WHAT'S WRONG WITH AFRICA
Kebede is the author of five books: Meaning and Development
(1994), Survival and Modernization—Ethiopia’s
Enigmatic Present (1999), Africa’s Quest for
a Philosophy of Decolonization (2004), Radicalism and
Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974 (2008), and
and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution
(2011). He has also published numerous articles in professional
and nonprofessional journals.
the deeply destructive experience of colonialism, Africans must
rethink their approach to modernization. Notably, they must
engage in a serious critical review of the prevailing colonial
model and creatively find grassroots forms of modernization
What is wrong with Africa? Save for a few promising exceptions,
why has Africa become the land where dictatorships, disrespect
for elementary human rights, economic mismanagement, corruption,
nepotism, ethnic confrontations etc., proliferate and endure?
This total and systematic failure requires an explanation that
goes beyond circumstantial causes and unravels the trend of
a whole continent that is decidedly moving on the wrong track.
Africa looks increasingly like a derailed train moving aimlessly
into the unknown.
the extent of the failure, one is tempted to concede that a
racist explanation of the African predicament would not be a
foolish assumption after all. What else could fully account
for the colossal failure to modernize but the savage, barbaric
nature of the black soul? Modern methods and values seem congenitally
opposed to the primitive and untamed ways of Africa’s
deep psyche. To say so is to imply not only that the colonizers
were right when they stigmatized the black person as a savage,
but also that independence came too soon so that Africa remains
in need of a new civilizing mission.
trouble with the racist explanation is that those who wanted
to civilize Africa were no less, if not more, barbaric than
the so-called savages of Africa. European history is saturated
with untold devastations and crimes against humanity. Brutal
regimes having no parallel with African tyranny, like the Nazi
and other fascistic governments, are part of the recent history
of Europe. Even as Europe was conquering the world in the name
of a civilizing mission, modern technology was turning the European
scene into so vast a butchery that eminent Western thinkers
seriously reconsidered the alleged superiority of the ‘white
man.’ Indeed, the hard fact is that the West is not entitled
to give moral lessons to Africans.
of ascribing the African savagery to racial specifics, the perennial
conflict between good and evil in all human beings better explains
the moral shortcomings that Africans and Westerners equally
exhibit. As the French writer Pascal said a long time ago: “Man
is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who
would act the angel acts the beast.” People belong to
different races and ethnic groups; more importantly, however,
they share a common human nature defined by this hybrid character.
The key to African failure is likely to emerge if, transcending
races, we focus on the duality of human nature, more specifically
on the reasons why the evil side gets the upper hand over the
us first cope with the question of why human nature evolved
in the West toward a sustained respect for human rights and
democratic institutions, while in African countries said nature
did not progress in the same direction. Here the temptation
is to assume that human nature has changed in Europe. Alas,
nature does not change, otherwise we would be dealing with a
new type of human beings. Make no mistake: the sustained respect
for democracy and human rights in the West would disintegrate
in no time if adverse circumstances were to disrupt its socio-economic
we should talk less about changed nature and more about the
presence of mechanisms preventing or countering the expression
of evil tendencies. Rather than evolutionary change, what we
have is a careful and fragile containment of the savage component
of human nature. It is as though the evil part has been put
in a temporary cage or muzzled like an aggressive dog. In short,
civilized behaviours in modern societies are the outcomes of
mechanisms of containment.
is meant by ‘containment’ transpires as soon as
we ask the question of knowing why Africans are less successful
in refraining the aggressive side of their nature. For sure
they had the ability, as attested by the fact that Africans
had established viable societies in the past. Evidently, the
ability was lost, most probably as a result of the encounter
with the savagery of colonization. The most enduring and deep-seated
effect of colonization was the destruction of the parapet that
Africans had erected to contain the evil component of their
nature. When people blame colonialism for destroying native
traditions and customs, they directly allude to the stripping
of African soul of inhibitory mechanisms.
truth about colonization is that, as a violent and externally
induced change, it propelled a form of modernization grounded
in a tabula rasa approach, following the indiscriminate description
of African traditions and customs as savage and unfit for modern
life. Unlike the evolutionary path of the modernization of the
West, Africans were subjected to a distressing form of change
that had no continuity with their past. Whereas western countries
either conserved a large aspect of their past culture or created
substitutes, the colonial policy of clean slate removed all
the protections that Africans had built to ward off malefic
temptations, thereby unleashing evil forces.
we must focus on the nature of power, given that the main source
of the African predicament is the struggle to control state
power. There is no doubt that the exercise of power finds a
natural support in the dimorphic composition of each individual,
that is, in the natural tendency of each individual to command
and obey. This dimorphism flows from the natural attribute of
human beings as social beings. Society is an organization and
there is no organization without leaders and followers. However,
as each individual feels an equal pressure to command and obey,
no stable order could spring from the dimorphism of human nature.
