Generational clubs By Yao Afra YAO


Column title: Attempted prophecies

The Personhood of Nationhood

It is funny how we tend to have shared experiences. We all seem to be influenced by our respective generations, the societies we are born into, our individual homes, environments, countries, and the world at large. ’50s children, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, through to 2000s children, we each cannot escape—well, not entirely at least—having shared experiences, sometimes shared temperaments, developments, and a general approach to things.

These shared experiences sometimes can have global effects, such that a generation may be—just be—incredibly alike no matter where we find ourselves on this globe. In this Information Age, for instance, it is needless to say that we all, worldwide, are, what I like to call “screen people”—constantly on our phones, behind our laptops, tablets, etc.

But the Information Age, that is not what I intend touching on, I will attempt something more poignant to that regard subsequently. But today, with these contemplations over our individualisms as a mirror of our respective worlds, generations, I find myself pondering over nations. We are going to attempt personifying nations. We are going to attempt looking at them through this sociological lens of ‘you are easily what, or will become what, your environment makes you.’ We are going to attempt doing that, for now, with Industrialisation as the focal point.

[FACT: The writer will, in this column, “ponder” and “attempt” a lot.]

‘Industrialisation’, ‘Africa’, ‘the West’ these are going to be our focal points in this attempt at personification of nations’ experiences.  And ‘developed’, ‘developing’ these are easily the keywords here. These are not merely decorative adjectives, rather crude depictions of our respective realities. Those of us in the ‘developing’ world, and those in the ‘developed’ world, our realities hide behind these two adjectives.

So why are countries like USA and Canada considered developed nations, and Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, not? Is it because the first two share a border, and the second, their own different border? Why are countries like Britain, Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, etc. said to be developed nations and countries like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Rwanda considered developing countries? Is it because they share a subcontinent, and we, a whole different continent? Is this reality of ‘struggling’ and ‘not’ determined by our positions on the geographical spectrum? Is it a case of ‘the people you walk with determine where you will place in life’—the ever-constant caution of “watch your friends” ringing true? Is that it?

At this point I seem to be drawing at straws.

The 1800s and 1900s children

In any attempt at personifying nations, one will realise that there are many points at which nationhood and personhood converge. So why not limit this personification, here, today, to Industrialisation.

On 1st January, 2021, the African Free Continental Trade Area (AfCFTA) was launched. After over half a century fantasising about African Unity, in all its forms, and especially so, in an ‘incipient’ form as propitious as trade, the African Free Continental Trade Agreement was negotiated, signed, ratified, and now, launched; officialising the long-dreamed-of intra-African trade, the economic and socio-economic integration of the continent.

This union, this African union the African Union (AU) was instituted for, this togetherness the continent was always destined for, has seen the light of day. After a further year’s delay due to the pandemic, the African free trade area stands before us now. And Ghana, once again, gateway—the secretariat of the free trade area sits in Ghana.

Going back to the personification forewarned about, it is like a man and woman ‘auditioning’ one another—dating for years upon years before formalising their union before God and man—by signing on to the contractual bond of holy matrimony. This free trade area, the largest—the most populous—of its kind since the institution of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is projected to be, among others, an antidote to the continent’s endemic poverty. It is estimated to lend a lasting boost to Africa’s economy.

Africa, finally, is set to leave behind its raw-material-export-based economy days to a higher, more propitious purpose—a competitive manufacturing-based economy. Finally, our continent’s endemic subsistence attitude in this highly Industrialised Age, is to give way to a globally competitive industrial market. Africa is to finally have a reputable place on the global scale, on the global market. Our first step is to be a giant step—it is the continent’s free trade area dubbed AfCFTA.

The 2000s Children—possibly

The continental free trade area championed by leaders like Kwame Nkrumah at African countries’ very early years of independence; this Agreement, attempted at, at various points in our national and continental lives, and having failed in all those instances, is finally here.

No more are we to suffer constant trade deficits due to our bizarre over-reliance on the export of raw materials in this highly Industrialised Age, when we can get more bang for our buck by transforming our rich raw produces into even richer manufactured goods, and fetch for ourselves more money from the global plane—and you know how the saying goes, “more money more … problems? No, more development. No longer are we to be slaves to foreign markets. No longer are we to be fundamentally importers, consumers of manufactured goods, but exporters first.  No more is the Ghanaian businessman and woman to suffer the bane of relatively small markets, having a customer-base automatically restricted to the boundaries of Ghana. The Ghanaian businessman and woman is to be exposed to a large market comprising over 1 billion people—all potential consumers. God must be looking down on the continent, at what He has created, and must be giving his stamp of approval—”this is good”, He must be saying.

Just like that, a trade projected to, when done well, launch Africa into an industrialised phase has been officialised. We can only appreciate AfCFTA if we take ourselves back to its very tumultuous beginning. So, perhaps, that is what I should be doing here today—write an article titled ‘AFCFTA: A Historical Context’ perhaps.

But not today. This free trade area, supposed to be the official beginning of Africa’s industrialisation journey calls to mind, a certain group of countries’ own journey instead. It is that which has been monomaniacally termed the Industrial Revolution—as though the rest of us all, in the world, have had our experiences coinciding with the dates stipulated for it. But that is how revolutionary the Industrial Revolution was; its effects have spread so wide, to all corners of the world. Its effects have been long-lasting—spanning every century since its inception, to our present age, the 21st century; and wide-spanning—stretching from country to country, across the globe.

