Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 12 August 2023



Why isn’t every­one talk­ing about Niger?

On August 1, around lunch­time, a UK res­id­ent who felt under-briefed on the coup in Niger would have found the homepage of our national broad­caster’s web­site unil­lu­min­at­ing. “Hic­cup­ping giant panda caught on cam­era in China” had made the edit­or­ial cut, though. So had “Boris John­son’s swim­ming pool plans threatened by newts”: one of three stor­ies that had to do in some way with hous­ing.

I cite the BBC here because it is uniquely fam­ous, not because it is uniquely culp­able. (Its fran­co­phone Afrique web­site is a treas­ure.) Only two UK-based print out­lets, includ­ing the one you are read­ing, have given the Niger story its due. The US, with five times the pop­u­la­tion of the UK, has given it about the same level of cov­er­age.

Let me anti­cip­ate the line of defence — “our audi­ence isn’t inter­ested” — and agree with it. No one has men­tioned Niger to me in con­ver­sa­tion since the coup began, and my peers are a pass­port-using, news-addicted crowd, in a city where the African influ­ence is large and old.

At the same time, I can read and hear all I could ever want about: the ordeal of rent­ing a flat, dat­ing and its dis­con­tents, the effect of Elon Musk on Twit­ter’s user-friend­li­ness. But in let­ting them clut­ter its view of the world out­side, the intel­li­gent­sia sug­gests it has turned a bit small-time and a bit wet.

Now, true, middle age is speak­ing. I am at that point of life where everything palls in com­par­ison to a gen­er­a­tion earlier. The music is goofier and the foot­ballers more robotic. But — and read­ers under 30 will just have to take my word for this — you once needed to try very hard not to end up in an argu­ment about the Israeli-Palestinian ques­tion. The stand­ard of the dis­course was mor­ti­fy­ingly low-grade, but it was at least out­ward-facing.

What happened? A sequence of unsuc­cess­ful wars — Iraq, Afgh­anistan, Libya — drained the west of the moral con­fid­ence to even dis­cuss much poorer and weaker coun­tries. (See how tongue-tied some rich-world greens are about “Global South” car­bon emit­ters.) At the same time, a gen­er­a­tion that missed out on the asset boom had to nar­row its men­tal hori­zons to the domestic and the per­sonal.

But if the New Paro­chi­al­ism is under­stand­able, that doesn’t make it afford­able. The west is up against one and a half super­powers that view each region of the world as a poten­tial front against US-led lib­er­al­ism. To push back, it won’t be enough to know about China and Rus­sia them­selves (in many ways the most stable pieces of the pic­ture). There are uncount­able other mov­ing parts that will impinge on our lives. At some point, a gen­er­a­tion is going to have to put away, if not child­ish, then young adult things.

The Sahel, that luck­less band of Earth stretch­ing from Senegal to Erit­rea, is nearer to Europe than Amer­ica is. Maybe its slow impale­ment by the pin­cers of jihadism and sec­u­lar ban­ditry will turn out to be of no external con­sequence whatever. But — and this might be my west African infancy talk­ing — it seems a sub­ject deserving of more than eerie indif­fer­ence, for our sake, not just Niger’s. It might be almost as import­ant as the rental mar­ket in Vic­toria Park.

I used to deplore a cer­tain kind of intrepid west­erner in the trop­ics. I had known enough of them in journ­al­ism to sense they were sim­u­lat­ing a life­style — large prop­er­ties, live-in ser­vants — that was no longer within their fin­an­cial reach back home. Oth­ers, whether in the aid sec­tor or on a year out, dabbled with “non­a­ligned” polit­ics in a cred­u­lous, Gra­ham Greene sort of way.

Well, I take at least some of it back. Give me that voyeur­ism if the altern­at­ive is ever-decreas­ing circles of intro­spec­tion. Give me Greene over another mil­len­nial novel in which someone mopes into a cortado for 200 pages. (Some call it “sad girl lit”, but there are more than suf­fi­cient male expo­nents of this ines­sen­tial craft.)

It isn’t a crime that I had to root around a bit to apprise myself of events in Niger. The crime is that I would have paid no social price for my ignor­ance.

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