Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 10
Demanding More: Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa
Featuring Ebenezer Obadare
Are the tides shifting in Africa? What direction is the continent’s progress toward good governance headed? And how should we understand competing international interests and investment there? Ebenezer Obadare, a Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, joins us to examine Nigeria’s contentious election as well as China’s, Russia’s, and the US’s involvement in Africa. Plus, we look at changes in airport security, US unemployment, and inflation.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are hosting this podcast, What Could Go Right?, which is a series of weekly conversations, sometimes with members of The Progress Network, sometimes with other people whose voices might be prominent or might be less so, but all of whom are animated by a spirit of how do we deal with the problems that we have in the world from a place of non-outrage and non-fear, but instead from a perspective and a sensibility of how do we solve the problems that we have? How do we look them in the eye, those problems and those challenges, with some degree of sanguinity and some degree of empathy, compassion, and awareness that human beings have met our challenges in the past. We’ve also created our challenges in the past, and then met them, and then created them, and then met them. And that while past performance is no guarantee of future results, our ability to meet those challenges has been evident in the past and should be attended to in the present so that we can create the future of our hopes and not the future of our fears. One area that we don’t look at, we being the Western world— I’m American, Emma’s in Athens, but you know, half American, half Greek. The Western world in general does not pay that much attention to what’s going on in Africa. And when it does, it tends to be from dark headlines about dark things happening in the sense of— maybe I shouldn’t say dark. Doesn’t pay that much attention to Africa. And when we do, it’s almost always negative. It’s about political dysfunction. It’s about resource extraction. It’s about societal either collapse or poverty or disease. Africa as a generalizable story, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, is almost always a negative one in the Western world when it appears as a story at all. And although it’s fair to say that, you know, news and attention is everywhere, provincial, you know, we all pay more attention to that which is around us than we pay to what’s going on in the world at large, this is like a whole swath of the world that is certainly one of the few places showing still substantial population growth and also represents, you know, a substantial portion of the world that we live in and will increasingly be that in the 21st century. So in the spirit of what we’ve done for multiple episodes of What Could Go Right?, we’re gonna look at something that isn’t looked at as much both because it’s fascinating and because it’s important. Emma, please give us the introduction of who we’re gonna be talking to today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Sure. So we’re gonna be talking to Ebenezer Obadare, who’s the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And before joining the Council on Foreign Relations, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He’s also a senior fellow at New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, and a fellow at the University of South Africa’s Institute of Theology. So I am very excited to talk to Ebenezer about the Nigerian presidential elections and all things Sub-Saharan Africa.
ZK: Ebenezer Obadare, thank you so much for joining us for this-
Ebenezer Obadare (EO): Thank you.
ZK: -conversation. You know, we haven’t really looked as much at Africa, although as our conversations have ranged from Latin America to Asia to the United States to Europe, you know, every now and then there’s probably a mention there of things going on in Africa without any real attention paid or focus on, which is probably emblematic of what most people in the West do about Africa, which is there’s an occasional reference every now and then, there’s a piece of news. Sometimes there’s a kind of, you know, reference to usually in the negative, like things are bad in Country X, but at least they’re not as bad as in a swath of Sub-Saharan African countries. The only exceptions that I can think about that in the past 10 years is an increasing attention that China has paid to African nations largely as part of their own initiative to build coalitions that are separate from the United States in particular, and also very different set of foreign policies to really simply invest in resource extraction in multiple countries and not involve themselves at all in governance and reform and all the things that Western aid has traditionally been tied to. Right? We’ll give you money, but you have to become more democratic. We’ll give you money, but you have to change the way you run your country economically. And the Chinese have been much more like, we’ll give you money, you send us whatever it is we’re investing in, and we’ll leave you alone. And that’s been, you know, a much more popular approach, all things being equal. Anyway, so let’s talk first about the Nigerian elections, ’cause you are certainly an expert on that, have written a lot about that. Nigeria is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the largest country in Africa by population, and I think probably the wealthiest by GDP just in terms of oil revenues. But it’s also probably one of the more dysfunctional countries. I mean, in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of competition for most dysfunctional. The United States, by the way, gets a shoutout for most dysfunctional as well. So I’m not singling out Africa here. What do you make of the elections? I know that’s an incredibly broad question, but I think for a lot of people might have been aware that there were elections held, maybe they were aware that there was a third party or a third candidate in Obi who seemed to have the reformer mantra, oh my God, this is gonna be a brave new world and the youth of Nigeria are gonna sweep in a new breath of fresh air, or at least that was some of the press, and of course, that didn’t happen.
