It's been a little more than 100 years since Europeans divided up Africa, adding vast territories to their colonial empires and radically changing the course of African history. Within three generations all of Africa changed hands; colonial powers returned home even more rapidly than they had arrived.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the independence of Britain's first black African colony, Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast. In the decade after Ghanaian independence, Britain divested itself of more square miles than comprises the United States. New nation after new nation-from Botswana to Zambia -was born.
France followed and dismantled her empire, the second biggest in Africa, though Paris still maintains economic and military control of some of her former territories on the continent.
Turmoil in former colonies
In the three or four decades after decolonization, Africa has been the only continent that has gone backward economically. Most people today are worse off than under colonial rule.
Before independence Ghanaians enjoyed a per-capita income greater than that of the people of Portugal. Today average income for urban African workers is only $30 per month, and Ghana is far from being the poorest nation on the continent.
One of the countries whose people have suffered most is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, renamed after its recent change of government. The second largest nation in Africa, it was a personal possession of the king of the Belgians earlier in this century before gaining independence suddenly in 1960. Unlike Ghana, which had been ruled by progressive governors for most of the 20th century and which had ample foreign-currency reserves and three thriving universities, Congo had nothing going for it. The Belgians had not prepared their subjects for self-rule and gave them only two weeks' notice of their departure. It's little wonder that the country has suffered greatly in the interim.
Some observers believe that the only glimmer of hope lies in Congo's recent change of leadership. The long-time president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in 1965, fled the country as rebel leader Laurent Kabila took control of Kinshasa, the capital and much of the nation's territory.
Many of its citizens welcome the prospect of change. Corruption has long prevailed under Mobutu's rulership, with people surrendering up to 80 percent of their pitifully small incomes in bribes to bureaucrats and police. Meanwhile, people die in hospitals for want of electricity or simple medication.
President Mobutu is accused of amassing enormous wealth in foreign bank accounts rather than spending the nation's resources on his own people.
So it's no surprise that many people are happy to see the end of the Mobutu era. What is surprising is that his 32-year era has lasted so long, but it would not have been possible without aid from Western nations, who saw Mobutu as a bulwark against communist expansion in Africa. Now Western powers, especially the United States and France, may reap the whirlwind as Laurent Kabila, a protŽgŽ of legendary Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera, consolidates power.
Government the core of the problem
Africa's greatest problem is government, or, more precisely, a lack of proper leadership in government. After gaining independence, many countries had bureaucracies that burgeoned rapidly at the time tax revenues dropped thanks to an increase in bribery and corruption and the flight of technocrats and businessmen.
While the wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a select few, the infrastructure of many emerging nations collapsed. Schools and hospitals deteriorated as teachers and doctors fled to Europe and America.
Is there any hope?
Yes. Africa's new generation of leaders can learn from the mistakes of the past.
Instead of being self-seeking, they can look to the example of Jesus Christ, who told His disciples that "whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant" (Matthew 20:27 Matthew 20:27And whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
American King James Version×, King James Version).
Leadership is an opportunity to serve others, to give without expecting to get. This is a difficult lesson for people to learn.
Western leaders need to remember this at a time of rampant corruption in government. What has helped richer countries is the realization-over centuries of historical experience-that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely, as British ambassador Lord Acton noted.
Leaders of African nations-not to mention other states around the world-would do well to heed what the Bible says about human nature and human leadership. The prophet Jeremiah's inspired observation that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9 Jeremiah 17:9The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
American King James Version×) applies to all people, including politicians. History has repeatedly and tragically demonstrated the truth of Jeremiah's words.
Africa would greatly benefit if its armies stayed out of power. Many nations have experienced violent coups d'etat that have brought the ill-educated to power. Of course, often they overthrew corrupt civilian administrations, but military rule rarely brings long-term benefits.
Although British- or American-style democracy may not always work in present-day Africa, it should be possible for African nations to apply biblical principles to minimize the abuses of power that have bankrupted much of the continent. This would go a long way to reining in corruption and its devastating consequences.
Examples of positive leadership
Some nations have learned their painful lesson and taken encouraging steps forward. After almost 30 years of corrupt and incompetent leaders, Ghana hit rock-bottom in the early 1980s. Bankrupt, it virtually ceased to function. It sought outside help.
Help came, but Ghana had to change. Governmental controls on every aspect of life had to be lifted. A free market was introduced, and eventually free elections took place.
The country is on the way to recovery, but it will be a long and slow process. Little of the newfound wealth has trickled down to the average Ghanaian.
South Africa, only recently added to the list of black-ruled African nations, seeks to maintain its system of checks and balances, avoiding the mistakes of its northern neighbors. But it must also learn the art of working together. As The Times magazine supplement (London) reported: "For thousands of South Africans, freedom will only truly have been achieved once they have forgiven their enemies-and for that to take place, they must first talk to them" (September 14, 1996).
Uganda is a shining example of a small nation building itself up again. Its leader, President Yoweri Museveni, introduced reforms that have turned the country around after three decades of corruption and chaos. Some observers believe that Museveni's friendship with Congo's new leader Kabila is an encouraging portent for the future.
Worldwide impact of local problems
Is any of this important to the West?
Western nations are heavily dependent on African countries for their mineral wealth, which provides much of the raw material to keep their industries going.
Problems in Africa impact the West in other ways as well. Immigration has become a major issue in some Western nations. Africans leave Africa for economic reasons. Sound economies at home would help ease the immigration burden overseas.
It is no longer possible for any nation to ignore the plight of another thousands of miles away. Western nations have a vested interest in helping Africa recover.
Africa is not beyond help. There is hope, even now, as some countries lead the way.
It is a continent that has always had a lot to offer to the human family-not only in its abundant natural resources, but in the enormous diversity of its people. For instance, some 1,300 languages are spoken in Africa. We look forward to the day when all of its national groups will have a full share of the world's prosperity, when drought and starvation shall have ceased with the establishment of the Kingdom of God ruling on earth.
That restoration of righteous rule shall bring leadership that this continent has never seen before. Righteous rulership, along with solutions to so many of humanity's problems through adherence to God's laws, will be the order of the day. GN