West African political economy: a regional history

The origins of West African political economy

In the course of the twentieth century West Africa went through a revolution consisting of an explosion in population, the rise of huge cities and the political division of the region into nominally independent states. While becoming more closely integrated into the world economy than ever before, the region remains poor when compared with most other parts of the world. If we wish to understand why this is so and what the prospects are for a more prosperous future, it will not do to focus solely on external determinants of economic backwardness. Many of West Africa’s problems have deep-seated causes, while others are the result of quite recent factors. I attempt here to place contemporary political economy within a long-run framework emphasizing the region’s unity and variety. If I devote more than usual attention to the traditional variety of West African societies, it is because they still shape the present strongly, especially if we wish to take into account the many differences between them.

West Africa is the nearest tropical region to Europe, from which it is separated by the Arabic civilizations of North Africa and the Middle East. Much of its peoples’ history depends on this fact; but the origin of the tripartite relationship between the regions bordering on the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean seas remains shrouded in mystery. For modern Europeans, the history of West Africa goes back only half a millennium to the time when the Portuguese began to explore an African route to the east round the flanks of Islam. For Arabs, it began in the eleventh century, with the temporary expansion of Almoravid conquerors beyond the Maghreb down the coast toward the Senegal River. They did not stay long. Those who have attempted to conquer West Africa never have.

The Sahara’s wastes and an inhospitable Atlantic coastline constituted effective barriers limiting West Africa’s early contacts with the outside world to intermittent expeditions by those brave enough to risk long journeys over deserts of land and sea. After the Sahara region last began drying out some 5,000 years ago, the precipitation of some of its inhabitants into the southern periphery left West Africans with a promising environment to live in. The western Sudan provided extensive grasslands, some valuable mineral resources, and the great causeway of the Niger River, as well as some other major streams flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Further south the savannah of the Sudan gives way to a dense tropical rain forest stretching as far as the coast in most places, where swamps, heavy surf, and infrequent natural harbors offer discouragement to ships. In the east the forest runs into the great jungles of the Congo basin and the savannah opens out into a corridor stretching beyond Lake Chad to the Nile. The wet forest lands were less promising for human habitation, and the history of settlement in West Africa reflects this. The savannah interior of the Niger and Senegal river-valleys spawned an indigenous culture as complex and ancient as any in the world.

The Arab historians reveal to us in their glimpses of the Sudanic empires of Ghana and Mali during the Middle Ages, a civilization based on great wealth, a concentrated population, and advanced political achievements (Gugler and Flanagan 1978:7-10). Two examples make the point. The geographer Ibn Hawqal in 951 saw a bill of credit made out to a trader from Awdaghust in Ghana for 42,000 dinars, a sum unheard of in the Muslim world at that time. And when Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, his gifts and expenditures were so munificent that a surfeit of gold caused inflation in Egypt for several decades. Before the discovery of the Americas, West Africa supplied the Mediterranean world with much of its gold; and it has been a major source of tropical products (such as ivory and gum) and slaves throughout the recorded past. The region’s history has been linked to its neighbors to the north for millennia and its societies, like theirs, have long been formed along the entire range from urbanized states to the fragmented communities of remote fishermen, hill farmers and forest dwellers.

After half a millennium of increasingly intensive commerce with Europe and the rest of the world, West Africa today is polarized into two zones, one quite developed, the other neglected and depopulated. They correspond to the ancient division between forest and savannah; but the historical relationship of the two has been reversed as a result of an overwhelming shift toward export by sea. The coastal zone now boasts of metropolitan ports, such as Lagos, Cotonou and Abidjan, which funnel the agricultural products, timber and minerals of the forest out into world markets. The interior, now deprived of the trans-Saharan trade that brought its former glory, serves mainly as a reservoir of cheap labor for the south. Its proud Islamized peoples dream of when the savannah’s historical dominance will be reasserted over the Christian and pagan folk of the coastal area.

After independence, West Africa’s many peoples now live in a balkanized cluster of some sixteen English- and French-speaking states. These are dwarfed by Nigeria which, with a population of over 160 million, is half the region’s total and a sixth of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Its economy accounts for more than two-thirds of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Despite the efforts of their leaders to promote a sense of national identity, these are not nation-states in the sense of a single people formed by owning a state. Only Burkina Faso and Mali can aspire to build nations on a firm ethnic foundation and that has been dramatically reversed in the latter case. The rest must struggle with the jigsaw puzzle of ethnic groups left by a departing colonialism. They fall into two clusters. One is a corridor of Francophone states, known as the Sahel (meaning the “coast” of the Sahara in Arabic), stretching from the Atlantic in the west to Lake Chad in the east, all of them poverty-stricken (with the partial exception of Senegal) and exposed to the encroachment of the desert. The other group consists of small coastal states reaching back to the savannah through a narrow strip of forest. Of these, only Ghana and the Ivory Coast have the population, resources and social structure to attempt a reasonably viable modern political economy. Nigeria remains an enigma: despite its size, oil wealth and history of urbanization, it has failed to become the economic powerhouse, which it once seemed destined to be. This is partly because it includes three ethnic nations – Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo – who occupy, respectively, the savannah and forest heartlands of West Africa’s historic divide and who fought a civil war over oil only a few decades ago.

West Africa today stands as one of the poorest and most divided regions in the world. With the exception of Nigeria, its states are small, passive members of the international community. The machine revolution has not yet transformed the bulk of production and, even if they were politically united, they would remain underdeveloped when compared with the rest of the world. The regional economy is abnormally geared toward foreign trade (Hopkins 1973). Internal trade between West African countries is around 3% of the total. In an age when much of the world’s population enjoys substantially increased prosperity, better health and collective security, most West Africans are still very poor, they die relatively young and their states are vulnerable to manipulation by greater powers. Some of this may be attributed to geography, but a lot of it has a more recent political cause.

