Why post-colonial African leaders fail to achieve the same growth as their colonial counterparts

In the last two instalments, I have highlighted two key points pertinent to the debate on development in Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular.

By Tapiwa Gomo

I argue, in those instalments, that development starts, with what one possesses and secondly that the impetus towards growth is driven largely by political will more than anything else.

The public relations politics unfolding before us in Zimbabwe has no history of developing a country.

In putting these arguments across and based on the assessment of most situations in Africa, I conclude that availability of natural resources does not determine development or growth course of a society, but the mindset.

To illustrate this point, I used the examples of the Asian countries that do not have much in terms of natural resources but have fared far much better than African nations that boast of plenty of natural resources.

I have also used the Middle Eastern countries that have plenty of oil and access to sea transport, which they have utilised to transform their people’s lives and grow their economies. The difference between these two regions and Africa is nothing but the mindset.

Africans are one of the few races in the world that think that development is imported and that growth may never emerge from the continent without the aid of external assistance.

Development is still seen as a donation from outside, mainly western countries and, therefore, not internally initiated and bred.

African leaders have unashamedly blamed western countries for denying them access to their development.

Our leaders feel entitled to western development aid.


Africans are also one of the few races yet to realise that western countries did not have to go elsewhere to kick-start industrialisation, but resorted to internal ideas that spawned the current levels of economic growth and development in that region.

It may, therefore, be safe to suppose that if western development had not happened, the world could not have counted on Africa to take leadership on development and growth matters.

This, however, does not mean development cannot happen in Africa.

Once the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 formalised the “Scramble for Africa”, there was a stampede to grab land and natural resources on the continent in what is now known as colonisation.

History has described this process as “stealing” or “dispossessing” Africans’ birthright to feed the growing industry in European countries.

In those 70 years of colonisation, the settlers — without giving excuses and from nothing — built roads, installed power supply, telecommunications networks and other infrastructure to facilitate the process of “stealing” of African natural resources.

From this process, both paid and unpaid employment were created.

They also improved access to education, health and other basic services to those in the service of “stealing” on their behalf, including Africans.

Brutal and inhuman as the process and period may have been, there is evidence of improved economic development, whose imprint shapes what remains of Africa’s development to this day.

Apart from Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria (built in the 1980s) most modern cities in Africa were built during the colonial period and left dilapidating after independence.

My point here is not to justify nor glorify colonialism and its attendant ills, but to illustrate that with the right mindset development and growth are actually very possible in Africa because they happened before and can still happen now.

The difference between the colonial administration and post-independence African leaders is that the former had a development and an economic growth agenda underpinning their mindset, while the former has political security mindset, which feels threatened by economic growth outside their control.

A point to consider here is that both are known for “stealing” from the same source and yet the “stealing” by the settlers resulted in African development and yet the same cannot be said of the African leader.

The colonial administration drew their political relevance domestically and from their home countries from expansionism and economic growth.

Politics submitted to the markets and the people, while in Africa — except for South Africa — it is the opposite.

The African leader sits on the other side of pendulum, where they have perpetually maintained their public and private animus towards business.

They have tended to want businesses to be kept very close, and become a client of the government to further their political agenda rather than act as the driver of growth.

Business, outside their political control, has been treated with hostility, a prey to be pounced on when circumstances demand.

This is exactly what Zimbabwe witnessed during the land reform in 2000, when commercial farmers were accused of siding with the opposition.

The result was the near destruction of the economy, despite that our politicians had a good understanding of economics and how their actions would impact the lives of the people.

Economic policies thereafter, were largely to seek political support through public sector benefits than to grow the economy.

Policies they have advanced have hardly positively incentivised the private sector because it had become one of the major threats to their political existence and yet it was a solution to the problems facing the country.

National resources, which could have propped up the economy, were instead spent on “the people” and industries that were dependent on national budgets, not those linked to the most dynamic and competitive private sector industries — an approach that led to economic stagnation.

Instead of the private sector oscillating, the public sector, if the goal was to grow the economy, the opposite became the reality.

It was the political leadership’s best interest to ensure control of both political and economic power at the expense of growth and the welfare of the people.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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