Sub-Saharan Africa


It is tempting to write off Africa politically and economically, but Latin America did not look much better after the first half-century of independence. Democracy cannot be handed down as a gift. It has a price which must be paid at the expense of personal advantage and immediate satisfaction – an everyday tribute of ordinary morality. Africa has abundant social capital but this is not enough.

A harsh continent

In South-Saharan Africa communication and transports are hampered by the scarcity of harbors and navigable waterways. In vast areas, the tsetse fly excludes livestock-keeping and curtails husbandry; trade relied exclusively on porters. Diseases laid (and still lay) a heavy burden on tropical Africa. Chronic infections and the climate put a damper on human activities.

All the same, major kingdoms arose like Ghana (c.900–1240), Mali (c.1200–1450), Monomotapa (c.1450–1629) and its mythic forerunner Great Zimbabwe. Their success was built on military might coupled to distant trade in gold, ivory and slaves. The transport difficulties facilitated monopolization and big profits which propped up the kingdoms and the ruling elite. In the 19th century, the Europeans encountered well-organized societies, for instance the Ashanti, Uganda and Dahomey (which mustered terrifying amazons), but they did not match the power of the earlier states.

The Bantu expansion swept through most of Sub-Saharan Africa about 2,000 years ago, wiping out Pygmies, Bushmen and Hottentots in the process. The exploits of Shaka, the Zulu king (c.1787–1828), is a late episode in that migration of peoples. In the 1820s, he laid waste to most of the present-day Natal province in South-Africa and precipitated turmoil in the interior. This struggle for lebensraum (called Mfekene, the Crushing) left about 2.000.000 dead on the ground and when the Boers entered in the 1830s on their Great Trek, they moved into an almost empty land.

In Africa, only Ethiopia features a continuous history which goes back to the beginning of our common era. The country was converted to Christianity in the fourth century and has conserved the external attributes of the Coptic Church. In the eighth century, Ethiopia was a major power and battled with Islamic conquerors for the control of the Red Sea. The societal dynamic fizzled out but tokens of the cultural heritage were preserved to modern times, despite a temporary breakdown in the 18th century.

Genocide writ large

In 1972 the ruling Tutsi minority in Burundi dispatched most of the rising middle class of the putatively inferior Bahutu tribe. Around 100,000 people were cut down while world opinion barely frowned at the blood-letting. (Since then the tables have been turned and the Tutsis are now the underdog).

When genocide is imminent, the UN statutes prescribe immediate intervention but the Security Council has regularly acted too late and too feebly. The aborted intervention in the Ruandan massacres in 1994, when up to one million humans were slaughtered, is the biggest scandal in the history of the United Nations.

In Sudan the UN representatives have carefully avoided describing the bloodletting in Darfur as genocide to avoid exposing the lack of decisiveness. The AU (African Union) was constituted in 2002 with high-flying goals but its operations, for instance in Somalia, have been inept. Resolute interventions by Great Britain (in Sierra Leone) and France (in the Ivory Coast) show that order can be restored with very limited means.

The overpopulation of many poor countries creates a chronic tension, externally and internally. Where subsistence agriculture is the norm, all available land is soon utilized. The gruesome showdown between the Tutsis and the Hutus in Burundi and Ruanda was related to the struggle for lebensraum in the countryside. Ethnical cleansing is the final consequence of the clash between cultures, races and economic interest in diverse combination.

Colonialism – the scapegoat

The developing countries tend to perceive themselves as the victims of colonial exploitation. It is high time for them to face the facts, revise their world-view and tackle their own faults. Then outside support could achieve a sorely needed lever effect. The perniciousness of colonialism is a myth ready to be buried. If it were to be the source of all evil, then Ethiopia, Liberia, Haiti and Afghanistan should be problem-free. South-Africa, on the other hand, was the most thoroughly colonized country on the continent. But under the enlightened guidance of Nelson Mandela it opened a new chapter in its history by resolutely turning away from its past and facing the future challenges.

