The poor performance of African economies and economies where the people are of colour other than whites have prompted people to ask whether poverty is a black or a colour thing.

This question about poverty being a black thing has gained credence in many circles. This question is also asked about Africa because it is the poorest continent on earth. It is a continent where for 30 years there has not been any concrete economic development compared to the rest of the world. It lags behind all the other continents in terms of economic and social development. Most if not all the countries African continent have similar economic problems namely high unemployment, high inflation, higher deficits, poor state of economic and social infrastructures including roads, harbours, education, airports, telecommunication, health and sanitation and rail system. Africa is a continent where people die for lack of food, water, and against common preventable diseases. It is a continent full of misery, desperation and hopelessness. It is a continent where very few children under the age of five survive the menace of the six killer diseases. It is a continent where people have no access to basic necessities of life. It is a continent where people walk several miles for water and children have no access to education and medical services. It is a continent where rural life is nothing but a condemnation to abject poverty. It is a place where people live in mud/thatched houses with bamboo/raffia leaves as roofing sheets. It is a continent full of wars and armed conflicts. It is a continent of dictators and kleptocrats, a continent where corruption is rewarded and achievement is shunned, a continent where entry into public life/service is seen as a means to acquiring wealth and a means of getting top positions. It is a continent where life expectancy is low and corruption very high.

So is it a colour or race thing? I must say that I do not agree or subscribe to the notion that poverty has any colour inferring in it and that the underdevelopment and impoverishment which is prevalent on the African continent is deeply rooted in centuries of slavery and colonialism, coups, armed conflicts, brain drain, endemic corruption and mismanagement, dictatorial rule, Kleptocracy, foreign interventions and the fight for control of the natural resources.

Slavery and Colonialism

Centuries of slavery and colonialism deprived the continent of her able human and economic resources. The able men and women were carried away to work in the plantations of the Americas (in all about 30 – 40 million people) and they helped to make America and Europe what they are today. Millions of young Africans were forced to abandon the continent of their origin and were transported several thousands of miles away unto a land where they had no historical attachment with. They travelled in very deplorable conditions, without adequate food, water and air. When they reached the so called new worlds they were made to work from morning till sun set the only time they had on their own was Sundays in which they had to everything that they needed on their own such planting their crops, repairing their homes. It was a very nasty experience having to work for ours without pay. Some even worked till they dropped dead. The slave trade deprived the continent of her energetic men and women a vital resource in any development process and sunk the continent into intellectual wilderness.

Looting of Resources

About the same time that slavery was being vigorously pursued, the natural resources including timber, gold, diamond, tin ore, ivory and many more were looted in large quantities by the European countries namely Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy. After slavery was abolished the looting of the natural resources continued. The irony is that virtually all the income from these resources was used to finance the economic and the infrastructural development of the European countries with little or nothing at all being used to develop the various countries where these resources came from. A clear example is the case of Democratic Republic of Congo where King Leopold II of Belgium enslaved the Africans, forced them to work without pay, killed about 10 million and looted the country of her resources and virtually nothing was used to invest in the country except guns which the Belgium army used to terrorise and kill the Africans. When the DRC was transferred from Leopold II to the Belgium state the looting and killing continued till DRC gained her independence in the 1960s. In fact DRC (Congo Free State) was the main supplier of rubber a vital raw material for the tyre industry and all the money from the sale of the rubber went to Belgium. King Leopold II was able to transform Belgium as one of the poorest countries in Europe into one of the wealthiest courtesy the enslavement and looting of Africans and their resources.

Belgium was not alone in what she did to the continent. Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy all looted Africa of her gold, diamond, ivory, timber, cobalt, coltan, tin ore, bauxite, manganese and all the minerals you can think of. The Africans who resisted the illegal activities were killed in their millions as happened in South West Africa (now Namibia) where the Germans in 1904 to 1907 committed the first genocide of the 20th Century by killing the Herero and the Namaqua people. While Europe became richer Africa became poorer and the trend continued till the 1950s when the African countries started to gain their ‘independence’ beginning with Libya in 1951, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia all in 1956 and Ghana in 1957.

With little or no investment in the continent the various post colonial governments inherited countries with practically no infrastructure: roads, rails, harbours, telecommunications, education, health and sanitation and airports. The only areas which saw some few infrastructure investments during the colonial days were those where raw materials were heavily extracted. The attainment of independence did not come on silver Plata. Algeria, Zimbabwe, Angola, Kenya, Namibia and to some extent South Africa all attained their independence from their colonial masters through arm struggles and in most cases the few infrastructures that existed were destroyed due to the conflicts.

