KAMPALA, Uganda: Africa’s poor economic performance is one of the largest puzzles facing the world today.
While it is argued that the slave trade caused massive human and economic losses to the entire African continent, retarding Africa’s economic development, and that explains why the continent has fallen behind the economic progress of the developed countries, the view of others is that while it is true that the slave trade was cruel and produced a climate of fear and suspicion, its social and economic effects which can be measured are minor.
They point to historical evidence showing that parts of Africa that were initially the most developed supplied the largest number of slaves and societies that were initially underdeveloped may have been less likely to engage in the slave trades and that these same societies are still relatively underdeveloped today.
According to Edith Gwokyalya, a historian affiliated with Kampala International University, there is no conclusive evidence that less advanced societies exported more slaves during the slave trades when examining historical evidence. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that, if any differences existed, it was the more advanced societies that took more slaves, she added.
“Initial trade between Africans and Europeans was in legitimate commodities, not slaves. During this time, only societies that were sufficiently developed were able to facilitate trade with the Europeans. Take for example the early Portuguese trade in West Central Africa. As early as 1472 and 1483, they sailed along the west coast of Central Africa, testing various points of entry to look for trading partners. They were unable to find any societies that could support trade. The local coastal societies were just too small in terms of people and territory. Their economic and social institutions were too undifferentiated to facilitate foreign trade,” Gwokyalya said.
Gwokyalya said sustained trade did not occur until the Portuguese found the Kingdom of Kongo, located just south of the Zaire River.
“Because the kingdom had a centralized government, national currency and well-developed markets and trading networks, it was able to support trade with the Europeans, and even when European demand later turned to slaves, the established trade partnerships continued.”
The historian said those areas that were more prosperous were also the most densely populated, and therefore, large numbers of slaves could be easily obtained in such areas.
“Those societies that were initially the most prosperous and most densely populated tend to be the societies that subsequently exported the largest number of slaves.
“Therefore, you need to observe whether it is these parts of the continent, from which the largest number of slaves were taken, that are also the poorest parts on the continent today, and countries that had less slaves taken in the past have higher incomes today to solve the puzzle. Otherwise, there’s no co-relationship between the two variables of slave exports and economic development,” Gwokyalya said.
Slavery still exists
Dr. Menya Idd Sirajuddin, a political analyst, agrees that the slave trade could have hurt Africa’s economic growth at the time, but that dark history has been overtaken by events.
“Although some statistical correlations provide evidence that the slave trade adversely affected Africa’s economic development, this evidence is not final. You have to look at other important determinants of economic development such as climate, geography, and endowments of natural resources such as oil, gold, and diamonds,” Sirajuddin said.
He argues that the slave trade may have had specific impacts in some places during certain periods of time, but these are not general effects present across Africa.
“The slave trade orchestrated by foreigners was horrible and abolished in 1808. However, slavery still exists, although in other forms orchestrated by fellow African leaders. We are talking about those who dehumanize their own people. Take as an example our country Uganda. The world recently watched in disbelief a viral video in which a Ugandan award-winning author, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, was tortured by government agents. He exposed his body full of dermatological ulcerations, bruised ribs, and a fractured ankle bone. The scars on his body cannot be differentiated from scars sustained by slaves then,” he said.
Dr. Hudhaifa Busuulwa of Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul told Anadolu Agency that the relationship between slave trade exports and economic development is potentially misleading.
“By looking within Uganda today, you see a pattern of corruption, human rights abuses that mirrors the past. You can’t help but wonder whether slavery is gone. Many countries in Africa are underdeveloped for reasons unrelated to the slave trade absolutely. The real reasons holding back Africa now are the people in leadership positions who plunder their country’s riches and connive with foreigners to plunder natural resources. Those that are corrupt, there is a wave of coups within African countries, and all these continue to weaken the continent now, not slave trade,” said Busuulwa.