EO: So thank you for having me. There are maybe two answers to that. And my sense is always it depends on how you’re approaching the election. If you’re thinking in terms of just one single electoral cycle, this just concluded election, then obviously, you have a lot to— you know, you have a lot on your mind in terms of irregularities, flaws, and all kinds of things that could have gone better. Does that mean the election overall is not credible? I think I’m in a minority, you know, in this, in which I still think that overall, all things considered, I think we had a credible election, an election that, you know, had so many flaws and wrinkles that maybe might have been avoided, but yeah, you know, I’m one of those people who say, look, we’ll take it.
But if you put the election itself, which is, you know, what I always encourage people to do, if you put the election in the overall context of all the elections that Nigeria has had since the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999 and within the broader stream of the Nigerian political process, then all of a sudden, things don’t look as gloomy as they do when you think about a single election. And I’m saying that because I think the worst time, probably the worst time to look at any election, even in the most advanced, you know, economies is right after the election, right? When your team has lost, you’re not thinking very clearly. And I’m saying that because I’m also into sport and all of that. But once you put that loss in a bigger context, you start thinking, well, maybe there are lessons, you know, to be learnt here. Maybe things are not as bad. And I’m saying that because I think that once the dust settles on this, once people come down a little bit, either on the side of those who have won election or those who think they’ve lost the election, I think people will realize that the Independent National Electoral Commission, which is the board in charge of organizing elections in Nigeria, the political process, the party system, that something significant happened here, that we have a lot to celebrate as a country. So if you think historically about where Nigeria is coming from since 1999, and if you think about the specific context, the sociological material context in which the election was held, then you have to say that there’s something positive to take away from.
EV: Ebenezer, I wanna dig in a little bit more to some of the things you just said, one of them being the expectation versus the reality. You know, I understand that you’re fairly critical about how the Nigerian election was framed in Western media in the runup. And I myself was was guilty of this, that I saw these reports that were, oh, we’re so excited, like, Obi, this maverick guy coming in and he’s gonna shake things up. And then when he didn’t win, there was that disappointment. But also maybe you could specify a little bit about the positive things that happened anyway even though the expectations were not lived up to.
EO: Yeah. So thank you. So first, let’s quickly talk about the Obidient phenomenon. And if you have further questions about that, you know, I can sort of speak to those questions. And I have to start with that because I hope it doesn’t get lost in whatever I’ve written or I’m going to write or whatever I say about my admiration for the Obidients. And I think I must have written somewhere that this is the single most important youth-based movement in Nigerian history,
ZK: By the way, for those who don’t know, the Obidients was what the followers of Obi were called, right?
EO: Yeah. And I’ve also— you know, my argument has always been that Obi himself is just an eponym for that movement. The movement was already there. The energy, the fundamental sentiment galvanizing that movement was always there. But I think the question for me as an analyst from the get-go was, is there a chance for Obi to become president? And I did not see that. And all my attempts to persuade my friends in the Western media that you’re in a bubble, what you are saying is not correct. So I wasn’t surprised that Peter Obi lost. As a matter of fact, I predicted it. Having said that, and this is the second part of your question, having said that, certain significant things happened, and I’m just going to reel out a list here. Peter Obi won Lagos State. This is not trivial. If you look at the history of political contestation in Nigeria, Lagos is Bola Tinubu’s political fiefdom. He was governor there for eight years between 1999 and 2007. And since then, he has handpicked every governor. This is his political base. This is where he’s able to say, look, look at what I’ve done. He points to Lagos consistently as an example of how you can begin to have the foundations of a modern technocratic state, not just in Nigeria, but in Africa.
ZK: It’s interesting, you know, I’ve concluded, given my own predilections and having supported lots of democratic candidates in the United States over the past really 10 years, that there’s a high probability that outside my own area in New York City that a candidate I like will almost certainly lose, right? Like whatever appeals to me, you know, it’s like the president in West Wing is basically not in sync with most people, but is very in sync with a kind of a, you know, urban technocratic media educated group. And then you develop this kind of tunnel vision where you’re like, oh my God, this person’s amazing and incredible. And you realize that’s not exactly where people are at all.
ZK: And it’s not how they vote. And I mean, you had some of the same phenomenon with Obi, right? He had a youth movement. There was a lot of enthusiasm.
