Historical causes of the current situation
The origin of humankind
Africa is the place of origin and centre of dispersion of the
human race. For this reason, its ethnic diversity is the richest on the planet.
From the peoples of Hamitic roots of the Sahara and Sahel to the Bantu groups of
the more humid regions of the forest periphery, and from the Pygmies of the
tropical rain forests to the Bushmen of the southern deserts and steppes, the
continent possesses the largest variety of clearly differentiated human groups.
African agricultural societies developed with the domestication
of cereal crops, such as sorghum and millet, and grazing animals (bovines,
sheep, goats, and, finally, camels), which allowed the establishment of more
sedentary communities in the savannas and associated forests. This process
probably began in the Nile, Sudanese, and Sahelian savannas, and spread south
and east. At least part of the African savanna is of secondary origin,
developing after the anthropogenic destruction of intertropical forests (mainly
through burning) as they were cleared for crop and animal production a few
thousand years ago.
The oldest focus of agricultural development was in the valleys
of the Nile and its tributaries. The main areas settled were the Nile delta, the
lower part of the Egyptian fluvial plains, the middle and upper Nile, the
northern zone of present-day Sudan (Nubia), the southern plains of the White
Nile (which flows northward from the Ugandan highlands), and the sedimentary
plains of the Blue Nile and Atbara rivers, both of which descend from the
Ethiopian plateau. This culture was based on the domestication of cereals, such
as wheat; controlling periodic flooding of the Nile alluvial plain; and
domestication of ruminants, such as Bovis primigenius. The agrarian culture
extended south along the main rivers to present-day Sudan and finally to
Ethiopia, where it remained isolated and relatively unchanged for a long time.
Agricultural development and the need for water management
promoted the evolution of state-type political structures in Egypt, based on a
theocratic and absolutist regime and ideology: the time of the pharaohs. The
political and ideological influence of this culture extended southward, as did
its agrarian aspects. The example of these agricultural states was replicated
first toward Ethiopia and Sudan and later westward along the Sudanese belt to
the Atlantic coast. The political empires of Ghana and Mali, the Hausa and
Songhai kingdoms, were based in large measure on this agrarian economy as well
as the political elements that went with it.
The Sudanese people were probably the first to domesticate
cattle in sub-Saharan Africa (a practice apparently adopted from the
Mediterranean region via Egypt and the Nile valley), and the Nilotic or Bantu
people were perhaps the first to grow some varieties of sorghum and millet. With
time, some groups (mainly Bantu) moved southeast, settling in the east African
savannas (in what is now Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe), where
agrarian states developed, such as the Zimbabwe civilization near
Harare. When European settlers arrived in South Africa, a process of gradual
encroachment of migrating agropastoral Bantu-speaking groups (the Tswana, Sotho,
Basuto, Zulu, and Swazi) was taking place, simultaneously displacing or
assimilating the Khoisan autochthonous groups (Hottentots and Bushmen).
Another important aspect of sub-Saharan evolution was the
development of trans-Saharan trade, both along the Atlantic coastal routes and
through the desert. In large measure, the prosperity of Carthage in Roman times
was due to its control of the trans-Saharan trade routes, through which it
received ivory, gold, and slaves. Later, after the Mohammedan expansion of the
8th century to the Maghreb, the Moorish and Moroccan empires also based their
power on controlling these trade routes into the heart of Africa. The
development of the Sudanese and Sahelian kingdoms was greatly facilitated by the
concentration of resources that resulted from this trade. Some of the Sahelian
cities (such as Timbuktu) developed and thrived as a result of this commercial
activity; important episodes of southward political expansion (particularly
Moroccan) brought lasting effects of Islam to the Sudan and the Sahel.
A parallel spread of Islam was taking place on the eastern
coast, particularly because of the Arab-Omani and the Malay influence and the
growth of sea trade in the Indian Ocean. As a result, several Afro-Arabian
cities developed Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Pemba, Mombasa, etc.
The rain forests remained unsettled for some time to come, until
forest-adapted domestic plant species appeared on the African scene. The white
yam (Dioscorea rotundata) and the yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) were
domesticated in West Africa. Other crops were introduced from Asia - old cocoyam
(Colocasia sp.) and the water yam (Dioscorea alata) - and later from America -
new cocoyam (Xanthosoma sp.) and cassavas (Hahn and Ker 1980, p. 5).
Raising domesticated animals in a forest environment was limited
because of the effect of the tsetse fly and other lethal diseases on cattle and
other large mammals (including humans). Later, first through deforestation and
later through efforts directed at insect pests, more extensive occupation of the
forest was possible.
Some of the more ancient groups, like the Pygmies, were the
first to move into the forest. They developed an extractive and itinerant
farming culture adapted to the complex jungle environment. These groups
developed well-adjusted, sustainable production systems that permitted their
survival in the hostile jungle environment with only minor changes for many
thousands of years.
