The Hopeless Continent In May 2000 The Economist had a magazine issue called “THe Hopeless Continent”. Of course we Black people called it racist because we don’t like the truth about us.

20 years later and the bad things in the articles apply very much still to Nigeria. This tells us that if we don’t rearrange Nigeria, Restructure it, we will have another 20 wasted years.

Two of the articles in that issue relate truly to Africa. I will post them separately. You can get them with subscription from The Economist. They are:

  • Hopeless Africa – The Hopeless Continent
  • The Heart Of The Matter – The Hopeless Continent


May 11th 2000
The Economist
The Heart Of The Matter

Africa’s biggest problems stem from its present leaders. But they were created by African society and history. The Hopeless Continent

FLOODS in Mozambique; threats of famine in Ethiopia (again); mass murder in Uganda; the implosion of Sierra Leone; and a string of wars across the continent. The new millennium has brought more disaster than hope to Africa. Worse, the few candles of hope are flickering weakly. The Hopeless Continent

For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, there were signs of improvement. World Bank figures showed a clutch of African countries achieving economic growth rates of more than 6%, enough to lift most of their people out of poverty in years rather than, as more usually predicted, in decades.
At the same time, multi-party democracy spread across the continent. A new crop of leaders emerged: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. This “new breed” wanted to make life better for all their people by providing basic health care and education. They seemed to understand that peace and good government were essential. Though most of them had been socialists, they embraced the free market. Democracy and liberalisation seemed to flourish. There was talk of an “African renaissance”. The Hopeless Continent

It was an illusion. The new leaders became embroiled in wars, some with each other, and the cheerful statistics were the result of good rains and bad accounting. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole had a growth rate of less than 3% in that period, which just about kept step with the rate of population increase. So no one was getting richer. The Hopeless Continent

The figures—not to mention the recent crop of disasters and wars—now suggest that Africa is losing the battle. All the bottom places in the world league tables are filled by African countries, and the gap between them and the rest of the world is widening. According to Paul Collier of the World Bank, only 15% of Africans today live in “an environment considered minimally adequate for sustainable growth and development.” At least 45% of Africans live in poverty, and African countries need growth rates of 7% or more to cut that figure in half in 15 years. The Hopeless Continent

Only three countries in sub-Saharan Africa—Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Rwanda—are growing that fast. The first two are oil producers, and oil is notorious for destroying other economic life forms in Africa. Rwanda’s growth is aid-driven. Last year, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole grew by only 2.5%. Most of these countries cannot do better, says the Economic Commission for Africa, because, apart from South Africa, Botswana and Mauritius, they lack the basic structures needed to develop. AIDS deaths are rising, especially among the young urban middle class who could bring about Africa’s political and economic revival. The next generation will be more numerous, poorer, less educated and more desperate. The Hopeless Continent

Does Africa have some inherent character flaw that keeps it backward and incapable of development? Some think so. They believe Africa’s wars, corruption and tribalism are “just the way Africa is”, and that African societies are unable to sustain viable states. In the past, outsiders would have described Africa’s failure in racial terms. Some still do. They are wrong, but social and cultural factors cannot be discounted.

Others blame the way the rest of the world has treated Africa, citing exploitation going back to the slave trade and European colonial rule. They blame cold-war rivalry for propping up greedy dictators in the first 30 years of African independence, and now they trace the continent’s failures to debt, exploitative trading relations and too-strict demands for economic reform from the IMF and the World Bank. The Hopeless Continent

Neither theory, by itself, can explain why Africa is the way it is. Those who see the continent as the victim of external forces must accept that parts of Asia, too, were subject to rapacious colonialists and have, within a generation after independence, established viable states and successful economies. Even where they fail, Asian countries do not blame their past imperial masters. Those, on the other hand, who think Africa is self-destructing must accept that its failings are not unique. There is tribalism in Bosnia and Ireland, dictatorship in North Korea, corruption almost everywhere. In short, Africa’s troubles are not exclusive to Africa. But their combination is. The Hopeless Continent

Nature’s bad hand
Africa was weak before the Europeans touched its coasts. Nature is not kind to it. This may be the birthplace of mankind, but it is hardly surprising that humans sought other continents to live in. The soils are often poor and thin, lasting only a few planting seasons. The sun burns and the rain either does not come at all (Ethiopia) or comes in floods that wash everything away (Mozambique). The beasts and bugs are big, and they bite. Diseases fatal to man—and to his crops and animals—thrive. The Hopeless Continent

The few humans who survived in Africa lived in small, hardy, Iron-Age communities in a huge variety of social organisations speaking thousands of languages. Most were small kingdoms, deeply conservative; they were geared to survival in Africa’s fickle climate, not to development. When nature allowed, they tended to celebrate rather than plan for a tomorrow that might never happen. Today, still, Africans’ strongest qualities are fortitude to the point of fatalism, close family and communal ties, tolerance and an ability to enjoy life. But their societies are also distrustful and bad at organisation. Most African businesses are one-man-bands that rarely survive the death of their founder.

