Africa's crises cannot be solved by redrawing borders. But economic reform, the decline of the urban middle class and the rise of tribalism are dissolving the old centralised post-colonial stateby Richard Dowden / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Seek ye first the political kingdom” was Kwame Nkrumah’s rallying call to Africa as he led the charge against imperialism in the 1950s. It was an answer to those who said Africa wasn’t yet ready for self rule-people who urged Africans to seek education, development and wealth, before trying to run their own countries. Nkrumah won the argument and the war. But did he-or any of his fellow founding fathers-find that political kingdom that they sought?
In those triumphant, aid-drenched years of the early 1960s, it did appear that Africa, with its resources, youth and enthusiasm, had a golden future. Forty years on we are bored by Africa’s inexplicable wars and stubborn poverty. The dreams became disasters. There is not a single success story to compete with Asia, once in thrall to imperial powers as much as, if not more than, Africa.
Some blame the rest of the world, projecting Africa as the victim of a global conspiracy entrapping it in debt. But Africa is no different from Asia in this respect. Both regions were level-pegging on poverty 15 years ago. Asia’s economies have taken off. But Africa, despite (or is it because of?) $10 billion a year in aid, four times more aid per capita over 20 years than Asia, is static or going backwards.
The causes of Africa’s failure lie in Africa. Bad political leadership? Undoubtedly. Nkrumah himself led the way with a dictatorship which bankrupted his country. He was overthrown, as were his successors. From Idi Amin to General Aideed, the continent seems cursed with more than its share of nutters and nasties. But they do not spring fully suited from nowhere. Africa’s political failures are thrown up by African society. Why?
There is a new and persuasive explanation which blames Africa’s instability on Africa’s borders. The second wind of change which blew through Africa at the end of the cold war brought only half-hearted multi-party democracy to many countries. But it also brought to the surface-for good and ill-an Africa which had been suppressed by imperialism and by the centralised nation states it bequeathed. One of the things which resurfaced was a new distinction between nation states and ethnicity. An African thinker as distinguished as Wole Soyinka, the Nobel prize winning playwright from Nigeria, has even raised the possibility of reconstituting Africa’s nation states along ethnic lines. He said recently: “We should sit down with…