Africa's Agony: A Plan For Action

How Africa Can Solve Its Problems

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"International misunderstanding is almost wholly voluntary... in order to misunderstand deliberately, you must at least suspect, if not actually understand that you intend to misunderstand."
-- British parliamentarian Enoch Powell (1983)

What is remarkable about the above quote is how well it applies to the older generation of African intellectuals. So many of them in my experience have, for many years, intentionally misunderstood the misfortune of the African dilemma, blaming it exclusively on the legacy of colonialism.

Others have blamed Africa's agony on the intervention of foreign governments (read: intelligence services of the Western industrial powers), or the depredations of multinational conglomerate corporations.

Some have recognized, and even explained the contribution of Africa's indigenous corruption and materialism. And a few brave souls have even acknowledged the contributions of Africa's own indigenous cultures.

But the fact is that all these factors and more have contributed to the agony of Africa's position as the poorest continent in the world, the only one remaining where widespread suffering and grinding poverty is the norm.

The Problem

Anyone who has been to sub-saharan Africa has seen the problem: a tiny minority, living in fabulous luxury, a small and largely struggling middle class, and a sea of squalor, suffering and poverty, in which the vast majority of Africans are mired.

its not for a lack of talent, ambition or intelligence. Africa has become a source for highly intelligent, carefully trained professionals of a wide variety of skills, who practice their professions all over the world, particularly in the industrial nations of the West and the rapidly industrializing nations of South Asia.

It isn't a lack of resources, either. Everyone who has traveled in Africa has seen the vast variety resources, agricultural, forest, mineral, human and of other kinds, which Africa has in some of the greatest abundance in the world.

Why, then, has Africa come to this terrible state?

Poverty, Corruption, And The Legacy of Colonialism

I have written extensively elsewhere of the terrible corruption in which Nigerians, with whom I am most familiar, have found themselves mired. The problems I discussed in the other essays on Africa apply generally to subsaharan Africa as well. To state the problem briefly, it is in some respects the legacy of a colonial past, in which the colonial masters robbed Africans of their native value systems, and failed to replace those values with anything useful. This, combined with some unique features of native African cultures, have resulted in a materialism that is so vast it has to be experienced to be believed. And in the absence of development, the only way this materialism can be supported is by corruption.

Neo-colonialism, Foreign Intervention And The Rape of The Multinationals

In October of 1965, Kwame Nkrumah, then the President of Ghana, published one of the great classics of post-colonial African non-fiction: Neo-Colonialism -- The Last Stage of Imperialism. In it, he predicted, quite accurately as events later proved, that Africa would suffer persistent meddling by the intelligence agencies of foreign governments, particularly the CIA and the KGB. In so writing, he offended the very agencies he wrote about, and in an event of supreme irony, died in a bloody CIA-sponsored coup as a result.

This was just the first of many such interventions by the secret intelligence agencies, MI6, the CIA, the KGB, French intelligence agencies and even the Mossad. The result has been a string of coups and a trail of death and destruction and a legacy of political instability in nations throughout Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, The Gambia, and many others all have felt the sting of foreign intervention. In each and every case, no thought was given by the intervening power as to whether the intervention was good for the country involved, helped the people, advanced the progress of African governance, or eased the suffering of the people. In fact, in many cases, the intervening agencies knew their actions would be counter to the interests of the local people, but did so anyway, often for very cynical reasons.

While no government, in Africa or out, would openly suggest that the west seeks to dominate Africa, in a subtle and cynical way, that is exactly what the west has set about doing: not for political, but for economic reasons. The large multinationals see vast resources in Africa, and they want those resources. They'll stop at nothing to get them. And the intelligence agencies, after having lost their mission of fighting the cold war, have seen in supporting the multinationals, a new mission: to help multinationals get the resources out for the benefit, not of Africa, but of the industrial nations that host those corporations. It is remarkable to watch how nearly every coup that now takes place in Africa comes to the benefit of some multinational doing business or wanting to do business in that country. Just watch these coups and you will see what I mean.

All of these problems, the corruption, the materialism, and the heavy hand of the west, have all conspired to maintain the status quo in Africa. No one wants Africa to develop. No one, that is, except the Africans. But their opinion doesn't count. As it now stands, they simply don't have any say in the matter.

