Rethinking African Progress African Development and the Significance of Sacrificial Generations

Is Africa’s current state of ‘underdevelopment’ directly related to the fact that millions of Africans did not die, suffer and become dispossessed in ancient wars of state formation and expansion?

Africa has often been described as the poorest continent on earth; and, indeed, since the 16th century, transforming African economies—which depended on slave and raw material exports—has proven difficult. At distinct moments in history, the slave trade, European colonialism, and post-colonial corruption have worsened the African situation. Yet, there is a need to rethink Africa’s delayed development in light of the costs that developing earlier would have entailed for the continent. For postcolonial Africa to have produced different development outcomes, large sacrifices needed to have been made by older African generations. Acknowledging this enables a ‘trans-generational’ perspective on African development.

Economic development has required three processes: state consolidation, capitalist transition, and structural transformation. State consolidation is the building of a state bureaucracy, a stable political settlement, tax capacity, and state monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Capitalist transition refers to a shift away from pre-capitalist to capitalist property rights and relations over land, labour, capital and production. Finally, structural transformation encapsulates the shift in economic resources, activity, and labour from low-productivity sectors (such as traditional agriculture) to higher productivity ones (such as manufacturing), which historically and theoretically entails industrial development. These processes also require substantial social costs—what I have termed ‘sacrificial generations’. This refers to a group of people who at a point in time experience a decline in quality of life (or even death), changing economic, political or social conditions, which are, in turn, disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time.

Historically and globally, economic development has required substantial sacrifices, however, these sacrifices are often not taken into account when considering Africa’s present state. Considering sacrificial generations, along the processes of African development, can enable greater appreciation of past African generations and engender more realistic solutions for achieving progress today.

Consolidating the State through Sacrificial Generations

As many historical sociologists demonstrate, the formation of nation-states in Europe since the 14th century cannot be dissociated from the processes of war and war-making. One dimension of this process has been labelled the ‘fiscal-military state’, which refers to a circular relationship between fiscal mobilization and war-making, such that they feed each other, with war-making requiring the development of tax capacity to mobilize finance, and finance requiring wars.

Precolonial African states had lower population densities than those in Eurasia. Low population density, in addition to ecological peculiarities, land abundance, and the reliance on rain-fed and shifting cultivation agriculture, limited state consolidation on the continent. The most consolidated states were those along trade routes, waterways and trading coasts. This limited state consolidation was because it was more costly for states to project power and extend territory through effective occupation. States were also more vulnerable to subjects emigrating from territories in protest of excessive taxation or absolutism, due to the abundance of land and limited reach of a state’s territorial occupation. This did not mean that social welfare was lower on the continent, or even that material capabilities were substantially lacking. Before the 16th century, Africa occupied ‘a middle position in the global rankings, as measured by technology, population, or power’. In addition, Africa’s many small or acephalous societies (societies with no or a very small and limited state) such as the pre-colonial Igbos, were more democratic than the absolutist centralized states in Europe.

However, having numerous decentralized communities meant that most of the continent could not react to the European colonial threat earlier than the 1880s, as the more centralized states such as Egypt, Asante, Ethiopia and Merina Empire did. They also could not minimize the export of humans during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. To create many African countries, colonial powers had to artificially string together several polities into one weak state. As a result, Africa has roughly as many states as Europe despite having a landmass 2.4 times the size of Europe. The consequence of such state formation is that post-colonial development is more complicated because weaker states find it more difficult to stabilize their polities, develop tax capacity, and provide public goods and developmental governance.

It is not a coincidence that the more centralized states such as the Asante, Buganda and Dahomey kingdoms, and Ethiopia, were the only ones in precolonial Africa to build large-scale public goods like roads. Furthermore, those that distribute public goods better in the post-colonial period are the ones that had greater levels of precolonial political centralization—Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Botswana, and those that attempted modernization before colonial occupation were also politically centralized states—Egypt, Zanzibar, Asante, Ethiopia, Merina Empire and Tunisia. States which had higher levels of precolonial centralization (and were able to provide public goods) had some continuity of traditionally legitimate rulers through colonial indirect rule, and through to the postcolonial period. In essence, Africa suffers the ‘penalties of progressiveness’, whereby what was once an advantage in various areas for certain past African generations (in terms of less large-scale wars of state formation and more democratic social orders) became a disadvantage in other areas for subsequent African generations.

