DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
UNIVERSITY OF CALABAR, CALABAR
Almost without exception, in the study of social, political or economic phenomenon, a good knowledge of the past is a guaranteed access into the facilities by which the present can be explained and the future predicted. Much of the explanation of the present economic and developmental predicament in Africa has been Imbed with the past in terms of sharp contrast with colonialism acting as a distorter of the natural process of African development. Extant literature says so. In particular, by focusing on the work of Walter Rodney especially his use of the theory of “technological arrest” to explain African technological stagnation, this article provides a critique to this approach. Much as it finds logical arid empirical coherence in the work of A.G Hopkins, on this subject matter, it also finds it inconclusive. It is the conviction of the author that the missing ingredient in pre-colonial African development was leadership creativity and foresight-factors whose absence in modern African states and societies is as glaring as mid-day tropical sun. They were relevant in the pre-colonial past as they are in the 21st century. It is only logical to uphold the view that there is something genetically wrong with the African leadership past and present.
The more it appears to us that we should ignore the past and continue with the present mammoth and complex nature of African economic and social problems, the less we are convinced that such an approach is desirable. It was in that light that much (if not as a rule) all Marxist and neo-Marxist radical literature on African development in the past three or four decades have first started with the survey of the African economic past. In line with this, Rodney (1972) in his classic text Ho\v Europe underdeveloped Africa, provided the most revolutionary option by the sheer depth of historical analysis embodied in that work. Hardly can his analysis be faulted. However, a closer look at his reference to “technological arrest” which he uses to explain the problem of underdevelopment in postcolonial Africa begs a lot of questions and leaves some intellectual lacuna yet unfilled. Hopkins’ (1973) An Economic History of West Africa is highly rated in terms of its depth rigour and objectivity. Clearly a significant improvement on Rodney’s position especiallyby making a comparative analysis of pre-industrial conditions in Western Europe and Africa in pre-colonial times. His survey of geographical, environmental, technical, social and economic variables are simply unique but it stops short of other important factors whose presence or absence in society can spell either advance or backwardness. These factors are leadership perception and understanding and response to those environmental stimuli – in short, foresight and creative thought: and action.
This article attempts to re-examine the two works by the two authors and locate the missing factors with the hope that readers would have a clearer picture of the African reality If the analytical scanning of all the world’s present region is made, it should be easy to see and say that the poverty of creative perception and initiative is genetically African as far as its leadership is concerned. It is as much the problem of the past as it is of the present.
The rest of the article starts with a glance at the contending paradigms on the subject-matter – the nature of the pre-colonial developmental conditions in Africa. The next unit discusses the theory of technological arrest. This is followed by Hopkins’ analysis. The conclusion is preceded by the synthesis of the implication on contemporary Africa.
Contending Paradigms: There are two major paradigms on the nature of pre-colonial Africa and the primitive Africa. Within the merrie African are the Africanist nationalist intellectuals. Primitive “Africa” is a conception of the pre-colonial African situation from the perspective of Alfred Marshall who viewed Africans as savages, this description of Africans he believed that:
Under dominion of custom and impulse, scarcely ever striking out new lives for themselves; never forecasting the distant future; fitful in spite of their servitude to custom; governed by the fancy of the moment; ready at all times for the most arduous exertions but incapable of keeping themselves long stead works(Marshall 1938: 723-4) as cited by Hopkins 1973:10).
On his part Ellsworth Huntington while contrasting the assumed rich natural resources with a backward population of Africa observed that “low mentality, inertia disease or their reactive ease of life in a tropical climate may prevent people from having new ideas or putting them into execution (Hopkins 1973:13)
On the reverse, Merrie Africa was much like a paradise – a “Golden Age in which generations of Africans enjoyed congenial lives in well-integrated, smoothly-functioning societies.
The means of livelihood came readily to hand for food stuff grew wild in abundance…” (Hopkins’ paraphrase in Hopkins 1973:10). This is in line with the popular thought that the African environment was rich and naturally well endowed. This view was encouraged by the illusion held by early European observers of the physical luxuriance of the tropical forest as a consequence of soil fertility. The view was enforced by another misconception of centuries old gold trade between Western Sudan and Europe. However, according to a research by P’iereGourou (1966) as documented by Hopkins the conceptions remain a myth because “it is now recognised that the savannah soils tend to be low in organic and mineral content, and can easily erode. While rainfall in the area besides being scanty, is subjected to marked seasonal variations. The forest zone has deeper soils but… frequently low in nutrients especially phosphorous.”
