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Richard Dowden is Executive Director of the Royal African Society in London ( Richard worked for the Times until 1986 when he became Africa Editor of the Independent and in[…]

The journalist says colonialism was “short enough to destroy leadership in Africa but not long enough to replace it with anything else.”

Question: What must Africa rediscover from its pre-colonial period?

Richard Dowden: I think the colonial impact was twofold.

One was the creation of those states; 53 states created out of 6,000; created by foreigners. Africans had no part in that creation.

But the other factor, and this is a delicate one and I tread carefully here, is the destruction of belief in Africa, the lack of self-confidence, the feeling that we can do it. And, I think, that was also a result of the colonial impact because, I think, it was short enough to destroy leadership in Africa. But not long enough to replace it with anything else.

So the old ways, the old political systems were just wiped out by the colonial impact. And with that, any form of political or cultural leadership was obliterated. And it is that loss of self-confidence, which, I think, was the other thing. I think France Fenon wrote a lot about this.

People will say to you in Africa, sometimes, “I trust you because you’re white.” And it’s that sort of thing. It’s changing. It’s definitely changing. But I think that was the other devastating impact which we, as outsiders, do not see, that loss of self-confidence. And it takes time. It takes generations to restore that pride in Africa.

And one of the people who’s been very strong on this is Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist. And he went back recently, and I had the privilege of accompanying him on his return, to Nigeria for only the 2nd time in 20 years. And he said to them, “In your own cultures, you will find the values and the strength that will take you into the future. In your own cultures.” And that restoration of self-belief, I think, is critical.


Question: What are the signs that Africa is progressing?

Richard Dowden: China is number one. Number two is mobile phones and the Internet. Everybody knows the usual impact of that… It hasn’t changed all our lives. But in Africa, it has made a huge difference. I’ll give you some examples.

One, market women, sitting in a market, just with a few oranges, bananas, tomatoes, will be phoning the next market to check the price there. So you get a real economic impact. There’s a glut so okay, we don’t go there, we’ll go there. One of the best examples of… a Somali… was a Somali nomad with his herd of goats and cattle, waiting to go… come down out of the mountains, to the port to sell his animals. But he checks the price on a mobile phone on the other side of the Red Sea. Unbelievable. He borrows a mobile phone and he’s got… And he calls out the trader on the other side, what’s the price ‘cause I need to know what’s the best time to come out of the mountains. All sorts of things like that.

But politically too, watching elections in Ghana and radio stations saying, if you see anything dodgy going on, if you see ballots stuffing or anything like that, call us. And suddenly, the radio stations are broadcasting people on mobile phones, telling them what’s going on in an election. Immediate.

If the elections are announced locally, everybody in the country knows what they are. They can’t fix them between the local and the national. All sorts of ways; these are transforming Africa.

But the third way is the professional middle class, which is growing very fast in Africa, with its huge thirst for education. And in particular, those who’ve gone abroad, now returning to Africa. And I think the creation of that professional middle class that do things according to international standards, not to the way we do things in Nigeria, or the way we do things in Kenya, but this is the way we do things internationally, that, I think, will have a huge impact as well.


Recorded: March 16, 2009