Just one month after soldiers seized power in Niger Republic, another African country, Gabon has seen another coup d'état.
Coups are furthest from anything new, especially on that continent. Over 200 coups have been attempted in Africa since the 1950s, and about half of these actually succeeded. Forty five out of the 54 countries in Africa have had at least one coup attempt since the end of the Second World War.
Every coup is different, but the latest two have an intriguing similarity: both have overthrown rulers who were tested French allies - Mohamed Bazoum, the president of Niger, and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
These events shook the continent so hard that within a day, countries started taking preventive measures. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame retired hundreds of military officials and promoted a number of young soldiers in the country's security apparatus. New appointments have also been made at the Defense Ministry in Cameroon, which has been ruled by President Paul Biya, one of Africa's longest serving leaders. Umaro Sissoco Embalo, president of Guinea-Bissau, appointed two new security advisors to protect him.
The latest two coups have triggered widespread discussion on how former European colonialists, especially France, are losing control of Africa. The thought has been emboldened by the fact that the increasing involvement of Russia and China is often welcomed in the continent, while anti-France emotions have been running high. Supporters of the Niger coup have been demanding French troops to withdraw from the country, and latest, the French government is in talks with the country, discussing the modus operandi of the withdrawal.
All these have brought to the fore how European colonialists once carved up Africa - the most resource-abundant continent in the world - to exploit it, consequently making it the 'poorest' continent in the world.
Here, Walter Rodney's classic, "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" can shed some light on the topic, and reading or re-reading the book can help understand how things unfolded for Africa during and after the colonial era.
In a nutshell, Rodney shows that African underdevelopment is not a natural progression of its pre-existing economy and social systems; rather it is a direct product of Europe's slave trade and plunder of the continent's natural resources that in turn paved the foundation of development of Europe.
The masterwork of political economy is divided in six chapters, where the author meticulously breaks down the historical processes that led to the continent's underdevelopment. An African scholar and academic who earned his doctorate in African history from the University of London in 1966, the writer detailed what he understood by 'development' and 'underdevelopment' at the very onset.
"Underdevelopment is not the absence of development, because every person has developed in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent. Underdevelopment makes sense only as a means of comparing levels of development. It is very much tied to the fact that human social development has been uneven and from a strictly economic view-point some human groups have advanced further by producing more and becoming more wealthy," wrote Rodney.
The moment that one group appears to be wealthier than others, some enquiry is bound to take place to find the reason for the difference, he wrote, and then jumped into the historical causes of his continent's underdevelopment.
To Walter Rodney, the basic factor in African underdevelopment is the European slave trade, and the events and processes that led to the development of Europe simultaneously caused the underdevelopment of Africa.
Before all these started, Rodney quotes Casely-Hayford, an African nationalist, who points out, African people had their own institutions and their own ideas of governance.
Rodney presents some examples of some quality products of Africa when the colonists came. One is a superior brand of red leather called 'Moroccan leather'. The Europeans also came across the superb local cloths made from bark and palm fibre, having 'a finish comparable to velvet'. Africa was also good at manufacturing cotton cloth, which was widely manufactured before the coming of the Europeans.
After setting up the police, army, civil service and judiciary on African soil, the colonising powers began to intervene directly in the economic life of the people. In many instances, Africans did not want to change their way of life by becoming labourers or cash-crop farmers. In such cases, the colonial state used law, taxation and outright force to make Africans pursue a line favourable to the coloniser's economic goals.
The Portuguese and Belgian colonial regimes were the most brazen in directly rounding up Africans to go and work for private capitalists.
Slavery continued throughout the European Middle Ages, and acted as a direct block to the normal evolution of African society and its production systems. Slave trades removed millions of youth and young adults who would have played their part in innovativeness and inventiveness which became common in Europe at a later stage.
Those young Africans who lived in areas badly hit by slave-capturing remained preoccupied about their freedom rather than with improvements in production, Rodney wrote. Even those in West, Central, or East Africa were concerned more with trade than with production, because of the nature of the contacts with Europe; and that situation was not conducive to the introduction of technological advances.
The slave trade and kidnappings of the youth affected all branches of economic activity, agriculture included. Occasionally, the traders would increase food production in certain areas to provide supplies for slave ships, but the overall consequence of slaving on agricultural activities in Western, Eastern and Central Africa were negative.
Areas like Dahomey, known for food production in the 16th century, were suffering from famines in the 19th century.
