Posted on March 13, 2007

Why Black People Have Remained Backward

Elias Biryabarema, Monitor (Kampala), Feb. 7, 2007

Mr. Yoweri Museveni has a background of good education. A calm and well exposed man. Straight thinking and intelligent. His grasp of contemporary world affairs, including some quite complex stuff, is commendably firm.

For years he burned his young energies battling vile governments. Narrowly escaping death on occasions, he showed resolve, sacrifice, devotion to his people and a deep abhorrence for oppressive leadership. Sure. This man had no shortage of good qualities.

And yet, to the astonishment of history, Mr Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has still failed us. 20 years at nation building have produced incompetence so shocking that some think a psychopathic illiterate, Idi Amin, did better work.

Uganda has been fairly stable long enough. The conditions for an economic takeoff have been there for 20 years. Mr. Museveni has enjoyed generous goodwill from nearly all the world’s rich governments. Their largesse has poured in ceaselessly and in hefty amounts.

Uganda should have taken off. We haven’t. We’re stuck. And so is Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Eritrea, Malawi, Congo Republic and pretty much all of Black Africa, excluding the region’s sole economic power, South Africa. This led me to pose a question to myself: can Black people build prosperous societies?

Just about every reason-from slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism to inequitable world trade rules-cited for the backwardness of Black African nations has been so debunked by time that it has now become necessary to look beyond the realm of such contemporary explanations. The maddening inertia of Black people and the mystical forces that keep tamping down our nations, in fact, seem to have their roots deep within us, not from without as has been argued for decades.

Just about everywhere you look, evidence abounds. Vietnam suffered a war of colonial conquest and it was eventually subdued by France in 1884. For almost a decade, it again fought a devastating independence war until France was vanquished in 1954. And then came the epic battle of 1965 to 1973 with US military and its allies, seeking to squelch the North Vietnamese communists.

When the guns fell silent with the withdrawal of US troops in 1973 and the eventual fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese toll stood at a horrifying three to four million. Diplomatically isolated, its economy shredded and its population maimed and traumatised on a scale unparalleled in any Black African nation (except DR Congo), Vietnam would seem to have no chance at success.

But just two and a half decades later, Vietnam is storming the world stage as an economic powerhouse. Its exports are flooding western nations; heavy and advanced manufacturing is thriving at a rapid pace. Its GDP, $258 billion, is having an average growth rate of 8%, the second highest in Asia after China. Europe had to put curbs on the country’s shoe exports after they nearly sunk much of the continent’s manufacturers.

According to a news report in New York Times on October 25, 2006, Vietnam now sells “nine times as much to Americans as it buys from there.” Since 1990, a space of 15 short years, Vietnam has pulled off one of the most stunning economic feats: reducing absolute poverty-World Bank standard: subsisting on $1 a day-from 51 to 8% of its population.


Back home here, the sort of wars and the scale of devastation that Uganda has suffered since independence can hardly be said to be as crippling as the cataclysm that struck Vietnam.

This is true for many of the Black African nations. But the difference is staggering. Vietnam’s economy is roaring. Sub Saharan Africa is dead stuck known more for: constant disease outbreaks, emergency food relief appeals, civil strive, genocide, chronic corruption, flimsy or nonexistent infrastructure, constitution breaches, state failure than anything else. This disgusting state of affairs after, according to an estimate by South Africa’s Brenthurst Foundation, a colossal $580 billion worth of donor money has been poured into the region since independence. Why have the Vietnamese overcome their historical setbacks and prospered while Black Africans stagnated or regressed?

Or if we may ask another question: why is it that White people prosper wherever they settle while Black people head for the opposite direction. The British crown started asserting its colonial rule over small territories on the continent of Australia in 1788, taking several decades before it brought all the areas into a unified Australian colony.

Throngs of Europeans emigrated en masse and settled there throughout the 1800s. These émigrés went ahead, starting from really little or nothing, and established one of the world’s economic and military powers that is Australia today. The history of New Zealand, the other White country in the Southern Hemisphere, is pretty much the same.

Now contrast these nations with Haiti, the only black nation outside of Africa. It gained independence in 1804. It’s near the US, the richest market on earth and Haiti has a coastline unlike other African nations whose landlocked status is blamed for their underdevelopment. And fine, it has had a fairly brutal past but nowhere near Vietnam’s horrors. But what have our Haitian brothers made of these generous natural advantages: it remains the most backward country in the Western hemisphere, bound up by privation, cyclical coups, spasms of mayhem and blood-thirsty gangs. At home and away, that’s your Black people!


In fact Haiti is perhaps just about the best that we can achieve in nation building. Ethiopia never had colonialism. It registered impressively high levels of literacy as early as 1970, a fact a friend of mine brought to my attention recently. It has a rich and widely shared cultural heritage, a common ancestry. This should have propelled Ethiopia but see the shameful portrait of hunger and disease that this country projects to the world.

And so, to go back to that question that I have been chewing over and over again of late: can Black People build prosperous societies; I firmly believe the answer is a sad NO.

The dumbfounding incompetence of President Museveni thus is not a failure of an individual. It’s a failure of a people: Black People. Museveni only rose and touched our low ceiling. The shamefully limited achievement of his “fundamental change” regime thus should be interpreted in this cruel context.