Whether it is Frank (1966) Ake (I981),the conclusion is the same that the colonial intrusion that incorporated Africa into the global system of capitalist contradictions is responsible for Africa’s backwardness. This position is also shared by Maquett (1962) who also admits that modern development started in Europe (Britain to be specific). Chinweizu’s position is most uncompromising in this regard (1978). Justina Rweyemamu(1973) after surveying the pre-capitalist settings in Tanzania also came to the conclusion that the social structures and the general development trajectory of the people were assailed by the intrusion of Arab slave raiders as well as German and British intrusions. These scholars by ideological tone of their work are regarded as Africahists or African intellectual nationalists. Their works have been subjected to some criticism.
Tembu and Swai (1981) contend that the professional Africanist historians have overreacted to the assessment of the African past by claiming that all was well in Africa and would have been better were it not for the intrusion of colonialism. Tembu and Swaiview that even if it could be accepted that the African past was so glamorous (as claimed by Merrie Africa) the present African setting even after independence does not portray that glamour, egalitarianism and affluence:
While the African past has been praised as the golden age of African genius the continuities with recent past events in Africa have not been so bright. Events in the Congo in 1960 during which the world witnessed the murder of Patrick Lumumba, the so-called African political instabilities which have seen Africa engulfed in all kinds of military dictatorship, with the worst of which were those established by Nguema, Bokassa, and Idi Amin…; the Sahel famine …tip of the iceberg of economic crisis dominant in Africa; all those events and more have forced some Africanists scholars to re-examine their profession (Temuand Swai 1981:7).
THE CONCEPT OF ‘TECHNOLOGICAL ARREST’ AND ITS ANALYTICAL LIMITATIONS
In the above review, I have deliberately left out Walter Rodney so as to avoid over repetition because I have reserved this part of the essay for a fuller exploration of his concept of ‘technological arrest’. Rodney’s position (if we are to re-state it) is that prior to the intervention of the western capital and all the structural paraphernalia that go with it, Africa was developing in its own way. Such development manifested itself in the form of trade at inter-regional and inter-continental levels. North Africans, Rodney contends, were those who imparted nautical skills and technology to Europeans that later became instrumental to the global conquest by the Europeans (Rodney 1972: 95).
Rodney goes on to show that by the 15th century European technology was not totally superior to that of other parts of the world and more importantly that “European trading in Africa had to make use of Asian and African consumer goods showing that their system of production was not absolutely superior” (p. 122).
Following the above line of argument, another issue has been raised by Rodney that apart from the Indian textile products upon which the Europeans relied before colonial destruction, they also relied on clothes from several parts of the West African coast. “By contrast, following the colonial rule… Africa was concentrating almost entirely on export of raw cotton and the imports of the manufactured cotton cloth”. The level of technology applied in the cloth production in pre-colonial Africa, as was the case in India and Europe according to Rodney, was handlooms and small-scale craft production (p. 113).
One of the several social factors associated with a breakdown, from small-scale craft to equipment designed to harness nature according to this argument is the demand for more products that can be hand such as that of the technology applied in the clothes’ production. So, since the Europeans had replaced local producers with themselves and assumed the responsibility for meeting the demands for clothes, at cheaper rates, a situation of technological stagnation emerged. As Rodney puts it graphically,
Therefore, there was what can be called “technological arrest” or stagnation, and in some instance actual regression, since people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. The abandonment of traditional iron smelting in most parts of Africa is probably the most important instance of technological regression (p. 114).
The above marks probably the anti-climatical limit of the argument by Rodney who seems to be producing and. generating further arguments that tend to torpedo his position. For instance, the citation below speaks for itself.
When Britain was the world’s leading economic power, it used
to be referred to as a nation of shopkeepers; but most of thegoods in their shops were produced by themselves, and it was
while grappling with the problems posed by production that
their engineers came up with so many inventions. In Africa the
trading groups could make no contribution to technological
improvement because their role and preoccupation took ‘their
minds and energies away from production (p. 115). .
With the above, the original thesis of western intervention leading to technological arrest collapses. Here the logical truth emerges objectively that the corresponding social forces that could have brought about technological development simply “took their energies away from production”.
While acknowledging that the Afro-European contacts could have led to technological development in Africa through borrowing of technique, Rodney however, states that such would not have been easy because of the pre-capitalist mode in which Africa was. This again sounds hollow because pre-capitalist formation is not particularly noted for technological break-through. Therefore technology might not have been ‘arrested’ after all.
The’ argument dovetails logically into the contention that Japan escaped underdevelopment because its feudal structures had reached a mature stage of systemic metamorphosis that placed it at the fringe of the capitalist mode. Besides, it escaped being colonized. But the argument stops short of pointing out the fact that the same Japan had colonized other peoples in the region namely the Koreans, the Chinese and the Vietnamese among others. Yet, these societies are relatively more advanced than most of Africa.
