How Africa developed Europe

Print edition : March 17, 2017

A lithograph published ca. 1880 showing a group of men, women and children being taken to a slave market. Without the slave trade, the African population would have grown and contributed positively to the continent’s economic development. Photo: Wellcome Library, London

The end of colonialism in Africa only freed the continent politically. The continuation of the exploitative structures whose foundations were laid in the precolonial and colonial phases has meant that African underdevelopment persists to this day.

AFRICA is looked down on as a poor underdeveloped continent, with military dictators or authoritarian rulers, a corrupt political system, poverty, malnutrition, hunger and outmigration. There are political motives behind this image creation, which completely camouflages the structural reasons for these problems. African underdevelopment cannot be comprehended fully without looking at it from a historical materialism perspective: the interaction (or forceful imposition) of capitalism over Africa from the precolonial period to now. As Rodney (1982) emphasised, African underdevelopment went hand in hand with European development. The contemporary image creation has the dual purpose of weakening resistance against the capitalist political economy within Africa and getting legitimacy and support from the imperialist’s own population for any kind of intervention in the name of democracy, human rights, and so on.

Precolonial period

Even though Africa had its own communal mode of production and other kinds of societal apparatus for a long time, the change in the Western political economy from feudalism to capitalism and its consequent material and labour needs brought major changes within the continent. The Atlantic slave trade, from 1519 to 1867, led to the capture and shipping of around 11.8 million (conservative estimate) people, 10 million of whom survived and were sold in the Americas. This trade took away a major chunk of the African labour force of able-bodied young men and women (Wright, 2007; Kachur, 2006).

Table 1 shows the stagnant population growth in Africa, which without enslavement would have grown and contributed positively to African economic development. Thus, the slave trade gave the European capitalist classes a starting push as their private ownership of the means of production along with free slave labour paved the way for capital accumulation. As Karl Marx said in his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I (1979, page 751): “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momentum of primitive accumulation, the necessary condition for capitalist production.”

When gold was discovered in Brazil, the supply of gold from Africa, especially Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), was discouraged to promote the slave trade. Further, the slave trade meant that agricultural activities were deprived of human labour, which resulted in famine and starvation in many places in Africa (Rodney, 1982, page 99). The reinvestment of surplus value (profits) from the slave trade helped in the inventions and innovations that strengthened capitalism.

In Britain, by the 18th century, owing to soil exhaustion, competition from the French West Indies and the disruption of the trade in staples, and the independence of British North American colonies, the slave system was weakened. The British manufacturing sector had grown to an extent where it required more markets and was no longer dependent on the slave system for its capital needs. The British stand against the slave trade was also against trade barriers, which restricted its trade relation with other countries (Eltis, 1987). When the slave trade became incompatible with industrial capitalism, which needs free labour, a direct imperialism was forced on the African continent for further exploitation of its resources.

Colonial forms of violence

The Industrial Revolution shifted the focus of Western capitalism from agriculture to industries, and this made a strong case for abolishing the slave trade. The end of slave labour needed some other system that could perpetuate the extraction of profit for the capitalist system to accumulate and grow. The primitive accumulation from slavery and international trade laid the foundation for the economic boom from the 1840s to the 1870s, which industrialised the pan-European countries and strengthened the capitalist political economy. International trade increased by 260 per cent between 1850 and 1870. But, the economic boom crashed by the beginning of the 1870s, which made European countries look for new places for raw materials and markets to regain the lost profits (Roper, 2013, page 199). This led the European countries to embark on colonialism to control the African states politically and exploit them economically for the continued growth of European capitalism. Between 1870 and 1900, the entire African continent was colonised except for a few countries in it.