On the contrary, competition for power was inevitable and, with
it, instability, conflicts and the use of violent means to prevail
incessant conflicts for power entailed nothing but anarchy and
violent confrontations, societies have devised various means
to prevent this state of constant ‘war of all against
all.’ One such means was, for instance, the establishment
of monarchy. In abiding by the criterion of heredity, power
and its transmission acquired the aura of legitimacy, which
significantly reduced the destructive outcomes of power struggle.
This does not mean that societies found good leaders in monarchs,
but that they avoided the worst by preventing a state of constant
war. Another means designed to curtail the brutality of power
struggle was religion: the passion for domination was moderated
by the fear of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal
bliss for compassionate rule.
Europe, the evolution from monarchy to republic was realized
through the establishment of substitute institutions which,
while allowing the pursuit of political competition, delegitimized
the use of violent means. The accepted normativity of the electoral
system and democratic institutions civilized, so to speak, competition
for power. The democratic way of resolving conflicts even changed
into an incentive, as it became clear that it was also a path
to achieving economic prosperity.
Africa, by contrast, the implementation of the clean slate policy
resulted in the destruction of all the stratagems that Africans
had used to control the brutality of power struggle. The grant
of independence and the departure of the colonial rulers plunged
Africans into a Hobbesian condition, that is, a condition devoid
of any legitimate power structure, the far-reaching consequence
of which was the unleashing of a raw, untamed, unmediated struggle
for power. No sooner was a power structure established through
the electoral procedure than its legitimacy was rejected by
this state of things stemmed the African litany of military
coups d’état, themselves followed by personalized
dictatorships. Even governments still in civilian hands could
see no other way of lasting than by turning into dictatorships,
often by changing into systems headed by presidents for life.
Another expression of a power system lacking in legitimacy was
the proliferation of ethnic conflicts, the latter being the
manner by which excluded elites not only contest existing ruling
elites, but also claim legitimacy as representatives of mistreated
ethnic groups. Of course, the purpose of the ethnicization of
politics is not so much to liberate ill-treated peoples as to
use the mobilizing power of group resentment for the establishment
of another form of sectarian rule.
Hobbesian consequence of the clean slate ideology has another
detrimental implication, which is the empowerment of dictators
with narcissistic tendency. The list of African dictators is
unusually long, the most notorious being Jean-Bedel Bokassa,
Idi Amin Dada, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Sekou Toure,
Charles Taylor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Isaias Afwerki et al.
When established norms are repudiated, not only people and elites
lose their moral compass, but also conditions facilitating the
rise of narcissistic individuals to absolute power emerge. When
an all-out struggle for power is unleashed, those groups and
individuals not bothered by moral concerns, those maintaining
that all means are justified, including crime, deceit and betrayal,
are liable to prevail.
normal circumstances, narcissists are less likely to succeed
because their immorality is of little use in situations governed
by legitimate and established norms. However, when these norms
are discredited, immorality provides multiple opportunities.
The fact that narcissists have no respect for what is already
established easily marks them out as the champions of a new
order. Moreover, their resolute and tranquil recourse to violence,
shrewdness, deceit, cruelty and betrayal, combined with their
usual eloquence and a propensity to hide their meanness behind
grandiose ideas, propels them to leadership positions.
narcissists dissimulate will fully manifest itself once they
have conquered the top position. Their evil nature becomes then
the ruling norm of the country and all dissent is called crime,
regardless of its intention. Since they design everything from
the vantage point of eliminating rivalry and protecting their
absolute power, what they have built crumbles quickly when accumulated
mistakes caused by their own narcissism inevitably ignite mass
uprisings. What follows is often another round of raw conflicts
for power control with unpredictable consequences.
must never lose sight of the fact that the connection between
leaders and followers being natural is little prone to democratization.
