How Africa Got Left Behind

By: Marian L. Tupy

Robert Colvile’s excellent article on Prince Charles’s misunderstanding of the causes of African poverty provides a good opportunity to take a closer look at Africa’s economic history.

African poverty was not caused by colonialism, capitalism or free trade. As I have noted before, many of Europe’s former dependencies became rich precisely because they maintained many of the colonial institutions and partook in global trade. African poverty preceded the continent’s contact with Europe and persists today. That is an outcome of unfortunate policy choices, most of which were freely chosen by Africa’s leaders after independence.

By 1500, a typical European was about twice as rich as a typical African.

Like Europe, Africa started out desperately poor. The late Professor Angus Maddison of Groningen University has estimated that, at the start of the Common Era, average per capita income in Africa was $470 per year (in 1990 dollars). The global average was roughly equal to that of Africa. Western Europe and North Africa, which were parts of the Roman Empire, were slightly better off ($600). In contrast, North America lagged behind Africa ($400). All in all, the world was both fairly equal and very poor.

The origins of global inequality, which saw Western Europe and, later, North America, power ahead of the rest of the world, can be traced to the rise of the Northern Italian city-states in the 14th century and the Renaissance in the 15th century. By 1500, a typical European was about twice as rich as a typical African. But the real gap in living standards opened only after the Industrial Revolution that started in England in the late 18th century and spread to Europe and North America in the 19th century.

In 1870, when Europeans controlled no more than 10 per cent of the African continent (mostly North and South Africa), Western European incomes were already four times higher than those in Africa. Europe, in other words, did not need Africa in order to become prosperous. Europe colonised Africa because Europe was prosperous and, consequently, more powerful. Appreciation of the chronology of events does not justify or defend colonialism. But it does help explain it.

Africa’s fortunes under colonial rule varied. Much progress was made in terms of health and education. Maddison estimates that in 1870, there were 91 million Africans. By 1960, the year of independence, the African population grew more than threefold – to 285 million. The OECD estimates that over the same time period the share of the African population attending school rose from less than 5 percent to over 20 percent. On the down-side, Europeans treated Africans with contempt, and subjected them to discrimination and, sometimes, violence.

Since rule of law, accountable government, property rights, and free trade were European imports, they had to go.

That violence intensified during Africa’s struggle for independence, as the colonial powers tried to beat back African nationalists. As a result, African leaders took over countries where repression of political dissent was already firmly established. Instead of repealing censorship and detention laws, however, African leaders kept and expanded them.

It was precisely because colonial rule was so psychologically demeaning to Africans in general and nationalist leaders in particular that post-independence African governments were so determined to expunge many of the colonial institutions. Since rule of law, accountable government, property rights, and free trade were European imports, they had to go. Instead, many African leaders chose to emulate the political arrangements and economic policies of a rising power that represented the exact opposite of Western free market and liberal democracy – the Soviet Union.

Emulating the USSR in the 1960s was not altogether irrational. During the 1930s, the country underwent speedy industrialization, transforming a nation of peasants into a formidable power. Industrialization came at the cost of some 20 million lives, but it allowed the USSR to triumph over Hitler’s Germany (at a cost of an additional 27 million lives). By the early 1960s, the country not only produced massive amounts of steel and armaments, but also seemed poised to win the scientific contest with the West, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961.

The astonishing wastefulness and backwardness of the Soviet economy did not become apparent until the 1970s. By that time, unfortunately, the socialist bacillus infected much of Africa, which adopted one-party government that destroyed accountability and the rule of law, undermined property rights and, consequently, growth. Price and wage controls were imposed, and free trade gave way to import substitution and autarky.

Africa’s love affair with socialism persisted until the 1990s, when, at long last, Africa started to reintegrate into the global economy. Trade relations with the rest of the world were somewhat liberalized and African nations started to deregulate their economies, thus climbing up the rankings in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report.

That said, even today, Africa remains the least economically free and most protectionist continent in the world. That – and not free trade – is the problem.

Republished from CapX


Marian L. Tupy is the editor of and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. 

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Shadreck Chirikure: Oral Sources for Documenting Precolonial African Trade and Exchange

Republished from Oxford Research Encyclopedia

If one of the limitations of documentary sources on precolonial African trade is that they mostly provide the view of the observers (and not the observed), then the main advantage of oral sources is that they avail the much-needed perspective from the observed groups. Many African societies had oral literacy that was sustained through traditions handed on to the future. The griots, who were official court historians and custodians of royal narratives in West Africa (from roughly mid-1st millennium ce to the 19th century) and imbongis (storytellers and praise singers) among the historical Zulus of South Africa, are well-known promoters of oral literacy. However, such official traditions were biased in favor of court activities and not mundane, day-to-day events. Oral sources include traditions, myths, and legends that were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to another. Often, these traditions were repeatedly recited and performed to the point that, within limitations, they reflected some commonly held positions.

In the area around the modern Cameroon/Nigeria border (Sukur region), oral traditions dating to from the 16th century onward pointed to the existence of intensive iron production that annually produced 60,000 hoes to meet the demand of the empire of Bornu. Ironically, this trade sustained slave raids in the producer area, creating a very complicated historical dynamic in which producers of iron were shackled and manacled using their own creation. In central Africa, most of what we know about trade and exchange relationships involving the Luba (c. 1585–1889) and Lunda (c. 1665–1887 ce) comes from oral traditions. One of the most important pillars of local and outward trade in these communities was copper whose ingots were often stylistically group specific. For example, the Yeke, Sanga, and Luba made distinctive types of ingots whose names and trade patterns are still firmly etched in local memories.

In southern Zambezia, much is known about communities that populated the region defined by the Indian Ocean to the east, the Kalahari Desert to the west, the Zambezi River to the north, and the Soutpansberg range of mountains to the south. Beach makes the point that in this region, speakers of dialects of a language now known as Shona had a well-developed oral literacy. Using insights from oral sources gathered from the region, Mudenge studied trade within the Torwa-Changamire (c. 1400–1900 ce) and Mutapa (c. 1400–1900 ce) states and highlighted that cattle raising and by implication cattle trade was an important branch of the economy that superseded gold trade. This cattle-centric localized trade system frustrated the Portuguese, who were interested mostly in gold. Thus, while traders at the Indian Ocean coast placed so much value on gold, local traditions make it explicit that this was not the view of local people.

As a source of information for precolonial trade, oral sources are affected by several limitations. Firstly, they are easily forgotten. Secondly, they suffer from chronological telescoping. Thirdly, they can easily be changed to suit prevailing contexts. Fourthly, most oral traditions tend to favor the dominant, although careful historical work may produce oral traditions associated with the common people. Fifthly, nowadays, the utility of oral traditions is diminished by the feedback that often takes place between the oral and the written. What was oral is now written and what is written is now in people’s minds creating a complicated web that is difficult to disentangle. However, whatever their limitations, oral sources are a formidable source of historical information pertaining to trade.

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