The Africa We Want: The dissonance between democracy and freedom
As Black History Month drew to a close, I found myself thinking about how African states’ dependence and subordinate role in the global economy and politics produced during the colonial period has for many years been reproduced by African leaders. For the purpose of this discussion I will at many points refer to Africa as a whole bearing in mind that Africa is not a country but a continent of 54 recognized countries with different histories, cultures, ethnicities and forms of leadership.
‘We must not forget the colonial power has not left us, we must recognize that he did not go willingly.’ (Dacko 1963)
When the colonists came to Africa, they made the indigenous people of Africa believe that there was no other civilization, no social ethics or modernity, except that which was from Europe. This is despite the fact that according to Windsor, European civilization developed from ancient black civilization, or that the Mali Empire under Mansa Musa was the richest in the world, with two thirds of the world’s gold being traded from Mali, or the fact that Timbuktu had some of the greatest scholars in the world and was a thriving economic center between 1100 and 1300, not forgetting the Egyptian civilization and the various empires that preexisted colonialism.
The African continent being endowed with natural resources continues to fuel some of the world’s strongest economies and yet the benefits from foreign trade remain minimal. Civil wars and somewhat engineered distractions are the order of the day in countries with the greatest endowments which also happen to be among the poorest in the world so one can only wonder where the financial muscle behind these evils comes from.
One of the systems established during colonialism to ensure subordination of Africa in the global economy was the displacement of local people from their choicest lands in order for the colonialists to advance their agricultural quests. Mamdani would call this defeat and dispersal of tribal populations one of the key factors of colonial oppression. As usual, the mother colony would identify herself as better suited to have autonomy over the land given that the natives were not able to utilize the fertile farming land appropriately. This is something that failed to be corrected by some leaders of Africa after independence instead, keeping that colonial legacy intact.
The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of the amendment of Section 25 of the South African Constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation has once again given the West another reason to interfere in African politics. The expropriation has been painted as a genocide and the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, threatened to impose sanctions on South Africa due to the infringement of property rights. Former President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, also threatened to take action against South Africa. This is despite the fact that the majority of the forefathers of those who own the land today acquired the land for free or by force. Per the book Why Nations Fail, ‘institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer’ (Daron Acemoglu 2012). Exploitation colonialism.
Now that we are no longer a dominated continent, how then do African leaders find themselves answering to the West and entering into unfair trade terms. Aid. Aid has become a tool of oppression, the accepting of aid being a means by which the current African leaders have reproduced subordination of Africa in global economics and politics. As the idiom goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune, African leaders are more willing to listen to those who fill their pockets; their donors, rather than those who voted them into power.
The whole idea of those who have more having an obligation to share with those who have less has resulted in nothing but patronage by the West over the African people’s and as Karl Kraus rightly notes, aid is ‘the disease of which it pretends to be the cure’. Looking at some statistics, ‘between 1970 and 1998 when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, the poverty rate in Africa rose from 11 per cent to a staggering 66 per cent’ (Moyo 2010). How then, one would ask, is poverty and aid correlated. Well, there are many reasons:
Aid encourages corruption as it is often not accounted for properly, the typical example being the former president of Zaire now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko who is estimated to have stolen close to five billion US dollars, the total external debt of Zaire. Aid also encourages conflicts as government officials, presidents alike, would also want a ‘piece of the pie’ and would not be willing to let go of power once they have enjoyed the influx of aid.
One of the worst impacts of aid is that it discourages free enterprise, Moyo gives an example of a person who sold mosquito nets, but because the Western donors sent a large number of mosquito nets to Africa, their ‘good donation’ destroys the local mosquito net salesperson’s business, resulting in one less participant in the country’s economy. The only problem is that the West does a great job at donating a lot of different goods that could otherwise be locally produced in the local economy, goods that could potentially be traded on the global market with fair trading terms thereby fostering real economic growth as it would boost the morale and reach of small businesses and also encourage more businesses to spring up.
As stated in the book Why Nations Fail;
It is politics – not geography, culture or ignorance – the factor that best explains the current disparities in the wealth of nations. (Daron Acemoglu 2012)
As we build the Africa we want, African leaders ought to be deliberate about liberating their countries from the mercy of the conceptual West. I have much faith in the potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area to produce economic freedom through a boost in intra-Africa trade, the removal of trade barriers and most importantly the establishment of fair trade terms with countries outside of Africa through joint negotiations. I really do hope this will not be another wasted opportunity. We are definitely not where we were 60 years ago but a lot still needs to be done and that progress is urgent and requires all hands on deck.
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Yours in Thoughtful Learning