How do we account for Africa’s plight and what should be done? The conventional wisdom is that the problem is African and the solution is for the rich, white Western world to save Africa from itself, its leaders, its appetites, and its apparent incapacity for civilization. We give, they take. We’re active and entrepreneurial, they’re passive and dependent. We help, they’re helpless.
There is in this neat equation more than a hint of centuries-old racist attitudes toward Africans, our era’s version of the white man’s burden. But there’s an alternative perspective on the “African problem,” one that is not nearly as self-congratulatory and dishonest. This interpretation says that rather than being the solution to Africa’s plight, Westerners are a very substantial part of the problem and have been for centuries. None of this condones or justifies African malfeasance. But it does help to explain it and to indicate different directions that need to be taken if Africa is to find its path to a better future.
The very notion of Africa as “the dark continent” — dark in skin colour, in obscurity, in primitivism — is a major distortion of historical reality. Over the millennia before colonialism, sub-Saharan Africa was home to a series of great civilizations. Mali, Bornu, Fulani, Dahomey, Ashanti, Songhay, Zimbabwe, Axum — all powerful empires that made their mark on the world. Here is Basil Davidson, the British historian who did much to rescue Africa’s remarkable history from oblivion and Western derision: “The great lords of the Western Sudan grew famous far outside Africa for their stores of gold, their lavish gifts, their dazzling regalia and ceremonial display.
When the most powerful of the emperors of Mali passed through Cairo on pilgrimage to Mecca in the fourteenth century, he ruined the price of the Egyptian gold-based dinar for several years by his presents and payments of unminted gold to courtiers and merchants.” No one who has seen the underground churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia or the magnificent bronze and brass Ife sculptures of western Nigeria can doubt the extraordinary potential of African technology and creativity. For much of its history, Europe had little to surpass these achievements. We’ll never know the outcome had Africa been permitted to develop based on its own skills and resources, as Europe was, but it was allowed no such luxury.
History matters, and for Africa the slave trade and colonialism matter enormously in understanding its subsequent evolution. In many respects the continent has never recovered from either. Enlightenment Europe had guns and ships, and it unleashed them against Africa. The slave trade ended barely 150 years ago, three and a half centuries in which an estimated twenty million Africans — an astonishing proportion of the continent’s population — were uprooted from their lands. Perhaps twelve million finally arrived alive, and their labour enabled the development of both the United States and Europe, a relationship between Africa and the West that has remained largely unaltered. Arab slavers shipped millions more Africans out of eastern Africa. The continent was left reeling.
Hard on the heels of the slave trade came full-blown Western colonialism, institutionalized with the “scramble for Africa” at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-85. Undeterred by ignorance and driven by greed and racism, Europe’s leaders blithely partitioned almost the entire continent among themselves. To this day, probably every single border in Africa arbitrarily divides at least one ethnic or cultural group. South Africa has been free from white rule for only a dozen years, and until their very last moments of power, the white minority kept nearly 40 percent of the continent destabilized. From Angola, Zambia, and Tanzania south, no normal governance was possible while apartheid wielded its formidable power. The rest of the continent has been independent for a mere forty to forty-five years, and every country endured colonialism for many decades longer than it’s been independent.
The paternalistic fashion of the moment is to rhapsodize about the good old colonial days. What Africa needs, we are told, is a form of benign colonialism or liberal imperialism. British scholar Niall Ferguson, for example, has gained prominence arguing that imperialism was the greatest thing that could have happened to Africa (and Asia). Nothing could be further from the truth. Colonialism by definition and in practice was based on dictatorship, violence, coercion, oppression, forced taxation, and daily racial humiliation. Not a single colonial power — France, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy — is innocent.
Look at King Leopold’s Congo: half of its twenty million people dead. In the name of bringing civilization to Africa, Belgium introduced the practice of amputating arms as punishment, an abomination replicated a century later by Africans in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The list of atrocities perpetrated by Europeans is long and bloody — Belgian-like tactics emulated in the surrounding French and Portuguese colonies, Germany’s genocide against the Herero people of South West Africa (now Namibia), the blatant theft of land by Afrikaners and Cecil Rhodes’s British-backed gang of marauders across southern Africa, the wars of the British in the Gold Coast, the cruelty of the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the indiscriminate slaughter of Ethiopians by Italy. In today’s terms, every single European power in Africa was guilty of multiple crimes against humanity.
Africa’s partition by European powers was implemented with a fine disdain for existing realities. Families, clans, ethnic groups, and nations were all divided from each other in a purely arbitrary manner. Those unrelated to each other suddenly found themselves locked together under new and alien governments. For many Africans, iden tifying with these new artificial colonial constructs made little sense; rather than adopting Nigerian or Rwandan or Kenyan nationality, they found it more natural to reaffirm their identities as Yoruba or Hutu or Luo. Paradoxically, then, the imposition by Europe of new nations in Africa served instead to reinforce ties of ethnicity or clan.
In most colonies, with only a tiny number of whites actually on hand, indirect rule prevailed. The European occupier, frequently in collaboration with Christian missionaries, privileged a particular group to help administer the new territory, invariably causing the hapless majority to deeply resent the chosen minority. Together with the meaningless boundaries, such divide and- rule strategies undermined loyalty to the new nation. Instead, as the end of colonial rule and the emergence of independent African governments drew nearer, the state came to be seen as an ethnic preserve rather than a national entity. Control of the state became the means to reward the rulers’ ethnic followers and to exploit, oppress, or ignore all others.
This phenomenon is still prevalent. Political parties and liberation movements became — and often remain — the instruments of specific ethnic groups. This made untenable the notion of a loyal opposition that could form a new government after winning a free election. It would be tantamount to turning the state over to an illegitimate, antagonistic, and hitherto excluded ethnic group. For the loser, surrendering control of the instruments of the state meant losing everything under a new ethnicity-based government. The role of government came to be seen not as developing the entire nation but as maintaining the loyalty of the rulers’ followers and clients. Political dictatorship became the form of government most appealing to ruling groups. Conversely, violent coups to usurp those dictatorships, often led by factions within the military, seemed the logical means for marginalized groups to dislodge them. Voluntarily surrendering power was unthinkable, sometimes literally suicidal. A substantial chunk of post-independence African history, from the Biafran War to the genocide in Rwanda, can be accounted for in this way.
Much of the tumult that has engulfed Africa over the past half-century results from policies imposed by European powers during the colonial era. All metropolitan governments criminally neglected the welfare of their colonies. Colonies had one purpose only — to serve the interests of the metropole. Only when the spectre of independence finally loomed after World War II was some small thought given to local interests. Even then, until the very last moment, the Belgians in the Congo, the British in Kenya, the French in Guinea, and the Portuguese in Mozambique demonstrated all that was most malignant about colonialism.
Historian Walter Rodney caught the spirit with his powerful indictment of the colonial system, neatly summarized in the title of his 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In country after country, independence was ushered in under ethnic leaders pretending to be nationalists, in countries with minimal infrastructure or human capacity, with a heritage of violence and authoritarianism, and through structures that drained Africa’s wealth and resources to the rich world.
Next week: African ruling elites, Western governments, the corporate world, plus the new international financial institutions connive to perpetuate old patterns under new circumstances.
By Gerald Caplan
Gerald, Principal author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide (2000) has been a senior consultant to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
First Published in The Walrus Magazine