I’m usually skeptical of explanations for continued poverty in the developing world that point to the history of colonialism. Note, I’m not talking about the continued gap in economic development between developed and developing countries. I’m talking about the existence of deep pockets of extreme poverty after decades of political independence.
As we discussed in our recent post, Trade & Development, one pervasive, and corrosive, explanation for the poverty is corruption. Yet, I find this only a partial explanation. How is it possible to look at another human being and deny their right to the basics of life just to make more money?
In the context of Africa, one remnant of colonial rule may remain pertinent in our search for answers.
Colonial powers carved out their territories ignoring existing ethnograpical and cultural realities. The newly independent nations signed treaties in which they agreed to respect these political boundaries handed down to them. Yet, we know that the cultural memory lives on outside of these country borders.
For example: Just six years after political independence, the Muslim Hausas in northern Nigeria seceded and created the Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war ended with the surrender to Nigeria by Biafra. Fifty years later the separatist movement continues. The religious and cultural tensions which led to the creation of Bangladesh (predominantly Bengali-speaking Muslim), Pakistan (Muslim) and India (Hindu and Sikhs) out of what had been British India survive today in the conflict over Kashmir. In Europe, Yugoslavia’s borders did not survive the death of President Tito. After several wars, it has been replaced by seven (7) countries organized along religious and ethnic lines.
Partition of Africa
At the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), the major colonial powers cut lines across the African interior that grouped together scores and dozens of ethnic groups. These lines also split up existing boundaries.
To use Angola as an example: For over 300 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Bakongo (the Kongo people), had been united under the rule of the Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most important civilizations to emerge in Africa. Today, these several million people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, and Angola. From the time of its founding by Ne Lukeni Kia Nzinga until its destruction in 1665 by the Portuguese, the Kingdom of Kongo existed as an organized, stable, politically centralized society. Left alone, this Kingdom might well have evolved intrinsically into a modern-day state. This process was interrupted by the partition of its territory among the European colonial powers.
Angola’s population today is divided ethnically into three main groups – the Ovimbundu (37% of the population), the Mbundu (25%), and the Bakongo (13%). The remaining 25% include scores of other ethnic groups, both large and small.
The decades-long war fought by Angola for political independence from Portugal reflected these ethnic lines within the country. Three liberation groups simultaneously fought the Portuguese and each other. The Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) is predominantly Mbundu (what used to be the Ndongo Kingdom). União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) is predominantly Ovimbundu (Bailundo Kingdom). Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) is predominantly Bakongo (Kingdom of Kongo).
The winners were the MPLA, which has ruled Angola since its political independence. Over time, writes Assis Malaquias in Ethnicity and Conflict in Angola: Prospects for Reconciliation, the additional factors present in the liberation struggle – class and ideology — have diminished, leaving intact the ethnic divide. Effectively, the MPLA rules Angola in the interests of the Mbundu people, comprising at best about one-quarter of the population. The resources of the state have become “the property” of the Mbundu, rather than of the citizens of Angola.
In Angola and much of Africa, the arbitrary colonial divisions have “politicized” ethnicity (Assis Malaquias).
As long as this reality remains essentially ignored by the West, the search for solutions to end the corruption that diverts a country’s resources into the hands of a few, and the poverty this practice creates, is likely to remain elusive.