Blaming all of Africa's ills on African leaders ignores history

By Nikhil Gupta

The article addressing Ngugi wa Thiongo’s visit asserts, “In attempting to govern itself, Africa had proven that it was capable of governing no one” (“Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Living Legacy,” 11/30/07). It further asserts that “within half a generation” none of Africa’s independence leaders remained in office, claiming “their plans for progress and unity fail[ed] to materialize.” Though the article does celebrate Ngugi’s successful movement to decolonize the African mind, it presents a distorted view of history that blames the failures of Africa’s decolonization movement on African leaders and governments.Such a view unfairly tarnishes the reputations of these leaders and perpetuates the myth that post-colonial Africa’s political problems are largely African in nature. Closer examination of the governments of Nasser, Nkrumah, and Lumumba shows that not only did some of their visions come to fruition, but that the failings of their administrations were less the consequence of their leadership than of the West’s economically motivated interventions.

Lumumba, Nkrumah, and Nasser were swept into power through the support of people’s movements, demanding governance that would improve their standards of living rather than perpetuate unjust ethnically based political structures. They faced the gargantuan task of rebuilding nations devastated by the brutal nature of colonization in Africa. Lumumba, for example, had to rebuild a nation with no black civil service or educated class, a consequence of the Belgian colonial administration neglecting to build any intellectual (or physical) infrastructure. These nations further suffered from massive poverty, the result of exploitative colonial economic policies that had bred an entrenched, ethnically determined African elite that was more concerned with maintaining their wealth and power than improving the living standards of the people.

When confronting this, these leaders implemented what at the time were considered the best strategies for reducing poverty and improving standards of living by leading economists in the West-national economies with active government intervention to boost public expenditures. Politics included agrarian reform, construction of national infrastructure, national control of mineral resources, and national industry. Where implemented, these policies were initially successful in improving people’s standards of living. Consider Nasser’s Egypt, where during the first decade of his rule, economic conditions for most Egyptians, particularly the massive numbers of poor peasants, improved significantly through agrarian reform and the introduction of electricity to rural areas. To write that “plans for progress and unity [had failed] to materialize” denies these successes.

These policies, however, were hostile to Western financial interests in Africa. Western corporations lobbied their governments into considering these governments Communist, prompting a spate of interventions to destabilize these leaders and establish “capitalist-friendly democracies.”

For example, from the moment that Lumumba came to power, both Belgium and the United States began to actively destabilize his rule. Lumumba nationalized the Congo’s vast mineral deposits, threatening the investments of Belgian mining corporations. This led Belgium to support an ethnic separatist movement in Congo’s Katanga province, days after Congo gained independence. The nation plunged into chaos. Lumumba held the office of prime minister for a grand total of two months before Congolese army colonel Joseph Mobutu deposed Lumumba with the support of the CIA. Given the level of Western intervention to destabilize and ultimately assassinate Lumumba, it is no surprise his vision for the Congo failed to materialize.The article fails to mention this, instead merely writing, “Lumumba’s Congo had long given way to Mobutu’s selfish and blood-laced nightmare.” This gives the false impression that Africa’s supposed failure at self-governance was the sole cause of Mobutu’s hellish 30-year reign in office. Undeniably these men were imperfect-all three possessed authoritarian streaks, and Nkrumah’s economic policies were significantly less successful than Nasser’s. However, the assertion that during its first decade of independence Africa proved to the world that it was incapable of self-rule distorts history to the point of insult.

Nikhil Gupta ’11 can be reached at [email protected].