By Dr. Ignatius Odianosen Okosun (PhD),
The second largest and second most populous continent in the world is Africa. With about 30.3 million km2 including adjacent islands, it covers (6%) of Earth’s total surface area and (20.4%) of its total land area. Africa has a population of 1.2 billion in 2016 and account for about (16%) of the world’s human population. The origin of Afer may either come from the Phoenician `afar, dust; -the Afri, a tribe—possibly Berber—who dwelt in North Africa in the Carthage area; -the Greek word aphrike, meaning without cold; -or the Latin word aprica, meaning sunny.
The name Africa came into Western use through the Romans, who used the name Africa terra — “land of the Afri” (plural, or “Afer” singular) — for the northern part of the continent, as the province of Africa with its capital Carthage, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia.
The historian Leo Africanus (1495-1554) attributed the origin to the Greek word phrike (φρικε, meaning “cold and horror”), combined with the negating prefix a-, so meaning a land free of cold and horror. But the change of sound from ph to f in Greek is datable to about the first century, so this cannot really be the origin of the name.
Furthermore, Egypt was contemplated as part of Asia by the ancients, and first allotted to Africa by the geographer Ptolemy (85 – 165 AD), who accepted Alexandria as Prime Meridian and made the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea the boundary between Asia and Africa. As Europeans came to understand the real extent of the continent, the idea of Africa protracted with their knowledge.
However, in 1964 UNESCO launched the amplification of the General History of Africa with a view to remedy the general ignorance on Africa’s history. The challenge consisted of reconstructing Africa’s history, freeing it from colonization, racial prejudices ensuing from slave trade and promoting an African perception. UNESCO therefore called upon the then utmost African and non-African experts. These experts’ work represented 35 years of cooperation between more than 230 historians and other specialists, and was overseen by an International Scientific Committee which comprised two-thirds of Africans.
Africa is arguably the world’s richest continent in terms of natural resources has some of the world’s poorest people, she often seems to be a people with little patience for history or interest in the impact of past events on present realities. But time is not linear and she are not always moving forward. There is no other way to understand Africa today without considering the history of the continent.
In the 1400s the Portuguese were the first European nation to use African slave labor to nurture sugar plantations off the coast of West Africa, in São Tomé. From then on, through its peak in the 18th century and until its staccato abolition in late 1800s, the cruel and brutalizing trade in Africans would be the primary economic activity through which Europe’s early globalization efforts were funded.
An estimated 11 million people were compulsorily taken into slavery in the New World, but comparable numbers were for centuries also sold across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, Professor Nathan Nunn, in his study of Africa’s slave trades on subsequent economic development in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, was unequivocal in his assessment: “The African countries that are the poorest today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken,”
The repugnant story continued with the enslavement of the black body made way for another equally pitiless system, but one that elicits even less public sympathy. In 2002, Boris Johnson wrote of Britain’s colonial legacy in Africa: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” In 2016, about (44%) of respondents in a YouGov poll agreed with him, stating that Britain’s colonial history was something to be gratifying”.
Because this system of oppression, based on greed and white supremacy, was not a lived experience for the inhabitants of this fair isle – as segregation in the United States was, because it is still not taught in schools, history delude itself into believing that empire was a noble cause, and we are charmed by the promises politicians made to take us back to the good old days.
All of Africa’s colonial masters left behind a way of life wholly decimated, a people traumatized and taught in colonial schools to loathe everything about them: their skin, languages, dress, customs and even their gods were substituted. As the psychoanalyst and revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth: “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, disfigures, destroys it and distorts”
Seemingly a people with no past were now free to determine their own future except, in most cases, they were not. Postcolonial Africa was caught in the middle of the cold war battle for ideological dominance, then crippled by structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is now at the mercy of multinational corporations whose bank balances most times the size of many African economies, give them power to act in ways above the law, certainly outside of the ethical labyrinth.
Report into resource flows in and out of Africa revealed that the continent loses more money each year than it receives in aid, investment and remittances. Accordingly, Honest Accounts 2017 more than three times the amount Africa receives in aid was taken out mainly by multinational companies deliberately misreporting the value of their imports or exports to reduce tax. Along with these illicit financial flows, brain drain, debt servicing, and the costs of climate change caused predominantly by the west but played out on the world’s poorest people and all make Africa a net creditor to the world.
These instances speak to the way in which the global economic, trade and information systems are set up, and screw over African countries: from unfair intellectual property laws, to trade deals that force African countries to open their markets to the rich world’s surplus production, destroying local agriculture and manufacturing in the process. But this should not be read as a free meal ticket for rapacious African leaders.
In the half-century since independence, while economies have grown and, in the broadest sense, governance has improved, democracy on the continent is still faltering. The lack of transparency, accountability, safety and the rule of law; the often-bloated public sectors and squeezed small businesses; patriarchy masquerading as religion and culture; high unemployment rates and, recently, jihadism destabilizing the Sahel region – all these factors are keeping Africans poor.
Moreover, that statement is a sweeping generalization the kind you must make when writing about 54 countries in 1,000 words. That every day millions of internet users are seeking to grasp a continent rather than a specific country or a region is itself telling. The question about why Africa is so poor is loaded with bias, and presumes two things: the first is that there’s a homogeneous place called Africa, and that Google’s search algorithm will find some pithy yet succinct quote to explain 54 distinctive trajectories.
Secondly, there is something extraordinary about Africa, that while other continents and peoples have got or are getting richer, Africans, for reasons we can think but no longer speak in polite company, choose to remain in poverty. The capacity to see Africa as divergent lets us off the hook so we do not have to understand our own complicity in the challenges various African countries face today. It also means they rarely rage against the actions of the corporations and governments that profit from instability, corruption or even inexperience (African negotiators at the climate talks have historically been disadvantaged by their lack of experience and the expectation among western negotiators that they should be grateful with whatever they get).
Lastly if there is then no innate propensity for corruption, violence or poverty in Africa, then the narratives that fuel the stereotypes need questioning. One possible account comes from the Nigerian writer Albert Chinua Achebe, who said: “The West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa.” Perhaps it’s not Africa that needs saving, but us.