Having lived on 3 continents, I have encountered many well meaning folks from different parts of the globe from ordinary citizens, academics, politicians and businessmen who seek to help Africa in one way or the other. Such motivation well channeled is advantageous to Africa. That said, I also realized that quite a sizeable proportion of these folks invariably were handicapped in their appraisal of Africa by a flawed understanding of the continent’s people and history. This deficiency discolored their evaluation of present challenges facing the continent leading to improper prescriptions/solutions amply proven to be ineffective from an African historical perspective.
Perhaps this challenge comes from misinformation about Africa through mainstream media (print, audio and visual). Many books and academically accepted information about Africa’s history and challenges until recently were mostly authored by non-Africans, some of whom never set a foot on the continent or actively engaged a good representative sample of its indigenes.
Being careful to not make this more than it is, the absence of an African perspective from early western academic media has not augured well for those who have later undertook the task of researching and publishing about Africa because they took their facts from the early media.
This is not to say there are not some excellent papers out there about Africa written by non-Africans. I suspect there are . The point is no matter how gifted a writer pr researcher may be, when handicapped by virtue of not being a consistent part of a culture, s/he can can have their research discolored by biases and stereotypes as well as other over-simplistic presumptions about the reality of another people group.
But take me for instance, I read about Europe before ever setting foot on European soil. My experience wasn’t the same as reported in media. Even after living in Europe a short while, my comprehension of this very great continent was at best skewed and only seen through the lens of my cultural worldview. After being to a couple of countries in this continent, I quickly realized how foolish it would be for me to make any generalizations of this beautiful continent based on the limited numbers of countries I had visited.
If I were to write a book about any of the cities in which I lived, I suspect, some of the indigenes would probably beg to differ with some of my evaluation about their city. Why? Because they had an indigenes perspective!
The challenge with literature on Africa authored by folks who do not have a first hand understanding an experience of the continent is a bias common to ALL humans. We all tend to evaluate others who are different from us by using the lens of our experiences, culture, value systems, and other prejudices.
This is of course not fair but we do it unconsciously. With respect to the subject being discussed, objectivity becomes an illusion and the African whose story is being written is sometimes grossly misrepresented and not included in the write of his/her story. But this is not the case anymore hopefully. More and more, publishing houses with global reach are extending a hand of business to indigenes who seek to write about their context of existence.
Africa is not poor. She is a rich continent but owing to a bouquet of external and internal factors that has plagued it since independence; it has not managed to cash in on the benefits of its wealth hence majority of its populace continue to dwell in abject poverty with low human development indices. Many times, there is an unfair emphasis on the internal factors contributing to Africa’s challenges such as corruption and bad leadership. This is done to the exclusion of external and historical factors which are equally culpable for why Africa is the way it is today. A one-sided story always has the tendency to distort reality and this has certainly been the case with Africa.
Perverted media coverage
In general, Truth does NOT sell as much as sensation in media reportage so it not surprising that reportage about Africa is many cases more sensational than it is true in some western media outlets. In the May 13 2000 print edition of The Economist, the cover page had a map of Africa superimposed on a black background with the title “The Hopeless continent“. In a May 11 2000 article entitled “Hopeless Africa“, The Economist explained why Africa is hopeless. It claimed for reasons buried in African cultures, Africans seem especially prone to brutality, despotism and corruption (The Economist, 2000). The article goes on to buttress its point by citing the security challenges of the continent at that time such as the civil war in Sierra Leone, famine in Ethiopia and political conflict in Zimbabwe. In another Economist article also dated May 11 2000 and titled “The heart of the matter”, the magazine explains that “Africa’s biggest problems stem from its present leaders. But they were created by African society and history“.
This is an example of how biased and illogical analysis about Africa can be. This magazine cited present internal contributory causes to the present challenges while avoiding any external contributory factors. This unfair, unethical behavior is not limited to the Economist. In my limited travels, I have not once come across a positive image of Africa on western Television. Maybe this is because such reportage is not popular. Positive developments in the region such as its amazing decade long, record breaking, economic growth right that persevered right through the global recession are not deemed news worthy.
To rightly and justly appraise Africa, one has to consider both external and internal factors, historical and present!
Eternal factors that have contributed to the current political, economic and cultural landscape of Africa can be subdivided into historical and current. This write-up will focus on the historical bit which unfortunately might not be palatable to some readers who might rather prefer not to discuss such issues choosing to pretend as if they never occurred or that they have no part to play in the current state of Africa. The pretense, lack of dialogue and eventual multi-discussional resolution of these past challenges leaves a gulf of separation between people groups that does not lead to increased cooperation that can be facilitated by reconciliation.
Why is Africa the way it is?
There are many answers to that question but since we are considering historical external factors, it suffices to say that Africa’s present is in part a consequence of its past. In the not too distant past the overt and covert actions of nations such as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium etc left a negative legacy for Africa which she still struggles with till date.