Liberia was founded by American abolitionists as a haven for liberated slaves. In 1847 the country declared its independence. It was governed with moderate success as a semi-democratic one-party state by American-Liberian power-brokers. However, the tribes of the hinterland had never been integrated and the discontent erupted in 1980 in a coup d’état. President Tolbert and his closest associates were murdered and Samuel Doe of the Krahn tribe was installed as President. Doe was tortured to death in 1990 by Yormie Johnson of the Gio tribe. The procedure was videotaped and spread for propaganda purposes.

Charles Taylor, a man of mixed provenance and the force behind the coup against Doe, took control in 1997 after a drawn-out civil war, but international pressure forced him to resign. He is now facing trial before an international court for crimes against humanity. Such events are not restricted to Liberia. Worse atrocities, for instance the mutilation of children, have occurred in other countries, but there the blame can conveniently be thrown on colonialism. The share of bad people is hardly higher in Africa than elsewhere, but in the absence of an adequate political structure they often have a free rein.

An unearned resource flow tends to increase corruption and creates an unsound dependence on the donors; for the middlemen the aid often turns into just a profitable business. Michael Maren tells us in The Road to Hell (1997) about the adverse side of development aid. The subtitle The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity says it all. Somalia is Maren’s foremost example. In the 1980s, the dictator Siyaad Barre vied with diverse clan chiefs for the exploitation of the goodies pouring in. The development projects increased the internal tensions and a substantial part of the imported food was used for financing domestic warfare.

A sea of trouble

Principally in Africa there are a number of states in different degrees of dissolution. These failed states are unstable and are mostly governed by dictators of variable longevity. In the absence of an outside intervention, the situation looks hopeless and no end to the sufferings of the people can be perceived. The streams of refugees multiply the problem. Liberia and Somalia have been discussed but unfortunately they are not unique. In the Congo, anarchy has for long been the normal condition, and Zimbabwe is heading in the same direction; Sudan is on the fringe of civil war.

Many African countries are on the skids and totally dependent on outside support. The grip of incompetent central governments has contributed to the decay, but federalist constitutions along tribal lines have not fared much better. In any case, a durable democratization of the failed or collapsing states is impracticable without help from the outside world. But the present praxis is a glorious mess. On average, thirty different organizations vie for the opportunity to offer support to a less developed country. This cannot go on.

In vast regions, such as South East Asia and Latin America, the population increase is subsiding. The exceptions are many Islamic countries and Sub-Saharan Africa; Mali and Niger are at the top of the fertility league, featuring an average of over seven children for every fertile woman. Some populous countries too, like Nigeria and Ethiopia, have a high birth rate only partly compensated by the high mortality. But in South Africa, the population is decreasing due to the Aids epidemic; a round twenty percent of the fertile population is infected.

Famine and population explosion do not tally. Africa cannot be as wretched as the slanted media reporting indicates. Africans, too, complain about the one-sided news coverage of their continent. Still, when the resources exceed the subsistence level the surplus is literally eaten up by the population increase.

HIV is spread predominantly by sexual contacts. In the worst afflicted areas the authorities and the people have been equally determined to hush up the matter, despite the fact that condoms provide adequate protection. The inability to face unpalatable realities is the cause of unnecessary suffering and premature death. In Sub-Saharan Africa, many countries are still in deep trouble despite the extensive international support. Outside Africa the aids threat is less acute due to different sexual mores.

Slavery is supposed to be abolished but it is still widespread particularly in Central Africa – in Niger the number of slaves is put at 43,000. Recently 7000 slaves were to be publicly released but the government changed its mind and frankly declared that there are no slaves in Niger. In Chad, Mali and Mauretania there are many slaves, too. No sanctions are contemplated by the international community; on the contrary, the slave countries enjoy considerable development aid. World opinion does not react because it would mark out dark-skinned people as slave-drivers and increase prejudices. Meanwhile slavery goes on and nobody lifts a finger.

