Talk to Members’ Buffet Luncheon 28 September 2008

Prof John Lonsdale What’s wrong with Africa?
Note: not ‘what’s wrong with Africans?’ 30 years ago I gave a similar talk to a promotion class of army, RAF and naval officers. One opened the questioning afterwards with the observation, ‘Of course what you were trying not to say is that in fact they have smaller brains than ours.’ I deny that. Absolutely. Let me tell you why. In these post-modern days all historians are in any case supposed to declare their personal feelings and prejudices, ‘where they are coming from’. So here’s where I come from, what I’ve learned about Africans. I first met Africans in 1953, as a schoolboy, spending my first of three summer holidays in Kenya, where my father had just taken a job. I was petrified by the Mau Mau guerrillas and their bloodthirsty, bestial ways; and thought my father’s house-servants to be over-grown children. Like most other Europeans at the time I thought Africans half-savage and half-child. It was the colonial view. My views changed utterly in 1956, when I started my national service as a subaltern in the King’s African Rifles. A regiment that had ‘white officers with black privates’. ‘Oh, how exotic!’ as the lady at the officers’ mess cocktail party is supposed to have exclaimed. What did I learn of Africans from the KAR? That they were twice the soldier I was, my platoon sergeant, Odera, especially, and still more my Company Sergeant Major, Maingi, who had helped to drive the Japanese from Burma in ’44-45. Samuel, my wireless operator, found the BBC overseas programme on my platoon wireless set, with a designed range of only 50 miles, so that I could listen to Beethoven and Max Beerbohm after sunset, running down my batteries so that my company commander, many miles away, could no longer give me orders. I became ever more dependent on my platoon. Always cheerful, brave of course but also wise, utterly dependable, and fantastically good company around the camp-fire, ‘my askari’ treated me as their promising child—just as I had treated my father’s house-servants. Sergeant-Major Maingi just about saved my life. My education in the qualities of Africans continued after I had come up to Trinity in ’58 and then started on my first teaching job in Dar es Salaam in 1964. I have always counted myself lucky to have had Africans as my first students. My English had to be simple and direct—it was likely to be their third language at least—but the concepts one dealt with could be every bit as complex as one would try to share with undergraduates later, here, in Cambridge. They were eager to learn, quick to have an informed opinion. I have never been prouder than when, towards the end of a course I was teaching on the Russian Revolution, they could scarcely contain their laughter at the historical interpretation served up to them by a couple of CPSU party hacks who had called in at Dar on a cultural cruise.

2 Amongst my students there, one ended up as Kenya’s ambassador to Japan, another as the incorruptible chair of the Kenya Public Service Commission, and a third, deputy speaker of the Kenyan parliament. They did no better than one’s Trinity students and no worse. My first research student here at Cambridge, a Kenyan, ended his career as his country’s ambassador to Washington. A coloured South African student of mine served with distinction under Desmond Tutu on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Another, from Zimbabwe, made his opposition to Mugabe so plain that he has to live in exile. My closest Kenyan colleague suffered two weeks of torture under President Moi and yet remained an objective, outspoken, historian. Let nobody persuade you that Africans are any more lacking than the rest of us in brains, sense of honour, or moral and physical courage. So that’s ‘where I come from’. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that there seems to be much wrong with Africa:• • Most ‘failed states’ are in Africa. 2-3rds of the world’s cross-border refugees are Africans as too are 23rds of those with HIV-AIDS; and half of those counted as ‘internally displaced’ by civil violence. Africa has the world’s longest running civil wars. It has witnessed the world’s two most recent genocides—if neither of them as large as Pol Pot’s or Hitler’s. While, 50 years ago, most African states were reckoned to be on a par, economically, with most Asian and Latin American states, now most countries in those other continents have long escaped their ‘3rd World’ status, leaving only Africa behind. Africa is the only continent seemingly dependent on overseas aid. By some calculations the continent’s rulers have stashed away in offshore British and Swiss banks capital equivalent to recent aid flows—the profits of grand larceny, contemporary evidence of St Augustine’s aphorism ‘How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies. Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?’ Augustine, in the 4th century, was of course the earliest known African commentator on post-imperial politics.