ZK: I guess the flip side— and this is more broadly a question. I mean, you cited an interesting statistic on something you wrote recently in one of your blogs about there’s increasing skepticism of democracy in the Western world, Europe, the United States, you know, France, right? We’re talking about this now, the massive protests in France over pension reform, but there’s also just disenchantment with the political system, disenchantment with democracy. You’ve written that in vast parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, even though democracy is, you know, questionably functional, there’s huge support for it certainly among younger people.
ZK: And this may be an easy question to answer or maybe a incredibly hard issue to solve, but if there’s such support for democracy, why isn’t there more functional democracy?
EO: So again, that’s not a paradox. So let’s start from where we left off. The Obidients are a perfect example. That movement is a perfect example of my point about continued belief in democracy. The Obidients want Nigerian democracy to be more responsive to the needs of the people. They want the old guard out of the way. They want less corruption. That’s disgruntlement with the democratic system you have in Nigeria. This is not just Nigeria, right? In Eswatini, young people have been at it for three or four years. They want the monarchy abolished. The important thing I don’t want us to lose, and this might pertain to some of the questions that maybe we’ll discuss about Russia, China, you know, that we brought earlier, is that when people are disaffected this way, they’re not saying that they want democracy to end. They are not saying that they want military rule to come back in the Nigerian context, for example. They are saying that they want democracy to live up to its billing, to live up to its name and to deliver results for ordinary people. That’s a pro-democratic, not an anti-democratic sentiment.
Audio Clip: Walking down a path where enslaved Africans once marched in chains headed to America is the United States’ first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, on a visit to what was a major hub for the Atlantic slave trade in Ghana.
I too believe that we must remember history. It should teach us not only about our past, but about our destiny and our future, that we must learn from it in a way that we make the ancestors proud.
More than just a charm offensive, Harris is on a week-long three-nation tour of Africa, an attempt to counter the growing influence of China and Russia on the continent. Russia has signed new military cooperation agreements with 17 African countries. China is the continent’s largest trading partner with $2 trillion in investments in construction projects.
ZK: As the world has evolved over the past 20 years, 25 years, two things have been broadly true, right? You’ve had increasing dissatisfaction, particularly in the United States and other parts of the Western world, with kind of the arc of whether it’s the neoliberal compact of how things are governed and whether it was gonna create broader prosperity with more open borders, more free trade. But you simultaneously have had more people around the world, certainly numbering in the billions if you add in those parts of China, India, Brazil, other parts of Latin America, and certainly parts of sub-Saharan Africa, that where people have had significant material gains both in terms of caloric affluence, urbanization, some of which has been quite positive, homes, running water, electricity, white goods, vaccines, you know, disease eradication, you name it, right? And in that relatively, certainly relative to China, even relative to India, certainly relative to parts of Latin America, a lot of the Sub-Saharan countries have lagged. Although they too have seen— you know, if you looked at 2000 to 2023, there have been massive gains in most of those countries as well, in terms of, you know, less childhood mortality, longer lives, disease eradication, you name it. That’s actually been pretty prominent in a lot of these countries. But you would certainly argue that there’s probably 20 to 25 countries in Africa that are— they certainly show up at the bottom of whatever world rankings in terms of income, in terms of political stability, you name it. And there’s been a lot of debates about all this, right? Has it been legacies of colonialism, legacies of tribalism, ill-formed aid programs that have been much more dictatorial rather than supportive. And then there’s a tendency to just generalize everything. You know, it’s a big continent, [laughs] countries are different, histories are different, geography is different. I mean, that said, do you have any particular view on, you know, where we’re kind of heading? There had been some optimism about, let’s say, you know, countries like Kenya developing mobile payments and kind of leapfrogging a banking system because there wasn’t an embedded banking system or other countries going more to renewable energy because there wasn’t an embedded electricity grid so you could build a new greenfield solar grid or wind grid. I know you’re saying that you think Nigerian democracy is much more robust and stable than the press or the negative criticism would have. What about other— you know, cherry-pick the rest of other countries and other places, do you have similar twinklings of optimism?
EO: Yeah. Let it just be on record that this is the first time that anybody has accused me of being an optimist. So-
EO: -I’m going to take it.
ZK: Absolutely. I mean, you’re on a show called What Could Go Right?, so you’re being—
ZK: You’re being cast as one, whether or not you actually believe it.
