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Why Is Africa Poor? 1/5


Several scientists, scholars, researchers, economists, anthropologists, and many, many, more have tried to figure out why the continent of Africa is poor.

The various explanations can be divided into different schools of thoughts. I have divided them four schools.

The four schools are

  1. History Matters
  2. Institutions Matter
  3. Resources Matter
  4. People Matter

I will go through each school and mention the pros and cons of each one. The schools have severe flaws, which are often overlooked when discussing the predicament of African countries. Each school will be published independently to avoid this piece getting too long.

5. I will end the series with an overall conclusion, where I’ll discuss William Arthur Lewis’ take on Africa.

And if Africa is poor? All these schools try to explain why Africa is poor, but what if that point of departure is not correct?

The first article in the ongoing series:

1) History Matters

This school of various scholars argues that the reason for Africa’s problems shall be found in the past, where the history of slavery and colonialism are given as the primus motor.

The school arguing that history matters is the much influential school and also the most controversial and criticised one. The book “Why Nations Fail The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” published in 2013, rose this school to fame, but on dubious claims.

Four subgroups can be found within this school, and I will go through each one by one.

A) Slave Trade
The main thesis is, that the slave trade caused the current level of mistrust, as Africans sold each other. This created a precedence for lack of cooperation that still hunts Africans to this day, and prevents Africa from finding peace and prosperity

Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Nathan Nunn, is the main supporter and defender of this hypothesis that the slave trades, the Atlantic as the Indian Ocean slave trade, caused a high level of mistrust in present day African societies across the continent.

In his most famous article, The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa, co-written by Professor in Political Economy at Princeton University, Leonard Wantchekon, Nunn argues:

The fact that slaves often were taken or tricked into slavery by individuals close to them suggests that the slave trade may have eroded trust even in the most intimate social relationships. Furthermore, because chiefs often were slave traders, or were forced to sell their own people into slavery, the slave trade also may have engendered a mistrust of political figures, particularly local leaders  (2011:3226)

This hypothesis receives critic on two issue. The first issue is a lack of proving causality between a low level of trust of today, and what happened several hundred years ago. It is problematic when jumping from an era to another. In this case, jumping from the era of the slave trade to modern day.

The other issue scholars have is that Africans did not sell Africans. They did not sell their own kind.

Associate Professor of History at the City University, NY, Kwasi Konadu, writes in the book “Transatlantic Africa 1440-1888” published in 2015 that:

The existence of the potential captive and the potential captor make nonsense out of the fictitious but popular phrase “Africans sold other Africans into slavery”. Said in another way, this phrase is troubling because the homogenizing term “African” therein contains three false premises: that individuals and groups viewed their own and others as “Africans,” that these undifferentiated “Africans” ceded their “brothers and sisters” into “slavery,” and this “slavery” was unproblematically the same as the one in Africa (p. 32).

He directly addresses Nunn and Wantchekon:

This “culture of mistrust” and “400 years of insecurity,” however insightful, cannot be reduced to a number or set of numbers. The same is true for cultural norms or core values;… (p. 122)

Professor in Economic History Gareth Austin argues in “Resources, techniques, and strategies south of the Sahara, that:

[M]ost of the African rulers involved sought to protect their own subjects from enslavements while capturing, buying, selling or reselling outsiders.” (p. 1005)

The exact opposite of what Nunn says.

But did the slave trade not have any negative impact?
Of cause it had! The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a holocaust.

Professor at History and Associate Professor at Vermont University, Sean Stilwell has carefully examined the history of slavery in Africa through history in his book Slavery and Slaving in African History, published in 2014.

In relation in how the transatlantic slave trade affected the continents, he looks at three kingdoms in West Africa; Oyo, Dahomey, and Asante. They each became highly dependable on the slave trade, which spurred increased militarisation leading to violence and disorder. But they were affected differently.

The Oyo descended into civil war over who had the right to control the trade, and in the end, Oyo collapsed. The Nigerian Professor at African Studies and a historian, narrates in the book A History of Nigeria, published in 2008, that the Oyo Empire ranged somewhere near 29,000 km2 (about the same size of Albania). Oyo raided weaker neighbours to keep the flow of slaves going. When it collapsed and civil war ensued, the Ekitiparapo War broke out, mainly to fight the emergence of Ibadan domination. The war lasted sixteen years, but the total war lasted from 1877-1886. It ended when the British intervened, which gave Britain a foothold and paved the way for British colonisation (Toyin 2008:75-6). Slave traded caused some kingdoms to collapse and made it easier for colonial powers to conquer the land.

Dahomey was smaller than Oyo, but they became a powerful and militarised local state, that thrived under the era of the slave trade, which caused prosperity especially in Benin City.

The Asante Kingdom became one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in the entire West Africa. A title only challenged by the Sokoto Caliphate.

Stilwell argues that:

Slavery helped fuel a political revolution that led to the consolidation of states” while the “Europeans were militarily weak, remained vulnerable to tropical diseases, and were always at risk of having their food supplies cut off by angry Africans. Africans demanded rent for the small piece of parcels of land that Europeans occupied (p. 44 + 48).

