Africa Colonialism Democracy

Africa – The Invisible Continent

The tragic plight of the people of Africa who have suffered the effects of war, poverty and disease is often missing from the global news radar screen. This article focuses on some of those problems in order to highlight the needs of Africa and to consider the solutions offered by Islam, a living faith, to help resolve the problems of this troubled continent.

For the June 2002 G8 summit, a briefing was prepared by the Action for Southern Africa and the World Development Movement. It states the following with regard to the economic and political problems of the African continent:

‘It is undeniable that there has been poor governance, corruption and mismanagement in Africa. However, the briefing reveals the context – the legacy of colonialism, the support of the G8 for repressive regimes in the Cold War, the creation of the debt trap, the massive failure of Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank and the deeply unfair rules on international trade. The role of the G8 in creating the conditions for Africa’s crisis cannot be denied. Its overriding responsibility must be to put its own house in order, and to end the unjust policies that are inhibiting Africa’s development.’

A world of gentleness, compassion, sharing, co-operation, justice, mercy, equality, non-discrimination, progress and prosperity is not a fool’s dream. However, the way to such a world is only through God Almighty. With the effort of the African people supported by the sincere, patient and persistent effort of the First World, we will see great progress but success will only come through Divine Grace.

Hunger, disease and ignorance are today not ineradicable. A tithe of the effort, energy and resources that are once again to be diverted towards the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, if employed in the service of man, would eliminate hunger, preventable or curable disease and ignorance. What is needed is a deep sense of accountability to God, for all His bounties. Every accession of knowledge is a Divine bounty and His Law regulating this is:

…If you are grateful, I will, surely, bestow more favours on you; but if you are ungrateful, then know that My punishment is severe indeed. (Ch.14:V.8)

Hence, a clear warning that a misuse of Divine bounties would convert them into instruments of ruin and misfortune. History is a continuous dynamic process. Prosperous nations of today may become the vanquished nations of tomorrow.

War in Africa

Africa at present is the theatre of the greatest number of conflicts on the face of the earth. According to the international development organisation, since 1980, no less than 28 Sub-Saharan African states have been at war, the vast majority of them intra-State in origin. At present, 14 of the 53 countries of Africa are afflicted by armed conflicts, accounting for more than half of all war-related deaths worldwide and resulting in more than 8 million refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. The consequences of those conflicts have seriously undermined Africa’s efforts to ensure long-term stability, prosperity and peace for its peoples.1

Wars in the Developing World are a great boon for arms traders in helping to enrich their own economies. However, for Africa wars have been a great catastrophe, an obvious obstacle to economic growth. The Holy Qur’an has repeatedly condemned war, declaring it to be a destructive fire running counter to the object of creation:

…Whenever they kindle a fire for war, Allah extinguishes it. And they strive to create disorder in the earth, and Allah loves not those who create disorder. (Ch.5:V.65)

Root Cause of Instability – The Legacy of Colonialism

High levels of poverty, failed political institutions, economic dependence on natural resources, nepotism, lack of respect for rule of law and human rights violations are all common reasons heard for some of the causes of Africa’s problems. Although, not the only reasons, some root causes are often overlooked.

Despite the diversity and complexity of the problems facing Africa after independence, most have their roots in the unfair divisions of the continent by foreign powers. The effects on the colonised continent are well known. Yet, as it has been said, the purpose of studying history is not to deride human action, nor to weep over it or to hate it, but to understand it. And hopefully then to learn from it as we contemplate the future.

Having abandoned the principles of absolute justice and thereby relinquishing any chance of peace, the colonial powers scrambled for territory and arbitrarily divided African king-doms, states and communities in 1885; unrelated areas and peoples were just as arbitrarily joined together for the sole benefit of the colonisers. The artificial boundaries led to ethno-linguistic fragmentation of the countries and to bringing together many different ethnic people within a nation that did not reflect, nor have, in such a short period of time, the ability to accommodate or provide for, the cultural and ethnic diversity. Their economic interests were disregarded when dividing the natural wealth or minerals. Some states were left too small to be able to economically sustain themselves; others were made so large as to compromise and endanger the interests of smaller neighbouring states.