EO: I do. I have to take it. So am I an optimist? Yes, the optimism is there, but it’s qualified. It’s not just, oh, I’m an optimist, just for the sake of optimism. So let me pick on two or three countries as illustrations and see if we can have, you know, maybe a common insight from them. So think about Nigeria. Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999 after decades of military rule. And since then, we’ve had several elections, you know, at the local, at regional and national levels, all of, you know, uneven quality. But, again, my sense there is: always keep in mind the longer race. It’s not just one electoral cycle. We’re talking about a long, you know, process. Much more important, I think, in a place like Nigeria, what you are looking to do is put the foundations in place for a robust public sphere. To the extent that complaints are still being heard, to the extent that people have the outlets to ventilate their grievances, to the extent that they continually talk about these things, what you’re doing, whether you like it or not, is to be putting those foundations in place. And that’s where my optimism is coming from. As long as there’s no military intervention, as long as all the participants in the system allow the system to work itself out, to smooth out those wrinkles. Look, and I say that, one, because— so there’s a lot of complaint about the Nigerian judiciary, and there is a lot to complain about in the Nigerian judiciary, but, well, there is no deus ex machina that is going to come into Nigeria and fix the judiciary. To the extent that Nigerians have identified the problem with the judiciary and other central institutions of democracy, then it’s up to them to fix those institutions. It takes time because rot sets in over time. We had military rule, we’ve had nepotism, we have, you know, structures of patronage that are deleterious to the democratic system. But if you don’t have the time to do all the things you have to do, then you’re not going to get all the right answers. So, current frustrations aside, I see hope that the more people are able to invest themselves emotionally and intellectually towards looking for the resolution to those issues, the greater chances of success the country has. So that’s Nigeria.
Look at Kenya. This time last year, there was a lot of apprehension about how the elections in Kenya might turn out, but there was no bloodshed, right? Only in the last two weeks, you know, there have been protests all over again. The loser of the election took the winner, Ruto, to court. The Kenyan Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ruto. And the country just continue— see, Nigeria continues to model along. Kenya continues to model along. You are going to have to get to a point where the muscles, the democratic muscles, are strengthened. There is enough institutional memory, people are going to say, oh, remember in so, so, so, so year when this particular candidate took this other one to court, the court ruling did end on one— and that’s how I think you build a system. South Africa is in a different situation. I think most people will agree that since the transition to multi-party democracy in 1994, that the country has not been in a good place. The ANC has massively disappointed. which is why you have, you know, people like Julius Malema, all these people outside the system, saying, look, you need to redistribute wealth. You need to make the system more accountable. To the extent that all those people are saying those things, what they are saying is they want the system to be more accountable. As long as nobody is saying, actually, we want to abandon democracy itself. You know, we want a version of what you have in Uganda, for instance, which I personally do not recommend. Or you have a version of what you have in Rwanda, which I personally do not recommend because of where my own sentiments lie.
I still think that the future is bright. You know, maybe just to draw a line on that, just think about if you look at the Obidients, if you look at young people demonstrating in Kenya, if you look at, you know, economy volunteers, or what do they call [inaudible] South Africa, these are young people always between the ages of 18 and 35. It means that the more you get young people invested in the system, the more they are agitated about all the wrongs in the system, the more they want to do everything within their power to fix the system, I think the more optimism that people like you and I should have about the continent [inaudible].
EV: Talking a little bit about the US’s role in this, I’m curious where you see the US and the country’s approach to Africa fitting in, ’cause this seems to be, and you’ve written about this, a bit of a change in temperature or change in approach. We’re recording this in early April. Kamala Harris just finished a trip there. Biden’s talking about he might go to the continent, which would be the first time a US president has visited since 2015. How do you see this? Do you see it as new and noteworthy? Do you see it as more of the same?
