Cameroon lawyers

Striking Anglophone lawyers show off 1 easy way to tell them apart from Francophone lawyers… Image source: Bareta News

Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.

Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.

Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)

Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).

Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.


After 1972 Cameroon became the “United Republic of Cameroon,” but the borders have stayed unchanged. Orange = German territory, red = British territory, blue = French territory.

When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)

Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).

English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.

Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.

Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.

Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)

The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.

So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.

Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.

Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.

(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)



South Africa flags

Here’s one of the weirder changes after apartheid: South Africa’s old flag was the (old) Dutch flag with 3 smaller flags (Britain’s plus 2 old Afrikaner countries) smooshed in the middle. The current flag is a combo of “black” colors with “white” ones. It’s definitely an improvement.

South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation.” It’s a land of impressive diversity, with a medley of Bantu tribes coexisting with Khoisan food foragers and transplants from the Netherlands, Britain, India, Malaysia and China. It celebrates its rich cultural heritage — for example, with its anthem in 5 different languages and its flag seen above. It’s a vibrant democracy that enshrines equality for its people under the law. But these qualities don’t quite hide the severe racial inequalities that persist to this day, a legacy of a cruel system of institutionalized racial segregation.

South Africa’s earliest inhabitants were, of course, the blacks. They have lived there since… well, since the earliest days of humanity (prehistoric fossils of proto-humans have been discovered in South Africa). Most blacks are Bantus, a very, very broad racial grouping that makes up most of Africa and who first arrived in South Africa around 300 CE. They displaced the Khoisan, who lived (and still live) by hunting and gathering. Then came the Portuguese and Dutch, who set up a colony at the very, very southern tip of Africa to supply voyages passing between Europe and Asia. Thanks to this strategic position and South Africa’s nice weather, the Dutch sent colonists who took over the western part of the country. The British then took over that colony in the 1800s, displacing many of the Dutch (who had by then evolved into a pseudo-Dutch ethnic group, the Afrikaners) further east. The Brits imported labor from Asia and eventually took over the whole country in a series of wars known as the Boer Wars, famous for marking the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

1 of the reasons Britain became so interested in territorial expansion was the discovery of gold and diamonds in the northeast. It led to a mining rush there in the late 1800s, which fueled Africa’s biggest industrial boom by the early 1900s. Money poured into the country from overseas, and South Africa gained a modern transport network and an industrial capitalist society. But like other African colonies, the vast majority of the money flowed into white bank accounts, and the infrastructure and resources mostly benefited white landlords and capitalists. Blacks labored as low-paid field hands, miners or factory workers and got rotten education to keep them that way. They organized themselves into the African National Congress (ANC), a black empowerment movement along the lines of the Indian National Congress and other independence movements in the early 1900s, but it was ruthlessly repressed.

In the rest of Africa, a weakened imperial grip and rising black nationalism brought the end of colonialism after World War II. Not so in South Africa: here the imperial power was no longer an issue, having ceded control to native whites in 1910. It was the native whites who were determined to hold on to power. In 1948, the hardline National Party came to power and argued that only extreme measures could hold the country together. These measures were a system of pervasive institutionalized racism called apartheid (“apartness”).

Apartheid was based on separating blacks from whites as much as possible. Its architects reasoned that the best way to do this, in a kind of imitation of what was going on further north, was by granting them independence… within their tribal homelands. Weird, patchy “homelands” (or “Bantustans”) were created out of the areas where South Africa’s main tribes live (after the valuable farmland was excluded). These places were given self-rule, although in reality they were entirely dependent on the central government in Pretoria. Each tribal member was eligible for citizenship in the corresponding Bantustan. The problem was, 80% of South Africa is black — and the Bantustans only comprised 13% of South Africa’s land area. Also, the job opportunities weren’t in the Bantustans, but in the teeming urban areas benefiting from South Africa’s industrialization: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Kimberley. Blacks were allowed to live outside of the Bantustans, but in theory it was only a temporary arrangement to provide labor for whites. They had to settle for living in vast, squalid “townships” (shantytowns) outside of the city centers.