The Solution

The solution, unfortunately, is as complex as the problem. But it is a solution that the Africans themselves must develop, though the outlines of it are becoming ever more clear.

Africans must do this, because, to be brutally honest, no one else cares. We've all seen pictures of starving Africans on our TV screens, and have heard the pleas for help, only to be greeted with more pictures of disaster in yet another corner of Africa. Frankly, the rest of the world has seen so much and tried so hard, only to see that work, well intentioned as it may have been, fail in the end. The result has been that the rest of the world has largely given up on Africa.

Africans Taking Responsibility For Themselves

In order for Africans to salvage their countries, they will need to understand exactly what the problems are, stripped of local cultural biases, and prejudices about the past. They must set aside their differences to look toward a common future. As a former military governor of Bauchi State, Nigeria, once said in a propaganda poster, "This is our home. It is here that we must live. Let us salvage it together."

To do this, Africans must give up the belief that all their problems lie with the actions of others. Political colonialism ended thirty years ago; Africa remains poor not because of the heavy hands of colonial governments. That excuse has worn out and Africans need to abandon it as an excuse. A few of the more honest African intellectuals are.

While I have seen ethnic rivalries in Africa, I have also been surprised at the degree to which Africans of differing cultures have been willing to work together. This is a cultural value that Africans need to cherish and build upon. It is particularly a strong value in the nations that have undergone the most serious internal strife, such as Nigeria underwent during the Biafran war.

In the case of Nigeria, the result has been that Nigerians have finally begun to see themselves as Nigerians first, and Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa or other ethnic groups second. This is as it should be; local and federal politicians need to work hard to build on this sense of national identity, but squandering it in local squabbles over ethnic issues or local economic advantage will erode the loyalty that Nigerians feel to their nationhood. This must not be allowed to happen. It can be avoided by the national government working hard for all ethnic groups, not just the one currently in power, and showing that it means it when it says that it will try to provide for all ethnic groups. The Hausa, which have traditionally dominated national politics in that country, must recognize that the Yoruba and Ibo, as well as all other ethnic groups, are equally entitled to their fair share of power and development money. If Moshood Abiola wins an election, he must be allowed to govern, regardless of the ethnic group from which he comes. In other words, there must be a recognition of the importance of the rule of law.

Additionally, Africans need to take responsibilities for their own problems into their own hands, and quit asking hopelessly incompetent governments to do it for them. There is evidence that this is beginning to happen -- all over Africa, small projects, designed and initiated, and usually financed at the local level are bringing bear fruit. The result is that many African economies are beginning show modest growth for the first time since the end of colonialism. There is precedent for this in Latin America, and Africans might do well to study the example of the village of Gaviotas, Columbia. Led by the vision of a wealthy member of Columbia's oligarchy, a disparate group of campesinos, engineers, college students, local Indians and social dreamers have taken a barren, overworked patch of tropical prairie, and have turned it into an economically and ecologically self-sustaining example of self reliance. Africans could learn a great deal about how they developed the solutions, using their own ingenuity, and with very little outside help. The solutions they have developed have recieved world-wide attention. But even more important than the solutions, is the manner in which they are developed. And this is the model that Africa should examine.

Inevitably, Africa will face the need to industrialize. How to do that without all the wealth ending up in the hands of a handful of super-rich industrialists, and the rest of the enterprise living in poverty, as has always been the case until now? An excellent model, compatible with African village-based values, exists in the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation model. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is the largest industrial corporation in the Basque region of Spain, and is the third largest industrial corporation in all of Spain. What makes it unique is that it is entirely run by its workers, with managers actually being hired and fired by the workers themselves. Each employee has a financial stake in the cooperative and participates fully in its management and profits, and no one is allowed to take a salary greater than 4.7 times that of the lowest-paid worker. How well does this work? The United Nations Organization for Sustainable Development has studied Mondragon and claims that the 160 enterprises that make up the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation are, on the average, twice as profitable as similar-sized competitive enterprises in the same industry segments in Spain. The values of direct participation in governance by local workers is directly analogous to the village-level values of cooperation and local governance that is the norm thoughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. A Mondragon-style cooperative effort could be established and would run well throughout most of the continent, with little change in local cultural values and mindsets, other than the fostering of a maintenance culture, which does not exist in much of Africa.