There is a catalogue of demands by various African rulers, like Emperor Lebna Dengel of Ethiopia, AgajaTrudo of Duhomey, Opoku, Ware of Asante, etc. asking various European governments to no avail to come and set up industries, distilleries, factories, etc. According to Chinweizu, certain Calabar merchants sought at the beginning of the 19thcentury to buy sugar-making equipment from England (but) the British refused to sell it to them lest they industrialized and competed with the British West Indian interest” (p. 31).
A critical survey of the request by Africans ‘for one industrial enterprise or another reveals one very simple but-logical fact. The fact is that these various requests came when Africans were very much in control of ‘affairs. Secondly and more importantly, the desperation that characterized these requests is suggestive of the fact that the appropriate technological know-how was simply not there. We can then hardly see any serious element of “arrest” in pre-colonial technology. Rather what we see-today in Africa largely, is the continuity rather than change in the dependency syndrome of the leadership which is always outward looking, – believing in externally induced salvation. Our- present day inducement of foreign investment, the infamous open-door policies and the like are simple the resurgence of ideo-philosophical atavism on our part.
From both Chinweizu’s and Rodney’s arguments, it seems that this “technological arrest” only took place or congealed around the cloth-making industry which, indeed stagnated. Outside this, we are not told how many “arrests” we’re made in other aspects of technological development and we are at pains to see How technologically advanced’ a society would have been if it only developed cloth making skills in isolation.
Hopkins (1963) proceeds from history to economic analysis with objective, critical response to unestablished claims by scholars. He reacts, for instance to Ellsworth Huntingdon’s position shown above. He – establishes that claims of soil fertility and abundance of minerals are based on false belief. This claim was tested empirically to show after World; War II after a series of experimentations on agricultural investments and soil tests that the soil especially in West Africa was largely-infertile. PieireGourori (1966) concluded that tropical development “based pn agriculture was bleak. On its part, savannah soil seems to be low in organic and mineral content and more to erosion compounded by scanty rainfall and seasonal variations. The findings also show that forest zone has deeper -soil hut low in the major nutrient namely, phosphorous. There is therefore uncertainty of the relations between climate and soil in the tropics and the development of the area, Hopkins then stresses the futility of comparing in a world scale” whether the presence or-absence” of natural resources and climate inhibit or support development (Hopkins 1973:
Hopkins situates the African situation on” a global scale and “posits that the people of the Third World have much in common. He explains that irrespective of their geographical and vegetative locations, they are preoccupied with production of goods and-services needed for survival at income level. To achieve this, they try to mould their environment while trying to adapt to it “Natural endowment may set broad limit under a given technological social and political regime..: but there is still room within these limits” (Hopkins 1973: 14). He goes on to observe that natural resources and climate may help us identify the particular types of underdevelopment that may exist in a particular region but by themselves are incapable of explaining underdevelopment. Any enquiry into the causes or wealth of nations should begin by rejecting an assumption that’ man and his environment can be treated as distinct entities, having fixed relationship, for ‘man is an essential and dynamic element in geography no less man in history” (Hopkins 1913: 14)
Hopkins has made references to critical factors that in part have and could explain pre-colonial backwardness in Africa. These include high mortality due to fatal tropical diseases, low-life expectancy of 35 years as-was the case in medieval Europe; to short period of work of about half a day, that is, six hours per day; (Rowena Lawson 1968: 54-61). To these can be added high- labour cost especially in parts of West Africa. This wasinduced not by technology but by enslavement as Hopkins observes “countries which have faced a labour shortage during industrial era have often been able to employ machinery instead. In deed high labour costs have sometimes provided an incentive for the introduction of advanced technology (Hopkins 1975:24). Another scholar examining the rationale and options for slave labour in Africa suggests that abundant evidence exists that African entrepreneurs (for want of better term) could as well have paid wages for their hired labourers since indeed they used money for business transactions but they opted for slavery (Nieboer 1900, Dornar 1970: 18-32). To them it was cheaper to exploit slaves than free labours.
It is only logical to expect that a region that was virtually devastated by tropical diseases would be under populated as under-population was considered very critical in preventing market growth. The reason given for this is that it encourages extensive cultivation, dispersed settlement and generated strong tendency towards self-sufficiency. Experts believe that centres of concentrated population were only possible for defence purposes.
