Africa’s infrastructure: Develop people, industrialisation and structures


 (By F. E. Ogbimi)

One area deceit and indoctrination are destroying the hope of the Blackman is developing infrastructure.  Africans are being deceived that African agriculture-artisan-economies must erect complex infrastructure, especially road and communication networks and electricity, as a prerequisite for initiating rapid transformation of the agriculture/artisan-economies into industrialised ones. History does not support this claim.

THIS article is a response to various write-ups in different newspapers supporting attempts by Nigerian governments since 1999 to erect structures for generating and distributing electric power for domestic and industrial usage in Nigeria. All the write-ups to which my article is a response, claimed that Nigeria and other African nations should and can erect complex infrastructure and achieve overnight transformation.  One of the articles was titled, “Africa’s infrastructure, key to development’’, published in The Guardian last month. Another was, “Africa urged to invest $468 billion reserve in infrastructure, pension assets.” Another article reported experts as saying, “Infrastructure deficit, bane of Nigeria’s development.’’

The Nigerian experience has demonstrated convincingly that it is a futile effort for an agricultural/artisan/crafts economy to erect complex infrastructure and achieve overnight transformation. The Nigerian National Assembly expressed frustration recently about the appropriateness of investing large sum of money on infrastructure, when it observed that though it appropriated N1.414 trillion during the period 1999-2012, virtually all-Nigerian roads remain in a very bad state. We also remember the billions of dollars our leaders claimed they have invested in electric power generation and distribution with nothing to show for the huge investments. The authors of the articles urging African governments to invest heavily in infrastructure did not demonstrate a sense of history in taking their positions. Also they did not show that they understand the theory or logic of the development process. My article disproved their claims both in terms of historical evidence and theory of development.

Nicolo Machiavelli, in his book, The Prince, made two important points on how leaders hold on to power. First, leaders use force to hold on to power. The second and perhaps the more important instrument is deceit.    European and Asian nations neglected education for more than 2000 years of their development experience so that the people can be easily deceived. Those who have education cannot be deceived easily, but the uneducated and indoctrinated people can be deceived easily.  The cruel experience of slavery to which Westerners subjected millions of Africans in the period approximately 1470s-1870s and the subsequent colonisation of Africa till the 1990s when South Africa became independent, and the so-called Western education inherited from the West have probably affected how the Blackman thinks.

The Blackman’s thinking has been too shallow to promote national and regional development. For example, 50 years of deceit and shallow reasoning have only moved Nigeria very close to disintegration. But Africans can learn speedily from the experiences of others and save the continent.

One area deceit and indoctrination are destroying the hope of the Blackman is developing infrastructure.  Africans are being deceived that African agriculture-artisan-economies must erect complex infrastructure, especially road and communication networks and electricity, as a prerequisite for initiating rapid transformation of the agriculture/artisan-economies into industrialised ones. History does not support this claim.    Similarly, the theory of development does not support erecting infrastructure as a prerequisite to industrialisation. This article also presents a wise approach, scientific in nature and supported by many experiences in history.

The region occupied by modern Western Europe was the ancient Gaul.  Ancient Gaul was harnessed into the Roman Empire in 55 B. C. Germanic tribes in 406 A. D smashed the western portion. In the absence of a central authority, the Islands of England were invaded by many other tribes from northern Europe. The islands metamorphosed into the kingdom of England in the 10th century A. D. England and Scotland formed Great Britain in 1625.  Britain achieved the first modern Industrial Revolution (IR) in the period 1770-1850 (Carrington and Jackson, 1954; Brooke, 1968; and Gregg, 1971). When Britain achieved the first modern IR, the roads in Britain were still the ones built by the Roman Empire (Trevelyan, 1948; and Gregg, 1971). Following the industrialisation, the nation quickly built canals, railways and other modern transport systems.   Agricultural/artisan/crafts Britain did not borrow and accumulate debts to emphasise the erection of complex infrastructure before industrialisation. The scientific basis of this wise decision will be provided later in this article.

Following the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) in which the Americans became independent of Britain, the Americans wrote the popular American constitution, adopted it in 1789 and transformed the confederation into the American federation. Britain was clearly more technologically advanced at that time. America did not award big contracts to Britain or Britons to erect complex infrastructure for America so that America could achieve effortless development overnight.

Morrison (1974) narrated the American experience in developing infrastructure in the 18th century. By 1790, there were many thriving communities in south New England. It soon became clear that roads wide enough for a yoke of oxen and forest trails for men on foot were insufficient means for the kind of transport such an expanding territory required. It was also apparent that the solution to this problem did not lie in building a network of roads to tie the various parts of the region together. This, the Americans believed would cost a great deal to build and present a continuing difficulty of maintenance. So, a search was made for a reasonable alternative.