Foreign Involvement

As if slavery, colonialism and the looting of the continent’s resources were not enough the continent became a battle ground during the Cold War as the two super powers and their allies battled for influence and control on the continent mainly for her resources. As a result many African governments who were deem to be pro-Russia or America were overthrown using the military. A case in point was the overthrow of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on February 24th, 1966. Another example is the overthrow and assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Congo on January 17th 1961.Other leaders such as Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for either advocating for independence or improvement of conditions of Africans.  CIA and the western intelligence community have been implicated for engineering the assassinations and overthrow of elected leaders of Africa. For example Larry Devlin, the CIA Station Chief in Congo during Patrice Lumumba’s  days spoke to Washington Post in December 2008 saying he refused an order to assassinate Patrice Lumumba but his refusal did not stop the CIA and the Belgium government from overthrowing and assassinating him. The assassination attempt on Gamal Nasser of Egypt on 24th October 1954 and the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 were alleged to be the work of Britain’s M16 due to their refusal to hand over the administration of the Suez Canal to the British.  

The CIA, KGB and their allies encouraged and financed wars and political instabilities throughout the continent. Angola became the battle ground for the CIA, KGB and the Chinese as each tried to gain control over the country, her people and resources. The civil war that engulfed Angola in 1975 only ended in 1991 after 26 years of conflict. When the war ended the few infrastructures that remained after the war of independence (1961-1974) were gone.

On March 7, 2004 Simon Mann a British citizen, a veteran mercenary and former officer of Britain’s elite Special Forces (SAS), and 69 other mercenaries were arrested at a military airfield outside Harare, Zimbabwe .Their destination was Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Their mission was to overthrow Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, a nation of 600,000 people. During his defence he mentioned some powerful members of the British establishment as his financiers and backers including Jack Straw UK Justice Minister, Peter Mandelson former European Union Trade Commissioner and now Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise &Regulatory Reform, Sir Mark Thatcher a businessman and son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Jeffrey Archer a key Tory member who was convicted for perjury and Ely Smelly Calil a Lebanese oil trader accused of bankrolling the plot. Mark Thatcher was arrested in South Africa and charged with supplying the aircraft that carried Simon Mann to Harare. Mr. Thatcher pleaded guilty in South Africa and was later made to pay 300,000 pounds in exchange for a prison sentence. The coup plotters were to put Severo Moto, an opposition leader living in Spain in charge of the country. The coup was to give both the plotters and their backers unquestionable free access to the oil resource in the nation.  If the coup had succeeded Mann and his cronies would have turned Equatorial Guinea into one of the usual sad stories in Africa- bloodshed, corruption, mismanagement, poverty and what have you.  The governments of Spain, South Africa and others in the west were seriously implicated for being privy to the plot. Thanks to the vigilance of the Robert Mugabe regime the coup was nip in the bud. Unfortunately, most resource rich countries on the continent have not been all that lucky.

Among those mercenaries who sought to return Africa to their former colonial masters was Bob Denard. In fact, Simon Mann is just a small fish compared to Bob Denard, a French who made a career as a mercenary overthrowing leaders in Africa. When Bob Denard died in 2007, he had more than a dozen of coups to his credit. Four of those coups took place in Comoros Island alone. French author Jean Guisner, who has followed Denard’s career and written extensively about the French government, says Denard did nothing that was contrary to French interests – and he allegedly acted in close cooperation with intelligence services. Denard’s mercenary career took place between the 1950s and the 1980s. During that period, he is reported to have been involved in post independence Nigeria, Benin in 1977, Angola, Zaire – now DRC and the former Rhodesia – which is now Zimbabwe. Registering their frustration and lack of justice for the Comorians, Mr. Abdou Soule Elbak, former president of Grande Comoro said “This man sullied our history”, referring to Denard. “I regret he was not made to answer to all the crimes he committed in our country, the murders and the torture which he was guilty of,” said Moustoifa Said Sheikh, leader of the Democratic Front Party. All these mercenary activities took place on the continent because of the natural resources.

The product of all these were the political instabilities and the wanting destruction of lives and property that have bedevilled Africa till today. As the elected leaders of the continent were assassinated, overthrown and subjected to all forms of cold war tactics including bribery, arm twisting and blackmail the continent degenerated and faulted on all aspects of human endeavour. The new crop of leaders who replaced the post colonial independence leaders and who were largely puppets of the European and American governments became increasingly authoritarian and corrupt. Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko who became the choice of the Americans after they help to assassinate Lumumba ruled Congo for 32 years and in those years the country became poorer as Mobutu and his cronies got richer and the western countries notably USA and her allies had free hand looting the mineral resources most importantly cobalt a very important mineral needed for missile development. Little development activities was carried out by Mobutu. As a result Congo today can only be accessed by boats and canoes mainly through the River Congo.

