On My Bookshelf

A car salesman recommended that I read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and I’ve been reading it, or trying to, ever since I bought it on Amazon.com in mid-2010. Rodney’s clear, easy-to-comprehend writing tells the story of the capitalist destruction of Africa. Actually, I’ve been reading this book very slowly; I’m only on the second chapter and I can’t seem to pay attention to it after reading 4 pages. However, I would sincerely recommend this book to any interested in African development or anything of that nature.

This well-known book continues to be circulated not only amongst Africanists, revolutionaries, pro-socialists, and sociologists, but even high-brown intellects and mainstream business entrepreneurs can been known to read this book. Gail Gerhart, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, gave this review of Rodney’s book:

“The 1970s saw a paradigm shift in much social science writing on Africa. Drawing on the work of Latin American neo-Marxists who posited a “dependency theory” of underdevelopment, Africanists, of whom Guyanese academic Rodney became one of the best known with this book, abandoned the notion that infusions of “modernization” were the answer to Africa’s backwardness. Instead they embraced the premise that the capitalist world system was a zero-sum game in which the strong enriched themselves at the expense of the weak. Thus, under development in the precapitalist Third World — in technological, industrial, educational, military, and organizational terms — was interpreted less as a residual condition than as a byproduct of exploitation by First World capitalism. Rodney’s book, which highlighted the debilitating effects of the slave trade and other depredations, lacks the academic rigor of writings by neo-Marxist Africanists such as Giovanni Arrighi, Colin Leys, Charles van Onselen, and Colin Bundy. However, the sweep of Rodney’s historical interpretation secured a popular audience that more narrowly focused works did not enjoy.”

For me, Rodney’s well-researched work provides facts to justify what I’ve always felt to be an inner notion that Africa, indeed, has been ripped apart by Europe. Rodney describes the rhyme and reason of the systematic exploitation. Time after time, I’m taken away by the sharp clearness of Rodney’s arguments. Rodney touches a myriad of topics from international business to psychology to morality.Here’s one particular explanation that captivated me:

“An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world have gone through a cultural and psychological crises and have accepted, at least partially, the European version of things. That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment. With such doubts, he even challenges those of his brothers who say that Africa can and will develop through the efforts of its own people. If we can determine when underdevelopment came about, it would dismiss the lingering suspicion that it is racially or otherwise predetermined and that we can do little about it.” [Rodney, 21]

But Rodney doesn’t simply portray Africans as the victims. He also points out that:

“It is has been noted with irony that the principal ‘industry’ of many underdeveloped countries is administration. Not long ago, 60 per cent of the internal revenue of Dahomey went into paying salaries of civil servants and government leaders. The salaries given to the elected politicians are high than those given to a British Member of Parliament, and the number of parliamentarians in the underdeveloped African countries is also relatively high. In Gabon, there is one parliamentary representative for every six thousand inhabitants, compared to one French parliamentary representative for every hundred thousand Frenchmen….Members of the privileged groups inside Africa always defend themselves by saying that they pay the taxes which keep the government going. At face value this statement sounds reasonable, but on close examination it is really the most absurd argument and shows total ignorance of how the economy functions. Taxes do not produce national wealth and development. Wealth has to be produced out of nature- from tilling the land or mining metals or felling trees or turning raw materials into finished products for human consumption.” [Rodney, 19]

This passage reminds me of my trip to Kenya in 2010. When I was there, the Members of Parliament of Kenya’s National Assembly voted to give themselves a pay raise. This pay raise, would give the MPs $126,000 after taxes and would make them amongst the highest paid legislators in the world, and a huge protest broke forth from common Kenyans. Even Prime Minister, Raila Odinga condemned the pay raise as “unfair.” And it is unfair when you realize that most Kenyans live on less than $1 a day. Not to mention, Kenya has 210 elected MPs, which is a lot by any standard!

Then less than 2 weeks ago, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan announced that he has been recommended to reduced the number of ministries to reduce the cost of government operations. Nearly 75% of the proposed national budget for 2011 is allocated to paying those who are in administration and maintain government operations. Reputedly, the salaries of Nigerian and Kenya ministers are greater than senators of the United States. Not too mention, more and more positions are being created in the President’s administration. Just a few days ago, Bianca Ojukwu, wife of the popular Igbo nationalist leader, Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, accepted the appointment of Senior Special Assistant of Diaspora Affairs. Many Nigerians are already criticizing the appointment as bogus, and note that Mrs. Ojukwu has never even lived outside of Nigeria. So….less than 20% of the proposed budget of Nigeria will go to infrastructure. Remember, most Nigerians do not even enjoy continues electricity and even running water in homes is a luxury.

So, all of this relates to Rodney’s disapproval of many African governments.

What encouraged me to read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was Walter Rodney’s biography. A Guyanese political activist and scholar, Walter Rodney was killed in 1980 at the age of 38 years. I don’t want to say much about Mr. Rodney, because I hope to create some sort of intrigue that would inspire you to check him out. But I will say that Rodney was not only a scholastic gem, but he was a source of strength to the black pride/nationalist movement and he died because he knew too much and wanted much.

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