The problem with Africa

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Ta-Nehisi Coates takes to task those who enjoy spectacles like Zimbabwe as evidence that Africa can't govern itself and was better off under colonial rule. I quite agree. This argument seems to be generally advanced by people who think that the entire continent is composed of Zimbabwe, Congo, Angola, Rwanda, and Sudan--i.e., the places they've seen in the news. Africa has dozens of countries. Most of them are poor. They were also poor under colonial rule.

Nor is the fact that the places where whites stayed were unusually prosperous evidence that Africa sucks weasels. The whites stayed there because they were unusually prosperous--they went to those places with the highly arable land, the natural resources, and the navigable rivers.

I also take a moment to brush aside the notion that Africa is poor because they have naturally low IQs. Theoretically, such a thing is possible--there's no reason to believe that cognitive ability couldn't cluster more tightly in some populations. But you can't prove it by Africa, because African poverty is in the range that indisputably causes low cognitive ability: malnutrition and disease in early childhood permanently retard cognitive development. People who rely on small surveys of a few hundred people in each African nation to draw sweeping conclusions about the continent's future are engaging in the exact opposite of science.

I'm not trying to pretend that Africa's decolonialization has not involved some colossal screw-ups, or that most of Africa's political and economic institutions couldn't be a whole lot better. But African poverty and political culture is complicated; there is no simple theory that Explains It All, neither colonialism nor eugenics.

So why am I defending colonialism? As I said earlier, I'm not; the fact that most Zimbabweans might have been better off under Smith doesn't mean that they didn't deserve to be even better off under a government that didn't think blacks were not quite human. However, on any metric I can think of--ethnic violence, political rights, economic prosperity, social cohesion--ordinary Zimbabweans were probably better off in Old Rhodesia. It doesn't seem to be widely known that Mugabe went on his own reign of terror against other tribes he thought were political enemies; the current opposition battle is in part a tribal conflict, as I understand it. Mugabe hasn't been about empowering Africans; he's been empowering his tribesmen and especially his cronies.

But this just makes the point: Mugabe is not Africa. He is Robert Mugabe. He is not automatically better than the loathesome Ian Smith merely by virtue of being black, any more than his blackness is the problem with his government. He's a vicious thug who has destroyed a once prosperous country in order to hold onto power for a few more years. Surely, a quick reading of history should tell anyone that this is not some specially African problem.

I think that the assumption that any black leader was definitionally better than the Smith government is part of what enabled Mugabe. I don't mean on the part of Zimbabweans--you can hardly blame the subjects of a colonial regime for wanting one of their own in charge. But Western governments enabled him in part. And they did so because practically their only criteria was blackness--they didn't look, say, at the different ethnic groups within the country, because aren't all Africans the same? Nor did they look very hard at how he might rule, so long as he managed to be black. This is a way of infantilizing Africa--acting as if Mugabe is really the best they're capable of. Nearly every government in Africa is better than Mugabe's. We should have expected better.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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