The newly independent African States inherited those colonial boundaries in the 1960s as they attempted to achieve national unity. The challenge was compounded by the fact that the framework of colonial laws and institutions, which some new States inherited, had been designed to exploit local divisions, not overcome them. Too often, the necessary building of national unity was pursued through the heavy centralisation of political and economic power and the suppression of political pluralism leading to a pattern of corruption, nepotism, complacency, the abuse of power, ethnically-based decisions and human rights abuses.

Predictably, political monopolies often led to corruption and the challenge of forging a genuine national identity from among disparate and often competing communities has remained.

The character of the commercial relations instituted by colonialism also created long-term distortions in the political economy of Africa. An export economy was created that extracted raw materials and returned manufactured goods. Transportation networks and related physical infrastructure were designed to orientate trade towards the metropolitan country, not to support the balanced growth of an indigenous economy.

Democracy in Africa

In his thoughtful report entitled “The causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa”, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:

‘There is a growing recognition among Africans themselves that the continent must look beyond its colonial past for the causes of current conflicts. Today more than ever, Africa must look at itself. The nature of political power in many African States, together with the real and perceived consequences of capturing and maintaining power, is a key source of conflict across the continent. It is frequently the case that political victory assumes a “winner-takes-all” form with respect to wealth and resources, patronage, and the prestige and prerogatives of office. A communal sense of advantage or disadvantage is often closely linked to this phenomenon, which is heightened in many cases by reliance on centralized and highly personalised forms of governance. Democratisation gives people a stake in society. Ensuring that people feel represented in the political life of their societies is essential.’

He continues:

‘Where there is insufficient accountability of leaders, lack of transparency in regimes, inadequate checks and balances, non-adherence to the rule of law, absence of peaceful means to change or replace leadership, or lack of respect for human rights, political control becomes excessively important, and the stakes become dangerously high. This situation is exacerbated when, as is often the case in Africa, the State is the major provider of employment and political parties are largely either regionally or ethnically based. In such circumstances, the multi-ethnic character of most African States makes conflict even more likely, leading to an often-violent politicisation of ethnicity. In extreme cases, rival com-munities may perceive that their security, perhaps their very survival, can be ensured only through control of State power. Conflict in such cases becomes virtually inevitable.’

With regard to the relationship between God and humanity, the Holy Qur’an clearly states:

…Surely, Allah changes not the condition of a people until they change that which is in their hearts… (Ch.13: V.12)

This verse has a dual meaning. Firstly, God will protect those blessings granted to them by Him as long as the people themselves do not squander them. Secondly, God will not alter the fate of such nations that do not initiate an earnest effort to change their situation.2

Democratisation may or may not give people a stake in society and it would be wrong to present it as a panacea for the political ills of the whole of Africa. Democracy is in vogue today and has been much lauded by the West. As the fourth Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(ru), explained that Islam does not present any political system, nor could it do that and still retain its claim to be a true world religion. This is because no political system can be conceived to be suitable for all the people of the globe at one single moment in history or in the future: their attitudes, their traditions, their education and social systems; many factors are involved to create a political system.

Some countries are travelling towards democracy and some are travelling away from democracy after having attained it. Islam could not have disregarded these factors when it remains silent on presenting a single political system. However, Islam does mention that which is most important in politics for mankind. The ways to dispense justice and responsibilities towards the people have been made manifestly clear in the Holy Qur’an.

Democracy is popularly defined as the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln). The most essential part of democracy is “for the people”. It so often happens that the government “of the people” is only in name. Most people are only represented in name for a short while. Most parties do not go for what is good for the people and most often go for power and for popular slogans.

