It is not poverty that needs an explanation. For most of human history, mi
sery is what prevailed for the vast majority of people in the vast majority of places. It is only when some unusual conditions happened to prevail that the development of wealth was possible:
Stable borders. It is only when people feel secure in their property that they have an incentive to accumulate it.
Large-scale agriculture. This is needed to sustain the growth of urban centers, where labor specialization allows for the rise of a mercantile class.
Transportation infrastructure. Either roads or, before the modern age, ships to transport goods over long distances.
Africa had many issues:
Agriculture was inefficient. There were no draft animals to help in the cultivation of large fields. Everything was done by hand.
By the time Europe became strong enough to conquer, the large empires that had succeeded one another in West Africa had gone into decline, to be replaced by petty kingdoms warring against one another.
There was no tradition of long-distance navigation.
There were few roads that would have enabled long-distance commerce.
In previous centuries, the difficulty of maintaining long supply lines would have made large-scale conquest impossible. But by the 19th century, there was nothing the Africans could do. The military power of the invaders, and their ability to project it anywhere they wanted on the continent, was unparalleled.
With these handicaps, it was no surprise that, in spite of the valiant efforts of some leaders like Samori Ture (pronounced tooRAY), the continent was inexorably conquered.
The colonial states established by the European powers were not altruistic endeavors. They existed for the following reasons:
Resource extraction and exploitation.
The establishment of markets from which cheap raw materials could be imported and to which expensive finished goods could be exported.
True, there was a contingent of idealistic people of the Church who wanted to educate and Christianize the population, but this was a secondary endeavor. After conquest, the administrative apparatus was light, and local governors were told to fend for themselves and minimize costs.
It was only gradually, very gradually that the local population was allowed to start participating in the governance of the colonies. Inter-ethnic/inter-tribal tensions had been exacerbated the process of division and conquest. They were further exacerbated during colonial rule, as different groups vied for dominance within the colonies. These groups had no sense of kinship. They had different customs and spoke mutually unintelligible languages. The colonies in which they found themselves living were nothing but geographical expressions.
Among these groups, a local elite was groomed and trained for local leadership. In France, which saw its African dominions as indissoluble extensions of its European territory, some of these natives were invited to take seats in the national legislature. And some, like Senegal’s Senghor and Ivory Coast’s Boigny even got to serve as ministers of government. Naturally, when the home populations started clamoring for independence and self-determination, many of these leaders were reluctant. But they could not resist the tide and remain at the helm, and they reluctantly accepted.
In Britain’s colonies, things were a bit different. There were gradualists like J. B. Danquah who was happy with a step-wise process of independence, and trouble-makers like Nkrumah, who wanted immediate independence. The optics of naked imperialism were now uglier than what they had once been. One by one, the colonies were granted their independence.
It is one thing to build a state; it is quite another thing entirely to forge a nation. The newly independent polities of Africa were largely nationless states. They were beset by a number of problems:
Low levels of literacy. This meant that these states remained reliant on their former colonizers to maintain their administrative apparatus.
A very short period of democratic tutelage. There was no tradition of an independent judiciary, and no middle class jealous of ancient rights to be protected. The structure of these states easily lent itself to democratic backsliding.
The common enemy, the colonizer, was gone. This meant that the inter-ethnic strife that had been suppressed for the purpose of fighting for independence reasserted itself very quickly afterwards.
Most of these states were not economically viable. A number of them were landlocked and depended on the goodwill of their neighbors for their exports. There was no industry. There was a lack of teachers. There were few physicians. African university graduates were exceedingly rare. The only infrastructure present was built by the colonizers. Everything was directed towards extracting resources or agricultural products and exporting them to the former masters. It was easier to place a phone call from Dakar to Paris than from Dakar to Abidjan. The same was true for transportation. The only thing these states had to offer to foreign investors were their natural resources. And so, they did.
The former colonizers were jealous of their prerogatives. They wanted to maintain monopolies on local contracts. They were also obsessed with the preventing the spread of communism in Africa. In order to stave this off, they routinely took to meddling in the internal affairs of these officially independent states. They did so by assassination, as in the case of Patrice Lumumba, who everyone from Belgium to the CIA wanted dead. They also did so by funding rebellions and supporting coups to depose leaders who were thought to show too much defiance.
