”What Went Wrong with Africa?”


This is the title of a 2004 book by Roel van der Veen who presented his findings and theories at The Swedish Institute of International Affairs on June 7, 2012.

Co-presenting on the headlined topic, “What Africa?” was Erika Bjerström, international correspondent for the Swedish public service television company, SVT.  Her research resulted in the TV documentary Det Nya Afrika (The New Africa).

The two speakers come from two different viewpoints, and it seems that UI set them up as adversaries. To put it simply, Mr van der Veen sees the African cup half-empty and Ms Bjerström sees the cup half full. I found Ms Bjerström’s presentation the more heartfelt and hopeful, but I found Mr van der Veen’s assertions the more persuasive—I will explain.

In 2009 I wrote about the The Dismal Record of African Leadership based on analysis and findings of The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The foundation’s prize was first awarded in 2007 (Mozambique) and then again in 2008 (Botswana). No prize was awarded in the years 2009 and 2010. The prize for 2011 was awarded to Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires, the President of Cape Verde during the years 2001-2011. Cape Verde is a small island nation of slightly more than a half million people. The phrase “what went wrong?” regarding the other, much larger nations of Africa, seems applicable here.

Roel van der Veen, Erika Bjerström, Moderator Victoria Veres at UI, 7 June 2012

Roel van der Veen

Mr. van der Veen spoke first and at length, providing history and analysis of not only Sub-Saharan African countries, but also East Asian countries—through the years ending in 2008. He used the measure of gross domestic product (GDP) per person per year as the basic comparative measure, both historically within selected African countries and comparatively with respect to selected East Asian countries.

Van der Veen asserted that “no continent of earth is as poor as Africa”. He asked, rhetorically, whether we could attribute this primarily to external or internal factors. He cited several external factors including:

  • artificial national boundaries
  • environmental factors
  • the effects of colonization by European countries

He stated flatly that these, and the other external factors which he cited, were not the cause of Africa’s poor condition. For proof he offered comparisons between the countries of Indonesia vs. Nigeria, and Malaysia vs. Kenya. Both sets of countries have artificial boundaries, similar environments, were subject to centuries of colonial rule, and were similar in several other factors.

Yet The GDP/person in the two Asian countries has grown in recent years ‘way beyond their African counterparts which van der Veen used in this comparison: Indonesia since 1981 and Malaysia since 1959.

Mr. van der Veen’s theory (his term) is that no nation-state has developed without the support of its state rulers and apparatus, and that Africa (i.e., the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa) has a method of state governance which prevents development.

So, what’s a state? Mr van der Veen illustrated the generic state thus:

Structure of the Generic State

Van der Veen’s thesis is that, however they gained their position, the rulers in any country depend on a complaisant general populace (“common people” in my diagram) and a satisfied elite to retain power.

When current African countries gained their independence from European colonial powers the existing elites were purged or they left the country. A new elite replaced them which are different from the elites of developing countries. These are local chiefs and other leaders from the local level, not all of whom had similar interests, other than to retain local power. This makes the state a fragile entity because these elites do not have the concept of a state foremost in their interests.

In Sub-Saharan countries the following dynamic occurs: to satisfy the elites the government subsidizes their basic needs, especially food. The state government, as a monopsony,  buys the agricultural produce from the farmers at below world-market prices and sells it to the elites at a profit, but still at below world market prices. “Who cares about the farmers?” is the attitude of the government and the elites, according to van der Veen.

Over time, the farmers are discouraged and some number of them migrates in one of two directions: toward the city, or toward more remote areas to return to subsistence farming. Thus, the agricultural base of the nation-state is reduced and, concomitantly, its wealth. This creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship between the state and the elites, among other pathologies which are easily imaginable—and evident in the weekly or monthly news one might read from a distance about Africa.

What was different in the Asian states which van der Veen compared with African states? “Massive state investment in agriculture”. He asserted that before there can be industrial development in a state there needs to be agricultural reform and development. This is what happened in Indonesia and Malaysia.

But, what will motivate the state’s rulers to change the status quo, when the default position of any group in power is to maintain it, according to van der Veen? When the change is seen to be in the interests of the rulers, as well as the common people.

The experience of Asian countries was decades of civil unrest and, therefore, uncertainty about the rulers retaining power. The rulers decided to adopt a change in economic policy which, since then, has worked for all three groups of people. The key is to view national politics as secondary to, and dependent upon, national economic policy. This is the opposite of what is found inAfrica.

One of the few remaining trees in the Valley of the Baobabs, Malawi

In Africa, currently, the politics of retaining power is of foremost interest, with national economic policy non-existent, or poorly conceived and executed.

There has been a turning point for Africa, however, starting around 2002. Powerful external forces are indeed affecting various African states, including:

  • Globalization, especially Chinese and Brazilian investments
  • High market prices for African mineral resources
  • Fewer wars
  • Technology, especially the use of mobile phones: “people can do more now, despite the state”

Nonetheless, the accumulated and continuing effects of national political and economic policies have caused a general “de-industrialization” of Africa.