These nations annexed sovereign Africa states, depleted it of much needed human resource through the slave trade, partitioned the continent amongst themselves through colonization, used its natural resources as fuel for the industrial revolution…and a mere 50 something years later, these same folks act in disbelief at the seemingly backward progress of this continent.
Great harm psychologically and physically was inflicted on the continent—the effects of which might take more than one generation to recover from. There is much that has been written about the effects of colonization and slavery.
One such article is the long run effects of the scramble for Africa from Yale University. This January 2011 Yale study by Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou revealed among other things “that civil war intensity is much higher in the historical homeland of ethnic groups that have been partitioned by national borders”. Also “regional development is significantly lower in areas of ethnic groups that have been affected by the artiﬁcial border design”. No observant African needs this study to draw these conclusions because they live with the repercussions of the scramble everyday. The evidence is clear for any unbiased observer.
When judging the present, it is imperative to remember the past…not to revel in opening old wounds but to adequately comprehend the source of problems so that lasting, more effective solutions can be sought and applied.
Why bring up the past? How does information about colonization for instance help us understand present territorial conflicts in post-colonial Africa? The answer is many territorial conflicts are a direct result of the artificial boundaries drawn by Europeans during their Scramble for Africa’s resources. These artificial boundaries remain till today and continue to foment contentions.
When issues like colonization and the slave trade are raised, it is not uncommon to hear statements like, “we did not do this or that. It was our forefathers. Do not attribute their guilt on us”. In answering that, we have to refer to the good, the bad and the ugly. How can we expect to inherit the good such as developed nations built in part on the backs of slaves and natural resources taken from Africa and other areas whiles refusing to take ownership for the accompanying bad and the ugly such as the residual effects accompanying the actions of these same progenitors? Simply put ,we cannot. We have no choice over where we were born or what we inherit but we definitely have a choice over how we live and what we bequeath to those who’ll follow us i.e. the next generation.
That other common statement is, “so how long must we pay for the sins of our progenitors”. The simple answer is no one is asking anyone to pay for the sins of forefathers–such as the Slave Trade, Colonization or Apartheid because that is in the past BUT when evaluating the current state of Africa and other traumatized region of the world, the effects of past actions perpetrated on the people group MUST NOT be swept as it were under the carpet. For a wound to properly heal, it must be cleaned, disinfected and properly dressed.
Having lived on 3 continents it is not uncommon to come across some Africans in the Diaspora and within the continent itself who take their view of the world from the mass media and hence have a tendency to be ashamed to be African. How preposterous! Yes it is true the Ghana or Zambia is not as developed as the United States of America or Germany but there are a myriad of reasons for that—some of which are constantly being reiterated in the mass media such as the gross incompetence and dictatorial tendencies of some African Heads of states, corruption etc. While these factors are a reality, they are not the whole picture. Age amongst other reasons also plays a very important role in comprehending present Africa.
Africa is relatively young with regards to how long it has been independent to decide its own affairs i.e. free from the brutal clutches of colonialism. The first sub-Saharan African country to be free of colonialism was Ghana after having attained Independence in 1957. Ghana is therefore only 55 years old. The last country to be rid of the vestiges of colonialism on the African continent is South Africa which wrested freedom from the shackles of Apartheid in 1994 i.e. only 18 years ago. This is not enough time for every state to have fully recovered.
Comparing Ghana the oldest independent sub-Saharan nation with for example the USA which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1783 i.e. 174 years before Ghana, it is absolutely laughable to expect Ghana or other sub-Saharan African nations younger than Ghana to be on the same footing democratically or economically as the U.S. The U.S. had almost two centuries head start. Western European countries had an even greater head start—not to mention the fact that they benefited from the scourge of Africa through the slave trade and colonialism.
For Africans to be free to govern rightly and justly to the benefit of all its citizens, she must first be free mentally and develop a self-confident psyche which promotes among other things a respect for self and a respect for the continent. Africans should stop berating themselves and their beloved continent. Why has this not transpired on a mass scale? Part of the answer lies with unbalanced media reportage.
Why hasn’t Africa forgotten the past already?
Why has it been difficult for Africa to be free from the repercussions of her past? For starters this simply takes time because it involves a re-conscientization of an entire continent and time sometimes has a magical quality to soothe and heal wounds but many times time is not enough. Deep wounds need,cleansing, disinfecting, proper dressing before leaving it to heal with time. Another reason why Africa has not yet been healed is there has been too many unnecessary interruptions in her developmental and healing process. These interruptions include incessant coup d’états by both local an foreign aggressors, meddling of former colonial masters, Cold War residues such as the East and West’s battle to win the allegiance of African states—who make up a large portion of the UN General Assembly.
