I was contacted by a third party through a friend this past week to answer a few questions on Africa and specifically my opinion of the continent . He wished to know what was wrong with Africa (particularly the inability to have coherent, functional nations), whose fault was this, and how do we work towards fixing the continent? As the third party stated, this “sounds easy, but the more you work it over the deeper it gets.” So, in the interest of time and not to overanalyze, I will be ditching my current method of research and revert back to my original form of communicating: freeform rambling. As this is largely an opinion piece, disagreements are expected and welcomed – all considerations will be addressed in the next revision.
The Problem of African Non-Functionality
If we accept the thesis that many of Africa’s nations are non-functional, we must ask ourselves why. Why are these nations so loosely defined and the ability to maintain a steady government so difficult? Why is civil war rampant? Why are revolutions common? Five answers seem plausible: poverty, disease, religion, racism and colonialism.
Poverty is the chief problem in Africa today, as highlighted by the recent Live 8 concerts and the G8 forum of 2005. Millions of people in nations across Africa are starving and impoverished. The poverty leads to other problems – particularly disease and the lack of proper government. Those who cannot afford to eat have little chance of organizing people or having an impact on any leadership.
The level of poverty in an African nation seems to roughly correlate to the leadership of the nation. The wealthiest countries in Africa (South Africa and Egypt, for example) have what we would call “modern” or “Western” forms of government. The wealthiest people (what we call the elite) are powerful enough to form governments that have all the conveniences of European governments and this brings them on a par with Europe and America when dealing with diplomatic issues.
By comparison, countries like Somalia have leadership that is less elite. Much of Somalia is dominated by what the media calls “warlords” because the difference in Somalia between leaders and citizens is the ability to feed yourself and own a gun. As the saying goes, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. In Somalia, the land of the hungry, the least starving man is king. However, the West does not see this as a legitimate government so little diplomacy takes place and the only contact with America seems to be through military intervention – actions that often do more harm than good. And there is no way for Somalia to establish a modern government to help the people, so the cycle is perpetual (no people to form government, no government to feed the people and stop warlords). A similar situation was seen in Afghanistan after the Taliban was crushed before the United States propped up their puppet Karzai.
The sources of poverty are twofold: one is that poverty breeds poverty. People who are poor tend to remain poor and their children will be poor. As the population increases, the level of poverty will grow (see also my article on overpopulation for an analysis of crop yields). The other source is that to end poverty there needs to be a way to generate income or revenue for the country and its people. This is accomplished by goods or services. Services, of course, are worthless in poverty-stricken countries because your neighbor cannot afford to pay you for any work done.
As for goods, Africa does not have goods to offer outsiders. The two most valuable resources in Africa are uranium and diamonds. A few years ago in the Gavin War Journal, I discussed the relationship between uranium and AIDS. Why would countries with deposits of uranium not sell these deposits for better wealth and health care? Even assuming a purely altruistic government would do this, the opportunity does not present itself. My brief investigation turned up the fact that the countries with uranium deposits were not the same countries with the highest AIDS levels. So taking one country’s revenue and using it on another country sounds great, but simply does not happen. An obvious example is comparing America’s attitudes towards Mexico. We’ll vacation there, but damned if we’ll support their people (while hypocritically sleeping with Canada). Terrorist threats? Drugs? Admit the real reasons: poverty and racism.
Diamonds, meanwhile, are even worse. The diamonds are in Africa, but they are owned by DeBeers, a Belgian corporation. What DeBeers does is keep poverty and civil war alive through their actions to keep wages low and output of diamonds high. So the Africans are not benefiting one iota from these people. No one really is, though. The Belgians practically steal the diamonds from the Africans and bring them to Belgium. From there, jewelers all over the world buy them at inflated prices. And once home, the jewelers raise the prices again. A diamond costing $100 in Belgium will cost about $600 or more in America. And how does this get by us? Because the average consumer sees the value of a diamond as more important than these other issues. Odd, seeing as there is no practical use for a diamond and they are anything but rare (everyone in America has one).
Disease keeps the Africans non-functional the same way as poverty. Certain states have HIV rates well over 30%. Think of everyone you know, and imagine that one in three have AIDS. While in the early stages this does little to affect people, in the long run the disease becomes unstoppable. Health care costs are at an all time high, relying almost exclusively on foreign doctors. Trying to get a sizable labour force is difficult. So, the government falters. Even if the government is wealthy and disease-free, you cannot govern a state of diseased citizens. Your concerns would be purely domestic and the AIDS problem would likely overshadow all other decisions.
Keep in mind what smallpox did to the Native Americans.
Traditional African religion is more tribal in nature (what we call animism). While much of Africa today is Christian or Muslim, the lack of Christianity in their earlier years slowed them from forming Western governments. Many African cultures had chiefs and more loosely based communal structures rather than nation-states. Again, this is not unlike the Native Americans who had a people but had no clearly defined borders or mass hierarchy.
Europe had Christianity since at least the Middle Ages (and earlier in some nations). Christianity reinforced the idea of hierarchy and led to more solid nation states in Europe. Each king was a representative of God and his people were following God’s orders. This level and breadth of power simply did not exist anywhere in Africa (besides perhaps Egypt). This is not to say Christianity is the key reason – hierarchies existed in kingdoms before Christianity took over. The Romans are a prime example of this. But the difference between the Franks, Visigoths, Vandals compared to French, English and Germans is due in large part to the embrace and solidarity of Christianity.
