Africa And The Perennial Development Debacle

The current accumulation and experimentation of Western-informed models and ideas purporting to solve African problems is not only a very distressing and expensive effort, it is one that could end in futility. We contend that apart from the question of fabricating an African solution for an African problem, the resilience and determination of a newly emergent brigade of African managers driven by love for humanity, and faith/pride in the African destiny is imperative for charting the course of true and sustainable development for the African continent. Whereas we suspect that much of what is considered in extant literature as the root cause of Africa’s underdevelopment are mere symptoms of the underlying problem, we have identified the root cause of Africa’s underdevelopment to be in 3 aspects: The first aspect is the historical lacuna or break in Africa’s indigenous developmental processes occasioned by the massive plunder of men and materials during the Slave Trade. The second aspect is Africa’s reluctance to acknowledge these broken linkages and an even more lackadaisical attitude at reconnecting them. The third aspect is the African misconception of underdevelopment as a problem rather than the symptom of an underlying problem. Consequently, we are vehement that a holistic approach at identifying and reconnecting these broken linkages is critical to Africa’s development provided that such approach is also simplistic and realistic, and driven by leaders with sufficient altruism and determination to ensure the welfare of all Africans.

The talk about Africa’s underdevelopment has now become so frustrating and equally infuriating. What is more worrisome is the situation in which African rulers continue to do the wrong things in confident expectancy of excellent results. Nontheless, as patriotic and altruistic pushes and pulls continue to inspire more intellectual contributions aimed at alleviating Africa’s developmental impediments, it is hoped that one day, a radically different African political leadership, insistent on true and sustainable development at all costs, and resolute about the welfare of humanity shall emerge to pull Africa out of the doldrums.

African problems of Underdevelopment, Economic Dependence and Poverty could be solved in a very simple, indigenous and unambiguous manner. Unfortunately, all the unnecessary hullabaloo associated with external sourcing of development paradigms or even the proliferation of so-called ‘progressive’ First World models of development deemed to have worked or capable of working everywhere except in Africa has only tended to obfuscate, rather than enlighten Africa’s managers in their purported effort to proffer solutions for the continent’s overall emancipation.

For emphasis, we espouse the belief that all the much-touted ’causes’ of Africa’s underdevelopment may actually be the symptoms of an underlying problem, and that a critical incorporation of the African perspective into the blueprint of developmental solutions must be paramount.

Conservatism as a theoretical school of thought comes with many variants and interpretations. However, for the purpose of analytical convenience, we adopt the strand which considers Conservatism as a branch of Traditionalism which does not oppose change per se, but insists that such change must not be revolutionary or too sudden but gradual and organic, in order not to upset societal stability and engender unintended consequences. It assumes that society is best organized on the basis of economic and socio-political constructs which are in tandem with homegrown rules, rather than rules generated by external/extraneous factors or players. Classical Conservatism began to take footing as a reaction to the events surrounding the French Revolution of 1789 as seen in  Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), albeit that a similar concept was earlier attributed to the 16th Century theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600).

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Functionalism, on the other hand is heavily rooted in Psychology and Sociology, and arose in opposition to Edward Titchener’s Structuralism which was mainly concerned about “discovering the elements of consciousness”, rather than focusing on the usefulness of these elements of consciousness to the practical management and organization of society. William James is credited as the founder of Functional Psychology but Functionalist thought has been found in the works of Emile Durkheim,  John Dewey, James Rowland Angell, Herbert Mead, James McKeen Cattell, Edward Thorndike, Robert Woodworth, Egon Brunswik, Harvey Carr, etc. However, a hybrid Functionalist-Conservative approach to the analysis of Africa’s challenge of underdevelopment especially one that is simplistic, gradual, and based on homegrown rules and conventions is therefore apt to enhance the understanding of the matter of African perennial underdevelopment.

Our point of departure is to briefly examine what constitutes the root cause of Africa’s problems. Extant literature is quick to identify colonial imperialism, neocolonialism, sit-tight syndrome of some African rulers, bad leadership, corruption etc., as the root causes of Africa’s problems. Additionally, Marxian diagnoses further  identify the phenomena of Compradorization, predatory international Capitalism, clientelism, rentierism, satellite statism etc., as root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment. However, while these conditions may be necessary to cause Africa’s current problems, they are not sufficient to do so. A typical argument in this regard may suffice in the fact that there are continents or countries of the world with historical experiences that are similar to those of Africa but whose level of development has now surpassed the African continent. Cases in point include India and the “Asian tigers”. As earlier stated, the main culprit behind Africa’s underdevelopment is in 3 aspects: The first aspect takes bearing from The Slave Trade. It is now evident that the Slave Trade’s historical disruption of Africa’s indigenous growth with its attendant plunder of men and pillage of Africa’s resources created a disconnection in indigenous developmental linkages. For instance, the forceful and massive relocation of young able-bodied men to foreign lands created a shortage of manpower for the agricultural sector which was the mainstay of many African economies. To worsen matters, the arrival of full blown Colonialism saw the replacement of African food cropping with European cash cropping which was aimed at providing raw materials for Western domestic industries. It was therefore not surprising that African agriculture had to collapse.