Apartheid went further than this, though. South African society was entirely segregated by race. Blacks and whites were forced to use different hospitals, schools, playgrounds, parks, bathrooms, buses, and trains. Blacks were barred from voting, owning land outside of the Bantustans, marrying or having sex with other races, or even go to the movies. South Africa’s other races, Coloureds (a unique black-white hybrid group that speaks Afrikaans, the Afrikaners’ language) and Asians (mostly Indians and Malays) were slotted into the racial hierarchy in the middle, which meant that they enjoyed better facilities than blacks but lacked political or economic clout. The whole thing was reinforced by pervasive censorship and, at first, isolation from international media.

Blacks did not take this very well. The ANC became the leading voice of opposition to apartheid, joined in the 1950s by the more militant Pan-African Congress. At first they mostly opted for peaceful demonstrations and pass-burning protests. When these were met with violence on the part of the regime, black politicians escalated their movement to economic sabotage and acts of terrorism. But apartheid only hardened, as black politicians were jailed (like Nelson Mandela) or murdered (like Steve Biko). The National Party remained firmly in power, aided by a sense among Afrikaners that their culture and nation were under siege and had to be defended whatever the cost. Gerrymandering helped too.

By the ‘70s, South Africa had become a violent place. Riots and violent protests became commonplace in the townships and sometimes cities. Even with its leaders in jail or exile, the ANC and PAC continued their campaigns of terror-bombings, aided by Communist countries sympathetic to their cause. Crime was rampant. Politics became more and more militarized, with the security apparatus being given more and more power by the government to unleash torture and indiscriminate violence against dissidents. South Africa projected its military power internationally, intervening in its neighbors to stave off black rule there and punish opponents of its rule. A global campaign of boycotts and sanctions starved South Africa economically and made it a shameful international pariah. Everyday interactions were infused with paranoia, suspicion, and hatred.

It gradually became obvious to the South African leadership that ceding power to the blacks was inevitable. The white population was declining (it is today 10% of the total), businessmen were getting fed up with the incoherent pass system, and sanctions were biting deep. In 1990, a new prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, essentially gave up. In a historic event televised worldwide, Mandela was freed from jail. Elections were held in 1994 that wiped out the National Party and brought the ANC to power at last. Apartheid and the repressive apparatus that sustained it was dismantled. South Africa’s public disposition changed, seemingly overnight, from grouchy, stern and despicable to sunny, placid and “rainbow.”

Mandela is revered today as a hero and sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest leader mostly because he rejected the idea of seeking revenge for the injustices heaped upon himself and his people. Instead, he dedicated his time in office to bringing the country together again. He respected Afrikaner culture and tried to make white pastimes like rugby and braai (barbecue) national institutions. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to cajole the architects and enforcers of apartheid into confessing their crimes against humanity, but forgave them instead of punishing them. He served for only 1 5-year term, intent on providing an example of modest rule centered on popular sovereignty, not some personality cult.

South Africa did indeed follow his example, and it remains a much richer, more egalitarian, and more racially diverse and welcoming country than others in Africa. But the legacy of apartheid lives on.


Image source: Reuters

Although political power is now monopolized by the ANC (and will likely be so for some time, thanks to the firm allegiance of South Africa’s blacks), economic power remains disproportionately in white control. Only 9% of firms on Johannesburg’s stock exchange are directly black-owned. Although there were calls for the new government to forcibly transfer companies to blacks, like other African countries have done, the government opted for a more subtle, long-term approach: a policy of racial preference in education and employment, Black Economic Empowerment (although Coloureds and Asians are included too). The result has been the slow growth of a black upper class and the widening of a black middle class nurtured under apartheid. Many of South Africa’s most important companies — African Rainbow Minerals, Standard Bank, Telkom — are now black-owned, and staff is racially mixed.

This means little to the majority of South Africans, who remain poor, unskilled, and bereft of basics like power or running water. The vast townships that border South African cities have only expanded; Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, is one of South Africa’s biggest cities on its own. Transport services remain limited and unreliable. Crime is still rampant; murder, rape, assault and robbery are daily headaches in South Africa, and cities can get eerily deserted at night. South Africa’s education system is a mess; very few schools even have textbooks, and 85-90% of kids fail basic literacy and math tests. About 40% of South Africans are unemployed.

