from Africa in Transition

Does “Africa” Exist?

November 5, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Simon Kuper has published a thoughtful piece in the Financial Times that argues the word "Africa” has “lost what meaning it ever had and should be binned.” He argues that in 1969 (the year he was born in Uganda) the continent outside white-dominated southern Africa did have some things in common: decolonization, poverty, an agricultural economy, and, in effect, poor governance. However, especially since 2000 the experiences of different countries have diverged so much that talking about “Africa” now has about as much practical meaning as discussing “the Islamic world.”

He cites the democratic successes of Botswana and Ghana and the “repressive mini-Chinas like Rwanda and Ethiopia,” overlaying such traditional differences as language or ethnicity. He argues that even the concept of “Africa” owes much to outsiders–beginning with Herodotus. As he says, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the “most influential pan-Africanist,” was, in turn, deeply influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois (an American) and Marcus Garvey (a Jamaican who lived long in the United States).

To me, perhaps his most trenchant observation is that “Africa” sticks because outsiders pay the continent so little attention that its differences, distinctions, and nuances are lost. He also notes the influence of the Economist in framing our commonly accepted narrative. Hence in 2000 that newspaper dubbed Africa “The Hopeless Continent,” while in 2011, it was “Africa Rising,” and again in March 2013, “Africa Rising: A Hopeful Continent.” These broad narratives shaped the way we looked at a billion people.

Kuper is right to emphasize that there is not only enormous diversity among African countries, that diversity also exists within specific African countries. He quotes Morten Jervin to the effect that instead of asking “is Africa rising?” we should ask, “is Lusaka rising?” This observation is especially apposite in Nigeria, where Lagos is booming with an economy apparently bigger than that of many entire African states while the northeast is mired in a jihadist insurrection and poverty nationwide is not declining.

Kuper acknowledges that for many Africans, “Africa” still expresses an “emotional reality.” As national identity declines in the face of resurgent ethnic, religious, and regional loyalties, a common “African” identity might become more important in the future than it is now. That Africans share a common identity (wherever it might come from) is a basic assumption of the African Union and is a commonplace among academics.

For those of us who are often frustrated by glib generalizations and bumper stickers about the world’s second largest continent, Kuper’s article is a breath of fresh air.

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