EO: So the background to this is probably what we want to emphasize, which is the visits themselves, you know, the latest being the visit by Vice President Harris, they’re not taking place in a vacuum. They are taking place within a particular context. The fact that China’s footprint is getting bigger in the continent, the fact that the Russian sphere of influence, especially through the Wagner Group, appears to be expanding. And the legitimate worry that the United States might lose ground to, you know, all these other countries operating on the continent— and it’s not just these traditional, you know, big powers. India, you know, is making more friends on the continent. Turkey is making inroads. These are countries that have always been there, but that have been emboldened by the fact that there seems to be this geostrategic vacuum that has emerged over the last decade or so on the continent. So where I fall on this is this. So there are maybe a couple of things. It’s important, and I’ve written about this before, it’s important that the United States takes Africa more seriously, get its act together, invest in Africa not just because it’s good for the United States, but because it’s also good for Africa. It’s a win-win. However, in doing that, we have to be extremely careful. And I say that because some of what I think has been— you know, there seems to be a consensus building around the idea that in order for the United States to regain its foothold in Africa, it needs to play the Chinese game. I’m in a minority [laughs], you know, when I say that would be a mistake. The United States should not be China 2.0 in Africa. The United States should do everything within its power to emphasize the ideological difference between itself and countries like China and Russia. The United States is not a perfect democracy. I’ve lived in the United States since 2006. I have enough evidence to illustrate what I just said. However, it still remains a beacon for all countries around the world that are trying to rally around the idea of fundamental human rights, political liberties, freedom for all, freedom to trade, separation of powers, all those good things. Again, the United States itself is struggling. And, you know, again, I want to underscore that because I don’t want people to think, oh, doesn’t he realize we also had January 6th in 2021? I know all those things. I know of all the things in American history. But for good or ill, this is still the only country that people want people run to, you know, for succor, for security, [inaudible]. If the United States plays the game in Africa the way China is playing it, the United States is going to lose, because at the end of the day, people will then say, what’s the difference between you and China? You’re giving me money for infrastructure? Well, I also take money from infrastructure. And I’m emphasizing that point because, you know, people will then say, well, you can’t be teaching African countries, you know, about human rights. You can’t be teaching those countries about liberal— and I say, no, you should, and you have to. As I wrote in one of my recent pieces, there is nothing African about human rights abuse. The United States and its Western allies have to approach this with exceptional moral clarity. Look, we have to admit that we’ve made mistakes in the past, but you don’t then go in and say, I’m just going to let you do things that you want. Take all the money. You will be abandoning all the critical sources, the Obidient, social movement, every group community in Africa that is under the cosh from irresponsible African leaders. And I can reel out the names of those leaders. You know what I’m talking about. The United States should take the side of Africans against African leaders. Regimes do not last. They ultimately— even the most dictatorial, the most tenacious dictatorial regimes, they run out, but societies continue. The wind right now in Africa, in Kenya, in Eswatini, in Nigeria, in Egypt, even in parts of West Africa that have experienced military interventions, young people want representative government. They don’t want to be shot at by soldiers. They don’t want to be killed by the police. They want separation of church and state. Right now, the Obidient are saying, we want the court system to be transparent. Those are universal values. They are not African values. They apply in Hong Kong. They apply in Singapore. They apply in Australia. Africans get that. It’ll be a monumental tragedy for the United States to go in and say, well, we don’t want to step on toes. We don’t want to teach Africans about human rights. No. Africans are interested in human rights. The United States should take the side of Africans. This is a very rare opportunity to say, we’re not China, we’re not Russia, we’re not perfect, but we’re different.
ZK: So the challenge here in that— and as much as I find all of that unarguable and admirable, there’s also the flip side, which is what that creates in terms of a power dynamic. And also speaking obviously as an American, that it creates an internal image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and liberty, which has certainly been true, but obscures a lot of our own internal ability to be self-critical, meaning the very act of going into the world and acting as both the arbiter of and the champion of all these values,-
EO: You know what?
ZK: -it’s often at odds with our own ability to deal with our own issues, right? Because we then start believing our own language of we are the representatives of all of these ideals. You know, and then it comes with money, and then it comes with power, and then it comes with coercion, right? So it’s one thing to say, well, we should be, we, Americans, should be approaching our engagement with other countries with these values inextricably linked with our actions in a way that’s quite a contrast with Turkey or with China and also with India. The problem is then it’s not that we just go in and articulate those values, it’s then we begin to micromanage the way in which those values translate into policy. So we’re gonna give you money, but that money is attached to the following set of things. And the legacy of that has been, I think, maybe mixed, but largely a failure. You know, our ability to kind of dictate via income. And we’re doing some of the same thing when it comes to climate policy, right? You go into countries that have no source of energy, but may have some fossil fuels and say, well, we’ll give you money as long as you don’t burn coal. I mean, coal’s not really the issue in Africa. It’s more fossil fuels. I mean, it’s more petroleum. So that’s my pushback to what you’re articulating.
EO: Yeah, I can respond to that. There’s a lot there. So number one, I think it’s important that we are very realistic about this. There will never be a world in which somebody gives money and doesn’t attach conditions to it. You don’t go to Capital One and say, I need $10,000, and Capital One says, give me your bank account. It’s there. See you soon.
EV: [Laughs] That would be nice though.
EO: I would love that personally.
EV: Speaking of what could go right. [Laughs].
