in different parts of the continent. 

Ebenezer Obadare  29:47

But in this specific case of Nigeria, which is one of the epicenters of the most recent religious effervescence in the continent. The other places will be Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia. These are countries where the Pentecostal denomination has been extremely lively, has been buoyant, and has dominated, has basically cornered the religious marketplace over the last 20-25 years. The question is, why? There's so many reasons. The central one, again, I'm coming back to the point I raised about the crisis of the state, this is just basic sociology, which is that once the state is unable to discharge what it's supposed to do, in terms of basic welfare, provision of security, that people then look elsewhere to have those needs met. 

Ebenezer Obadare  31:22

And the most important institution, the most important non-state institution doing that in Nigeria, in many African countries are religious institutions; whether Islamic institutions or Christian institutions. In Nigeria, Pentecostalism, so Pentecostals are the the most performative, the most ebullient, spirit emphasizing denomination of Christianity in Africa and most parts of the Global South today. It's been all the rage in Nigeria, and has been the most buoyant expression of Christianity over the course of the Nigerian Fourth Republic. So the title of my last book is Pentecostal Republic. And basically, it's basic issue is to make the point that the Nigerian Fourth Republic itself cannot be understood without paying attention to the ascendance, power, and the cultural mind of Pentecostalism. So I talk in the book about what I call the "Pentecostalization" of everyday life.

Ebenezer Obadare  32:26

So we're now in this situation where because the state has become redundant in the lives of everyday citizens, people turn to this religious institution. But since there is no vacuum in life, something also happens in this space is that people have turned to meet powerful religious agents, who also use the leverage that they have over the congregations in many of these very large churches to also leverage and accumulate considerable economic, cultural, and political capital. Which is why if you look at Nigeria over the last 20 years, so the first president in 1999, in the newborn Fourth Republic, was President Obasanjo, he was a Pentecostal. He was succeeded briefly by a Muslim who died within three years (Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua). But then the man who succeeded was Goodluck Jonathan, also another Pentecostal. The current president is a Muslim, but the Vice President is a Pentecostal. So you have a situation where you can't understand what's going on. And one of the leading candidates for the presidency that the election taking place next year, pastor to the backer, again, is a Pentecostal. 

Ebenezer Obadare  33:37

So you have, and this is the Nigerian example, that is repeated in different degrees in other African countries. The way I like to think about this, then is to focus on what this means for the way we think about the states, the capacity of the state, is the state boosted? Or is it degraded? If power, not just political power, but spiritual power in this context, migrates to these other institutions, and these other agents and other entities. So, we are at this very interesting crossroads in African politics, where, in order to understand what happens within the confines of the state, you have to understand what happens within the confines of people's spiritual politics.

John Torpey  34:21

That's fascinating. I mean, as I told you, when we met in person a month or so ago, you know, I had, at one time been reading a lot about Pentecostalism, probably mainly the work of David Martin, whose work is surely familiar to you. And I guess I stopped reading about it when he had finished talking about basically Latin America and certain parts of Europe. So it's interesting to hear that the story really continues or has its own parallel in Africa, and what a massive impact it seems to be having on culture, politics, etc. Because as you say, this is not to old line Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, it's very sort of particular brand of Protestantism. So with apparently huge impacts on the way people behave and think about the world and orient themselves to their possibilities. 

John Torpey  35:15

So in any case, this has been a fascinating conversation. I want to thank Ebenezer Obadare for sharing his insights about Africa and its future. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying, thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.