And so it was that the very experience of colonization made future
And so it was that the very experience of colonization made future development difficult. These regions had been exceedingly poor before colonization. Their natural resources had been ruthlessly exploited. And independence lead to decreased stability. It was easier to obey a foreigner with his white skin and his fancy technology than it was to obey another dark-skinned man like yourself, especially when you might have grown up learning that your tribe used to dominate his before the arrival of the Whites. The reverse was also true. If you were from a tribe who had been dominated by another, you weren’t about to let slide the opportunity to turn the table on your former oppressors.
Now, I have explained that European conquest, colonization, and exploitation were detrimental to wealth accumulation. What did the African himself do after independence?
In country after country, thinly-veiled dictatorships were established. Constitutions were either re-written or ignored. There was no institution in any of these nations to check a power-hungry leader. Political leaders always want to have their way. When they live in a system that constrains them, they are unable to impose their will. But, imagine a man in charge of a nation where he can have his way on any matter, where he can eliminate the political opposition with impunity, does anyone doubt that such a man, even if he starts out idealistic, will slowly morph into a dictator?
This is what happened everywhere: Boigny of Ivory Coast, Nkruma of Ghana, Senghor of Senegal, Banda of Malawi, Nyerere of Tanzania, Kaunda of Zambia, Sekou Toure of Guinea, and so many more. All of them established dictatorships and crushed all political opposition.
Banda, in particular, was been quoted as saying this:
Everything I say is law, literally, LAW.
Senghor and Nyerere voluntarily retired after about 20 years in power. They were the nice ones. Boigny and Toure died in office after even longer reigns. Nkruma was ousted in a coup. Banda and Kaunda were ousted via the ballot box, only because, after the end of the Cold War, they lost the Western support that had enabled them to perpetuate their rule.
It is to men such as these that the destiny of Africa was entrusted.
The populations had been hungry. What they were demanding was not good governance but a chance to escape poverty. What was established was a vast and pervasive patronage system in which political power existed only to afford one the ability to grow rich. A man in office was expected to plunder state resources and to siphon some of the wealth to his own region of the country. No one cared that the entity known as Nigeria or Malawi might grow poorer. It was every tribe for itself.
The norm was for half or more of the national budget to be dedicated to civil service salaries. Ministers of government had large salaries, free housing, and had their bills paid by the government. They were rapacious. Any foreign company who wanted to do business with their country had to pay a bribe. National leaders became fabulously wealthy. Politics, not business or education, became the surest way to wealth. And what was rewarded was not policy expertise but party loyalty.
In the 60s and early 70s, all this was surprisingly sustainable, given the high price of commodities on world markets. But once commodity prices crashed in the late 70s through the 80s, the entire house of cards came crashing down.
The nations had been mismanaged. The debt levels were sky high. Infrastructure development was still lagging. And industrialization had failed, given that it was never a priority in these resource-rich countries, and the governance had never displayed the discipline to pursue long-term strategies for economic development.
This mismanagement, it must be emphasized, cannot be blamed on the Whites. We did this all by ourselves.
Nevertheless, there are definitely some actions taken by the West that have contributed to impoverishing the nations of the continent:
Unfair trade practices. Western government subsidize their farmers, who can thereby produce foodstuffs cheaper than local African farmers, who are driven out of business when the cheaper stuff comes pouring in. And African countries do not have the kind of leverage they would need to be able to apply tariffs, given that they are indebted to those same countries against which they have trade disputes.
The structure of food aid is terrible. What should be done when there is a disaster or a famine is to purchase all the locally available food before bringing in food from elsewhere. This serves as a stimulus to the local economy and ensures that African farmers will be able to plant again the following year. But US food aid, at least the last time I looked at it, was structured for the benefit of US farmers, whose excess production gets purchased by the US government
and dumped on African markets. This is good for the hungry but bad for the local economy, since local growers find themselves unable to sell what they planted. When that happens, the local production collapses, which makes future famines more likely. I should mention that, at least the last time I was looking at it, European food aid was structured in a way to benefit to the African farmer.
Structural adjustment programs. These were austerity packages imposed by the IMF and World bank on many African nations in the wake of recessions. They also included forced deregulation and the lowering of protective trade barriers, which opened up many of these economies to competition they could not possibly overcome. On top of that, they included excessive levels of austerity, often in the midst of economic downturns.
So, let’s summarize. Africa is poor because:
It was underdeveloped before colonization due to a combination of inefficient agriculture, poor transportation infrastructure, and lack of political stability.
Colonization led to exploitation.
Decolonization led to instability and inter-ethnic strife.
The regimes that were established after independence were exceedingly corrupt and badly mismanaged their economies.
Western influence has often had negative consequences, either by supporting rebellions or by imposing doctrinaire free-marketism.