To Cook a Continent: A Review and a Comment
To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa is yet another book about Africa’s exploitation but with a significant difference from all others. The author presents the challenge “what can be done now to end destructive exploitation in Africa?”. This is a far more superior and immediate question than “what can we do for Africa?” in which tomorrow never comes; every day, every year, every decade is always now.
The book is largely practical. Institutions of good governance are grossly underdeveloped while institutions of exploitation are overdeveloped to point of destructiveness, irresponsibility and genocide. An in-depth analysis of the forces that exploited Africa for centuries is well-rendered. Slavery (humans as a source of energy), colonial powers (Great Britain, France, Portugal etc.), neo-colonial powers, institutions and NGOs (international development ministries of economic powers, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund etc.), corrupt indigenous governments and leaders (too many to mention) are discussed in both historical and contemporary contexts. The reader is introduced to the harsh and terminal consequences of destructive exploitation across the African continent. It will provide a very sober awakening for many readers even Africans in Africa who have been systematically shielded from the historical and (practical) contemporary realities of the continent’s wanton exploitation. The political economy of Africa is given a refreshing new treatment especially the neoliberal fuelled upheavals institutional and structural reforms that have made exploitation so much easier and wanton.
To keep destructive exploitation on the continent going, Africa has to experience many evils and woes. Bassey using numerous examples presents us with experiences of dying or perniciously exploited communities. But that is not all; we are introduced or re-introduced to other sinister aspects of exploitation. African governments have to be corrupt and compliant to both transnational corporations and international NGOs. Civil wars for access to minerals have to be sponsored and kept going for as long as local resistance to extraction exists. Oil pipelines have to remain perpetually in a state of disrepair as an avoided cost of upgrading the networks. Artisan mining has to be encouraged and relied upon because it is cost-effective. People have to be displaced from their homes when it is found they sit on top of a mineral resource with inadequate compensation. Gas flaring to enable oil extraction has to contribute vast amounts of greenhouse daily for decades on end enhancing the impending approach of climate change. Death counts from man-made disasters, mining accidents, production of hitherto unknown toxic substances, the repression of resistances etc. are reduced to mere statistics; something to whip Africa with. The death, serious pollution and heinous environmental degradation are treated as “collateral” for development. Yet, development is mostly elusive on the African continent and far behind exploitation.
Apart from mineral exploitation, the book covers land grabs by North for the purpose of producing biofuels and agrofuels. Nationhood and war were once about the land. Africa’s land is now silently “grabbed” without a whisper. Climate change that appears much later in the book exposes the risks of flooding and other potential climate-related disasters. It appears as if-if Africa has any valuable resource it must be grabbed regardless of the consequences for its peoples and its lands. This is the central problem the book explores.
The solution Bassey provides to ending destructive exploitation in Africa before it is too late is ‘Keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole and flee the gas fracking business.’ He intuitively knows that metropolitan capitalist societies of the North will not agree to that solution; they have a lifestyle, way of life to maintain. Sponsored civil wars by Northern interests, governments and militaries to secure the mineral resources will be the first and last option. Like Mancur Olson who saw cataclysmic bloody revolution or invasion by a military enemy as the only way to get rid of corrupt vested interests that stifle economic and social progress in a nation, Nnimmo completes his solution by “waiting” for the present-day incarnations of Africa heroes past, who wanted the best for their citizens. Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Amilcar Cabral are some of such heroes. They are the ones who can keep the minerals in the ground and defend the states they govern simultaneously. But as we wait Bassey reminds us and strongly emphasises that “Resistance is Advocacy”; the resistance starts yesterday! Do something about destructive exploitation now! This appears definitively to be the central message of the book after a prodigious build up. And should be taken seriously by those who care enough about the issues explored. In this sense, it can be seen very much as an activist’s book.
From a literary perspective, Bassey’s publication compares favourably with Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges which I read immediately before To Cook a Continent. (Also see Eradicating Ecocide by Polly Higgins) The difference is that while Bassey articulates centuries of corporate and government excesses with negative environmental, economic, social and political consequences in Africa for centuries, Hedges introduces readers to similar occurrences resulting from the excesses of unrestricted “corporatocracy” and “inverted totalitarianism” in the USA, the world’s richest nation. Interestingly, both authors firmly advocate that the time to end resource exploitation and environmental degradation is now with a hint that it may already be too late.
It is a book I highly recommend to readers who are interested in Africa, development, environmental issues, social impacts of extraction, the nature of ecocide and the political economy of trade with developing nations. However, it is also a good read for those who take current affairs or activism seriously or at least more than lightly.
An apparent weakness of To Cook a Continent is the wide breadth and a high number of examples of destructive exploitation that has blighted Africa. To most non-Africans, this is a tedious and even exhausting aspect of the book. However, Bassey is speaking to numerous Africans directly all over the African continent simultaneously. The book is a very African book without being Afro-centric; there is something in it for everybody. African problem is always a “simple matter” in literature. Bassey doe not commit this flaw. If you want to learn about Africa, do it properly.
My late father J.D. Tadaferua is freeborn of Jesse; that is our ancestral hometown. Bassey gave good mention to the Jesse Fire Disaster (JFD) in 1998 that struck with over 1000 deaths and numerous more casualties as victims. While the disaster was caused by a pipeline explosion, the then military-ruled government’s (under General Abdul Salaam) first reaction in a public statement was to declare that the victims needed no sympathy because they were “thieves stealing petroleum products from NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) pipeline”. The state of disrepair of the pipeline was never mentioned. In fact, arrests and investigations of local residents were threatened by the government. I sadly lost two relatives, both second cousins in that disaster; many who died as a result of it I knew personally. One cousin had died on the spot. The other cousin died a painful death of sepsis because he (like countless other victims) had fled their hospital beds paid for by their own families for fear of arrest and conviction. Before anyone jumps to the conclusion of a “guilty conscience fears no accusation” if you are arrested under such (or other) circumstances in Nigeria the best deal you will get if spending “a fortune” getting out of custody. That is how corrupt the police force is with the backing of the government. This a main reason for the pernicious under-reporting of crime in Nigeria; even the persons reporting the crime have to pay something “good”.
The Red Cross and other NGOs provided generously for the surviving victims of Jesse Fire Disaster many of them dying daily mostly due to inadequate medical care. Some Big Men of Jesse (Chiefs) quickly and expediently resorted to diverting bags of rice and other groceries, medical supplies, blankets and sleeping bags etc. to their households leaving the dying to die and the surviving to suffer for surviving. The role of the local elite which Bassey emphasises in his book is not “comprador bashing”. It is the way things are in Nigeria. While reading the book I contacted a number of Jesse people including a couple of politicians. No one knew about the presence of the JTF (Joint Task Force) in the Oben (gas flare fire) environs. So even people at home do not really know what is going on. The only institutions of mitigation for fire disasters present pasts and future are violent ones e.g. the JTF and the military, bent on repression and murder.
When I read about the JFD in the book he was speaking directly to me. Residents and indigenes of other areas in Africa devastated by unrestricted destructive exploitation are also spoken to the community by community. It is an impressive writing technique I am yet to be able to categorise. Bassey should continue talking to these people.