Wednesday, March 16, 2005

To save Africa we must listen to it

"Two opposing narratives inform our understanding of Africa. The first tells of a continent undeveloped and underpopulated until Europeans discovered it and opened it up to trade and the benefits of science and civilisation. Until outsiders came, sub-Saharan Africa had no writing and no wheel. Its inhabitants belonged to thousands of ethnic groups which, outside the West African Islamic kingdoms, ruled themselves according to custom. Once colonial rule had been established, Africa's population leapt from 120 million in 1880 to 165 million in 1935. With the benefits of peace, stability, western education and science, it rose to 330 million by the 1960s. The colonialists left Africa's economies in reasonable shape, but after independence they sank back into anarchy and poverty. The cause: tribalism and corruption.

The other narrative goes like this: the continent flourished until Europeans started prowling around its coasts in the 16th century looking for loot. The loot they found was human - slaves - and over the next two and a half centuries, millions of Africans were ripped from their land and shipped across to the Americas to labour in mines and on plantations. That impoverished Africa and made Europe wealthy. The slave-trade wealth was invested in Europe, creating the industrial revolution. This in turn gave Europe a further advantage over Africa and a sense of superiority which Europeans interpreted as racial. That gave the impetus for imperialism and colonialism. Europe carved up Africa so it could more easily exploit Africa's mineral wealth and cheap labour.

Then, after most of Africa won political independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe kept its former colonies dependent and continued to manage the international trading system to its own advantage and against Africa's. As part of the cold-war divide, appalling dictators were propped up because they were "our" dictators. Furthermore, the western powers bound Africa's economies to them through loans that in time became unpayable, at the same time giving a pittance in aid to individual African countries. Those loans, this narrative says, are modern slavery. The thread in the cord that binds Africa in poverty and weakness is made in Europe and it is strong and long-lasting." 1

1. Richard Dowden, Monday 14th March 2005. To save Africa we must listen to it, New Statesman