What does the rest of the 21st century hold for the oldest continent in the world?

All my life, I have been taught by Western society that the African continent is downtrodden by its own inequities such as rife destitution, corruption, poor levels of education, poor infrastructure and perpetual war. Even as a person of African descent I have been taught to look at Africa in disdain, to take pity on a continent full of misfortune, my continent. This dynamic is somewhat problematic, especially as you grow older and more wiser and start to learn more about how the world really works.

You then come to a moment of realisation. No number of UN administered white Toyota vans will be able to save Africa from its ills. No number of charity/AID adverts asking for “pity contributions” will be able to save it either. In fact, there’s one party who’s benefitting from the ‘pity economy’ as I would like to call it and it’s not the very people in Africa that need it, that’s for sure.

As we all know, the continent of Africa has been pillaged for its lands, minerals, vast riches and its people as slave labour. It has been seen as a place of true expedition for many of the former imperial powers, a place to extract from, a place to cultivate vast amounts of riches and import it to someplace else. Even to this day, this has been the case for many African nations. Nations like my own homeland, Nigeria and others such as the DRC, South Africa, Liberia, Kenya and Zimbabwe have all been used as pivotal cogs to the overall inner workings of the global economy. Nigeria, a vital member of OPEC has vast riches in the form of its oil reserves and such, to the point where Nigeria’s economy is heavily dependent on it.

The DRC is a different animal altogether. DRC is the biggest supplier of Cobalt in the world and it is the nation’s largest source of export income. This is a key cog in the global economy, as it’s the same material that helps to power the same lithium-ion batteries found in all of our smartphones, laptops and electric cars. With cobalt reserves totalling to around $24 tn, more than the entire GDP of the EU, it’s nothing more than a travesty that the DRC is still widely considered as one of the poorest nations in the world. This is a nation riddled by perpetual war, with the last major war taking place from 1998 to 2003 and the Kivu conflict currently taking place.  

With the other African nations suffering similar issues, it makes you wonder why these sad state of affairs are so prevalent in the African continent, despite the riches most African nations inherit? Is it purely bad governance? Is it purely of our own ineptitude?

Whilst I was doing my masters, I came across an academic that goes by the name of Immanuel Wallerstein. He wrote on issues based on colonialism and post-colonialism. His theory on the underlying structural realities of the world was enlightening to say in the very least. In his theory, “World Systems Theory” he categorized, various regions into different categories. In a variant of dependency theory, the main characteristic that underpins his theory is that the development of a global division of labour, including the existence of independent political units. Instead of there being a political centre like Rome during the Roman Empire, the world system is based and underpinned by the world markets.

In the world system, each region has its own role to play in the world economy, with each region being divided by subcategories. These categories are defined as core nations, semi-periphery and periphery nations.

The core nations would be seen as the developed, industrialised nations of the world economy. The EU, US, Canada, Japan and Australia are the very epitome of core nations. While the semi-periphery nations would be defined as states located between both core and periphery nations. Nations like the BRIC’s (Brazil, Russia, India and China) would be seen as perfect examples of semi-periphery nations. While periphery nations would be categorised as developing nations, who’s role is to be ‘dependent’ on the rest of the world to prop them up. What’s ironic by that last statement is that it’s these same ‘dependent’ nations are being completely pillaged of their rich inherited materials and minerals with war being prevalent in nations coincidentally with large oil and mineral reserves.

There is a larger game at play here and for the continent of Africa to find any headway and prosperity in the 21st century, this dynamic has to change. According to Wallerstein periphery regions like Africa plays the role of the ‘exploited’. It’s richness in minerals, food and oil are pivotal, but its seen that if these regions were to enjoy some autonomy over these riches, it would cause an imbalance against the core nations and in favour of the periphery regions. So according to Wallerstein, the world system has institutions and mechanisms in place that help to maintain the status-quo. Whether it’s puppet leaders that the core nations have put in place to poorly govern peripheral nations, institutions like the World Bank and IMF whom impose unfair sanctions and payment schemes of administered sovereign loans to these said nations or the extraction of vast natural reserves, these are all instruments utilised to maintain the current structural framework of the world economy today.