As tyrants and dictators gained the support of western governments and did whatever they wanted with their economies without questions their people became poorer and hopelessness and desperation were the hallmarks of their lives. As the little money that came into government coffers were taken by corrupt government officials and civil servants there were almost no money to carry out infrastructural development and the poverty deepened. Poverty, desperation and hopelessness visited the people and coupled with their inability to change their leaders democratically, dissents were sowed among the population which serve as breeding grounds for more coups, civil wars and civil disturbances. This was evidence in Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Algeria, Gabon, Togo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sierra Leone all experienced coups in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and even in the early 1990s. These waves of coups were followed by civil wars that hit Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Congo, Chad, CAR, Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, Angola, Niger and Guinea. These wars apart from it human cost also contributed to the destruction of roads, harbours, airports, rail lines, telecommunications, hospitals, schools and the livelihoods of the people. With the absence of infrastructures the countries have been unable to make any headway in terms of economic development.

World Bank, IMF & the Role of Foreign Corporations

The World Bank and the IMF (Bretton Wood Institutions) and foreign companies have also played their part in making poverty endemic on the continent. Most African countries incurred billions of debt through loans contracted from the Bank and IMF. Most of these conditional loans were used to service debts already owned by these poor countries. The loans were also used to pay foreign expatriates who came to the continent as ‘technical experts’.

Some of these loans were also used to undertake projects and programmes that benefited only the rich. Again part of the loan was also siphoned away by corrupt politicians and civil servants.

The structural adjustment programme (SAP) forced on the poor African countries by the Bank and the IMF forced the various governments to abandon their support for the public sector with serious consequences. The withdrawal of farm subsidies in particular has made it difficult for farmers to compete with their Western counterparts who receive millions of dollars of government subsidies every year. The unrests and disturbances over food shortage and high food prices that occurred in Egypt, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mauritania, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Sierra Leone in 2008 were the direct result of the Bank and IMF bitter pills prescribed to these poor countries.

Due to SAP and other policies of the Bank and IMF investment in education, health, transportation and other sectors of the economy declined considerably. The governments were also forced to privatise state owned companies. The sad aspect of this exercise was that almost all the companies went to foreigners and the proceeds used to settle debts already owned by these poor nations. Unable to pay their debts and more cash trapped these poor countries turned to the bank and IMF for more loans and the Bank response was open up your markets for foreign goods and accept globalisation. As a result the continent has become a dumping ground for foreign goods. Unable to compete with the influx of cheap foreign goods most local firms have no choice but to close down, laying off several millions of workers and devastating many families.  Mr. John Jenkins the author of the ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ has written extensively about how the Bank, IMF and the various big cartels and corporations conspired to keep Africans and the developing world in the state in which they are today. Please watch John Jenkins on youtube as he tells his extraordinary story on youtube.

The presence of companies such as Shell, Mobil, Chevron, BP, Total, Rio Tinto, Texaco, BHP Billiton, Anglo-American and others have contributed to the high poverty levels on the continent. These companies who are mostly resource extraction in nature have destroyed the once rich soils of Africa, forcing many farmers to abandon their farms and loosing their livelihoods. Rivers, wells and streams used by the people for their everyday activities such as washing and drinking have been polluted by these profit making companies. Fishing in most mining and oil drilling communities has ceased as pollution has killed fish stocks in these rivers and lagoons rendering the fishermen unemployed. Communities which were once beaming with life are now ghost communities as land, rivers, lagoons and wells have been destroyed. Respiration, nausea and other mining related diseases are on the increase in many communities where mining and oil drilling are taking place but these profit making companies have abandon their corporate social responsibilities which they owe to the people. In August 2006 a Dutch company called Trafigura dumped highly toxic waste in Abidjan, Ivory Coast killing 17 people and sickening thousands. Such inhumane acts byTrafigura is just a tip of the iceberg.

