Jewish World Review July 13, 2005 / 6 Taamuz, 5765

Thomas Sowell

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The tragedy of Africa: Part II | Nature and man have combined to make Africa the most tragic of the continents — and the men who did this have been both black and white.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel said, "In understanding Black Africa, geography is more important than history." Much of Africa's history was in fact shaped by its geography.

Almost every great city in the world has arisen on navigable waterways — and such waterways are more scarce in Africa than in any other continent. An aircraft carrier can dock on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan but there is not a single river where that is possible on the vast continent of Africa, which is larger than Europe or North America.

Even smaller boats can travel only a limited distance on most African rivers because of cascades and waterfalls. Most of the continent is more than 1,000 feet above sea level and more than half of Africa is more than 2,000 feet above sea level. That means its rivers and stream must plunge down from those heights on their way to the sea.

Water transport was crucial in the thousands of years before there were trains or automobiles. It was crucial for developing an economy and crucial for developing a culture in touch with enough other widely scattered cultures to make use of advances in the rest of the world. But many African societies have been isolated by that continent's dearth of both navigable rivers and harbors.

Isolated regions have almost invariably lagged behind regions in touch with a wider cultural universe. One among many signs of the isolation and cultural fragmentation of much of sub-Saharan Africa is that African languages are one third of all the languages in the world, even though African peoples are only about 10 percent of the world's population.

Small, tribal societies were another consequence of geographic isolation — and the vulnerability of such societies to conquest by outsiders was another.

If cultural diversity was all that the multiculturalists claim, Africa would be a heaven on earth. Too often and in too many places it has been a hell on earth.

Many people expected great things from Africa when new independent African nations began to emerge from colonial rule in the 1960s, often headed by leaders who had been educated in Europe and America.

Unfortunately, what these new leaders brought back to Africa from the West were not the things that had made the West prosperous and powerful but the untested theories of Western intellectuals and ideologues who had taught them. Such African leaders by and large lacked both the common sense of the African masses and the technological and economic experience of the West.

The net result was that African leaders, full of confidence because of their Western education and the adulation of the Western intelligentsia, made their people guinea pigs for half-baked theories that had contributed nothing to the rise of the West and had contributed much to its social degeneration.

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Poverty-stricken Africa could afford these economic and social disasters far less than the affluent West could. However, African leaders were not judged in the West by their results but by their rhetoric and their visions that resonated with the rhetoric and the visions of the Western intelligentsia.

Thus Julius Nyerere became virtually a secular saint in the Western media while he was driving the people of Tanzania deeper into poverty and tyranny. Nor was he alone.

Conversely, when Felix Houphouet-Boigny made the Ivory Coast an oasis of economic advancement and civil peace, he was either ignored or disdained. He was one of the few new African leaders with any previous experience in business or any understanding of economics. His successors have ruined the country.

Whatever damage European colonialism did to Africa during its relatively brief reign, that was probably less than the damage done later by well-meaning Western would-be saviors of Africa. Africans do not need to be treated as mascots but as people whose own efforts, skills, and initiatives need to be freed from the tyranny of their leaders and the paternalism of Western busybodies.

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