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Message from President Jeffrey Herbst
Alumni often ask me how I came to devote my scholarly career to African politics. It started with a rare opportunity: two months doing independent research in Lagos, Nigeria, the summer after my junior year at Princeton.
Having never been out of the country, I found Nigeria to be chaotic, corrupt, exciting (if violent), and full of possibilities, with a diversity of people, sights, and smells that were a long way from Peekskill, N.Y., where I grew up.
The summer of 1982 was a crucial time in Nigeria. After the oil boom brought on by the fall of the Shah, the fledgling democracy thought of itself as an emerging superpower. But within a year, the oil market would collapse, the democracy would be overthrown, and Nigeria would enter a long period of decline. One of my first lessons was to distrust any analysis beginning with “if current trends continue.” My time there led to my longtime interest in expanding the role of study abroad so that other students could draw similar lessons.
Photo by Andrew Daddio
In graduate school at Yale, I conducted my dissertation fieldwork in Zimbabwe, living there for 18 months. In the mid- to late-1980s, a debate raged over whether Zimbabwe could become an industrializing country before neighboring South Africa transitioned away from apartheid. No one could imagine that their leader, Robert Mugabe, would subsequently adopt economic policies that would destroy much of Zimbabwe’s wealth. After visiting several times in the early 1990s, I could not bring myself to go back until 2009; the country had become a pathetic shell. Perhaps two million had fled, and the life chances of those who had stayed had been severely compromised. How destructive leaders can be when they have to choose between their country’s future and their own political survival!
I was living with my family as a Fulbright Scholar in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1992–93 when, to the surprise of almost everyone (including myself), Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk negotiated a peaceful transition to non-racial rule. When Chris Hani, the charismatic leader of the South African Communist Party, was assassinated on April 10, 1993, the Western media reported that South Africa was burning and that the transition was threatened, but the real story was Mandela and de Klerk’s joint management of the crisis and, despite nationwide revulsion at Hani’s murder, how little violence there was. The more you know about a situation, the less likely news reports appear accurate.
I’ve continued to travel widely in Africa, and have focused my writings on the politics of economic and political reform, boundaries, military intervention, terrorism, and natural resources. The last few years have been particularly interesting. Most of Africa has begun to expand again, with the continent averaging annual growth of approximately five percent — powered by important economic reforms, relatively high commodity prices, the cell phone revolution, and the discovery of significant hydrocarbon reserves in several countries.
And, although the Western narrative about Africa (to the extent one exists) is still about how “we can help them,” talk in many African capitals is of investment, of new markets in China, and solving fundamental infrastructure problems, especially regarding electricity. Indeed, at the general meeting of the African Development Bank in Marrakesh, Morocco, last May, I did not hear one mention of aid, but venture capitalists were there in droves looking for new investments.
Stories about Africa usually reference wars, economic decline, coups, epidemics, and misrule. However, building states is a difficult and ugly business. We should remember that the cataclysmic American Civil War happened 85 years after the Declaration of Independence — a span longer than any decolonized African country has actually been independent. Many of my most interesting discussions with students revolve around understanding the inevitability of violence and instability in young countries, while refusing to excuse the extraordinary damage done to millions of people through war and economic decline.
In our latest book,
Africa’s Third Liberation: The New Search for Prosperity and Jobs
, longtime colleague Greg Mills (head of the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg) and I argue that Africa’s first liberation was the overthrow of the colonialists, and the second was the displacement of the liberators who often led their countries into tyranny and decline. The time is ripe for the third liberation: the overthrow of the statist economic systems developed by those colonialists and enhanced by their successors. That is a tremendous challenge, but it has been a great privilege to see many African countries ask the fundamental questions about states and markets that have animated so much of our own national history.