The launch of the AfCFTA sends me back to the very beginning of Industrialisation as we know it. This sends me way, way back to late-18th-century Britain, to early-19th-century Europe, to mid-19th-century America, when these nations we know now as ‘developed’ kicked off their individual, but extremely interconnected journeys towards Industrialisation. For these countries, there wasn’t a conscious starting point—as the AfCFTA may, to future generations, seem to have been for Africa, should we work fervently at its success.

The Industrial Revolution experienced by these countries did not begin with rounds of negotiations, debates, agreements and disagreements, strategising, the penning of an agreement to its effect, the signing of said agreement, the ratifications by individual countries thereof, and a launch—all these very clearly marked historical events. No, the Industrial Revolution started small—with the littlest of inventions to solve everyday problems. What ensued was a healthy competition between humans in these sections of the world to add to the stock of inventions, to make a mark and money for themselves. And by so doing, they added on to the wealth of human knowledge and inventions. To this day, each passing day, this stock of human inventions and innovations is being increased.

And now the West and countries within it are regarded highly Industrialised nations—having spent centuries at this journey, this is only expected. And even better, the West has launched into a new economic and socio-economic phase, Information Technology—yet another era spearheaded by them; yet another era finding Africa lagging behind.

Like Joke, Like Joke

Like joke like joke, this whole gigantic economic reality, ‘Industrialisation’ began with clothes—textiles.

Ever since Adam and Eve purportedly went to eat something they weren’t supposed to, and blatantly lied about it, refused to apologise for it; and having come to the awareness of it, played hide and seek with their nakedness, humankind has found the need to wear clothes. And necessity being a mother of all inventions, we have in our individual societies—even preceding the construct of nationhood—found means of covering our nakedness. The need for more and varied forms of attires meant the devising of new means to produce them—more quickly and efficiently. And in Europe, specifically, in Britain a new breed of era, now dubbed the Industrial Revolution—and in my opinion better called the First Industrial Revolution—the mother of industry as we know it now, found its beginning.

It was around the late 18th century when the British textile industry became the first in the longline of industries to undergo a revolution from manual production means to mechanised methods, characteristic of Industry as we know it now. The industrial revolution was so revolutionary that some of its inventions have, with time, not undergone total facelifts, but modest add-ons.

Take the weaving process for instance…

You and I are not going to learn weaving here today (we just might next week). The painstaking weaving process saw a major lift when John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733. This was to make the weaving process faster, more efficient—a single weaver could now do a job that previously required a team. This increase in productivity in weaving caused an increase in the demand for yarn—the thread needed for weaving. Yarn was derived from cotton fibres—this process of yarn derivation hence had to be made quicker to match up with increasing demand.

The yarn industry had to undergo innovations of its own. So then, the spinning jenny. This device, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, was to increase the rate at which cotton was spun. This invention was, however, bested by Richard Arkwright approximately 5 years later with the invention of the water frame. This water-powered spinning frame produced stronger and better yarn in faster amounts of time, with human labour required slashed down to the minimum. In 1779, Samuel Crompton was to make this all the more better by combining the positives of these two inventions—what culminated in the spinning mule. Cotton mills were at the height of industry.

But that wasn’t the only industry affected. The mechanisation of the textile industry using water power was to see further advancement with the invention of the steam engine. The steam engine was to see upgrades of its own; and its use, wide and varied—far from the borders of the textile industry. The lead, copper, sulphur, iron, coal industries, etc. were each to undergo industrial uplifts.

Not to cut short the long thread of interwoven historic industrial events and innovations, but we have to move on.

The Industrial Revolution can be dumbed down to this: human needs drove the inventions of machines to do our bidding; the invention of machines necessitated the derivation of new energy sources to do machines’ bidding—to power said machines.

Happily Ever After

There is a catch to every happily-ever-after story. But we cannot deny this fact: the world as we know it is a working organism featuring the natural and the artificial. These two forces are working together ‘perfectly’ to do humankind’s bidding. Driving to work; picking up a phone, calling a loved one miles and miles away; me writing this article on a laptop, emailing it to Business and Financial Times (B&FT), you reading it in a newspaper, on your phone, laptop, tablet; you transferring money from your bank account to another’s account, to a mobile money account; you changing the lens of your glasses every now and then, the prescription medicine you’re taking, the malaria medication you take, unprescribed (please, let’s stop doing that by the way), the pain killers that work like magic to relieve your headaches; the happy distractions you get from your TV, radio, the internet—oh! the internet; and if we be extra, our fascinations with the universe around us—the moon landing, attempts at colonising mass; all these integral aspects of our lives (some, not all)—each and every one of them—products of the Industrial Revolution.

There is always a ‘but’ to every happily-ever-after story, but for now let’s permit ourselves to bask in the wonder—the natural world created by God, and the artificial world humankind has created for itself, what a wonderful world!

This contemplation over Industrialisation born out of the birth of AfCFTA, has gotten me daydreaming. But quite typically, I find myself whisked back to reality. This ‘wonderful world’ I am praising has been products of the activities of certain nations—these nations are reigning at the top of our globalised food chain; we, at the bottom. Africa is late to a race which started centuries upon centuries ago (with reason, with reason!). Yet, I do hope and pray, that like China, we will be capable of shock and awe; we will be able to quicken our pace at our development journeys. With the speed of lightning, Africa must approach Industrialisation, Information Technology, development, and all that jazz.

>>>The writer is a writer. And this sentence is circular. [email protected]

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