West Africa is hot and often humid. It is particularly wet in the coastal forest zone and extremely dry in the interior. Endemic diseases abound and some communities are impaired by the high level of parasites in the bodies of most active adults. Before the twentieth century, mortality rates were very high. The region’s coastline and rivers were not conducive to navigation and cheap waterborne transport. Overland transport is slow and difficult. The soils are light and the forest dense. Neither the plow nor irrigation were traditionally employed to intensify production. Attempts at political centralization were limited by the sparse density of a low-productivity population, as were division of labor and commercial development. Social organization placed a premium on human labor, performed by kinsmen and slaves (Goody1971, Hart 2006). Economy rested on efficient use of that labor through extensive farming of agricultural land. These conditions were roughly the same for several millennia. They were not the result of involvement with the world capitalist economy. Whatever the distortions or improvements entailed in such involvement, the underlying conditions remained a sparse population, disease-ridden and poor, farming at low levels of productivity, limited by transport facilities, organized in weak polities, and exposed to vagaries of climate.

Historical periods and a geographical typology

The “modern” period in West African history begins when the region first became significantly involved in agricultural production of raw materials for the markets of Europe’s rapidly industrializing nations. The logic of West African development has been dominated by that relationship ever since. It is reasonable to speak of the last two centuries as a single period, with the 1830s as the time when production of vegetable oils for export began in earnest (Hopkins 1973). But some parts of the region were not involved in the process of global industrialization until the beginning of the twentieth century. This period has three main phases marked by changing relations between West Africans and outsiders. The nineteenth century began with the dismantling of the Atlantic slave trade and ended with the formal incorporation of West Africa into colonial empires. This phase (1830-1900) was one of growing European imperialism and internal disorder. The period of direct colonial rule (1900-1960) was relatively short. The last half century (1960-2010) constitutes the third modern phase, one of successor states struggling to find independence from a position of increasing underdevelopment. A further division crosscuts these periods. The newly independent states shared with late colonialism a commitment to development that was worldwide and lasted for what the French call “the thirty glorious years” from 1945 to 1975, after which the neoliberal era which began in earnest during the 1980s saw radically new premises of international economic order and a marked deterioration of the West African economy.

At the time of writing (2013), with the world in economic turmoil as a result of the financial crisis of 2007-8, two West African states (Ghana and Nigeria) are, along with five others in East and Central Africa, officially among the ten fastest-growing economies in the world. But my historical account of the region’s political economy does not explore the significance of these recent developments. The growth rate is partly a function of the depths plumbed by these national economies from the 1970s onwards. Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism concerning the economic prospects of some parts of the region and indeed of the rest of Africa.

The “traditional” period was by no means static, but it may usefully be divided into two periods before and after the arrival of the Portuguese around 1500. These could be identified respectively as the medieval period and the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1500 most international influences (trade, war, religion) came across the Sahara and were felt mainly in the savannah. But in response to the growing transport of slaves to the New World, coastal forts sprang up and contending European powers fought for control of the region’s trade (Lovejoy 2000). These Europeans were in no position to dictate terms to the indigenous population beyond the reach of their forts; their mercantilism rested more on good will than force. Only the growing technological and economic superiority afforded by the Industrial Revolution allowed the European powers to contemplate incorporation of West Africa under their formal rule; and they soon thought better of it. Before the late nineteenth century, they lived on a narrow coastal strip relying on inland powers and merchant classes for their supply of slaves. The period immediately before colonial rule was one of revolutionary change as West Africa adjusted to the onslaught of the forces of industrialization. Before 1830, internal production was less directly affected by involvement with the outside world.

The contrast between forest and savannah cannot be overstressed. The great belt of tropical rain forest was an inhospitable region compared with the savannah which faced north to the Arab Mediterranean and Middle East. This stimulated the development of a regional division of labor quite independent of foreign trade with the Maghreb and Egypt. There were very few domesticated animals in the forest and trees were sparse on the savannah, giving rise to a longstanding exchange of the products of pastoralism and arboriculture. Mining and manufactures were also concentrated in the savannah. Consequently, the principal axis of variation in West African societies has always been a line from the dry north to the wet south, from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea. The forest, except when it is penetrated by the great inland rivers, stands as a barrier between these outer limits of the region’s ecology. From the sixteenth century onwards, the Europeans on the coast exerted an increasing pull on West Africa’s political economy, drawing population and trade southward in a movement that eventually polarized the region between Islam and Christianity. By the nineteenth century, five separate zones stretched along the north-south axis, each with its own distinctive social organization: the desert margins, the savannah, the transition from savannah to forest, the rainforest, and the seacoast.

On the edge of the Sahara or its “coast” (Sahel), Arab traders and Berber nomads mixed with the indigenous population at the northernmost outposts of black Africa. Great cities grew up here as long ago as Europe’s dark ages. Timbuktoo and Gao flourished at the point where the “inland sea” of the Niger bend reaches up into the desert margins. Merchant capital gained its greatest freedom in these independent entrepôts, which also boasted the holiest mosques and the most notable scholars. Kanem Bornu and Lake Chad guard the routes eastward to the Nile. It is a crossroads; many groups now living further south trace their origins to this area and its peoples are often racially mixed. It is a mysterious place, with the secrets of West Africa’s first civilizations buried beneath its sandy surfaces. Today, bands of nomadic Tuareg warriors struggle to retain a way of life established long ago when they exacted tribute from merchants crossing the desert and raided sedentary farmers for slaves and food. Life is harsh here and social organization reflects the exigencies of power more starkly than further south.