The slogan “of the people, by the people” has also been used by some of the grimmest dictatorships of modern times. This democracy is evident in Russia and China and in so many other countries where the people choose politburo members and other representatives. So what is left of democracy? Hence, democracy in Pakistan would mean a different thing, as would democracy in Africa while the first two principles are the same.

The result is that very few democracies would reach the pinnacle of democracy, which is “for the people”. Most often than not they are for the individual rather than the people who have chosen them.

Islam leaves aside the first two elements and lays stress upon the third, “government for the people”. Here, the standards set are so high and absolute that they have no relativity in them. Take justice as an example. Justice as applied by all modern democracies has a relative meaning and is only applied when it favours one’s own side. The Holy Qur’an teaches:

O ye who believe!, be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness… (Ch.5:V.9)

The African Union, the Security Council and Peace

Leaders in the G8 Summit (2002) urged the African leaders to take concrete steps to tackle the difficult question of peace and stability in the continent. In response to this, the African Union was launched as a new continental organisation by African leaders at their 2002 Summit in Durban, empowered with a broad political mandate to aid conflict prevention and management. The Summit also created a new institution, the Peace and Security Council to support this mandate by being the focal point for issues of peace and security in Africa.

A Panel of the Wise, a continental early warning system and an African stand-by force would support the Council, comprising 15 elected Member States representing all regions of Africa. Early warning mechanisms of impending crisis are widely regarded as serving an important role in conflict prevention. The African Union force can intercede before tensions erupt into violent conflict.

The stand-by force needs to be deployed quickly on the ground, as the need arises. As Africa is a very large continent, it was decided to have 5 regional forces, which would be available for deployment, by the Peace and Security Council.

The Council is considered as the cornerstone of the peace and security architecture, however, the sub-regional organisations, the ‘building blocks’ of the architecture are considered to be equally important.  Numerous conflicts, war crimes and genocides have led to a change in thinking and a strong African determination to tackle their problems, as evidenced by such initiatives as the New Partnership on African Development (NEPAD) launched in 2001. NEPAD is an integrated socioeconomic development framework for Africa to steer the continent towards unification, integration and development. This resolve found tangible expression when the African Union set up a peacekeeping force in Burundi and the regional organisation, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), did likewise in Liberia and the Ivory Coast. The decision by ECOWAS countries to harmonise their policies and actions in Liberia was a key turning point in the peace process in that country.

Disparities in the International Response and the Need for Harmonisation

The success of any initiative relies on whether the external actors can show consensus of opinion. In relation to united action, the Holy Qur’an teaches pursuing all noble goals to attain peace, stability and economic progress, without bringing religion into the fold:

…And help one another in righteousness and piety; but help not one another in sin and transgression… (Holy Qur’an, Ch.5:V.3)

There is a great need to harmonise the policies and actions of the international community. In many cases, both in Africa and elsewhere, the failure of the major external actors to maintain a common political or humanitarian approach to an erupting or on-going crisis is one of the principal impediments to progress towards a solution.

Most if not all the G8 countries have bilateral agreements with individual African countries. However, this needs streamlining as each of the G8 countries, for example, may be training and working with particular countries on the African continent that may not necessarily be consistent with what is planned by the Peace and Security Council. This emphasises the need to reaffirm commitment to the G8 Africa Action Plan. This is all-embracing and limits the possibility of pulling in different directions because of particular national agendas. An example of this is the Millennium Challenge Account, where the US decides which countries to target based on various criteria. Again, the African leaders want to target the whole continent by sticking to the G8 Africa Action Plan. This plan also includes a comprehensive African agricultural program. This has also been completed. However, due to weak infrastructure how does Nigeria move its surplus of cassava, for example, to countries of West Africa? All this requires support from the EU and the G8 to strengthen the agricultural trading system.3