Discouraging beginnings

When decolonization opened the door for formal democracy, Ghana became the first entrant in 1956. Kwame Nkrumah (1909–72), the charismatic President, was met with considerable expectations. The British were in a position to transfer a rather flourishing country with a well-functioning administration and a prospering but fragile economy.

All the same, the problems started to pile up. Nkrumah rule of his one-party state became increasingly arbitrary; in 1960, a change in the constitution gave him autocratic powers. Nepotism and corruption spread like wildfire in politics and the state-governed economy; ministers routinely charged a commission of ten percent on government purchases. Nkrumah’s agricultural policy impoverished the farmers while the available capital was spent on silly industrial investments. Education and health care had got a promising start but soon deteriorated for lack of resources; a substantial part of the trained personnel emigrated. Nkrumah’s grandiose foreign initiatives came to nothing. As a sideshow he supported rebellions in neighboring countries.

In 1965, Nkrumah was deposed by a junta of generals and new military coupes followed in tight succession, interspersed with short-aged attempts at civilian rule. In 1992 Jerry Rawlings seized power for the third time and managed, against the odds, to initiate a democratic political tradition.

Elsewhere in black Africa, the situation is bleaker. Instead of rather well-meaning personalities like Nkrumah and Rawlings we are in many places faced with ruthless extortionists, vying with each other in brutality, venality and incompetence. Well-educated idealists, like Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and Hastings Banda (1896–1997) in Malawi, were also corrupted by their unlimited power; ultimately they presided over poorhouses. Only Julius Nyerere in Tanzania was sensible enough to retire when his Utopian socialism had failed.

The majority of developing countries, especially in Africa, have not been fertile ground for foreign investment with the exception of high margin extractive industries (oil, gas and minerals). Uncertainty discourages any long-term investment without the participation of influential politicians – even so the probability of a coup d’état must also be taken into consideration. It is no longer fashionable to take over the whole state behind the scenes as was done by big American business in the so-called banana republics of the 1920s.

A chance for democracy

It is ironic that present-day South Africa is building on the democratic legacy taken over from the internationally condemned apartheid regime. The truth commission has come to terms with the past and laid the foundation for racial reconciliation. Despite the high criminality, the judicial system is working right up to the superior court and the media are free. Among the blacks land hunger is strong but arbitrary measures, model Zimbabwe, are not on the agenda. The income differences are big but so far the white minority has not been harassed. The emigration of skilled people is on the increase and South African companies are diversifying abroad but international capital is moving in. The moderate Africanization of ownership and management has not yet affected productivity. The weakness of the opposition is a problem. South Africa is in practice a one party state and has yet to face the political maturity test – a genuine change of government.

Besides South-Africa, few African countries of any significance carry conviction as democracies. Botswana and Senegal, where the legendary Léopold Senghor (1906–2001) laid the foundations for his nation, stand out while the Ivory Coast, which was long held up as another bright spot, has been engulfed in an extended civil conflict. A democratic power shift is difficult to imagine in most countries. In one-party states, succession is always a problem; presidential insistence on a lifelong mandate does not make it any easier. It is tempting to write off Africa politically and economically, but Latin America did not look much better after the first half-century of independence. Democratic learning is a slow process.

Democracy cannot be handed down as a gift. It has a price which must be paid in the shape of the respect for superordinate rules of the game, and at the expense of personal advantage and immediate satisfaction. Rarely does it demand heroic sacrifices, but instead an everyday tribute of ordinary morality. Africa has abundant social capital but this is not sufficient. The new overarching plus-sum game must be built from the ground in the family, in the school, in the congregation.

Christian mission is widely considered old-fashioned and is accused of undermining local cultures, among other things. The religious enthusiasm may at times have been excessive but the quest for better education and health care has certainly not been in vain. Edward Gibbon took to blaming Christianity for the downfall of the Roman Empire but in the final analysis, evangelization was the key to a better plus-sum game. Africa’s local traditions, too, must be supplemented at the grass roots level to create a chance for democracy. There are worse alternatives than Christian learning and indoctrination.