Economics and Politics of Africa
45 of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa call themselves republics or
(in the case of Ethiopia (since overthrowing Haile Selassie in 1974)
and Nigeria) federal republics, although many of them have had the same
dictators or strongmen for decades, or have had numerous periods of
*Mauritania calls itself an Islamic Republic, but is not nearly as
fundamentalist as Iran (or the former Taliban-dominated
Afghanistan). Mauritania has a mixed population of White Moors
(more or less Arabic peoples), Black Moors (black Moslems who speak the
same dialect of Arabic as the White Moors), and non-Moors (mostly black
peoples native to the area). These three groups (especially the
non-Moors) have often been in conflict. Still, Mauritania has had
relatively free democratic elections since 1992, although recently
there has been a military coup, and democracy may be ending in
*Swaziland is a monarchy (ruled by the King and the Great She-Elephant
(the queen mother), and Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy (in which
the king is a ceremonial figure only).
*Today, many African nations belong to the Commonwealth of Nations, a
group consisting of the UK and many former British Colonies (and, as a
special case, Mozambique). Many of these nations still recognise
Queen Elizabeth as head of state, and they have common cultural and
economic ties from their time as part of the British Empire. Of
course, many former colonies are not part of the Commonwealth. At
one time, the Commonwealth was an important economic bloc, and much of
it was a free trade area. Today it is more of a diplomatic club,
whose members mainly benefit from a chance to engage in diplomacy
together, and its power is declining.
*All of Africa except Morocco (but including Western Sahara) is part of
the African Union. This is meant to be an African version of the
EU, but it works more like an African UN. It can set diplomatic
policies, and has recently sent military forces into areas suffering
from civil war, and it aims to promote democracy, human rights,
development, and pan-Africanism (in which it is led by Colonel Muammar
al-Qaddafi, who has been frustrated by the slow pace of pan-Arabism,
and whose nation is relatively wealthy and stable by African standards).
*Today the AU is not yet particularly powerful, but it seems to be
growing in importance and in its desire to bring peace and democracy to
*Africa’s economy, for the most part, remains a colonial economy, and has actually suffered since decolonisation.
*Initially, Africa did well after WWII and in the early post-colonial
period. However, a combination of local drought in the late 1960s
and early 1970s and a world-wide recession in the 1970s (caused in
large part by the Oil Crisis (caused by OPEC’s anger at western support
for Israel during the Yom Kippur War) hurt Africa badly and, unlike
most of the rest of the world, it not only did not recover, but
continued to go downhill, in large part due to the region’s political
instability (some of which was exacerbated by the Cold War). It
was estimated in 1970 that 10% of the world’s poor people lived in
Africa; in 2000, half of the world’s poor were Africans.
*The richest parts of Africa are North Africa, which benefits from
trade with Europe and, in many cases, from oil, and Southern Africa,
which benefits mostly from its proximity to South Africa, the most
developed economy in the region (and home to Africa’s major gold,
diamond, and copper reserves).
*There are also a few wealthy states near the equator, especially Gabon
and Equatorial Guinea, which have taken advantage of their oil
reserves. Nigeria also has large oil reserves—among the largest
in the world—but they have not yet been fully tapped, and most of
Nigeria’s oil wells are owned by foreign companies, so not much of
their money remains in the country.
*Africa relies more on agriculture than any other continent, with over
60% of Africans employed in agriculture. Of those, 3/5 of them
(1/3 of all Africans) are subsistence farmers, making only a small
surplus for trade. However, a significant number of large farms
producing cash crops (such as coffee, cotton, cocoa, fruits, and
rubber) also exist, although many of these are owned by foreign
*Manufacturing is not very important in Africa—only 15% of Africans are
employed in the industrial sector. This is due in large part to
the lack of an educated workforce and the lack of affordable, reliable
electricity or good transportation networks. There are also few
markets for finished goods in most African countries. The
exception to all of this is South Africa, which has (relatively)
thriving industries and healthy markets for its own products.
*Although mining and petroleum drilling are the major sources of
products for export in Africa, less than ¼ of 1% of the
population is employed directly in these industries.
*About 25% of Africans are employed in some form of services, often by
their own governments, although South Africa has a healthy banking
system, its own stock market, and growing retail chains. South
Africa is famous for minting the Krugerrand, a popular bullion coin for
*Despite having much smaller service and industrial sectors than the
rest of the world, Africa is still making the transition from the
traditional to a modern world, so its birth rate is currently well
exceeding its death rate, and although the death rate in Africa is the
highest in the world (thanks in large part to AIDS), so is its birth
rate. Consequently, Africa is one of the fastest growing parts of
the world, but it is also the least stable.
*Poverty, political instability, and ancient (and modern) ethnic and
national rivalries have led to repeated warfare in modern Africa.
*Since 1990, Africa has seen major civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone,
Congo, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, and elsewhere, as well as border wards
between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In most cases, the outside world
(especially the former colonial powers) has tried to prevent
this: the UK sent troops to Sierra Leone, France sent men to Cote
d’Ivoire, the African Union has policed the Congo, and the US even sent
some troops to Liberia.
*Many of these wars have been especially inhumane, notable for their
use of child soldiers (especially the kidnappers of the Lord’s
Resistance Army in Uganda), rape, torture, and, in some cases,
cannibalism (notably in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Congo). Many
of these wars have been funded, in part, by the sale of Africa’s
natural resources, most famously ‘conflict diamonds’ or ‘blood
diamonds,’ although the UN and several major diamond brokerages have
attempted to outlaw or prevent the sale of diamonds from areas where
the money may be used to fund war.
*Besides suffering from colonialism, famine, and political instability,
Africa also has a lot of difficult terrain, which impedes trade, a
multiplicity of languages which makes doing business difficult
(although English, French, and Swahili serve as lingua franca for some
regions, despite not being the first language of many Africans), and
the problems created by widespread disease and warfare. Political
instability and warfare have led many companies to stop investing in
Africa, and many of Africa’s best and brightest to head elsewhere,
causing a ‘brain drain’.
*Some economists have speculated that Africa would benefit from Import
Substitution Industrialisation—cutting itself off from the rest of the
world, and becoming more self-sufficient.
*Others have blamed agricultural subsidies in the USA, Europe, and Asia
(especially Japan), which prevent African farmers from exporting food
to those countries at competitive prices, despite the cheap cost to
produce and ship African fruits and other foods.
*On the other hand, there are some signs that things may improve.
Mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable and relatively
affordable pieces of technology are opening up the future to average
Africans. With a mobile phone, anyone can be a businessman,
calling other villages to know where the best prices to buy and sell
are, and keeping up with the larger world.
*The rest of the world is also increasingly sympathetic to
Africa. Foreign aid offers money to developing countries,
although often comes with many strings attached.
*Debt relief is an increasingly popular topic in world politics,
although not much has actually been done. This is the notion of
simply forgiving debts owed by poor countries to rich ones, or to
international lending institutions like the World Bank or the
International Monetary Fund.
*To-day, Africa seems slightly more stable than it did five or ten
years ago, but this may be an illusion, and it remains one of the least
successful and developed parts of the world.