In the mind of many, even some on the geographical entity called Africa, the term African means Black African. Taking this cue, and also convinced that the historical experiences of Black Africans are different from those of non-black Africans, I have used the term Africa in this essay to refer only to black Sub-Sahara Africa. And the term African refers to Black Africans.
The history and the present state of contemporary Africa and the apparent quagmire it has found itself in, in terms of political and social orientation, development and a rightful dignified place among the comity of nations confound the observer and present a challenge to those who honestly believe in the potentials of its un-harnessed unified capacity to improve the conditions of lives of its people and to contribute to world development.
Despite its historical claims to being the birthplace of the human race, Sub-Sahara Africa in the twenty-first century is still confined to and kept at basic survival levels more than five million years after the first African added reason and logic to instinct. Why is Africa still grappling with survival, when others on the same planet, having taken this level for given are focusing and working untiringly on improving the quality of their existence? Where does the problem lie? Who is to blame?
It is no secret that the apparently simple task of ensuring basic survival is a daunting task, a near impossibility; natural and mostly man-induced disasters appear to have conspired to limit the survival chances of the African to pre-historic times levels. Any talk of improvement of quality of life in contemporary Africa seems superfluous when mere survival continues to remain at stake.
The primary duty of the collective, under any pretext connoting an organized entity lies in enhancing the chances of its own survival by drawing on the collective effort and resources to provide conducive environment for individual survival. Survival thus becomes a crucial social responsibility of the collective towards individual members. In this situation, the individual, unhampered by inconsequential trivialities of life, feels free to harness his creative resources towards improving the quality of his existence and by extension, the quality of existence of the collective.
In Africa, it appears that the reverse is the case. The struggle for survival appears to have been left on the shoulders of the common man in an environment that does not only limit possibilities, but is also inherently hostile to potentials. The role of the state becomes an ethereal mystery only decipherable by god-politicians while the existence of government in its present form actively counteracts and subjugates the aspirations of the common man. This noxious cloud that hangs over the most basic needs of the African reduces any discussion (by African politicians and their foreign masters) of improvement of quality of life to a puerile daydream in a self-deluding trance of nebulous political discourse.
The question of an African contribution to world development on equal platform with other nations, not as individuals in the service of different institutions of the world or as unconnected independent individuals, becomes distant particles of a dream unintelligible to the visionary eyes of the most politically progressive of telescopes. Africa has to move unaided from basic survival stages in order to give any relevance to its intention of contribution to world development.
It does not suffice to romanticize the role of individual Africans who have excelled in different aspects of human endeavor or the forced, despicable contribution of slavery to the industrial revolution in Europe and North America as African contribution to world development. It is the unified contribution of Africa as a continent of diverse peoples and resources, making a mark predicated on its experience, its context and in its own manner, as per universally acceptable parameters that would liberate Black Africa from prejudices. That Africa has what it takes in terms of its abundant human and natural resources, the bedrocks of any cultural, industrial and technological revolution, is not in doubt even in the mind of the most cynical critic. Africa is not however known in the world to have harnessed any of these resources to the betterment of the conditions of its citizens and the world at large, rather it is known as a compliant profligate source of its human and natural resources.
Africa as a continent has lived by the principle of a “good native” who turns out his household and puts all his family possessions at the disposal of the foreigner in the name of hospitality, expecting to get his reward either in heaven or be recompensed with the same generosity by the beneficiary of his profligacy. The African soon faces immense odds and conditions for the smallest of concessions when his beneficiary plays host and is humbled into gratefully accepting a fraction of what he had parted with.
The ease with which Africa parts willfully with its resources or is manipulated into doing so informs the view and the behavior of others towards African resources. African resources have taken the hue of god-given gifts, which should either not be paid for or underpaid for. From cotton prices to African footballers’ fees in Europe, the underlying concept has been the same since the first contact of the African with the foreigner. These gifts, either offered willingly by the African, or spiraled away under manipulation or in some cases by bullying have informed the nature of the relationship of foreigners with Africans. Unlike the African, foreigners recognize the importance of the enormous human and natural resources available in Africa as crucial in their march away from survival level to quality level. Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom in his Address to Textile Workers on Tarrif reform in Lancashire in 1909, lent credence to this view when he said “the safety of the North and its industries is contingent on how it is able to control or manipulate the raw material base which is in …Africa particularly”.
