Why Is Africa Poor?
Just as American blacks blame whites for their failures, Africans deny responsibility for the misery they bring on themselves.
Black Africa is the poorest part of the world by far. It is in Africa that we find countries like Zaire, Ethiopia, Chad, and the Sudan, where gross national product per person is less than $200 a year. The 41 nations of sub-Saharan Africa produce no more wealth than the tiny country of Belgium, which has only one forty-fifth as many people. Of all of the region’s economic production, white-run South Africa accounts for three quarters.
Numbers like these mean that Africans live in misery so desperate that Americans can scarcely imagine it. Every year, thousands of Africans die of starvation. In bad years, hundreds of thousands starve. Even in tropical parts of Africa untouched by famine, as many as one third of all children die before the age of five. One in a hundred births kills the mother. Malaria, sleeping sickness, hepatitis, leprosy, and AIDS are rampant.
Nevertheless, the population of Africa grows faster than that of any other region of the world. The total number of children, grand children, and great-grand children that the average American woman will have is 14. The equivalent figure for the average African woman is 258! Despite the ravages of disease, starvation, and inter-tribal warfare, Africa’s population increases by more than three percent a year. At that rate, populations can double in 20 years.
Why is Africa poor? The standard explanations blame anyone but the Africans. Colonization by whites, it is said, kept Africa poor. The slave trade depleted the continent and impoverished it. Multinational corporations plundered it.
Just as blacks in America seek to explain their own failings by blaming them on whites, Africans explain their own poverty by blaming Europe. Recently, this is how a broadcast on Somalia’s state-owned radio attacked the BBC for reporting uncomplimentary facts:
The BBC’s day dream … was to succeed once again in looting at will the abundant natural resources both on land and at sea in the third world, particularly in Africa.
The colonial bogeyman still lives.
The argument that colonization accounts for Africa’s poverty is so easily refuted that it should have gone out of currency long ago. That it has not can be attributed only to the apparently endless capacity of whites to accept arguments that paint them as villain.
|There is no reason to think that, left to themselves, Africans would have risen from the primitive conditions in which Europeans found them.|
To believe that colonization thwarted the economic development of Africa is to believe that indigenous societies were on their way towards prosperity but were brutally shoved off course by Europeans. In fact, African societies south of the Sahara that had not had contact either with Europeans or with Middle Eastern traders showed no signs of modern development. No pre-contact African society had devised a written language or had discovered the wheel. None had a calendar, or built multi-story buildings. No African had learned how to domesticate animals. The smelting of iron was widespread, as was fire-hardened pottery, but the continent did not produce anything that could be called a mechanical device.
Africans had no concept of the biological origins of disease, and attributed personal misfortunes to the work of evil spirits. Slavery was widely practiced, and deeply rooted in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans. There is no reason to think that, left to themselves, Africans would have risen from the primitive conditions in which Europeans found them.
The European slave trade, though unquestionably harmful to Africa, was hardly the depopulating scourge it is often made out to be. When the 15th century Portuguese began sailing down the coast, they met long-established slave traders keen to sell off surpluses. Europeans almost never went on slaving expeditions into the interior. They bought slaves from dealers, which means that slaves taken from Africa were first enslaved by other Africans.
At the same time, Europeans introduced two New World staples that could be stored — cassava and corn — revolutionizing the African food supply. The sudden increase in population more than made up for losses to the European slave trade which, in any case, ended by the middle of the 19th century.
It was trade with Europeans that introduced modernity to iron-age Africa. Far from hobbling and holding the continent back, colonization laid the foundations for whatever evidence of economic progress can now be found in Africa. It was Europeans who built roads and rail lines, introduced piped water, schools and telecommunications, and built national administrations. Nothing suggests that Africans would have achieved any of this on their own.
There is no question but that life for Africans improved steadily under colonization. By the 1960s, when most of Africa became independent, the region exported food. Now, it devours more than $1 billion a year in Western food aid, and thousands still starve.
It is possible to argue that Africans might have been better off if they had been left entirely alone. This is to take a romantic view of the disease, tribal warfare, slavery, and ignorance that were widespread on the continent. Moreover, no African group that has glimpsed the possibilities of Western progress has opted to return to purely African primitivism. This suggests that Africans themselves would rather have the benefits of Western technology than do without them. Given that people naturally yearn for medical advance and material progress, colonization was an obvious and striking benefit to Africa.
The benefits are particularly clear in any comparison of those parts of Africa that were colonized with those that were not. Ethiopia remained independent except for a brief occupation by Italy during the 1930s. It is the poorest country on the continent, with an annual per capita gross national product (GNP) of $130. Eritrea, which was absorbed by Ethiopia after the Second World War, had been an Italian colony for 50 years. It is more advanced in every way. Though it has only three percent of Ethiopia’s population, it has 30 percent of its industry. It recently won a decades-old war of independence against Ethiopia.
