Published in 'Tokologo,' numbers 5/6, pp. 17-19.
Roughly 50 years ago we saw the dismantling of most of the European colonial empires in Africa. High hopes greeted the "new nations" that merged - and certainly, a move from colonial rule, with its racism and external control and extractive economies, was progressive.
However, many of the hopes were soon dashed. Politically, most independent African states moved in the direction of dictatorships and one-party systems, normally headed by the nationalist party that took office at independence - and, over time, the military became a major player too. Many of these states were highly corrupt, even predatory, and the gap between the rising local (indigenous) ruling class, and the masses, grew ever vaster.
Roughly 50 years ago we saw the dismantling of most of the European colonial empires in Africa. High hopes greeted the "new nations" that merged - and certainly,a move from colonial rule, with its racism and external control and extractive economies, was progressive.
These gaps did not start in the colonial period, as many African societies were already very divided, but they continued and grew over time. The new ruling elites largely emerged from educated middle class groups, along with traditional aristocracies; from independence on, the masses never ran the "new nations."
These were followed by neo- liberal restructuring from the 1980s. Poverty and inequality is widespread, joblessness exists on a massive scale, with more people in absolutely poverty and in warzones here than in any other region worldwide. Postcolonial plans to industrialise the economies by building up local manufacturing through closed, protected economies largely failed. Today, the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa, including its economic powerhouse, South Africa, is less than half of that of a single European country, Germany.
Besides being based on racist ideas, the fact is that massive economic failures, inequality, repression and low levels of industrial development can be found everywhere - including in parts of Europe, notably its eastern and southern regions.
This argument correctly points out that the insertion of much of Africa into the capitalist world economy as a producer of raw materials (from farming or mining) put it at a disadvantage. A country where the core of the economy rests on exporting goods like cocoa or mielies is very vulnerable. If sales or prices fall, serious problems arise. Since these same 'agro-mineral' economies have to import expensive but essential manufactured goods, they are doubly vulnerable.
Many postcolonial industrialization plans were funded by revenue from raw material exports - taxes and where state ownership was extensive, profits - but these dried up in the 1970s with a global capitalist crisis. To try rescue the situation, many states borrowed heavily, but got into ever-worse debt. Some countries, like Zambia, had a window of around 9 years from independence (1964) to global crisis (1973) to try and change decade-old patterns; their prospects were never great.
African economies, heavily oriented to the export of raw materials produced by cheap labour, entered major crises from the 1970s.
Besides obvious examples like the USA, a former British colony, we could compare Ghana and South Korea, British and Japanese colonies respectively, independent within a few years of each other, with similar economic problems and population sizes and periods of colonial rule. Ghana has endured decades of economic crisis and has lost Western investments and business for years. South Korea has become, despite civil war in the 1950s, a major industrial power, with a larger economy than many Western countries.
A colonial history also does not explain, by itself, why - despite the problems - the ruling class in these countries remains incredibly wealthy: there is an issue here with how resources are controlled that is lost in explanations that look only at colonialism. A focus on external problems leads to a blindness on internal class dynamics.
Since the rise of corrupt rulers is key here, the corruption must itself be explained. At independence, unlike many other regions, there was not much in the way of a local capitalist class. There were few local industrialists, as compared to say India, which meant little local pressure on the state to deliver.
This also meant there was little space for the elites that took power at independence to accumulate wealth - other than by using the state. With the state as the main site of accumulation, vicious ruling class factional battles erupted, leading to a cycle of repression, military coups, one-party states and instability. Often tribal, racial and religious divisions were fanned in these fights, leading to violence.
So, while colonial history is part of the problem, it should not be used to excuse local ruling classes, who plundered their homelands and crushed the popular classes.
The result was massive revolts, which led to a wave of governments falling. But since these "second liberation" movements generally had very little in the way of a political agenda, besides some democratic reforms, most ended up in the wilderness. Political rights were expanded but the corrupt state remains, as does the agro-mineral economic structure. Recent growth is driven mainly by more demand for raw materials by Asia, but the basic problems of poverty and instability remain.
And without a progressive left and anarchist agenda, the frustrations and misery of the masses will simply be filled with empty ideas ("democracy") or reactionary movements (like Boko Haram) and sentiments (like racism and hatred of immigrants).