The way to democracy is never achieved by giving more power
to self-proclaimed liberators. Instead, the objective must be
the division and spreading of power. As forcefully illustrated
by the American Constitution, power is tamed, civilized when
it is spread in such a way that it rises up against its own
unhealthy expansion. Unfortunately, instead of fragmenting power,
Africa opted for power concentration in the name of rapid modernization.
Far from accelerating development, power centralization unleashed
a severe form of elite conflicts for the control of scarce resources
by the violent exclusion of rival elites. In many countries,
the outcome was and still is uninterrupted civil wars, dictatorial
rules and disregard for elementary rights; in a word, savagery.
get out of the present predicament, Africans must rethink their
approach to modernization. Notably, they must engage in a serious
critical review of the prevailing colonial model and in a creative
effort to find grassroots forms of modernization. The colonial
model advocates the idea of modernization as an imposition from
above, the consequence of which is that it promotes power concentration
and a form of development benefiting exclusively those who control
power and their clients. That the model attracts African educated
elites must not be a surprise: the attraction is inscribed in
the very attitude of African elites drawing from their Western
education the entitlement to be heirs to the civilizing mission
of colonialism. Above all, Africans must give primacy to the
issue of power: prior to designing economic reforms and projecting
ambitious rates of growth, they must reduce the corrosive effect
of power struggle by finding ways and means of civilizing the
seizure and exercise of power.
Fine piece. Education remains the key to liberation. Education
will help Africans accept the past, confront the present and
engage the future. Democratic or not, the survival of the
fittest holds true in this milleu more than ever before in
a global interdependent world. China is not democratic but
she can produce goods from tooth picks to spacecrafts. The
right kind of education, the right kind of skills; thats all
there is to it.
A very interesting analysis, more for its psychological than
political implications. You argue that the template imposed
by the savage colonialist has informed (for the worse) the
equally savage post-colonial mindset. According to psychology
and/or epigenetics, the abused (sexual, physically, emotionally
etc) will predictably (70-90%) become the abuser. Which leads
you, by inference, to conclude the abused African predictably
(but not in all instances-Mandela) becomes the post-colonial
abuser. As you would have it, he’s caught (by inference
exculpated) in a vicious circle not of his own making.
Should we not, therefore, have expected the same to hold
true of Europe, since throughout its history, it has been
invaded by savage hordes, from Ostrogoths, Visagoths, Attila
et al? But in point of fact (granted by your article)
the abused European did not become the abuser. After lengthy
trial and error and bloodbath, Europe successfully establish
those all important "inhibitory mechanisms."
So the question is perhaps not What’s Wrong with Africa,
but rather what went wrong. I think Europe succeeded in taming
the inner savage thanks to the huge and formidable presence
of monotheism, which concentrated the power of the many gods
into one. The European was more God-fearing than his African
counterpart, meaning he would be more like to obey the Ten
Commandments for fear of the theological consequences. If
true, we would expect the West, for whom secularism has become
the 11th commandment, to be significantly more savage than
it was a century ago. Is it? In the US, one of every 100 males
is in prison. The Middle Class has disappeared, replaced by
the working poor.
From the Grand Inquisitor (Dostoievsky), When God is dead,
everything is permitted. Once you get past style, I frankly
don’t see much of a difference between the Mugabes and
Bushes of the world. Mugabe assumes power, the corporations
buy it; it's one and the same, voter be damned, or, more to
the point, the voter (the vote) is a fiction, a masquerade.
If the species is to survive its nature (worst instincts),
it will have to be 15% more rational and empathetic than it
is currently configured. Bio-geneticists of the world unite.
Thank you for the email and
the comments about my article.
Clearly, you have understood my analysis of African predicament.
However, your raise two issues that require answers on my
1. It is true that Europe has been invaded by "barbarians."
But the invasions did not have the same effect as in Africa,
because the barbarians did not come with the mission to
civilize. They actually adopted the cultures of the people
they had conquered. It led to assimilation.
2. Yes, Christianity has certainly contributed to the taming
of the savage nature of Europeans. I say "contributed"
to indicate that it is not enough. Take the case of Ethiopia:
it is most probably the oldest Christian country in the
world and its culture is entirely dominated by the fear
of God, in addition to Ethiopians having a profound messianic
mentality. Moreover, Ethiopia was never colonized. Even
so, today's Ethiopia is the prototype of savagery. One explanation
is that the modern educated elite became culturally colonized
and alien to its own tradition, in the name of modernization.
This uprootedness had actually the same effect as direct