Saturday, February 02, 2008

Helplessly Hoping

[The above is the marketplace in Dapaong, Togo--probably in 1990.]

One of the legacies of colonial rule in Africa is the modern nation-state. Before the European colonists imposed their preconceptions on Africa, there were no “countries,” as we in the West know them. Instead, there were areas of influence and prerogative, borders being gray areas of negotiation and understanding often without specific geographic delineation. With fairly light population, there was room for everyone.

That, of course, has changed. Kenya's population, for example, grew from around a million and a half to thirty million in the twentieth century. If the United States had grown at the same pace over the same period, it would now be home to a billion and a half people.

When the European colonists carved up Africa, they didn't give a fig for local ethnic divisions. They imposed rule based on their own needs and competitions with absolutely no consideration of the administrative structures (which they did not even recognize) that had been in place before their arrival. The only use made of ethnic differences was internal: One group in a particular colony was sometimes raised up above the others to serve the needs of colonial administration.

At independence, it was somehow believed that all the Africans in a particular locality would immediately become Kenyans, or Ugandans, or Senegalese, or Congolese. Somehow, the rulers in the West, who dominated world diplomatic discussions and formed its assumptions, believed that it was possible to don a national identity while making ethnic identity some sort of undergarment, known to the wearer but not often seen by others—and important, really, only to the wearer.

The new countries, though, had done very little to warrant allegiance. The ruling classes were generally from the groups that had been rewarded for doing the bidding of colonial overseers. Or grew from the group that came to dominate the military. The national governments rarely became vehicles for the promotion of the welfare of all the people; more often they were cash cows for the elite of whichever group had managed to grab power.

This might not have been so dangerous, were there room and resources for all. But that is not the case, and people from different groups have had to compete for a dwindling share of the pie even as their numbers have grown. As a result, we have seen ethnic strife in (off the top of my head) Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria, Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, and now Kenya—all within the last twenty years. And there has been much more. Did I mention Mauritania? Angola? Niger? Chad? The list goes on.

The nation state, as a concept, has failed Africa. It was imposed from without for reasons that had nothing to do with African populations, so this shouldn't be surprising.

Question is, what do the Africans do now? Killing each other isn't going to solve their problems. But the leaders of the continent are exactly those with most to lose if the current system is changed, for they are the ones benefiting from it while the majority of the people suffer. And the outsiders who really caused the problem in the first place aren't going to be welcome as developers of a solution.

So what's going to happen?

I have no idea. I simply watch in horror as problems identified years ago grow worse each year, feeling helpless.

Still, I hope, for I have seen the abilities and flexibilities of Africans... and know they could pull together a solution, if anyone can.

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