EO: So I think, you know, people sort of have this notion that the United States should financially support African countries but should demand nothing in return. You know what? I find that condescending. You only do that to kids. Oh, you want 10 bucks? Oh, yes, 10 bucks. Just go. There’s nothing wrong with holding African leaders accountable. That’s what the Obidient wants. I keep coming back to that. Don’t forget that. That’s what people in Africa want. They need the support of countries like the United States, European countries, to hold African leaders to account. They’re frustrated that China and Russia are doing business with African leaders and oiling the wheels of political patronage in Africa, and, you know, putting resources at the disposal of African leaders and their immediate families without recourse to Africans. And so that’s number one. Number two, you know, Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, you know, had this famous saying, you know, out of this crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight shall ever be formed. There are no human institutions or countries or states or coalitions that are perfect, right? And the United States should not apologize for being imperfect. However, it should also not arrogantly say, hey, well, I’m not perfect, okay? That’s about it. What we should do, and this is also good for the American system, like, as we continue to hold other countries accountable, that we hold ourselves accountable too. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Nothing mutually exclusive in saying we’re holding African countries, you should have transparent elections, you should have, you know, reduced corruption, you should have investment in infrastructure, public education, and all those things, because those people can then also turn the mirror on us and say, we want you to also be true to your word and do the same thing. So that will be my own gentle pushback to your pushback. There’s nothing wrong in insisting that if you are given an institution, a country, a government, a leader, if you invest in a particular thing, you want to see how that money is spent. What would it say about the United States? You know, especially think about what reaction in the United States would be that right now, our policies, we’re giving $55 billion away over the next three years, which is what the United States committed from the US-Africa Leaders Summit. However, we have nothing in place to monitor how that money is spent. Why? Oh, we don’t want them to think that we are intruding in their business. No, we should. If you’re putting $55 billion in something, you better, you know, be on guard. And at least you want to understand how that money is being spent. There’s nothing wrong with that.
ZK: I have to say, that’s given me something to think about with a perspective that I have not heard stated as eloquently, passionately, and convincingly. So I want to thank you for that. And I wanna thank you for the conversation. You know, again, these are not conversations I think are had as much as they ought to be. And to be fair, everybody is provincial, right? Everybody in the world is provincial and pays attention to what’s going on proximate to them and not really to what’s going on in the world at large. So to some degree, you know, Americans, a Western audience, we’re never gonna pay the attention to Africa that we pay to our local politics, our local needs, et cetera. And that’s true everywhere in the world, right? That being said, I’m very glad we’ve had the conversation. I hope people have taken something from it. And your eloquence and passion are most appreciated. Thank you.
EO: Oh, thank you. Yeah, first, optimism, second, eloquence. You’ve made my day.
ZK: [Laughs] Good to know.
EV: [Laughs] Thank you, Ebenezer.
EO: Thank you. Appreciate it. Have a good day.
EV: So, as you mentioned, that was a really passionate conversation. It’s funny because Ebenezer was saying, this is the first time anyone has declared me an optimist, but I felt through the way that he was talking, that he was very optimistic, actually. Maybe we should have asked him a little bit more about what he was pessimistic about. And the other thing that I found interesting about it was that he had a very positive view, and we didn’t talk about this explicitly, but implicitly, there was a very positive view of anger and frustration and volatility as a lever for movement and as a lever for change. And, you know, this is one of your classic questions, I feel like, that we talk about on the podcast, which is, how useful is that? And you seem to think that in at least Nigeria right now, maybe some other Sub-Saharan countries, that it’s very, very useful or could prove useful in the long run.
ZK: Yeah, we probably should have done a better job in these conversations distinguishing between anger and rage or anger and outrage, because I actually think they may be linked on a spectrum but they are meaningfully different. Anger can be very positive. You know, it’s a way of alerting yourself and other people to, hey, pay attention, right? This is an issue. Wake up. Rage tends to be more destructive. And outrage just kind of feeds on itself endlessly without any particular outcome. So for those of you— Ebenezer, if you Google him, he does have a really interesting piece about what anger represents in the piece in the context of Nigeria. You know, basically saying sometimes people have just had enough, they’ve just had enough, and that the anger is at times a representation of we’ve had it and we want something to change, which I do think is different than rage. You know, it’s not people going and burning stuff in the streets. It’s like, hey, come on, enough.