Erika Bjerström

Ms Bjerström sees an emerging renaissance. She noted that The Economist magazine in 2002 called Africa a “lost continent”, but in 2012 apologized for having said this, and changed their opinion. (Go to the link under The Economist for their African news pages).

She noted that Mr van der Veen’s data run only through 2008, and that she had travelled seven countries to see and report directly what was happening in: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania. She saw positive trends in these countries, including that Rwanda has a national health service, to which she compared the United States unfavorably. She then showed the TV documentary she created from her six-month trip.

Rwandan school children will have their own laptop from the age of seven
(Documentary: “Det Nya Afrika”)


In that the language used in the TV film was Swedish, I have to rely here on the summary given in the headline page for the documentary (translated by Bing® with editing my me):

In the shadow of news media spotlight, an economic miracle is happening in Africa. Today, seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is so much more than hunger, wars and disasters.

SVT correspondent Erika Bjerström and photographer Emil Larsson have travelled over half a year to view a new Africa, full of confidence. They have met with businessmen, politicians and civil servants who exude a new self-confidence and pride in what they are about to do. This documentary is about a miracle that is happening with great speed, while much of the world is still blinded by the old image of Africa.

What I gleaned from the film is that the cities shown looked modern and busy, and that automated factories were producing modern products. The working people lived in non-modern housing, but appeared happy to be working. These seemed to be mostly women. I saw many idle, able-bodied men in this film, however. It appeared that food and building materials were being provided by foreign investors or donors.

I analysed the seven countries presented in the documentary film (using the current data provided by the World Factbook of the CIA). I also compared both Nigeria and Kenya with the two Asian countries mentioned as similar to these by Mr van der Veen. I added Sweden as an example of a developed country. (Please click on the image of the chart)

*Real Economic (GDP) Growth Rate defined


Only one country, Ghana, of the seven countries Ms Bjerström visited, ranks within the top ten world countries in current, annual economic growth. The others range from rank 19 to 86. The GDP per person in these seven countries ranges from US$ 900 to US$ 3,100, with a median of US$ 1,500. The average for the world’s countries is US$ 11,800.

The comparisons of Kenya with Malaysia and Nigeria with Indonesia bear out Mr van der Veen’s assertions.

Interchange between the speakers and the audience

The two speakers acknowledged that each of these seven countries has started from a very low base of economic activity, so the figures for percent growth will naturally tend higher than for developed countries. Both also noted there is a big gap between the living conditions of the elite and the common people.

Ms Bjelström cited Africa as being a “victim of climate change” as a factor preventing greater economic growth.

Ms Bjelström referred to the findings of Freedom House for noting there are only five regional conflicts currently, compared to more in the past. I couldn’t find the source for this assertion, but here is a status summary for Sub-Saharan Africa issued by Freedom House:

Despite being home to several of the world’s worst performing countries in terms of respect for human rights, the region saw overall if uneven progress toward democratization during the 1990s and the early 2000s. However, recent years have seen backsliding among both the top performers, such as South Africa, and the more repressive countries, such as The Gambia and Ethiopia. Lack of adherence to the rule of law, infringements on the freedoms of expression and association, widespread corruption, and discrimination against women and the LGBT community remain serious problems in many countries. Across the continent, Freedom House works to strengthen elections and civic mobilization, good governance, defense of human rights, rule of law, and independent media. (Click on the link to Freedom House to access remarks for individual countries).

The “silent revolution” mentioned in the documentary includes government tax revenues going toward social programs. Mr van der Veen asserted that the tax revenue would be better spent on physical infrastructure.

China is investing heavily in selected countries of Africa, mostly in minerals and high-tech industries. Brazil’s investments are offering  “know-how” and “soft-tech.” These and other foreign countries are investing in land and bringing foreign workers to Africa.


Despite areas of improvement and optimism presented by Ms Bjelström, nothing substantive seems to have changed in the economic policies of the African countries discussed. Most of the resources for improvement seem to be coming from foreign countries, not from the basis for a developing country’s wealth—its agricultural base.


The Dismal Record of African Leadership…


…and the Past Role of European Countries

Who am I to say this, and how dare I say it?

I am merely responding to the announcement made by the prize committee of The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership that no prize will be awarded this year. Here is the press release. The main web page of the parent organization describes the nature and origin of the prize:

The Ibrahim Prize recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership. The prize is awarded to a democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country’s constitution and has left office in the last three years.

The Ibrahim Prize consists of US$5million over 10 years and US$200,000 annually for life thereafter. It is the largest annually awarded prize in the world. The Foundation will consider granting a further $200,000 per year, for 10 years, towards public interest activities and good causes espoused by the winner.

In October 2006, Dr. Ibrahim launched the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to support good governance and great leadership in Africa. In 2007, Dr. Ibrahim stepped down as Chairman of Celtel International to concentrate on this initiative.

Founded in 1998, Celtel International has brought the benefits of mobile communications to millions of people across the African continent. The company operates in 15 African countries, covering more than a third of the continent’s population, and has invested more than US$750 million in Africa. In 2005, Celtel International was sold to MTC Kuwait for $3.4 billion.