An equally stark contrast can be found in West Africa. Ivory Coast, heavily colonized by the French, is much better developed than neighboring Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1822. Liberians, apparently unaware of the political heresy they are uttering, freely attribute the miserable state of their country to its having gone without “the benefits of colonization.”
The Decline Since Independence
What about Africa since independence? During the first few years, while some European procedures were still being followed, the standard of living in Africa continued to improve. It is in the last 20 years, during which Africans themselves have shaped their own nations, that conditions have deteriorated spectacularly. Virtually without exception, Africans have failed to build modern economies.
In the last dozen years, per capita GNP has fallen every year in Africa. By 1989, per capita food production in Africa was only three quarters what it had been in 1970. In 1985, an estimated 25 percent of African pre-school children suffered from acute protein deficiency. Only five years later, an estimated 40 percent did.
It is not as though Africa has been neglected by white countries. Since the 1960s, they have poured more than $300 billion in aid into the continent. Tanzania, a favorite target for Scandinavian largess, received $8.6 billion between 1970 and 1988 — more than four times its 1988 GNP. By that year, Tanzania’s annual per capita GNP was a pitiful $160, lower than at independence in 1961.
Obviously, it is much easier for undeveloped nations to copy the tried and tested technology of nations that have gone before. They need not invent telephones or electric power generators. They need only install and maintain what Europeans have invented. Africans cannot or will not.
Mobutu the Messiah
Often African “leaders” are outright pirates whose only interest is in enriching themselves and their cronies. Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seku is perhaps the worst. He has been in power since 1965, and has looted the country of an amount estimated to be between two and ten billion dollars. Either figure would make him one of the richest men in the world. He owns chateaus or estates in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Ivory Coast. He has 11 palaces in Zaire itself, including one in his home village of Gbadolite that is so lavish it is known as the Versailles of the Jungle. Mr. Mobutu likes to be called “Messiah,” and has worked up a personality cult for his hotel-maid mother that rivals that of the Virgin Mary.
Zaire, which is blessed with diamonds, gold, silver, copper, and uranium, should be one of the richest countries in the world. Today it has a per capita annual GNP of $180. The World Bank has calculated that from 1973 to 1985, per capita income fell by 3.9 percent every year, and is now one tenth what it was in 1960 when the country became independent of Belgium.
|Rarely do African leaders show the slightest evidence that they have any concern for their people.|
Zaire has not built a hospital in 20 years. In the ones that still remain, nurses and doctors must be bribed to do their work. Road maintenance is so primitive that the 1,100-mile drive from the Atlantic to Zaire’s eastern border that used to take two days now takes three weeks. In the rainy season, the trip may be impossible. Reliable electricity and plumbing are hazy memories from the colonial past.
Rarely do African leaders show the slightest evidence that they have any concern for their people. Consider Madagascar. When the French controlled the island, they nearly succeeded in wiping out the malaria mosquito. When the Malagasies were given independence, they let public health programs fall into decay. By 1988, when 100,000 people had died of the disease in just six months, the national malaria-control laboratory owned one Bunsen burner and two old microscopes. The Swiss government, under World Bank auspices, has offered to donate 300 million tablets of anti-malarial drugs — enough to treat the entire population for two years — but the Madagascar government insists on selling them rather than handing them out free. This ensures that most people won’t get them and that a few government officials will get even richer than they already are.
In the Sudan, where starving people are so desperate that they sell their children into slavery, government authorities refuse to let western relief agencies operate unless they pay fat bribes. Even then, aid convoys are often attacked and pillaged by government soldiers who then sell relief supplies for their own profit.
In Zambia, the percentage of government spending that goes to education dropped from 19 percent in 1972 to 8 percent in 1987, even though the number of students doubled. Zambia’s president, Kenneth Kaunda, has stolen so much of the state budget that he is estimated to be worth as much as $6 billion. In the capital, Lusaka, only an estimated one half of city employees actually work.
Ivory Coast is putting the finishing touches on a $280 million Catholic cathedral made of marble, ivory, and gold. By papal request, the cupola will stand a few feet lower than that of St. Peter’s in Rome, but Our Lady of Peace will still be able to accommodate 300,000 worshipers at a time. The cathedral is located, not in the capital, but 130 miles inland in the home village of former president Houphouet-Boigny. By strange coincidence, the nation’s only divided highway also runs to the same village, though it has little commerce with the capital. Upon his death, Mr. Houphouet-Boigny intends to be laid to rest, amid much pomp and official mourning, beneath Our Lady’s dome.
Ivory Coast, on which France has lavished not only a great deal of aid but thousands of technical advisors, is, relatively speaking, an African success story. Nevertheless, its merchant class is almost exclusively Lebanese, and extravagances like the cathedral have forced the government to default on its international obligations.