New Englanders turned in time to watercourses that existed. From Boston, there arose a plan to connect rivers by short canals to create an extended transport system. These were the dreams in the minds of many men by 1790 when no single canal had been built in the United States of America. The General Court of the State of Massachusetts in 1793 gave a group of private citizens the right to form the Middlesex Canal Company and to build a canal between Boston and Lowell, a distance of 26 miles (40kms). These men chose Laomi Baldwin, a sometimes-cabinetmaker, an occasional surveyor of boundaries as “man of learning” to direct the construction of the canal. The distinguishing citation of “man of learning” arose from the fact that he and his friend had walked from a distance to attend lectures in mathematics and physics at Harvard.

Baldwin in the summer of 1793 assembled the tools available for the project. For clearing and digging: axe, hoe, shovels, mattocks, crowbars, scythes, and pitchforks.  For working wood: saws, fore planes, halving planes, drawshaves, chisels, hold fasts. For working metal: forges, vises, anvils, tongs, files, chisels, hammers. For working stone: drills, chisels, wedges, priming wires. Note the tools gathered. In practical terms, Nigeria is scientifically and technologically centuries more backward today than the United States of America (USA) of 1793. Baldwin, as the superintendent, also gathered a work force – men known to be good at building stone walls or farming barns, handy men in the local towns, and most of all farmers who had learnt to build and repair the things they needed for work or living. By the end of the summer, Baldwin had collected the best tools and the most skilled work force available in the USA to undertake the needed venture. It was then discovered that the men who had learned how to take care of themselves and who, working within a general architectural scheme had neither the wherewithal nor the knowledge nor the skills even to begin to build a canal.

The place to begin was to run precise surveys and levels. This in the opinion of Henry Knox, a resident of Boston, a hero of the Revolution, Secretary of War, and a great supporter of the Middlesex Company,” was more of a matter of accurate perception and judgment, than of science. Therefore, the thing to do was to look for a local man rather than for someone with experience from abroad. Upon the morals and steadfastness of our own people may we depend, while foreigners in so many instances were defective in these essentials.”

Acting on such advice, Baldwin, the canal superintendent, asked his friend, Thompson, a magistrate who had done some survey by accident to undertake the task. Using a compass, his eyes and the accurate judgment that he possessed, Thompson produced some disastrous calculations. In view of the discouraging prospects, the men of Middlesex Company persisted in their venture. Finding no American who knew more than they, they sensibly waived the requirements of morals and steadfastness and looked to foreigners for help. They did not award contract to industrialised Britain. In time they found two men from Europe who helped them to start. Years of difficulties continued long after the Europeans left. The canal was completed in 1800. It took eight years to complete.

In 1949 when Mao Zedung became the leader of the Chinese people, the economy was in chaos. The Russians on whom the Chinese had depended upon for a long time had quarreled with them and they had stripped Manchuria, the most built-up city of everything. The transport system was in ruins and the currency worthless.    The Chinese used the resource they have in abundance – people (Stoke and Stoke, 1975).” Let the people walk on two legs,” said Mao Zedung. “Let the native skills and the local materials supplement modern technology.” Mao meant to mobilise the entire populace and link learning efforts in educational institutions with those in the rest of the economy. Everyone in Chinese communes worked together, not self-employment. That was how the Chinese having crawled during the period 1000 B C.- 1949 A. D., 2949 years, accelerated modernisation to become the fastest growing economy in the world.

The development experiences of Britain, the United States and China, reviewed in this article showed clearly that they did not invest huge amounts on infrastructure – Depreciating Assets (DAs), as a prerequisite to promoting industrialisation. Wise nations develop the people through learning – education, training and employment, achieve industrialisation and build the relevant infrastructure.      Investing heavily on infrastructure in an artisan economy may be likened to pumping water into a profusely leaking water tank. It may also be likened to an attempt to build the roof of a house before laying the foundation.     Educating and training citizens on the other hand, create Appreciating Assets (AAs), because the learning people appreciate in intrinsic values and acquire increasing competence for solving problems.

Let Nigeria and other African nations initiate a rapid industrialisation process by setting up the framework for training all graduates of educational institutions, especially the scientists and engineers, to acquire complementary practical skills in the economy outside educational campuses, for four-five years.  This training framework is to complement the educational system in African nations. African nations, including Nigeria should stop and reverse the senseless privatisation programmes introduced to the continent by the World Bank and IMF (selling public infrastructure and enterprises) and use them to teach the youths as Japan did. Let the educated youths also input the theory they possess into the African theory-starved indigenous production activities. The educated and trained graduates should be challenged to build and maintain the infrastructure Nigeria and other African nations need. This is how Nigeria and other African nations can develop the needed manpower, initiate rapid industrialisation, and efficiently build the infrastructure the continent can sustain.

Ogbimi wrote from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”


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