The second zone shades into the first according to shifts brought about by changing weather patterns and the cumulative effects of human activities there. Here the most advanced medieval civilizations grew up in the main river valleys. The open terrain made for ease of communication and of armed surveillance; a dry climate suited the storage of grain surpluses and encouraged the development of the region’s most ancient states, culminating in the empires of Mali and Songhay (Ajayi and Crowder 1976). The social division of labor here was as advanced as in parts of India. There was a stark gulf between the populations of town and countryside, with an Islamized urban elite dominating a subject peasantry from which it was often divided by ethnicity. Occupational divisions were caste-like. Pastoral nomads were sharply separated from sedentary farmers. Peasants who found their way into mercenary armies and merchant caravans often had to change their religion and ethnic identity. Hereditary artisan castes formed guilds in the towns and kept their distance from the peasants in the villages. The ruling classes were preoccupied with taxation and slavery, levying a remarkable range of duties on all kinds of economic activity. Slavery was omnipresent and in places food was produced exclusively by slaves. Sometimes slaves reached prominent positions as administrators and soldiers. An educated elite of lawyers, priests and teachers shared literacy in Arabic with the merchant class. Many of West Africa’s great modern nations sprang up from this savannah history – peoples like the Mande, Wolof, Hausa, Mossi and Fulani. Here was the home base for Hausa and Dioula trading networks that still thrive today. The savannah’s history is not dead, though its greatness has long been on the wane.

Next, as we move south, comes the third zone, a middle belt straddling the ecological divide between forest and savannah. Being furthest removed from the northern and southern poles of state formation, this area hosted large pockets of peoples who managed to avoid incorporation into larger states, even as they resisted enslavement by marauding armies. They were aided in that resistance by whatever passes for high ground in West Africa – the Jos Plateau and the Fouta Djallon, for example – as well as by a terrain of orchard bush land broken by hills and non-navigable streams. Market centers and petty kingdoms rose and fell in a pattern of chronic political instability and population movement. The area is best known for stateless peoples whose highly corporate and egalitarian social structures are documented in classical ethnographies – the Tallensi, Tiv, Dogon and so on (Fortes 1949, Bohannan and Bohannan 1968). These ancient peoples are fighting cultivators who refused rulers whose societies, although poor, are self-consciously organized to maintain their freedom wherever geography offers a reasonably secure refuge. Like their counterparts in remote hill regions elsewhere (like the Swiss or the Gurkhas), they have long been valued as recruits into the armies of more effete civilizations.

Our journey towards the coast now brings us to the tropical rain forest. The agricultural peoples of the forest came here from the savannah and the coast long ago; their political forms combine chiefship with secret societies. In some areas (the Igbo come to mind), they retained their distinctive patterns of hierarchical and stateless political association until modern times. The most striking consequence of the Atlantic slave trade, however, was the rise of powerful indigenous states out of the struggles to control slaving and commerce in the forest zone. Large kingdoms came to be situated some distance inland from the Europeans military and naval installations. These new states – Ashanti, Dahomey, Oyo (Polanyi 1966, Wilks 1975) – by commanding access to the coast from the interior and thus traffic in slaves and imported manufactures, began to shift the balance of power inexorably away from the savannah. These forest states encouraged settlements of Muslim merchants, organized huge armies and built palace bureaucracies on a grand scale. Slaves were put to work in several ways, including gold mining. But society retained a markedly “tribal” character. A mass peasantry had their own lineage elders and animist religion, so that the gap between towns (which were just glorified armed camps) and villages was less than in the savannah, even as these young pagan states posed the main threat to European dominance on the coast.

The coastal zone consisted of an almost unbroken chain of port towns huddled around beleaguered European fortresses built for the Atlantic slave trade. They were devoted to the trans-shipment of slaves and European manufactures. Occasionally, as in the Niger Delta and in the savannah region of the Volta estuary, Africans formed loose federations of coastal urban settlements. Their guns, import monopoly and purchasing power gave the Christian white men a good deal of influence here. They did not seek to rule, being content to operate through local middlemen. Africans on the coast became a cosmopolitan, mixed-blood elite in this period, living an urban life, often converting to Christianity and gaining some access to western education. They turned their backs on the old West Africa of the savannah interior, which most of them had never seen, and committed themselves to forging a new social order oriented toward the North Atlantic trading communities of America and Europe.

These then are the roughly horizontal strata that made up the West African region immediately before the modern era. For all the variety of cultures, local social organization shared some common features, of which one was the overland commerce conducted by Muslim merchants operating out of the interior. Violence and warfare were endemic; weaker peoples yielded their lands to the strong an and sought refuge elsewhere. Slave-raiding was intensified by the growing demand on the coast. Although they may have allowed Europeans a foothold on the coast and Arabs a privileged status as guests in the north, West Africans did not yet suffer conquest by foreigners and they still controlled the societies they had built up over centuries of more pronounced isolation from the outside world.

Indigenous states, markets and the pressure toward local self-sufficiency

There was obviously an intimate connection between commerce and state formation in West Africa. The organization of trade was focused on the highly stratified areas where warrior aristocracies, merchants and slaves were concentrated. Did the economies of the savannah states decline, stagnate or grow while the forest kingdoms waxed on the fruits of the slave trade, and with what consequences for relations between rulers and ruled? Certainly Kano, the center of a Hausa-Fulani emirate in what is now northern Nigeria, was the biggest city in West Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with a flourishing textiles industry and long, wide boulevards. Internal commerce was controlled by an ethnic diaspora of Hausa and Dioula/Mande merchants. In the absence of universal state law capable of underwriting contracts, they took on themselves responsibility for maintaining a customary order sustaining long-term credit. There were many routes between north and south, so that the rulers of petty and not-so-petty states on the way could not afford to tax the merchants too heavily in case they moved elsewhere. The benefits of a resident commercial community, ready to buy slaves and the products of slave labor, as well as to sell prestigious imported goods, were great enough to persuade rulers to grant merchants favorable trading conditions. The forest superpowers, like Ashanti and Dahomey, commanded enough territory to establish state monopolies in some branches of trade; but this was rare. The Muslim caravans carried their own protection through a patchwork of fragmented states and stateless peoples. They were privileged visitors to centers of state power and honored guests of informal local leaders in the more remote areas.