EV: Yeah. And maybe it depends on the enormity or legitimacy of the problem. We didn’t plan this, but I have a quote from that piece that you just referenced, and I’m gonna read it because it’s really nice in case people don’t Google. Ebenezer said, “What cannot be denied is that anger is often the last recourse of ordinary people, the only means through which they can express their humanity.” And he talked a little bit about that on the podcast. We didn’t fully get into it, but some of the central bank stuff in Nigeria, people literally can’t access cash. So the piece starts with this woman going to the bank and stripping off her shirt and just screaming, which is understandable in that case, if you can’t access your money. So this I would also find useful.
ZK: Yeah. And he ends that piece saying, you know, ordinary people don’t strip off their shirts and start yelling in the middle of a bank for no reason, right? Like, that should be an indication of things are broken, usually.
EV: [Laughs], yes, in this case for sure, something requires a response.
ZK: In this case for sure. In New York City on a normal day,-
EV: Who knows?
ZK: -it depends [laughs].
ZK: All right, so let’s talk about the news of the week, shall we?
EV: All right. So we are going to start with some news in the United Kingdom, something kind of light, and then something a little bit more serious. But the light, I think it actually will impact a lot of people in their day-to-day lives. I’m sure everyone remembers that we’ve been all living under the tiny toiletry tyranny, and I took that from a Guardian piece. That’s not my great alliteration. But when you go to the airport, things need to be 100 milliliters or less. Zachary, this might not have happened to you, but there are some women out there that have had to throw away some very expensive products because they are over 100 milliliters. That’s because of the foiled plot in 2006 to some kind of bomb with soft drinks or something like that. So the reason why that happened is because the scanners that we’ve had available to us aren’t able to scan liquid well enough. But now, there are new scanners that have come out, and I’ve noticed this occasionally in some airports, that they don’t make you take liquids outta your bag anymore, and there’s no requirement on the amount that you can have. So the reason why I picked this up is because London City Airport just adopted these new scanners. It’s the first major UK airport to do so. And, like, bit by bit, we’re probably gonna see this come out around the world, but to date, only Australia and the Netherlands have mandated the upgrade for the scanners. So good news for sure for any listeners we might have in Australia and the Netherlands, and fingers crossed for the rest of us [laughs].
ZK: Yeah, I’ve read that too, and thought, you know, on the one hand, it’s good to see bit by bit, moment by moment, a return to something resembling not security theater, which has been a big critique of the global regime post-9/11, that a lot of what we go through in airports in particular has a theatrical quality to it, meaning we kind of scan for threats that are highly unlikely and we ignore a lot of threats that are much more probable, you know, someone blowing up a port or putting a bomb in a container that goes off of a tanker and lands in the middle of a city. So it’s good to see that. On the other hand, you know, there’s a degree of, it’s been 22 years and it’s taken that long. Well, it’s been 17 since the plot you talked about, and it’s taken that long to be able to not have 100 milliliters of liquid in your carry-on luggage because of something you might do for it. So cup half full, cup half empty, or in this case, you know, more than 100-millileter cup full.
EV: 100 milliliters full [laughs].
EV: Don’t bust my bubble about this, Zachary. I’m looking forward to this small improvement.
ZK: I know.
EV: In a more serious note, Ember, which is a really great organization that does climate research, came out with a new report about the UK’s power sector. And there’s some really impressive numbers here. In 2010, a third of electricity in the United Kingdom was generated from coal. 10 years later, this is 2022 we’re talking about, it’s just 2%, which I found really fast and remarkable. And it hasn’t been replaced by other fossil fuels, which is another core point. This happened because of a huge increase in wind, a huge increase in solar, and a drop in electricity demand. So I’m curious what’s going on in the United Kingdom around that.
Audio Clip: Many in the energy sector are calling for the government to use subsidies to encourage investment in clean energy, like those President Biden’s announced for US firms or lose out on jobs and revenue.
We were there with our thinking many years ahead of the rest of the world, but this government has just dithered and delayed, and those business opportunities, that investment, will have gone to the US.
The government plan includes a wide range of measures. They’re launching an insulation scheme to make 300,000 homes more energy efficient. There’s a plan to invest around $300 million in developing green hydrogen as a fuel. It’s claimed to be more environmentally friendly. And there’s the formal establishment of Great British Nuclear to promote the building of new power plants.
EV: There’s been a over two-thirds decrease of carbon emissions from the power sector because of this. And the UK is aiming to completely decarbonize by 2035, completely decarbonize the power sector, not completely. That would be remarkable [laughs].
ZK: And you’ve had similar decreases in the usage of coal in the United States. I mean, obviously, this has been a political issue in states like West Virginia, but in general, coal usage in much of the world has gone down. I mean, there are exceptions to that, you know, going up in Pakistan, actually went up in Germany in 2022 because they needed some ready source of fuel when the natural gas and oil from Russia dropped off a cliff. But in general, the trends have been away from burning coal and toward different forms of energy. And I think the UK is a sharp, sharp shift but indicative of shifts that are going on around the world in quite a good way.
