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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 13:10 GMT
Looking to leave the past behind
As the Commission for Africa - chaired by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - prepares to report this week on solutions to Africa's problems, Richard Dowden looks at what is behind the continent's failure to develop.

Africa may be where the human race began but these days it is not the easiest place to live in. Despite huge natural resources and talented people, most of Africa's economies have not taken off.

While Asia and Latin America, also part of what used to be called the Third World, have got richer in the past 25 years, Africa has gone backwards.

Congolese women carry luggage back camp in eastern town of Bunia
In the past decade millions have been affected by conflict in DR Congo, formerly Zaire

Its countries now occupy all the bottom places in the league tables that measure the quality and length of human life. Africa's main achievement has been survival, not development.

Some of this is down to Africa's environment. Its soils are old, its weather patterns irregular.

People die young from virulent diseases - HIV/Aids is the latest and worst - but until recently malaria used to kill more people. Life is insecure, making African culture conservative and fatalistic.

Since colonial times Africa's economies have been designed to suit the wants of outsiders not the needs of the people. Roads and railways, for example, were laid down to suck out minerals and crops from the interior for export, not to build an internal economy. Links within Africa are weak.

But these are not insuperable problems. Africa's failure has been mainly the result of politics; the failure to establish effective nation states that help their citizens to develop.

Great plans

It is tempting to speculate about what Africa would be like if it had not been taken over by Europe at the end of the 19th Century. Would it now be one big country, the United States of Africa? Or have even more than the 53 states it has today?

Although the European colonisers had great plans for Africa, two world wars and economic depression delayed them and when Africa was suddenly pitched into independence in the 1960s, infrastructure was patchy and levels of literacy were low.

More important, imperial rule had undermined the old African political systems but not created a new sense of citizenship in the new nation states. All but three African countries south of the Sahara have many different language groups. Nigeria has more than 400. Africa was handed European style constitutions that could not cope with such diversity or forge a sense of shared national identity.

Even peaceful countries such as Tanzania sank into poverty, victims of a vicious circle

Independence coincided with the Cold War in which both sides propped up corrupt dictators. Democracy and human rights were ignored. Rulers like Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya and Jean-Bedel Bokassa in Central African Republic were allowed to ruin their countries with support from Western countries.

African rulers simply would not or could not create institutions and systems to make Africa's new countries function effectively. Most states fell into the hands of wealthy and greedy elites who stayed in power by buying support and exploiting ethnic divisions. Taxes, if gathered at all, were stolen or wasted.

Rock bottom

Naturally the losers turned to the only political course left open to them - rebellion. Governments were overthrown by military coups and rebels began long drawn out civil wars, sometimes supported by Western powers or neighbouring states.

Child victim of the Ethiopian famine of 1984
The 1984 famine in Ethiopia focussed Western attention on Africa

These wars looked meaningless and chaotic from afar but on the ground they were struggles for control of resources: diamonds, gold or other minerals.

In some cases looting became an end in itself, but most of these wars were about political power. The only winners were Western companies who were able to buy the loot cheaply.

Even peaceful countries such as Tanzania sank into poverty, victims of a vicious circle of poor management, bad policies, lack of investment and stagnating politics. Meanwhile other tropical countries like Vietnam and Indonesia increased their share of the market in what had been African commodities.

At the end of the Cold War, Africa was abandoned. Its indebted economies were left to the economists of the IMF and the World Bank. Aid was cut and the economists decreed privatisation, floating currencies and minimal government as the cure for Africa's poverty.

The stereotype of the Big Man tyrant is now the exception

But Africa already had minimal government and businesses would not invest in countries without law courts or proper roads. Currencies crashed and spending cuts destroyed what was left of Africa's civil services, the one group essential to holding these states together.

By the mid-1990s, Africa reached its nadir. From the north-east tip of Somalia to the South African border countries were embroiled in war. More than half of West Africa's states were suffering from rebellion and civil strife. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide jolted outsiders into realising that neglecting Africa would end in catastrophe.

Re-engaging with Africa

At the same time Nelson Mandela's election as president of a new South Africa, created a euphoric vision of what Africa could achieve.

Nelson Mandela in London, February 2005
Mandela: Icon and inspiration for many, at home and abroad

Things began to change.

The majority of African states including the military dictatorships were forced to hold elections - though economic inequalities mean votes, even whole elections, can be bought.

The stereotype of the Big Man tyrant is now the exception. The press is freer and burgeoning radio stations keep people better informed.

There have been success stories; Botswana for example has managed its diamond revenues well and has reserves, not debt. Wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and Sudan have ended or quietened down.

Some of these changes have been created by outside pressure, some were generated internally.

The African Union, a continent-wide organisation with a sense of purpose and responsibility, was set up in 2000 replacing the old ineffective Organisation of African Unity.

Man listening to radio in Accra, Ghana
Freer media enables people to be better informed

The New Partnership for Africa's Development, a plan for African development known as Nepad, aims at a more equal, less dependent, relationship between Africa and the rest of the world. Africa has agreed to deal with its own wars and take responsibility for its own failings.

The rest of the world has re-engaged with Africa. Britain has taken a lead in trying to find ways of relieving Africa's debt relief, sending more aid and establishing a fairer international trading system.

But coming to grips with Africa's problems, particularly its fractious politics, is not easy. And it is still not clear whether Western governments will deliver on their promises of more help for Africa, or whether African rulers will deliver on their promises of better government.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society

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