Author of ‘The Enduring Malformation of West Africa: Why Economics Alone Cannot Explain West Africa’s Slow Development’ Abel Gaiya, believes West Africa is going in circles: ‘Arguments and optimism which key thinkers from the region held in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are repeated today, while many problems persist in the region, and in some cases, have worsened.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read all kinds of books growing up—from Western storybooks to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to Aminata Sow’s The Beggar’s Strike. I also remember trying to read a large Oxford dictionary from beginning to end because I wanted to use big words and sound smart. Then there is my interest in weird things that made one particular book series notable for me. I loved fantasy, science fiction and supernaturally-laced stories. My Christian mother had these books written by Rebecca D. Brown who claimed to have been in the occult as a bride of the devil. What interested me was the book’s description at the end trying to explain supernatural mechanics.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I think Alice in Wonderland best fits because I have entered a rabbit hole of unlearning, re-learning and building new knowledge on several topics. I am also encountering counter-intuitive notions and not knowing where I will end up in the next five years of undergoing this process.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I already have a very variegated and fluid belief system when it comes to economics, so that anything new I read often fits within one of my ideological compartments. For example, I have a place for socialist thought, neoliberal thought, social democratic thought, and developmental statism within a broader framework I refer to as ‘universal realism.’ I therefore have great freedom to read market fundamentalist, socialist, anarchist, neo-mercantilist, comparative capitalist and post-developmental scholars without experiencing a significant great change of mind but while knowing that they all have something to offer in building a nuanced body of knowledge. The same applies to social topics such as feminism and religion.
I also remember trying to read a large Oxford dictionary from beginning to end because I wanted to use big words and sound smart.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
For me, the subject of a book is more powerful than how it is written. I have a lot of patience to read a book even if it’s not creatively written but the subject is an interesting one. This is even more important for academic texts which are what I have predominantly been reading over the past decade.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I edit as I write. I get really uncomfortable seeing asymmetries, red lines, incomplete sentences and other messes while writing.
What was your process for writing ‘The Enduring Malformation of West Africa: Why Economics Alone Cannot Explain West Africa’s Slow Development’
I have been writing a book tentatively titled The Malformation of West Africa since 2021, which had begun as a short essay. However, I began to see massive gaps and lack of conceptual unification in the literature. It is from the now 500-page manuscript (which I will ultimately split into two volumes) that I wrote a short summary of one of the main lines of argument from the book, which appears as The Enduring Malformation of West Africa.
Why was it important that you wrote on this issue?
I have a deep interest in economic and intellectual history (global and African). It was my historical investigations that made me realize that West Africa was going in circles. Arguments and optimisms which key thinkers from the region held in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are repeated today, while many problems persist in the region and in some cases have worsened. My exposure to the ‘political settlements’ literature pioneered by the Bangladeshi scholar Mushtaq Khan further enabled me to see that the capitalism versus socialism debates for West Africa are futile and temporally circular.
My goal is to push us out of these time and conceptual loops by introducing new concepts, frameworks, geographical framings and social movements into the discourse on West Africa’s future. In doing this, West Africans could come to realize the true depth of their problems and therefore go beyond the limitations of liberal democracy, good governance, conventional anti-corruption, simplistic calls for religious tolerance, and other buzzwords and concepts that are getting us nowhere.
You are a development researcher. What’s an unpopular opinion about conducting research in Nigeria.
I believe that traditional economics and development education in Nigeria (and generally in the global South) creates a veil which you then have to peel back through proactive independent study of heterodox approaches to these subjects. Most Nigerian economists engage in what I feel is ‘bubble economics,’ which is time- and effort-wasting (in terms of advancing meaningful knowledge) research of applying statistical and econometric techniques on macroeconomic data to verify classical economic relations such as whether money supply causes inflation or the relationship between national output and unemployment. Development researchers will study national plans, assert that the cause of ineffective implementation is ‘corruption’, and end their papers with generic recommendations like ‘the government should reduce corruption.’ It is so frustrating because I see serious work and policy experimentation that need to be undertaken in all these areas of corruption, governance, terrorism, development, regional integration and inequality, but many development researchers are mostly focused on worn-out paradigms and circular reasoning.
I get really uncomfortable seeing asymmetries, red lines, incomplete sentences and other messes while writing.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
A colleague told me that her younger sister reads my writing and stalks me online.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To be honest, there is no single piece of writing advice I have received that I can claim to be ‘the one’. I have received many small pieces of advice on structure, grammar, content and framing, all of which have contributed incrementally and almost equally to making me a better writer.
What’s the best book by an African author you’ve ever read?
This is not a single book, but the UNESCO General History of Africa edited book series, launched in 1964 to ‘to remedy the general ignorance on Africa’s history,’ has been most helpful. Each volume is edited by prominent African scholars like Ade Ajayi, Ali Mazrui, Mokhtar Gamal, Mohammed El-Fasi, Djibril Niane and Bethwell Ogot.
Who are the African writers you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Today, the work being done by Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai in Ghana and Zainab Usman in Nigeria are most exciting for me. This is because they seem to be making the most headway in understanding the West African predicament, although they are still focused largely on the national level of analysis. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s work contributes to a major part of the Sahelian debate on Islamic neo-fundamentalism, violent extremism and Islamic reformism, but also focuses on Nigeria. These scholars may be instrumental in making more people understand the depth of West Africa’s and the Sahel’s problems. I hope to discover more Abdulais, Usmans and Sanusis of the West African Sahel through my exploration of similar scholars especially in Francophone Africa.
Development researchers will study national plans, assert that the cause of ineffective implementation is ‘corruption’, and end their papers with generic recommendations like ‘the government should reduce corruption.’
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I read a lot on the history of slavery; the history global development thought in the broad tradition of Eric Helleiner, Sophus Reinert and Antonella Alimento; and West African political, economic and spatial history. Due to my work at Clean Technology Hub, I also write and read a lot on the business and political economy of climate action and the renewable energy sector.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently writing two books. There is the book on West Africa’s malformation, and another on ‘Global Regimes of International Development’ which gives the history of global development since the 1500s from the European semi-periphery to the global South. In addition to these, there are journal articles I am authoring ranging from the intellectual history of nineteenth century abolitionism to a structural framework for ideologically differentiating modern abolitionists from what I call ‘minimalists’ in antiquity on the issue of slavery. I am also writing a supernatural fiction novel centered on West Africa about a consultant working with the fictional Anomalous Crimes Unit of the Nigerian Police Force, investigating strange crimes occurring across the region but converging on Lagos city. Finally, I have research being conducted as part of my employment on how to expand renewable energy access in Nigeria.
I am also writing a supernatural fiction novel centered on West Africa about a consultant working with the fictional Anomalous Crimes Unit of the Nigerian Police Force.
Question from Immaculata Abba: What is the story you tell yourself about why your work matters (or does not matter)?
I tell myself that my work matters because, since the nineteenth century (and perhaps actually since the thirteenth century) Africa seems to be stuck in a state of oscillation between Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism. From a neutral or ‘land of gold’ perception, to one of slavery from the late seventeenth century to abolitionist optimism in the early nineteenth century, scientific racist pessimism afterwards, to high hopes after notional decolonization, to Afro-pessimism in the Washington Consensus era, leading to Afro-optimism and ‘Africa Rising’ in the 2000s. This story needs new characters, new heroes and a satisfactory ending. I hope that my body of work will contribute towards fashioning these over the next (hopefully) 30 years of scholarship and activism.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If you had all the time, resources and knowledge, what topic or genre of writing would you be more involved in?⎈
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