• Olivia Earth

Challenging Africa’s Negative Reputation

African Political Philosophy

This paper seeks to explain why Africa has so many failed states and to challenge the misconception of the African as corrupt and power hungry. This will be achieved by critically examining the Zimbabwean case and the effects of colonisation as well as the extractive institutions left by colonisers for the Africans to manage. The Zimbabwean case will be explored as it has a shared history of colonisation with the majority of African states. This case highlights enough complex issues for cause for us to question the simplistic narrative that all countries in Africa have failed because Africans are corrupt and power hungry.

It is important to defend against the negative misconceptions of Africa. Without a defence Africa appears to be a continent in chaos created by Africans themselves. This perpetuates both a negative self-image and racist stereotypes. As Vanthemsche (2012:1) says, the African continent, often for the wrong reasons, has been referred to as “dark”.

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The Pre-Colonial Years

Long before colonisation started, Africa was a bustling hub for global trade and the spread of ideas. There were the bygone years of Christianity in Ethiopia, the spread of Islamic scripture along the coastlines, the development of the Austronesian colonies in Madagascar and consistent patterns of trade with China, India and the Persian Gulf. These examples are all characteristic of the extent to which eastern and southern Africa were involved in pre-modern economic systems of trade (Bayart & Ellis, 2000:218). There is also recent evidence that the Egyptians/Colombians in fact beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas/Africa through trans-Atlantic travel due to findings of cocaine, coca leaf and tobacco preserved inside mummified bodies of ancient Pharaohs (Görlitz, 2016:9). These substances were thought only to have arrived in Africa almost a thousand years later and the findings challenge the current theories about the ancient trade system and capacity of sea faring vessels of that time. “Drift studies with seeds of selected crop plants, as well as chemical analyses of several cocaine species, support the hypothesis of a pre-Columbian human interaction between the Old and New World” as well as the domestication past of the coca plant which delivers remarkable evidence for the trans-Atlantic dispersal by humans (Görlitz, 2016:9).

Another example of African trade before colonisation is the utilisation of the Saharan dessert as a trade route up until the end of the nineteenth century. Many people think of the Sahara as an “ocean of sand and isolation” as stated by J.S Coleman (Bayart & Ellis, 2000:218) however, it was in fact a vital “commercial and cultural axis” acting as a thoroughfare for the trade of “gold, trade goods, slaves, Muslim learning and belief” (Bayart & Ellis, 2000:218). Starting in the fifteenth century, the Atlantic seaboard was trading with Europe and America. Many revered authors including, M. G. S. Hodgson, J. Lippman Abu-Lughod, K. N. Chaudhuri, Jack Goody, and Andre Gunder Frank believe that a global trading system had occurred long before the “capitalist commercial expansion of the West” (Bayart & Ellis, 2000:218).

On a rather bleak note, Africa was also a trading centre for slaves in the ancient times. This occurred during the times of trans-Atlantic travel. At the outset, people were captured firstly through community controlled raids and warfare, however as the trade became more established, “the environment of ubiquitous insecurity caused individuals to turn on others – including friends and family members – and to kidnap, trick, and sell each other into slavery” (Nunn & Wantchekon, 2011:3221).


Between 1884 and 1885 a conference, often known as the Congo Conference, was held in Berlin. This conference started what was later coined, ‘the scramble for Africa’ (Pakenham, 1991:18). As Adebajo (2010:18) puts it, at the conference “a cartel of largely European states effectively set the rules for the partition of Africa”. This event changed the course of African history whose effects are still seen today. The only countries left untouched were Libya and Ethiopia who managed to defeat Italian invaders. This was not the first attempt of Europeans to dominate Africa as infiltration of the continent had commenced when the Portuguese began exploring the Zambezi as early as the 1500s. This was followed by the invasion of Egypt in 1821 and the increasing interests of the French and British during the mid-1800s (Herbst, 1989:673). In just 30 years, Africa was neatly subdivided by five main colonial powers; Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain – The Spanish came late to the party and only got the leftovers (Pakenham, 1991:18).

