The political evolution of Congolese currency

The last time I was in Kinshasa, I bought a handful of old bills from a street vendor.  Evolving currency design turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the country’s political fortunes.  Start with these notes from the Belgian Congo in 1947:

Congo '47

It’s not exactly clear what’s going on in this image – I think the child is reaching down to a beehive – but of course both the figures appear to be white Europeans.

The bills from 1960 are notable for their lovely graphic design.  These are the only bills in my collection until the late 1990s that don’t feature a politician, depicting a young woman instead.

Congo '60

Congo '60

In 1967, the currency switched from the franc to the zaire, which was subdivided into makuta instead of centimes.  By the early 1970s, Patrice Lumumba graced both the makuta and the zaire notes.  (At least I think this is Lumumba on both – let me know if I’m wrong!)

Congo '70Congo '71

By the mid-1970s, Lumumba’s portrait had been replaced by that of Mobutu.  The Marshal stayed front and center on the currency for the next 20 years.  These 1977 zaires are hopeful about hydroelectricity.

Congo '77

Congo '77

By 1991, high inflation rates had pushed the largest banknote up to 50,000 zaires (which were followed by the 5,000,000 zaire note the next year).  Perhaps no longer feeling so enthusiastic about industrialization, these notes focused on wildlife.

Congo '91

Congo '91

In 1993, the central bank redenominated the currency in a (doomed) attempt to rein in inflation.  There’s a lovely building on the back of this new 5 zaire note – does anyone know what it is?

Congo '93

Congo '93

After Mobutu’s fall, the currency switched back to the franc.  This 500 franc note from 2002 was worth about US$1 when I got it.   In a reflection of the country’s deindustrialization, it features artisanal miners panning for diamonds in a river.  The contrast between the promise of mineral wealth and the obvious poverty of the miners says a great deal about where the DRC is today.

Congo '02

Five essential facts about Africa

My husband put an interesting question to me the other day: what are the five essential facts about Africa that the average American ought to know?  To keep it simple, he asked that each fact be limited to one or two sentences.  I tried to come up with responses that were concise but also acknowledged the great diversity of people and practices on the continent.

  1. Precolonial diversity: People have, of course, lived in Africa for thousands of years.  Before European colonization started around 1890, people lived in many different types of political units, from tribal groups to city-states to empires, and had active trade and cultural relations with the rest of the world.
  2. Problems of colonization: Most places in Africa were colonized by Europeans from about 1890 to 1960. Colonizers often used violent means to try to control Africans, disrupting existing social and political structures in the process.  While some colonizers did build transportation infrastructure and promote basic social services like education, relatively few African citizens ever benefitted from them.
  3. Independence and its discontents: Many countries won their independence around 1960.  Because the colonizers had put lots of different political units together into modern countries, most places didn’t have well-established national political institutions, and it was common for dictatorships to arise (generally supported by the US and USSR, which directed a lot of aid to their ideological allies during the Cold War).
  4. Transitions & crises of the 1990s: By the 1990s, many countries were facing economic and political crises after years of bad economic management, and the end of Cold War-era aid from the US and USSR.  There was a lot of pressure from both citizens and aid donors (like the World Bank) for countries to implement economic reforms and transition to democracy.  Some countries managed this successfully, while others couldn’t navigate this political crisis and fell into civil war.
  5. Recovery & growth: By the mid-2000s, most civil wars had ended, and the majority of countries were enjoying higher rates of economic growth and better governance.  Although citizens and aid donors are still pushing many governments to provide better social services, things are generally looking better for most countries than they have in a while, and several African countries have GDP growth rates that are among the highest in the world.

I have to say that part of the value I found in this exercise was precisely that I didn’t initially want to do it.  One could write a book – many books – on the thousands of years of history encapsulated here, or at the very least shrug off a request for such a stark summary with the stock phrase “it’s complicated.”  But I did end up finding it an interesting experiment in trying to think about some of the main political trends on the continent over the last 100 years in fairly general terms, and (hopefully) in a way that would be accessible to people who didn’t already know much about the region.

What would your responses be?

The extent of precolonial African empires

Another great map via Cherokee Gothic. (Note that not all of these empires existed at the same time.  Wikipedia lists the dates, and there’s a brief overview of the major ones at TimeMaps.)

I wonder what was going on in the Cameroon – CAR – Chad corridor between the west African and Bantu states, and along the eastern coast, that major polities never arose there.  Perhaps it’s Jared Diamond’s theory about the spread of empires on the east-west axis at work?  (Less surprised not to see major groups in southern Africa, large parts of which are very dry.)


The evolution of European ignorance about Africa

In a 1994 article, Paul Krugman mentions that he has a friend who wrote a paper called “The evolution of European ignorance about Africa.”  It sounds fascinating, and is apparently not available online anywhere.  Does anyone know more about this paper, and where to find a copy?

Here’s Krugman’s summary of the paper, with some representative maps from this excellent Princeton site on the evolution of European maps of Africa.

In the 15th century, maps of Africa were, of course, quite inaccurate about distances, coastlines, and so on. They did, however, contain quite a lot of information about the interior, based essentially on second- or third-hand travellers’ reports. Thus the maps showed Timbuktu, the River Niger, and so forth. Admittedly, they also contained quite a lot of untrue information, like regions inhabited by men with their mouths in their stomachs. Still, in the early 15th century Africa on maps was a filled space.

1644 map of Africa1644

Over time, the art of mapmaking and the quality of information used to make maps got steadily better. The coastline of Africa was first explored, then plotted with growing accuracy, and by the 18th century that coastline was shown in a manner essentially indistinguishable from that of modern maps. … On the other hand, the interior emptied out. The weird mythical creatures were gone, but so were the real cities and rivers. In a way, Europeans had become more ignorant about Africa than they had been before.

