What happened to Africa?

Author:Pham, J. Peter
Position:The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair, A History of Fifty Years of Independence - Critical essay

The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair--A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. 752 pp.


Explaining a False Start

Fifty-one years ago this year, delegations from fifty-six countries arrived in Accra to witness the rebirth of the British crown colony of the Gold Coast as the newly independent state of Ghana, the firstborn of what would soon be a veritable wave of nearly four dozen African nations which would achieve political independence in the space of a few years. The Duchess of Kent represented her niece, Queen Elizabeth II, while Vice President Richard Nixon stood in for President Dwight Eisenhower who broadcasted a special radio message, congratulating Ghanaians and expressing his "particular admiration [for] the manner in which you attained your independence," while emphasizing that he spoke "for a people that cherishes independence, which we deeply believe is the right of all people who are able to discharge its responsibilities" (Heger 1999: 257).

On March 6, 1957, few doubted that Ghana, and the states which would follow in its wake, would be able to discharge the responsibilities they assumed on taking their place among the world's sovereigns. As Martin Meredith notes in The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair--A History of Fifty Years of Independence, his monumental survey of the postcolonial history of the continent, rarely are states launched with as much promise as this West African country:

Ghana embarked on independence as one of the richest tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class. Its parliament was well established, with able politicians in both government and opposition. The prime minister, himself, then only forty-seven years old, was regarded as a leader of outstanding ability, popularly elected, with six years of experience running a government. The country's economic prospects were equally propitious. Not only was Ghana the world's leading producer of cocoa, with huge foreign currency reserves built up during the 1950s cocoa boom, but it possessed gold, timber and bauxite. (27) Were one to have examined Ghana's economic indicators in comparison with those of, say, South Korea, the African nation evinced better prospects hands down. At the very moment the departing British governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, bequeathed Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah an unprecedented $481 million in foreign reserves, South Korea's Syngman Rhee was presiding over a nearly bankrupt country eking out an existence on U.S. aid, having endured the thirty-five years of brutal Japanese occupation--in contrast to which the eighty-three year history of British rule in the Gold Coast colony was positively benign--only to subsequently suffer a devastating conventional war fought in its cities and countryside, which concluded in a military stalemate and armistice just four years earlier. In both aggregate and per capita terms, the gross domestic product of the Republic of Korea was lower than that of Ghana in 1957, with few prospects for improvement given the near-total lack of exploitable natural resources on the Northeast Asian peninsula. Yet half a century later, South Korea boasts the world's thirteenth largest economy and is considered "highly developed," ranking twenty-sixth on the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while Ghana, with its original endowment and all the natural bounty at its disposal, just barely makes the cut to qualify as a "medium developed" nation, ranking 136th out of 177 countries surveyed (UNDP 2007).

Even with its underwhelming economic performance, Ghana is far from the worst off among African nations--in all fairness, after a disastrous few decades marred by military coups and statist economic mismanagement, it has slowly, but steadily, turned itself around since the restoration of constitutional rule in the 1990s, making up for lost time through astonishingly rapid social, economic, and political progress. The same, however, cannot be said for Ghana's neighbors: all twenty-two countries characterized by the UNDP as having "low human development" are in Sub-Saharan Africa; conversely, with the exception of Mauritius and Seychelles--two island states in the Indian Ocean that are members in the African Union--no African country placed among the seventy states having "high human development." Why many of the hopes of half a century ago have come to end in bitterness and despair as nearly a billion people, far from advancing, are actually rather falling even farther behind the rest of humankind, and how the rest of the world responds stand out as one of the most critical questions of the twenty-first century. For while the future is uncertain, what one can be sure of is that not learning from the lessons of the past is a guarantee for continued failure. Hence, it would be useful to begin by examining some of the explanations which are often given to account for the failure of African states not only to live up to the hopes of their citizens at independence, but also to respect their aspirations for basic dignity and human rights.

Common Excuses

Slavery is almost always among the first "causes" cited for Sub-Saharan Africa's woeful performance on most indicators of well-being. There is no doubt that the slave trade is one of the most shameful episodes in the chronicle of humankind's inhumanity to its fellows. From the dawn of the European "Age of Discovery" at the end of the fifteenth century to the interdiction by Great Britain, France, and the United States of the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century, (1) it is estimated that somewhere between eight and twelve million African men, women, and children made the horrendous journey westward in the "middle passage," while countless others perished before they reached the markets of the new world (Thomas 1997). Less often mentioned, but equally significant, are the comparable number of Africans who were trafficked into bondage eastward by Arab slavers, who remained active well into the late twentieth century--Saudi Arabia only abolished slavery in 1962 and Yemen and Oman did not get around to it until 1970. And almost never mentioned is the fact that legal slavery--as opposed to the officially unsanctioned variety of human bondage which human rights groups have repeatedly documented as persisting in a number of African countries--actually continues down to the present day in some African nations: as recently as 2005, the government of Niger was holding emancipation ceremonies (BBC News 2005), while Mauritania, which officially abolished slavery by presidential decree in 1981, was still debating legislation to actually enforce the ban by criminalizing the abuse in late 2007 ("Mauritanian Slavery Bill" 2007).

It is impossible to quantify the physical, psychological, social, economic, and political toll extracted by the institution of slavery on its victims, their families, and the communities they left behind when they were taken captive and marched to distant coasts to be shipped overseas. No one can stand at a place like House of Slaves on Goree Island, Senegal, or the dungeons of Ghana's Elmina Castle and not be deeply moved by the sight of each site's "Door of No Return," the final exit point in Africa for slaves being loaded onto the waiting ships, and the thought of the human suffering that thousands endured there over the centuries. However, the impact of this crime against humanity on those beyond the generations immediately affected is open to question. Keith Richburg, an African-American journalist who served as the award-winning Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post from 1991 to 1994, for example, has controversially argued that descendants of slaves are actually better off than their distant cousins who descended from those who were never taken captive:

So let me drop the charade and put it as simply as I know how: There but for the grace of God go I. You see, I was seeing all this horror a bit differently because of the color of my skin. I am an American, but a black man, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa ... Sometime, maybe four hundred or so years ago, one of my ancestors was taken from his village, probably by a local chieftain. He was shackled in leg irons, kept in a holding pen or a dark pit, possibly at Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. And then he was put in the crowded, filthy cargo hold of a ship for the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. Many of the slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor. Maybe it...

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