By the mid-19th century, when Europeans began to penetrate the interior, Africa was reeling from upheavals, caused mostly by the demand for slaves. In the east, Arab slaving gangs cut deep into central Africa. In the west, slaving kingdoms and roaming warlords seized millions of men and women for sale in other parts of Africa and the Americas. In the south, the Mfecane, a massive movement of fleeing and marauding peoples, wiped out hundreds of other small communities and produced the Zulu empire. No wonder the Europeans, using mostly African troops, found it so easy to take over Africa. The continent was already exhausted by predatory bands and wars.

The most damaging impact of imperial rule on Africa was neither economic nor even political. It was psychological. In most places, effective European rule lasted a couple of generations or less: just long enough to undermine African societies, institutions and values, but not long enough to replace them with new ways of life or establish new systems of government. Colonialism, in short, undermined Africa’s self-confidence. A full 40 years after independence, it still looks to Europe and America for aid, goods, services and guidance. One example: the East African reported recently that a white foreigner had been appointed to head the kenya Commercial Bank, since “it became clear that the appointment of an indigenous Kenyan might lead to a run on the bank.”

African states were not forged by ethnicity, nationalism and war. They were simply bequeathed by departing imperial powers who left highly centralised, authoritarian states to a tiny group of western-educated Africans who rushed in and took over. Some of those states, such as Congo, were established by Europeans as businesses to be milked for profit. Their successors simply continued the practice. Africa has an abundance of valuable minerals and some good land, attracting outsiders to extract the raw materials and ignore the rest. Independence often meant little more than a change in the colour of the faces of the oppressors.

Tribalism at the top
The new rulers made few changes on the surface, except to tweak constitutions to favour those in power. The African state, as invented by Europeans, has been neither deconstructed nor reconstituted. In some places, however—as in Somalia—it has been destroyed. The new elite proclaimed national unity and denounced tribalism; but they soon found, like the imperial powers before them, that manipulating tribal affiliation was essential to preserving power.

It is not just unlucky coincidence that Africa has had such a poor crop of leaders. Leaders emerge from a society, and they remain a part of it. The proof of this can be seen every day in the waiting rooms of Africa’s presidential palaces. Slumped on the sofas will be diplomats waiting for an audience, foreign businessmen—often dodgy ones—looking for a contract, and members of the president’s family or clan in search of money for school fees or a funeral. Whatever the diary says, most presidents try to satisfy the family first. The demands of Africa are more powerful than those of the outside world.

In most countries, a man standing for office tries to demonstrate that he shares the concerns of the common man. In Africa, a politician has to show that he has escaped from ordinary life: that he is a “Big Man”, powerful and rich, a benefactor far above the people whose support he seeks. Many African leaders grew up in dire poverty, and like to demonstrate their change of circumstances through conspicuous displays of western wealth. Few African palaces have anything in them made in Africa.

By personalising power, African leaders have undermined rather than boosted national institutions. The recent apparent spread of democracy in the continent is often a sham. Traditionally, African societies, with a few exceptions such as those of the Somalis or the Ibos in Nigeria, were not very democratic, though many had checks on the powers of the ruler. Today, only a few countries have a middle class, a body of professionals and businessmen with an allegiance to a national entity, laws and institutions which they regard as greater than the ruler or his party. Zimbabwe, which should have such a middle class, has shown in recent weeks that, apart from a few brave judges, officials consider their allegiance is owed to the president, not to the state.

Not only officials think this way. So do most Africans who live, as many do, at subsistence level in the countryside. Their loyalties are regional or tribal, and they support the president because he is the big chief. “I will vote for you when you are president,” challengers are sometimes told.
The state and the president are often viewed as the same thing. Most African presidents make no distinction between their party and the government, using the panoply of state institutions in their election campaigns. They do not find it hard to win. Abdou Diouf of Senegal, who accepted defeat in an election in March, was only the third African president to do so since independence four decades ago.

So there are elections in Africa, but little democracy. Some rulers, like Uganda’s Mr Museveni, argue that party elections are actually bad for Africa, because parties divide people along ethnic lines. Aid donors have finally rejected Mr Museveni’s no-party democracy, and are sceptical of Ethiopia’s opposite experiment with parties based on ethnicity. Nor have other African countries taken up these ideas. The aid donors, whose support is essential for African rulers, demand multi-party democracy on a western model. But they have applied it inconsistently. Cynics call it donor democracy—just enough fair voting and respect for human rights to satisfy the aid donors. Certainly, there would be few elections in Africa were it not for outside pressure.

Yet democracy does not have much to offer Africa. Democracies there are no more stable than dictatorships, and civil wars are just as common. In the economic sphere, autocracies may find it easier than democracies to keep to IMF and World Bank conditions such as tight money supply, low inflation and fewer civil servants. Sudan, an international pariah with no democracy and no international assistance, is doing as well as anyone these days, with a current growth rate of more than 7%. Much of Africa is ruled more by rainfall than politics.

