Africanos- I will tell you where we went wrong

by Nadia Zeine


This is a topical topic, one of the most discussed in the world today. Many like me cannot for the life of us comprehend why a continent so endowed with resources (at least mineral resources) can be so impoverished we the Africanos are perpetually living from hand to mouth on alms received when we go begging with cup in hands. Very grim and sordid picture that may seem, but frankly speaking, I beg to say that this is the truth. From one African country to the other, there might be slight differences but the general rule is that the continent is ‘broke’.

The issue of the African continent being impoverished is even more perplexing to those with a good knowledge of history. It could be better. The continent should have been better. This is because despite all the challenges and difficulties on this continent, there was a time when Africa was a lead continent in development. We have periods were though late to table, Africa was able to encourage education and architecture to inspiring heights. With such a history, the continent should be placed in the top echelons of development on the globe and not our pathetic deep rooting at the bottom.

Where did the Africanos go wrong? Maybe we should be asking “What went wrong with Africa?” Whatever the case, some tough questions with probably bitter answers must be asked and passionately addressed. I know most Africans are quick to point accusing fingers at the West, definitely, – I used to be one-. Dissect the issues as truthfully and frankly as possible and maybe we shall find some answers, within us.

Pre-Colonial Era

By pre-colonial era, I am referring to the ages before the fifteenth century AD. For a short article like this, I can’t delve deep into all the details and go way back into time. Going a few centuries back from our reference point, agriculture and metallurgy is said to have arrived late on the African continent, especially, the sub-Saharan continent. That is to say, at the time the world entered the Agricultural Revolution enhanced by metal tools, Africa was still mainly a nomadic hunting and gathering society. The revolution did hit Africa eventually even if it was about 1000 years later as some historians suggest.

I am not by this saying that the lateness is the cause of our underdevelopment. The continent posed its own challenges to development of agriculture considering the level of technology at the time.  Settlers and farmers had to deal with ferocious diseases such as Malaria and Sleeping Sickness in addition to other global ones such as the plague and tuberculosis. Additionally, climate challenges of draught and spreading desertification was a challenge to agriculture then too.

Fortunately, the world moved on to other eras. Formation of nation states for instance is one era that Africa lagged behind terribly. Whiles Europe were forming nations and inspiring different ethnic groups to pull their different expertise together and build strong large units, Afircanos were steeped in small ethnic group living except for the development of a couple of large and powerful empires. Culture. One cannot totally blame the Africanos for this development because this process was catalysed in Europe by free communication and movement. The problem with not forming nations was that we continued to indulge in lots of unproductive tribal and ethnic wars.

The African continent however was not that navigable with the technology of the time. The water bodies could not be sailed for long distances because they are froth with waterfalls. There were also thick virgin forests meaning a lot of ethnic groups were landlocked and having little with even other African ethnic groups. Whiles the North of Africa had some contact with the Arab and European continents, the Sub-Saharan Africa was cut off in the south by the Atlantic and the north by the dreaded Sahara desert. This geographical barricading of the continent can explain some of the reasons why Africans are underdeveloped. This is a question of what went wrong and not where we went wrong.

That notwithstanding, necessity is really the mother of invention. So, in the face of all of these challenges, we as Africanos were making gradual strides towards conquering the continent. In the field of education, Egypt and Timbuktu was at a point in time the international hub of writing and education. Bear in mind that these are in North Africa, the part that had contact with the rest of the world. The same region also showed great promise in architecture. The Egyptian pyramids which are still wonders of the world today is just one such example. Despite the difficulty in free movement of such technology, the landlocked countries also had architectural prowess. The Shonas of now Zimbabwe have great stone architecture that marvel the world today, and this is a landlocked country.

In terms of economics or commerce, there are mention of numerous trade routes for salt, gold, and other commodities that existed long before the arrival of the Europeans. Africanos were making some progress. With the arrival of Europeans and opening up of the continent to more ideas and opportunities, one may expect that Africa would have blossomed. Why was and is that not the case?

The Slave Trade and Colonial Era

Did you go ah hah! That is where we went wrong. The arrival of the Europeans facilitated trade but a very negative one, the Slave Trade. Many think the removals of manpower or human resource was where we went wrong and had our development curtailed or truncated. An estimated 12 million Africans were taken across the Atlantic to the West to build nations there and about a similar number to Asia. It is worth noting that most of these slaves were not captures by the Europeans but sold to them by Africanos. We fought and captured our own kith and kin to sell to the Europeans so the Europeans are not totally to blame. Our inability to rise above tribal and ethnic divisions and wars was what was amplified by the arrival of the Europeans.