In the 19th century, Africa was undergoing a flurry of state consolidations and a ‘military revolution’. Indigenous imperial expansions were already occurring at this time—Egypt conquering Sudan and seeking to expand to cover Ethiopia, threatening Zanzibar and the Horn of Africa; Abyssinian imperialism over the Oromo (leading to the death of about five million Oromo people in the process) and the rest of the Ethiopian region; the ‘black imperialism’ of the Americo-Liberian settler state towards surrounding indigenous polities. Nonetheless, several African states made attempts at material modernization in this century, including Asante, Ethiopia, Egypt, Madagascar and Tunisia. However, their paths were curbed by colonial subjugation, and although this colonial occupation brought an ‘imperial peace’ of lessened armed conflict on the continent, it brought its own spate of substantial barriers to state consolidation and structural transformation.

State formation and consolidation have historically involved sacrificial generations produced through war and war-making. The limited occurrence of such processes in precolonial Africa brought some benefits, including limiting African political absolutism and despotism, and limiting the war-related deaths of millions. Yet, a major cost was an African failure to resist the scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial occupation, as well as colonial and postcolonial difficulties in state consolidation and development policymaking. Similar sacrificial generations are involved in capitalist transitions where state power has historically been involved in commodifying land and labour and transforming pre-capitalist property rights through dispossession under non-democratic political regimes.

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalist Transition

Globally, the transition to capitalist property rights has been strongly linked to unjust destruction of pre-capitalist property rights and relations—what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In the neo-European settler colonies of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand it involved deliberate and undeliberate mass murder and land dispossession. In Western Europe, it involved the death of 30-50 per cent of the European population (as a result of the Bubonic plague) which created labour scarcity and undermined feudal property rights and relations from the 14th century, as well as enclosures of common lands from peasants.

This process is not always entirely negative. In South Korea, land redistribution to peasants occurred which underlaid rural development. However, in African settler colonies such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Namibia and Kenya, large-scale land expropriations, segregation and massacres occurred.

Where population densities were higher, large-scale depopulation or land expropriations had substantially greater social costs, such as in the African colonies. In these colonies where Europeans did not settle, colonial powers found it difficult or impossible to fully transform pre-capitalist property relations. Settler colonies were, therefore, able to achieve rapid property rights transformation, elimination of social groups that could have hindered their actions, and rapid economic growth for the white settlers, but only by sacrificing indigenous peoples and systems. Countries which were not settled, such as Nigeria, are still undergoing this transition from pre- and proto-capitalist to capitalist land markets and rights.

The capitalist transition is fraught with conflicts and often involves dispossession by the state and/or capitalist actors. Those who suffer this process are among the sacrificial generations that must be thought of when present assessments of the benefits of the economic system are made. The process of capitalist transition might also occur while structural transformation and industrial development is incipient or already occurring. During this process of industrialization, sacrificial generations of poor rural-urban migrants living with low real wages and urban squalor may emerge.

Sacrificial Generations and Structural Transformation

Historically, both among early and late industrializers, the transition from agrarian modes of production to industrial production is fraught with social turbulence and pauperism. This is linked to the process of capitalist transition whereby transferring land rights to private hands disrupts communal livelihood systems and creates a cadre of landless labourers. As Karl Polanyi posits, such labourers then have no option but to sell their labour for wages. With the development of industrial factories in urban areas, workers flock into the cities but start off with low wages, dependence on markets for the livelihood and without social insurance, exploitative working conditions, poor living standards and environmental pollution. Among the regional frontrunners of industrialization (England in Europe and Japan in Asia), real wages and living standards among unskilled workers took decades before they began to rise substantially. The experience of rural-urban migration and pauperism without robust social policy produced pauperism in the cities. The early 19th-century English experience greatly concerned thinkers in France at the time, too.

