Africa’s Past Is Not Its Future: How the Continent Can Chart Its Own Course

Africa is a vast and abundant continent. Roughly ten times the size of India and three times the size of China, it is home to nearly 18 percent of the world’s population and roughly 30 percent of its mineral resources. With an average per capita GDP of just over $2,000, however, it remains the poorest continent by far. Of the 46 countries the United Nations has rated as the least developed, 35 are African. More than three-quarters of the continent’s population lives in countries where life expectancy, income, and education are well below the global mean. Africa, as the Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan once said, “is a rich continent with many, many poor people.”

We Africans are poor for a variety of reasons–some that are of others’ making and some that are of our own. Slavery, colonialism, and the Cold War caused serious damage to African societies and economies, much of which endures. Exclusion from Western-dominated institutions of global governance does still more harm today. But the blame for Africa’s failures cannot be pinned on external forces alone. The continent’s colonial history has another enduring insidious legacy: it gives some African leaders, and too many of Africa’s people, an excuse for not getting their own houses in order and for continuing to blame the West. Misrule, coups, and corruption have hindered progress and wasted many years since independence some 60 years ago. Yet we continue to point the finger at others.

Almost every nation suffered some form of colonialism or exploitation at some point. Unfortunately, that is our history as a human race. But most countries have picked themselves up and moved on. We Africans need to look forward, not backward, and take responsibility for and ownership of our destiny. That means continuing to fight for better governance, the rule of law, and decent leadership. But our friends in the West must also display more integrity and less hypocrisy. They must give Africa a bigger voice in institutions of global governance, improve the governance of these institutions and of multinational corporations, and close the regulatory loopholes that enable massive illicit financial flows out of the continent. Africa needs allies in its development, not accomplices to its plunder.


Undoubtedly, colonial rule did lasting damage to Africa. European powers drew casual and haphazard borders, mostly disregarding ethnic, geographic, and historical realities. Some countries, such as the Gambia and Lesotho, came to exist mostly or entirely within other countries. Many others ended up landlocked and therefore dependent on their neighbors for access to the sea. Most of the fragile countries of the Sahel belong to that category: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, and Niger. Each is a far cry from the great Mali Empire, which from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century ruled over a territory spanning nine present-day African countries. Wisely, African countries agreed at independence to freeze these artificial borders to avoid conflict, but the seeds of instability had already been planted.

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Towards the AFRICA we WANT

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