Africa In Retrospect

As a second-generation post-colonial African, I find it very necessary to look back at when the fight for independence and self-reliance began. I hear stories about valiant men and women who gave up their lives for the continent and helped to manifest the dream of an independent continent that would be capable of managing its own affairs. Indeed, this era (the 1950s and 60s) was a period of great advancement and conflict as Africans had to fight for their rights and for their land from colonial rulers who had established dominance and control over their respective colonies and its resources. My father was born in a Kpando, a village in Ghana (then the Gold Coast), during the early 1950s and he frequently recounts this period of struggle for power with sheer nostalgia; patriotism was at an all-time high as the feeling of hope and the desire for freedom resonated with everyone. This shared conviction of a better continent ran throughout all the 54 states that currently exist. But now, most people are skeptical about the continent’s ability to deliver on the international stage, and Africa has become a paragon of poverty and corruption. What happened? What caused this continent that was full of hope and potential to end up as a ridiculed and undermined world power today? There are many questions that need to be answered and it is only by thoroughly analyzing this problem from its roots that we shall be able to understand why Africa turned out this way.

Africa image

Many issues are responsible for Africa’s slow progress. The resources are there, but they are being mismanaged and money is being heavily embezzled by people in positions of authority. With so much corruption and poor work ethic in public offices, it is no surprise that we have not achieved most of the targets we set. In the year 2000, the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, which consisted of its 189 member states, agreed to achieve 8 Development Goals by 2015: To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability and to develop a global partnership for development ( Despite great strides made by many African countries, no country has been able to achieve all of these goals and thus, as a concerned son of the continent, I decided to find out why. My research into this whole conundrum led me to a number of comprehensive studies, statistics and opinions that enable us to give an unbiased analysis of what has happened to the continent over the last 60 years.

First, we have to look back at history to give us the appropriate context to analyze these issues. The story about colonialism is one every African who passed through the Primary and Secondary school system knows. Colonialism started in the 15th century when the Portuguese landed on African soil in 1471 and found the land to be very fertile, with an abundance of fruits, vegetables and minerals. The only problem however was that the native people already occupied the land. Famous kingdoms such as the Great Malian empire of Timbuktu and the Old Ghana Empire existed as people were already ‘civilized’ and had their own system of government. After living amongst the natives for a while, the Europeans discovered the weaknesses in the administrative, economic and military structure of the Africans. Soon enough, trade agreements and treaties were signed between the Africans and Europeans to foster economic development and military assistance.  Slave raiders from the North, particularly people from North Africa, known as the Berbers, were a great problem to most societies as they captured people and took them in as slaves for their Kingdom in the North. The Europeans witnessed this occurrence and were influenced into doing the same and that is how the Trans-Atlantic slave trade began, but that is not important to the content of this paper. As time went on, leaders of local communities were enticed with musketry from the Europeans to defend themselves and in exchange they gave then minerals and spices. Eventually, this process transformed into a dependence on foreign products and assistance and this aided the Europeans to take full control of these settlements and share them among themselves while creating artificial administrative borders that would be easy to manage. That is how countries were born in Africa. The French, British, Portuguese and Germans divided the continent into various states that served their selfish interests and for about 400 years, the continent was looted and exploited of its minerals, crops and human resource. After 400 years of oppression, Africans finally arose as they started revolting by the middle of the 20th century, and soon after, the fight for independence began (Nkrumah 10).

