Conference Notes: Oxford University Pan-African Conference – Was This Africa 1.01?

Attendees at the Oxford University Pan-African conference in 2012 talked about the conference in positive superlatives, so much so, that the 2013 conference seemed unmissable. The OUPAC conference is in its third year now, run by student members of the Oxford Africa Society – the conference organisers have been able to call on an impressive roster of speakers involved in Africa. Now, we thoroughly enjoyed the day – there are not many more lovely places in England than Oxford on a sunny day, and the Oxford Union was the perfect setting for a debate about Africa’s future, with some of the brightest minds around. All very promising.

Matatu arrived for the conference, not quiet at the start but  the journey from London to Oxford is surprisingly longer than one expects, and the slang name for the coach to Oxford – ‘The Tube’ – gives a misleading impression of speed. Matatu arrived in the middle of the session on “Infrastructure, Urbanization & Economic Development”, and we peeked into one on “Innovation in Healthcare Delivery”.

One attendee Matatu spoke to was incensed by the quality of the presentation from the Dr. Muntaqa Umar-Sadiq. Bold claims were made, she said, without any grounding, including a claim to have reduced infant mortality by 50%, without an indication of the base number the comparison was made from. Matatu caught the Question and Answer session of the panel on “Infrastructure, Urbanization & Economic Development” – which lurched from obviousness to patronising. It started with the compere asking, as if to an audience of school children – What is infrastructure? Not such an obvious question, but the tone, and ultimate answers, which wound back to the speaker’s own rather quixotic and anti-public sector definition of infrastructure – left a lot to be desired from a compere; good discussions take a lot of energy, bad discussions can be enervating. After a panel, which built on nothing, we were on a shaky foundation for lunch.

For the student attendees promised a careers fair, there were thin pickings, Matatu could only spot two rather bored looking representatives from Lyca mobile, trying (not very hard) to flog some long-distance calling cards. We weren’t there for the food, but sandwiches at a conference on Africa just didn’t feel right. The organisers might have been better off having vouchers, or just providing a list of reputable places to eat around the area.

We resumed the afternoon sessions – not energised – but eagerly anticipating a session on Digital Technology in Africa. A keynote address from Guy Scott, Vice-President of Zambia, was a rare bright spot of illumination at the conference. Scott offered a meditation on the concept of time and reality in Africa; bemoaning the short investment span of companies investing in Africa, typically looking to get a return after 4-5 years.

His observations would have been a welcome intervention at the morning’s infrastructure panel. Africa he said, needs the investment equivalent of cheap mortgages; Scott offered the anecdote of a hotel builder in London known to him, who gets 5% interest on loans over 60 or more years, whilst a Zambian building a house or business would typically have to 30% interest on a loan over much shorter periods of time; there should be a prize for politician’s able to duck and dive questions, and Scott would be in the running, he ducked questions on Mugabe, Glencore, and a rather obscure challenge on ‘the reality of time’ in Africa. Yeah, we didn’t understand or ask either. Matatu’s perplexion continued; after working ourselves up with excitement about the Technology and the Digital Economy, we were disappointed when it was wrapped up, just as were getting stuck into the real questions. It was the first session where we felt some real energy and excitement in the room, and the possibility of new conversations – credit to the speakers on this panel. Matatu grudgingly attended the Plenary Session; this was interesting enough. (Disclaimer: RAS Director, Richard Dowden spoke on this panel). But the level of conversation was still too general to offer anything new to anybody with more than a cursory awareness of the big issues facing the African continent. Sure, some of the speakers were topical and current in their approach.

The conference closing keynote was given by His Majesty King Letsie III – to be fair to his majesty, he gave a great speech; it was just long – and slow.

His point though, that small countries can have as much import as large ones shouldn’t be lost. It just could have been made much quicker. King Letsie was introduced by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, who made the (obvious) but well-delivered joke that if only His Majesty had gone to Oxford, instead of Cambridge, think where he might be. Sadly, this iteration of OUPAC has left Matatu wondering if I’d gone to Oxford, and organised a conference on Africa, was this the kind of basic thing I would be doing?

Like it or not, the students studying at Oxford and the blessed cohorts of counterparts that joined them for the conference will in due course be moving and shaping things [in Africa and elsewhere]. They need to step up their game a bit – we’ve moved off having conversations about Africa in generalities – Matatu feels this conference would have benefited from more specific and focused discussion panels. A panel about “Prospects for Democracy in Mali? Anyone? It would have been more interesting – and left us without the feeling, throughout the conference, shared by many, that we were stuck in Class 1.01: Introduction to Africa.

Dele Meiji Fatunla

Matatu Conference notes are occasional missives  reviewing Africa related conferences.