• •

But below the level of looting the treasury, other forms of corruption in Africa seem to me to be little worse than that encountered in most of the rest of the world. Why does Africa present this sorry picture? Are there root causes? There are over 50 states in Africa, each with their own history, and all of them different. Historians are professionally nervous of generalisation: we leave that to philosophers, economist and political scientists. But I have no option: I have to generalise—about Africa’s history. As an historian I naturally think it matters. Different histories produce different

3 peoples—which is not to say that people cannot act to make the future different from their past. To make 4 points:• That a critical awareness of the justice or injustice of personal relationships is perhaps unusually strong in Africa, a trait ingrained in people who have historically lived in households very directly responsible for organising their own subsistence on their own land, with their own labour, conducting their own litigation, doing their own marketing—whose households in many respects remain family firms. That, largely in consequence, African states, throughout history, precolonial, colonial, and post-colonial have been relatively weak. That the politics of identity in Africa have been unusually complicated because, contrary to popular belief, Africa’s tribes are modern creations, full of new patriotic energy—not resentful, fading, residues of a primitive past. And, finally, that the timing of Africa’s economic transformations has been particularly unfortunate. Economic late-comers need strong connections and protections, the very things Africa has not got and which the rest of the world is not keen to give.

• •

Africa’s past then, has not been kind to its people’s future. Yet Africans are the most cheerfully optimistic people on earth. How far they have good cause to be is a question to which I will return. Let me then turn to the first of my four points, the very sharp African sense of personal equity and inequity, and its ambiguous implications. 1) At bottom, Africans are both too independent-minded and yet too inclined to depend on personal patronage for their own good. A paradox! Not so much an ingenious paradox such as tied poor dutiful Frederick to the service of the Pirates of Penzance but a perhaps more crippling one. Let me unravel: a) independent-minded. Historically, Africa was underpopulated, with a population of only 200 million in 1900; and was for the most part, stateless in consequence. African kingdoms were pretty weak: if they tried to impose on their citizens, the latter could too easily vote with their feet and move away. Ronald Robinson, who taught me African history half a century ago, used to say that the glory of African history was its free peasantry. But that could also be the continent’s curse. In the past it meant that when African rulers wanted dependent labour they had to capture and enslave it. And it means today that the ambition of most Africans is to live as independent producers, subject to no boss. It is still the case, in West Africa, that 75 per cent of the economically active population is self-employed within their family firms, in agriculture, trade, or artisan manufacture. Africans are too bolshie to be easily ruled, unused to the disciplines of obedience, more obedient to the self-disciplines, male and female, and proud honour, of independence, expressed best at the level of the family, ruled by

4 men, upheld by women. A deep-rooted trait that makes Africans wonderful at small businesses and petty trade, not good at large organisations. But b) African society is governed by personal relations of patron and client. Patronage relations exist in every culture and institution all round the world. Strings get pulled; old boy nets exclude strangers; juniors suck up to bosses. But while in Europe such behaviour is known to be against the rules, in Africa patronage sets the rules. Africa’s patronage relations have strict canons of reciprocity, whereby unjust patrons and worthless clients can equally be judged. Again, there are deep historical roots. While Africa was indeed relatively empty, no single family or clan could colonise it or exploit it entirely on their own. There was strength in numbers, and therefore in the leadership that organised numbers— for labour, for defence. But such leadership was valued chiefly in its protection of the labour of each associated household. Patrons were expected to provide the conditions for household independence. They were called on to be facilitators, not exploiters, to know that the best followers were those who became strong enough to be useful allies. Otherwise their followers could go off to find another elsewhere, with the wisdom to foster their growth in independence. Clients had the bargaining power to demand justice, if more typically by the negative sanction of secession than the positive sanction of insisting on constitutional checks and balances. Such moral philosophy meant that wherever Africans organised enough power to produce a kingdom their constitutional theory tended to be more than usually disconnected from political practice. In many African kingdoms subjects declared themselves the property of their king. In theory, kings would protect their property and care for it, ruling justly. Their praise names extolled both their cruelty—since it is best if one’s own ruler is more ruthless than others—and their generosity. The official title of the ruler of one of Uganda’s kingdoms was Omugabe, the giver of gifts—doubtless rather improbable news to today’s Zimbabweans. And yet in practice, African kingdoms were more subject to faction and fragmentation than their counterparts in European history—precisely because the free availability of resources in an underpopulated continent made it relatively simple to demonstrate one’s dissatisfaction with a ruler who was more cruel than kind, by departing, literally, from his rule and setting up elsewhere. The longest-lived African kingdoms were the most decentralised; that was the most effective guarantee of constitutional equity. 2) So, historically, African states have been weak, not good at concentrating resources, loyalties, power, or gaining a monopoly of legitimate force. And this is true not only of precolonial African kingdoms but also of twentieth-century European colonies. People often ask me, was British imperialism a good thing or a bad thing. For Africa one would have to answer that, primarily, it was a weak thing, and a remarkably short-lived one too, little more than sixty years in most cases, a single lifetime. Colonial regimes were alien, autocratic, regimes. What they were least good at was meeting their proudest claim—to have inculcated the values and practices of ‘western democracy’. They went too fast for that, and were too anxious to come to terms with the most powerful ‘dog in the kennel’—as Ghana’s last governor