West Africa’s rulers could not rely on tribute in commodities with which to purchase European firearms, cloth, alcohol, and manufactured utensils, since they could only extract from the peasantry foodstuffs and unskilled labor which they used to support standing armies, unproductive bureaucracies and public rituals. But they could acquire slaves, as long as they expanded by military conquest. War captives far outnumbered internal recruits to slavery from debt bondage and imprisonment (Lovejoy 2000). Because these states lacked the police and prisons necessary for controlling their home populations, they always had to turn to conquest of rival states or, less expensively, to the zones of occupied by those who had refused states and offered a ready supply of non-citizens as slaves. S Some slaves were put to work in the mines. But monopolies in the metals trade were easier to achieve than over the products of arboriculture and animal husbandry (such as kola and hides) which remained largely in the hands of a free peasantry and the merchants who bought from them. Estates based on forced labor were simply not workable. Manufactures were produced by palace workforces, casted guilds and peasant part-time workers, usually at or near their place of final consumption. With the exception of textiles and iron products, long-distance trade was generally in raw materials.

Slaves had the additional advantage, in a land beset with transport difficulties, of being the only commodity capable of walking to the point of sale and carrying valuable commodities along the way (animals fare badly in the forest). The transition to plantations based on servile labor did not take place before the late nineteenth century in the forest zone. The social and material conditions did not exist for a bonded labor forced to produce substantial surpluses for a landlord class. Even slaves had to be absorbed into families after the first generation because only newly uprooted foreigners could be kept under control. The picture in the older savannah states to the north was nearer to the standard model for the Eurasian land mass. A more advanced division of labor there offered greater opportunities for some societies to follow the path of medieval civilization elsewhere: government revenues based on money taxes, significant financial capital, commodity production by magnates’ estates, slave villages and so on. This is why merchants were more at home in the north than in the south.

Enough has been said so far to dispel any lingering image of West Africa’s traditional rural societies as isolated, homogeneous people living peacefully within a matrix of subsistence agriculture (Hill 1972). But most of the region’s rural areas had long been occupied by people living in small villages surrounded by their kinsmen and devoting much of their labor to food production (Hart 1982: 35-39). In the countryside agriculture, animal husbandry, and domestic crafts were united in family work teams. Membership in lineages gave individuals territorial rights, a means of common defense and some security from spiritual dangers. The dominant principles of economic organization in stateless societies were reciprocity (sharing among equals) and redistribution (pooling by a central authority such as a family head or chief) (see Polanyi 1957); but this did not prevent individuals from seeking to acquire wealth in their own right. Relations with other groups usually involved the circulation of cattle as payment for marriage. Male authority was stratified by age and kinship. Women raised children and supplied the bulk of useful labor in food farming and processing. The well-known figure of the West African “mammy”, living from trade independently of men, was found then only on the coast.

The abundance of land meant that mobility was very easy for individuals (who would be welcomed as recruits elsewhere) and whole villages, which were based on shifting cultivation. The system of letting plots regenerate unused for fifteen years or more removed much of the value of landed property as such, but enhanced the value of having a large unoccupied territory in reserve. Hence priority was given to collective identities linked to political rights in offices belonging to corporate descent groups. If a family set up its homestead away from established settlements, it faced an extremely unattractive assortment of dangers – pests, disease, animal and human predators, and the risk of economic failure. Elders boosted their authority with accumulated wisdom built up from occupying the same territory for generations. So the prevalent social pattern was one of rural communities reproducing a stable population and producing its subsistence needs under social conditions of very limited hierarchy.

Most households in these communities produced the same range of goods for their own use and did not rely on commodities produced by others in that process. Specialized producers who depended on the market would then be left with surpluses of some goods and deficits of others, including necessities. So people made sure first that their subsistence needs would be met and then perhaps produced for the market. It takes only a few examples of failure by those who have overcommitted themselves to dependence on markets to ensure that the traditional norms of self-sufficiency would be highly valued. Lessons concerning the dangers of quick wealth are built into the customary perceptions of many West Africans. These are the limits placed on accumulation through production of foodstuffs for the market. Demand was weak and intermittent. No-one knew when the next harvest would come or how poor it could be. Storage and transport facilities for bulk foodstuffs were extremely difficult. As a result, markets in West Africa were opportunities to exchange small surpluses of staples; to increase the variety of diet by purchasing garden produce and hunters’ catches; to acquire the minute quantities of salt, cloth and other imported luxuries they could afford; to buy handicrafts; to drink millet beer or palm wine; and above all to meet people, especially members of the opposite sex. These markets were dominated by local women and young men. The less-privileged could supplement their meager earnings there; but they were not a serious challenge to the older married men. The one major exception was individual accumulation through trade in livestock; but even this loophole could be closed by making animal husbandry the exclusive prerogative of ethnically separate pastoralists.

If control over the circulation of women was crucial to the authority of elders (Meillassoux 1981), so too was control over highly valued trade goods which were often the exclusive tokens of marriage exchange – cloth, iron bars, cattle and slaves (Bohannan and Bohannan 1968, Guyer 2004). The merchants who brought such goods had to buy food and catering services on their travels and might need some local protection. Strategically placed big men could become “landlord” intermediaries with wealthy foreigners, expand their polygamous families and accumulate power that way. But market expansion was checked by a number of factors: demand for rural production was inherently limited; competition from similarly placed kin groups reduced the scope for individual accumulation; and hoarding of family labor meant having to co-opt the women and young men who supplied the bulk of it. It was always open for individuals who found their lot oppressive to escape from village society’s restrictions by seeking employment as a mercenary or in a merchant caravan. But travel without the protection of kinsmen was always risky and best left to professional outsiders. Regional and local forces thus integrated villagers into a growing network of commerce, slavery, warfare and state formation, while sustaining them within an inward-looking kinship system based on agrarian self-sufficiency. Sparse population and a difficult terrain ensured that markets made only superficial inroads into their domestic economy.