For the Bantu-speaking (and other) farming people, the process
of occupation took place in a different manner. These groups were essentially
savanna dwellers. Unlike the Pygmies, who settled the forest from the inside,
this group approached from the periphery. Areas were cleared for farming and
used for only a few years because of the limited fertility of forest soils.
Subsequently, the farmers would move to a different site and continue the cycle.
With time, these peoples, with their two types of production
systems, spread throughout the rain-forest region: the itinerant farmers at the
periphery and in clearings and the forest people more symbiotically
adapted to the natural ecosystem. For many centuries, this dual and combined
approach to occupation and exploitation of the forest environment developed and
In forested regions, communication by land was difficult because
of the dense vegetation. Therefore, agricultural expansion occurred mainly along
fluvial paths, with small islands of human occupation. The agroforestry
societies formed by this process were isolated; their political units were very
small and their cultural diversity was great.
Africa in the 15th century
In the mid-15th century, when Portuguese explorers arrived in
Africa, they found a savanna region containing small and medium-sized kingdoms
based on combined agropastoral production systems and a commercial framework
structured along the trans-Saharan routes in the west, through the Nile valley
in the northeast, and along the Indian Ocean routes in the east.
These kingdoms were usually quite small, with populations of no
more than 30 or 40 thousand. They often remained within ethnically defined
borders, separating people of different cultures, ways of life, languages,
dialects, and religions. Their political organization was stable, but their
political configuration was not. In forest regions, local groups developed in
relative isolation and the resulting kingdoms were very small, normally with
several hundred or thousand people and covering a few hundred square kilometres
In any case, African political units were based on geographic
locale, a common agropastoral economic base, a particular situation in relation
to commercial fluxes, and, overall, common traditions, language, religion, and
culture. Occasionally, some groups dominated others or groups might merge or
divide. In general, however, they tended to stabilize according to national or
ethnic identities. In these political units, government structures were
relatively small: a ruling group or family with a small number of officials. The
ruling group or class was often determined by production surpluses
in the particular society.
Cities developed at the points of convergence of the trade
routes - Dongola in the Upper Nile, Timbuktu on the Niger, Mombasa and Dar es
Salaam on the Indian Ocean - giving rise to more powerful political entities,
with a larger concentration of population and resources, and well-defined
bureaucracies. In most cases, these cities controlled small territories and
acted as commercial-exchange centres.
The arrival of Europeans
European explorers, traders, and military forces arrived mainly
by sea, although, later, they penetrated the interior on foot, on horseback, or
by boat along the few navigable rivers. In the first phase, their arrival
promoted the development of several coastal ports. New commercial centres,
particularly slave-trading harbours, arose on the coast of Guinea (displacing
the Sahelian trade oases) and in the ports of eastern Africa. In the latter
phase, European forces gradually overpowered the Swahili and Arab elites, taking
control of the whole coastal zone.
The expansion of trade, together with colonization and
deforestation of coastal areas and the secondary savannas of the hinterland,
strengthened several African states - the Ashanti and Yoruba kingdoms in the
current territories of Ghana and Nigeria respectively.
Later, in the 19th century, when European powers consolidated
their control, they expanded toward the interior until a new political
distribution took place. This process of European colonization, which in
principle was based on slave trade, became reoriented toward the exploitation of
natural resources for export to Europe using slave or semi-slave labour. Copper
mines were opened in British Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), gold mines and
placers were established in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and banana, cocoa,
copra, and many other indigenous and introduced crops were grown throughout
other suitable areas. Gradually, the slave ports became exporting centres for
Colonial territorial boundaries were decided by political
agreements in Europe with no consideration of existing ethnic, linguistic,
cultural, and religious boundaries. Almost all European colonies in Africa
included people from various African nations, and many nations were divided by
Often, the new administrative systems ignored traditional
organizations, imposing unnatural units on the local peoples in an
authoritarian and arbitrary manner. In other cases, mainly in British areas,
traditional structures were adapted for colonial administration.
Inheriting irrational borders and colonial structure
When African independence movements succeeded, the newly formed
states had to deal with the artificial boundaries established by the Europeans.
In some cases, such as the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and Tanganyika (now
continental Tanzania), the new states were very large; in others, like the
Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, they were small or had odd configurations.
These nations are paying a price for these artificial
arrangements, which ignored traditional organizations and knowledge. In many
countries, the commercial crop-exporting systems have deteriorated, and
financial resources are insufficient to maintain state bureaucracies, paralyzing
administrative functions. In addition, the commercially oriented rural
productive system is increasingly unable to keep up production levels and
provide enough jobs; the result is massive rural migration to the cities.
The problem is not helped by the gradual decrease in farming
surpluses, necessary to feed the cities. In some countries, even the farmers are
having difficulties feeding themselves. Another important cause of the
overconcentration of people in cities is the migration and resettlement of
refugees of war (such as in Angola, Mozambique, and Somalia).
Unfortunately, there are neither jobs nor services for the millions moving to
urban areas, and conflicts between the various nations or tribes are becoming
more frequent, pushing many African societies into a chronic crisis