Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

by | Dec 1, 2000

Before my arrival in Africa, I had spent four years reporting from southeast Asia. What I found in Asia was a region of amazing economic dynamism, a place largely defined by more than a decade of steady growth and development, vastly improved living standards, and expanded opportunities. Almost all of the Southeast Asian countries had […]

Before my arrival in Africa, I had spent four years reporting from southeast Asia. What I found in Asia was a region of amazing economic dynamism, a place largely defined by more than a decade of steady growth and development, vastly improved living standards, and expanded opportunities. Almost all of the Southeast Asian countries had risen from poverty to relative prosperity, creating huge and stable middle classes and entering the first tier of newly industrialized economies.

Why has East Asia emerged as the model for economic success, while Africa has seen mostly poverty, hunger, and economies propped up by foreign aid? Why are East Asians now expanding their telecommunications capabilities when in most of Africa it’s still hard to make a phone call next door? Why are the leaders of Southeast Asia negotiating ways to ease trade barriers and create a free-trade zone, while Africans still levy some of the most prohibitive tariffs on earth, even for interregional trade? . . . .

It’s an ugly truth, but it needs to be laid out here, because for too long now Africa’s failings have been hidden behind a veil of excuses and apologies. . . .

Talk to me about Africa’s legacy of European colonialism, and I’ll give you Malaysia and Singapore, ruled by the British and occupied by Japan during World War II. Or Indonesia, exploited by the Dutch for over three hundred years. And let’s toss in Vietnam, a French colony later divided between North and South, with famously tragic consequences. Like Africa, most Asian countries only achieved true independence in the postwar years; unlike the Africans, the Asians knew what to do with it.

Talk to me about the problem of tribalism in Africa, about different ethnic and linguistic groups having been lumped together by Europeans inside artificial national borders. Then I’ll throw back at you Indonesia, some 13,700 scattered islands comprising more than 360 distinct tribes and ethnic groups and a mix of languages and religions.

Now talk to me about some African countries’ lack of natural resources, or their reliance on single commodities, and I’ll ask you to account for tiny Singapore, an island city-state with absolutely no resources — with a population barely large enough to sustain an independent nation. Singapore today is one of the world’s most successful economies.

I used to bring up the question of Asia’s success wherever I traveled around Africa, to see how the Africans themselves — government officials, diplomats, academics — would explain their continent’s predicament. What I got was defensiveness, followed by anger, and then accusations that I did not understand the history. And then I got a long list of excuses. I was told about the Cold War, how the United States and the Soviet Union played out their superpower rivalry through proxy wars in Africa, which prolonged the continent’s suffering. And I would respond that the Cold War’s longest-running and costliest conflicts took place not in Africa but in Korea and Vietnam; now tell me which continent was the biggest playing field for superpower rivalry.

When the talk turns to corruption — official, top-level plunder — then at last we are moving closer to brass tacks. Corruption is the cancer eating at the heart of the African state. It is what sustains Africa’s strongmen in power, and the money they pilfer, when spread generously throughout the system, is what allows them to continue to command allegiance long after their last shreds of legitimacy are gone.

Of course, there’s corruption in East Asia, too. One watchdog group ranked Indonesia as the world’s most corrupt country, and Hong Kong risk consultants have placed it third in Asia, behind only Communist China and Vietnam. Yet Korea is an economic superpower, Indonesia has reduced poverty more per year for the last quarter century than any other developing country on earth, and Thailand, Vietnam, and China have all been posting annual growth rates of about 8 to 10 percent. . . .

Instead of straight talk about Africa, you’re more likely to get doublespeak, apologies, excuses — and above all, hypocrisy. It’s one of the things I found most frustrating about Africa, the unwillingness of even some of the most seasoned academics and “Africa experts” to give me their honest, coldhearted, unsentimental assessment of the continent and its problems. When it came to discussing the ruthlessness of the dictators, the difficulty of democracy finding a foothold, the ever-present problem of tribalism, Africa has consistently been held to a double standard, an “African standard.” There’s a reluctance to push too hard, too fast for reform. There is a tendency not to want to criticize too openly, too harshly.

The reason, of course, is that Africans are black. Too much criticism from white countries in the West comes dangerously close to sounding racist. And African leaders seem willing enough to play that card, constantly raising the specter of “neocolonialism.” Most Africans were born in independent black countries, but their leaders still harp about colonialism the way black America’s self-described “leaders” like to talk about slavery and Jim Crow. Th ere’s another similarity, too. Black African leaders talk about foreign aid as if they’re entitled to it — it’s something that is due to Africa, with no strings attached — the same way many American blacks see government assistance programs as a kind of entitlement of birth. In both cases, you’re left with black people wallowing in a safety net of dependency…

Reprinted from Issues & Views. Click here to order Out of America – A Black Man Confronts Africa (Harvest Book)

From 1991 to 1994, Keith Richburg was based in Nairobi as the Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post.

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