The main culprit in this dire state of affairs — other than the enforced inequality of apartheid, of course — is the familiar scourge of sub-Saharan Africa: corruption. With the ANC dominant nationally, a position in the party usually translates to an important political post, which brings lucrative opportunities for milking it. Vital public services are neglected and starved of funds. Politicians are promoted through connections to more powerful figures, often greased with bribery. They reward other members of their own tribes regardless of their skills and qualifications (although South Africa, thanks ironically to apartheid, has avoided the bitter tribalism that infects other African countries). Its current president, Jacob Zuma, is involved in countless corruption scandals, which even predate his presidency. These range from billing the state over $18 million for improvements to his homestead to allowing the rich and powerful Gupta family to make cabinet appointments.

The ANC gets away with this (at least so far) because of the staunch loyalty of South Africa’s black majority. It earned its governing role through 4 decades of struggle against oppression, and its leaders bask in Mandela’s glow. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has done a better job of governing the Western Cape, where whites and Coloureds are concentrated. But it is associated, with some justification, of being biased towards these races. Thus the ghost of apartheid lives on in the political sphere. Fringe parties on both sides — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for the blacks and the Freedom Front Plus for the whites — continue to appeal to their own narrow racial groups.

Whether South Africa has managed to get past apartheid in the cultural sense is open for debate. Over the centuries, a unified national culture cemented by the English language has emerged, and the different racial groups are mostly familiar with each other’s cultures. It has become normal for different races to socialize with each other. But obviously, European, African and Asian cultures are very different from each other, and the 2 decades since apartheid haven’t changed that. Black kids gravitate to soccer, while white ones prefer rugby. Racial segregation persists informally, even at the national level: east South Africa is much blacker than the west. Whites and Coloureds rarely learn black languages; blacks rarely learn Afrikaans. Opinion polling suggests that racist attitudes and general distrust persist, especially among blacks. EFF leader Julius Malema and sometimes even Zuma have insulted Afrikaners. The combination of Black Economic Empowerment, high crime and the sense of an official preference for black culture above others has led some Afrikaners to feel adrift and neglected in their country and prompted a brain drain to other English-speaking countries, which the government is hesitant to resist.

South Africa has made impressive strides since 1990. It is the richest country in Africa and a beacon of hope and opportunity for migrants from elsewhere (especially neighboring Zimbabwe). The situation could have been much worse, like a full-blown civil war, given the violence roiling its society in the ‘80s. The ANC’s Communist agenda has been moderated since taking power, although it is still in league with its longstanding pseudo-revolutionary allies abroad and occasionally takes interventionist strategies in the national economy. But the mentality of apartheid lingers: that of a society strongly divided by race, with its people distrustful of other races’ intentions and envious of their status.


Lula Tanzania

Lula visits Tanzania in 2010. Image source: AFP/Getty Images

The bond between the countries of North America (Canada and the USA) and Europe is one of the world’s strongest and most consequential. Historically, culturally, and linguistically, North Americans are intimately bound with their European kin. Since the beginning of European settlement there, North Americans have flocked to Europe on travel, study or work, and there is a continual fascination with the other side of the ocean. Through the institutional architecture of NATO, North America and Europe (which is most of what is called “the West”) generally move in lockstep on diplomatic issues.

This post, though, is not about that relationship. Instead, it’s about another key transatlantic bond, but one that’s been continually ignored: the one between Brazil and Africa.

Brazil and Africa have very strong ties. Start with geography: South America and Africa used to be one landmass, as evidenced by how far east Brazil bulges and the huge indent along Africa’s coast (the Gulf of Guinea). The sea between Natal (in Brazil) and Liberia (in West Africa) is still the narrowest part of the Atlantic except for the northernmost part where Greenland fills in the gap. There is a murky tradition in West Africa of the medieval Empire of Mali voyaging across the sea to trade with the opposite coast and maybe colonize it.


