Underdevelopment and Education in Africa

By Macleans A. Geo-JaJa

Among all of the struggles for economic development in our lifetimes, sub-Saharan Africa has been the most resistant. Times does not allow exploring all of the reasons for this, but two facts are worth noting:

1. Africa’s economic problem is not just undevelopment. It is underdevelopment. This, rather than being on the same upward path but behind other preceding nations, its development has been deliberately held ransom to the advantage of some of those advanced nations.

2. There is nowhere in Africa an indigenous education system designed to meet African needs. And 2, is very much a result of 1.

Prior to the industrial revolution, Africa was as advanced as any part of the world- a combination of empires and village societies, viable for the time and location. The continent was first shocked by the slave trade with its own people as the slavers but the future industrialists as the customers thereof. But with industrialism, the countries of Europe became competitors with each other, putting up trade barriers against that competition and in need of both raw materials and new markets. Africa was an obvious target for both. Note the transportation systems of African nations-ports and railroads obviously financed and constructed by European industrialist to bring raw materials out from the enclaves and market goods in the satellites, not to encourage interrelations among and between other African nations.

The scramble for raw materials and markets might have culminated in the wars among the European powers which might have enabled Africans to play them off against each other. But diplomacy closed that door in 1884-1885. The colonial powers of England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and, interestingly, King Leopold II acting for himself rather than Belgian met in Berlin to divide up the continent. Pre-existing governmental structures and institutions and tribal relations were ignored in favor of which raw material, what surplus labor or what export opportunity was most coveted by the European nations. Even with the eventual end of military colonialism after World War II, that pattern has never changed. Those indigenous leaders brought to power by the European imperialists became the neo-colonialists when the European political and military governors were driven out or withdraw, but Europe never lost its economic and cultural dominance of Africa.

A partial exception of this story is South Africa (and for a time Rhodesia) where the Europeans came to live and dominate, not just exploit from a distance. An important weapon in this colonial imperialism was imported education systems. These were designed to exalt the image of European societies, train a cadre of low level clerks and administrators to serve the needs (and ultimately become the neo-colonialists, though that was not the European intent) and shield from any intellectual or skill development those who were to be the wage slaves of the farms and mines. For these of the latter who resisted conscriptions, either land was taken away or tax schemes were imposed to remove all alternatives.

There can be no true economic development without education of and by African’s for African purposes. Neither can there be democracy and peace without a populous prepared to be both self-governing and mutually respectful with a commitment to Africanization, leaving behind the divide and conquer hatreds of colonialism which are the source of so much of current internal strife. Beyond the influence of family and religion, education is a key to the prevention of such events as the Hutus and Tutsis and human emancipation. The basic issues for an educational policy designed to liberate Africans from their state of decency deal with concept of man, his role in a special historical context, and the right perspective on which to base education work. This education must be centripetally oriented-base on local realities and directs its intellectual efforts towards the achievement of cultural freedom.

Macleans A. Geo-JaJa
David Eccles School of Business
University of Utah
Salt lake City, Utah

24 May 1999

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Copyright Africa Economic Analysis 2000