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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?