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Friday, April 17, 2009

Gang of bandits in designer sunglasses and Italian suits

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO


IF YOU HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING the debate about Africa’s prospects over the last 15 years, you will very likely have encountered George B. N. Ayitteh.

A Ghanaian, Ayitteh is a distinguished economist at the American University in Washington, and president of the Free Africa Foundation.

To be honest, he is a divisive figure. His writing on Africa can be as illuminating as it is annoying. What can definitely be said for Ayitteh is that his deep contempt for the African political class is surpassed only by his faith in the industry of regular African society.

I bought the latest issue of the journal, American Interest, because Ayitteh had a long piece on Africa in there. He was true to form, referring to African “vampire states”, and to our governments having been “hijacked by a gang of unrepentant bandits and vagabonds in Ray-Ban sunglasses and Italian suits . . . .”

Ayitteh’s article evokes serious reflection, but we shall return to that in future. However, as always, one drifts to other articles. So it was that my attention was caught by one with very bloody photos, entitled “Blood sport: The evolution of American pugilism” by Austin Long.

The article examined the decline of boxing, and the rising popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA). This is a bloody mix between old-fashioned bare-knuckled boxing, kick boxing, and conventional championship boxing, and is gaining a huge following. I hate boxing, but was totally blown away by some of the insights about the sport that it offered.

I had always been under the illusion that the reason gloves (and head protection) were introduced, was to increase safety.

Long suggests that the real reason was to protect one’s hands, not an opponent’s head!

Bare-knuckle boxing, apparently, limits punching to the head, as the closed fist is not as hard as many of the bones in the skull. That is why many bare-knuckle fights, especially the ones in the local pub, never last long because the first blow often injures the hand of combatants and they limp in pain.

With gloves, Long argues, boxers can throw full power punches with impunity. Heavier boxing gloves also reduce cuts, a good thing you might say. Yes, but by so doing, they limit fighting stoppages, and therefore allow more punches to be delivered to the head.

IN BUSINESS TERMS, THEN GLOVES, allowed those who paid to watch fights to get their money’s worth because the bouts lasted longer. And, surprise, surprise, Long quotes a study that found that MMA (which uses light gloves) is easier on the head than the “civilised” boxing with fat gloves.

Gloves made boxing more socially accepted to the queasy middle classes, but increased the risk of the sport. Therefore, if we really want to make boxing safer, we might be better off banning gloves.

Incredibly counter-intuitive, but sensible. What this analysis tells us is that what we consider to be the right thing and clear common sense, are sometimes just baloney.

If we take Long’s mindset to the Somali pirates who are very much in the news again, it leads us to very interesting places.

They are criminals, yes. However, as we have noted before, they are also a product of the global fishing industry.

With no government, South Korean, Japan and other trawlers took the opportunity to move into Somali waters – one of the richest sources of tuna in the world – and illegally fished tonnes of it. The predecessors of the pirates were patriots who put out to the ocean, to see what the world’s fishing giants were up to, and to get a piece of the action for the Somalis.

With the Somalis involved, the trawlers backed off, and soon there were few fishermen to tax. With that, the Somali pirate was born, because they were used to money from the waters, and so moved on to find it elsewhere: by hijacking ships for ransom.

Even Ayitteh would appreciate one thing about the Somali pirates. They provide something hardly any other African government does – social security. In the towns where they are based, the pirates have set up funds worth thousands of dollars to help unemployed people and others whose businesses are not doing as well as piracy.

If we remained coldly dispassionate, we would have to conclude that the ordinary African might be better off if we allowed most of our countries to be run by Somali pirates.

4 comments:

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