The dominant forms of labor were thus traditionally kinship and slavery. The one is a model of community and consensus in our lexicon, the other the epitome of domination and coercion. In practice, they had much in common. Some think of African slavery (particularly domestic slavery) as a benevolent institution, in that slaves were often treated like kinsmen; but it could also be said that kinsmen, especially junior males and women, were often treated like slaves. Social organization based on kinship does not conform to the ideal of warm family love that modern Americans take to be standard. It can be consensual, if weaker members of the family can walk out; and it can be a form of domination in varying degree. Nor is slavery its antithesis, but rather a natural outgrowth of the development of kinship organization. Traditional villages based on kinship were not models of equality. The main task of kinship was to organize reproduction and coordinate production. No society on earth represents the sequential link between generations, parents and children, as equal. Inequality is the norm of kinship: in West Africa, even brothers are ranked by age seniority. Social life organized by kinship is fundamentally stratified. We, who retain in our language and sentiments the ideology, without the substance, of a society organized through kinship, project our own romantic nostalgia onto the faction-ridden and anxiety-prone family life of African villages. In the name of this fictitious utopia, we declaim against the shift away from this narrow-minded sphere or invent non-existent social forces of external oppression to explain why West Africans, like countless millions everywhere, yearly vote with their feet on the relative attractions of town and country life.

The nineteenth-century crisis and colonialism

Only in the nineteenth century were West Africans put on the defensive by European expansion, as the industrial revolution began to make itself felt (Hopkins 1973: chapter 4). The region’s position as the nearest tropical area to Europe was now fully exploited for the first time. Previously, the Caribbean, Ceylon and the East Indies were more important. Beginning around 1830, but especially from the 1850s, West Africa became a major source of vegetable oils, from oil palm stands in the coastal forest and groundnuts in the coastal savannah. The explosion in European demand came from the industrial population’s need for candles, soap and later margarine. The invention of vulcanization in 1880 generated a short-lived boom for wild rubber. Soon afterwards the world’s cocoa industry was launched in the virgin rainforest of the Gold Coast by indigenous farmers operating without the knowledge or support of the British colonial administration (Hill 1963). All this vividly illustrates how, in little more than a half-century, West Africans were drawn into the world economy as agricultural producers or, more accurately, as tree-crop collectors. The growth of this “legitimate” trade took place against a backdrop of the movement to abolish slavery which became more effective as the century progressed. At first limited to the slave trade and then extended to slavery itself, the key moment in the history of abolition was the American civil war, but Brazil and Cuba continued to import slaves for a decade or two after that. The various interests that supported slavery in West Africa were pushed into the background to make way for the supply of industrial raw materials. This shift lies at the core of “the nineteenth century crisis”.

Despite foreign experiments in plantation production, economic control over the new export crops remained in the hands of West Africans. In some cases, slaves who could no longer be sold were put to work producing vegetable oils. But the loss of revenues from slavery hit the ruling aristocracies hard; and the old political order was threatened everywhere by the rise of new classes of merchants and farmers. The Europeans’ technological mastery shifted the balance of power decisively in their favor.  Some forest states like Ashanti grew strong enough to challenge Europe’s coastal enclaves; but by the late nineteenth century, military technology (the machine gun) had improved sufficiently for the Europeans to fight land wars against such powers. The decision to colonize West Africa beyond Dakar, Lagos, and the forts was taken piecemeal; but the scramble for colonies began in 1883 and was completed in two decades. France had the lion’s share of the land, Britain the bulk of the population and trade. Portugal and Germany occupied minor slivers of territory. The origins of West African colonization belong to the wider struggle for global domination waged at the time by the industrial powers of Europe. Then, as now, West Africa was a side show.

The crisis was manifested in the interior by an increase in warfare and slave-raiding, leading to considerable depopulation in places. The nineteenth century saw a series of political upheavals. The most effective challenge to the old political orders was posed by populist Muslim religious leaders. There were several religious wars (jihads) leading to the establishment of new states. A few military freebooters were able to set up temporary states before being overthrown by the colonial powers. The accelerated shift of markets to the south (reinforced by rapid improvements in maritime transport, such as the steamship) gave new opportunities to the Muslim merchants and further reduced the significance of the trans-Sahara connection. On the coast, “merchant princes” arose to fill some of the gaps left by a rapidly crumbling indigenous political order. The immediate pre-colonial period, far from being the stable embodiment of indigenous social forms, was thus a time of great conflict between West Africans and Europeans and among themselves. West Africa went through upheavals of the same sort that the western world’s regions experienced in the nineteenth century. Their ultimate cause was the cataclysmic impact of global industrialization.

The explicit function of colonialism (Hart 1982: 43-50) was to impose a system of direct political rule on a West African region that had been extremely fragmented. It might be supposed that this was designed to facilitate the extraction of value from the colonies. This was not entirely the case. The British were mainly interested in trade which took priority. The French, however, saw their colonies (Afrique occidentale française, AOF) as part of Greater France; they were more interested in sovereignty and territorial control for their own sake. This was reflected in different attitudes to public finance. The British colonies were expected to be self-financing, which restricted the scope for military adventures and led them to embrace a system of indirect rule by appointed chiefs. The French authorities, on the other hand, had the use of a conscript army paid for by the mother country. The gap between the two grew larger as the British policy of economic liberalism stimulated an exodus from the French territories to the Gold Coast and Nigeria, where export booms were fed by this migrant labor supply. Coercion of labor and exaction of tribute in the AOF only depressed its economies further. Development in places like the Ivory Coast was thus retarded by French colonialism.