Brain Drain

The poverty on the continent has also come about as result of serious brain drain that has hit the continent in recent times. The flight of doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, judges, bankers, accountants, teachers, nurses, planners, agricultural experts and others have limited our ability to implement development projects and programmes. The flight of these intellectuals has rendered many government agencies very weak. In some communities there are hospitals without doctors and nurses. In others there are universities and colleges without lecturers and teachers. Countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia have lost so much of their professionals to the very rich countries of Europe and America so much so that many of their sectors have resorted to hiring foreign expertise in order to cope. For example there are more Malawi doctors in Manchester City alone than the whole of Malawi combined. The irony is that governments use scarce resources to train these intellectuals only for them to leave the country for greener pastures abroad. Britain and the US are major recipient of these brain drain and even though they are aware of the tremendous negative effect it is having on these poor developing countries, they have done nothing to discourage it, in most cases they have encouraged it.

Corruption and Mismanagement

Corruption is another cancer that has tragically made the continent very poor. From South Africa to Egypt there is no country where corruption is not endemic.  According to the Africa Union (AU) around $148 billion are stolen from the continent by its leaders and civil servants. In 2006 Forbes’ list of most corrupt nations had 9 out of the first 16 countries coming from Africa.  Since oil was first discovered in Nigeria about 50 years ago, several billions of dollars have been realised from its but today the whole population continue to live in abject poverty and the country has nothing to show for it. As a result able men and women are battling dangerous seas just to enter Europe and try their luck. Others have resulted to 419 a popular scam used to trick people into given out their money and valuables. Those who seem to have benefited from the oil are corrupt politicians, civil servants and the big oil corporations such as Shell, Mobil, BP and their American counterparts. In fact Nigeria has consistently featured in the top 1% of the most corrupt nation on the planet. Between 2005 and 2007 several state governors and their immediate families were arrested by Scotlandyard in London on corruption and money laundering charges. Among them are James Ibori of oil rich Delta State and his wife Theresa who had their 35 million dollar asset frozen by the English court. Mr. Ibori earns about a thousand dollars a month but during his eight years as a state governor he managed to acquire wealth to the tune of $35m and was a key financial contributor to the campaign of the current president of Nigeria. He owns a private jet and lavish London home.  Another corrupt governor is Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, governor of oil-rich state of Bayelsa who was also arrested in London for money laundering charges. Mr. Alamieyeseigha broke his bail conditions and evaded capture in Britain by dressing up as a woman. When Police conducted a search in his London home they discovered one million pounds worth of cash in his home.   Another governor who was arrested in England was Joshua Dariye of Plateau State. He was arrested in a London hotel for stealing money meant for development of his state. In South Africa Jacob Zuma is still battling it out with the court for his part in the multi-billion arms deal in 2001 in South Africa. He was forced to resign as Deputy President of South Africa. The late Mobutu in his 32 years as President of Zaire, now DR Congo amassed several billions of dollars belonging to the Congo people. In 2006 former president of Malawi Bakili Muluzi was arrested for pocketing $12m donated to his poor country by foreign governments. Again former Zambia president Frederick Chiluba was arrested together with two business men Aaron Chungu and Faustin Kabwe and charged with 11 counts of stealing money meant for the Zambia’s development. In Equatorial Guinea where oil export has earned the country billions of dollars, the 600,000 people living in the country continue to live in poverty while Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his cronies continue to siphon the oil revenue with no accountability. Gabon and Angola both Oil exporting countries are no different. In fact, the governments in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea can best be described as Kleptocracy that is government by thieves. In countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon, The Gambia, Sudan, Uganda, Libya, Tunisia a Kleptocracy class of people have replaced anything democracy. In these countries very few people continue to remain in power and the people have no say in the way their country is govern or run. For example Gaddafi of Libya has been in power for 39 years now. Omar Bongo of Gabon 31 years, Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea 28 years, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe 28 years, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt 27 years, Paul Biya of Cameroon 26 years, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda 22 years, Omar Al Bashir of Sudan 19 years, Iddriss Derby of Chad 17 years, Yahya Jammeh of Gambia 14 years, and the list is unending. What is clear is that these unelected leaders continue to amass wealth at the expense of their poor countries and continue to mismanage whatever remains of their corrupt acts. Because most of the leaders are former military officers or former rebels with no grasp of economics and management, they are unable to formulate any good economic policies that will make their economies grow hence poverty has become a part of the people but their leaders know not what poverty is. A visit to the Niger Delta region of Nigeria shows that majority of the people are unemployed. Years of oil spills have made the soil unfit for any agricultural activity. Their streams and wells are polluted and the people have no access to basic necessities of life even though billions of dollars is realised from the sale of oil from that region every year. In the 1990s economic hardship, abject poverty,  and destruction of the environment forced the people of Ogoniland to demand a say in which Shell operates but the military regime led by Gen. Sani Abacha arrested the environmentalists led by Ken Sorowiwa and executed them. It is these monies meant for the development of the states that these state governors were caught trying to bank away in Europe. Every effort to get the Nigeria government to develop the oil rich areas fell on death ears until the unemployed youth took up arms against the federal state. They kidnapped foreign oil workers and demanded ransom before their victims were released. They disrupted the oil production forcing the oil companies to move several miles offshore for their own safety but they were not safe either. Eventually, the companies had to reduce their output by 25% in 2007-8. These disruptions affected supply of oil in the world market forcing the price to skyrocket to $140 a barrel in the summer of 2008.