5 described the country’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah—able therefore to protect western interests once imperial rule had gone. One-party dominance was an imperial preference before it was an African practice. These European colonies in Africa have been called ‘gate-keeping states’, a good description, since they did little more than create the means whereby Africa was opened up to world trade—generally with one sea-port, one railway into the interior, and a network of roads that fed each region’s productive speciality to the coast and to markets that Africa’s poverty could not supply for itself. Some dryer districts grew cotton, damper ones cocoa, higher, cooler ones, coffee or tea, and so on. Some districts supplied food, others more distant supplied migrant workers—to centres of large employment, such as the copper mines of central Africa, the gold mines of the south. Other than in South Africa it would be difficult to find in any colony a national economic centre, but then no other colony—independent since 1910—was ruled by a nationalist government. Once this ‘gate-keeping’ pattern has been established it is difficult to change. Vested interests cluster around the export-import trade, fearful of fostering rival centres of power. This natural resistance to potentially unsettling change has been accentuated by my two further characteristics of African history, the modern politics of identity and the lopsided economics of time. 3), then, the politics of identity. This is of course something that most of the world’s states have to take increasingly seriously, largely as a consequence of globalisation, including the globalisation of migrant labour. It will not surprise you to learn that I nonetheless think the politics of ‘multiculturalism’ is especially difficult in Africa. Africa’s ‘tribes’ (historians prefer ‘ethnic groups’) are as modern as its nations. Indeed, in a real sense they are its nations, formed in much the same way as European nations. All western nations have a long past, but it is generally a fraticidal past, full of divisive conflict, such as the Wars of Roses, Guelphs versus Ghibellines, Catholics against Huguenots, Bolsheviks against Mensheviks, American North and South, Prussian triumphs over other Germans, and so on. Patriotic history, the sort one learns at school, has to be forgetful to the degree to which it is intended to be uplifting. Our patriotic histories have been taught by modern states that over the past 200 years have had to bring social order out of the extraordinary social disorder of industrialisation, urbanisation and rapid population growth. The means of bringing order have been mass education, until recently mass conscription, and public subsidy for measures of social welfare. Africa’s tribes have gone through much the same modern creative process, for the same reasons. Disorientated by conquest, migrant labour, by the introduction of a cash economy and, therefore more opportunities for young men and women to challenge dependence on their heads of household, previously loose-limbed ethnic groups have sought to reconstruct themselves as conscious solidarities with more prescriptive moral economies of personal obligation. They have done so with the aid of new literacy, deployed for a long time on the only literature available, a Bible translated into their own language, standardised for the first time out of a variety of dialects by