The colonial period only lasted for six decades (roughly 1900-1960), although colonies had existed in small coastal enclaves for much longer. The main focus of economic expansion remained forest agriculture in indigenous hands. New export crops took off after oil palm and rubber: cocoa, coffee and fruits. Groundnuts and cotton were the staple exports of the savannah, with Northern Nigeria joining Senegambia as a major groundnuts producer. British and French merchant houses controlled much of this trade, but some Lebanese businessmen exploited cracks in the colonial monopolies. The économie de traite was based on the use of export crop income to buy imported manufactures: cloth, liquor and light consumer goods. The big trading firms were a major political force in the colonies, especially after hopes for mining in the region were generally dashed. Compared with settler colonies elsewhere in Africa, West Africans retained ownership of their land and were subject to quite liberal labor laws. The failure of European capital to penetrate production there meant that public institutions, much like their indigenous precursors, were quite light-handed. Colonialism’s most important contribution to West African development was its improvement of the transport infrastructure. Foreign capital flooded into the region at the beginning of the twentieth century to fund projects that often turned out to be excessively optimistic. Regardless of the returns to the original investors, these ports, railways, docks, bridges and roads brought a veritable transport revolution, which vastly enhanced the commercial economy. Various trades, such as those for kola and livestock, took off once transport and distribution costs had been cut so drastically.

The administrative revolution of colonialism had powerful effects on local economies. Peace and taxation were associated with greater population mobility, the rise of new political elites, and market expansion. It is often overlooked that, although the colonial rulers stimulated urban growth, the construction industry was largely in the hands of indigenous enterprises. Colonial fiscal policies were conservative, so that growth of the centers of government was restricted. The gap between the coastal forest and the savannah widened, with the latter becoming, often as a direct result of public policy, a neglected reservoir of labor for the export-crop zones. The cycle of booms and slumps which had marked the nineteenth century was continued and exaggerated under colonialism. The period 1930-1945 saw an unremitting depression that had traumatic consequences for West African production and commerce. After 1945, centralization of trade (marketing boards and stabilization funds) enabled colonial governments to skim off large surpluses from export sales that were used by the British to pay off war debts. This was an important forerunner of state controls introduced later by the successor regimes.

The external orientation of the colonial economies was reflected in their failure to supply the basic consumer needs of the population drawn into the export enclaves and the towns. Large amounts of foodstuffs (rice from Burma, sugar from the Caribbean, tea from Ceylon) were routinely imported rather than produced locally. The Gold Coast and Nigeria had flourishing internal market economies by the end of the colonial area. In 1960, the Ghanaian economy was larger than Indonesia’s and per capita income equal to South Korea’s (which is now 50 times greater). Elsewhere export growth was not linked to investment in production for the home market. These differences are important, given the common tendency to regard the effects of colonialism as having been uniform for West Africa’s local economies. The Second World War was a watershed. Before it, many thought of the European colonial presence as eternal; afterwards, emancipation from colonial rule seemed only a matter of time. The British knew that they could not stay on in West Africa against the will of the people. The colonial powers were forced to yield to African political leaders much sooner than had once seemed likely. West Africa was very quickly converted into a Balkanized cluster of states who won their independence more or less without a fight.

Independence and after

In the last half-century the state has emerged as an economic force on an unprecedented scale (Bayart 2009). Power is shared by three classes: holders of political office and the parties that brought West Africa to independence; the military and the police, whose coups have displaced the first in many instances; and a bureaucracy that carries on the traditions of the colonial state. These ruling classes are supported or checked lightly by weak civil interests: unions, chiefs and businessmen, the last having flourished at the expense of bureaucrats over the last few decades. The rulers depend on foreign interests: the former colonial powers, the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the international financial institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) and the multinational corporations. France still maintains monetary control over most of its colonies. In addition, the region has formed its own union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which is of course dominated by Nigeria.

To portray the successor states as colonialism under new management is to miss the point about what happened there, at least immediately after independence. Each country embarked on ambitious programs aimed at raising living standards and extending the government’s control of the territory it had inherited. This led the new states into a scale and pattern of public expenditures that the colonial regimes never dreamed of. Expenditure on infrastructure projects and social services escalated rapidly. Where building roads and bridges was favored before, post-colonial states raised multi-story buildings and filled them with government officials. The politicians’ greatest achievement was in providing education and health services to the people who voted them into power. But this was all very expensive. At first, control of the trade in export agriculture was intensified, following the colonial precedent of the post-war years. The public debt was financed by external borrowing and domestic inflation; capital investments in agriculture and industry were rarely profitable. Direct taxation was limited by the freedom of decentralized agricultural producers. Excise duties could not grow as fast as the population and the budget. Increased energy costs after the formation of OPEC were crippling, not least because the world markets for agricultural exports were simultaneously depressed. The growing financial crisis was deferred in the 1970s by unprincipled lending from western banks charged with recycling the oil surplus. But it came home to roost with a vengeance in the 1980s.

What took the place of the colonial trading economy was an over-centralized political system, with the state adding the roles of banker, industrialist and landlord to that of merchant monopolist and bureaucratic provider. A dispersed population of small farmers constituted its material base and, with the state apparatus weighing down so heavily on a captive peasantry, something had to give. At first, the donor agencies seemed to want to rescue West Africa’s regimes from the contradictions of their development policies or to nudge them towards living more closely within their resources. But the crisis of the 1970s saw reductions in aid; internal economic management came under closer scrutiny; ecological deterioration hit the Sahel states especially; corruption and administrative incompetence became normal; world recession hit a region hard that lacks strategic resources beyond Nigeria’s oil and Niger’s uranium; import demand from the burgeoning cities escalated; home industry stagnated and export prices fell. Apart from these specific causes, West Africa’s successor states lurched into crisis because they built modern bureaucracies on the back of a depressed peasantry whose conditions of work were still broadly the same as for centuries before, even if more of their produce now ended up being sold (Hart 1982).