The continent, still unsure of the potentials of these resources and not having any social, technical or even political infrastructure in place to put them to use, took the easy route of asking the beneficiaries of its profligacy for all forms of assistance. Assistance in finished products and fractions of GDP, not means of putting their resources to use. As a chosen or imposed policy Africa seems to have sentenced itself to a beggar status, an inveterate recipient of aid, with all attending contempt. Aid to Africa is then conditioned by Africa’s beneficiaries who have now metamorphosed into donors and development experts on a whole bundle of conditions, which benefit them on the long run and undercut Africa’s chances of emerging from its vicious quagmire. The direct consequence of this is a near irreversible damage to the psyche and dignity of the African. Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan president, at the African Union Conference titled “Africa in the 21st Century: Integration and Renaissance”, held in Dakar in October 2004 confessed that “aid has failed to transform Africa. Whatever aid Africa received since independence has been wiped out several times over by the losses we have suffered in trade. The greatest subversion to Africa’s development has been …the protectionism in EU, Canada, USA and Japan”. One is inclined to ask from the point of view of a common man and at the risk of unleashing the fury of pundits, both local and international that if the words of Mr. Museveni were true, why then do African leaders continue to accept solicited and unsolicited aid being conscious of its nefarious effects on Africa? Why have they actively participated in making aid a major industry in Africa? Why have they consciously allowed aid to transform into potent instruments of manipulation as was the case with mirrors, guns, trinkets and alcoholic drinks during the slavery period? African history appears to be going round in circles. The age-old vulnerability of the trusting African is still the same, only the price with which he sells changes with times.
The acceptance of aid and unsolicited concessions in the “forgiveness of debts” has only introduced a new dimension into the perception of Africa’s resources. The donors of aid now impose their legitimate rights to these resources and even dictate the terms and conditions under which these gifts should reach them. There is no doubt that the historical largesse or profligacy of Africans has not brought any advantage to Africa.
The failure of African socio-economic experiment of profligacy in the name of hospitality, whether willingly or under duress demands that Africa should make a calculated and conscious effort to reduce the squandering of its human and natural resources and harness them to improve not only the conditions of its people but also make unquestionable technological contribution to humanity at large. Alpha Oumar Konare, the Chairman of the Commission of the Africa Union in a speech in 2003 said “the requisite conditions necessary for Africa to become a force to be reckoned with, a force we can rely upon include.… the optimal use of all our assets, namely the immense human and natural resources…”. This is a re-echo of the preambles of the Organization of African Unity Charter that states “Conscious of our responsibility to harness the natural and human resources of our continent for the total advancement of our peoples in all spheres of human endeavor”. These are the echoes of the mind of any black African, but then the question of how far the African leaders are prepared to go in order to begin this process promised in 1963 and revisited in 2003 by Mr. Konare immediately comes to mind. It is not difficult to see that the answer is “not too far”, given their “historical ties”, and of course the fear of losing their jobs in case they step on the wrong toe of the international community of beneficiaries of Africa’s largesse.
Some Western scholars and indeed many Africans would argue that Africa is making some progress according to its own calendar, making its own mark in its own way. This view is not only condescending but smacks of a deliberate conspiracy to delude the African that despite being stuck at survival levels of humanity’s pedestal he is making some imaginary progress. The quality of life cannot be relative; therefore human endeavor to improve the quality of life cannot be condemned to “African calendar” or to some other bogus calendar. That Africa has to quickly move up from survival level is a historical obligation that cannot be spread over some spurious calendar. Africa has to know when to call its losses (not that it has much to lose now anyway), accept past mistakes and re-organize itself as articulated by Mr. Konare so as to occupy its rightful and dignified place among nations. Black Africa could only take this place among nations when it consciously makes efforts to put its human and natural resources to useful service in order to continuously generate home-inspired inputs not only to enhance its survival, but to improve the quality of its existence. As a continental goal, these inputs have to be proportional to the inputs of other nations, which have had a head-start that qualifies them as “developed”. The parameters of measurements of these inputs cannot be different from one race to the other; the parameters are universal and are the yardsticks with which groups of peoples are measured and classified as developed or primitive. The lower the inputs of a people as per universally acceptable parameters, the lower they are put on the scale of “development” and the more prejudice is meted out to them.
It is an unfortunate reality of our existence that Nigeria with the largest population of black people in the world and with its immense human and natural resources neither has the vision nor the capacity to move the black race forward.