The other day, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview on a South African television channe, made an interesting remark; that trade between African countries is lower than anywhere else in the world.
Put another way, we trade more with US, China and anyone else but our neighbours. Shocking but true! Why would we ignore the obvious and logical benefits of trading with our neighbors and prefer the costly and illogical trade with faraway lands and peoples?
It is a little complicated and has a myriad of reasons: One, history: Colonialism ‘bequeathed’ us with ‘countries that are not ours’. Strictly speaking, only Ethiopia (and to some extent Liberia) can be said to have defined its own borders.
The rest of African countries (perhaps with exception of Eritrea and the upcoming Southern Sudan) were created, demarcated and named by the colonialists at the Berlin Conference of 1884. Some countries changed names at independence but the borders remained.
But, why the scramble for Africa in the first place? The industrial age was blooming and trade and the need for raw materials was a driving force behind many of the actions then. For example, the jewel in the crown of Britain’s colonial empire was India.
The short route to India was via the Suez Canal, thus to protect the trade route, Britain had to control Egypt. And to effectively control Egypt, the Nile came into play (being Egypt’s key -read only water source). So Britain colonised all the riparian states of Sudan, Uganda and Kenya and made agreements with the other, Ethiopia.
The economies of these colonies were designed to export raw materials to Europe and provide market for European products. This has largely not changed to date. We work very hard to sell the best of our produce to the West. We also produce similar things.
For example, coffee and tea is the major export crop of all the five East African countries. Interestingly, most East Africans are not really coffee lovers. Given this situation, there is no basis of trade between our countries.
Reason two, neo-colonialism: The problem with being colonised is that it breeds a dependency syndrome called neo-colonialism. This is more dangerous and insidious than colonialism.
Mwalimu Nyerere calls it poverty of the mind and adds that it is the worst form of poverty. Culture, religion and economies of African societies were overhauled and now we mirror the Europeans.
This is in how we dress, eat, pray, think and speak. We proudly call ourselves Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone as if we don’t have our own languages. We are ‘taught’ that our ways are inferior and look up to the West for everything.
In this mind-frame, just how can one see the business opportunities, for example, to cultivate maize and bananas in Rwanda to export to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where there is a huge demand for them?
One will first think of coffee and tea to export to the West even though Brazil and Sri Lanka control the market and we have no chance of determining prices unless frost intervenes.
Reason three: Victim mentality: It is human nature to externalise problems. It is easier to blame someone else for our misfortune.
The problem is that once one does this, there is no way they will take responsibility and solve their problem. We, Africans, perhaps more than anyone, are guilty of this. We love being helped and to receive more than to help and to give.
This emasculates us. It stops us from thinking productively. Worse, it puts us under the whims of the ’donor’ and we take whatever they hand down.
As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘a man cannot ride on your back unless it is bent’ and as Mwalimu Nyerere used to say ‘…be very suspicious of someone who wants to help you with everything.
Ask yourself, “What is he after? What is in it for them?” I say step up, grow up, style up and take control of your own destiny or be a cog wheel on someone else’ destiny. There are no short cuts!
Sam Kebongo is a skills and business advisory services consultant. He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rwanda Tourism University College.