In his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney contends that Western capitalist nations developed through a process that underdeveloped African nations. It is true that the relationship between the colonies and their colonisers was nothing but parasitic. Economic wealth was transferred from the colonies to the colonisers. Thus, I can safely argue that Western imperial powers set the stage for Africa’s underdevelopment.
OPINION: Whitlaw T Mugwiji
But being an African, to continue blaming Western powers for under developing Africa decades after most countries have gained independence, is simply failure to take responsibility. This is not to discount the continued negative effects of imperialism and neo-colonialism, but a sheer understanding that for us to turn things around we must take responsibility for our own actions.
We must ask ourselves tough questions, and provide brutally honest answers. We cannot keep blaming these imperial powers forever. For how long can we hide behind the finger of colonialism?
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the poorest parts of the world. People south of the Sahara continue to wallow in poverty, suffering from material deprivation. This is despite the fact that the continent is blessed with vast natural and human resources.
So, why have most sub-Saharan countries failed to improve the lives of their citizens?
Corruption and poor governance — Africa’s vices
Due to corruption and poor governance, many of our African leaders have totally driven themselves further away from achieving the aspirations and needs of their people. They have created the “personal rule paradigm” where they treat their offices as a form of personal property and a source of private gain. They openly appoint under-qualified and even incompetent personnel in key positions at State-owned institutions and government departments. Building patronage and at the same time undermining development.
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A 2002 African Union study estimated that corruption cost the continent roughly $150 billion a year. A massive sum of money, used for the benefit of a few private individuals and their families. If this amount were to be reinvested in the African economy, used to rebuild factories, schools and hospitals, I am sure it would result in economic growth. Thus, if we are serious about our development, we must fight corruption without failure.
Peace and security a prerequisite for development
Peter Lock in his essay titled: A critical analysis on the reasons of underdevelopment in Africa says security is a pre-condition for economic development. I agree, wars and general civil strife have destroyed our much-admired human resource base, have forced Africa’s sons and daughters to drown in the seas trying to escape conflict. Our leaders have diverted funds meant for development in order to suppress dissent.
But I genuinely believe that we can reform our politics and eliminate conflict within our countries. It does not help that we inherited unstable countries with different ethnicities all bundled together into a single state. But if we want peace, then our politics must be very inclusive. We must abandon the winner takes all system that is so prevalent in many countries on the continent. Proportional representation and devolution can go a long way to achieve peace and stability, removing any cracks that may emerge along ethnic lines.
Class identity, a threat to development
Some scholars on development have attributed the lack of a national identity as the biggest threat to development. During the colonial era, nationalist leaders identified with the ordinary peasants and workers. However, this harmonious social identity has now been replaced with a “us” versus “them” mentality. “Us” being the privileged ruling political class and “them” being the ordinary citizens. Leaders begin to speak of grandiose ideas that have no bearing on the lived realities of their citizens.
Thomas Sankara, one of Africa’s greatest sons, showed us what can be achieved when a cohesive national identity is created. United as a country, Burkina Faso was able to fight corruption, disease and poverty. In the four years he ruled (1983-87) literacy levels improved from 13% to 73%. Land was redistributed from the feudal landlords directly to the peasants, making the country self-sufficient within three years. He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, sold the government fleet of Mercedes Benz and made the Renault 5 the official government car. He forbade the use of first class airline tickets and appointed women to higher government positions. They were able to build railway lines and improve the general infrastructure in the country without the financial support from multilateral financial institutions.
That he was able to achieve all of this is not a miracle, but was due to good governance and a genuine desire to create a cohesive national identity. The African political elites must always realise that their only purpose is to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and nothing else.
The connection between poor leadership and underdevelopment
Peace, security, good governance and social cohesion are prerequisites for (economic) development, but good leadership lies at the heart of this conversation. I am sure we all can agree that there is a strong connection between good leadership and development, or to put it more candidly, between underdevelopment and poor leadership. Munroe says ‘leadership is like beauty, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it’.
Unfortunately, there are few African countries where good leadership is present. The fact that President Robert Mugabe is seen as an African champion is quite indicative to this lack of leadership on the continent. He has destroyed the Zimbabwean economy, reducing the once admired bread basket of southern Africa into a basket case, scattering millions across the globe and in the process breaking families apart.
Fanon, in his wisdom, already saw the crisis of lack of leadership in post-colonial Africa. He saw a leadership that was so eager to fill the shoes of its former colonial masters. This leadership’s failure to identify with the society they purport to rule has also provoked citizens to disengage in constructive debate, forcing them to pursue individual or ethno-identity interests that have become the breeding grounds for conflicts, corruption and underdevelopment in Africa. It is, therefore, no surprise, why they have been unable to advance the course of development.
Without failure we must critically assess those who vie for leadership positions in our societies, least we select entertainers, sweet faced teddy bears, cool cats and orators, as opposed to strong visionaries.
Africa’s future lies in our hands
Instead of grandstanding at international platforms preaching anti-colonialism rhetoric, we must start addressing issues that affect Africa’s development. We must reduce poverty and increase access to health, nutrition, accommodation, education and income-earning opportunities for everyone, without fail.
We must develop an authentic ideology that we can use to further the development agenda and consolidate our independence. As Africa’s young generation it is our responsibility to shape and develop this ideology. An ideology that must address Africa’s challenges: income inequality, impoverishment and insecurity. We must always seek to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and not engage in an orgy of intellectual idealism.
To end the trend of underdevelopment in Africa, we must rise to the occasion and foster a common social identity, creating a social enclave, where we all belong with our diversity. Africa, we are one.
Whitlaw Tanyanyiwa Mugwiji is a resident political analyst for Khuluma Afrika — a center for analysis and commentary