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Big, rich, and diverse—so why is Africa so poor?

By October 21, 2020Editorial
Robert Mugabe

The late Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe 1987–2017. Wikimedia Commons

Africa is my home. On the one hand, I love it with a passion undimmed by my 70-odd years on its red Earth. But on the other, I feel utter despair, a deep sense that it is being ruined to a point beyond revival. It is not a good place for one’s psyche to be. My thoughts and emotions are woven into a strangely patterned fabric that is both complex and bewildering. Africa could, or should, be leading the world in hope, innovation, and compassion for people and the land, but it is not. Why?

At the beginning of hostilities in 1939, Winston Churchill wrote: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key.” The great man correctly surmised that the key was “Russian national interest.” But what is the key to the conundrum that is Africa? And now that Covid-19 is visiting yet another layer of misery, is there even one to be found?

There has to be, for Africa is too big, too rich, too diverse to fail. On so many levels, Africa needs to succeed, for the sake of the entire world, let alone for the people, land, and natural wonders of this astounding continent.

As Covid-19 continues to pummel the world, both socially and economically, few countries and regions are escaping lightly from its trail of havoc. So far, Africa has confirmed 1.7 million cases and some 40,000 deaths. While statistics out of Africa are often short on reliability, compared with Europe, India, and the Americas, the continent has shown itself to be more of an outpost for the disease than an epicenter.

Nevertheless, the global economic fallout from Covid-19 has hit Africa hard, possibly much harder than in the rest of the world. Already vulnerable, Africa’s people and the environment will suffer greatly. Wealthy regions have been able to soften the impact by throwing money at the problem, but Africa cannot do this. Already mired in debt, African countries lack war chests of any size as, to put it plainly, they have been stolen.

To understand how this has happened, one has to understand something of Africa. And that is a challenge. There are so many misconceptions about the continent that it is hard to know where to begin. Size is perhaps as good a place as any.

If you look at a flat map of Africa, the continent looks big, but not that big. After all, the great white blob of Greenland looks almost the same size, and Canada looks even bigger. But no, such assumptions are way out. Africa, with a landmass of 11.7 million square miles, is 14 times bigger than Greenland. Canada, with all its islands, would fit into Africa three times, and so would the U.S.A. with a fair bit to spare. Hard to believe? Have a look at this startling graphic and think again.

The reason for this anomaly is that while the Earth is more or less ball-shaped, most of the world maps we see in atlases and hanging on walls are flat. And in the process of “flattening,” the size of landmasses becomes significantly distorted.

Then there is a tendency in the minds of many people around the world to regard Africa as a single country. No, it is not. Africa is a jigsaw puzzle of 54 sovereign states and four dependencies. And while some of these countries are enormous like Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.)—both sprawl across nearly a million square miles—some are tiny. The smallest, the Indian Ocean island state of Seychelles, has a mere 174 square miles.

But the borders of these nations have not been built with any regard for the geographic patterns of Africa’s history or its staggering cultural and language diversity. (Africa comprises more than 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 languages.)

Left to its own devices, this mosaic might have found appropriate boundaries that would have been more agreeable. But from the end of the 1400s, when Europe found a sea route to the treasures of the East around the southern tip of Africa, the continent has been progressively invaded, occupied, and divided amongst the mighty trading nations of the north. For nigh on five centuries, Britain, Portugal, Germany, France, and Belgium scuffled and tussled over the “right” to plunder the continent’s resources and to manipulate local rivalries while their religions fought for ownership of souls. The result was a bruised and battered Africa, partitioned by foreign treaties with little regard for the existing, centuries-old divisions of culture, language, and assets.

When the iron fist of colonialism was prised open as the wind of change blew through Africa in the 1960s, Europe disengaged itself with indecent haste from Africa’s affairs. The result of this radical regime change was like the lifting of a lid from a boiling cauldron. A period of violence and political strife ensued as competing factions vied for ascendency in their newly independent lands—a chaotic time that has rumbled and roiled its way into the present. And in the process, Africa has suffered under some of the worst leaders this planet has ever seen. “Big Men” with impunity have raped and pillaged their way through the riches of their fiefdoms. Hardly a country has been spared.

While some of the blame can be rightfully laid at the door of colonialism, in the six or so decades of independence, Africa has harmed itself beyond belief. Other parts of the world have also suffered under colonialism, but almost all have plowed their way through a damn side better than have African nations.

And so, to revisit Churchill’s musings, as with Russia, the key to Africa’s well-wrapped enigma is also self-interest. In this instance, however, it is not the self-interest of a nation but the selfish interests of a group of cruel men who have taken so much and have left nothing but a legacy of poverty, broken institutions, and massive debt.

It comes as no surprise then that 830 billion U.S. dollars flowed illegally out of Africa in the first 15 years of this century, or that the nations of this continent continue to hemorrhage to the tune of $88.6 billion annually. This cannot have happened without endemic corruption and its handmaiden, institutional incompetence on a mind-boggling scale.

Can the ship be turned? Time will tell, but what is certain is that in the interim much of the burden of social upliftment and the care of wild places—the undisputed jewels in Africa’s crown—will depend on the sweat and money of non-government organizations.