A coup d’états is simply a strike against the state usually entailing military intervention. According to declassified National Security Council (NSC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, the first successful coup d’états in Ghana which occurred in 1966 was CIA assisted sanctioned by the U.S. government specifically the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1968) (Lee, 2001; Gebe, 2008; David & Majeski, 2009, p.46-47). The coup d’états took place on February 24 1966 and by March 4 1966, the coup makers had received the international recognition from America and the UK.
The new unconstitutional government overturned the policies of the oustered government which included free education and healthcare in favor of pro-western policies. Just like with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this coup d’états was a collaboration between shameful locals and externals aggressors.
Initially the Coup makers i.e. the new government were renounced by some African leaders when they went to their first OAU meeting but having received the blessing of the U.S. and Britain, they soon had to be accepted by the OAU. This precedence of unconstitutionally overthrowing a government with the blessing of strong allies in the West set a bad precedence from which the continent is yet to recover from. The AU has worked to change this paradigm by sanctioning and suspending perpetrators hence the number of coups on the continent has drastically reduced. Currently the AU has suspended Mali and Guinea-Bissau for illegally changing governments.
Buttressing the point made about local/foreign partnership to the detriment of the continent, Charles Taylor the former President of Liberia destabilized whole nations and regions through civil wars. The wars brought to the fore the selling of what we now call blood diamonds. At his trial he confessed working with the CIA who initially denied flatly any connection with this bad example of African leadership but later the Pentagon admitted this fact thanks to the freedom of information act but refused to mention the details of what their association with Mr. Taylor was citing national security reasons.
This is not to attribute ALL of Africa’s challenges to external actors or to coup d’états. There are also internal factors such as endemic corruption, nepotism, cronyism and despotic rulers who play a part in this cocktail of decadence that plagues this continent. My point is coup d’états have played a part in retrogressing development in Africa and the precedence set in sub-Saharan Africa’s first government with the overthrow of Nkrumah with the aid of western powers did not help issues nor set a good example for other African states that looked up to Nkrumah and Ghana.
A more balanced outlook
Though Africa’s challenges must be relegated to both external and internal factors, all we see in the mainstream media is an overemphasis on the latter painting a picture of a hopeless and incompetent Africa. Its about time that stops.
All of the above mentioned challenges notwithstanding, sub-Saharan African states have not done pretty badly for being such young countries. When today’s developed economies were 55 years old, one wonders if they had all come as far as some of these sub-Saharan countries have—many of them being younger than 50 years of age. Here’s a fact about Africa… “…it took [the] UK 155 years to double its GDP during the industrial revolution and Africa has achieved the same in the last twelve, it is imperative to capitalize on growth for real transformation. That means industrialization.” When we consider such a fact, its easy to see why Africa is hopeful and not as hopeless as a segment of the media depicts it to be sometimes so long as the continent’s current leadership get their policies right. This statement was taken from a speech by Mr. Carlos Lopes UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ECA at the Third Annual Conference on Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA-III).
This does not negate the fact that a lot more work remains to be done on the continent to reduce income and wealth disparities, and promote better governance in the public, private and NGO sectors. The continent knows this and the African Union is working tirelessly to this end.
In August 2012, the UN magazine, Africa Renewal carried a story titled “African economies capture world attention” with a subtitle “But huge challenges still lie ahead”. This article outlines some of the promising economic indicators that have made Africa a favourable destination for more and more investors. The article explains that since The Economist article came out 12 years ago, “Africa’s trade with the rest of the world has increased by more than 200 per cent, annual inflation has averaged only 8 per cent and foreign debt has decreased by 25 per cent. Foreign direct investment (FDI) grew by 27 per cent in 2011 alone”. Sub Saharan economies are projected by the IMF to grow by above 5 per cent. The UN article quotes the McKinsey Global Institute as saying that, “The rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region.” Additionally, the World Bank’s Africa Pulse issues for 2012 and prior attest to the impressive growth of Africa’s economies since the mid-1990s to present. African economies have grown at 5% or more consistently whiles the rest of the globe has entered a global recession with the only exception being eastern Asia. Her extractives industry is also doing well thanks to rises in global commodities prices.
But what are the factors behind these positive indicators? The article cites “an end to many armed conflicts, abundant natural resources and economic reforms that have promoted a better business climate”.
It would seem Africa is not hopeless after all as reported by the Economist but rather a hopeful continent with a chance for prosperity and peace.
D. S., & Majeski, S. (2009). U. S. Foreign Policy in Perspective : Clients, Enemies and Empire (1 ed.). Routledge.
Gebe, B. Y. (2008, March 15). Ghana’s Foreign Policy at Independence and Implications for the 1966
186. Retrieved August 27, 2003, from
Lee, P. (2001). Documents Expose US Role in Overthrow of Nkrumah. Africa Dialogue Series, No. 197: Nkrumah and the CIA IV. University of Texas (Austin). Retrieved August 27, 2013, from University of Texas, Austin: