*** economics tragic failure of decolonization in Africa

African Economics: Economic History

African economies
Figure 1.--Into the 19h century very little was known about the interior of Sub-Saharan Africa. The economies were still largely based on agriculture and livestock. Trade was little changed from ancient times with major items being slaves, gold, ivory, and spices. The engraving is taken from the book 'Le Tour du Monde' (Around the World), published in Paris (1864). (It was not yet possible to publish photographs.) It shows the imprtance of the ivory trade in a Sudanese village. We cannot know how accurate the depiction is, but it is a testimony of the presence in the region of people living according to tribal (unclothed) and Islamic (wearing tunics) traditions. This and the depiction of the tribal dwellings suggest that it was based on some actual observation, although th cow looks notably European..

African economic history has gone through the same economic transitions as other continents, beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers and then the gradual development of agriculture. There were no great River Valley civilizations in Sub-Saharan Africa. The development of sedentary communities led to the development of larger and varied economies, more powerful and sophisticated political states, and expanding trade activities. Here the assessment of African economics gets complicated by the cultural war in the United States. A new generation of historians see themselves as social justice warriors rather than mere historians bonded by the basic rules of real history. They are endorsing all kinds of ahistorical nonsense like Egyptians were black or that Africa had great civilizations comparable to those in Europe and Asia or even pre-Colombian America. The economy and the resulting civilizations of Africa did not develop to the same level as other regions. Unlike other areas, no writing system, for example, emerged out of Africa. Interestingly, writing primarily emrges out of a developing sophisticated economy. But all great civiklizations develop writing systems. There are reasons for this and they have nothing to do with race. First, Africa did not provide the bases for all the crops that led to great civilizations, namely grains (wheat, rye, rice, and corn) or the potato. They were all developed with precursor plants outside of Europe. Second, despite an amazingly diversity of large mammals, Africa did not have a single animal that provided mankind with important beasts of burden (donkeys, horses, or oxen.) Third, the Tsetse fly that inhabit much of tropical Africa. It has had a hugely debilitating impact on Africa. 【Diamond】 We do not know a grat deal about the Bronze age. The Iron age had a huge impact. It was the Bantu people that first mastered iron and it is why the Bantu dominated much of Sub-Shaaran Africa. The Sahara Desert was a huge barrier to commerce between classical ancient Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. Contact was limited largely to North Africa. There was a trickle of commerce, mostly through the Nile which reached Nubia. India was a major center of civilization, but for what ever reason, there does not seem to have been major trade flows between India and Africa. A small Trans-Saharan trade opened up with the arrival of the camel (3rd century AD). This commerce was primarily focused on slaves, gold, and ivory. Very little is known about Africa at this time because there were no written African languages. This began to change with the Arab Islamic maritime outreach along the eastern Indian Ocean coast (8th century). The Arab Indian Ocean trade added spices (meaning primarily Zanzibar) to the trade items. For the first time we have significant written accounts about Sub-Saharan Africa. Several large states dominated the African political structure. The largest empires developed in the Sahel. They were based primarily on agriculture and trade. The Arabs opened a much larger trade with Sub-Saharan Africa than occured down the Nile in ancient times. The major trade items were slaves, gold, slaves, and ivory. The African slave trade for centuries was limited to to Arab Indian Ocean and Trans Saharan routes into the Middle East. This would not change until Portuguese navigators began sailing down the western Atlantic coast of Africa (15th century). This led after the discovery of the Americas to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Modern assessments of the slave trade focus largely on the Trans-Atlantic trade, but both the Arab slave trade and the European trans-Atlantic slave trade ravaged the continent. Until the late-19th century Europeans primarily limited economic activity to coastal trading posts. They did not penetrate into the tropical African interior which had significant economic consequences. There were two reasons for this. One was the Tsetse fly another was the lack of rapid fire weaponry mean that the armies fielded by traditional African armies still had combat power, at least in the interior. This did not change fundamentally with the wide-spread abolition of slavery (mid-19th century). It did change with the Scramble for Africa, the European colonization of Africa (1870s). The result varied among the European colonial empires and even among the colonies of the European empires. These were 1) settler, 2) peasant-agricultural, and 3) concession company colonies and varied blends of the basic types. Settler colonies were particularly important and adversely impacted the African majority, but concession company as developed in the Belgian Congo were by far the most brutal. World War II and the independence of India set decolonization in motion. There were high hopes for the new nations created, but tragically the economies of the independent African countries experienced wide-spread decline. That decline in large measure was the result of these countries adopting socialist economic policies. Not only is socialism a failed economic system, but it has created vast opportunities for graft and corruption. African Government borrowed heavily from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other lenders to finance development projects and the loss of income from failed socialist policies. More recently the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has added to the debate. Paying back those loans given the economic decline roved problematic. Economists debate the cause of economic failure of decolonization, three themes have dominated the assessment: classical economics, dependency theory, and Marxist ideology. As in Latin America, no Tiger economies have emerged in Africa, but certainly some countries have been successful than others.


Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W.Norton and Company: New York, 1997).


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Created: 4:07 PM 11/22/2023
Last updated: 4:07 PM 11/22/2023