The Underdevelopment of the African Continent

As Africans — especially those of us who live in the West — we are uncomfortable with our continent’s state of underdevelopment both in terms of economic growth and human security. And so it is that wherever there is a gathering of Africans, the conversation is likely to revolve around, or will invariably revolve around politics and the sorry state of our continent. The conversation may start with Greencard palaver, remittances and the foreign exchange rate, visa stunts at US Embassies, the stress of living abroad, racism, and other small-talks; but sooner or later, the conversation will lead to “why, in spite of our abundant human and natural resources we are the poorest of all the continents.”

After all these years living in the West, I am not sure I have ever come across an African who was not concerned about the plight of the continent. And neither have I ever come across an African who didn’t wish he or she was living and prospering in his/her country of birth — instead of the state of “stagnation and exile” most put or find themselves. There is always a sense of longing and reminiscence. Africans speak of the continent and their countries nostalgically. They speak of a time that once was; of their villages and cities and childhood; of good food and good music; and of love from their parents and grandparents and all that. They miss being home. They miss the familiar. They miss the scent and the wind and the soil and the water and the air. They miss Africa.

They miss their ancestral homes. However, as I said not too long ago, that most Africans cannot, or will not pack their bags and leave for their countries of origin, is a testament to the hold the United States, and indeed the West, has on most. America for instance, is a land of almost inexhaustible opportunities. It is indeed the land of those who are daring and have the courage to extend frontiers. It is a land that rewards those who work hard and smart. It is a land that rewards those who persevere and keep going even when they fail. It is a land of law and order, of those who believe in the rule of law, of due process. America is the land of God and gods, a land for the believers and non-believers. It is a land of dream merchants, of fabulists, tale-spinners; and of high and low achievers. It is also a land of pipedreams, broken dreams and untold anguishes.

That said why is it that Africa cannot or will not offer her sons and daughters what she is really capable of offering — but has refused, cannot, or will not offer? Why is Africa so backward in all sphere of human endeavor? What is going on and what has gone wrong? Even our acclaimed culture is turning out to be an impediment to growth and development.

When Africans gather to talk about what went wrong with the continent, they habitually turn to speaking about slavery and colonialism and neocolonialism. When they gather, they speak of the predatory nature of the Bretton Woods Institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization), and they also speak of the anarchical nature of the global landscape. Some are certain that no matter the effort and the struggles of the continent, the continent can never be free to join the prospering and prosperous comity of continents. The West, they argue, lives off Africa; therefore it is not in the West’s interest to see to an independent, free and thriving Africa.

When the West think of Africa, the argument goes, they see an endless expanse from which to procure dirt-cheap labor, material and natural resources and a market on which to dump wastes and goods. But is this the only story? Is the only story that of the prey and the predator, the aggressor and the aggrieved? That the West has a grand evil design for the continent? Well, I don’t think so.

My take has always been that “the problems of Africa are not squarely the doing of the West alone.” You see, Africans have a hand in the festering and negativity that abounds and surrounds them. Yes, slavery, colonialism and exploitative nature of capitalism have a hand in Africa’s problems; but that’s not all and the only story. To think otherwise is to continue to play victim. You play victim when you’ve mentally consigned yourself to everlasting servitude.

Every time the issue of development and underdevelopment has arisen — either within the ivory towers or in beer parlors — I have always contended that the underdevelopment of our continent and of our countries can be traced to several factors; and all these factors can be grouped under four headings: (1) external factors; (2) internal factors; (3) cultural factors; and (4) the confluence of 1, 2 and 3. Since the early years of independence (the 1960s), over two thousand books and scholarly materials have been devoted to the issue of Africa’s (under)development. There has been one theory after another, one paradigm after another, i.e. modernization and dependency theories, the Rostow’s stages of economic growth, the Harrod-Domar model, and the Schumpeterian theory of underdevelopment, the Solow Growth Model, the Lewis Model, and the Jorgensen Model – which are all trying to explain underdevelopment.

However, presentation after presentation and conference after conference, I have come to the conclusion that Africa’s development problems are attributable to: (1) dearth of visionary and bold leadership; (2) lack of viable and enduring institutions; and (3) the strength and character of our people and national culture. Now, if we get the first and the second right, the third factor may be ameliorated. For instance, there are several positives to institutions — one being that it checks and moderates the public and private behavior and pronouncement of people. It helps to dampen people’s excesses. Aren’t gluttonous behaviors, corruption and wanton disregard for law and order our first enemies?

A visionary leader and his lieutenants would have, could have, or should have come up with antidotes to counter or ameliorate the poisons of the Bretton Woods Institutions. But what does one expect when we have functional illiterates as presidents. All they want to do is sign the enslaving papers, be assured of their kickbacks and get the hell out of there so they can find time to visit their mistresses and relatives and then deposit money in their personal bank account. Then go shopping. They are not thinking about the interest of the country.

Western capitalists don’t care and won’t shed a tear if a minister, governor or president wants to mortgage his/her country. In addition, what do Africans expect when a thirty-year-old World Bank or IMF official can simply walk into our presidents or ministers’ offices and speak in magical terms? These officials get bamboozled with fuzzy math and fuzzy economics all the time. And our leaders…thinking about kickbacks always go along with the recommendations or are without backbones when it’s time to negotiate during which they mostly sell the country to the lowest bidders.

 And then there are times when our governments simply signs papers without a clear understanding of the ramification of such binding legal tenders. The IMF, WB and WTO are not charity organizations, you know. Capitalism is mostly about profit, profit and more profit — these are not social justice institutions.

 So the next time Africans gather, they should ask themselves: “what should we do about Africa’s leadership and institution crisis”? The question and the answers lie at the heart of what’s wrong with the continent. And so I leave you with the word of Daniel Etounga-Manguelle:

“In Africa…the entire social body accepts, as a natural fact, the servitude imposed by the strongman

of the moment. It has been argued that the underdeveloped are not the people, they are the leaders. This is both true and false. If African peoples were not underdeveloped (that is to say, passive, resigned, and cowardly), why would they accept underdeveloped leaders…”

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