On the Causes of the General Failures of Africa, Encountered Post-Independence

G. Stolyarov II
Issue XIV - May 5, 2003
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The majority of Africa’s economic and political lag behind the remainder of the world can be attributed to three key factors, the fomentation of strife and lack of preparation for independence on the part of certain Western powers, power-lusting governments that drain wealth from the nations into their own rulers’ accounts, and a prevalent tribalist/collectivist mindset within the populace that has frequently been evoked to bring about colossal tensions.

Numerous Western powers performed scant actions to grant their African colonies the requisite experience with the democratic system, technological preparation, and overall enlightenment of the population to achieve genuine functionality at the time of independence. For example, at the time Belgium relinquished possession of its Congo colony (present-day Zaire), only a handful of high school graduates remained as the most educated class in the country, and a mere five hundred miles of paved road existed. A mere six years earlier, the country’s first university was founded (French 3). Historian Howard French reveals that Belgian officials had expected to maintain control of the Congo for several more decades and continue extracting resources from it and shipping them to the European mainland. Belgian companies were interested in the exports, not in the province of Congo itself and hence did not explicitly direct themselves toward erecting any manner of transportation, education, or judicial infrastructures greater than were necessary for the expedient delivery of goods to the ports and their prompt departure. These practices left the colony incapable of self-management and lacking a sturdy foundation for development. Moreover, searching for a source of labor without wishing to provide due compensation, Belgium’s administration sought to subdue the majority Hutu peoples in the east of the Congo via the manufacture of an ethnic elite out of the neighboring Tutsi group (French 3). They praised the Tutsis for their lighter skin color in hopes that they, in exchange, would view their ethnicity to be an inherent divide between them and the Hutus and assist Belgium in the forced economic exploitation of the latter, viewing it to be an act of self-defense against the “infidels.” Among imperialist powers, Belgium’s government was anomalous in that it granted almost zero recognition to the fundamental liberties of its subjects, especially during the Congo Free State period (1885-1908).

Even following independence, Belgium sought to promote its economic interests in Zaire not using rational persuasion, negotiation, and trade contracts, but the brute force of the military coup. The first Zairian Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was promptly overthrown and assassinated by a Belgian-inspired coup, for he was “seen as a threat” (French 4). He was replaced by a military dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who erected a system of government that existed only in name, as his administration was hollow on the inside and its capacity to enforce law and order in the country was close to non-existent while the profits to be made from exploiting Zaire’s natural resources flowed into his private coffers. While the Belgian Congo’s infrastructural, tribal, and government problems are on the high end of the spectrum of imperialism-generated African misery, other nations have also been negatively influenced by certain errors of Western powers, the most notable of which was leaving Africa to its own devices too early on in its development. The European presence was sufficiently long-lasting to undermine old hierarchies of power and unseat traditional authorities and systems of subjugation, however “not long enough to replace them with new ways of life or establish new systems of government” (The Economist 2). An example of the symptoms of that failure is the appointment of a white foreigner to head the Kenya Commercial Bank due to lack of any native Kenyans with the requisite experience. In nearby Uganda, Britain had left the nation with no competent civilian or military leaders whatsoever, and this vacuum allowed for the rise of a lowly officer with the intellect of an ape, Idi Amin, to the very top of the nation’s military hierarchy and subsequently into the position of authoritarian dictator (A&E Biography).

Africa’s exposure to the essential ideological mindset involved in a democratic society has also been scant. One of the hallmarks of such a system is a smooth transition of power during an election where the incumbent loses the office. Only a handful of leaders had ever renounced power following defeats in African elections, including Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, and Alpha Konare in Mali, all of these phenomena occurring within the past three years. It is more frequent that leaders such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe rig elections by tossing out hundreds of thousands of votes and haranguing, frequently even torturing and murdering opposition leaders and voters, via informal squadrons of thugs known as “war veterans” (60 Minutes). While a democratic veneer may somewhat have been established as an aftermath of the colonial era, the essence of numerous African leaders’ perceptions regarding the nature of their power remains authoritarian. European powers simply did not provide the cultural atmosphere of a progressive, Western, rights-respecting system long enough to ingrain it into the African milieu.

Yet many of Africa’s current failures can be attributed to the tainted nature of many past and present governments themselves, not merely the sociocultural settings established by Europeans that in part contributed to their ascent to power. Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1978, was a butcher of colossal proportions who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his political opponents and frequently exhibited a sadistic attraction to killing methods of the utmost brutality (A&E Biography). In the meantime, he postured to the Western media as a friendly and simple man who was more of a lovable sensation than a tyrannical committer of religious and secular atrocities against both white missionaries and black malcontents.

