A Tale of Two Africas—Reality and Plunder
One narrative is based on the “Euro-plunder mentality” of pre-colonial, post-slave trade era that led European “treasure-hunting” entrepreneurs to invade African shores in search of “plunder.” This narrative was akin to a bugle-horn blast to all who have “ears” that there is “gold in them thar hills” of Africa. It brought out the greed factor of Western culture. Everyone with a “hair-brained” scheme and a financial backer headed to the continent in search of financial treasure.
It brought Belgian King Leopold, who ravaged the people of Congo in order to harvest rubber for export to European tire manufacturers. It brought the itinerating jack-of-all-trades Briton, a naturalized American, Henry Morton Stanley. He was commissioned as a journalist by then-New York Herald to search and find Dr. Stanley Livingston, the missionary adventurer. He was later commissioned by King Leopold to explore and secure the area then-known as Congo Free State. Through Stanley’s efforts, King Leopold was able to lay claim to the area at the Berlin Conference. As his agent, Stanley subsequently assisted the king to administer his dastardly acts on the Congolese people. It also brought Cecil Rhodes and all the other European “villains” who proceeded to brutalize Africans like they were dealing with sub-human species. Like cattle or other beasts of burden, if you will. If you have wondered about the origin of today’s “racism” against Africans and people of African descent, in America, South America, Western and Eastern Europe and Asia, you have to go back to this period.
Fig. 1 Cecil Rhodes: The poster child for European dismantling of Africa
Modern Plunder Mentality
In modern times, this narrative is wrapped around the declaration of a “rich Africa.” It elicits the same reaction. It is important to caution that the rush to African countries is not entirely bad—after all, that is what foreign direct investment is about. However, if there are no gatekeepersin African countries, a plunder mentality ensues that is ultimately devastating on the people—the voiceless masses. Unfortunately, it is close to what African countries are experiencing today. Foreign direct investments are not in the right areas because they are not leading to economic emancipation for the countries. Rather it is speculative and in the wrong sectors. It is not doing much for the transformative economic agenda of the nations. It is not creating the type of jobs that will transform the lives of people at the lowest rung of the food-chain. For foreign direct investment to be beneficial, it has to also preserve the “real” assets of the country for future generations. It has to be in areas that create independence rather than dependence. Finally, it has to compliment the long term emancipative economic agenda of the country. Not all foreign direct investments are good. The narrative that drives the wrong sort of foreign investors who are seeking 21st century “plunder” is the wrong narrative. It creates further subordination of the countries and people.
The Reality of African Countries
The other narrative is the reality. A “rich Africa” is oxymoronic considering that most of the poorest of the poor of the world reside in Africa. Of the 36 countries that received World Bank debt relief, 30 are African countries. More than half of the population (higher if you did a true sampling) of Africa are abjectly poor who are surviving, barely, on a less than seventy cents per day, and have no access to clean pipe borne water, or electricity or energy with which to prepare meals. A substantial percentage is not connected to the roads infrastructure grid of their country. How anyone who observes the condition can describe the people living under the burden as “rich” is unfathomable and deeply perplexing. The most difficult part is that Africans, by and large, have come to believe the fallacious account of their circumstance and take “the proverbial” eye off the goal of socio-economic freedom. Which, plainly said, is the ability of a country to determine its fate.
Fig. 2 Nairobi, Kenya’s Kibera Slum is home to 2.5 million. 50% of the population of Nairobi.
Fig. 3 Sierra Leone’s Kroo Bay.
Fig. 4 Luanda, Angola’s Shanty town is home to two-thirds of Luanda’s population.
Instead of creating the environment where society can set the right priorities, African leaders like their counterparts in the pre-slavery and colonial Africa eras, are enthralled with the “trinkets” of life rather than substance of nation building. Which in this narrow context is creating the engine of economic progress necessary to emancipate their societies and people from deep seethed economic malaise and latency. For instance, many African countries spend a significant portion of their scarce hard currency earnings on very high ticket luxury items such as luxury automobiles, private jets, etc. The culture has bred many African leaders that are living in resplendent luxury through appropriating aid funds or other financial resources, while their people are living in abject poverty and hopelessness. They are devoid of vision and unwilling to expend the effort required to do the heavy lifting in order to extricate their people from poverty. Which, by the way, is the only moral and fiduciary duty that political leaders owe the people.
