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Afropessimism refers to the perception of sub-Saharan Africa as a region too riddled with problems for good governance and economic development. The term gained currency in the 1980s, when many Africanists in Western creditor countries believed that there was no hope for consolidating democracy and achieving sustainable economic development in the region. The earliest use in print of the word was in a 1988 article from the Xinhua News Agency in which Michel Aurillac, France's minister of cooperation, criticized the prevailing pessimism in the West about Africa's economic development and cautioned against what he referred to as an "Afro-pessimism" on the part of some creditors.


Many writers have given different expressions to the phenomenon of Afropessimism. Attempts to explain the concept include both cogent studies (Ayittey, 1992, 1998; Jackson and Rosberg; Kaplan, 1994) and polemical and shallow travelogues (Richburg). In general, one virtue of Afropessimist writings is that they do not whitewash Africa's problems. Further, they correctly refuse to excuse the outrages of some African dictators on the basis of political ideology or racial identity. In particular they refuse to use colonial exploitation to mask postcolonial kleptocracy, the personalization of state power, and the politics of prebendalism. The writers mentioned above (excepting Richburg and Kaplan) do not reject the hope that Africa can develop or that it is capable of overcoming its political and economic problems. In this sense they are not themselves pessimistic about the future of Africa but rather are simply describing the phenomenon of Afropessimism. The real Afropessimists are writers who call for abandoning, or worse, recolonizing the continent (Johnson; Kaplan, 1992, 1994; Michaels; Hitchens). While generally the writers in the first group merely denounce postcolonial African leadership by pointing out its weaknesses, those in the latter tend to conclude that Africans are incapable of self-rule.

However, a common characteristic of the two modes of Afropessimist writings is imbalance. They all tend to highlight the horrors of a few African countries and ignore the advances of many other countries at various times. The unscientific establishment of doomsday conclusions about Africa characteristic of studies in this genre (see, in particular, Richberg) are usually not warranted by the limited sample of African countries discussed in the narratives. The unintended result is that Africa is given a blanket negative portrayal. (There are, by contrast, prominent works that for the most part decry Africa's image in the Westsee, for instance, Hammond and Jablow; Hawk.) The resultant foreboding and ominous image in Western media and the academy weakens the continent in the global competition for foreign investment and tourism (see Onwudiwe, 1996). This is an economic effect of Afropessimism.

African Rebirth

Still, the conditions that merit pessimism for the future of Africa are not manufactured by Afropessimists; such conditions are empirically verifiable. Since the end of the Cold War, important African leaders such as Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and Maître Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal have come to recognize this and have resolved to do something about it. As a result, there has been an honest effort on the continent to address the important issues of good political, economic, and corporate governance and the professionalization of the army in order to diminish chances for destabilizing military coups. These efforts had led the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to found a new institution, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), charged with the responsibility to provide a vision and strategic framework for Africa's renewal. NEPAD attempts to provide African interventions with regard to issues of relative underdevelopment and marginalization. NEPAD's formation and other historic African transformative actions have been referred to as African renaissance.


In the donor countries of the West in the 1980s, Afropessimists were found in the government, media, and academia. The prevailing view that votes for Africa's stabilization and development were a waste of scarce resources was fanned by conservative politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and scholars. This quickly led to an era of strained relationships between Western donor countries and African recipient countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Donor countries complained that progress was being slowed by bad governance, corruption, and mismanagement of funds, creating disillusionment and donor (or aid) fatigue. African countries in turn complained of unfulfilled promises and unwarranted intrusiveness in domestic policies by donors. The net result was a reduction in the volume of development aid from Western to African countries.


Two explanations have been put forth for the conditions that produced the phenomenon of Afropessimism. One is the apparent inability of postcolonial African leaders to practice good governance. Since the 1960s, when most countries in Africa south of the Sahara regained political independence from European colonialists, the standard of living in Africa has fallen below expectations. The achievement of political self-rule naturally came with raised expectations of the good life for Africans who had been subjected to exploitation and subjugation by colonial tyranny. In the exuberance of the freedom moment, the new indigenous leaders of Africa promised their fellow citizens a brighter future. However, by the 1980s, more than twenty years after independence, the African condition (especially for the masses) had fallen far below the continent's potential. For the most part, bad leadership was responsible for the disappointing performance. Independence ushered in an era of political instability, military dictatorships, and gross mismanagement of natural resources by very corrupt African leaders. By the 1980s all these conspired to drive down the standard of living in most African countries, forcing an otherwise resource-rich continent to become severely dependent on foreign aid and foreign debt.

Another school of thought locates the source of Africa's social and economic downfall on the international political environment. According to this school, Africa regained self-rule during the era of the Cold War, when the relationship between the countries in the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union and countries of the Western bloc led by the United States was marked by a state of military competition and political tension. The rivalry stopped short of actual war between the two superpowers, but it forced Africa to become a surrogate terrain for the hot war between the two camps. In the process, African countries, most of them weak and dependent on the Western or Eastern ideological blocs, became little more than client states. Under this new dispensation, Africans lost the power to choose their own leaders. Africa's dependent dictators owed their offices to the economic and military support of Cold War powers. For the most part they put the interests of the foreign powers on which they were dependent ahead of their own national interests. This situation, which was as exploitative and impoverishing as colonialism, became known as neocolonialism and is blamed for the postcolonial impoverishment of Africans that fueled the fires of Afropessimism in the 1980s. Consequently, with the end of the Cold War, some Africanists came to believe that if the detrimental international conditions it imposed were ultimately reversed, then conditions in Africa would improve through good governance. Those who believe in this are known as Afro-optimists. Challenging the view that sub-Saharan Africa has only regressed since independence, they advance examples of postcolonial triumphs achieved by Africa's political leadership despite the prevailing problems identified by Afropessimists. They argue that the energy and perseverance of African peoples portend hope for the future of the continent.

A Middle Ground

The truth about Africa's impoverishment lies somewhere between the analyses of Afropessimists and Afro-optimists. There is no doubt that corrupt and uncourageous leadership has been the bane of socioeconomic development of sub-Saharan Africa in the postcolonial period. These leaders stunted democratic processes with force in order to preserve a system of one-person rule with no accountability. They awarded overpriced contracts to foreign companies in exchange for large kickbacks deposited in personal accounts in foreign banks. Their conspicuous consumption, cult of personality, nepotism, and naked abuse of political power encouraged a culture of greed, military coups, and instability, which reduced Africa's competitiveness for foreign investment. Governments borrowed billions in the name of the nation and cronies squandered the money, thereby saddling the people with debt.

It is also true that in the same period, global political and economic policies reinforced the legacy of colonialism and exacerbated Africa's problems of self-rule. Apartheid South Africa sponsored destabilizing wars in the southern African region, and a cycle of Cold Warsurrogate wars and conflicts ravaged Angola and Mozambique. These wars claimed millions of African lives and devastated the economies of the warring countries. Economic adjustment policies of the World Bank forced African countries to cut spending in health, education, and infrastructure in order to save money to service foreign debts. Low international prices of commodities produced by Africans caused African countries to lose about $50 billion in the 1980s and early 1990s, the same period of the most virulent Afropessimism. These externally induced problems combined with internal inefficiencies to stunt Africa's political and economic growth and give rise to Afropessimism. However, by the turn of the twenty-first century sub-Saharan Africa's fortunes seemed to have turned markedly for the better.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Anticolonialism: Africa ; Capitalism: Africa ; Colonialism: Africa ; Postcolonial Studies ; Postcolonial Theory and Literature ; Westernization: Africa .


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Ebere Onwudiwe