On the 6th of March 1957, Ghana became the first country south of the Sahara to gain independence. At the independence square in Accra, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah the first President of the nation highlighted the achievements of the country and the implications independence would have on other African States. He mounted the podium and for the first time the national anthem of an independent state was played. He spoke saying, “at last, the battle has ended, and Ghana our beloved country is free forever!” Great cheers from the crowd followed. Nkrumah later stated in his speech something that got many ears, especially foreign ones tingling, “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the African continent” (Ghana Voice YouTube). By the late 1960s almost every country on the continent had attained independence.  Nkrumah was ahead of his time and envisioned a united Africa that would have flourished and would have been able to stand its ground on the international community. In “Africa must unite,” a book he wrote after independence, Nkrumah reiterated the fact that only a united continent based upon an economic and defense policy would be able to resist former colonies that still had interests in the continent’s resources. He categorically stated that an individualistic approach would leave each country very susceptible to foreign influence, curtail the potential of the continent and in the long run threaten the sovereignty of each nation (14). He couldn’t have been more right, because not long after independence, Nkrumah, along with visionaries from fellow African states were systematically taken out and thus were unable to foster the agenda for national and continental unity. Not one of them was left to live as they were martyred, one by one.

Victoria Brittain, associate foreign editor of the Guardian wrote a fascinating article about the martyring of African leaders entitled, “Africa: a continent drenched in the blood of revolutionary heroes” and it highlights the power play and manipulation that went on during the early post-independence period. She stated that Patrice Lumumba, who was Prime Minister of newly independent Congo, was the second of five leaders of independence movements in African countries to be assassinated in the 1960s by their former colonial masters, or their agents. A sixth, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was ousted in a western-backed coup in 1966, and a seventh, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the west African liberation movement against Portugal of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC) in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, was assassinated in 1973. The loss of this group of leaders, who all knew each other, and had a common political project based on national dignity, crippled each of their countries, and the African continent. The effects are still evident today.  According to Brittain who has worked in Africa and the Middle East for over 15 years, these visionary leaders had a common understanding and plan that was foiled by foreign countries that staged assassinations and coups to hinder development of the continent while promoting their interests by making it easy to exploit resources from  nations in turmoil. The Congo, which is the focus of her article, is a country that is plagued by poverty and tribalism. No leader since its founder, Patrice Lumumba has been able to foster rapid development and solve endemic issues. The CIA and Belgium have been accused of meddling in many African countries’ affairs and funding rebel groups but none of this can be substantiated based on the fact that any of these documents that may pertain to these issues are top secret and kept from the public. Brittain suggests that the west was afraid that Africa was going to align itself with the Soviet Union and adopt communism as a system of government and would thus limit their ability to obtain resources from the countries as a key reason for their alleged influence in African affairs.

Africa thus never got the chance to co-operate fully with its fellow countries as political turmoil and insurrection were hindering factors. The United States of Africa: a dream shared by Mugabe, Nkrumah, and Gaddafi was never realized and in our present day situation, it seems almost unwise to hope that Africa can become a country divided into 54 states.  David Smith, African correspondent for The Guardian, highlighted the divergent views that African leaders today have pertaining to the unified front ideology. Smith highlights various views in his article that were shared during the 88th summit of the African Union, A United States of Africa spanning Cape Town and Cairo was proposed by Gaddafi in 1999 as a way of ending the continent’s conflicts and defying the west, but it failed to secure enough support from his African counterparts. Some suspected that Gaddafi wanted the job for himself – a charge that can also be laid at the feet of Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. Speaking in Harare after meeting Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, who is also the outgoing African Union (AU) chairman, Mugabe argued that a figurehead is needed to move Africa beyond regional blocs and into the global Super league. ‘Get them to get out of the regional shell and get into one continental shell,’ he was quoted as saying by the state-owned Herald newspaper. This excerpt showed that President Mugabe and Gaddafi believed that a unified front was still possible but not all people at the summit shared the same sentiments. Smith also interviewed Lindiwe Zulu, international relations adviser to South African president Jacob Zuma. Her opinion on the topic was “I don’t foresee a single United States of Africa with a single president because we are so diverse politically and otherwise. It is very desirable in the long term but I don’t see it any time soon. There is a lot more to be done. We are still agonizing over sovereignty.” These varying opinions highlight the divisions that colonialism and democracy has brought to the continent (Smith).