How to govern?

In my view, which many African intellectuals tell me is widely shared there, while Africa needs more democracy, it also needs a stronger national culture of governance. While living in Africa, I was astonished at the degree to which the federal government of Nigeria fails to enforce even basic laws. Yet those who represented a threat to the regime are quickly 'disappeared.' So it is clear that the Nigerian administration is capable of enforcing those laws if it chose to do so. But it's concern seems to be maintaining itself in power, plundering the wealth of the country and seems to be relatively little interested in anything else.

Democracy in the western style may well not be what Africans need to govern themselves. What style of government they choose must, by consensus, be their own choice, not the choice of foreign governments, multinational corporations seeking to control local resources, or selfish, arrogant local demagogues seeking to advance their personal interests. Or the military, seeking to control access to the federal treasury. The style of government must take into consideration the unique cultural history and attitudes and values of African traditions and values.

Here the native cultures, with their strong tendency to deference for those in power, need to adapt; to come to understand that government is meant to be the servant of the people rather than the other way around. Africans must then demand that government respond to their basic need for law and order. This will take education. Education by Africans for their own benefit. Their governments won't do it; Africans must do it for themselves.

Africans have to come to understand the nature of the corruption problem and how seriously it damages their lives. The corruption of both public and private life has enabled the tiny oligarchies in African countries to entrench themselves in power and maintain that power through the military and the government, as well as through economic repression. This has ensured that Africans will remain poor, because the oligarchies refuse to share the wealth that poor Africans have laboured so hard to create.

Any African government which genuinely works to solve the problems of the poor, will have to take into consideration the selfishness of the oligarchy and rein in its power. Obviously, this will not be easy to do. But it can start by convincing the oligarchy that it is in the long-term best interests of that oligarchy to work for the development of the country. Oligarchies get rich by selling what their companies have produced, but you can't sell something to someone with no money. So the oligarchies need to help build the markets that build their companies. America was founded as a third-world backwater of the English Empire, but it became a world power by the recognition of this basic fact by its oligarchy. The oligarchy worked for a sense of egalitarianism, and that oligarchy itself benefited by the increase in economic activity that resulted. This is what African oligarchies need to understand and work towards creating.

Rooting Out Corruption

When an African engages in an act of corruption, he helps seal his fate and the fate of his children to lives of poverty and misery. This is because a proper business enterprise cannot flourish in an atmosphere of corruption. And without proper business activity, economies cannot grow. So ultimately, the problem of corruption becomes a personal one; the temptation for private, immediate gain becomes a public and chronic nuisance, but it also harms the perpetrator in ways he cannot immediately see or understand.

So with their immediate and long-term interests in conflict, and private and public interests in conflict, how are Africans to solve the problem of corruption? Mohammadu Buhari, a coup leader in Nigeria, made a start with his famous "war on indiscipline." That war still is being waged -- on paper. What the Nigerian regime and other African regimes need to do is to wage that war for real -- rooting out corruption, starting within their own governments and proceeding to all aspects of African life. No nation can hope to progress until those who have properly earned wealth are allowed to keep it -- not by virtue of position or power, but by virtue of the honest efforts by which that wealth was created.

It may well be that while such a ruler as Mohammadu Buhari is rooting out corruption, he will have to rule with an iron hand -- and this is something that foreign governments will have to recognise and accept. For the U.S. in particular, with its tendency to meddle with governments who interfere with the activities of business, it will be a temptation to meddle. But a Buhari-style dictatorship will produce many enemies in its war on corruption, and to remain in power, it will have to deal with them sternly. This problem won't be an easy one to fix.

Africans, while enduring the harsh years of a stern government working its war on indiscipline, will have to be patient. The government will have to spend many years on this problem -- a new generation will have to grow up, displacing the older generations with new habits and new values.

It is encouraging that a recent conference on corruption in African leadership drew a number of African heads of state to Mozambique to discuss this problem. There was a consensus that corruption is one of the principal problems impeding African development. Clearly, the awareness of the scope of the problem has become clear to African intellectuals, and if the leadership of African nations can accept the responsibility for dealing with this problem, there is hope.