In some parts of Africa, such as South Africa, the country does all the right things and still has a high level of unemployment. High economic growth does not translate into low unemployment. The modern economy as it grows, needs skilled workers, which are not available and must be imported from abroad. Many of those who have the skills migrate to other more prosperous parts of the globe. The South African economy is strong enough to be able to offer training to some of its unskilled workers. This is impossible for the poorer countries.4

The Africans have been looking to the European Union example in tackling the problem in poorer countries. The European Structural Funds are designed to assist poorer regions of Member States that compare unfavourably with the Union’s average levels of prosperity to help them regenerate their economies and create new jobs. Hence, easing the burden of debt and transferring resources from the developed to the developing countries becomes an urgent matter.5

Africa’s Debt Crisis

One politician has described Africa’s debt burdens as  “the new economy’s chains of slavery.” The All Africa Conference of Churches, which groups more than 150 denominations from around the continent, calls the debt “a new form of slavery as vicious as the slave trade.” The imagery invoking these historical crimes against Africa is powerful. Yet it is still hard for many of us to see the connections between human suffering and the seemingly impersonal workings of the international economy. When debt payments come first, with macro-economic adjustment policies imposed by creditors, health and education budgets are squeezed to the bone. So are other long-term investments necessary for development.

The debt crisis is partly the result of the unjust transfer of the debts of the colonising states. The newly independent States had US$59 billion of debt imposed upon them. This debt increased rapidly due to an interest rate that was set at 14%. They were saddled with a heavy burden of debt even before they had a chance to get their economies up and running. For the developing world as a whole, US$550 billion has been paid in both principal and interest over the last three decades, on US$540 billion of loans, and yet there is still a US$523 billion debt burden. Hence, debt replicates itself on an even greater scale; only cancelling the debt can break this cycle. The G8 Africa Action Plan was also committed to reassess the question of debt. Some progress has been made but there is still a long way to go. There was plenty of spin to go round prior to the 2005 G8 Summit in the UK. Many were led to believe that public pressure had succeeded in getting the G8 to make positive changes. Only a few of the countries got their debt relief. The relief is spread over some 40 years and is still tied to many economic conditions, which have caused poverty and debt in the first place.6

Fair Trade

Rich countries limit and control the poor countries’ share of the global market by charging high taxes on imported goods. This means poor countries can only afford to export raw materials, which give far lower returns than finished products. Poor countries are threatened with having loans withheld unless they open their markets to rich countries’ exports. This forced liberal-isation means their infant industries do not have a chance to grow, as they have no control on imports. Instead of trading with rich countries, they have to rely on aid that comes with many strings attached.

The practice of dumping is killing off Africa. This is where a rich country and a poor country sell the same product. The farmers in the rich countries are subsidised thereby making their products cheaper. Over-production by farmers is encouraged by the rich nation and the surplus is exported to the poor country. Local farmers of the poor country cannot compete with these artificially cheap imports and are driven deeper into poverty while the rich get richer.

According to Oxfam, if the developing world increased their share of world exports by just 1%, the resulting gains could lift 128 million people out of poverty.

Economic Sanctions

A popular tool employed to put pressure on the principal actors in a conflict by the international community is the use of economic sanctions. Dr. Kofi Annan suggests that in many cases, the hardship imposed on the civilian population is greatly disproportionate to the likely impact of the sanctions on the behaviour of the ringleaders. Greater use should be made of sanctions aimed at decision-makers and their families, including the freezing of personal and organisational assets as well as restrictions on travel. The international arms merchants make heavy profits from conflicts in Africa. Public identification of international arms merchants and their activities has proved elusive, but perhaps no other single initiative would do more to help combat the flow of illicit arms to Africa – a trade that is made possible largely by the secrecy that surrounds it. Where arms embargoes are imposed it is necessary for countries not only to refrain from official transactions but also to seek to discourage their nationals or corporations from violating such sanctions.7