Due to all these different ideologies and generally poor leadership, Africa has become the laughing stock of the world. There is a lot of ignorance about the current state of affairs on the continent by foreigners. I have been asked, by colleagues from outside the continent, whether I sleep on trees, hunt animals for food and so on. This situation is a very sad one. Despite the fact that Africa is not as developed as the western world, there are some positive aspects of the continent that are never highlighted. It must also be said that it is unfair to use the same yardstick countries use to measure development, because independent Africa is just about 60 years old, which is still relatively young. It took the USA about 300 years to become the global super power it is today.

Africa faces so many socio-economic problems but a lot of propositions and initiatives are being implemented to improve the current situation and thus, propel the continent to a whole new level.  Most people only know the negative facts and figures about Africa; Sub-Saharan Africa which consists of 48 of the 54 African countries, remains to date, the poorest region in the world with its combined gross domestic product (GDP) per capita estimated to be only $1,869 (World Bank 2009). However, many fail to see that some of our problems are due to pressure by foreign powers to practice a particular system of government that these powers accept, not one that will necessarily foster development. Countries that practice democracy are the ones that are given strategic assistance and thus, without a democratic Government, it would be hard to be accepted by the international community and would make it even harder to develop but, is democracy really helping Africa? Dr. Vishal Chandr Jaunky, a prominent economist and professor at the Centre for Energy Policy and Economics, ETH Zürich, Zürichbergstrasse has the answers to this pressing question. In 2012 he conducted a study into the relationship between democracy and development on the continent. In his Economic Analysis Report, Democracy and economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa: a panel data approach, Dr. Jaunky conducted research on 28 sub-Saharan countries from 1980-2005 and by using key economical analytical frameworks such as the Freedom House indices and the Blundell–Bond system, he concluded that Democracy has no impact on economic growth in the short-run which is consistent with the skeptical hypothesis of most modern economists (18). However, economic growth does cause higher democracy in the short-run. This highlights the fact that the international community’s pressure on African countries is not necessarily helping to foster development on the continent. Instead, smooth power transitions and shrewd managing of resources are the key to development as highlighted by the study. The establishment of the 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) programme under the aegis of the African Union illustrates the will of the African states to eliminate conflicts and push towards a democratic system of governance (19). All that is needed is time and help with our financial troubles; if African countries are helped with these problems, democracy would be fostered and everyone would benefit.

Corrupt officials are a huge problem that keep pulling African nations backwards. The situation is so bad in East and West Africa that the practice has been accepted as a normal behavior of politicians. These politicians see the call to serve as a call to wealth and embezzle large sums of money during their terms of office. These corrupt officials have been giving the continent a bad name and this has had a negative effect on foreign investment in Africa. Dr.Rahim M. Quazi’s publication in the Global Journal of Business Research,” Effects of Corruption and Regulatory environment on Foreign Direct Investment: A Case Study of Africa,” showed that foreign investment had reduced from $72 billion in 2008 to $50 billion in 2012. This is due to the poor regulatory structure on the continent which makes it risky to invest in the continent because accountability and transparency are not always adhered to. Many scholars argue that corruption cannot be completely eradicated but they all agree that corruption can be greatly reduced by raising the living standards of the people and by providing basic amenities for the society. Alfred Wong and Roxanne Gomes of the Social Justice Research Group, Friends of Aboriginal Health in Vancouver both agree that improving living conditions is the key to solving the issue of corruption and they provide this conclusion in their article Corruption in Modern-Day Africa: A Possible Remedy (27).

Clearly, the governments of Africa are not living up to the bill and this has greatly dwarfed its prospects. However, the Private Sector is slowly becoming the backbone of the “New African Revolution,” as I like to call it. Africans are starting to create their own businesses that will solve problems on the continent while providing quality services to the masses. A typical example of a sector that is experiencing a huge boom in Africa due to the private sector is the Telecommunications industry. Since its inception, Telecommunication giant Celtel has drastically improved the telephone service in sub-Saharan Africa and served 24 million customers in 14 countries until it was sold to Airtel in 2005. The brains behind Celtel was tech mogul Mo Ibrahim, A Sudanese electrical engineer and has since set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which publishes an index of African governance and awards cash prizes of up to one million dollars to African leaders who leave office peacefully. Ibrahim spoke to Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Stuart Reid in November 2014 and cited the fact that Rule of Law in the countries of his company’s operations was key to its running and he also stated that corrupt government officials that wanted a stake in the company’s profits were his greatest problem. Many industries are blowing up on the continent like the telecommunications industry and if we provide the enabling environment for them, they would greatly aid the government’s efforts to facilitate rapid growth.

