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Talk to Members’ Buffet Luncheon 28 September 2008

Prof John Lonsdale

What’s wrong with Africa?

Note: not ‘what’s wrong with Africans?’ 30 years ago I gave a similar
talk to a promotion class of army, RAF and naval officers. One opened the
questioning afterwards with the observation, ‘Of course what you were trying
not to say is that in fact they have smaller brains than ours.’
I deny that. Absolutely. Let me tell you why. In these post-modern
days all historians are in any case supposed to declare their personal feelings
and prejudices, ‘where they are coming from’. So here’s where I come from,
what I’ve learned about Africans.
I first met Africans in 1953, as a schoolboy, spending my first of three
summer holidays in Kenya, where my father had just taken a job. I was
petrified by the Mau Mau guerrillas and their bloodthirsty, bestial ways; and
thought my father’s house-servants to be over-grown children. Like most
other Europeans at the time I thought Africans half-savage and half-child. It
was the colonial view.
My views changed utterly in 1956, when I started my national service
as a subaltern in the King’s African Rifles. A regiment that had ‘white
officers with black privates’. ‘Oh, how exotic!’ as the lady at the officers’
mess cocktail party is supposed to have exclaimed.
What did I learn of Africans from the KAR? That they were twice the
soldier I was, my platoon sergeant, Odera, especially, and still more my
Company Sergeant Major, Maingi, who had helped to drive the Japanese from
Burma in ’44-45. Samuel, my wireless operator, found the BBC overseas
programme on my platoon wireless set, with a designed range of only 50
miles, so that I could listen to Beethoven and Max Beerbohm after sunset,
running down my batteries so that my company commander, many miles
away, could no longer give me orders. I became ever more dependent on my
platoon. Always cheerful, brave of course but also wise, utterly dependable,
and fantastically good company around the camp-fire, ‘my askari’ treated me
as their promising child—just as I had treated my father’s house-servants.
Sergeant-Major Maingi just about saved my life.
My education in the qualities of Africans continued after I had come
up to Trinity in ’58 and then started on my first teaching job in Dar es Salaam
in 1964. I have always counted myself lucky to have had Africans as my first
students. My English had to be simple and direct—it was likely to be their
third language at least—but the concepts one dealt with could be every bit as
complex as one would try to share with undergraduates later, here, in
Cambridge. They were eager to learn, quick to have an informed opinion. I
have never been prouder than when, towards the end of a course I was
teaching on the Russian Revolution, they could scarcely contain their laughter
at the historical interpretation served up to them by a couple of CPSU party
hacks who had called in at Dar on a cultural cruise.

Amongst my students there, one ended up as Kenya’s ambassador to

Japan, another as the incorruptible chair of the Kenya Public Service
Commission, and a third, deputy speaker of the Kenyan parliament. They did
no better than one’s Trinity students and no worse. My first research student
here at Cambridge, a Kenyan, ended his career as his country’s ambassador to
Washington. A coloured South African student of mine served with
distinction under Desmond Tutu on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation
Commission. Another, from Zimbabwe, made his opposition to Mugabe so
plain that he has to live in exile. My closest Kenyan colleague suffered two
weeks of torture under President Moi and yet remained an objective,
outspoken, historian. Let nobody persuade you that Africans are any more
lacking than the rest of us in brains, sense of honour, or moral and physical
So that’s ‘where I come from’. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that
there seems to be much wrong with Africa:-
• Most ‘failed states’ are in Africa.
• 2-3rds of the world’s cross-border refugees are Africans as too are 2-
3rds of those with HIV-AIDS; and half of those counted as ‘internally
displaced’ by civil violence.
• Africa has the world’s longest running civil wars. It has witnessed the
world’s two most recent genocides—if neither of them as large as Pol
Pot’s or Hitler’s.
• While, 50 years ago, most African states were reckoned to be on a par,
economically, with most Asian and Latin American states, now most
countries in those other continents have long escaped their ‘3rd World’
status, leaving only Africa behind.
• Africa is the only continent seemingly dependent on overseas aid.
• By some calculations the continent’s rulers have stashed away in
offshore British and Swiss banks capital equivalent to recent aid
flows—the profits of grand larceny, contemporary evidence of St
Augustine’s aphorism ‘How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to
Robberies. Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but
great robberies?’ Augustine, in the 4th century, was of course the
earliest known African commentator on post-imperial politics.
But below the level of looting the treasury, other forms of corruption
in Africa seem to me to be little worse than that encountered in most of the
rest of the world.

