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Colonialism was Africa’s biggest problem

Part XIII of these series is a speech that President Museveni delivered in Kampala on July 10, 1998.

In this first part of his speech titled “Towards a Closer Cooperation in Africa,” Museveni argues that Europe and Africa were at the same level of development 500 years ago and explains why Europe progressed and Africa didn’t.

Africa is, today, the most backward continent in the world. This is not simply an emotive statement, but a cold fact. The table below is a comparison of Africa and the European Union (EU) countries, and it

graphically demonstrates my point. The infant mortality rate in Africa is 120 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 10 in the EU countries; the adult literacy rate is 45 per cent as against nearly 100 per cent; life

expectancy is 40 years which is nearly half of the EU figure of 75 years; the GDP per person in Africa is around US $200 as compared to about US $12,500 in the EU countries.

The following is a comparison of some health and economic statistics between Africa and Europe.

Apart from the sad reality portrayed by the figures above, another way of understanding Africa’s unparalleled emasculation is to remember that Africa is the only society in the history of man which does not anufacture its tools (hoes, tractors, machine tools); does not manufacture its own weapons; and does not fully control the provision of its own food.

All other earlier societies, even the most primitive ones, always produced their own weapons, tools, food and shelter. This is the clearest indication of Africa’s ignominious capitulation to foreign domination. This domination started about 500 years ago and has not been lifted yet.

Instead, it is intensifying, and the gap between Africa and Europe is widening. With regard to tools, Africa was using the hoes and the plough when Vasco da Gama travelled round the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and so was Europe; for weapons, Africa was using iron spears, iron-tipped arrows and swords, while Europe was using iron swords and some muzzle-loading muskets, not much better than swords.

Europe was plagued with endemic famines as was Africa; remember the Great Irish Potato famine which lasted for seven years (from 1845 to 1852); this famine also affected many other European countries; this was one of the major causes for so many Europeans fleeing Europe to other continents.

As far as shelter was concerned, Europeans were living in fire-wood-warmed houses and so were Africans, only that Africans had much less need to warm their houses than did the Europeans. The European was using the horse for transport and so was the African in the West African savannah, Egypt and Ethiopia. In other words, the difference between Africa and Europe in 1498 was not so great.

What is the situation now? The European is using the tractor while much of Africa is still using the hoe; for weapons, the European has a nuclear bomb and can shoot enemies from outer space while the African has almost forgotten how to make the arrow and the spear.

As far as food is concerned, Europe has now got mountains of butter, wheat and maize whereas famines in Africa are chronic. While the majority of Africans are, at best living in huts or shacks, using pit latrines far away from their houses, the Europeans have got centrally-heated, weather-proof houses with modern water-borne sewerage systems. In other words, we are talking of two different worlds on the same planet - the advanced world and the backward world.

What went wrong with Africa?

So, what went wrong in Africa? What caused Africa simply to mark time (chapa mguu) while Europe was taking great leaps forward? The biggest cause of Africa’s stagnation was imperialism – the penetration of Africa’s economy by foreign interests culminating in the political subjugation of the continent through the loss of sovereignty.

This meant that Africa’s resources were put at the service of other people (foreigners) and the latter used them for their own betterment to the exclusion and detriment of the owners (Africans). The most damaging consequence of foreign domination was the loss of power of decision-making. The outsiders who had usurped that power used it to distort the production patterns away from internal integration and cohesion to dependency on those very external forces.

It was at this time that Africa’s economies lost internal cohesion, ushering in the sad situation where our dependence covered all aspects of life.
Previously, African economies were cohesive albeit at the level of the late iron-age.

Nevertheless, those pre-colonial African economies had strong internal linkages; the blacksmith (muheesi) made iron tools and weapons; the carpenter (omubaizi) made wood products; somebody else (omukomozi) made natural fibre fabrics (embugo-ebitooma); some produced crops (abahingi); others looked after cattle (abariisa); in some of the areas there were ruling castes or families; and there were medicine-men (abafumu-bashakiizi); surgeons (abagyengyi) and others.

All this job specialization ended up in all-round intra-community exchange of goods and services. There was also inter-community trade between different tribes (states). Cotton fabrics were brought by long-distance traders from the East African coast to Uganda; these long-distance travellers were called “abalunganwa”, which was a local corruption of the Swahili word: Waungwana — freed slaves.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the pre-colonial economies of Africa were integrated within themselves and between themselves. Colonialism shattered all this.

Why could not Africa resist domination and colonialism? I think that the main cause of subjugation of Africa was the political fragmentation that characterised the political organisation of those days.

One cannot use the relative superiority of technology of Europe as the main cause of Africa’s subjugation. China and Japan were inferior to the West in technology when they came in contact with the latter. They were, however, not subjugated, although this was not for want of trying on the imperialists’ part. China and Japan, quickly rose to the challenge and became competitors with Europe.

Indeed, partly as a result of coming in contact with the West, Japan industrialised rapidly and repulsed European attempts to colonise her. Africa, therefore, could not resist foreign domination because of its own internal weaknesses. Many parts of Africa were pre-feudal by the time they came into contact with the Europeans.

Those that attained feudal statehood, like the interlacustrine kingdoms of Buganda, Nkore, Bunyoro and the Busoga chiefdoms, were operating micro-states which did not span sufficiently wide areas, or have large enough populations to resist the more organised foreigners. There were other aspects of backwardness in Africa.

Take religion for instance: while the Europeans, the Arabs and the Asians had developed or acquired unitarist, supra-national religions like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, the Africans were still worshipping the ancestral spirits of the different clans. In some communities, the idea of supra-clan ancestral spirits was beginning to take hold; but it was still in its infancy.

The Bachwezi religion that covered much of the interlacustrine region of East Africa in the areas of Bunyoro, Nkore, Byahaya, Karagwe, Bujinja, Busoga and Bugweri (in Uganda) is one such example. There were also pan-national states like the empires of Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia – although many of them later disintegrated.

It is not clear why these states were not durable political entities, but one reason could be poor communication because of the forests and marshes in tropical Africa. This is different from the vegetation in Europe, which is sparse woods and grasslands; the deserts in Asia and the Near East; or the deserts of North Africa where horses and camels could be used.

To some extent, they could also be used in West Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt, but never in tropical Africa where the warm and humid climates are fertile ground for diseases and disease-carrying vectors. It is, for instance, well known that the highland areas of Uganda – around Mount Masaba, the Rwenzoris, and Kigezi – were better health areas than the lowland areas.

The Kigezi highlands were completely free of malaria, compared to the lowlands or the tropical forests. Disease must have had an impact on population growth and, therefore, political transformation. Small populations, amidst plentiful natural resources, have no need for political integration.

The recent surge in population growth, because of the use of modern medicines for immunisation, proves this point. While the population of Africa in 1900 was 133 million, it is now 750 million. On the other hand, the decline of the population growth rate of Uganda from 2.8 per cent to 2.5 per cent as shown by the last census (1990), shows the linkage between the decline of health services and concomitant population decline.

Uganda’s health services declined during the country’s time of turmoil. With the problem of underpopulation, social progress is not possible, especially if the society is in a pre-industrial stage where labour output is low on account of poor skills; inevitably, it stagnates or inches forward only slowly.

As already pointed out above, small populations, content  with plenty of natural resources around them have no ambitions for conquering other communities in order to expand, unlike the resources-poor Europeans and Arabs who are always aggressively conquering other peoples in order to use their resources.

To be continued next Monday...


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