Let them eat stats

Back in April, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade announced his latest new plan to revitalize the country’s agricultural sector, the largest sector of activity in terms of employment and production. It was the third plan in as many years. Previous plans, Jaxaay and Reva, were announced with similar fanfare yet failed to materialize into any actual activity, as if their existence was purely rhetorical.

Wade imagines this surplus of ideas to be a quality others admire — in his recent autobiography, he claims that French President Chirac “used to tell everyone that Abdoulaye has a new idea every minute”. Some might see such behaviour as a symptom of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whose other symptoms seem familiar chez Me Wade:

  • Impulsiveness: a person who acts quickly without thinking things through.
  • Hyperactivity: a person who is unable to sit still.
  • Inattention: a person who daydreams or seems to be in another world.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The problem is that the ideas are not followed through in any coherent or consistent manner. Their motivation is that of an enthusiastic do-gooder who has neither the capacity nor the will to carry the ideas to fruition. The ideas therefore remain in a virtual world of presidentially declared wonders, immune to rot or verification.

The latest new wonder plan was called the Great Agricultural Offensive for Food and Abundance (Grande offensive agricole pour la nourriture et l’abondance), or GOANA, proved immediately fruitful in associations in my mind: GOANA/GUANO, an effective fertilizer from bat droppings. Also the choice of words echoed Mao’s Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, whose effect on improving agricultural efficiency in China led to an estimated 30 million dead. Not the most inspiring association.

Shortly after the announcement of the GOANA, huge billboards appeared, showing a crude photomontage of yams, green fields over which floats a runaway tractor and a plane from Air GOANA releasing shots of blue (=rain) on ready-to-harvest cereals, all blessed by the outstretched arm of the benevolent leader.

GOANA poster

In the following months, the GOANA seemed destined to be another stillborn, existing only in glorious speeches by the President. At FAO in June, during discussions to resolve the burgeoning food security crisis, Wade announced that Senegal would be self-sufficient in food within four months; to the UN General Assembly, he declared that, “The GOANA is a great success. I invite you to fly over Senegal: everything is green!” Indeed, the rains were good this year; nothing more can be attributed to the verdure; certainly not government investment in sustainable irrigation, improved market access and the like. Just good rains.

When worlds collide
But what happens when the wonder world of Wade’s ideas is forced to fit the real world where people have to eat? What happens if the actual production figures don’t match the objectives? Here’s the trick: hold a big party, pay your friends to come, and present forecasted production figures as if they are the actual results, i.e. before the crops have actually been harvested. It’s a tough one to pull off, but, as I witnessed last Monday, the thousands of supporters thronging to the presidential palace were happy enough to go along with the Celebration of Virtual Success, as Naomed described it in his hilarious post (in French): Happy with their free T-shirt bearing slogans such as, “The Godsend of GOANA”, and other inanities; happy with a free ride to the capital and a free lunch; happy with the banknote to pay for their applause. And in a rare example of superior female earning power, women actually get paid more than men at these spontaneously orchestrated events because they can make more noise and dance better in front of the state-owned TV cameras. There was no other news that day, by the way.

The final results of GOANA, miraculously produced before the harvests, were mind-bogglingly impressive, surpassing the objectives on the billboard. Further still, production figures for crops not included in the GOANA were presented as if they too had benefited from the plan (e.g. peanuts); and crops whose cycle extends longer than that of the plan, and therefore could not draw benefit from it, also found their way into the celebration (e.g. manioc and bananas).

So what? Who cares? Wade celebrates in a big tent when the news is good, and when you make up the news and manage to beat the real world with your virtual world, everyone is invited to the party.

The way that reality is manipulated with such carefree arrogance reminds me of Soviet-style propaganda and, more amusingly, of the jokes that it spawned. Here are some choice examples that I have adapted to present-day Senegal:

The seven miracles of Wade’s World:
1. There is no unemployment, yet nobody works.
2. Nobody works, yet the Grand Scheme is carried out.
3. The Grand Scheme is carried out, yet there is nothing to buy.
4. There is nothing to buy, yet there are queues everywhere.
5. There are queues everywhere, yet everyone has everything.
6. Everyone has everything yet everyone is dissatisfied.
7. Everyone is dissatisfied, yet everyone votes ‘Yes’.

:-)

“My people!” – Wade addressed the people by radio. “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that for the next seven years we shall eat only shit! The good news is that it will be plentiful!”

:-)

There was an international competition for the best book about polar bears.

France submitted a lavishly illustrated volume titled, “Love triangles in polar bear families”.
England presented a treatise entitled, “Polar Bears and World Trade”.
Germany submitted 24-volume set under the title, “Brief Introduction to Ursus maritimus”.
The USA distributed one million copies of a leaflet announcing a sweepstakes, “Win a polar bear. No purchase necessary”.

Senegal sent three volumes, with the following titles,

Vol. 1. The Role of Polar Bears in the Great Offensive on Food and Abundance.

Vol. 2. The Happy Life of Polar Bears under the Sun of the Most Progressive Leadership in the World.

Vol. 3. Senegal – Motherland of Polar Bears.

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