This all had the effect of accelerating the drift of population out of the countryside. Each capital city is like a latter-day Naples, with the headquarters of government surrounded by a mob living directly and indirectly off the concentration of public expenditures there. Income is thus drawn from export agriculture and spent disproportionately in the large cities, where it circulates in the spontaneous markets that have sprung up to supply residents with their basic needs for food, housing, transport, stimulants, clothing etc. This ‘informal economy’ (Hart 2010) is so large because little is produced by public- or private-sector firms. Like the cities, these unregulated markets were freely made by West Africans themselves with only intermittent bureaucratic interference. They offer an erratic source of income, mostly low, but with a prospect of accumulation for some. It is hardly surprising that many peasants find it worth their while to swap village drudgery and the obligations of kinship for this teeming street economy. By the end of the century, almost half West Africa’s population had become city-dwellers.

Local agriculture cannot supply the food consumed by these mushrooming cities. Any further stimulus to the home market for foodstuffs has been depressed by government price controls and food aid. But the main obstacles to the commercialization of food production are the low productivity of farmers and the dumping of cheap food from Europe and America, where farmers receive huge subsidies financed by a much larger tax fund. Even so, attempts have been made to stimulate local food production. Rice, in view of its low bulk and high nutritional value, is the preferred crop, much of it already being imported from southeast Asia. Locally grown cereals and root-crops will no doubt continue to supplement this staple. The international donors and the new states are very interested in large-scale irrigation schemes producing rice. These projects are usually less efficient than small farmers growing dry upland rice, but the attraction to governments is the prospect of guaranteed revenues under their own control. It is ironic that West African states could be moving towards what used to be called “Oriental despotism”, dragooning free peasants into growing rice while standing in water. Intensification of agriculture means getting people to work harder, which requires coercion. This would have to be especially severe in the forest areas, where labor-efficient techniques of production yield food with relatively little effort – hence the popularity of cassava (manioc) which, despite its nutritional deficiencies, requires almost no labor input. Even in the savannah, farmers generate a richer diet from a third of the labor hours that Asian peasants spend growing food.

The growing contradictions of West Africa’s economy were exacerbated by the global crisis of the 1970s when higher energy prices triggered off a general depression which was manifested as “stagflation” (rising unemployment with inflation). Loans recycling the oil surplus provided a temporary expedient, but these in turn led to a massive escalation of Third World debt in the 1980s (Hart 2000). This was the time when neo-conservative liberals, led by Reagan and Thatcher, announced a new deal for world economy, with “the market” now being considered the engine of economic growth, not “the state”. The international financial institutions imposed “structural adjustment programs” on post-colonial states to which they had previously taken a more lenient attitude. The main aim of these programs was to dismantle governments’ ability to impede the flow of money across their borders and to force them to withdraw from public expenditures on social services that they could not afford. In both cases West Africans suddenly found themselves with much less protection than before. A large part of government revenues went on servicing debt which seemed to be the point of the new regime. Under these circumstances, the pretension of independent states to promote development was exposed as a cruel fantasy. And most West African economies went into reverse, with the result that many of them were poorer by the millennium that they had been at the time of decolonization. Naturally, all of this did not pass without violence.

The first two decades after independence saw the region’s leading economy, Ghana suffer a tremendous reverse in its fortunes from which it is only now recovering, with the support of the World Bank and its own people’s indomitable spirits. Its place was briefly taken by the Ivory Coast which took advantage of independence to sustain a remarkable boom in forest export crops that allowed Abidjan to become West Africa’s most prosperous city. Senegal too, in a less spectacular way, made a successful transition to independence from having been the administrative center of the AOF. But the contradictions of post-colonial state formation first became apparent in civil wars that tore Sierra Leone and Liberia apart, and eventually spread to the Ivory Coast. Here the French had deliberately separated from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), a savannah hinterland for the Ivory Coast’s forest zone suitable for supplying cheap labor within national boundaries. Now these long-dormant tensions between West Africa’s two main ecological zones erupted into war, with the northerners aiming for reintegration with their cousins in Burkina, and the French army stepping in on the side of the Abidjan government. The prospect of total war in the region was felt most keenly next door in Ghana. This is to the consequence of building modern states on the basis of agriculture.

What can one say about Nigeria? The regional superpower has been blessed with oil revenues which the inhabitants like to call “the national cake”. But like similar rentier states (Venezuela, Iraq and Iran come to mind), the blessing has been a curse, since it has focused political attention on distribution rather than production. The result is a mess of corruption and a stalemate in the awkward attempt to keep its three main groups to some sort of national compromise. I once imagined that Nigeria would be the Prussia of West African and even Pan-African unification, but it now seems hard enough for it to preserve a common national framework. Even so, there are some promising developments, especially in the field of cultural production, as we will see below. China was a mess in the interwar period and look where it is now. But then China was the most advanced economic center in the world a little more than two centuries ago and West Africa is still waiting for its economic emancipation.

The problem of “development”

A preoccupation with West Africa’s post-colonial failure to “develop” – or to “take-off” — has obscured what really happened there. The rise of cities in the last half-century has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to be understood as an “informal economy”. The region experienced an urban revolution that had previously been limited to old savannah centers like Kano, to European coastal enclaves and to the Yoruba agro-towns that came together in the nineteenth century crisis. This does not just mean the unprecedented proliferation of cities, but also that the whole package of pre-industrial class society that once flourished in the medieval interior has now been made general: states, new urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a division of labor based on the extraction of rural surpluses. Any strategy for African development now must build on the social conditions that came into being as a result of building new states on an economic foundation of pre-industrial, low-intensity agriculture (Hart 2010).