In Nigeria a military regime also emerged, although this one was rendered possible by the existence of a corrupt government beforehand that squandered immense oil profits for personal appropriations  and incited the anger of the populace by depriving them of much needed resources, especially at a time of plummeting world oil prices in the 1980s (Ahmad 123). The military promised to weed out this corruption and enforce order, but its own management of the country was racked by incompetent policies and human rights abuses. General Ibrahim Babangida, for example, had abolished imports of wheat, rice, and other goods as part of a protectionist policy that defied common sense, especially at a time of rapidly booming population (it is expected to triple by 2020) and its drift toward the cities, which implied a smaller number of farmers and a diminished domestic yield of crops. Moreover, Nigerian city dwellers’ standard of living declined due to their general preference of imported crops, such as wheat and rice, which they were now unable to obtain, to locally grown ones such as millet and sorghum (Ahmad 124). Babangida’s edict was a violation of their consumer sovereignty and hence a detriment to the well-being of Nigeria. Nigeria has also experienced human rights violations, such as the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had complained about the rampant oil pollution in Ogoniland, a major producing area of Nigeria, as detrimental to living standards and productivity. He and eight other colleagues were supposedly accused of murdering three tribal chiefs, but “it was patently a political case” (Russell 123). The Nigerian government mistakenly believes that it can attain efficiency at the cost of suppressing dissenting voices, but what it truly attains is a gradual decline in the living conditions within its country due to the fact that mismanagement is not checked by opposing agendas, and no alternative is offered to the frequently fallacious government approach.

In the meantime, the Rwandan government has exploited the Tutsi-Hutu tensions, whose seeds had been planted by the Belgian administrators, in order to cling to power and suppress a rival ethnic faction. On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu who sought cooperation across ethnic lines, was shot out of the sky by Hutu extremists who promptly seized control of the mechanisms of governments, established roadblocks via proxy mobs in order to intercept and murder fleeing refugees, while broadcasting over the radio incitements of hatred to Hutu peasants, which justified to them the confiscation of scarce land from their Tutsi neighbors after the killing of the latter in mass and without any moral reservations. In all, over a million people were killed during three weeks of genocide (Russell 88).

In Kenya, another tainted authoritarian regime had ruled via Machiavellian manipulation as well as cruder elements of imposition. Daniel arap Moi, in the 1992 election, had promised to combat tribalism and urged for national unity, yet following his victory, he unleashed thugs from his Kalenjin tribe against Luos, Luyha and Kikuyu peasant farmers, with the expropriation and displacement into refugee camps of 300,000 people as the result (Russell 91). Moi tends to be tactful with his opponents and feigns concessions and understanding, as he had done with opposition politician Richard Leakey. However, as Leakey’s party began to gain momentum, Moi instructed for Leakey’s house to be surrounded by armed forces, and for Leakey to be beaten by police and prison officials (Russell 92). The subtlety of this approach rendered it even more dangerous, as its manifestations of abuse were not self-evident before the masses and thus did not promote widespread resistance. Moi had enjoyed a secure hold on power while posturing as a just and democratic ruler. The fomentation of ethnic rivalries, as exerted by Rwandan and Kenyan leaders in order to rally the people behind them and against a scapegoat is detrimental to the color-blind free association that underlies all relationships of trade and mutual economic gain.

But nowhere is the example of horrendous government mismanagement better illustrated than in Zimbabwe, under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. At the time of independence, Zimbabwe was a dynamic producer of grain sufficient to feed the entirety of its own populace and export a plentiful amount to its neighbors. Presently, however, the nation is threatened by a famine and the starvation of millions. Mugabe, in the manner of Moi, had originally claimed to be acting with disregard to racial prejudices and “forgetting the wrongs of the past” (Ahmad 128). Yet, to temporarily rally political support, he began to play the race card as early as 1992, when the government “bought” land from white farmers (responsible for 40% of the country’s output, despite being a mere 1% of the population) (60 Minutes) in order to redistribute it to people who were later expected to thank their “benefactor” at the ballot box. Moreover, Mugabe’s own cronies were appeased by land grants that seemed to favor them (Ahmad 129). With no resistance brooked by Mugabe’s “war veterans” and their reign of terror, Mugabe has moved to espousing a stance according to which whites are no longer welcome in Zimbabwe and are held responsible for the nation’s perils, when the genuine responsibility lies with Mugabe himself. With the chronic oppression and murder of the nation’s food producers, it is no wonder that Zimbabwe is rapidly collapsing to a point where it is no longer capable of feeding its own citizens!