Gondwana, the super-continent also including modern India, Australia and Antarctica, broke apart in the age of the dinosaurs. Image source: U.S. Geological Survey

But as usual, it was Europe who bound the 2 regions together for good. Portugal sailed around Africa’s coast in the 1400s on its way to the riches of Asia, seeding it with trading posts along the way. Eventually an explorer found the part of Brazil that bulges out. Like its Spanish cohorts, Portugal vanquished the native Brazilians and seized the coastline for itself. Brazil turned out to be a rich and bountiful prize, loaded with lumber, gold and diamonds. Portugal needed lots of labor to work its colony, and the native peoples were dying out from imported diseases. And the Portuguese themselves didn’t want to do it.

… So they turned to Africa, where thousands and thousands of people were being captured and brought in chains across the ocean to work the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. The Caribbean may have been the main destination, but Brazil was the biggest single colony: over the 300+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, around 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil, or around 38.5% of the total. They stripped Atlantic Brazil of its jungles, mined its minerals, hacked its sugar, and later plucked its coffee. Any kind of manual labor, from unloading ships to housekeeping, became the province of black slaves. And because slaveowners were rarely hesitant about raping their property, Brazil grew into a mixed-race society united by the Portuguese language. (Not all of this traffic was one-way, by the way; Brazilian slaves could buy their freedom, and some of them returned to Africa afterwards, where they brought valuable technical skills and commercial expertise to an area mostly cut off from international trends.)

Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, but it left a permanent mark on the country. Most obviously, it gave it a permanent black underclass and a social hierarchy that closely paralleled skin color. But the African influence on Brazil was profound. For example, feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, is a black bean stew strongly influenced by Portuguese tastes (it uses linguiça sausage) but incorporating weird cuts of meat like pork tails and feet, which were the scraps given to slaves. Brazil’s national music, the samba, is directly descended from African styles and was pioneered in the early 1900s by black musicians. African beliefs inspired a uniquely Brazilian religion, Candomblé, which worships personal deities and has its own rituals. The northeastern part of Brazil — the part that bulges out towards Africa — is predominantly black and has the strongest African cultural influences.

Despite this, Brazil’s elite snubbed Africa and links with it after abolition. In thrall to the racist ideology pervasive among whites in the early 1900s, they instead tried to whiten Brazil’s demographics by encouraging immigration from Europe and further race-mixing in the belief that future generations would be lighter-skinned than the current mix(the branqueamento policy). The first part of this policy succeeded, and Brazil now has large populations from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Black people, however, never really went away.

By the 1960s, overt racist ideology was dying away, and African colonies were gaining independence. Brazil’s presidents began paying more attention to Africa and forging alliances with the new countries. But concerted outreach to Africa remained lacking for many decades; Brazilian dictators prioritized the relationships with Portugal and South Africa, that is, an intransigent colonial power and a racist regime. The dictators also embraced a generally conservative world outlook, which didn’t appeal to Africans, who prefer more revolutionary, left-wing stances.

These days, Brazil is experiencing a renaissance in its connections with Africa. It began under President “Lula” da Silva, who took a genuine interest in the continent. During his 8 years in office, he visited Africa 28 times, taking in 21 different countries there, and doubled Brazil’s embassies there from 18 to 37. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, carried on the momentum, albeit to a lesser extent.

As usual, the core of Brazil’s diplomacy with Africa is investment and technical cooperation. African countries are rich in minerals and oil, and Brazil has the mining companies to exploit them. Brazil also has a bevy of construction firms ready to build up African infrastructure — Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, OAS, Camargo Corrêa — and well-educated engineers and scientists with the expertise to research new drugs, crop varieties, and other things of benefit to Africans. On the other hand, trade plays a growing role in the relationship; it’s shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $26 billion in 2012, and Brazilian companies now use Africa as a market for their (cheaper) consumer goods. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas), with their rags-to-riches stories and melodrama, are popular in Africa.

Brazilian TV is most popular in Angola and Mozambique, which are Brazil’s main partners in Africa. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they were also Portugal’s main colonies in Africa (the other ones being Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe). Many Afro-Brazilians originally came from these lands, especially Angola. They are also struggling to rebuild from devastating civil wars and need sustained infrastructure investments. But Brazil is moving on to other countries that don’t speak Portuguese and importing Nigerian oil (which is better suited to Brazil’s refining processes), building roads in Kenya, and selling cluster bombs to Zimbabwe.