After Belgium claimed the Congo a mad rush started amongst European powers in order to secure more territory. This set up the territorial boundaries we see today in Africa, with slight variations, the process was almost complete by 1903 (Herbst, 1989:673). The partitioning was supervised by Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck. This process is often referred to the ‘Curse of Africa’ as the man-made borders have instigated indescribable suffering in post-colonial Africa (Adebajo, 2010:18). These artificial borders divided nations and separated families, traditional hunting and grazing areas as well as indigenous trading routes.

Bertocchia and Canova (2002:1852) speculate that colonisation may be the reason for Africa’s “low average growth rates of per-capita GDP…and, at the same time, for the observed heterogeneities within the continent”. Certainly, of the 23 countries lying in the lowest quintile of growth rates per-capita GDP, 16 of them are African countries, and all of them were colonised. Africa embodies a suitable setting to study the effects of colonisation with regards to growth as the colonies were the most “far-reaching and homogenous” than any other continent on earth (Bertocchia & Canova, 2002:1852). Homogenous refers to the same, ‘homo’, thus the colonies were successful as they disseminated similar ideas and methods of colonisation.


Africa, between 1945 and 1965, underwent its transition to independence. During this time the political leaders had two big hurdles to overcome. The consolidation of power by which domestic stability and peace would be achieved and the problem of how to convert their countries’ economies from their “colonial format as suppliers of raw materials produced through the exploitation” by the colonists of the cheap, unskilled labour of the indigenous peoples (Mbeki, 2009:1). The issue occurred when the new African leaders tried to continue in the footsteps of the industrial economies of the departing metropolitan powers. These economies were intended to produce both raw and finished products using the local population who would be healthier, educated and “better clothed” as it had been in previous years (Mbeki, 2009:2). However, the ensuing years were plagued by conflict and suffering. Examples of this are the Rwandan genocide and continued fighting between the Eritreans, Sudanese and Ethiopians.

However, this was not always the case. African countries’ economies, after independence, had a significant growth rate due to more educational institutions cropping up which encouraged discussions on how to continue to drive Africa towards more success. But these were the years where the political elites had not yet amassed a substantial amount of power and were “still close to the masses who had supported them in their struggles against colonisation” (Mbeki, 2009:4). During this time, a huge effort was made to grow countries’ economies as well as to spread the offerings of the growth to all citizens through investment in social and physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, just as soon as success was being tasted, it all come crashing down following the murder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba (Mbeki, 2009:5).

This was again unfortunately not an isolated instance and was followed shortly afterwards by the overthrow of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Civil wars ensued in countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Angola, Algeria and Liberia as well as the failing of the states of Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire and Somalia. Africa descended into chaos. Mbeki (2009:5) theorises that the two main reasons for this descent are the disagreements among African nationalists over while economic and political systems to adopt and second, the Cold War which created divides between the western and communist powers due to African nationalist movements wanting to either weaken Western influence or to make waves through non-alignment between capitalism and communism (Mbeki, 2009:6).

Why States Fail: Extractive Institutions

Sub-Saharan African is home to almost all of the top thirty poorest countries in the world. These are joined by Afghanistan and Haiti who may not be in Africa, but share a surprising characteristic. Acemoglu and Robinson (2013:48) say that this is due to the way in which their societies developed during the early years of colonial rule. They validate this by disproving the other popular theses such as the ‘Geography hypothesis’ and the ‘Ignorance hypothesis’.

Briefly, the geography thesis claims that the massive inequality gap has been created by geographical differences. This can be refuted looking at, only one example, the case of Nogales in Arizona, America and Nogales, Mexico. Nogales is separated by a fence, splitting the two countries however, the average household income of Nogales, Mexico is about a third of that north of the border in Nogales, America. The difference lies in when they gained democracy. For Nogales in America, they have been experiencing democracy to such a degree that they keep their government accountable. The institutions that govern Nogales, Mexico do not provide the same economic support and therefore the citizens have no incentive to create businesses as they do not have the safety or protection form the government that they need to compete in a competitive democracy (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:9). The pattern of the colonisers worked like this; the colonisers expropriated the indigenous people’s land, forcing them to work, offering low to no labour services, imposing high taxes and charging high prices for goods that were not even voluntarily bought (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:19).

