Africa is the poorest place in the world. Outside of South Africa and the Arab countries to the north the average African makes $1,000 a year while the worldwide average is over $6,500. This poverty has not gone unnoticed and it does not lack for explanations. We all know that the only accepted explanation for African poverty is to say that it is caused by the lingering effects of colonialism. This is the only explanation a public figure can speak of without having his career and reputation intentionally destroyed. That does not make it true.
The origin of this school of thought goes back to the Indian independence movement and to Lenin. It is hard to overstate the importance of Gandhi and the Indian independence movement to Third World thought and to modern thinking on the Third World. Ideas from this movement have become so common that we don't think of them as having a specific source. The original source of the 'blame colonialism' school was Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi and founding member of the Indian National Congress. Naoroji examined trade records and found that India's exports exceeded its imports by a substantial margin and used this as the basis for what became known as the "Drain Theory." He also claimed that the British had misused India's tax revenue in building railroads instead of irrigation systems. It was his belief that the railroads served only to increase India's exports to the benefit of the British and not to serve the Indian people. He believed a system of irrigation canals would have improved food production and thus helped the Indian people. Naoroji wrote this in the late 19th century while India was undergoing a horrible string of famines. His ideas were picked up by R.C. Dutt whose "Economic History of India" had an enormous influence on Gandhi, who in turn influenced everyone.
Today we are still left with the influence of Naoroji's belief that the British were draining India and structuring its economy to promote exports rather than the needs of the people. I'm sure the last part of that sentence sounded familiar, as you have probably heard it in a thousand different forms. Naoroji was a good and kind man and in no way anti-British. He is famous for calling British rule of India "Un-British" in the sense of not being consistent with the honesty and fairness of the British people. His most famous writing is a sort of balance sheet summing up the pros and cons of British rule and in it the pros outweigh the cons. If each year he grew less fond of the British it is because each year he had to hear them say India was no closer to being ready for independence. Regardless of his personal fairness, he gave birth to a school of thought which has evolved into something unfair and his belief that directing the economy toward exports is a mistake has done great damage to a Third World which is passionate in its hatred of promoting exports.
The second source of current thinking on Third World poverty, and therefore African poverty is Lenin's theory of Imperialism. This is slightly odd to anyone who actually knows what Lenin said on the topic. Lenin was the most creative member of his movement and what he excelled at was in creating excuses for the failure of Marxist theory. Only Nixon could go to China and only Lenin could invent the New Economic Period. Lenin's theory of Imperialism was an explanation for why the economic collapse predicted by Marx never occurred. Marx believed that under capitalism workers would never receive more than subsistence wages and all profits would go to the capitalists. Eventually the capitalists would have more money than they could spend and the economy would collapse and then the workers would take over. This never happened. Lenin claimed that Marx had not taken into account the effect of overseas colonies. Lenin believed that capitalists were taking the money they could not spend and investing it in the colonies. This was supposedly keeping the economic collapse from occurring. He claimed that if the colonies became independent and stopped accepting outside investments capitalism would finally collapse.
This theory of Imperialism is the reason why in the 1960's so many newly independent states banned foreign investment. They thought it would make us collapse, not them. They were wrong. The reason I find it odd that so many Third World countries believe in Lenin's ideas is that Lenin believed foreign investment was promoting economic development in the colonies and they believe in the opposite. The Third World has taken Lenin's hatred of foreign investment and Naoroji's milder antipathy towards promoting exports and combined them into a bastard child which hates both investments and exports. In other words, the Third World hates the two things which give it the best chance of economic growth.
This bastard child may have a strong influence in the rest of the world, but it owns Africa lock, stock and barrel. These ideas have grown in their virulent hatred of the industrialized countries as the years have gone by. One would have thought that Walter Rodney's "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," would have been the peak, but recent ideas about how the CIA created AIDS show that this trend in blaming the outside world continues to grow. The question is then, did Europe underdevelop Africa?
The most important and therefore controversial part of answering that question is discussing how advanced Africa was before the coming of Europeans. The answer is that they did not know how to write, read, plow, or make a wheel. It is not hard to prove that Africa was not in an equally advanced state before colonialism and the slave trade. With the exception of the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe, whose origin is unclear, everything pointed to in order to prove of African advancement is from a region of Arab influence. This is an unspeakably emotional issue for some people, but the facts are clear regardless of the emotions involved. Two to three thousand years ago West Africans entered the Iron Age and developed iron spears and hoes. They used this to move beyond the hunter-gatherer stage the Bushmen remained in until recently and became farmers and herders of cattle. Bantu's from Cameroon took this technology and conquered the rest of black Africa. Regardless of the beauty of their crafts or whatever other merits African culture had, they did not have plows and worked the land with hoes. This was a simple existence and it continued in each part of black Africa until colonization
If Africa was not economically wealthy before colonization then it is not fair to blame colonization for its current poverty. It is possible that colonization might then have made it more difficult for Africa to advance and this is the cause for the current lack of progress. If this was true than the most colonized African countries would be the poorest. This is not the case.
