Africans with a dose of social sensitivity, a talent or skill for observation, and a knack for inquisitiveness must have wondered why so many Africans live in crashing poverty. That Africa, arguably the most endowed in terms of natural resources is also the poorest, is not a subject anyone would or should waste time debating.
The question of Africa’s poverty and the material deprivation of its people’s does not preoccupy only Africans; people from other places, too, puzzle over it. Go to any university anywhere outside Africa. Chances are, you will find scores of scholars and students who dedicate a great deal of their time studying, debating — and pitying Africa and Africans. You will encounter lots of theories too, regarding what to do about Africa’s “predicament,” “condition,” “crisis,” or whatever fancy term may be fashionable at anyone time.
Today I am interested in one nice little theory that purports to explain why you, the African reading this column, are poor or, if you’re personally well-off, why your relatives back in your ancestral village or down in one or the other informal settlement are poverty stricken. It goes like this: Africans are poor because they do not possess a good work ethic, are not innovative, and because they still believe in witchcraft and magic. Well, it is just a theory. As with all theories, it is debatable, especially the claims about work ethic and innovativeness.
Social anthropologists who study peasant agriculture, for example, have shown how hard African peasants toil to eke a living out of soils that have long lost much of their fertility, using the backbreaking hand hoe, and how they innovate with numerous indigenous or, as some would have it, “primitive” technologies. So with all that work ethic and ingenuity, why are they still poor?
The bit about belief in witchcraft and magic, however, is largely true. Stories are told of how even the most educated and refined Africans, including those who emigrate to developed countries and lead cosmopolitan lives, live in mortal fear of witchcraft and attribute many of their misfortunes to the phenomenon.
You may have heard juicy rumours about African presidents who keep their anti-witchcraft charms in walking sticks, flywhisks, bracelets and other sartorial paraphernalia. They are probably the type to believe that poverty is caused by witchcraft, and who are therefore unlikely to pursue anti-poverty policies beyond the usual lip service. Which takes me to another theoretical offering: Africa is poor because African leaders practice a type of politics designed to keep themselves in power for a long time, not necessarily to lift their compatriots out of poverty. What kind of politics is it? Experts call it “patronage-based” or “clientelistic” politics. In normal language they call it “bribery politics.” This kind of politics is especially suited to the way democracy is conceived of and practised in much of Africa.
It entails politicians running around asking people to vote for them, and giving them money and other things as inducement, accompanied by promises they know they will not or cannot keep. Living lives already blighted by poverty, would-be voters are happy to accept money and whatever else politicians offer, in return for their votes. Unknown to the voters, it is a deal that will keep them locked up firmly in their usual poverty, for after the politicians have secured their votes, they return to the city and start working to recoup their investment. For presidents-elect, the next thing is to appoint regional or ethnic elites to ministerial and other high positions to act as links and conduits to different groups.
Members of parliament will return occasionally to attend funerals and contribute to the expenses, pay school fees for a few children, sponsor wedding parties, buy some bricks for school buildings or clinics, and then off they go. Experience shows that these gestures of generosity make the voters happy enough, and often contribute to such politicians winning election after election. Poor people have such low expectations. What the gestures don’t do, however, is deal with the poverty that has turned the African countryside into more or less permanent sites of experimentation with whatever new-fangled anti-poverty strategy may be the latest fad in development circles.
Strange enough, this sort of democracy is widely applauded by Africa’s development partners and African elites with a talent for parroting received wisdom. Countries with governments that dare to innovate and think outside the conventional “democracy box” are widely condemned as dictatorships no matter their records in tackling poverty and the associated ills of poor health, hunger, malnutrition, and ignorance. More the reason why the question “why is Africa poor” should be debated widely and persistently. There goes a challenge for Africa’s universities and intellectuals.
Africans only have to find suitable answers and learn the right lessons.