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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
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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 stabilized.

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 or less.

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 local production.

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 artificial borders.

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 situation.