Refuting the ignorance theory is just as easy. It states that world inequality occurs because some leaders do not know how to ensure their country’s wealth. Many of the people who assert this theory are economists who follow the writings of Lionel Robbins who said that, “economics is a science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:64). On the country, a flourishing economy arises when individuals and firms are free to produce, buy and sell their products and services as they desire. It is when these conditions are not met, that market failure develops (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:64).

Acemoglu and Robinson (2013:73) conclude that countries differ in their economic success due to the institutions that society develops, the incentives that motivate people, and the rules influencing how the economy works. The difference can be defined by whether a country has inclusive or extractive economic and political institutions. An inclusive institution is one that “allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish” (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:74). This nurtures economic action, output growth and economic prosperity. However, inclusive institutions require a government which can secure property rights for all and not just the elite. Extractive institutions, on the other hand, are those which fail to create incentives for citizens to start or grow their business, the opposite of an inclusive institution. Countries with extractive institutions often lack political centralisation which, as seen in Somalia, leads to governmental disarray (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013:81).

Academics and intellectuals often say that Africa is plagued by the ‘resource curse’, or ‘paradox of plenty’, which is what inspired the Congo conference of 1885. The resource curse is a theory that states that countries with an abundance of natural resources “do not produce the expected blessings but turn out to be a curse” in that it attracts the attention of competing nations who wish to harness the resources for themselves (Basedau, 2005:9). Basedau (2005:10) continues that “Oil and diamonds, particularly, have been blamed for a number of Africa’s illnesses such as poverty, corruption, dictatorship and war”. This is something to keep in mind as Africa is home to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”) metals which are currently required to produce technology which is powering the 4IR. It is important to understand the past in order to prevent it (the resource curse) from affecting Africa again.

The Zimbabwean context and history will be given below. In 1977 Zimbabwe had a $3’2 billion economy, which was only second to South Africa as the most developed country in sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe is an example of a country plagued by the ‘resource curse’ and was, in 1977, the “world’s leading producer of high-grade metallurgical chromite ore, and deposits of chrome account for one-third of known western reserves; it also export[ed] copper, nickel, gold, and asbestos, among other minerals” (Bratton, 1977:600). This may appear to be a good thing however, the country was simply exporting their raw material and not manufacturing and finished products. As is the theme with the ‘resource curse’ Zimbabwe had to buy back finished products from overseas manufacturers at huge expenses compared to what they sold their raw materials for (Bratton, 1977:600).

The Zimbabwean Case

Zimbabwe, or previously Southern Rhodesia, was late to gain its independence due to it having to persuade a “distant imperial power (the United Kingdom) to relinquish sovereignty”. The nationalist powers also had to overthrow a “locally entrenched white-minority government” (Thomson, 2016:259). This delaying to decolonise created a 25-year civil war as the white settlers battled to keep hold of their power, it is estimated that the death toll for this war amounted to 40 000. Zimbabwe was finally granted their independence in 1980 with the help of pressure from the ‘Patriotic Front’ (PF), ‘Zimbabwe African National Union’ (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union’ (ZAPU) (Thomson, 2016:259).

Up until the turn of the century, it appeared as though postcolonial Zimbabwe had escaped the blight – miserably all too similar in a postcolonial African setting – of serenely coexisting local communities abruptly flaring up into ferocious battles with one another. Zimbabwe was witness to terrible atrocities after 1980, however, none was as bad as the “murderous excess the national army in Matabeleland in the Gukurahundi period were state sponsored rather than inter-communal in nature” (Barnes, 2007:634). For both local and national onlookers it appeared that racial hostility and its monetary underpinnings had suddenly disappeared from the Zimbabwean experience. Due to the war not being “re-joined, black and white children went to school with each other”, social facilities and services were unified, and for about 20 years there was a renewed energy of pluralism in the Zimbabwean communities (Barnes, 2007:634).