Steps Towards Economic Prosperity

According to Islam, in these circumstances, the first step towards economic progress is to campaign for austere living. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening in Africa generating many problems. The leaders ought to take the lead and demonstrate to the masses how to lead simple lives. They ought to lower their own standard of living by channelling money from the rich to the poor. In this way they would be rendering a service to their people. This in turn would create trust between the ruler and the ruled. As Confucius(as) admonishes:

‘The accumulation of wealth is the way to scatter the people; and the letting it be scattered among them is the way to collect the people.’ (Great Learning, 10:9)

The developing world extends its begging bowl to the affluent nations. A beggar can never live with dignity and freedom but must settle for dishonour and humiliation. The developing nations must rise up for their own defence. Without this they can neither gain freedom from their own armies nor from their ills or bad morals. It is true that diseases develop from bacteria. However, bacteria cannot harm a healthy body.

Based upon the philosophy of cooperation enunciated by the Holy Qur’an (Ch.5:V.3), the need to establish common markets for economic co-operation is essential. Economic independence is essential for the nations of Africa by forming economic commonwealths like the EU in Europe to become self-sufficient in food and industry. This would help in securing independence and freedom. Regional conflicts must be resolved for this to be possible; otherwise, all avenues for the developing world are sealed off. African States can help to diminish the need for large military expenditures by implementing transparency and confidence-building measures in the military and security fields.

This can be achieved through the signing of non-aggression pacts and security co-operation agreements, participation in joint military training exercises and patrols, and the harmonisation of policies against illicit arms trafficking. The pooling of sovereignty in the consolidation of regional economic associations, as building blocs of an African Economic Union, will help make Africa’s voice heard in the capitals of a world increasingly defined by regional blocs within the global economy.

Importance of Education

In some parts of Africa, slavery or colonial administration had almost erased cultures and community with an “education” and “civilising” program that gave Africans only a minimal skill set that served colonial interests. In addition to frequently imposing unfavourable terms of trade, economic activities that were strongly skewed towards extractive industries and primary commodities for export stimulated little demand for steady and widespread improvements in the skills and educational levels of the workforce. The present Head of the Worlwide Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V, offered the community’s services and resources to education, the highest priority in Africa.

Literacy remains a major barrier to the development of African countries. According to UNESCO, 136 million Africans were illiterate in 2000. Development will have little meaning unless much more money is spent on primary education. Nelson Mandela in his speech to the London School of Economics in 2000 had this to say about education in Africa:

“One of the greatest mistakes which is made by serious political commentators today is to judge us on the same basis by which you judge opinion makers in the old and advanced industrial countries, forgetting that for more than three centuries our people were denied the privileges which you take for granted. You went to the best schools in the country – well equipped with highly qualified educators; classrooms properly equipped with learning aids; where the language at school was identical to the language at home; with parents with a high level of educational accomplishment, who could help their children to grasp sophisticated concepts at an early age. But when you consider the situation of the blacks in Africa you come across a different state of affairs. Children who go to school without any learning aids, taught in a language which is not theirs, by teachers often not so very qualified. A child comes back from school normally to parents who have no educational background at all. Poor children eating porridge in the morning, porridge at lunch, porridge as their dinner, unable to concentrate, large families with little room to move about, a child who shares a room with about three or four others, no table, no chairs, doing their homework on the floor. These are the people who live in Africa today and I hope that when you make your assessment you will bear in mind this background. The people who run the governments in Africa today are people who were never given any opportunity to train in government, as many of you are. And I have no doubt that you will bear this in mind, not only in our discussions here but when examining the whole situation in Africa.”