In DR Congo it is estimated that gold and diamond deposits alone could fetch the country 23 trillion dollars not to mention the abundance of timber and other several minerals that are found in large quantities such as columbo-tantalite (coltan) and cassiterite (tin ore) yet years of corruption, mismanagement, conflicts and foreign involvement have made this resource rich nation one of the poorest in the world. Coltan for example is used in every mobile phone and a number of electronic devices in the world. Cassiterite used in electronic circuit boards is the most traded metal on the London Stock Exchange. It is often said that western nations cannot maintain their current level of lifestyle without Congo and most corporations in the west can easily go bust without Congo. The question is if Congo is the blood line of the west and the west is rich because of Congo then why is Congo so poor? And where are the billions of dollars from the sale of these minerals? The answer lies in the history of the nation which is corruption, slavery, colonialism, assassinations, armed conflicts and foreign involvements. Since her independence from Belgium in 1960 there has not been peace in the country. Several millions of Congolese have died about 4 million of them in the last eight years alone and most of the dead are civilians. The conflict in Congo is largely about who controls the vast resources in he country. The huge size of the country has made its administration very difficult. And the problem is exacerbated by weak, ill-trained, undisciplined and very corrupt Congolese army who abduct, terrorise, rape and murder the people instead of protecting them.

The various militia groups operating in the east of the country have made life very difficult and unbearable for the civilian population. These armed groups with backing from Rwanda and Uganda have largely operated in the region with impunity – abducting, raping, massacring and stealing from the poor people. Jean Pierre Bemba who is now facing war crimes in The Hague was a notorious warlord whose activities have not escaped the international criminal court (ICC). Another notorious warlord who is still operating with impunity is Laurent Nkunda. A visit to Walikale town in the east of the country explains in vivid terms why the people are so tragically poor. People have abandoned their farms and moved to the mines but whatever is made from the mining is taken away from them by the Congolese army and the ever present predators i.e. the armed groups. These armed groups force the people to mine the minerals without pay. Unable to farm and not paid for their toil, most of them have to credit food in order to survive. Everyday in Walikale about 16 aircraft fly out of the city with loads of minerals bound for Rwanda. These stolen minerals further find their way in the western mineral market in London and Switzerland. The proceeds are shared by the warlords in Congo, the Generals, politicians and the businessmen in Rwanda and the rest is used to acquire weapons that are used to terrorise the people and prolong the war. Please click the link below to watch a video of Congo.

Recommendations and Conclusion

It is clear that several forces within and outside the continent have contributed to making the continent the poorest on earth. But there is no time to look back but a time to look forward and get our acts together, organise ourselves and start doing something. The progress that has been made by China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia the Gulf countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the last 30 to 50 years shows that poverty has got nothing to do with colour or race. Nations become poor because their leaders fail to formulate policies and programmes that address their problems.

To reverse the negative impact of centuries of slavery and colonialism on one hand and decades of coups, civil wars, corruption, mismanagement and foreign interventions on the other hand, the governments should focus their attention on reforming their democratic institutions and allow free and fair elections to be organised. They should do more to fight corruption and mismanagement, establish independent corruption watchdogs, strengthen the judiciary, and be accountable to the people.

They should curtail the power of the army and embark on concrete, sound and result driven policies and provide more incentives to discourage brain drain.

The governments should embark on building social and economic infrastructures – schools, hospitals, roads, rail lines, telecommunications, airports, harbours, markets, that will lay the foundation for economic and social development. They should establish research institutions to find out how best to use the various natural resources to benefit the people. As the saying goes ‘resources are not but they become’ that is to say you may have all the natural resources in the world but if you do not have the ability to convert them into useful commodities/ consumables to benefit the people they are nothing.

The AU should be more concerned about fighting poverty than just been a talking shop for corrupt, kleptocrats and dictators. 

Lord Aikins Adusei

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