Why does Africa present this sorry picture? Are there root causes?
There are over 50 states in Africa, each with their own history, and all
of them different. Historians are professionally nervous of generalisation: we
leave that to philosophers, economist and political scientists.
But I have no option: I have to generalise—about Africa’s history. As
an historian I naturally think it matters. Different histories produce different

peoples—which is not to say that people cannot act to make the future
different from their past.
To make 4 points:-
• That a critical awareness of the justice or injustice of personal
relationships is perhaps unusually strong in Africa, a trait ingrained in
people who have historically lived in households very directly
responsible for organising their own subsistence on their own land,
with their own labour, conducting their own litigation, doing their own
marketing—whose households in many respects remain family firms.
• That, largely in consequence, African states, throughout history, pre-
colonial, colonial, and post-colonial have been relatively weak.
• That the politics of identity in Africa have been unusually complicated
because, contrary to popular belief, Africa’s tribes are modern
creations, full of new patriotic energy—not resentful, fading, residues
of a primitive past.
• And, finally, that the timing of Africa’s economic transformations has
been particularly unfortunate. Economic late-comers need strong
connections and protections, the very things Africa has not got and
which the rest of the world is not keen to give.
Africa’s past then, has not been kind to its people’s future. Yet
Africans are the most cheerfully optimistic people on earth. How far they
have good cause to be is a question to which I will return.
Let me then turn to the first of my four points, the very sharp African
sense of personal equity and inequity, and its ambiguous implications.
1) At bottom, Africans are both too independent-minded and yet too
inclined to depend on personal patronage for their own good. A paradox! Not
so much an ingenious paradox such as tied poor dutiful Frederick to the
service of the Pirates of Penzance but a perhaps more crippling one. Let me
a) independent-minded. Historically, Africa was underpopulated, with
a population of only 200 million in 1900; and was for the most part, stateless
in consequence. African kingdoms were pretty weak: if they tried to impose
on their citizens, the latter could too easily vote with their feet and move
away. Ronald Robinson, who taught me African history half a century ago,
used to say that the glory of African history was its free peasantry. But that
could also be the continent’s curse. In the past it meant that when African
rulers wanted dependent labour they had to capture and enslave it. And it
means today that the ambition of most Africans is to live as independent
producers, subject to no boss. It is still the case, in West Africa, that 75 per
cent of the economically active population is self-employed within their
family firms, in agriculture, trade, or artisan manufacture.
Africans are too bolshie to be easily ruled, unused to the disciplines of
obedience, more obedient to the self-disciplines, male and female, and proud
honour, of independence, expressed best at the level of the family, ruled by

men, upheld by women. A deep-rooted trait that makes Africans wonderful at

small businesses and petty trade, not good at large organisations.
But b) African society is governed by personal relations of patron and
client. Patronage relations exist in every culture and institution all round the
world. Strings get pulled; old boy nets exclude strangers; juniors suck up to
bosses. But while in Europe such behaviour is known to be against the rules,
in Africa patronage sets the rules.
Africa’s patronage relations have strict canons of reciprocity, whereby
unjust patrons and worthless clients can equally be judged. Again, there are
deep historical roots. While Africa was indeed relatively empty, no single
family or clan could colonise it or exploit it entirely on their own. There was
strength in numbers, and therefore in the leadership that organised numbers—
for labour, for defence. But such leadership was valued chiefly in its
protection of the labour of each associated household. Patrons were expected
to provide the conditions for household independence. They were called on to
be facilitators, not exploiters, to know that the best followers were those who
became strong enough to be useful allies. Otherwise their followers could go
off to find another elsewhere, with the wisdom to foster their growth in
independence. Clients had the bargaining power to demand justice, if more
typically by the negative sanction of secession than the positive sanction of
insisting on constitutional checks and balances.
Such moral philosophy meant that wherever Africans organised
enough power to produce a kingdom their constitutional theory tended to be
more than usually disconnected from political practice. In many African
kingdoms subjects declared themselves the property of their king. In theory,
kings would protect their property and care for it, ruling justly. Their praise
names extolled both their cruelty—since it is best if one’s own ruler is more
ruthless than others—and their generosity. The official title of the ruler of one
of Uganda’s kingdoms was Omugabe, the giver of gifts—doubtless rather
improbable news to today’s Zimbabweans.
And yet in practice, African kingdoms were more subject to faction
and fragmentation than their counterparts in European history—precisely
because the free availability of resources in an underpopulated continent made
it relatively simple to demonstrate one’s dissatisfaction with a ruler who was
more cruel than kind, by departing, literally, from his rule and setting up
elsewhere. The longest-lived African kingdoms were the most decentralised;
that was the most effective guarantee of constitutional equity.
2) So, historically, African states have been weak, not good at
concentrating resources, loyalties, power, or gaining a monopoly of legitimate
force. And this is true not only of precolonial African kingdoms but also of
twentieth-century European colonies. People often ask me, was British
imperialism a good thing or a bad thing. For Africa one would have to answer
that, primarily, it was a weak thing, and a remarkably short-lived one too,
little more than sixty years in most cases, a single lifetime. Colonial regimes
were alien, autocratic, regimes. What they were least good at was meeting
their proudest claim—to have inculcated the values and practices of ‘western
democracy’. They went too fast for that, and were too anxious to come to
terms with the most powerful ‘dog in the kennel’—as Ghana’s last governor