The least colonized country in Africa is Ethiopia. This country was only a colony from 1936 to 1941. That's about as long as France was occupied by Hitler. This history of independence has not produced economic success. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of $600. Even among African countries Ethiopia is poor. The one country whose culture is most similar to Ethiopia is Eritrea. The fact that these two countries hate each other does not disprove their similarity. Eritrea was a colony from 1890 to 1941. Eritrea's per capita GNP is $1,000. Being more colonized than its neighbor did not make Eritrea poorer. The second least colonized country in Africa is Liberia which became independent in 1847 and it is now the worst country in Africa, maybe the world, and the World Bank does not even have an estimate as to its GNP.
The most 'colonized' black population in Africa has to be that of South Africa. Determining the effect of this on income is difficult. I have spent several days trying to find one single reference to the average income of South African blacks and have found none. If the reader knows of such a reference for this top secret info please email me. Even though there are no references to what black income is there are a multitude of references to the 7 to 1 ratio of white to black income. Regardless of the seemingly complete absence of direct information on black income it is possible to infer black income from other statistics. Since blacks earned 43% of all income for 2000 and are 88% of the population and average income is $8,318 it is clear that blacks average $4,064 a year. This figure is 4 times higher than the average for Africa. It does not seem that being the most colonized has impoverished South African blacks. They are 6.6 times richer than the least colonized blacks on the continent.
Namibia did not become independent until 1990 and average income there is $5,369, though much of that goes to the 6% which is white. Zimbabwe's bilateral declaration of independence came in 1980 and their average income is $2,470 with a white population too tiny to change the average figure from the figure for blacks. Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa were the last countries to decolonize and they are all richer than the rest of Africa.
One possible explanation for why the most colonized countries are the richest is that countries like South Africa have the most resources. A comparison to Angola disproves that. Every year South Africa exports $351 in natural resources per person. Every year Angola exports $450 in natural resources per person. This great natural wealth per capita has not helped Angola as its average income is the same $1,000 a year that Africa as a whole averages.
Yet another explanation is that the whites used up all the resources before they left. Oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1956. In 1960 the British set the country free. This was the same year the first oil well was dug. Since 1970 Nigeria has made more than $280 billion from oil, or $9 billion a year. Nigeria's average income is the same as the average for Africa: $1,000 a year. Botswana received independence in 1966. Diamonds were first discovered one year later and the country now exports $1,100 worth of diamonds per person every year. The whites did not use up all the resources. Sub-Saharan Africa is still the most resource rich area of its size in the world.
One of the most emotional issues regarding colonization was the taking of land to be given to white farmers. This is often stated as a cause of Africa's current poverty. The facts don't support this. The two countries in which land was most thoroughly alienated from the black population were Zimbabwe and South Africa and as I've already stated black incomes in those countries are far above average. The most useful comparison on the land issue is the one between Uganda and Kenya. Both were originally a single administrative unit in the British Empire and remained under closely related administration after they were split into separate colonies. In Kenya so much prime farmland was given to whites that the region the farms were in became known as "the White Highlands." Uganda was different. Despite an abundance of prime farmland the British authorities decided to let the Africans keep their land and made many efforts to encourage their farming efforts. Kenya still has many white farmers and currently has an average income of $1,600 while Uganda has an average income of $1,060 despite doubling its economy in 14 years under Yoweri Museveni. There is the additional issue of Uganda's unhappy history, which certainly is no better than Kenya's or almost any other African country's.
One example which illustrates the real impact of colonization is that of Zaire. This country has since gone through a name change, but I find Zaire more convenient. European colonists uniformly believed that the more they educated blacks the harder it was to maintain control. While they all believed in this, only Belgium was willing to act on it. High school education and beyond was intentionally not given to the blacks of the Belgian Congo. While some got around this most did not. Zaire is now one of the poorest countries in Africa with an average income of $731 despite an abundance of natural resources. If you look closely you will see that the current relative position of African countries is related to how much benefit the colonial authorities produced, not how little damage they did or what resources they have. While it is true that the Belgians could have provided a better education, without them the Zairians would have received none.
Were getting to the end of the list of reasons why colonialism is supposed to the cause of African poverty. One other explanation for why colonization caused Africa's current poverty is that the admittedly absurd borders of today's Africa bear no resemblance to ethnic realities. Unfortunately for this theory, Rwanda and Burundi have the same borders they had hundreds of years before the white man came. We all know how that turned out. Another explanation is that the constant warfare of modern African history was caused by colonialism and this in turn causes poverty. Tanzania has had a peaceful existence after independence and is one of the poorest African countries with a per capita GNP of $478. Zimbabwe fought a 14 year war against white rule and is one of the richest African countries.
I am not writing this to engage in idle Africa bashing. My Africa bashing has a purpose. African poverty is real and needs real solutions. It is not impossible for economies to do well on this continent. It is not under some magic spell. When whites ran Rhodesia and South Africa those countries did well. Since Yoweri Museveni took over Uganda in 1986 the country has grown at an average rate of 6% a year. From 1995 to 1999 it was 7.3% and this occurred in a country which lacks the massive oil or mineral deposits that so many other African countries have. Museveni is not merely a successful economic leader. At the same time that he doubled the size of the economy he has cut the AIDS rate in half. He was also the single most important figure in stopping the Rwandan genocide at a time when France was actively helping the genocidists and the UN was holding its gavel back in New York. It's been proven that African countries can prosper. Saying that they can't until the imaginary damage of colonialism is removed is just an excuse for not trying.