Africa’s new leaders thought they were generating modern economies, with ambitions for public expenditure to match, but in reality they were erecting fragile states whose economic base was the same backward agriculture as before. This weakness inexorably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. These ruling elites first relied on revenues from agricultural exports, then on loans contracted under dubious circumstances, finally on the financial monopoly that came from being licensed to supervise their country’s relations with global capitalism. But this bonanza was switched off in the 1980s, when foreign capital felt that it could dispense with the mediation of local state powers and concentrated on collecting debts from them. Many governments were made bankrupt and some simply collapsed into civil war.

It is hardly surprising that hopes for African democracy soon flew out of the window, to be replaced by a norm of dictatorship, whether civil or military, or its antithesis, political collapse (Bayart 2009). Concentration of political power at the centre led to the dominance of the capital city, as economic demand became synonymous with public expenditures. The growth of cities should normally lead to an expanded level of rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services with the proceeds. But this progressive division of labor was stifled in the post-colonial states by the dumping of cheap subsidized food from North America and Europe and of cheap manufactures from Asia into African markets. This structural adjustment meant that West Africa’s national economies had no protection from the strong winds of world trade. As a result, a peasantry subjected to political extraction and violence was forced to choose between stagnation at home and migration to the main cities or abroad. Somehow, the cities survived on markets that emerged spontaneously to recycle the money concentrated by political extraction and to meet the population’s needs for food, shelter, clothing and transport. There is no shortage of business acumen, just of capital (Fanon 2005 on “the weakness of the national bourgeoisie”). These markets are the key to understanding the economic potential of West Africa’s urban revolution.

The state’s relationship to economy has been transformed since independence. West African nation-states learned the hard way that they are not free to choose their own forms of political economy. When the world was divided between the Rooseveltian consensus and the Soviet bloc in the first three decades after 1945, state ownership of production and control of distribution seemed to offer the best chance of defending the national interest against colonial and neo-colonial predators. After the 1970s, the mania for privatization led to ownership being ceded to individual corporations, often with a colonial past. Structural adjustment forced governments to abandon public service provision, to lay off many workers and to allow the free circulation of commodities and money. Failed states and civil wars encouraged informal mining and trade, concentrating wealth and power in the hands of warlords and their followers. The restoration of peace in some areas usually came with the return of limited bureaucratic controls over distribution. The situation is highly dynamic and variable.

Tax collection in Africa never attained the regularity it has long achieved in Europe and Asia. Traditional states based their economies on seizing revenues from long-distance trade rather than producing for local consumption. But this could be said of most pre-industrial states; and governments still rely on whatever resources they can extract from the import-export trade. The new states and class structures of Africa’s urban revolution are entangled in kinship systems that remain indispensable to any understanding of how the informal economy works as social organization. The recruitment of dependents from “home” allows the new urban middle classes to pass off exploitation of cheap labor as an egalitarian model of African kinship. Formal bureaucracy, on the other hand, is hostile to kinship, since the institution originated in the early modern drive to escape from a society based on personal relations. In that public context kinship is normally viewed as corruption. On the other hand, “family business” has never lost favor and child labor is still acceptable there, if not when employed by transnational corporations. In the absence of a welfare state, Africans must rely on kinship to see them through the life cycle of birth, marriage, childrearing, old age and death; and this reinforces the traditional power of elders in the face of rural-urban migration on the part of youth and women.

To speak of economic growth in the future begs the question of what West Africa’s new urban populations could produce. So far, these countries have relied on exporting raw materials, when they could. Minerals clearly have a promising future owing to scarce supplies and rising demand; but the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies and prices are further depressed by the large number of poor farmers seeking entry. Conventionally, African governments have aspired to manufacturing exports as an alternative, but here they face intense competition from Asia. But the world market for services is booming and perhaps greater opportunities for supplying national, regional and global markets exist there. There was a time when most services were performed personally on the spot; but today, as a result of the digital revolution in communications, they increasingly link producers and consumers at distance. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, software and a wide range of information services (Hart 2010).

The future of the human economy lies in the infinite scope for us to do things for each other — like singing songs or telling stories — that need not take a tangible form. The largest global television audiences are for sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. The United States’ three leading exports are now movies, music and software. There is a lot more to be gained here and the terrain is not as rigidly mapped out as in agriculture and manufactures. West Africans are also exceptionally well-placed to compete here because of global audiences’ proven preference of for their music and plastic arts. The world’s second largest producer of movies is now Lagos in Nigeria (“Nollywood”). Most of their movies cost no more than $5,000, a pattern reminiscent of Hollywood when W.G. Griffith was king. Popular culture is still America’s most successful export. There is no reason why it couldn’t be for Africans too, if they can solve problems of transnational payment that have hitherto eluded them.

The global economic crisis of 2008 has brought with it another swing in the balance between state and market comparable to that which took place after the watershed of the 1970s. The prospects of a new deal enabling some sort of transition from what has been called the urban informal economy to sustained commercial growth is thus highly disputable. Just as structural adjustment in the 80s opened up space for small traders at the expense of the bureaucrats, it would be surprising if the present moment did not entail a crackdown on “informality”, with a renewed emphasis on tax collection and the funding of public enterprises. At the other extreme, informal operators have often been quicker to use mobile phones and other information technologies for purposes of transnational trade than bureaucratic firms. It would be a pity if this spin-off from neo-liberalism were stifled by a new dirigisme. I have no likely scenarios for the coming decades, but have rather sought to show how the rapid urbanization, informal market growth and precarious new states of the last half-century may be understood as an outgrowth of West Africa’s long differentiated history of internal development.



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