For the continent to rise to an enviable position among the world elites, a lot has to be done to completely transform various governmental sectors and as such, after in-depth research into a pragmatic and feasible remedy for the continent, I found a suggestion by Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to be the most helpful and insightful. The OECD proposed a four policy framework that would help to propel the continent to the next level in its magazine, the OECD Observer. Their suggested framework is shown below:

  • The first layer consists of adopting policies designed to improve infrastructure, logistics and skills, as well as promoting private sector development. For instance, in South Africa, if constraints such as infrastructure bottlenecks, water scarcity, and skills and energy shortages were resolved, the mining sector could potentially grow by 3% to 4% annually until 2020 and generate at least 300,000 jobs.
  • A second layer consists of strengthening the natural resource sector through greater investments in value added activities and know-how, thereby generating more revenue for government and more job opportunities for Africans.
  • The third layer involves managing natural resources more efficiently and sustainably, putting in place a transparent and fair tax system, as well as promoting competition and fighting public and private corruption.
  • The fourth layer involves initiatives to raise agricultural productivity and build linkages to and from the extractive industries. The time is ripe for Africa to make better use of its natural resources and achieve more inclusive growth. The OECD is committed to working alongside African policymakers in this effort. We can share experiences and help design better policies through our dialogue and global forums. With the right policies and strategic approach, the social and economic progress of recent years could be the prelude to long-lasting, sustained prosperity in Africa. (OECD Observer 3)

As the OECD framework shows, for Africa to develop into the continent our forefathers had dreamt of, we have to foster development on all fronts and integrate them into a compact and dynamic system that would foster uniform growth of all spheres of the economy. It is very easy to become a skeptic when one looks at the current situation on the continent: xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Al-Shabab killing university students in Kenya, Isis killing Christians in Libya and Boko Haram clearing villages in Nigeria. Indeed, there is a lot of political instability and hatred on the continent and I find this to be because of our destroyed self-esteem and self-worth. 400 years of slavery and colonialism have rendered us unable to look beyond our shortcomings. Current leaders feel entitled to the high offices they occupy because they attained a high level of education by attending the best schools abroad. We see foreign products as the solution to our everyday needs and kill our own ingenuity. I live in Accra, Ghana and the current economic situation of the country is nothing to write home about. The country is experiencing intermittent power supplies and the country is about to join HIPC; Highly Indebted Poor Countries to receive aid and debt forgiveness. I am sure Nkrumah is turning in his grave.

Africans, myself included, sometimes fail to wake up from the nightmare we find ourselves in. We are still looking at the past and hoping that we could turn back time to correct the mistakes we made as nations and as a continent but deep down, we all know this is just a defense mechanism that kicks in when we feel all is lost. Our history is filled with bloodshed and the sacrifices of men and women who believed in the capability of the black man and we cannot afford to let them down. Africans need to start looking back at history as a tool to incite us to say no to mediocrity and inferiority. We need to use history as an agent of change and not just as a story of what could have been. We need to remember what people did to make our lives relatively easier than what theirs was and I strongly believe that if this is done, issues such as corruption, xenophobia and so on would greatly die down. Once we empower our minds and our hearts, our hands will be effected into productive activities that will make the world conscious of our presence and capability.

In spite of all these issues, I truly believe that Africa will eventually become a global super power and a force to be reckoned with. I just hope it happens during my lifetime for  as an optimist and Pan-African, it would be my desire to see the continent prove a point that Dr. Kwame wanted to show the whole world when he mounted the platform on the 6th of March 1957 that, “the African is capable of managing his own affairs.”

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