The era of Slave Trade is a complicated one. Violence ensued, and clans actively waged war against neighbours causing instability and disorder. Millions of innocent people were taken abroad died a horrible death.

In this climate, highly developed states emerged, while other states collapsed due to greed for controlling this valuable commodity, slaves were, or by being conquered by more power states.You lived in fear of being sold. The fear was intensified by the widespread belief among locals in Africa, that the whites were cannibals (Konadu 2015:90). But your state did actively try to protect you, unlike what Nunn argues.

You lived in fear of being sold. The fear was intensified by the widespread belief among locals in Africa, that the whites were cannibals (Konadu 2015:90). But your state did actively try to protect you, unlike what Nunn argues.

For weaker clans and states, the slave raids became a nightmare, that left people in horror for centuries. Though, the majority of slaves captured along the west coast of Africa stayed in Africa.A reason it is important to keep how slaves were treated in Africa separate from how slaves were treated and used in the new colonies by the Europeans. A reason Africans often have a different attitude toward the era of slavery than black Americans, whose forefathers came to the continent as slaves. The latter ones were victims of horrendous crimes. The ones who stayed in Africa, their stories are nuanced.

A reason it is important to keep how slaves were treated in Africa separate from how slaves were treated and used in the new world by the Europeans. A reason Africans often have a different attitude toward the era of slavery than black Americans, whose forefathers came to the continent as slaves. The latter ones were victims of horrendous crimes. The ones who stayed in Africa, their stories are nuanced.

Furthermore, we shall remember there were three slave routes. The transatlantic route, through which ca. 12 million slaves were sold, the Indian Ocean slave routes through which ca. 12 million slaves were sold, and the Trans-Saharan slave route, where ca. 7 million slaves were sold to Arabic rulers, according to Lovejoy cited in A History of Sub-Saharan Africa published in 2014 (p. 228).

In this summary, it might look like the Transatlantic and the Ocean slave trade were equally bad. They were not. The transatlantic slave trade lasted merely 400 hundred years, whereas the Indian Ocean slave trade lasted from 800-1900, meaning expanding 1100 centuries.

The European slave trade was significantly different in scope and intensity, which left a greater mark on societies in Europe and along the west coast of Africa.

B) European colonisation
Professor in African History, Gerard Prunier, argued at a lecture in Copenhagen in 2015, that a reason for Africa’s predicament was the era of colonialism.

The normal response is, if colonialism is the cause, Ethiopia should stand out from the rest of the continent. It does not. Liberia is complicated and requires it own article why Liberia is located in a grey area in the colonised/non-colonised binary.

Professor in Economic History with a focus on Africa, Morten Jerven, also points out in his book Africa, Why Economists Get It Wrong from 2015, that African countries have experienced growth and decline the last 400 years, like every other country on earth. Colonialism has not changed that.

However, there is no doubt, that odd borders that came into be through The Scramble for Africa, or how several African leaders failed to get rid of the system of oppressive institutions formed during the era of colonialism creating despots, as argued by Professor Mahmood Mamdani in his book from 1996, “Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism“.

However, as the Danish Professor in Economy, Martin Paldam, has argued as well, if the predicaments of African states were due to colonialism, we should expect things to get better as we move away from the era of colonialism.

More voices have been out criticising the vital importance of colonialism in order to understand contemporary African states, such as Professor Patrick Chabal arguing, that issues such as clientelism predate colonialism. Colonialism has exacerbated certain problems, but they were not created by colonialism.

The argument is not whether colonialism has had an impact on African countries, but to what degree it can be blamed for the current challenges present.

Africa is also seeing generations who have never experienced colonialization. Africa’s upcoming young generation can pave the way for reforms needed and to get rid of the last ones of African dictators, who look and rule more akin to tropical gangsters than to leaders interested in the problems of the people.

Unlike the hypothesis proposed by Nunn, the importance of colonialism bears merit, but it is likely not the factor, but a factor. A factor made worse by the Cold War interfered in the decolonising of Africa, where dictators were awarded as long as they supported the right superpower. It led to mounting debt, deaths, new era of violence, and indescribable suffering still haunting the states and the generations in contemporary Africa.


C) Settlers hypothesis
Professors in Economics Daron Acemoglu, David Johnson, and James Robinson published in 2001 this article The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation. In this article, they argued in favour of the Settler Mortality Hypothesis.

Shortly, the hypothesis says, that:
High settler mortality led the colonial power to develop extractive institutions. Loot what you can, and get out!

Low settler mortality led to colonial powers willing to settle and build strong institutions, that led to stronger and stable states.

However, it turned out they cherry picked data supporting their hypothesis and “forgot” to include the data that did not. In the end, their hypothesis did not survive basic scrutiny.

