Is there anything worse than being accused of holding views that you do not in fact hold? It is certainly one of the most frustrating things about writing for New African. Our readership, it seems, contains some individuals (thankfully few!) who simply cannot “read”, not because they can’t register what words are on paper, but because they cannot fully understand what they mean. Personally, I don’t mind if I realise that something I have written has been misunderstood. It only teaches me to strive harder to express myself in even more lucid language, and since my writing can only gain if I do that, there is no reason why I should resent the process.
The trouble is that some “misunderstandings” are not simple “misunderstandings” at all. These “misunderstandings” are deliberate distortions of what one has written, with the sole purpose of pushing an agenda that has been preconceived and has been waiting for an opportunity to be put into words. There were two “Letters To The Editor” in the October 2009 issue of New African that appear to me to fall into the category of deliberate distortion. The first entitled “Taking Our Fate In Our Own Hands” was written by “Sait Mbooh” of Cape Point, The Gambia. Commenting on my article “Obama – Do Something Before You Go” (NA, Aug/Sept), this correspondent wrote: “I found Cameron Duodu’s article… to be asking the wrong questions of the wrong person. The unabashed scolding of President Obama (eight months into his first term) screamed of the same tired blame-game we’ve known for years.” The letter then goes on to allege, in so many words, that I want Africans to sit down and fold their arms and expect Obama to send manna raining down upon them!
This is a ridiculous reading of my article. It did not engage in any “tired blame-game”. I just painted a picture of what Obama and his family would have been confronted with, on their visit to the slave castle at Cape Coast, Ghana. I didn’t build the castle. I didn’t fill it with captured Africans whom I shipped to America and the Caribbean as slaves. That is the reality of what happened there. It is authentic, documented, undeniable history. In relating this history to my readers, I was neither blaming nor absolving anyone. If the history constitutes a blaming of someone, then it is the history that does the blaming, not the one who writes about it. In fact, it is the correspondent who criticises me for engaging in “the same tired old blame-game”, who is doing what he accuses me of. The letter is blaming the messenger, not the message. If the history I related in the article condemned slavery and those who participated in it, then it is slavery and the slavers who stand condemned.
There are, of course, many apologists for slavery and the colonialism that followed it, which undeniably left Africa in the ravaged social and economic condition that it is in. The repercussions, of course, continue to contribute to and undermine any effort to ameliorate the parlous state the continent is in today. Everyone in the world should know about what has been done to Africa, not because Africans want to “blame” anyone, but because without understanding Africa’s past, it is impossible to understand its present. To fail to relate the true history of the continent, just because someone somewhere might accuse me of engaging in the “same, tired, old blame-game”, would be to acquiesce in my being intimidated. But no one can intimidate me. One other point made by this correspondent is echoed by another letter writer, Annie Rashidi-Mulumba of Kinshasa, DRCongo. It almost looks as if they wrote in concert! Rashidi-Mulumba writes: “While I agree with him [Duodu] that for Obama to live up to our expectations, he has to be able to challenge the G8 or other major investors to trade with Africans on an equal footing, I think we Africans too have a big role to play in pushing for that change.”
This is too obvious a suggestion not to make one wonder whether my article was properly understood. I did not say Africans should do nothing for themselves. Indeed, to move the discussion from the abstract to the actual, I quoted the words, not of an academic, but of a coffee farmer from Uganda, who meticulously outlined the African producers’ case. This is that no matter how hard our coffee farmers, for instance, work, the “international coffee market” is organised in such a way that they get almost nothing for their hard labour, while the likes of Starbucks, the international coffee company, make a killing out of the coffee they produce.
I demonstrated in the article that cocoa growers and other producers of raw materials – including timber logs in Ghana – have the same problem, and urged Obama to help these producers to earn a decent living wage by dismantling the tariffs and other rules (enforced steadfastly by the World Trade Organisation and other G8-dominated organisations) that make change – by way of adding value to the commodities before export – difficult, if not impossible.
Strangely, whenever one makes an unanswerable case on behalf of developing countries, regarding the way the current international markets are rigged against them, then, almost by rote, those who approve of the current trade mechanisms trot out the refrain, “Africans must help themselves and not depend on others”. I want to state quite categorically that I neither advocate African dependence on foreign aid, nor do I approve of the theft of money meant for Africa’s development, by corrupt African dictators. What I think, though, is this: if the current arrangements on world trade are not changed, Africa will be “treading water” forever!
I want to end by quoting again, what a Ugandan coffee farmer on the ground says about how the current international world trade arrangements affect African producers like himself. This is what the immensely eloquent and sagacious Andrew Rugasira wrote in The Guardian (London) on 8 June 2005: “As an African entrepreneur, I am not looking for handouts that I have not earned. I only want the same opportunities that British entrepreneurs coming to Africa have access to… In the global community, we are all looking for the same things: markets and equal opportunities to exploit them. “Many Africans are condemned from birth, to a future of poverty, disease and premature death. In addition to this, the prevailing perception of Africans and their capabilities never transcends the confines of their so-called limitations. You are poor because you are poor. [But] while poverty is an undeniable part of the African reality, it is only part of it… “It is wealth creation that links the African struggle of yesterday, today and tomorrow…Africa’s trade relations with the West are largely determined by the conditionalities linked to multilateral and bilateral aid packages that insist on liberalisation. This means that goods and services from the West can enter African markets with few tariff and non-tariff barriers. This is why the continent remains a viable market business [for the West].
“To underline the importance of trade for African economic growth, we can say with confidence that if African exports were to grow by 1%, this would translate into revenue flows of more than £40bn a year. This income would accelerate movement towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals much faster than relying on the broken promises of the G8 leadership. “Successful export-led growth will occur when African economies achieve a competitive advantage based upon higher labour productivity... Free and open markets are not the norm for most commodities that Africa exports, and nearly all those [exports] targeted are controlled, distorted, or simply closed.
“In the face of these controlled markets, African countries face three problems. First, African manufacturing and processing seldom adds much value to the raw product. Think about this: coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after petroleum. Of the £35bn the global coffee market represents, [only] £3.8bn accounts for the value of the raw coffee beans traded annually…Second, the industrialised countries’ tariff and non-tariff barriers escalate with each additional stage of processing, for most primary commodities. The vertical integration of transnational corporations means [that] producers are usually totally unaware of their product’s true value. Third, monopolistic purchasers tend to impede available market information to check the prevailing market prices, which greatly weakens the bargaining position of the local producers.
“One of the biggest obstacles to Africa’s long-term development in exports is the transnational control over processing. If exports are to lead to greater wealth creation for Africans through economic growth, then these exports must have as much value added as possible, and market access must be improved. “At present, the gap between the price for unprocessed raw materials and that of the final product is generally very wide… This month [June 2005] my company, Rwenzori Coffee, will begin to sell its products in the UK supermarket chain Waitrose. 50% of company profits will be directed into social projects… “Let me give you a simple illustration of why we need to use trade and not aid as our principal weapon. One needs approximately five grams of roasted and ground beans to make a cup of coffee that sells for £2, so one kilogram can make 200 cups worth £400. Green coffee beans are bought for an average price of 70p per kilogram. In other words, less than 0.2% of the value of processed coffee is retained by the growers.”