A Brief History of Africa

Below is an excerpt from Chinua Achebe’s 1998 essay, Africa is People. The full article is well worth the read for anyone interested in availing themselves of a fuller understanding of how the continent’s many plights came to be. And I’ll say the same for Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child, an eloquent and insightful collection of essays I recently had the pleasure of reading. In it, Achebe explores his own complicated relationship with Africa, before turning his keen eye to examine the influences of western imperialism and colonialism, and the shadows they continue to cast across what remains the most resource-rich continent on the planet. A compelling and eye-opening read.

If poverty springs so readily to our minds when we think about Africa, how much do we really know about it?

In 1960 a bloody civil war broke out in Congo soon after its colonizer, Belgium, beat a hasty retreat from the territory. Within months its young, radical, and idealistic prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was brutally murdered by his rivals, who replaced him with a corrupt demagogue called Mobutu, whose main attraction was presumably his claim to be an anti-communist. Mobutu set about plundering the wealth of this vast country, as large as the whole of Western Europe, and also fomenting trouble in Congo’s neighbouring countries, aiding and abetting the destabilization of Angola and openly cooperating with the apartheid white-minority regime in South Africa. Mobutu’s legacy was truly horrendous. He stole and stashed away billions in foreign banks. He even stole his country’s name and rebaptized it Zaire. Today Congo, strategically positioned in the heart of Africa, vast in size and mineral wealth, has also become one of the poorest nations on earth. Whom are we to hold responsible for this: the Congolese people, Mobutu, or his sponsors, the CIA? Who will pay the penalty of structural adjustment? Of course, that question is already irrelevant. The people are already adjusted to grinding poverty and long-range instability.

Congo is by no means the only country in Africa to have foreign powers choose or sustain its leader. It is merely the most scandalous case, in scale and effrontery.

President Clinton was right on target when he apologized to Africa for the unprincipled conduct of American foreign policy during the Cold War, a policy that scorched the young hopes of Africa’s independence struggle like seedlings in a drought. I have gone into all this unpleasant matter not to prompt any new apologies but to make all of us wary of those easy, facile comments about Africa’s incurable poverty or the endemic incapacity of Africans to get their act together and move ahead like everybody else.’


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