Africa’s Long Road Since Independence, by Keith Somerville, was published recently by Penguin Books.
Did you know that between 1958 and April 1984 there were 58 successful military coups in Africa? An amazing figure. There were also 65 failed coups. Some people might try to explain this phenomenon in terms of colonial legacy, and others might argue that it shows poor leadership by Africans during the first generation of independence. Somerville, whilst very aware that it is never a good idea to overgeneralise when discussing African history or politics, points out that in many cases, previously independent institutions such as the unions, opposition parties and non-party associations had been forced into single-party folds or had been destroyed, as the first group of leaders consolidated power in their own hands. In essence, the underlying assumptions of colonialism were reproduced and in fact increased in nationalists’ thinking. This left the military as the only sector to have an alternate source of power, when things were not going well. There was often little opposition or public reaction to military takeovers. He writes, “…autocratic rulers had built their castles on sand that could be swept away with surprising ease once their popularity waned and economic failure led to discontent, and the breakdown of patronage networks or divisive policies led to over-reliance on the armed forces as guarantors of power.”
What led to the economic failures, though? Often the first generation of African leaders relied on the export driven monoculture economies they inherited in order to fund their various grand schemes. Economies were hardly ever diversified, and any profits that were made rarely found their way back to rural producers. Commodity price changes had a major impact on such economies. Prices for exports often fell drastically in the 1970s and 80s, whilst import costs for equipment, capital goods, consumer goods, know-how and technology rose. There was only one possible economic outcome, and often this led, in turn, to massive amounts of borrowing.
I read, for example, that in Ghana, state intervention in the economy, in theory in order to create wealth for society as a whole, was used to justify central control by the one-party system, and this sort of thing was quite typical in other countries. But the cocoa farmers, for example, themselves hardly benefitted, and when commodity prices fell, Ghanaian society as a whole also did not benefit.
The massive rise in oil prices after 1973 led to political change in several countries where state institutions were typically weak. The Cold War then led to intrusion in African politics by the superpowers, with all sorts of consequences. By the end of the 70s, agriculture in Africa had mostly declined, and imported food had to be subsidised, resulting in a greater strain on governments which were forced to borrow. “Overall, the picture for African economies as the 1970s drew to a close was poor, with little sustained development and continued reliance on a few vulnerable export commodities, corruption and mismanagement, widespread food insecurity, and increasing reliance on costly imports, unequal and damaging terms of trade between primary exports and manufactured, processed or refined imports, and a massive and growing problem of indebtedness. The scene was set for the drastic surgery demanded of and imposed on Africa by international financial institutions and donor countries: structural adjustment.” Not a great outlook!
Another interesting passing fact is that despite inheriting national boundaries drawn up by colonials powers with little attention to ethnic groups, hardly ever was there any attempt to change these boundaries by those who came to power after independence, despite those colonial boundaries having been criticised relentlessly by historians and politicians.
When oil was discovered in some regions, benefits did not flow to the societies as a whole, and instead there was an increase in wealth inequality. In Botswana, the equivalent was the discovery of diamonds. Somerville recognises that what Botswana has achieved has been remarkable – progress, economic success, democracy, service delivery, etc – but he states that there are still vast gaps between the incomes of the rich elite and the poor. I feel he is a bit harsh in his criticism, in this instance.
This is a very informative book, although sometimes, perhaps, Somerville over-emphasises the negatives. I haven’t checked all the Notes and references, but it was nice to see some cited historians that I have worked with. I’ll put this book aside for my son Jamie to read, when he next comes back from Africa.
Somerville currently contributes to Africa Sustainable Conservation News.