Colonialism encompasses various forms of violence, the dominant one being forceful imposition of the capitalist political economy over primitive forms of political economy. Colonialism was an outcome of the contradictions of capitalism, where the falling rate of profit at a particular stage of capitalism forced countries to look for new environments or countries for the capitalist mode of production to continue exploitation and increase profits (Ake, 1981, page 19). What was needed for the full integration of Africa within the capitalist political economy was a common monetary medium for exchange and other trade activities. Local currencies such as the gold dinar, gold dust, cloth, copper, iron and cowries were used for transactions in Africa. The precolonial currencies were annihilated, the land was appropriated from local people and wage labourers were paid in European currency, the taxes imposed were to be paid in European currency, and the banking system started to transact in colonialist currency (Ake, 1981, page 32). Such measures deprived the local population of its land and subsistence agriculture, and remaining production had to be oriented towards colonial markets to pay taxes.

The proletarisation of the peasant class led to larger scale migrations towards wage labour, which in turn generated huge profits for the colonialist. The economic interest of the metropole was satisfied, and the colony was made into a monocrop, raw material supplier to the metropole without any diversification or industrialisation. Even the colonial investment in infrastructure and other administrative systems was made mainly to ease the transport of goods and to extract maximum profit, and not with the intention of developing or providing welfare for the colonies. All the investments were made with the aim of recovering the maximum profit within the shortest time and were not written off as necessary costs for running the colonies (Ake, 1981, page 38). The annual report of the colonial advisory committee indicated that by 1939 the British had allocated around £8 million for the colonies, of which £1,51,000 was for industrialisation. But, they spent only £23,000 for industrialisation (Brett, 1973). This was a deliberate act of ignoring the industrial development in the colonies to sustain their dependency on colonial manufactured goods.

African labour was used to exploit African resources, and finally the profits were transferred for European development. Using their political and military dominance along with a concocted idea of “racial superiority”, the colonial powers were able to exploit workers to the maximum. The lower wages and poor working conditions of African workers compared with white workers showed the intensified exploitation of the former. The shift towards cash crops for the market economy forced the majority of Africans to give up subsistence agriculture, which in turn led to hunger and famine in the continent. The Brazilian scientist Josue de Castro’s study revealed how diversified and varied agriculture production and consumption was in the precolonial period, which in turn maintained food security in African societies (Rodney, 1982, page 236).

The Italian colonisation of Eritrea, initially as an agriculture colony, to overcome agricultural failure in Italy had a great impact as the colonialist appropriated the major cultivable land and deprived the local population of land and livelihood. Between 1893 and 1895, Italians appropriated around 4,12,892 hectares of land in Eritrea, which was over one-fifth of its total arable land (Mesghenna, 1988, page 101). Further, the wage difference between Italians and the indigenous people showed the nature and extent of Italian colonialist exploitation (Table 2). Industrial development was discouraged to make Eritrea dependent on Italian goods (Houtart, 1980, page 85). Thus, colonial policies that allowed the appropriating of fertile land and the proletarisation of labour made Eritrea dependent on Italian goods, and it functioned as a mere supplier of raw materials and (almost) free labour for Italy’s overall development.

When cocoa cultivation was started in Ghana in 1885, other agricultural cultivation was discouraged. In 1901, Ghana became the biggest cocoa producer in the world, whereas by 1931, cocoa constituted around 80 per cent of its exports. This affected traditional food crops, the land use pattern, and farming methods (stagnation of new farming techniques) and led to uneven development of regions and a dependence on a few export crops (Ake, 1981, page 45). Further, colonial banks utilised African savings to generate capital to be loaned to European businessmen, and all earnings in Africa were spent on importing finished goods, which deprived the continent of any accumulation and created dependency on foreign capital. The trade dependency was strengthened as colonial trade was monopolised by colonisers, where they consciously blocked development and strengthening of the indigenous bourgeoisie class in Africa. For example, Eritreans paid 63 per cent more for Italian cotton yarn, 20 per cent more for the textile, 37 per cent more for gasoline and 31 per cent more for residual fuel. In a similar manner, Italy purchased Eritrean products at a much lower price (Mesghenna, 1988, page 207). Technological innovation and inventions were not shared and implemented fully in the colony, which created technological dependence on Europeans (Ake, 1981, page 55). But, this extracted profit formed the base capital for the overall scientific and technological development in Europe, which to date perpetuates the structures of dependency.