described the country’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah—able therefore to

protect western interests once imperial rule had gone. One-party dominance
was an imperial preference before it was an African practice.
These European colonies in Africa have been called ‘gate-keeping
states’, a good description, since they did little more than create the means
whereby Africa was opened up to world trade—generally with one sea-port,
one railway into the interior, and a network of roads that fed each region’s
productive speciality to the coast and to markets that Africa’s poverty could
not supply for itself. Some dryer districts grew cotton, damper ones cocoa,
higher, cooler ones, coffee or tea, and so on. Some districts supplied food,
others more distant supplied migrant workers—to centres of large
employment, such as the copper mines of central Africa, the gold mines of the
south. Other than in South Africa it would be difficult to find in any colony a
national economic centre, but then no other colony—independent since
1910—was ruled by a nationalist government.
Once this ‘gate-keeping’ pattern has been established it is difficult to
change. Vested interests cluster around the export-import trade, fearful of
fostering rival centres of power. This natural resistance to potentially
unsettling change has been accentuated by my two further characteristics of
African history, the modern politics of identity and the lopsided economics of
3), then, the politics of identity. This is of course something that most of
the world’s states have to take increasingly seriously, largely as a consequence
of globalisation, including the globalisation of migrant labour. It will not
surprise you to learn that I nonetheless think the politics of ‘multiculturalism’
is especially difficult in Africa.
Africa’s ‘tribes’ (historians prefer ‘ethnic groups’) are as modern as its
nations. Indeed, in a real sense they are its nations, formed in much the same
way as European nations. All western nations have a long past, but it is
generally a fraticidal past, full of divisive conflict, such as the Wars of Roses,
Guelphs versus Ghibellines, Catholics against Huguenots, Bolsheviks against
Mensheviks, American North and South, Prussian triumphs over other
Germans, and so on. Patriotic history, the sort one learns at school, has to be
forgetful to the degree to which it is intended to be uplifting. Our patriotic
histories have been taught by modern states that over the past 200 years have
had to bring social order out of the extraordinary social disorder of
industrialisation, urbanisation and rapid population growth. The means of
bringing order have been mass education, until recently mass conscription,
and public subsidy for measures of social welfare.
Africa’s tribes have gone through much the same modern creative
process, for the same reasons. Disorientated by conquest, migrant labour, by
the introduction of a cash economy and, therefore more opportunities for
young men and women to challenge dependence on their heads of household,
previously loose-limbed ethnic groups have sought to reconstruct themselves
as conscious solidarities with more prescriptive moral economies of personal
obligation. They have done so with the aid of new literacy, deployed for a
long time on the only literature available, a Bible translated into their own
language, standardised for the first time out of a variety of dialects by