Hopkins (1973) provides some possible escape routes for the problems of the preceding paragraph namely that (1) the increased population, which should have given rise to alternations in land-labour-ratio. This in turn should have encouraged the agriculture and the resultant more concentrated market. Hopkins observes that this was what had happened during the Middle Ages in Western Europe. And (2) technical innovation might have occurred in response to stimulated demands activated by population growth “(or by rise in income among existing population or else to overcome shortages of supply such as lack of raw material or of labour)” (Hopkins 1973: 77).
No such scenario occurred or existed in the African case, as there were no pressures on the demand side. On the supply side, shortage of labour was dealt with by supply of slaves. Unfortunately, high transport costs took a heavy toll on whatever profits that were made. This made Hopkins to emphasize: Africa needed to make a huge and virtually impossible leap. The continent required not merely the wheel but steam and internal combustion engines as well (1973: 77).
In Hopkins’ conclusion, it was only in one place – North – Western Europe that cumulative economic growth and technical advance occurred. As he observes, not that the economic and social structures that were present in that European region was totally lacking elsewhere in other continents “but because by a fortunate coincidence, long-run changes in factor prices made continuous innovation both necessary and rewarding… other societies possessed much the same ingredients but were unable to mix them in quite the same way” (1973: 77).
THE MISSING LINKS IN RODNEY’S AND HOPKINS’ THEORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA
To avoid the risk of over-repetition we can only make reference to what has been said about Rodney’s theory of technological arrest from critical perspective. The point made there is that except for the development of the cloth-making technology in pre-colonial African which colonialism had stalled, there was no clear evidence of further technological development that was “arrested” by advancing colonial forces. Rodney himself has also made the point that cloth making was equally stalled in India in favour of the industry flourishing in Lancaster. There is no argument about this. Where there is an argument is the point that despite, this, India is ranked in post-colonial epoch very high in term of its textile industry by indigenous Indians. We can hardly boast of this in Africa.
From economic perspective, Hopkins has made his points to explain underdevelopment in general and in African in particular. His analysis stands the test of time especially regarding the natural and environmental factors that hindered the development of Africa in pre-colonial epoch. It appears that in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the advocates of “primitive Africa” and “Merrie Africa”, he chooses the middle road in “scientific” way of not being normative and thus not hurting anyone – unlike Rodney.
Apparently in the course of adopting the middle- of- the road approach, Hopkins like his pro-Africanistic counterpart, Rodney fell into a trap of missing link. We acknowledge Hopkins’ reference to North-West Europe where critical factors of development – combined to provide the critical and long-term push to industrialization. Equally, there is sense in his observation that Africa needed the steam Engine with internal combustion as well as the wheels -all of which it lacked. This, he associated with lack of challenge and initiative as well as the cultivation of the false sense of contentment. At a point he asserts:
Commercial capitalism in West Africa failed to promote industrialization because there was little scope for the development of an alternative technology. Surplus profits were invested in slaves and luxuries not because Africans were doggedly pursuing non-economic goals but because of lack of more profitable alternatives (Hopkins 1973; 77)
A careful study of the above citation reveals a lot of issues. For instance, he states that though there was commercial capitalism there was little scope for the development of alternative technology. He makes no efforts to explain this situation clearly. Rather he staggers into self-contradiction by observing that though profits were made they were used up for slaves and luxuries. If slave labour created the profits in the first place, one would have expected additional slaves to increase production and therefore the margin of resultant profits. I suppose that this is what went on but the more critical factor here seems not to be the additional slaves costly as they could have been but expenditure on luxuries apparently of European goods.
Clearly, the investment in slavery and consumption of luxurious goods that these Africans did not produce, in the first place, places their society at parallel level with the ancient Greece and Rome. It is very difficult to pair “capitalism” with luxurious consumption without a sound industrial base to support the consumption culture. What Hopkins fails to say and see here is that such luxury was more restricted (to the ruling class) than universal. One other fact that can be inferred from this is that commercial capitalism of those times were indeed not arrested as Rodney would make us believe but has survived colonialism to become a leading feature of the economic life of the African bourgeoisie who live a life of luxury amidst glaring underdevelopment in the 21st century (Ekanem 2001). This contrasts with the gene of the bourgeoisie Marx and Engels write about in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1977:38).
Hopkins also makes references to a “fortunate coincidence” – a fatalistic reference to factors of technological advancement and economic growth as being responsible for the development of North-West Europe. It is difficult to attribute the great effort of the British bourgeoisie for instance to chance and fatalism. Thus is a very beautiful and safe escape route to idle African leaders. It would have been more reasonable to say that even if the opportunity came by a stroke of good luck there were creative men to seize it and lead the society to its success. In any case, economic growth is a purposive course of action initiated or directed by socio-political forces. Same applies to technical progress. Chance cannot create them. Productive human initiatives alone can.
