Cry the Beloved Continent

Africans are poor because they're poorly governed.

The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives, by Robert Guest, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 288 pages, $27.50

At independence in 1964, Zambia's people earned an average annual income, in 2001 dollars, of just $540. By 2000, according to the World Bank, they made only $300. This was despite foreign aid the bank estimates at nearly $6 billion from 1980 to 1996 alone.

Life expectancy in Angola, which UNICEF rated the world's worst place to live in 1999, is a mere 45 years, about the same as the developed world a century ago. In AIDS-wracked Botswana, average life expectancy has diminished since independence to under 35 years.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, self-government remains a foreign notion and prosperity an unattainable dream. With rare exceptions such as Botswana, which held peaceful and fair regularly scheduled elections late last year, democracy has proven more a ruse than a reality. Africa's people remain among the world's poorest and sickest, in some cases having become poorer and sicker since their colonial masters departed in the 1960s and '70s.

Has the legacy of colonialism kept Africa down? If the Congo's current leaders treat citizens as prey and Sudan subjugates its people by exploiting tribal divisions, these may well be lessons learned from colonial masters. On the other hand, colonialism also left behind roads, clinics, and laws that have helped countries elsewhere in the world flourish. Some suggest that a "colonization of the mind," a sense of inferiority, is stifling Africa. Yet more than 70 percent of Africans alive today were born after their nations achieved independence. Moreover, the fates of many former colonies in Asia argue against such an excuse. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore all once had foreign masters and are now prosperous.

Robert Guest, Africa editor for The Economist, begins The Shackled Continent by asking why "Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades." After six years of covering the continent's civil wars, genocide, famine, and disastrous monetary policies, his answer boils down to this: Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.

If African governments did a better job of upholding the rule of law, enforcing contracts, and safeguarding property rights, Guest argues--if, that is, they put more stock in freedom than in force--then the people of Africa would be richer. His 258-page tour of the continent, from Zimbabwe to Tanzania to Nigeria, brings the point home with forceful anecdotes that illustrate the hellishness of war, the blessings of specialization, and the impotence of living in countries ruled by the likes of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

"In 1980, the average annual income in Zimbabwe was $950, and a Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than an American one," Guest reports. "By 2003, the average income was less than $400, a Zim dollar barely bought a fiftieth of an American cent, and the Zimbabwean economy was in free-fall." An ominous reminder of who's to blame hangs on the wall of every government office, in every hotel lobby, and above the cash register of every shop: Mugabe.

Zimbabwe is the epitome of what Guest calls the Vampire State. Mugabe, who has held power since black rule began in 1980, was officially re-elected in 2002 by a wide margin despite polls suggesting that his opponent was supported by 70 percent of the people. To give readers a sense of Zimbabwe's political climate, Guest tells the story of the 2000 parliamentary elections, when liberation war veterans were sent to harass farmers "with sticks, pangas [machetes] and a few guns." The farmers who were willing to speak about their treatment at the hands of these gangs reported forced re-education lectures, beatings, and rapes. The same thugs who carried out these attacks handed out ballots at the polls.

Mugabe bought the loyalty of the vets with cash handouts and promises of land reform. Land would be taken without compensation from white commercial farmers, he promised, and given to the landless poor. Instead, the seized farms typically went to Mugabe's friends. The Zimbabwean dollar plunged at the news. Successful farmers left the country or became consultants to new owners who had no idea how to farm.

Such policies have had a predictably deleterious impact on foreign investment in Zimbabwe: No one wants to invest in a country where the few who have managed to hang on to their assets are frantically looking for an exit. Zimbabwe is now an economic basket case, its borders bleeding economic refugees.

Drawing on the work of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, Guest shows that Mugabe's land grabbing is just one manifestation of a widespread African problem: insecure property rights. "One of the reasons that Africa is so poor," Guest explains, "is that most Africans are unable to turn their assets into liquid capital. In the West, the most common way to do this is to borrow money using a house as security. This is how most American entrepreneurs get started."

Guest estimates that 90 percent of housing in most African countries is owned informally. In Malawi, a country that is "peaceful, stable, off the beaten track and fearfully poor," houses are built on "customary" land, which means that "the plot's previous owners had no formal title to it. The land was simply part of a field their family had cultivated for generations. About two-thirds of the land in Malawi is owned this way....If there is a dispute about boundaries, the village chief adjudicates."

The problem with land ownership at the pleasure of the chief (or king or president) is that it cannot provide the title security that supports impersonal markets. As Guest puts it, "no bank will accept [a contract signed by a local chief] as collateral because it is not enforceable in a court of law. Rather, it is an expression of traditional law, which is usually unwritten, unpredictable and dependent on the chief's whim." Although "the chief may be a wise, just and consistent fellow," Guest writes, "the bank does not know this."

In Malawi, the late dictator Hastings Banda tried to encourage formal ownership but also grabbed large tracts for cronies, undermining the rule of law and forcing banks to lend for political rather than commercial reasons. Formalization of customary law, as De Soto prescribes, cannot secure property rights in Africa, where a chief's whim is the customary law. Tribal chiefs resist changes in the law that diminish their power; and many African dictators are tribal chiefs whose power has reached national proportions.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I still dont know why africa is this poor, what is wrong with us africans? why do we depend most to these European countries? but most of all we are but greedy people

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