Zimbabwe made obvious progressions away from the authoritarian and petulant regime of colonialism and was seen as a radical model for post-apartheid South Africa. However, optimistic messengers and proponents for Zimbabwe were soon to find out that they had spoken too soon. The peace that Zimbabwe had tried so hard to gain “could be unmade on precisely the terrain on which it had been produced: national identity, inclusiveness and citizenship” (Barnes, 2007:634).

The aim of Zimbabwe’s first constitution was to create a racial multi-party democracy. When the country became independent a competitive poll took place, choosing ZANU-PF as its winning party with Robert Mugabe as its forerunner. Zimbabwe had therefore gone down a path that many other African states had followed after independence, one of creating a liberal democratic constitution and competing political parties cropping up (Thomson, 2016:260). However, this excitement was met with dismay after the 1980 elections as the country was going to continue following down the paths of other Africa countries, but for the worse.

Mugabe’s aim did not align itself with that of the country’s and began attempting to limit all opposing parties creating a personalisation of the state. During this time Mugabe requested Joshua Nkomo, ZAPU’s leader, to sit on the Zimbabwean cabinet as a junior partner. This coalition was in action for only two years before it was dismissed by Mugabe. This motion sparked civil unrest as ZAPU supporter the largest minority group in Zimbabwe, the amaNdebele and the Matabele (Thomson, 2016:260). This controversy also initiated a movement of many people leaving the national army due to them being ZAPU supporters. Mugabe’s response to this was ruthless. He used his “loyal Fifth Brigade, recently trained by North Korean advisers” to neutralize all opposition. After the threat of ZAPU was extinguished, Mugabe began consolidating his own power (Thomson, 2016:261).

In the 10 years that followed Zimbabwe’s independence, the economy had done quite well. There was an average growth rate of 3.6 per cent during the 1980s. This gave the impression of democratic consolidation however, this was soon to collapse. By 2000 Zimbabwe’s recession had begun. This can be attributed to Zimbabwe’s “debilitating levels of debt service, the high running costs of its inefficient pastoral corporations, and drought” (Thomson, 2016:262).  The government decided to start cutting costs and this affected, unfortunately, the health care sector and education. The huge strides that were made in the 1980s with regards to the increase in medical and educational facilities were being quickly undone. Mugabe refused to cut government spending on the military.

Mugabe is the epitome of the African political elite and has plunged his country into pandemonium. His decisions and mistrust of his people is no reflection of what the typical African believes. This is also the case in Malawi with regards to their first prime minister, Hastings Banda (1963–1994) (Owoye & Bissessar, 2012). Owoye and Bissessar (2012) state that “In one country after another, African leaders acted in contempt of constitutional rules and agreements they had sworn to uphold to enhance their own power. Constitutions were either amended or rewritten or simply ignored”.

Ways to Mitigate against Africa’s Negative Reputation

Africa is seen to be poor for many reasons. Geography and ignorance have already been discussed, but what else? Mills (2010:2) states that the perception stretches to “a lack of human and government capacity, poor infrastructure and trade access, the effects of too little (or too much) foreign aid, the legacy of arbitrary colonial boundaries, low productivity, the Cold War, climate, and geography”. However, none of these reasons are solely responsible for Africa being poor.

Countless rulers in Africa have placed the blame for the continent’s widespread poverty on the rest of the world, “implying that solutions to underdevelopment are out of their hands” (Mills, 2010:2). An example of this is Mugabe blaming the International Monetary Fund for their imposed policies for the “ills that later beset his country” (Thomson, 2016:263). But, as established above, Mugabe’s problems stem from his personalisation of the Zimbabwean economy and the “debilitating levels of debt service, the high running costs of its inefficient pastoral corporations, and drought” (Thomson, 2016:262).

However, Mills (2010:2) states that “the main reason for African poverty is [that] the African leaders have become adept at externalizing blame, holding others responsible for Africa’s failings, [and] bad choices made by African rulers”. There is a history that exhibits that economies can grow very fast if the rulers make decisions based on the national interest, obviously not their own interests. This has been the case for “African reformers” such as Ghana and Botswana (Mills, 2010:3). But why do the African leaders, or as they have been dubbed ‘political elites’, make such bad choices?