When African governments are not openly plundering their people, they are simply incompetent. Sierra Leone, which should be rich from its gold, diamonds, and fertile farm land, is nearly as much of a disaster as deserts like Chad or the Central African Republic. The currency, the leone, has been so unstable that farmers smuggle their produce out for sale in Ivory Coast. In 1987, diamond traders found they had to pay so many near-worthless leones for diamonds that they began to withdraw currency from banks by the truckload. When this happens, most governments simply print more banknotes. Sierra Leone, which has its currency printed in England, didn’t even have enough money to pay for paper and ink. Currency disappeared, and the economy temporarily reverted to barter.
In Africa, natural wealth seems only to increase the scale of national follies. Nigeria, an oil producer and member of OPEC, is wasting a fortune trying to build a steel industry. The site the Nigerians have chosen is far away from iron ore, coking coal, or transport routes.
At the same time, government-subsidized gasoline sells for about 40 cents a gallon — the cheapest price in the world — so Nigerians waste fuel and import more cars than the economy can afford. Tanker loads of artificially cheap gasoline are smuggled out for sale in neighboring countries. Waste in the oil industry is so great, that Nigeria cannot meet its OPEC export quota. Twenty years from now, when Nigeria has pumped its oil wells dry, it will have little to show for them.
Africa and AIDS
One disservice that many African governments do their people is to deny that AIDS is ravaging their countries. Zimbabwe’s is one of the worst. Though no one knows for sure, a quarter of the adult population — millions of people — may be infected, but the government officially reported only 499 cases of AIDS in 1989. At the central hospital of Harare, the capital, AIDS kills more children than any other disease. Still, government authorities refuse to recognize the problem or disseminate public health information. When criticized for its silence, the state-controlled press complained about “the slurs on Africans brought about by the West’s obsessive determination to blame AIDS on Africa.”
In the mean time, Africans continue to infect each other at a great rate. For reasons that are not entirely understood, many Africans seem to get AIDS through heterosexual intercourse. Rich Africans are often very promiscuous, so the millions who will be dying over the next decade will be from the upper classes. One doctor estimates that 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s best-paid men are infected. AIDS could put an end to Africa’s rocketing population growth and even cause a serious decline, beginning around the year 2010.
Just as Western governments and aid agencies refuse to criticize African dictators for fear of being called “racist,” the Western press is squeamish about reporting African savagery. In April 1991, Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria started a small war against each other that may have left as many as one thousand dead. The streets of the town of Bauchi were littered with decapitated corpses, but few Americans ever heard about it.
|The press prefers to skip lightly over news of this kind, to avoid complaints from American blacks about ‘negative stereotypes.’|
In the summer of 1988, the majority Tutsis of Burundi sent in the army to slaughter some 5,000 minority Hutu tribesmen. This was a repetition of a similar exercise in 1972, when Tutsi soldiers killed an estimated 100,000 unarmed Hutu. Neither event got much attention. In 1991, when Liberian rebel leaders captured the former president, Samuel K. Doe, they first tortured him to death. Then they carved off his lips, ears, and genitals and put his body on public display.
The press prefers to skip lightly over news of this kind, to avoid complaints from American blacks about “negative stereotypes.” Of course, if white South African police shoot into a menacing crowd of blacks, it is front-page news.
Except for South Africa, whose government seeks the consent of the (white) electorate, and for one or two newcomers to democracy like Botswana, African governments rule by brute force. Since 1957, there have been 150 African heads of state, but only six gave up power voluntarily. All the rest died in office, were murdered, or were thrown out in military coups. In virtually every African country, the people who rule are the people who own the weapons. This explains why African countries spent $2.2 billion on imported weapons in 1983 while they spent only $1.7 billion on medical care. Until it was overthrown in 1991, the Ethiopian government was spending 60 percent of its revenue on the military.
Why, then, is Africa poor? For anyone who has looked into the question, there seems to be little doubt that Africans have brought misery upon themselves. Whether it be in Africa, Haiti, or Washington (DC) (see book review, this page), Africans show little evidence of an ability to organize and run a modern economy. Just as blacks have made wastelands of those parts of the United States in which they are a majority and over which they exercise authority, so have Africans desolated a continent bursting with riches.
Of course, it is not permissible to conclude that this is because of natural, genetic handicaps from which blacks suffer, so anti-white arguments inevitably rush in to fill the explanatory void. Blacks the world over, whether they live only among themselves or among people of other races, are said to lead lives of failure and misery only because whites have oppressed them in the past and continue to oppress them in the present. It makes no difference that this explanation falls apart under scrutiny; it is the only one that is permitted because the alternative does not conform to current political dogma.
There can be no pleasure in saying so, but the facts point to one conclusion. Whether in Africa or America, Haiti or Great Britain, blacks are poor because they are, for the most part, incapable of lifting themselves from poverty. Africa is poor, just as Harlem is poor, because it is populated by Africans.