Similarly, and most recently, in industrial East Asian states such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, due to authoritarian regimes, labour repression during their early industrialization was the norm. In, South Africa, one of the largest industrial countries in Africa, this process involved the imposition of apartheid on the mostly black miners and industrial workers. In Egypt, one of the largest African economies, the standard of living of the fellahin (peasants) and industrial workers declined under Muhammad Ali Pasha (who was the first to modernize Egypt, 1805-1848). And in the Merina Empire of Madagascar, proto-industrialization involved the use of slave labour within its fanompoana system. Under non-democratic colonial or indigenous regimes, the industrialization process is fraught with social injustice. 

Africa’s Substitutionary Generations

Africa’s current state of ‘underdevelopment’ is directly related to the fact that millions of Africans did not die, suffer and become dispossessed in wars of state formation and expansion. Millions also did not fall prey to despotic transitions to capitalist property relations, and to industrialization under non-democratic regimes. For instance, many West Africans and Africans from former non-settler colonies marvel at the relative ‘development’ of South Africa, without regard for the sacrificial generations of the black indigenous communities in South Africa. However, such communities suffered from land expropriation, apartheid and other injustices that fuelled the processes of settler state formation, capitalist transition and industrialization.

Recognizing this, it is important for present generations of Africans to understand that when they struggle against the corruption of African leaders, land reforms, poverty rates, low income per capita, low tax capacity and so on, they are doing so as substitutes for past generations who may have been subject to larger-scale wars, death, expropriations and injustices.

There remains the need to proceed with the processes of state consolidation, capitalist transition and industrial development, but without the pressures, means of war and large-scale expropriation. Postcolonial African states are thus forced, unlike those in the past who had the means and power of coercion, to proceed with development more democratically (and perhaps more slowly) than their predecessors and colonial actors would have done. Consequently, there is a need to engage in greater experimentation and innovation, in policy and political engagement, in order to navigate contemporary global processes of political and economic development. Mushtaq Khan’s work in political settlements analysis is particularly useful here for its realism and pragmatism in approaching topics like corruption, rent-seeking, land reform and property rights, and industrial policy. This contrasts with prevailing narratives adopted by major actors such as Transparency International and the World Bank. Such narratives are often ahistorical and based on simplistic assumptions and perceptions about democracy, bureaucracy, industrialization, rent-seeking and property rights. They fail to contend with the complexity and conflict-ridden nature of the emergence of stable democracy and public accountability, state capacity, property rights, and industrial development.

A heterodox, historical and comparative approach, on the other hand, enables an acknowledgement that inter-generational sacrifices are real and that there is much work to be done. The substantial difficulties in shaping African economic policy and society in the face of fractious politics, ‘weak’ states, and low economic development (many of which have precolonial and colonial roots), are difficulties that any generation must face.

For the Future Generations

Historical awareness can introduce a new perspective to those confronting the difficulties of Africa’s development. Most people would be unwilling to make the sacrifices that they implicitly require past African generations to have made for Africa’s postcolonial developmental trajectory to be different than it is. These sacrifices would have entailed that millions be killed and oppressed through wars of state consolidation, dispossession through capitalist transitions, and squalor through the negative consequences of industrialization. It is, therefore, imperative for any African, and anyone who may seek to make pronouncements on the continent, to study the precolonial African state system and economic systems comparatively with the rest of the world. Africa’s ancestors have done well to develop agriculture, build societies and grow a diversity of rich cultures and civilizations that have been resilient, notwithstanding the challenges of multiple slave trades. The admirable attempts at Africa’s economic strengthening in the 19th century and the struggle for independence and African identity during the colonial era are further contributions made by Africa’s forebears. Postcolonial generations navigate adverse precolonial, colonial, and even postcolonial legacies. The present and future generations must now build upon the positive legacies left by their forebears; to innovate and experiment in order to push their societies forward

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].