6 European missionaries. And of what does one read in the Bible? Of a chosen tribe, the children of Israel, subject to colonial enslavement not once but twice and yet capable of redemption. To read of this in one’s own language was altogether more immediate than reading of it in the language of one’s colonial ruler, English or French. Ethnic nationalisms could be much more deeply rooted than territorial nationalisms (Ghanaian, Nigerian, Kenyan and so on) and every bit as modern. So, where have we got to thus far, before I turn to my final point, the timing of economic change? We have a tradition of bolshy independence among people difficult to rule, of clients dependent upon but deeply critical of patrons, demanding of them the generosity that permits dependent followers to become independent allies. We have historically weak states, gatekeepers of export economies rather than entrepreneurs of a national market. These states each incorporate dozens of newly self-conscious ethnicities, tribes. Patron-client relations are most trusted, and most demanding, within tribes, conducted in a local vernacular. These are not promising materials for the construction of nation-states, able to agree and then enact rational policy for the common good, responsive to a common public sphere. Add to this the fact that for the past half-century Africa has experienced the fastest population growth in world history, so that half of Africans are under the age of 16. If they are not adequately educated, as fewer of them now are, and gainfully employed, then never has firepower been so readily and cheaply available to arm their discontent, carried by superannuated Ukrainian pilots in superannuated Antonov transport planes, nor so profitably employed as by their ethnic political patrons, keen to tip the balance of electoral advantage with a spot of instructive violence. But 4) and finally, to turn to economic history, productive job creation, the only alternative to boy soldiery or ethnic ‘warriorhood’, is far from easy in the Africa of today. For half a century, in the middle and later 20th century, Africa began to prosper, as the supplier of primary agricultural commodities and raw materials to a Europe that spent extravagantly on war and recovery from war. But in the 1970s Europe discovered substitutes for Africa, whether through technological change or by protecting its own expensive farmers. Only recently has Africa found a new economic importance, with the world’s increasing thirst for oil, and China’s inexhaustible appetite for raw materials. But are these new export roles also good foundations for national economic development? It seems doubtful. Continued ‘gate-keeping’ seems the more likely. To take the first new role, economists commonly talk of the oil curse. Oil is produced by skilled outsiders using imported materials, it employs few locals and has almost no local multiplier effects. Politically destructive too, it gives a cheaply provided rental income to local rulers, a fabulous supply of patronage that both puts clients uncomplainingly in one’s pocket and devalues most local form of enterprise. And as for China, secondly, Africa may supply its raw materials, but how could Africa ever compete with China—or India—

7 in any more sophisticated productive task? And more generally, too, the current rules of world trade impose liberal, non-protectionist, disciplines on African producers while permitting America to subsidise the cotton that Africa could otherwise produce, and Europe to protect its farmers against cheaper competitors. New producers have historically needed protection against those who innovated earlier. That historical lesson has been reversed in Africa’s case, to Africa’s grave disadvantage. What are all those underemployed and, by now, under-educated, young Africans to do, to achieve that adult independence and honour that, culturally, they crave? Should one be at all surprised at what seems to be a rising tide of violence, in which politics and criminality appear to be increasingly close allies? The only things on which Africa has stolen a march on the rest of the world have been, in the distant past, the evolution of humanity as a whole— we are all Africans by origin—and, it seems about 50 years ago, the emergence of HIV-AIDS. AIDS is worst in Africa because it started there, among a poor population subject to many other fatal diseases. And so it grew, ‘a silent epidemic’ in the heterosexual population at large, ‘unnoticed until established too firmly to be stopped.’1 Outside Africa, it grew later and among vocal minorities who demanded action. In Africa action is now much more difficult to take, among the generality of a poor population. All these elements of their history help to explain why Africans seems to have the cards stacked against them. And we are told that global warming will be particularly damaging for Africa in the future, a continent in which tropical sun and rains have always made agriculture still more of a gamble than in other parts of the world. So, is there nothing to hope for? Richard Dowden, for many years the Independent’s Africa correspondent before he was the Economist’s Africa editor and, now, the Director of the Royal African Society, has just published a wonderful book called Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.2 He gives three causes of hope: i) the mobile phone, that allows Africans to transcend their inadequate infrastructures of communication, to permit new democratic solidarities to form, and to offer producers better market intelligence and bargaining power; the emergence of a new, assertive, middle class, impatient of corrupt and inefficient government, with the potentially productive anger of similar European middle classes in the nineteenth century; and a new cultural confidence that allows Africans, perhaps more than before, to live comfortably with the new



1 2

John Iliffe, The African Aids Epidemic, a History (Oxford: James Currey, 2006), 10. London: Portobello Press, September 2008.

8 while drawing moral strength and a sense of direction from inherited traditions. I would agree with him in all of these. But the rest of the world also has to change, to give Africa a better deal. Not more aid. Indeed, I’d like to see a, say, twenty-year plan for the withdrawal of all but humanitarian aid, and even that has to be scrutinised to ensure that it is not preserving the conditions that make it necessary. It is time that African states learned the nationbuilding art of fostering their own taxable sources of revenue, sustained by productive economic enterprises that can rely on consistent government policy. But they would also need the sort of commercial protections which earlier late-starters have always in the past erected to get new industries off the ground—in the contemporary African case, most obviously and initially in the processing of agricultural goods, whether for supermarket shelves or as textiles and clothing. The Africans I know deserve no less. Africa cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps—even if it became sufficiently well governed to do so—if those bootstraps are always undercut by imported leather. John Lonsdale (1958) Fellow Formerly Director of Studies in History

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