Ending Foreign Encouragement of Corruption

Transparency International, a German-based anti-corruption NGO, has sponsored an anti-corruption treaty within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a pan-European organization intended to foster development in the third world. Recognizing that corruption is one of the principal problems facing the third world, particularly Africa, they have proposed an anti-corruption treaty that not only their member states, but other states are invited to join.

The United States already has an anti-corruption law on its books which prohibits its corporations from bribing officials of other countries, but that law is seldom enforced. The reason is that American corporations complain they have to pay bribes to have the same access to governments that other corporations not subject to that law are quite willing to pay.

In order for the American law and the OECD treaty on corruption to have any useful impact, Africans should demand that the U.S. should enforce its own laws and that other nations sign onto the OECD treaty on corruption and enforce its provisions among their corporations doing business abroad.

Additionally, Africans should demand that all foreign corporations doing business in their countries comply with the provisions of the treaty, whether they are legally subject to its provisions or not.

Keeping Foreigners' Hands Off

The most serious economic problem of Africa is homegrown corruption. But that problem is certainly exacerbated by the economic imperialism of multinational corporations looking to exploit the weak economic regulation and the vast abundance of resources for the taking in Africa. If Africans want to have access to those resources, they'll have to stand up for themselves, and soon.

A classic example is the oil in Nigeria. The people who benefit from Nigeria's vast oil reserves are Swiss bankers, American and European stockholders of Shell, Mobil, Chevron, Agip, Total and a handful of other multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria. There are as well the shareholders of the petrochemical firms that use that oil, the military rulers of Nigeria that are essentially being bribed to give the multinational oil companies a free hand, and the handful of Nigerians and expatriates who have relatively good jobs working in Nigeria in the oil fields.

The people who benefit the least are those whose oil this is, the people of Akwa Ibom, Rivers, and Delta States, who live daily with the disruption, the noise, the pollution, and the corruption that the oil industry has spawned. They see little of the money. It goes elsewhere. And the result is classic exploitation of Africa by non-Africans.

The rebellion of the Ogoni people of Delta and Rivers states, while symptomatic of the problem, is not really the solution. The solution has to come hundreds of kilometers away in the capital of Abuja. And the only way that will happen is if all the Nigerian people demand it in a way that the military rulers of Nigeria cannot ignore. There must be a proper accounting of the monies the oil extraction industry generates, and it must be spent where it is needed, not just in the home regions of the military rulers.

The military is part of the problem, it is not the solution. Somehow, civilians need to gain control of the military, to keep it in the barracks and not in the presidential palaces. How this was done in Latin America could be a good model for where Africans could start looking for answers. Better yet, Africans would do well to learn from the experience of Costa Rica, who abolished it's army 50 years ago, and is now one of the more well-developed countries in Latin America as a result.

Population And Resource Questions

How can Africa progress, when its population is growing faster than its economies?

The nations of southeast Asia have shown a way it can be done: development. By developing the economies of African nations, the economies can be made to grow at a rate faster than population; when this occurs, population growth begins to slow, and the economies can become more solidly grounded in development. But while developing in the manner of southeast Asia, Africa needs to avoid the mistake the Asians have made that have created a fragile prosperity: they have allowed too close a relationship to exist between big business and government, which has fostered a corrupt regulatory system, particularly in the financial sector. African governments must maintain an arms-length relationship between business and government, and ensure that business is properly regulated.

Access to resources is another matter. If Africans wish to have access to their natural heritage, they must prevent it from falling into the hands of foreign corporations.

Nigeria, for example, is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. There is so much natural gas in Nigeria that the rest of the world's reserves pale in comparison. Yet little is used, because the multinationals that control it have little interest in it. It is too far from international markets to be of interest to them. And exploiting it locally doesn't pay large enough returns to interest them. Yet they are allowed to control it anyway.

What could Nigeria do with that natural gas? Restore the cooking gas subsidy, so housewives will no longer raid the rapidly dwindling forests for fuelwoood. Encourage and subsidize the use of liquefied natural gas for transportation, in place of petrol and diesel fuel, both of which are difficult to manufacture locally and are in irregular supply as a result. This would have the side benefit of reducing Nigeria's apalling air pollution problems. Use it for the manufacture of fertilizer and petrochemicals. A start is being made here, but much more could be done and ultimately must be done.