The second aspect which is closely related to the first is the African reluctance to acknowledge and reconnect her broken linkages. The point here is that so far, Africa has been reluctant to reconnect these broken linkages so as to resume her indigenous development. This reluctance seems to have stemmed from the faulty reasoning that any attempt at retrospective action would amount to time-wasting, and would rob  Africa of the much needed time to overtake the rest of the world in the rat race of development. This appears to have resulted in further complication of the problem, creating room for external predatory and opportunistic solution merchants to move in and hijack the confused process for the benefit of their domestic economies, usually with the collaboration of unpatriotic Africans. The Modernisation Theory was to  justify this historical opportunism by partly insisting that Africa’s development was only possible through Western aids and technological transfer. Unfortunately, despite several decades of such proselytisation, the technological transfer is yet to happen, while the foreign aids and loans have plunged the continent into deeper financial crises.

The third aspect is the African misconception of Underdevelopment as a problem rather than a symptom, and her continued application of all manner of solutions that are hardly African in solving an African problem. The danger in this misconception is that even with the much desired good leaders in place, even with corruption in permanent abeyance, Africa would still not develop until Africa returns to herself and begins to develop from where she was halted by the structural disruptions of the slave society. As it is often said, life is in phases and the development of any political organism or organization is also in phases. Therefore, if any of these phases is broken, it would be difficult to attain the next higher phase. All that could be achieved is either stagnation or retrogression.

To be more practical, the current African desire for developmental superstardom even in the face of broken linkages of indigenous development is akin to the academic trajectory of a young pupil who dropped out of school in ‘Primary 2’ (using Nigerian standards) and having roamed about aimlessly for much of his schoolable life, suddenly emerges from nowhere to rejoin his erstwhile primary school classmates now in the university, to write the final exams in the department of Medicine in their university. He sees it as his “right” to write the exams with these erstwhile classmates and continues in the arrogant hope to graduate in flying colours.

The attitude of the average African technocrat or technocratic leader towards development is even more obtuse. In the search for solutions, this technocrat behaves more like a man who builds a mansion in a village where there is no electricity. To complement his opulent lifestyle, he amasses posh cars in the same village where there are no access roads. Soon, the bad roads damage his posh cars but rather than repair or advocate for the repair of the bad roads that are causing the problem, he decides to buy more posh cars of newer models. He hopes that the ‘air suspension systems’ and bigger rims of these newer models would mitigate the adverse effects of dilapidated roads. Unfortunately, the newer and “better” models also break down and as a final alternative, this technocrat decides to fly. Again, in deciding to fly, he forgets that not only would the occupants of an aircraft eventually disembark at the airport or helipad and complete their journey by road, the movement from his residence to the village square where he attends kindred meetings would not necessarily be made by air. Incidentally, when this “illustrious son” is requested by the community to contribute to ongoing efforts to repair the bad roads damaging his cars, he starts protesting that he has no money. Instead, he advises the community to borrow a loan from the bank and repair the roads despite being aware that the community is in no position to repay the loans. He further advises his kinsmen to “tighten their belts” in order to save more money to repay the loans. However, when thesame kinsmen advise him to lead by example and avoid profligate spending by limiting himself to older versions of cars that are obviously less expensive but more durable to endure the ravaging effects of dilapidated roads, he is reluctant to do so. This is the character of the average African technocrat which often manifests in the ‘solutions’ he regularly presents to remedy Africa’s developmental conundrum. It is also the general character of the African economy which he manages. In point of fact, the African technocrat acquires very expensive property that is of little or no use to him, and deploys very complex approaches to solve very simple problems.

Even more pathetic is the fact that conferences, symposia and other seminars and workshops that go on in Africa are often graced by the so-called technocrats who usually congregate to ‘rub minds’ on ‘the way forward’. As it is mostly the case, they make postulations and proffer solutions that are evidently cosmetic, and alien to reality. In some cases, there is competition about who spoke the best grammar, so much so that every now and then, you find a technocrat spending more time to explain his complex grammar (or even the complexity of the solution he is proffering) rather than explaining the efficacy of his ‘solution’ in solving the problem he intends to solve.

Take for instance, the simple matter of conducting elections in Africa which often conduces to violence due to poor handling of the electoral process occasioned by the use of unnecessarily complex technology to determine the simple majority in a polling unit. What is the essence of adopting a complex and tedious technology in the form of the Smart Card Reader (SMC) or its successor, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) both of which appear to be well ahead of African election managers; so that in spite of the enormous resources expended to train and retrain these electoral managers, the application of the device on D-Day still becomes a major disaster, if not a total failure?