Strong government is what happens when national identity overtakes family identity.
Racism is certainly a part of the problem with Africa’s inability to function. The most functional states also have the fewest “black” members. This is not a coincidence. Europe and America have long feared Africa and this stopped the exchange of ideas from spreading deep into the jungles.
What is interesting is that America and Africa both seemed to think little of the African people. Before America was a country, Dutch ships brought over the first African slaves. Throughout the first hundred years of our country, Africans were seen as property or even the absurd “three-fifths” of a person. The greatest speaker for American liberalism, Thomas Jefferson, owned and had children with his slaves. But this racism is not only whites against blacks.
The slave trade, like any other trade, had both supply and demand. The demand was from America and England and other countries who wished cheap labor. But the supply came from Africa. The Dutch did not kidnap Africans from their families – other Africans did. The African people were capturing other Africans, tying them up, and selling them to the Dutch traders. In America in the 1960s you had black man defending black man regardless of any other factor, but in the 1600s, not even two Africans were able to get along if one was able to profit off the other. This racism against their own neighbors certainly had no positive effects on the solidarity of Africa.
Two examples of modern racism to think about. First, we do little to help the poverty and disease in Africa. Yet, if Western Europe had a problem of this magnitude we would consider our aid to be a top priority. There is no conceivable reason that we would choose Europe over Africa – except for racism.
Also interesting is the idea of Africans in America. We have a concept of “African-American” in this country, as if Africa is one place. We speak of Africa as if all the Africans are in the same fate together. We don’t often speak of “Kenyan-Americans” or “Congolese-Americans”. Compare this again to Europe. We distinctly view Europe as a collection of states, not as one mass. While there can be talk of “Europeans” or “European-Americans”, it is much for customary to speak of “English” or “French” or “Spanish” and so on. The foundation for this bias is clearly in the fact we can identify with the cultures and languages of Europe much easier (how many of us have grandparents who spoke an African tongue?). But at what point do we start to care about people based on needs rather than blood?
While traditionally my writings speak poorly of imperialism and colonialism, for a moment I’m going to consider the alternative.
Do I feel it was wrong for Americans to slaughter Native Americans? Yes. Was it wrong to deceive them for their land? Yes. Is it wrong to invade a country during wartime? Yes, I think so (especially if you are the nation declaring war). But in the long-term, there are some positive side effects.
Most of Latin and South America is seen as functional. In my opinion, these countries would be more functional if the United States and the CIA would stop interfering, but this is beside the point at hand. The countries overall have legitimate and Western governments that have diplomatic relations with other nations and are more or less self-sufficient. Why? Because of the colonies established there by the Spanish, Portuguese and other nations hundreds of years ago. Without this, there is little doubt we would still have Aztecs or other Indian groups living in South America in a communal setting. While I am not opposed to communal governments or societies, the original question asked why African nations were not functioning on our level, and this is largely why.
Africa was not largely overtaken by the Europeans. Yes, there were a number of explorers who travelled through Africa (such as David Livingstone). And even entire nations were Westernized to various degrees (particularly Rhodesia). But at the same time many nations remained uncolonized and in their natural state. Africa was not desirable for whatever reason, and remained so. At the turn of the century (1900) people thought of Africa as “the dark continent” for its unknown properties, and even in World War II it remained the only major location free of hostile action (besides the very north) or with an active military.
Had Africa been colonized in the Middle Ages would the people there have more modern forms of government? If we take the transformation of the Moors from “savage” to “civilized” as an example, we would have to conclude Africa would be far more “modern” or Western today.
How Do We Save This Sinking Ship?
Quite simply, there is only one way to save a sinking ship: let it sink. We cannot expect the people aboard to try to remove buckets of water, and we cannot blame outsiders for trying to get survivors off the boat. But ultimately, you must face the fact that a sinking ship cannot stop sinking.
Africa is much the same. You can (and should) fight poverty in Somalia, and you can (and should) treat AIDS victims in the most ravaged regions. But the poor will still starve and the AIDS victims will still perish. At some point, they must face rock bottom and rise from the ashes. A traditional philosophic view (very Hegelian in nature) is that progress can only come from conflict. We can only hope that the conflict of AIDS leads to the education of how to slow the spreading of this virus. We can also hope that people who are unable to feed themselves will learn that having children will only increase the level of poverty. As for the civil wars, there must be a resolution at some point. Without knowing the factions involved, I cannot side with either force – but a government of any calibre will still be an improvement over civil war.
Have I created the impression of apathy? If so, I deny the charges. I am not at all apathetic to the plight of Africa – merely realistic. No one truly believes we can end world hunger or end disease. While we must fight against these ills, more importantly the Africans must also fight against the problems – because in the end, only these people have the inherent power to end the problems. No outside force can end what they choose to do with their own people.
All concerned citizens should grab a bucket and help out, but do not be surprised when the ship finally sinks – be prepared for the rebuilding.
 Typically I use the word “Afrika” in my writing, but for the sake of appeasing Americans searching Google, I will refrain from doing so in this article.