Health and the AIDS Epidemic

Unknown in 1984, twenty years later AIDS was killing 6,000 people a day. Only one in 400 victims were taking retroviral drugs.8 Retroviral drugs available from the West are too expensive even at reduced prices. They would consume the totality of the health budget of South Africa, a relatively strong economy in the continent. The multinational pharmaceutical companies are more worried for their profits than the plight of African nations, for they have resisted African nations’ attempts to use generic versions of their expensive drugs or pursue other related policies. Oxfam went as far as accusing 39 of the world’s biggest drug companies of contributing to human rights violations by trying to prevent access to the needed drugs.9

Affordability is not the only problem. It is a directive of the World Health Organisation that medical infrastructure is put in place in order to dispense the medicines. This has to be done under very strict medical supervision because of the potential toxicity and patients need to be monitored day by day. A weak infrastructure only exacerbates the problem. On top of this, there are diseases opportunistic to AIDS (due to lower immunity) such as TB, Meningitis that have to be treated. Hence, a very comprehensive program is required to deal with the whole situation. On top of all this there are other diseases such as malaria, which is the biggest killer in the continent, that have developed resistance to the existing drugs.

Equality of Mankind and the Peaceful Coexistence of Religions

Most Westerners are apt to make the facile assumption that the nearer we approach to the global village the more the rest of the world will adopt the patterns and assume the trappings to which they have become accustomed, and that the world at large will take on ways that conform to their desires. The Islamic concept of equality is one that challenges the Western idea that equality means everyone should be the same. Rather, God says in the Holy Qur’an that He has created many different kinds of people in order to promote diversity and progress. All mankind is spiritually equal in the sight of God, but cannot possibly be physically equal or the same:

O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognise one another. Verily, the most honourable among you in the sight of Allah, is the most righteous among you. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Ch.49:V.14)

The worth of a man is not judged by the colour of his skin, his wealth, rank or social status, but his moral goodness and the manner in which he fulfils his duty to God and mankind. God divided humanity into tribes, nations and races to give them better knowledge of each other and to benefit from one another’s characteristics and qualities.

The cause of international differences is this superiority complex of some nations that gives birth to racism and looking down upon other people. The Holy Qur’an condemns such an attitude and directs:

Let not one people deride another people, who may be better than they. (Ch.49:V.12)

The last word may go to Nelson Mandela as his exhortation is completely in line with Islamic teaching. He says:

“As we enter the new millennium, as we strive to close that circle started five centuries ago, as we embark upon the regeneration of the much neglected continent of Africa to take its full place in the emerging new world order, can we join hands in a partnership for justice and peace? And can we again call upon the great spiritual values to help inspire humanity to rise to the best potential in itself, and this time truly to achieve those shared ideals for a better world for all its inhabitants? Ladies and gentlemen, when the Prophet Muhammad sent his oppressed followers to the African Christian King Negus of Abyssinia for safety, and they received his protection, was that not an example of tolerance and co-operation to be emulated today? Is that not a profound pointer to the role that religion can play, and the spiritual leadership it can provide, in bringing about the social renewal on our continent and in the world? …. If I may conclude with one more reference to the experience of our own country during the struggle against apartheid. The strength of inter-religious solidarity in action against apartheid, rather than mere harmony or co-existence, was critical in bringing that evil system to an end. This approach, rather than verbally competing claims, enabled each tradition to bring its best forward and place it at the service of all. I am confident that the religions of our continent will walk a similar path in the reconstruction and renewal of our continent. And in that way we shall play our full role in the creation of the new world order.”10


1. ‘The causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa’ by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

2. The Gulf Crisis and the New World Order by Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV(ru), p.296.

3. The Africa Agenda: A discussion with South African President Thabo Mbeki, 9th June 2004, authors Princeton N. Lyman and Thabo Mbeki, Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. TradeRelated/Debt.asp as at 25th August 2009.

7. ‘The causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa’ by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

8. ‘Why Africa?’ The Bar Human Rights Committee 2004 bi-annual lecture at St. Paul’s Cathedral by Sir Bob Geldof.

9. ‘Drug giants set to cause violation of human rights’, Oxfam Press Release, April 11, 2001

10. Lecture by President Nelson Mandela at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies ‘Renewal and Renaissance – towards a new world order’ Oxford, 11 July 1997.

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