According to Mill (2010:3), this can be attributed to “Africans and the international community enabling them to do so”. Africans have characteristically thought that they did not possess the resources to challenge the current situation, where on the other hand, the international community have been too eager to get involved and help Africa “for reasons ranging from self-interest to altruism and pity” (Mills, 2010:3). When the international community gets too heavily involved in attempting to rectify Africa’s problems they actually disempower the African, indirectly saying that they need international help, and “weaken the already tenuous link of accountability between the government and its people” (Mills, 2010:3).

This downfall of political elites creates a negative paradigm in which to view the whole of Africa. The way in which Africa’s negative reputation can be fought is through the understanding of its colonial past and the extractive regimes put in place. This occurs through education and a positive media presence. This can also be called, ‘contextualisation’: the understanding of something not in isolation but in relation to its influencing factors.


In sum, Africa’s potential development was stunted by the presence of colonial powers at the end of the nineteenth century. The extractive regimes set up during colonisation were ineffectively changed during the transition to independence and continued to perpetuate the expropriation of indigenous peoples. The Zimbabwean case highlights enough complex issues for cause for us to question the simplistic narrative that all countries in Africa have failed because Africans are corrupt and power hungry. The author argues that Malawi is another example of the Zimbabwean experience seen by political elites prioritising personal interests over the national interests. It is therefore important to defend the negative misconceptions of Africa. Without a defence Africa appears to be a continent in chaos created by Africans themselves which is undermining. This perpetuates a negative self-image, racist stereotypes and violates the African’s dignity.

Reference List

Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J.A. 2013. Why nations fail, the origins of power, prosperity and poverty. Great Britain: Profile Books LTD.

Adebajo, A. 2010. The Curse of Berlin: Africa after the Cold War. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Barnes, T. 2007. ‘History Has to Play Its Role’: Constructions of Race and Reconciliation in Secondary School Historiography in Zimbabwe, 1980-2002. Journal of Southern African Studies, 33(3):633-651

Basedau, M. 2005. Context Matters – Rethinking the Resource Curse in Sub-Saharan Africa. Working Papers Global and Area Studies, 1(1):1-46.

Bayart, J.F. & Ellis, S. 2000. Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion. African Affairs, 99(395): 217-267.

Bertocchia, G. & Canova, F. 2002. Did colonization matter for growth? An empirical exploration into the historical causes of Africa’s underdevelopment. European Economic Review, 46(4):1851-1871.

Bratton, M. 1977. Structural Transformation in Zimbabwe: Comparative Notes from the Neo-Colonisation of Kenya. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 15(4):591-611.

Görlitz, D. 2016. The Occurrence of Cocaine in Egyptian Mummies – New research provides strong evidence for a trans-Atlantic dispersal by humans. Basic Principles of Diffusion Theory, Experiment and Application, 26(2):1-11.

Herbst, J. 1989. The Creation and Maintenance of National Boundaries in Africa. International Organization, 43(4):673-692.

Mbeki, M. 2009. Architects of poverty, why African capitalism needs changing. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.

Mills, G. 2010. Why Is Africa Poor – and what can Africans do about it. Johannesburg: Penguin.

Nunn, N. & Wantchekon, L. 2011. The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa. The American Economic Review, 101(7):3221-3252.

Olsson, O. 2009. On the democratic legacy of colonialism. Journal of Comparative Economics, 37:534–551

Owoye, O. & Bissessar, N. 2012. Bad Governance and Corruption in Africa: Symptoms of Leadership and Institutional Failure. [Online]. Available: https://bit.ly/2reJKj2[accessed: 2018, April 28].

Pakenham, T.1991. The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus.

Thomson, A.2016. An introduction to African Politics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Vanthemsche, G. 2012. Belgium and the Congo, 1885-1980. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.

Cover photo: https://face2faceafrica.com/article/south-africa-hiv

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