1805 Map of Africa1805

It should be obvious what happened: the improvement in the art of mapmaking raised the standard for what was considered valid data. Second-hand reports of the form “six days south of the end of the desert you encounter a vast river flowing from east to west” were no longer something you would use to draw your map. Only features of the landscape that had been visited by reliable informants equipped with sextants and compasses now qualified. And so the crowded if confused continental interior of the old maps became “darkest Africa”, an empty space.

Of course, by the end of the 19th century darkest Africa had been explored, and mapped accurately. In the end, the rigor of modern cartography led to infinitely better maps. But there was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge.

African colonization & independence

In case you need a quick reference for a country’s colonial history and date of independence, here’s a useful map.


Unfortunately it does have a few errors.  It doesn’t mention the earlier German colonization of Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, and wrongly lists Namibia as gaining independence from Germany in 1990.  Namibian colonial rule was transferred from Germany to South Africa in 1919, and the country became independent from South Africa in 1990.  (Thanks to Charles Tellier, Jakob Haentjes and Danny Wijnhoud for pointing this out.)  The map also suggests that Liberia was never colonized, which isn’t true – the modern state was founded by the American Colonization Society as a refuge for former slaves.  (Thanks for Matt Jones for this one.)

Via Cherokee Gothic, which, along with Chris Blattman, is also one of my favorite blogs for keeping up with development economics.

The colonization counterfactual

One of the questions I’m often asked by friends who haven’t studied African history is what might have happened to the continent if it hadn’t been colonized.  It’s interesting to look at the following map of African politico-tribal units circa 1844 by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon in the light of this question:

Alkebu-lan[click for full size - it's worth it!]

I haven’t been able to find any firm documentation on the origin of the name Alkebu-lan, although a variety of questionably sourced websites suggest that it’s an Arabic phrase meaning “land of the blacks” – supposedly an original name for Africa.  Cyon notes in a presentation that the map represents the culmination of an alternate history where the Black Plague killed significantly more Europeans than was actually the case, presumably reducing the amount of early colonization which would have occurred.  Thus, while many of these territorial groupings appear feasible to me, it’s unclear if they represent the real extent of various ethnic groups in 1844.

What might have happened from 1845 onwards in this non-colonial world?  The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa).  Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities.  Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not.  But what of places like the land alloted to the Herero in this map (modern Namibia), which is largely desert?  Or the semi-arid plains of the Sahel?  Perhaps they would have continued with smaller or more mobile sociopolitical groups, without a central state.  Whether they would have been vulnerable to expansionary neighbors is unclear.  And all of this doesn’t even touch on whether European economic development would have followed the same path, and whether colonization might have eventually occurred anyway, at least to the weaker or less populous states.  A fascinating thought experiment, though.

A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

It should go without saying that the conclusions one can actually draw from a set of maps drawn with imputed data is limited.  However, I still find it useful to have a reminder that we shouldn’t assume the normalcy or inevitability of the world as we see it today.

Fukuyama on state-building

A powerhouse duo came to SAIS to speak on state-building in the DRC a few weeks ago: Frank Fukuyama (on the “state-building” side of the equation) and Severine Autesserre (on the “DRC” side).  Whilst Fukuyama admitted to not having any particular experience in the DRC, he’s obviously done a great deal of thinking on state-building, and mentioned some general precepts that seemed applicable here.

One of his first points was that state-building is essentially the process of “getting to Denmark” – but this is complicated by the fact that even the Danes don’t necessarily know how they got to Denmark.  Generally speaking, the Western liberal state is characterized by three things: a monopoly of violence (or “state-building”), the rule of law, and accountability between the rulers and the ruled.  Fukuyama’s take on success stories like Denmark, and Europe more generally, is that these are places where the rule of law developed alongside or preceded a monopoly of violence by the state.  He cites both Catholic canon law and feudal order as placing constraints on the power of rulers well before they could fully exert power & monopolize violence across all of their territory. (Based on this review, it looks like he’s going to develop this thesis more fully in his upcoming book.)  From this perspective, attempts to solidify state control of ungoverned areas before building up the rule of law is going about state-building backwards.  (Autesserre, as I’ll write about later, seems to agree in the specific case of the DRC – as does this recent HRW report on whether there should be “justice before peace” in the Congo and Burundi.)

Fukuyama also raised the interesting point that many contemporary strong states explicitly focused on nation-building alongside or after state-building – but before they began to work towards accountability.  (The classic African example is that of Tanzania, with its unique national language and de-emphasis of tribal identity, vs. Kenya, where tribal identity is still highly salient.)  He feels that the importance of nation-building is underappreciated by contemporary theorists of state-building, although (in my opinion) much of this is a warranted backlash against the type of cultural imperialism that delegitimated “local” and “native” cultures in the Western mind for the past few centuries.  More generally, Fukuyama points out that the increased push towards democratic accountability at all levels makes any nation-building project much more difficult.

Lots of future post ideas coming out of this talk, for sure!  I am in the end of two minds about the nation-building point.  But the focus on promoting the rule of law before the expansion of state territorial control seems well-founded.  It makes me think here of Bull’s The Anarchical Society and its point about social order developing independently of formal governance; of Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed; and of whether there’s some type of principal-agent problem in the justice-vs-territorial-control debate, where people might value the rule of law from any entity more than participating in a formal state, but the state naturally wants to focus on expanding territorial control and subsumes the idea of justice within the projection of power…  Will hopefully write more on this soon.

NB: Thanks to James Wilson for catching a typo in an earlier version!

Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642″

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.