A shining and tragic historical legacy

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has sustained Ethiopian culture, spirituality, architecture and biodiversity since 328AD. Churches are surrounded by sacred forests which are viewed as a symbol of heaven on Earth. Credit: Kieran Dodds

Africa has been central to global affairs since its earliest recorded history. Early Egyptian civilisation transformed agriculture, science, art and writing, and became a foundational influence for later Mediterranean civilisations, creating architectural and archaeological masterpieces that still captivate us thousands of years later. Egypt is a significant nation in the Old Testament scriptures and was a refuge for Jesus and his family when they fled from Herod. Ethiopia was a great kingdom by the 1st century, converting to Christianity by the 4th century AD and maintaining an influential indigenous church until today. North Africa played a crucial trading role during the reigns of the Greek and Roman Empires. Timbuktu (in present-day Mali) founded one of the world’s first universities in 989AD and became a world leader in the book trade and a centre for scholarship as a result. The architectural wonder of Great Zimbabwe from the 11th century tells of a people who traded as an economic equal amongst great nations of the world.

Our people have also thrived. Mansa Musa, a ruler of Mali, is still considered the wealthiest man to have ever lived, bringing Solomonic organisation, governance and prosperity to West Africa between 1280 and 1337AD. The San people, the oldest people group on earth, have for thousands of years lived at peace with nature in a symbiotic relationship with creation.

Despite this important history, Africa is now recovering from over half a millennium of external oppression and exploitative trade.

Slavery led to the abduction of around 20 million African citizens over 400 years – stealing human potential and disrupting culture. Half of Africa’s population is estimated to have been abducted or killed in the accompanying conflict. The worst affected regions still show the impact of the slave trade even centuries later.22 Former slave trade areas are more likely to be divided, experience violent conflict, and have less developed political structures.

Colonialism artificially carved up the continent, creating arbitrary boundaries and destroying cultures. It undermined local governance systems and created an extractive economy for the benefit of non-African nations and powers, leaving Africans with centralised power structures and poor institutions, and without our plundered resources. Colonialism lasted for around 100 years, traumatising generations of people through its violent repression and undermining of African identity. It only ended in the lifetimes of Africans still alive and working today.

Post-colonialism and the Cold War continued to have an impact on Africa as former colonial powers worked to exert their influence through divisive tactics including monetary control, military pacts, assassinating ‘unfavourable’ leaders and sponsoring coups against newly elected free governments. Former colonisers’ interests distorted Africa’s economic development, as they encouraged industries that facilitated the processing of raw materials for export. On top of this, many nations were disrupted by the flow of ideology and weapons that came with the Cold War. The USA and USSR supported opposing sides in civil wars or propped up corrupt dictators for geopolitical reasons. This led to further divisions on the continent and left large quantities of military hardware and trained soldiers in its wake.

Structural adjustment programmes, imposed by the IMF and World Bank from the 1980s, led to extreme free market policies designed to control inflation and generate foreign exchange to pay off debts. Reductions in social spending and state institutional capacity, with growth in commodity exports and overseas imports, often led to increased unemployment, poverty and inequality in Africa.

Much of the African under-development, corruption, division, political instability and armed conflict we see now are a direct result of deliberate colonial and postcolonial policies and practices.