Local Solutions

All across sub-saharan Africa, there are signs of change appearing. In countries long accustomed to endemic war, disease, despotism and declining economic activity, there are signs of hope. Countries whose people for years were resigned to increasing poverty and hardship are seeing improvement in local economies, increasing optimism for the future, and belief that the lives of their children will be better.

What is bringing about this metamorphosis of crisis into opportunity?

It is the rapidly growing recognition that the solutions to the problems of Africa's millions don't lie in capital cities, but in the villages themselves. From Mali and Senegal, to Eritrea and Mozambique, villagers long accustomed to begging and pleading with governments for increasingly meager amounts of help, usually supplied by foreign NGOs, have given up and begun to take matters into their own hands. They've begun to sink their own tube wells, form their own farm-to-market cooperatives, built their own grain mills and organized their own schools. The results have been remarkable: Africa's economic growth rate has now gone from negative to positive, and that number is rising with increasing speed. Some African countries have achieved double-digit growth rates for the first time in their histories. What has made this possible is that African governments are increasingly recognizing that the real entrepreneurial spirit and developmental ingenuity in Africa is local. The more successful governments are encouraging that local ingenuity, and are doing everything they can to foster it.

If Africa is ever to find a style of national government that is fully compatible with indigenous African values, it will be because they have built governments in which power springs from the local villages to the state and provincial level, and finally to national government. African villages can't live by handouts from the capital, African governments must ultimately learn to derive their power and sustenance from the needs and good will of the people in the villages.

In so doing, I am confident that someday Africans will develop a democracy that may yet prove to be more pure a form of democracy than anything America has to offer; they will show us all what was really meant by the term "public servants."

Admittedly, this is a long way off. Few can now see, in the welter of corrupt national governments, greedy bureaucrats and feuding warlords how all this can come to be. But the seeds have been sown and the sprouts are appearing all over Africa. It is just a matter of time before they mature. But it will happen. Africans themselves are demanding it, and it is showing results in Eritrea and Mozambique.

Opportunities For Africa -- How It Could Become Rich

Nigeria has oil and natural gas. The nations of central Africa and the Congo have vast hardwood forests. Southern Africa and the nations of the Sahara have vast mineral reserves. Much of the continent has some of the best hydroelectric potential yet to be exploited anywhere in the world. Much of Nigeria's soils could, with the input of relatively small amounts of fertilizer and/or water, feed the world with its agricultural potential.

In the southern United States, there is a unique monument. It is a monument to an agricultural pest, the cotton-boll weevil. The people raised that monument because it brought an end to the cotton industry, and the mindset that cotton was the only thing that could be profitably grown there. Cotton was replaced with groundnuts, grains and other crops, and today that region is far more prosperous than it ever was during the cotton era. So the grateful people thanked the boll weevil for breaking them of their mindset.

A similar mindset problem exists throughout much of Africa. That mindset is that things are the way they are, because they cannot be changed. It is the notion that the past is too powerful for the present to be able to change the future.

When a mango, for example, sells for a couple of U.S. cents in an African market, it surprises Africans to learn that at that very moment, it would sell for a dollar or more in an American supermarket. All that is needed to bring that money to Africa is a sales agreement, agricultural inspection and transportation. All are possible. Doing this for cut flowers has made many a Columbian farmer rich, small shrimp farmers in Central America and the Phillipines and beef producers in Bolivia have similarly done very well selling through cooperatives into the U.S.; it could do the same for Africans. This is just one small example.

The grazing opportunities, if Africa were to succeed in breeding a strain of cattle immune to tryptosomiasis, could make Africa the beef supplier to the world. The lush graze available in much of Nigeria amazes every American cowboy who's ever seen it. The opportunity for the export of vast amounts of agricultural goods, such as tropical fruit, grain, value-added agricultural goods such as processed beef products, concentrated citrus and other fruit juices, flour and refined sugar, could easily make Africa one of the world's richest continents. It need not be dependent on the traditional crops of cocoa, coffee and rubber.