That is the reason why in my opinion countries like the DRC and Liberia will eternally be riddled by a perpetual state of conflict. External actors are 70%-80% behind the travails of many countries like the DRC.

So, what measures should the African continent take in the 21st century? Well, the structural realities are shifting for one. China’s rise as a global superpower cannot be understated, especially in it’s rise as the major player in the global commodity markets. Eichengreen stated that China’s emergence over the last decade as the key net importers of commodities from Africa means that global markets are likely to be the main channels through which the impact of China’s and India’s ascendancy has been and will be felt on the African continent. (Eichengreen et al, 2004) This would see a continuation of huge Chinese investment in the continent in the long term as well as in the short term.

While, there are doubters of China’s trade regime with many arguing that Chinese policies in Africa are inferior to policies pursued by their Western counterparts. However, under close inspection such allegations are just merely that, allegations. It’s seen by certain quarters that the Chinese trading regime in Africa is criticised as being focused on consumer goods; a business strategy that apparently benefits African consumers by offering affordable goods of reasonable quality, while at the same time increasing unemployment as African industries are unable to compete. Whilst on many levels this claim does hold some weight, the same can be said of Africa’s trade relations with the Western trade blocs whom openly offer subsidies to their farmers and put up tariff barriers practices undermining the competitive edge of African producers and exporters.

China has also been trying to manage its growth rates of its economy. Ever since the 2008 Financial crash it has seen a consistent drop in demand emanating from the West. With this reduction of aggregate demand all around the world has affected China’s growth rates which have been on a continual decline since 2012. This has seen China take up measures to expand into new foreign markets. Markets such as South America, the Middle East and Africa have room for expansion so China has specifically targeted these regions as new destinations for their exports. China’s investment in infrastructure in many of these regions is an example of China’s real underlying motives. New roads for their cars to be driven on by new consumers in the periphery regions, new computers and smartphones to be bought by Africans and South Americans alike.


Technology has also shifted the current structural realities of the world economy. Most notable of these new technologies is the rise of the blockchain. Due to developing nations whose grounds for rule of law is more fragile than the core, more developed regions, there’s room for such technologies to rise to prominence. Blockchain which is the technology that underpins all cryptocurrencies could open up the door for new possibilities. In a LSE report, it stated that the prominence of cryptocurrencies in Africa could ultimately see the encouragement of foreign investment and ameliorate the uncertainty that comes with investing in countries that have histories of monetary mismanagement and nationalisation. This dynamic could eventually see investors ally more trust and confidence in the actual code behind transactions via the blockchain to the point where they can examine themselves than in the temporary assurances of individual leaders.

Blockchain technology would also see bank accounts being less tampered with. According to the same LSE report, grey markets exist for currency in countries like Iran and Argentina due to the citizens having more faith in exogenous staples and cryptography that underlies the blockchain and not in the good faith of their governments. Governments in periphery regions, it would seem have new means to attract outside investment, due to new found transparency in the form of the blockchain technology. For example, Nigeria and oil corruption scandals would seemingly benefit from bank accounts and ledgers where there is a certain degree of transparent accountability that the blockchain offers.


More of the periphery nations especially African nations have to be better in reading the game that is the international fora and world dynamics concurrent at any given time. As I have already mentioned the tectonic plates of the international system are now shifting ever since the financial crash of 2008. Many Western powers are faltering on the world stage and with that arises new opportunities for new players.

With this in mind more African nations should use the more semi-periphery nations like the BRICS as an example, as a standard to follow. Many nations of the Middle East have benefitted massively from their vast mineral/oil resources over the last 100 years. They have converted those riches into huge gains into their own economy, reinvesting on infrastructure, viable tourist destinations and building new cities from scratch. If the various nations that comprises the Middle East region is able to manage such a feat in new found prosperity at such a heightened pace, why can’t more African nations do the same? Allied with the rise of new technologies, the tide is turning in the favour of the less established nations of the world system. It is now up to them to realize that their time is now and to pick up the mantle for the challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century.

Kelechi Okoye-Ahaneku

The Move

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