EV: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m gonna repeat this point because I still think that not that many people know it. I think everybody’s aware that we’re not on track to meet 1.5 Celsius degrees of warming. I think people are very unaware that there are a lot of countries that have dropped their emissions, not fast enough, but I’ve encountered this, a lot of the people think that wealthy countries’ emissions just keep going up and it’s not the case. So that bears repeating. So coming around to the United States, a little bit of an update to some of the conversation that we had a few episodes ago about the labor market. The labor market is hot, hot, hot. And one side effect of that is that the gap between white employment and Black employment has nearly been erased. It’s at 0.3 percentage points. It’s the lowest in history. It was especially wide after 2008 and right during the pandemic and afterward. It has really almost completely closed. So I’m gonna tee you in, Zachary, to go back to your criticism about the Fed potentially ruining this. Let’s hope that they don’t because I find some of these, these closing, you know, gaps to be really encouraging.
ZK: You know, the Fed has a bizarre thing called the dual mandate. And I say it’s bizarre because it was really added in the ’70s by Congress that the Fed is also responsible for full employment, and that was basically done as a— nobody could figure out what to do about stagflation and high unemployment in the ’70s so they just punted and said, well, the Fed should do something.
Audio Clip: While Democrats are pushing to expand the Fed’s mandate to address socioeconomic disparities, our next guest introduced a bill that focuses the Fed solely on fighting inflation. Joining us now, Republican Congressman French Hill of Arkansas. It’s not a perfect world, Congressman. And when you think about the dual mandate, you don’t have to think that long to realize that they almost seem mutually exclusive. It’s almost something that can’t be done. And it’s asking a lot of the Fed to try to orchestrate full employment and low inflation or dollar stability.
I believe the 1977 Act, adding full employment to the concept of sound money made their job tougher because if someone doesn’t set the priority, then what is the priority? And I think the priority for the Central Bank should be sound money and therefore price stability.
ZK: That being said, it is part of their mandate. And in relentlessly pursuing price stability, i.e., fighting inflation, they seem to have sort of lost the script when it comes to employment, and that you should, by virtue of that mandate, have to balance those things. And yeah, my concern is that that’s been lost, that the balance has completely skewed toward inflation and price stability and completely downplaying the imperative of employment as a social good. The line that’s often given in response to that is unemployment only affects those individuals who don’t have a job or maybe those communities where unemployment is high, but prices and inflation affect everyone, so the greater good is price stability and unemployment is a harm that is limited to the individuals or communities that it harms. I think that’s an awfully morally questionable argument.
ZK: It’s also societally and politically fraught because it forces you into a real world corner of we don’t really care if 2 million people lose their jobs if inflation goes below 5%. And then the argument as well, over time, it’s, you know, inflation will erode lifestyles and quality of living far more than 2 million lost jobs, which might be regained in a couple of years. I mean, that’s the defense of that argument. I just think that right now, you’re losing sight of nearly full employment with moderate inflation is a social good, not a social problem.
EV: Yeah, I find that, as you do, not persuasive, that argument about it being more important to treat inflation. I mean, even just from an anecdotal sense of, like, I would rather pay higher prices than not have a job [laughs].
ZK: Right. Regardless of what the Fed’s doing, the most recent employment report in the United States, which was released on April 7th, on Good Friday, showed unemployment at 3.5%. So regardless of whether or not the Fed is aggressively involved in trying to bring down employment, so far, that hasn’t really worked. It’s not clear that they’re gonna like aggressively try to bring down employment, ’cause that would be politically totally untenable. And we— you know, at least in the United States, and this is actually true in Western Europe, it’s true in a lot of the world, the bounce back from the depths of COVID in terms of global employment has been far sharper and far more robust than I think most of us would’ve thought, even in, you know, this time in 2021.
EV: Yeah, you know, this is part of what we do at The Progress Network too, is it could have been a lot worse. And sometimes we forget to stop and think about how much worse things could have been. And that’s definitely one where it could have been worse, so well raised.
ZK: All right. So on that note, we’re gonna wrap up this particular episode. We’ll be back next week. And thank you as always, Emma. Please, those listening, we are open to suggestions and welcoming of feedback, so you can do that at theprogressnetwork.org.
EV: Thanks, Zachary.
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