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Friday, November 24, 2023

Africa - A Failed Continent

Africa has always been a difficult place for Europeans.  The Romans had extended their empire into Africa as far south as the northern limits of the Sahara and relied on Arab traders for slaves, salt, and natural resources from the interior.  Most of Sub-Saharan Africa was terra incognita, a place unexplored until many centuries later, but from whom came often fantastical tales of the jungle.   Because of the fertility of Egypt and the Maghreb and successful reliance on Arab trans-continental traders; and because of the impenetrability and reported mortal diseases endemic there, the Romans stayed north of the desert.

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Paul Fraser had read Burton, Mungo Park, Paul du Chaillu, and Speke; Greene and Conrad; and modern analyses of Africa’s persistent poverty, mismanagement, corruption, and misrule.  

The memoirs of the great European explorers were tales of enslavement, disease, brutality, and Stone Age existence.  Africa was indeed the white man’s grave.  The French, Portuguese, and British found it impenetrable, resistant to European, Christian civilization, mysterious in its tribalism, and for its cabals.  It was no India, long ruled by the Guptas, the Mauryans, and the Aryans, a place where empire had long been established and where religion was complex, philosophically sophisticated, and millennia old, and a place where somehow Western and Eastern culture shared enough to make colonial rule possible, relatively easy, and longstanding.  

It was no Spanish America ruled by a colonial power for three hundred years, a rule which spread Christianity and European culture from Santa Barbara to Cape Horn, which after Simon Bolivar and the retreat of the Spanish remained.

Mungo Park was one of the first European travelers to explore central Africa and his adventures were recorded in a series of books chronicling his journeys in the late 1700s.  In The Life and Travels of Mungo Park in Central Africa he provides a firsthand account of life in heretofore unexplored regions of the continent.  The story was not pretty.  In fact, it was savage, brutal, and primitive.  

He himself had been captured many times, bartered as a slave, and only escaped death because of his value as a European and for the clothes he wore. Mungo Park in his journals wrote of being captured by African tribes, enslaved, and sold to other tribes for food, women, or land.  He was kept alive only because of his value – an oddity, a freakish white man in Africa to be displayed and tortured.  He brought back no Margaret Mead stories of tribes living simply, harmoniously, in tune with nature, the gods, and themselves.

He found only a barbaric primitivism without an inkling of civilized behavior.  These were not simple hunter-gatherers but savages who lived short, brutish, and cruel lives in the forest.  He returned to Europe to confirm what others suspected – Africa was indeed a dark, primitive, dangerous place.

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The eunuch and his four followers were here butchered, after a very slight resistance, and stripped within a few yards of me: their cries were dreadful; and even now, the feelings of that moment are fresh in my memory. My hopes of life were too faint to deserve the name. I was almost instantly surrounded, and incapable of making the least resistance, as I was unarmed, was as speedily stript; and whilst attempting first to save my shirt and then my trowsers, I was thrown on the ground. My pursuers made several thrusts at me with their spears, that badly wounded my hands in two places, and slightly my body, just under my ribs, on the right side. Indeed, I saw nothing before me but the same cruel death I had seen unmercifully inflicted on the few who had fallen into the power of those who now had possession of me; and they were only prevented from murdering me, in the first instance, I am persuaded, by the fear of injuring the value of my clothes, which appeared to them a rich booty,--but it was otherwise ordained.

In The Heart of Darkness, Conrad tells the story of Kurtz, who according to the manger of the Central Station, was one of the new breed of colonists sent out by the Company, charged with both dominating the ivory trade and bringing civilization to the natives.  Yet in his tragic end he became more African than the Africans. In arrogating divinity to himself through a manipulation of tribal beliefs; and by maintaining complete control over the natives because of this assumed power, he ruled absolutely, amassed a fortune in ivory, and became an authoritarian ruler.  Yet his assumption of African demonic spiritualism had a price.

As he spoke his last words, ‘The horror…the horror’, he finally understood that having descended completely into the primitive, having abandoned all traces of Western moral civilization, he was far worse than the natives of the jungle..  While the Africans who carried  out ritual sacrifice were doing so as part of a sophisticated cosmology, Kurtz, when he encouraged such sacrifice and ritual cannibalism only to promote his own longevity and power, descended into a completely amoral universe.

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Marlowe, the narrator of the story, saw Kurtz as a courageous man willing to abandon his Christian beliefs and to consider the power and primitive glory of African animism.

“The earth seemed unearthly”, Marlowe says. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.

They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.

And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.