The forest products industry, if properly regulated, could lead the world in forest products production. Plantation-grown trees, hemp and kenaf could meet most, if not all of the world's need for fibre and forest products. And the money could be realized by Africans for generation after generation if they will husband their resources and require them to be sustainably harvested.

The rich cultural and natural heritage of Africa, could make it the tourist destination of hordes of European and Americans looking for new and interesting places to visit under a warm, tropical sun. With tourism being the world's second largest industry, second only to oil, there is much money to be made in African tourism. Kenya, The Gambia, Zimbabwe and Cote d' Ivoire have sensed that potential and have just begun to exploit the possibilities, but many other African nations have much greater potential than any of these. Many of these tourism projects could be done locally, using local resources, and then marketed internationally through cooperatives.

Not only must the villages participate in these grand schemes, but the initiative to make them happen must come from them. How? By education, and by empowerment. It can happen, but it will happen only if Africans insist that their governments work towards these ends.


There is a great potential in Africa. It is the last truly undeveloped continent. Its wealth of resources could make it fabulously rich.

But Africa must solve its own problems. The rest of the world has largely given up on Africa, and so it is to their own self-help that Africans must look.

There is hope. As I have traveled in Africa, I have sensed a growing awareness among African intellectuals that these problems are their own, and must be solved by themselves. Some small, hesitant steps are being made in some places. And African economies are finally, after decades of stagnation and decline, beginning to grow.

But for this situation to become sustainable, and be made to accelerate, Africans must put behind them their dependency on living on corruption and short-term gain. They must look to the future, not wail about the past. They must take their destiny into their own hands.

And I, for one, will be celebrating when it happens. I love Nigeria and the Nigerians I met there. They deserve a far better life than what they have. They deserve the wealth that would be theirs if they will just make the hard investments in transparency, cooperation and recognition of the need for self sufficiency. It won't be easy, but it can, and I believe, eventually, it will be done. I hope I live to see it.

A Warning About Doing Business in Nigeria or With Nigerian Nationals

Unfortunately, Nigeria is rapidly becoming known as the business fraud capital of the world. Of particular concern is a scam known as the "419 scam" (after the Nigerian statute that makes it illegal).

The way the scam works is that you will typically be contacted by someone, either in Nigeria or in the country where you live, who may be representing themselves as the agent for a Nigerian corporation or government agency. They will suggest to you that if you can put up a "transaction fee," "performance bond," or similar sounding fee, to enable the scammer to complete a transaction within Nigeria, he will give you a share of the large amount of money allegedly due him.

This scam is often operated even by actual government officials. It is never legitimate. If you have been the recipient of such an offer, DO NOT SEND MONEY OR COMMIT TO ANYTHING until you have read and absorbed information at the 419 Coalition web site. This site is sponsored by a company which Nigerian nationals have attempted to scam several times (happily without success), and it has started this organization to help spread the word.

Books I highly recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy safely through the web from by pursuing the links here. They can ship anywhere, from any major currency, and no matter where you live, you will receive your books surprisingly quickly):

Gaviota: A Village to Reinvent The World by Alan Weisman, this book is the best book out so far on the Gaviota experiement. One reviewer on Amazon called it "the most amazing book I have ever read." Clearly an inspirational tale, it is a good example of what can be done when local people take development into their own hands.

From Mondragon To America: Experiments in Economic Community Development by Greg McLeod, is an analysis of the stunning success of the Mondragon experiment, and showing how it can be transplanted to America. The analysis is equally applicable, if not more so, to Africa, as African values of local cooperation are actually more applicable to the Mondragon experience than the American values of independent self-reliance.

The Open Sore Of A Continent by Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winning Nigerian author, gives his thoughts on Nigeria's plight and what it will take to fix it.

The Trouble With Nigeria by Chinua Achebe, is that prizewinning Nigerian author's take on Nigeria's troubles and his ideas for their solution.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a prize winning author, is a book that gives a feel for the results of the cultural imperialism of the Christian missionaries at work among the Ibo of south-central Nigeria.

Tropical Gangsters by Robert Klitgaard is the travelogue by a man who has lived in Equatorial Guinea, and it is the best explanation I have yet seen of the scope of Africa's problems.

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Revised 5/7/2002