The great paradox of Africa

I have been watching Ali Mazrui’s 1986 BBC television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. The series are a treasure trove. They underline Mazrui’s enduring and seminal contribution to African scholarship, his deep historical knowledge and vast grasp of the totality of Africa, from the Cape to Cairo and Dar es Salaam to Dakar.

In part four, the late distinguished Kenyan scholar and renowned public intellectual, addresses what he referred to as ‘tools of exploitation,’ detailing the historical despoliation of the continent dating back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Africa’s greatest paradox lies in the continent’s unmatched natural resource wealth sitting permanently with the dire material conditions of its people, between the natural richness of Africa and the deprivation of majority Africans.

As I argued last week, this is a much talked about subject, with much of the focus placed on Africa’s material resources and not its human resources. Yet, to be sure, societies can grow and transform the living conditions of citizens even without natural resource endowments.

In fact, some cynical scholars have proposed that the persistence of economic underdevelopment and widespread poverty in Africa is due, at least in part, to the continent’s enormous wealth. This is big and complex debate, one that I rather not get into here. We will take it up another day.
In theory, natural resources should facilitate socioeconomic transformation and contribute to enhancing people’s actual livelihoods. In practice, in many African countries, precious metals, fertile lands, crude oil, etc, have contributed to poverty not prosperity, to social conflict instead of harmonious coexistence and retrogress rather than progress.

Africa has remained the place to go for easy extraction and mass exploitation for more than 500 years. It goes back to when the West ‘discovered’ Africans as the race capable of surviving the harsh conditions and hostile disease environment of the ‘New World,’ that is, in the sugarcane plantations and mining fields of the Americas and the Caribbean. These were the initial sources for raw materials for industrial production in Europe. This processes of extraction and exploitation, on a large scale, never abated from the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the ‘New World’ at the end of the 15th Century.

A triangle of an emergent global capitalist economy linked the Americas/Caribbean with Africa and Europe as the centre and source of economic and imperial power, fundamentally changing the course of world history and especially the fate of Africa.

For some strange reasons, perhaps even by mere dint of serendipity, the first African slaves shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean did better than the indigenous peoples at surviving the new disease environment exported to the ‘New World’ by the Europeans. Unable to cope with new diseases brought by Europeans, the indigenous peoples of the ‘New World’ were decimated, thus servile labour to work the plantations and mining fields had to be sourced elsewhere – Africa.

This realisation of the survival of Africans in the ‘New World’ opened the floodgates of massive shipment of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean in quick order turning Africans into the slave race. Until the onset of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery was neither racial nor global, it was non-racial and local. All races were, for example, enslaved in the Arabian and Iberian peninsulas and on many other grounds other than skin colour.

After more than three centuries of stripping Africans of their dignity and turning the continent into the sole source of servile labour, the West purported to abolish slavery. It was a strategic and not a humanitarian move. It was a shift from slavery to colonialism, the latter combining exploitation of both labour and natural resources in one place: On the African continent itself. Since the 15th Century, control over the continent has never loosened. Only the agents of outsiders have changed over time, from local chiefs and merchants, to petty bourgeoisie and the ruling elite.

The West’s ostensibly modernising and civilising mission in Africa left behind more destruction and alienation than progress and prosperity. Our new and aggressive conquerors from the East, the Chinese, interested decidedly in economic matters and having no pretensions to humanitarianism, are creating a wholly different tragedy for the continent.

From the unquantifiable damage to the environment to inundating local markets as to make local production unviable, we are in for the long haul on the fringes. As the remaining frontier of vast natural resource wealth, rich agricultural lands and fecund markets, Africa is entrapped between outside greed and domestic collusion. The Congo supplied the uranium that produced America’s first atomic bomb.

That painfully troubled country is the unrivalled source of coltan, crucial for powering cell phones, computers and other electronics. The people of Congo continue to pay the price, whether under Mobutu’s despicable rule or Kabila’s laziness.

Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).
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