Economics and Politics of Africa
*Today, 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 civil war.

*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 Mauritania.

*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.

*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 companies.

*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 gold investors.

*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.

This page last updated 7 November, 2005.