Before I tell you of the past winners of this prize, I want to draw a picture for you of the grievous state of governance and leadership throughout the continent of Africa by calling attention to a few historical and present facts and factors.

Facts on Africa

There are 53 internationally recognized countries in the continent of Africa, including the six island states of: Cape Verde, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Seychelles.

Of these 53 states, 52 are former colonies of, or protectorates of, or were occupied by, one or more of several states in Europe: Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. The only country not so colonized or dominated, Liberia, was settled by freed slaves from the USA, its territory having been expropriated in 1822 from the many local tribes who had not formed a nation state.

[Image Source. Please click on the image for greater clarity]

To get a notion of the relative poverty of living even at the world average GDP per person per year of US $10,400, here are the figures (in US Dollars) of the top 20 countries and the European Union, which has 27 countries in its membership:

[Please click on the image for greater clarity]

  • Fifty-two of the world’s 192 countries have a GDP/person below $2,300 per year. Thirty-six of these countries are in Africa. Think of it: on average, the 689 million people in these 36 African countries subsist at a level approximately 7%, and less, of that enjoyed by the average person in a European Union country. The savagely-led country of Zimbabwe is at $200 per person per year. Zimbabwe’s dictator, President Robert Gabriel Karigamombe Mugabe, has been in power for almost 30 years, ever since the predecessor country, Rhodesia, was overthrown.

As mentioned above, every one of Africa’s countries, except Liberia, has been, at one time or another and in varying degrees, a vassal state of one or more European countries. It is well known that, with some exceptions, these states, while under foreign domination, were stripped of natural resources and essentially plundered. The stripping of natural resources continues in most of these countries today, with relatively few examples where a diversified economy under true democratic rule obtains.

Of the six countries currently at a GDP level above the world average, most are still extracting minerals from the soil as the major part of their economy: oil, diamonds, manganese, timber.

It is well known that the world’s major economies have poured money and aid into Africa, to no lasting effect, again with a few exceptions. This, in my view, shows the futility of sending money and goods into countries to help people who are ruled by despots and thieves.

Dr. Mo Ibrahim has the better idea, in my view. As can be seen above and under the links provided, his foundation will reward with significant money and recognition those African leaders who turn away from pillage and one-man rule, toward democracy that is not merely in name only; and, toward raising the standard of living for the people through good husbandry of resources and in diversifying the economy.

The prize has been awarded since 2007. Here are the awardees (text and photos taken directly from the foundation’s website):

Joaquim Alberto Chissano, 2007—Mozambique

In 1992, President Chissano helped to end Mozambique’s 16-year civil war and reconcile a divided nation, working tirelessly to negotiate piece with the RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana) rebel group. To cement the reconciliation President Chissano offered 15,000 places in Mozambique’s 30,000-strong army to former opposition RENAMO soldiers.

President Chissano implemented a deliberate shift from Marxist-Leninist ideology to multiparty democracy and a mixed economy. He successfully negotiated a reduction in Mozambique’s debt repayments and oversaw reforms that have led to sustained economic growth. During his time in office, Mozambique began the journey of reconstruction and development, with improvements in healthcare, increased access to education and greater empowerment of women.

Between 2003 and 2004, President Chissano served as Chair of the African Union. During his presidency he was a powerful advocate for Africa on the international stage, particularly in promoting the debt relief agenda.

Festus Gontebanye Mogae, 2008—Botswana

At his inauguration ceremony in 1998, President Mogae vowed to address poverty and unemployment. His time in office was characterised by programmes to develop education and health infrastructure, and to privatise parts of the economy, notably the airlines and telecommunications industry.

Under President Mogae’s stewardship of the economy and careful management of the country’s mineral resources, Botswana experienced the steady economic growth that has characterised its post-independence history. Having been one of the poorest African countries at the time of independence, President Mogae consolidated Botswana’s place as one of the most prosperous countries on the continent.

After decades of enforcing strict anti-corruption measures, Botswana is regularly ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. Describing the principles that guided his time in office in his final State of the Nation address, President Mogae said that “prudent, transparent and honest use of national resources for your benefit has been my guiding principle and code of conduct”.

Following the Botswana Democratic Party’s victory in the October 2004 General Election, President Mogae was sworn in for a second term in November 2004. He again promised to fight poverty and unemployment, and pledged to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Botswana by 2016.

In April 2008, in accordance with Botswana’s constitution, President Mogae stepped down as President, having served two terms in government. He was succeeded by Seretse Khama Ian Khama.


In the face of massive aid in money and goods perennially provided African people by other countries and NGOs through the governments of their respective countries, small and direct-to-the-people efforts pay off at least equally well. In the above photo showing orphans in Kenya, you will see Jacinta Njoroge Lahti, a native of Kenya and a resident of Sweden, who founded the depicted orphanage and school. She is a member of the Rotary Club of Stockholm International, which club continues to be a major supporter of the school.

Note on figures used in this article

All figures were derived from The CIA World FactBook