Furthermore, I will just paraphrase Professor Morten Jerven, who argues another problem with the above-mentioned hypothesis; reverse causality. He uses the example of the idea, that there should be causality between crime and the numbers of police officers in a given area. Police reduce crime, crime increases the police. Hence, you will likely conclude, that more police officers in an area equal more crime.

To see if that might be true, he adds a third factor, since the weather will impact the number of police officers out on the street too. We assume that good weather makes more police officers wanting to be outside. Meaning sunshine leads to more police officers on the streets. But we also assumed, that more police officers on the streets were a sign of more crime. Therefore, rain will have the opposite effect. Fewer police officers on the streets which mean less crime. Ergo, rain reduces crime? No.

That was the fallacy they made.

They took a perfectly reasonable idea, that a high income leads to good institutions. But we cannot conclude that bad institutions lead to a low income. Like we cannot assume rain reduces crime (2015:65).

Today, the settler mortality hypothesis is considered dead.

D) The Protestant hypothesis
PhD. in sociology, Robert D. Woodberry, published in 2011 the article The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy. He argues not only is there a correlation between countries that are mainly Protestants and countries that are democracies, he also argues there is a causation.

This is not a largely accepted hypothesis for several reasons. But before I dig into this,  I will briefly sum up Woodberry’s main points, so a few quotations.

CPs [conversionary Protestants] influenced democracy directly by shaping democratic theory and institutions and indirectly by creating religious incentives for elites to disperse economic and political power. CPs wanted people to read the Bible, thus they initiated mass education and mass printing.


CPs also dispersed power by developing and spreading new organizational forms and protest tactics that allowed non-elites, early nationalists and anti-colonial activists to organize both non-violent political protests and political parties. Many scholars argue that this type of organizational civil society helped foster democracy (Putnam 1993; Fung 2003).


Furthermore, the strength of Calvinism and Nonconformism better predicts where democracy emerged than does the strength of Greek and Enlightenment influence.

In short, it is not any kind of Protestantism that will do, but a specific type. The missionaries helped to nourish democracy by education people to read and to participate in civil society.

The data shows otherwise, however. If Protestantism led to democracy, how come it took several hundred years for democracy to take hold?

The Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) are traditionally ranked as the most democratic countries on Earth. The majority of people are Protestant-Lutherans. Countries that are not, are statistically less democratic. Protestantism was introduced in Denmark in 1536 by King Christian II. In 1660 Denmark underwent a reform in how it was governed. Absolute Monarchy (Enevælden) was introduced, and it lasted until Denmark became a democracy in, 1849, when the first constitution was passed (though a lot of people were denied the right to vote, such as if you were a woman or poor). If Protestantism led to democracy, how come it took more than 300 years?  And why did it lead to a dictatorship beforehand?

We can also take the US as an example. The US introduced representative democracy in 1776, with the passing of the Declaration of Independence. But democracy was not meant for everyone. Blacks were given no rights. Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Even then, things have been tough. Christendom in any shape does not automatically lead to democracy.

If Protestantism deterministic led to democracy, I would be fair to argue, we should see a greater support for democracy in Africa among Christians than non-Christians. That is not the case

A PEW study from 2010 titled Tolerance and Tension – Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa states:

Asked whether democracy is preferable to any other kind of government or “in some circumstances, a nondemocratic government can be preferable,” strong majorities in every country choose democracy. In most places there is no significant difference between Muslims and Christians on this question. (p. 10)

Similar patterns can be found around the globe. Christianity cannot claim ownership to democracy or to prime people to be more democratic oriented.

To return to Africa, it also forgotten that missionaries did not do a good job converting Africans. It was locals converting locals. Christianity did not really take hold in African before after the first wave of independence hit the continent around the 1960s. Missionaries were not the root cause, and definitely not white missionaries. The locals created a new version of Christianity fitting the reality on the ground.

Screen Shot 2017-07-08 at 12.30.47.png

However, it is correct, that missionaries did influence locals. Missionaries were deeply involved in printing Bibles on the native languages to ease the converting. Reading out loud in a tongue nobody understood would not get your message across.

A sense of shared belonging based on similar languages grew. For many ethnic groups, it was also the first time their oral language became a written one. To be able to communicate through the written word opened a new door for the ones who mastered this. But the written word is not enough for democracy to take hold or for democracy to survive. The US has just been downgraded from being a democracy to be a flawed democracy

This hypothesis further risks, unintentionally, to excuse colonisation and to reiterate the often used cliche, that Africa needs the West. There is not the case.

One could also argue that democracy spurred in the West as in Africa not because of Christianity, but despite Christianity.

No-one argues that the past does not matter. The disagreement is to what extent. Scholars also disagree, if you see what you want to see, and risk confusing causation and correlation. There is also the risk of reverse causality. Not to forget cherry picking your data, or you being blinded by a Western-centric worldview.

The positive aspect of the criticism of this school is, that no country is trapped in history, and every country can create its own future.

Other articles in this series
2)  Institutions Matter
3) Resources Matter
4) People Matter
5) Is Africa Poor?


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