Notwithstanding the fact that writers like Nwangwu (2015) and Idowu (2015) agree that the introduction of the Smart Card Reader to a great extent “made it more difficult to brazenly rig the 2015 General Elections” in Nigeria, a multiplicity of opinions and circumstantial evidence continue to suggest the contrary. According to Emmanuel Aziken in his Vanguard publication of 12 March, 2015,

“Kenya’s 2013 Elections…had been expected to be the most hi-tech election in Africa. The election management body which had been financed by the Canadian government to retool on electronic register had boasted that…results would be transmitted by special telephones from every polling unit directly to the collation center in Nairobi. However, on Election Day, the system crashed to the irritation of many stakeholders as the biometric machines failed to read the fingerprints of many voters accurately, forcing a resort to manual entry.”

In the same vein, there is overwhelming evidence to show that in many of the African countries where the SMC experiment has been made, the result is not much different. In fact, as Nwangwu (2015) was later to admit, the Nigerian situation vis-a-vis the 2015 General Elections appeared even more worrisome as

“…the use of the biometric machines was characterized by malfunctions. These ranged from limited or non-verification of voters’ fingerprints even after authenticating their PVCs, slow accreditation process as a result of poor internet server operations in some locations to inadequate knowledge of the use of card readers by both INEC officials and voters.”


“…electronic readers of biometric PVCs failed to verify fingerprints in many instances and resulted in delays in voter accreditation in a high number of polling stations.”

The question then is: What is wrong in adopting the simple African method of determining the simple majority in a polling unit by requesting for the raising of hands and assigning an official to count how many raised hands are affirming each candidate contesting for whatever post, in the presence of 2 or more witnesses? The figures generated therefrom could be announced to the world in real time, and in the full glare of the press and international election observers, so that all an electoral body needs to do is to note these figures as they come in, and compute the overall total for each candidate at the end of the exercise. This method would certainly be less capital intensive, less stressful, less time-consuming and not likely to encourage corruption or ignite violence. Subsequently, as the population increases, technologically-minded Africans could begin to think about how to develop simple machines to aid manual human counting or even to make it faster. This is how a people develop their indigenous technology.

Furthermore, the capital intensiveness of biometric voting processes which we have mentioned earlier is not only of major interest, it is one factor which should be sufficient enough to discourage the premature application of complex technology in African elections. This is in view of the suspicion that much of the African economies that embark on these highly expensive processes are struggling to even meet their day-to-day statutory obligations to their peoples. For instance, according to Picollino (2015), Cote d’Ivoire, awarded a $266million contract to the French enterprise SAGEM for the production of biometric identity cards to be used in the 2010 Elections. Cote d’Ivoire’s voting population at the time was discovered to be “fewer than 6 million people” – suggesting that “the cost of a biometric identity card was more than $44 per voter”. In other words, if all the time, energy and resources required by each Ivorien voter to get to the polling booth and vote on election day were to be set aside, it would still cost the average voter  the sum of $44 or more to exercise his franchise. Yet, this is in spite of the availability of a much cheaper and probably more efficient option like affirmation by the raise of hands, which we have described earlier. This is especially instructive when we remember that the “Option A4” method which was adopted in the 1993 presidential elections of Nigeria though simplistic and less expensive, produced what is now described as the most credible election in the history of Nigeria. Conversely, the recently concluded 2023 elections in which BVAS was deployed has remained the subject of so many disputations at election tribunals, both at national and subnational levels.

As it would appear, Africa’s syndrome of preference for more complex and expensive but usually less efficient/effective methods of conducting elections   is not only emblematic of her current electoral tradition, it also appears to be the dominant principle in her budgeting and accounting, banking and finance, analysis of economic growth rate, formulation of public policy etc.

Conclusively, Africa’s return to her old self is critical to finding and reclaiming her ordained place in the comity of continents as far as development is concerned. In doing so, she must not panic about being left behind by other continents most of which are already on the fast lane of development. We insist that rather than compete unfavourably with continents and countries that  have outrun her in the rat race of development, there is need for Africa to go back to the drawing table, identify the root cause of her problems and address them squarely. The adopted approach must be simplistic but realistic, pragmatic and sociologically censored. Additionally, those entrusted with the onerous task of supervising this rebuilding process must be altruistically committed to championing the cause of African welfare and dignity. This is what we mean by “going backwards to move forward”. In any case, the ‘shame’ that could come with such retrospective pragmatic action is only momentary; hence, it is our considered view that trying to solve African problems with Western solutions is like trying to cure a witchcraft attack with modern synthetic drugs. Africans are lions and it is sometimes said that when lions want to attack their prey, they first go backwards before they move forward.

The pattern of analysis was eclectic, drawing randomly from the Conservative and Functionalist approaches to the analysis of Development and Underdevelopment.


The ‘Alternative Viewpoint,’ penned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher Uchenna Obasi (Retired), is a sophisticated weekly column that delves into the complex dimensions of socio-political issues. While it concentrates primarily on the African context, the column also casts a wider analytical net to encompass global affairs. Through incisive commentary and in-depth analysis, it aims to offer alternative perspectives that challenge mainstream narratives and provoke thoughtful discourse on critical matters.

Africa Today News, New York

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