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New Left Review I/204, March-April 1994


Colin Leys

Confronting the African Tragedy

Sub-Saharan Africa became independent roughly thirty years ago, and it is already hard to remember the optimism that African leaders, and most western Africanists, then felt about the future. [1] I am grateful to several friends, and in particular Fred Bienefeld, Roger Leys and John Saul, for commenting on an earlier draft, although they are in no way responsible for any of the statements made in this one. Yet the history of the previous ninety years—i.e. since 1870—seemed to justify optimism. The colonial regimes established in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had set Africans to work—initially through all too often barbaric forms of compulsion, later through a mixture of coercion and inducements—to produce primary commodities for sale in the west. Spectacular results were obtained. In the space of only a few generations Africans were supplying huge tonnages of coffee, cocoa, cotton, palm oil, groundnuts and many other crops, as well as minerals, to markets in Europe and elsewhere. [2] See Bill Freund, The Making of Contemporary Africa, Bloomington 1984, pp. 141–2; also John Sender and Sheila Smith, The Development of Capitalism in Africa, London 1986, p. 9. Most of the benefit went to others—western consumers got cheap commodities, western mining and trading companies made big profits, and western colonial officers got good salaries and services—but the forces of production expanded; and while a high price was paid in social and cultural dislocation, not to mention political subordination, for many Africans in export crop zones incomes did rise, and besides railways and ports, hospitals and schools were built, so that mortality rates fell and literacy rates rose. At independence, while departing colonial officers and settlers predicted gloomily that the African leaders would make a mess of things, even they did not doubt that in general, the African ex-colonies were viable; while the African nationalist leaders and their western supporters were confident that with independence their countries’ economic growth rates would accelerate and the gap between Africa and the industrial world would be progressively closed. [*] Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, James Currey, London 1992, £9.95. Jean-François Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, Longman, London 1992, £14.99.

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