What then to make of Africa's perennial, persistent, and seemingly intractable underdevelopment?  Is colonialism the root cause for the region’s endemic corruption? An understandable assumption of power by ‘big men’ who replaced autocratic colonial rule by their own oppressive and exploitative ones? 

Could it be the dense jungles of central Africa which isolated tribal groups from outside contact, prevented any infusion of new ideas and assured that the native primitive animism would only turn more inward, less rational, and less adept at the trades and techniques of the modern world? Is it climate, the brutal heat and aridity of the Sahel, the proliferation of tropical disease, and cycles of high fertility and high mortality?

Has tribalism which had lost the forest character of ritual sacrifice, animistic worship, slavery, and inter-tribal warfare noted by Mungo Park and Conrad, been transposed to modern rule?  

The Chief of Party of a World Bank economic mission to a West African country challenged a high government official, suggesting that he had only his own interests in mind, not the performance of the generous loan.  The African paused for a moment, smoothed his elegant, long silk, embroidered robe, looked at the Chief of Party and replied that he was where he was, atop the bureaucracy and in power thanks to his his family, his tribe, his community, and the nation. “And I will repay them in that order”, he said.  

Unlike India where a similarly tribal expression – the caste system – had been superseded by modern democratic opportunity, decisions were still made on the basis of ancient considerations.

There are no countries which have escaped misrule, and socio-economic indicators remains among the world’s worst.  Crime, corruption, civil conflict, and war are endemic, and there is little hope of progress or resolution.  Islamic terrorism had infiltrated the Sahara and the Sahel, and formerly moderate, reasonably-ruled countries like Mali had become military states, defying Tuareg separatism, and radical ISIS Islamic caliphate hegemony.  

Ghana and Senegal, two countries which had resisted autocracy and military rule, floundered economically.  Good governance was only relative, and underdevelopment was curiously endemic.

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Despite Africa’s history, continuing poverty, underdevelopment, and corrupt governance, progressives are insistent on justifying their long-held notions about cultural relativity.  While Africa might be economically underdeveloped, there must be something in its tribal culture, its animism, and in its very survival which made it stand out, equal to any, poor sister to none.  

After all, current efforts to restore blacks to what is considered their rightful place at the top of the human pyramid have to be based on something. American voters seeing the same social dysfunction endemic to African cities, need more than inspirational hymns.  If they can be shown that it is not a heart of darkness inherited by American blacks, but a primitive nobility, they may be more congenial to the pursuits of Black Lives Matter and progressive racial idealism in general. 

During the Obama Administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Malian President Touré for his democracy and electoral reforms.  Free and fair elections, she said, were the hinges of democracy, and President Touré was a champion.  

She, of course, saw only what she wanted to see – a black African nation succeeding where none had in the past, giving the American black caucus something to be proud of, a statement of racial solidarity and commitment.  Touré was as corrupt as any African leader had been, and his heavy-handed favoritism, and bare-faced thievery in the face of a national threat in the desert, provoked his overthrow and descent into military rule.  His elections had been fraudulent, staged, and entirely false, but because Hillary had her own political agenda, she chose not to see what every Malian had.

The United States under successive presidents of both parties, have continued to pour money into Africa. If for no other reason than to show their black constituents that they have not been forgotten, the State Department has tried for years to circumvent the endemic corruption, political venality, and bureaucratic tribalism of the place.

The governments of these recipient countries, true to form, wanted only unofficial rewards, and shortly after being awarded the grants began to siphon off funds for private bank accounts, channel even more to relatives and friends, and paid little or no attention to the performance of the projects.  

They knew that the United States, the World Bank, and European donors wanted and needed to give the money away even more than African countries wanted it.  It was blood money, unaccountable money, money which would be renewed at any cost.  Countries like Angola, sitting on billions of dollars of energy and mineral reserves, remained one of the continent’s poorest despite the efforts of US initiatives to encourage civil reform.

Again and again, in country after country, economists and international development consultants encountered the same problems.  The culture of underdevelopment was only this – monumental indifference and self-interested manipulation.  If there were any localized, valuable, ethnic, religious, or cultural traditions, they were lost within universal, endemic poverty and the overwhelming corrupting presence of big government.

As hard as one tried,  they were  one-upped by government functionaries at every turn  - diverted from economic objectives, shunted from social reform, and marginalized with les and less influence. 

Although foreign assistance monies continue to pour into Africa, the idealism has faded.  If after more than sixty years of independence countries are still mired in poverty, corruption, and political indifference, it may be time for governments to resolve their own problems, face eventual civil disorder and uprising, make good or be gone.  No more free money and time to borrow at market rates on the international capital markets.  No more more free ride. 

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