It demonstrates the “cluelessness” of leaders who are living under the delusion that they are “rich” because a few thousand people have hijacked resources rightfully due to millions. It is also noteworthy that the “bugle-blowers” of the narrative of a “rich” Africa, are in the main, academicians in the Western World. These are people who should be better informed because they know the statistical data. And, having travelled in the countries of the continent at the expense of foundations and grants they provide, most are also well acquainted with the reality on the ground. On that basis, one cannot help but wonder about the reason behind the impetus for obfuscating the (obvious) reality. It, thus, remains for the gatekeepers of African countries to face the reality of their countries and to work for the welfare of the people they are leading and not for externalities that come bearing double-edged gifts.
The Mercantile Era Set the Stage for the Modern Era
Before delving into the teeth of the narrative, a little background is important because it will establish a foundation for the reasoning and coda which is to follow. African countries have a conundrum of sorts when it comes to their place in the moving landscape of global economic development, integration and progress. The progress is the standing of nations and is based almost entirely on the income and income dispersal of a given country as measured by its gross domestic product (GDP). Within the GDP is a measurement of the annual earnings capacity of the people of the country which is an indication of the well-being of its families and citizens i.e. the sum of the people that makeup a country. Every “smart” country endeavors to grow the national income and also to create opportunities within the growth for expanding the earnings of the citizens of the country. The term, “It’s the economy, stupid!” comes to mind because it denotes the level of importance accorded “bread and butter” issues by successful nations. Two critical arbiters of the level of national income are the level of progress in the social-political structure and the degree of integration of a country into the global economy.
Western nations have been setting pace because they were the first to start. For them it started way back in the medieval era between the 10th and 16th centuries. Other than the United States, which gained its independence in 1776, they (Western nations) have had a very long head start on everyone else on matters of socio-economic development. In fact, they invented the process. However, they have been losing ground steadily to upstart countries over the last 50 years. In 1970, there were 17 Western nations in the top 20 highest GDPs. In 2014, that number was down to 10. Like most non-Western nations, African countries started their existence behind Western nations and have continued to fall behind. Let’s assume, for the sake of illustration, that there is an imaginary finish line in the race. The conundrum is that at the end of the race, the nations of Africa would not have made up any ground, but rather lost more ground.
Fig. 5 Triangular Trade was one of many iconic developments of the mercantile era
Some Countries Have Made Up Ground on Western Countries
It would be inconsequential if all the other countries in the race reported the same result. However, that is not the historical account as we have seen from the GDPs of the top twenty nations. Seven Western countries were supplanted on the list (of top 20 nations by GDP) between 1970 and 2014, by newly industrialized nations. We also know by historical records that some of the newly industrialized states (like African countries) started their social-economic journey lagging far behind Western nations and at about the same time that African nations started the journey. The fact that the Asians have done well and continue to do well employing the same basic strategy of export-oriented industrialization (EOI), while African states have floundered using a strategy of commodity exports and import-substitution industrialization (ISI), has to be instructive for any observer. For example, the per capita GDP (PPP) of Singapore, which became independent in 1965, after the collapse of the shotgun marriage of the Malay Republic, has eclipsed that of its former colonial ruler, United Kingdom. Singapore is currently ranked 3rd in the world with $78,000 in per capita GDP and United Kingdom is ranked 28th with $28,000. The question, therefore, is why countries like Singapore and others have made it and African countries have not? This narrative attempts to advance an answer to the question by providing tangible reasons for the results. It will also share a platform of attributes that enabled the countries that made it to make it. More importantly, it will contextualize the attributes in a way that is adaptable by every African country, notwithstanding where they are standing in the rung of the ladder of their existential reality.
Among the countries that have made it, China and Japan are the most prominent examples. However, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil, and Hong Kong, (when it was a free-standing territory) are examples of countries that have made up a lot of ground without the benefit of major resource exporting capacity, which is the reason for the rise of Middle-East nations who are on the list. In the case of China and Japan, their GDP has surpassed all but one Western nation, the United States of America. Others are either competing favorably or have surpassed many Western states in GDP per capita.
For some of the countries like Singapore, Hong Kong (when it was a separate territory), Taiwan and South Korea, their rise is improbable considering obvious disadvantages such as limited population size, land area and total lack of raw material endowment. Yet, rise they have. What does this mean? In the classroom of economic development matters, it means African countries are bringing up the rear of the class. Tanzania, one of the biggest states requires almost $500 million dollars of aid funds (annually) to run the country. If that is not a beggar-nation, then we need a new definition of the word. As we know, Tanzania is not alone in its dependence on aid to manage mundane budgetary allocations such as civil-service salaries and to make the country work. If the countries were commercial enterprises, they would be bankrupt and due for liquidation. It is not an understatement that most African countries are in a crisis state in their economic affairs. As such leaders cannot have any other attitude save one of determined resolve to turn over every rock in search of solutions to the (seemingly) intractable issues of economic development and prosperity for the peoples and nations of Africa…To be continued in Part 3.