European missionaries. And of what does one read in the Bible? Of a chosen
tribe, the children of Israel, subject to colonial enslavement not once but twice
and yet capable of redemption. To read of this in one’s own language was
altogether more immediate than reading of it in the language of one’s colonial
ruler, English or French. Ethnic nationalisms could be much more deeply
rooted than territorial nationalisms (Ghanaian, Nigerian, Kenyan and so on)
and every bit as modern.
So, where have we got to thus far, before I turn to my final point, the
timing of economic change?
We have a tradition of bolshy independence among people difficult to
rule, of clients dependent upon but deeply critical of patrons, demanding of
them the generosity that permits dependent followers to become independent
allies. We have historically weak states, gatekeepers of export economies
rather than entrepreneurs of a national market. These states each incorporate
dozens of newly self-conscious ethnicities, tribes. Patron-client relations are
most trusted, and most demanding, within tribes, conducted in a local
These are not promising materials for the construction of nation-states,
able to agree and then enact rational policy for the common good, responsive
to a common public sphere.
Add to this the fact that for the past half-century Africa has
experienced the fastest population growth in world history, so that half of
Africans are under the age of 16. If they are not adequately educated, as
fewer of them now are, and gainfully employed, then never has firepower
been so readily and cheaply available to arm their discontent, carried by
superannuated Ukrainian pilots in superannuated Antonov transport planes,
nor so profitably employed as by their ethnic political patrons, keen to tip the
balance of electoral advantage with a spot of instructive violence.
But 4) and finally, to turn to economic history, productive job creation,
the only alternative to boy soldiery or ethnic ‘warriorhood’, is far from easy in
the Africa of today. For half a century, in the middle and later 20th century,
Africa began to prosper, as the supplier of primary agricultural commodities
and raw materials to a Europe that spent extravagantly on war and recovery
from war. But in the 1970s Europe discovered substitutes for Africa, whether
through technological change or by protecting its own expensive farmers.
Only recently has Africa found a new economic importance, with the world’s
increasing thirst for oil, and China’s inexhaustible appetite for raw materials.
But are these new export roles also good foundations for national
economic development? It seems doubtful. Continued ‘gate-keeping’ seems
the more likely.
To take the first new role, economists commonly talk of the oil curse.
Oil is produced by skilled outsiders using imported materials, it employs few
locals and has almost no local multiplier effects. Politically destructive too, it
gives a cheaply provided rental income to local rulers, a fabulous supply of
patronage that both puts clients uncomplainingly in one’s pocket and devalues
most local form of enterprise. And as for China, secondly, Africa may supply
its raw materials, but how could Africa ever compete with China—or India—

in any more sophisticated productive task? And more generally, too, the
current rules of world trade impose liberal, non-protectionist, disciplines on
African producers while permitting America to subsidise the cotton that
Africa could otherwise produce, and Europe to protect its farmers against
cheaper competitors. New producers have historically needed protection
against those who innovated earlier. That historical lesson has been reversed
in Africa’s case, to Africa’s grave disadvantage.
What are all those underemployed and, by now, under-educated,
young Africans to do, to achieve that adult independence and honour that,
culturally, they crave? Should one be at all surprised at what seems to be a
rising tide of violence, in which politics and criminality appear to be
increasingly close allies?
The only things on which Africa has stolen a march on the rest of the
world have been, in the distant past, the evolution of humanity as a whole—
we are all Africans by origin—and, it seems about 50 years ago, the
emergence of HIV-AIDS. AIDS is worst in Africa because it started there,
among a poor population subject to many other fatal diseases. And so it grew,
‘a silent epidemic’ in the heterosexual population at large, ‘unnoticed until
established too firmly to be stopped.’1 Outside Africa, it grew later and
among vocal minorities who demanded action. In Africa action is now much
more difficult to take, among the generality of a poor population.
All these elements of their history help to explain why Africans seems
to have the cards stacked against them. And we are told that global warming
will be particularly damaging for Africa in the future, a continent in which
tropical sun and rains have always made agriculture still more of a gamble
than in other parts of the world.
So, is there nothing to hope for?
Richard Dowden, for many years the Independent’s Africa
correspondent before he was the Economist’s Africa editor and, now, the
Director of the Royal African Society, has just published a wonderful book
called Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.2 He gives three causes of
i) the mobile phone, that allows Africans to transcend
their inadequate infrastructures of communication, to
permit new democratic solidarities to form, and to offer
producers better market intelligence and bargaining
ii) the emergence of a new, assertive, middle class,
impatient of corrupt and inefficient government, with
the potentially productive anger of similar European
middle classes in the nineteenth century; and
iii) a new cultural confidence that allows Africans, perhaps
more than before, to live comfortably with the new

John Iliffe, The African Aids Epidemic, a History (Oxford: James Currey, 2006), 10.
London: Portobello Press, September 2008.

while drawing moral strength and a sense of direction

from inherited traditions.
I would agree with him in all of these. But the rest of the world also
has to change, to give Africa a better deal. Not more aid. Indeed, I’d like to
see a, say, twenty-year plan for the withdrawal of all but humanitarian aid, and
even that has to be scrutinised to ensure that it is not preserving the conditions
that make it necessary. It is time that African states learned the nation-
building art of fostering their own taxable sources of revenue, sustained by
productive economic enterprises that can rely on consistent government
policy. But they would also need the sort of commercial protections which
earlier late-starters have always in the past erected to get new industries off
the ground—in the contemporary African case, most obviously and initially in
the processing of agricultural goods, whether for supermarket shelves or as
textiles and clothing. The Africans I know deserve no less.
Africa cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps—even if it became
sufficiently well governed to do so—if those bootstraps are always undercut
by imported leather.
John Lonsdale (1958)
Formerly Director of Studies in History