What lies at the root of the ability of such malignant governments to prevail throughout the continent is a cultural mindset of paternalism, tribalism, and collectivism which results in a lack of individual stimuli to success for ordinary Africans, as well as their falling easy prey to the charlatans and brutes who call themselves benevolent officials.  According to The Economist, Africa’s harsh climate contributed, from the earliest periods of its history, to an uncertainty about a given society’s long-term survival. Therefore, most Africans focused not on economic strategies rationally planned into the future, but rather the extraction of maximum pleasure from the resources of today. Their systems of government, small authoritarian kingdoms in their majority, were similarly short-sighted and unable to recognize the inherent benefits of democracy and free-market capitalism. Even African businesses, most of which dissipate following the death of an influential founder, fall prey to this trend. All of these phenomena are united by a delusional conception of the individual’s powerlessness and submission of personal authority to a “higher power”, Nature, Fate, Whim, Chance, The Tribe, or The State.
This submission is the reason for the receptiveness of the people of Tanzania to Julius Nyerere’s paternalistic system of social welfare. Nyerere’s usurpation of major private industrial sectors, as well as of health care and the job market, was met with a genuine desire on the part of the Tanzanian people to receive these services from the government, to have them “taken care of” instead of taking care of them themselves. Despite a slight alleviation of corruption by Nyerere’s regime, the expected consequence of paternalism, namely, decreased productivity, had taken its toll as market prices for Tanzanian exports dropped (due, perhaps, to decreased quality of goods manufactured by a monopoly, the government) (Ahmad 113).

The mentality of Africans in regard to figures of authority is contrary to that of citizens in a free, democratic society, where an official is expected to portray himself as “just another human being with sound ideas” and reach out to the populace instead of proclaiming his superiority as the “Big Man”. The populace desires from African politicians a lavish display of detachment from the concerns and hardships of everyday life, and, in fact if not in name, government officials in nations such as Zimbabwe display loyalty to the ruler, not to the nation (The Economist 6). Instead of being a servant of the people, the culture expects government to be a master, and a stern one at that. This conception lies at the root of a major stumbling block to Africa’s democratization. More than 80 percent of Africans believe that democracy should deliver jobs and access to education (Swarns and Onishi 4), which is a dangerously erroneous conception. Individual free choice is the hallmark of a democracy, as well as non-intervention in one’s
pursuit of happiness. Yet the happiness and the opportunities can never be guaranteed in a truly democratic society, for they can only be thus allotted at the expense of others’ property and association rights; hence the dictatorial displays that frequently go unpunished in Africa’s government. As said the illustrious American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, “When people find that they can vote themselves money, that will be the end of the Republic.” The most tragic feature of African culture in regard to this is that such a mindset has been assumed before a true republic had even begun!

Collectivism, another ideological plague of Africa, is a sibling to paternalism. The Economist suggests that it was collectivism and the rampant tribal warfare in the interior of the continent (such as the Zulus overrunning and exterminating ethnic groups near the southern tip) that weakened Africa for the successful takeover of European powers and the significant mismanagement discussed earlier. Moreover, it is collectivism and the fragmentation of Africa into thousands of tribes that opens power pathways to power-lusting government officials, such as Hutu extremists in Rwanda, Moi in Kenya, Idi Amin in Uganda, and the orthodox government of Sudan’s Muslim north (which also harbored Osama bin Laden in 1992 and assisted him in training his Al Qaeda martyrs) and its repression of southern Christians in an on-and-off civil war that had claimed about a million lives (The Africans). In regions where ethnic divisions are not so extreme (such as Zimbabwe, with only two major groups in an 80% to 20% ratio), dictators play the race card, another crude variant of collectivism. Mugabe has directed his populace against “the whites” to evade assuming personal responsibility for his mismanagement of the country. Moi also targets “the whites” of opposition parties, such as Richard Leakey. Not merely are these leaders exploiters of collectivism, however, but also products of it. “Leaders emerge from a society, and they remain a part of it” (The Economist 6). This is even demonstrated by those leaders’ adherence to the private wants of their families at the government’s expense. They are prepared to pay their relatives’ school fees and funeral dues and sacrifice their duty as officials for the sake of their micro-collective and the general notion that members of a group must “take care of each other before anything else,” a typical paternalist/collectivist mindset.   

Due to the detrimental vacuum left by European powers, the corrupt and malignant nature of many African governments, and a paternalist/collectivist mentality rampant in numerous African cultures, Africa’s current economic, political, and human rights standing is gloomy in comparison to the remainder of the world. One only hopes that democratization and free-market reforms will gradually reverse some of these scars of history and eliminate many Africans’ fundamental attitudinal flaws.

Works Cited:

Howard W. French. “The African Question: Who is to Blame?”

The Economist. “The heart of the matter.”

Alec Russell.
Big Men, Little People.

Iftikar Ahmad.
World Cultures. Chapter 5.

A&E Biography. “Idi Amin.”

Ali Mazuri. “The Africans.”

60 Minutes. Film on current events in Zimbabwe.

Rachel L. Swarns and Norimitsu Onishi. “Africa Creeps Along Path to Democracy.”

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