Postcolonial period

The end of colonialism in Africa only freed the continent politically. The international economic and political system after the Second World War, in the name of liberalism and free trade, pulled together all unequal countries (in terms of development in mode of production) to compete against each other in the open market. This in turn helped the continuation of the exploitative structures whose foundations were laid in Africa in the precolonial and colonial phases. Owing to a lack of access to technology, capital and skilled human resources, which colonialism stunted in Africa, the continent was not able to break out of the role of primary goods producer and supplier to the international market. The attempt at import substitution industrialisation (ISI) also failed and created more debt burden for African countries. Since colonialism never allowed the development of a strong bourgeoisie class in Africa, the state had to play a dominant role in the economy, and parastatals (public sector undertakings) became a common phenomenon in many states after independence (Ake, 1981, page 92). Developed countries, insisting on linear model of development based on modernisation theory, prescribed that African countries should open up their economies after independence to continue the trade relations.

The state took the dominant role in the economy because of the absence of a bourgeoisie class, and this laid the foundations for military rule or dictatorships in Africa as political control entailed control of economic resources. The struggle to control economic resources happened in the political arena among different social groups, further accentuating ethnic and other social conflicts. The oil crisis of the 1970s and its subsequent debt crisis have again opened up African economic, social and political spheres to the control of the erstwhile colonisers. Neoliberalism came to Africa in the form of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) that insisted on trade liberalisation, investment deregulation, privatisation of public utilities, and reform in the agriculture sector, the labour market, pensions, and so on.

The Structural Adjustment Participatory Review International Network (SAPRIN) report titled Structural Adjustment: The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis, Poverty and Inequality (2004), which studied the impact of SAPs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, highlights that SAPs led to impoverishment and marginalisation of the local population and further led to an increase in economic inequality in countries where they were implemented. Small- and medium-sized enterprises were forced out of the market because of trade policies and financial sector reforms, which opened up the local market to international enterprises. Agriculture reforms affected the diversified cultivation and destabilised food security. Privatisation reduced real wages and further withdrawal of the state increased unemployment. Reduction in public expenditure affected the quality of health and education. The growth performance of many countries went below the level of growth they had in the 1960s. African debt since 1980, when SAPs were implemented, has increased 400 per cent. Poverty worsened, with more than 48 per cent of the population living in absolute poverty (Fisher, 2001, page 199).

The report titled Honest Account? The True Story of Africa’s Billion Dollar Losses, prepared by Health Poverty Action and others, points out that around $134 billion comes into Africa in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid every year and around $192 billion goes out in the form of profits of multinational companies, tax evasion, and so on, resulting in a loss of $58 billion every year for Africa (Sharples, Jones, & Martin, 2014). This shows how the surplus extraction from Africa that started in the precolonial period is continuing in a different form, keeping the continent underdeveloped. The weak local bourgeoisie in Africa is acting as comprador to international finance capital, which drains the surplus value (profit) out of Africa and deprives it of any reinvestment.

Inequality is a functional component of the capitalist political economy as it has to appropriate wealth from one section of the population or one region of the world to another section or region to accumulate profit. This process of accumulation at the international level created development in pan-European countries and at the same time created underdevelopment in Africa and other Third World countries. The exploitation and underdevelopment of the African continent for centuries have created a situation where different ethnic, religious and tribal groups fight each other to control political power, which gives them access to economic resources. This in turn has led to civil wars, which have displaced huge numbers of people and forced huge numbers to migrate to the West. Thus, by nature capitalism can sustain or grow only by exploiting weaker sections of the population at the national level, and weaker or underdeveloped nations at the international level. So, trying to find a solution for African underdevelopment within the framework of the capitalist political economy seems to be an oxymoron.

S.V. Narayanan did his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was earlier teaching political science and international relations in Eritrea. At present he teaches political science in Andaman Law College, Port Blair.

The article is a modified version of the paper titled “Capitalism as ‘Profit Chameleon’: The Political Economy of African Outmigration and Refugee Crisis” that the author presented at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies on July 20-22, 2016, in Asmara, Eritrea.


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11. SAPRIN (2004): Structural Adjustment: The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis, Poverty and Inequality, London: ZED Books.

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