Our failure to trade in other goods such as technology with which we could have built on our past achievements did us Africanos a great disservice. Cannot say much for the whole of Africa but I know here in West Africa, particularly Ghana, the slave trade era is dominated by trade in arms for wars to get slaves to sell to the Europeans. It was wrong for the Europeans to have brought up trade in slaves but we could have stopped it.

When the slave trade was formally stopped, we went into the colonial era. The formation of colonies or the sharing of Africa among the colonial masters was a terrible watershed in the development of Africanos. With little knowledge and regard for African systems, the colonies were mapped out in such a way that it did not consider our strong tribal and ethnic divisions and traditional governance systems. This unfortunate error continues to haunt us Africanos to date. The mapping was done selfishly considering only the needs and wants of the colonial masters then.

It comes as no surprise then that in the colonial era, the African continent was programmed to undertake a false development project in the form of mining and agriculture. Although these can develop a nation, the intention was not to develop Africa. The colonial masters had this project underway so as to feed their hungry industries as they has entered the industrial age largely aided by the labour of the African slaves they had bought. If they were truly interested in developing Africa, they would have exported industrial technology to Africa. But humans are intrinsically selfish; no one would develop the African continent except for us Africanos. Even the educational system that was introduced was structured and fashioned to promote or facilitate colonialism and not to help the African develop.

After World War II, the European colonial masters pretended to bring some semblance of development to Africa but once again, they repeated the same mistakes. They did not do it with regard to African culture and traditions. Their attempt to build nation states was a commendable one but doing so along the lines of the ill-fated colonial boundaries they had created meant it was doomed to fail. They also tried to impose their form of governance on to us Africanos and once again, to date, we are battling or struggling to live by this system of governance. The average Africano still has strong ethnic affiliation before nationality and other affiliations.

Post-Colonial Era

With the struggle for independence over and our destiny now in our own hands, where did we go wrong or what went wrong. The colonial masters had set a bad foundation for us to build on and that was obvious. We Africanos had the power but amazingly just continued with the European system whole sale, hook-line-and-sinker. Our educational systems are largely the same, they have not been restructured to look more at things from the African perspective and develop what we have. They teach and train us Africanos more about Europe than about Africa and promote jobs that are more required in the West than here in Africa.

We could have gone back to study our architecture and if need by advance it. But with our hot climate, we are today building European-styled buildings which are designed to trap heat because of the cold in their country. We are putting up buildings that trap heat in a hot climate! Incredible! Why have we ignored our good old cooling and cheap clay? Well at least we now have something like that from the CSIR but are we taking to it? Or as some would put it, the imperialist have left us with a colonial or neo-colonial mentality that makes us think everything from the West is better. I really do not think so because we have now taken to the Asian tigers. Why is it that we Africanos cannot take to ourselves?

We can very much blame the West for the artificial divisions within and across ethnic lines which can be traced to be the root cause of many of the civil unrests on the continent. The lack of political stability and continuity is the greatest insult on development of Africa in the post-colonial era. This is one of the places where we as Africanos go wrong. We should have risen above ethnicity and instilled nationalism and patriotism by now.  If we really cannot find enough reasons to unite and want to continue the infighting, then we might as well break up into smaller nations based on ethnic lines and be consumed by the gigantic world forces.

When all nations over the world are looking to form stronger unions as there is strength in numbers, why are we Africanos trying to swim against these strong Tsunami tides? The period for blame game is long past. We have ourselves to blame if after all these years of independence we cannot build strong nations. We cannot continue to blame the artificial national boundaries done by the West decades ago.

Another culprit implicated in the truncated development of Africa and blamed as one factor that sent us the way is Neo-colonialism. We can blame the invincible yet powerful hand of neo-colonialism but the fact that India and China have broken out of its bondage and emerged rightfully as emerging market economies; we really do not have an excuse. We Africanos must learn from these Asian tigers and know it would take us and only us to build and develop Africa. No amount of aid or even compensation for the harm done during the slave trade and colonial era would cause us to develop. We as Africanos must learn to unite and depend on ourselves first and foremost.

It is never too late; the race for development is auspiciously not a speed race or a 100 metre dash but a long distance endurance race. We have more than enough time to take the bull by the horns and turn the situation around. The time has come for Africanos to make a paradigm shift to think in terms of solutions and not to dwell and focus on whom or what caused the problem.