Brazil is far from alone in supporting African development, and it lags behind the West and China in the scope of its involvement, but it has several key advantages. For one, there’s its shared history and a certain sense of familiarity with African culture, but more importantly, it’s a tropical country. Its agricultural specialists figured out how to grow crops like cassava, soybeans, and cotton in the cerrado (Brazil’s parched savannah), so its techniques are relevant for other tropical countries searching for ways to grow new crops, create more farmland and increase their yields.

Brazil also represents sort of a development success story. It has long festered in poverty and underdevelopment, and its chronic hyperinflation made it depend on IMF bailouts to keep afloat. It is now a member of the BRICs, the most powerful and important emerging economies, and until recently had money to throw around overseas. It still has a huge, struggling underclass, but its welfare program, the Bolsa Família, has been a roaring success, lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty since its inauguration in 2003 at a cost of only .05% of GDP. Proud of its achievement, Brazil has held seminars on the program and other welfare initiatives for Africans grappling with much worse poverty and invites delegations over to see conditions for themselves.

Politically, Brazil isn’t the stern conservative oligarchy it once was. The ruling party, the Worker’s Party, is leftist and preaches Third World solidarity. For all of its close links with the West, Brazil still feels a lot of bitterness toward it as a result of being ignored, dismissed, and indebted for much of its history. It sees the “global South” as having a common bond: resistance to Northern oppression and a struggle to survive in a Northern-run economic system. And as by far the largest and most important country in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil is in a natural position to lead — and increasingly knows it.

This is most likely the main reason for Brazil’s increased attention to its eastern neighbors. Consumer markets and natural resources are great, but other markets are much more lucrative and Brazil has plenty of resources of its own. Sentimental and cultural ties are also important and give Brazil an edge over some of its rivals, but it’s hard to tell how much this is the result of Lula’s personal feelings and whether it will endure after the Worker’s Party is swept out of office. But politically, Brazil needs Africa. It has ambitions to be a Great Power someday, and Latin America won’t be enough of a sphere of influence. Africa remains the most struggling part of the world and the area in most dire need of sustained investment and development, and it lacks a hegemonic power that could feasibly be a rival for Brazil, so it will remain the continent Brazil must win over if it wants to demonstrate Third World solidarity and maybe even a seat on the UN’s Security Council (the important part) someday.

So far, Brazil is doing well. The West remains tainted or at least a little suspect in African eyes; even if well-intentioned, Westerners rarely face the same crippling institutional problems and hurdles to development that Africans do. China and India are rising powers with development cred, but they are also seen as distant foreigners motivated primarily by self-interest and sometimes rapacious in their greed. Brazil actually hires Africans, builds urban housing for the poor, consults with locals, and trains them to manage their own enterprises. Most of the resources it extracts still flow out of Africa, and Brazilian companies are still corrupt and destructive like other Third World firms, but all in all Africans trust Brazilians more.

Back in Brazil, African heritage is becoming more and more widely accepted and celebrated. Capoeira, the dance form invented by slaves that doubled as martial training, is now considered Brazil’s most unique contribution to martial arts. Salvador’s heavily African-influenced Carnival celebrations rival Rio de Janeiro’s bigger, more famous ones. Black Brazilian artists and musicians incorporate more and more African influences into their work. Yet Brazil’s elite continues to value European culture over African, and the vast majority of blacks remain poor manual laborers. Whether Brazilian business will get more interested in Africa if more blacks go into the business class remains an open question.

Brazil continues to face enormous and daunting problems. The legacy of its slaveholding past has not gone away, and racism remains a fact of life there. It is also grappling with an economic slowdown that is forcing businesses and the government to cut back on all fronts; it may even have to seek funds from the IMF once again. (Africa is suffering from a similar slowdown, mostly caused by falling demand for commodities.) Many of Brazil’s biggest companies have been tarnished by a corruption scandal focusing on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But depressions don’t last forever, and Brazil remains a development success story and a natural leader for the Southern Hemisphere. Continued Brazilian engagement in sub-Saharan Africa should bring benefits to both sides.

One more for the road.