The mining of minerals such as gold, diamonds, manganese, (at a later stage) uranium, etc left scars in the ground, and the industrial agricultural production left African soils impoverished; while in Europe, agricultural and mineral imports built a massive industrial complex.
It is not easy to quantify the monetary profits made by Europeans from the slave trade. But Rodney presents an example: John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, stole young Africans and sold them to the Spanish in America. His profit from the first trip was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture, and provided a ship named the Jesus.
"Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight," wrote Rodney.
Gold and silver, mined by Africans from their own soil, played a crucial role in meeting the need for coins in the expanding money economy of Western Europe. African gold helped the Portuguese to finance more adventures and explorations around the Cape of Good Hope and into Asia ever since the 15th century.
African gold also helped Amsterdam to become the financial capital of Europe in that period; and the English made a new gold coin out of gold imported from the area called Guinea located in the coast of West Africa in 1663 which they called the 'guinea'.
Throughout the period of 17th to the 19th century, the exploitation of African resources and African labour continued to be a source for the accumulation of capital to be re-invested in Western Europe. As a result, shipping, insurance, industrial agriculture, technology and the manufacture of machinery grew extensively in Europe.
"The French St. Malo fishing industry was revived by the opening up of markets in the French slave plantations; while the Portuguese in Europe depended heavily on dyes like indigo, camwood, Brazil wood and cochineal brought from Africa and the Americas. Gum from Africa also played a part in the textile industry, which is acknowledged as having been one of the most powerful engines of growth within the European economy. Then there was the export of ivory from Africa, enriching many merchants in London's Mincing Lane, and providing the raw material for industries in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and North America — producing items ranging from knife handles to piano keys," Rodney described in his book, explaining the role of Africa in Europe's development.
Basically, Africa's exploitation sped up Europe's technological development. For example, the evolution of European shipbuilding from the 16th century to the 19th century was a direct consequence of their monopoly of sea commerce in that period.
European sea-port towns such as Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville grew thanks to commerce and colonial activities with Africa. Manufacturing centres also emerged in these areas that facilitated the industrial revolution.
The slave trade was only discouraged when the European powers realised that producing slaves were not serving their other economic pursuits. For example, the Portuguese and Dutch actually discouraged slave trade in the 17th century on the 'Gold Coast' when they recognised that it could be incompatible with gold trade.
Slave-raiding and kidnapping made it unsafe to mine and to travel with gold; and raiding for captives proved more profitable than gold-mining. One fortunate marauding made a person rich in a day, so they got involved rather in war, robbery and plunder than in their old business of digging and collecting gold.
Profits made by Europe from Africa created investible surpluses, the profit was not merely an end in itself. Profits from African colonialism and every other source financed scientific research that led to Europe's further development.
The author admits that, "It would be extremely simple-minded to say that colonialism in Africa or anywhere else caused Europe to develop its science and technology. However, it would be entirely accurate to say that the colonisation of Africa and other parts of the world formed an indispensable link in a chain of events which made possible the technological transformation of the base of European capitalism."
Rodney then goes on to show how African minerals such as chrome from Southern Rhodesia and manganese from the Gold Coast could turn iron ore from Sweden, Brazil or Sierra Leone into different types of steel. Such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely to cover the whole range of capitalist production in the colonial period.
Copper, another chief mineral export from Africa, became an indispensable part of the capitalist electrical industry. African minerals also played a decisive role in conventional weapons and with regard to the breakthrough to atomic and nuclear weapons. Still today, Africa remains one big supplier of uranium, which was a prerequisite to the making of the first atomic bomb.
Rodney marks that in the 15th century, European technology was not totally superior to that of other parts of the world. Early Europeans trading to Africa made use of Asian and African consumer goods, and they relied heavily on Indian cloth for resale in Africa, and they also purchased cloths on several parts of the West African coast for resale elsewhere.
According to Rodney, development means a capacity for self-sustaining growth. It means that an economy must register advances which in turn will promote further progress. During the colonial era, Africa underwent what he calls technological regression, due to which people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. The abandonment of traditional iron smelting in most parts of Africa is probably the most important instance of technological regression, Rodney pointed out.
Thus, the author arrives at a conclusion that Africa today is underdeveloped in relation to Western Europe and a few other parts of the world; and the continent arrived at this position not by the 'separate' evolution of Africa, but because of exploitation.
And this definitely resonates with the experience of other colonised regions in the world. Perhaps Shashi Tharoor's 'Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India' could be read along with this one?