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Ken Vickery drops some history on us

Historian Kenneth Vickery is a pinch-speaker today, filling in for George Ayittey. It’s awfully hard to fill Ayittey’s shoes, but Ayittey has been well represented by early speakers, and Vickery has a useful set of stories to tell – historical stories from the continent from the past millenium. He starts with his own story – a young graduate student, hitchhiking from Nairobi to Arusha, and collecting stories from the man kind enough to pick him up and the people he encountered on the trip. He found “people with stories, intertwined with the stories of their ancestors,” and was convinced that there was a life’ss work in collecting these stories.

He tells us three historical stories, points of inflection that could have radically changed the course of events had they played out differently, offering a story from Mark Twain, that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” He starts with the encounter between kingdoms in the early 16th century – the Portuguese, and the Kingdom of the Kongo, based in what is now northern Angola. The Kongo Kingdom is a “classic late iron age” society – it had a surplus production of food, organized pottery and textile industries, copper and ironwork, and a currency based on cowrie shells. There was a feudal system, with lesser lords supporting and occasionally challenging the main kind, the ManiKongo.

Vickery focuses on Nzinga Mbemba, king of the Kongo from 1506 onwards. Dozens of letters were dictated by the king to “my brother kings” in Portugal. He converted to Christinanity and sought literacy for his kingdom – he sent his son for education in Lisbon and Rome, and he became the first African bishop. The king requested physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, and offered ivory and, tragically, a small set of slaves, captured from the edges of his kingdom in return. The Portuguese didn’t send the doctors, but they took more and more slaves, eventually putting a massive strain on the kingdom and ultimately collapsing the kingdom.

Slavery extended into the middle of the 19th century. When it ended, commercial contact between Europe and Africa continued. Palm oil was a key commidity from West Africa, neccesary in a pre-petroleum age to lubricate the new machinery being installed in mills. Ironically, the heart of the palm exporting region is the Niger delta, the most oil rich part of Nigeria today.

Ja Ja, king of the Opobo in the 1880s, was a former slave who became a trade king. He tried to form a monopoly of ownership of palm oil to challenge the European monopoly over shipping. At one point, he tried to organize his own shipping company, paying ship captains directly to cut out the middlemen. For his entrepreneurial spirit in challenging the trade monopoly, he was lured into a “negotiation” with British officials, kidnapped and deported to the West Indies. A noted politician observed, “In other countries, it would be called kidnapping”

Vickery ends his lecture talking about the moment immediately after independence for most African nations, the middle 1960s to the 1970s. There was amazing success in many nations during this time – he points out that Zambia’s GDP per capita grew every year in 1960s and through half of 1970s. Most African governments kept promises to improve education and healthcare, raising primary school enrollment, building universities and hospitals.

But the international climate shifted in the 1970s – oil shocks and resulting changes in the terms of trade shifted the playing field against commodity producers. The dependency of governments on a small set of primary products led to economic disaster. Many leaders responded by becoming more authoritarian. “What if civil society had been strong enough to resist?” What if the legacy of colonialism is the absence off institutions that can keep power in check? Is this one of the other factors in explaining the challenges African nations and economies have faced over the past decades?