Shell states
The African ruler finds himself trapped. He wants power and control; but the outside world makes demands about democracy, human rights and good governance, which weaken his position and could cost him his job. If he cannot use the treasury as his private bank account and the police as his private army, he tries to create alternative sources of wealth and power. This is why more and more African rulers are turning their countries into shell states.

On the outside, these have all the trappings of a modern state: borders, flags, ministers, civil services, courts. Inside, they have been hollowed out. The supreme master of the shell state was Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, which was renamed Congo when he was thrown out in 1997. During Mobutu’s 35-year rule, Zaire had ministers and a cabinet, ministries and governors, officials and diplomats. These appeared to make up the structure of a government. In fact, they were Mobutu’s personal networks, through which he stole the wealth of Congo.

In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Mines in the capital, Kinshasa, was empty except for one floor. Its officials used their positions for the perks: an office with a telephone, perhaps a car. During office hours, however, they engaged in other business. On the top floor, the minister presided, protected by a couple of soldiers (“A little sweet for us, please,” they would ask each visitor), and a secretary. The waiting room was packed with Zaireans coming to beg favours, many of them relatives, and half-a-dozen Europeans clutching bulging briefcases. They were there to bribe the minister for mining permits. He could keep the money for himself, unless Mobutu called him to ask for cash; in which case, he would have to disgorge some of his takings.

If Mobutu thought someone was becoming too powerful, he would sack him or even jail him. Once back in favour, however, he might be posted to another lucrative feeding ground. The state treasury probably never saw a cent; the people were robbed, often directly and brutally, by junior officials, soldiers and policemen in the street. When Mobutu was under pressure to democratise in the early 1990s, he urged his unpaid army to go and loot. They did, destroying what was left of the country’s commerce and creating chaos—which Mobutu promptly used as an excuse to postpone elections and make his rule indispensable.

Many people blame corruption for Africa’s ills. But that suggests rottenness in a clean system. In parts of Africa, corruption, like an advanced form of cancer, has taken over the whole body. Liberia, originally founded by freed American slaves and provided with a constitution modelled on America’s, is a case in point.

There are parts of Liberia that appear to be normal functioning institutions of a conventional state. Some ministers are not corrupt, and Mr Taylor himself can talk to visitors well enough about his worthy aims for the country. The visitors are often impressed. But are they right to be? What is happening on the surface may be no clue to the way the country is run behind the scenes. Mr Taylor recently passed a law that gives him the right to dispose of all “strategic commodities”. These are defined as all mineral resources, all natural forest products, all art, artefacts and handicrafts, all agricultural and fishery products and anything else the president chooses to call “strategic”. Liberia is, in fact, Charles Taylor Inc.

In kenya and Zambia, powerful politicians, not necessarily the presidents, use their political positions to amass fortunes which they then use for political ends. They work through hidden networks, with their placemen in key positions in important ministries. kenya still has the remains of a credible civil service, which, though corrupt, still handles the country’s official paperwork. At the same time, a hidden network intervenes and blocks whatever is inconvenient for the men who are really in charge. Zambia has such a network too, more powerful than the state.

Outsiders, particularly the aid donors, have great difficulty dealing with such states. Officially, World Bank and IMF officials judge all countries on their stated policies and plans. They deal with the appropriate ministers and officials. In countries such as kenya and Zambia, however, that reassuring surface betrays little about the way the country is run. Presidents Daniel arap Moi and Frederick Chiluba are both adept at saying what the aid donors want to hear and, to an extent, delivering what the donors want to see. But time and again, as soon as the donors’ attention has moved on, a different agenda comes into play.

Donors hope that, in the long run, law and good practice will drive out corruption. But this seems unlikely as long as Africa is getting poorer. Prices for most of Africa’s commodities have fallen unsteadily but continually since the 1960s, and sub-Saharan Africa is still mainly a primary producer. For the moment, industrialisation has passed most of the continent by. Besides, the money accumulated by the politicians and crooks in Africa is rarely reinvested there. Most of it, like Mobutu’s loot, is either spent on conspicuous consumption or invested in Europe and America.
So how should the world deal with Africa? Aid is ambiguous in its effects. When disaster strikes, it is hard to refuse to help. But aid also increases dependency and can deflect recipient governments from the urgency of the task. In the Horn of Africa, for example, the aid that helps famine victims also frees money for Eritrea and Ethiopia to spend on fighting each other. Abolishing debt would help to create a fresh balance- sheet, but for many countries debt-relief would only benefit Ukrainian arms-dealers.

Can Africa change? Yes, it can. There are instances from all over the continent that, in the right circumstances, Africans can greatly improve their lives. Until the floods in March, Mozambique had been growing at 5% a year since its civil war ended, culminating in nearly 12% growth in 1997-98. Uganda too had growth rates of 7% in the 1990s. But real change needs something deeper than quick spurts of growth.
More than anything, Africa’s people need to regain their self-confidence. Only then can Africa engage as an equal with the rest of the world, devising its own economic programmes and development policies. Its people also need the confidence to trust each other. Only then can they make deals to end wars and build political institutions: institutions that they actually believe in.