Lessons From African Kings, Real and Imagined

by Barbara Crossette, PassBlue
March 1, 2018

As ticket sales for the film “Black Panther” rocketed into the stratosphere in the United States and around the world after its opening in February, a real king in the poor West African nation of Burkina Faso won a peace prize for his part in averting bloodshed in a political crisis.

On Feb.23, Mogho Naba Baongo II, the traditional ruler of the Mossi people, the dominant ethnic group in Burkina Faso, was honored by fellow African rulers — elected and hereditary — with the Macky Sall Prize for Dialogue in Africa, named for the current president of Senegal, who promotes political engagement in his own country and across Africa.

The prize, which carries a 50,000 euro stipend (just over $61,000) is awarded by the Geneva-based Center for Research and Initiatives, a nonprofit group with formal consultative status at the United Nations.

In 2015, Baongo stepped into a volatile Burkinabé breakdown of order after large popular protests forced the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré in 2014. (He was exiled to Ivory Coast.) Quarreling military factions threatened to block the restoration of democracy. As an elder statesman who has held the centuries-old traditional Mossi community kingship since 1982, Baongo has frequently been called on for political advice and intercession, according to an article by Ally Jamah in the Standard newspaper in Nairobi, where the prize was presented.

Jamah noted in his article that Baongo’s title, Mogho Naba, means “king of the world” in the Mossi language. In more down-to-earth terms, Baongo’s power is centered around the Burkinabé capital, Ouagadougou. Farther north, the country is facing rebel attacks that have so far defied resolution.

Political dialogue is one ingredient for stability often in short supply in Africa, where numerous conflicts have hampered economic and social development.

Turning to fiction, the success of “Black Panther,” an adaptation of a Marvel comic book, has led two specialists at the Brookings Institution’s African Growth Initiative to extract lessons from the story of Wakanda and the challenges faced by King T’Challa in his imaginary kingdom.

In an analysis titled “Marvel’s Black Panther: natural resource management and increased openness in Africa,” the authors, Mariama Sow and Amadou Sy, focus on the successful development model of Wakanda and those who would upend it. Their analysis looks at options for balancing the guarding of a unique natural resource — in Wakanda’s case, indestructible vibranium, a fictional metal dropped by a meteor — with plans for future growth and integration in international trade and aid.

“Wakanda shares similarities with many African countries; African policymakers and their partners can draw lessons about good resource governance and economic integration from the movie,” the authors wrote. Wakanda, they argued, “provides an image of the prosperity and technological advancement, which awaits properly managed resource-rich countries.”

But . . . “Because of its self-imposed isolation,” the authors wrote, “Wakanda appears to have an economic model where it does not trade its natural resource with the rest of the world; it lives in autarky and invests heavily in technology.”

In other words, there is no balance between hiding its nonrenewable vibranium to avoid becoming an exploited country and learning to use the resource wisely and selectively to sustain further development, sharing its riches and technological know-how beyond its borders.

This leads to an examination by the authors of the radically different policy prescriptions favored by three major characters in the film: T’Challa, Nakia and Erik Killmonger. Sow and Sy discern in the imaginary Wakanda a country that can handle its economic prospects wisely because of good governance, yet it may have to adapt to less isolation.

From the real world, the authors cite the wisdom and success of diamond-rich, well-governed Botswana, which through good governance did not fall victim to the “resource curse” of other African countries that built economies on exploiting their natural riches to the full. This exploitation has led to “misaligned exchange rates, the decline of non-resource sectors, political authoritarianism, conflict and economic inequity,” the authors wrote.

If Wakanda were real, it would be perfectly poised to avoid the mistakes of others while making the most of its advantages. Policy wonks can enjoy the film and have something to think about later.

This article first appeared on PassBlue and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.