When reference is made to Japan as a country that was not colonized which purportedly facilitated its industrialization and development, little or no attention is paid to its internal social and political dynamics. It is a common knowledge that the inability of the West to conquer and colonize Japan laid in the political foresight of the Japanese imperial leadership that launched the historic Meji reforms. It was this foresight that laid the economic and technological foundation of modern Japan. This is the critical factor that is lacking in the extant literature on development and especially African development. In Western Europe, a survey of the social and economic history of the region shows that the scenario that Hopkins depicts took shape in an epoch where tremendous political and leadership changes sprang up. For instance, it was only when France was given a political direction following the blunder of its feudal monarchs that the country settled down to take stock. The Napoleonic revolution in France had set the pace. Same could be spoken of Russia described as the most back ward nation in Europe before the emergence of reform -minded elites under Peter the Great. Edward Burns, Robert Lerner and Standish Meachan describe the situation in this way “there was practically no literature in Russian language, arithmetic was barely known, Arabic numerals were not used and merchants made their calculations with the abachus (Burns, Lerner and Meacham 1980: 533). By the time the Chinese entered the world scene not as consumers of the opium but as contenders of world power, it was still the same level of a creative political leadership made the difference. Even in modern Russian history, it took the leadership and foresight of the Bolsheviks and the communists to raise the backward country into a modern state of super power status. Examples in history abound but space would not permit their listing here.
Let us return briefly to the technical question of African under development. Rodney has documented that not less than a hundred million African were exported to the Americas as slaves. Consequently, the continent was deprived of its best hands and brains hence under development. But when we look at the profile of pre-colonial slaves and slavery, we have cause to reconsider some of the existing conclusion we draw from anti-colonial writings.
Slaves were usually fairly specialized workers, though they were found in a variety of occupations. A few privileged slaves held senior civil and military positions. These powerful trusties often possessed numerous slaves of their own. Others were found in skilled jobs such as craft manufacture. The majority, however, performed work, which was usually menial, sometimes grueling and occasionally dangerous (Hopkins 1973:24-25)
With such description as in above especially given the quality of labor extracted from the slaves as specialist held in chains, it is not difficult to see that the society was lorded over by lazy drones while those with skills and ideas were enslaved and their mental and physical energies misused and misdirected by pleasure – seeking, idle ruling classes.
Give this reality it would have been impossible for the colonial conquest to be resisted and for technical progress to be coordinated with economic growth to result in development. This is an important aspect of the missing link in the theory of African underdevelopment.
Finally, by dint of theoretical insight derived from Marxist facilities, it can be seen
that three cardinal conditions have to exist for any meaningful study to be carried out on
any society. This is a framework that Y. Barongo derived from the Marxist theory. The key
factor include the historical experiences of the people; the condition of the economic
base of the society and the leadership’s or actor’s perception, interpretation and response to
environmental stimuli (Barongo 1983: 135-154). Neither Rodney nor Hopkins took the
third critical factors into consideration. Without this factor it is very difficult to understand
and indeed appreciate the colossus called the African underdevelopment. The aspect of the
problem is that the successive generations of African leadership have continued to inherit
this generic characteristic that have survived many centuries. They lack foresight, squander
opportunity and resources, become contented in the little that they have, demonstrate
tendency to enslave fellow Africans and put up at best, lame and at least on resistance to
foreign over lordship and eventually ally with the latter against their people. ‘
The issue of underdevelopment of Africa, which had gained currency, recognition
and wide acceptance in the 1970 to 1990’s and explained in terms of external exploitation
by forces of global capitalist system seems to recede fast into oblivion in the era of
globalization. More and more attention have been focused of recent on non-adherence to
western democratic ideals by African ruling elite as the major cause of the problem. The
essence of this work is to remind readers that this propaganda is fast eclipsing reality.
Hence the focus of the article is on a new center of reasoning – away from standard
classical liberal and radical analysis of the problem of African development. Though in no
part of the article is it stated that the objectives of the write up is to debunk the current
perception of development and explanation of underdevelopment in Africa within the
context of globalization, yet the apparent polemical tone of the paper is expected to
purposively swing readers’ attention back to the basics. By being critical of academic icon
of those in the left – Walter Rodney, the author also intends to update or thoughts given the
re-curing menace of atrophied leadership that African leaders exhibit which is absence in
It is a strong conviction of the paper that the neglect of the wasteful past of the African political economy of commercial capitalism, slavery, the epicurean out-look of its leaders past and present can only be committed by African scholars at the expense of total liberation of the African population held in chains.
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