Richard Dowden,  is Director of the Royal African Society, looks at what is behind the continent's
failure to develop.

Africa may be where the human race began but these
days it is not the easiest place to live in. Despite
huge natural resources and talented people, most of
Africa's economies have not taken off.

While Asia and Latin America, also part of what used
to be called the Third World, have got richer in the
past 25 years, Africa has gone backwards.

In the past decade millions have been affected by
conflict in DR Congo, formerly Zaire

Its countries now occupy all the bottom places in the
league tables that measure the quality and length of
human life. Africa's main achievement has been
survival, not development.

Some of this is down to Africa's environment. Its
soils are old, its weather patterns irregular.

People die young from virulent diseases - HIV/Aids is
the latest and worst - but until recently malaria used
to kill more people. Life is insecure, making African
culture conservative and fatalistic.

Since colonial times Africa's economies have been
designed to suit the wants of outsiders not the needs
of the people. Roads and railways, for example, were
laid down to suck out minerals and crops from the
interior for export, not to build an internal economy.
Links within Africa are weak.

But these are not insuperable problems. Africa's
failure has been mainly the result of politics; the
failure to establish effective nation states that help
their citizens to develop.

Great plans

It is tempting to speculate about what Africa would be
like if it had not been taken over by Europe at the
end of the 19th Century. Would it now be one big
country, the United States of Africa? Or have even
more than the 53 states it has today?

Although the European colonisers had great plans for
Africa, two world wars and economic depression delayed
them and when Africa was suddenly pitched into
independence in the 1960s, infrastructure was patchy
and levels of literacy were low.

More important, imperial rule had undermined the old
African political systems but not created a new sense
of citizenship in the new nation states. All but three
African countries south of the Sahara have many
different language groups. Nigeria has more than 400.
Africa was handed European style constitutions that
could not cope with such diversity or forge a sense of
shared national identity.

Even peaceful countries such as Tanzania sank into
poverty, victims of a vicious circle

Independence coincided with the Cold War in which both
sides propped up corrupt dictators. Democracy and
human rights were ignored. Rulers like Mobutu Sese
Seko in Congo, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya and Jean-Bedel
Bokassa in Central African Republic were allowed to
ruin their countries with support from Western

African rulers simply would not or could not create
institutions and systems to make Africa's new
countries function effectively. Most states fell into
the hands of wealthy and greedy elites who stayed in
power by buying support and exploiting ethnic
divisions. Taxes, if gathered at all, were stolen or

Rock bottom

Naturally the losers turned to the only political
course left open to them - rebellion. Governments were
overthrown by military coups and rebels began long
drawn out civil wars, sometimes supported by Western
powers or neighbouring states.

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia focussed Western attention
on Africa

These wars looked meaningless and chaotic from afar
but on the ground they were struggles for control of
resources: diamonds, gold or other minerals.

In some cases looting became an end in itself, but
most of these wars were about political power. The
only winners were Western companies who were able to
buy the loot cheaply.

Even peaceful countries such as Tanzania sank into
poverty, victims of a vicious circle of poor
management, bad policies, lack of investment and
stagnating politics. Meanwhile other tropical
countries like Vietnam and Indonesia increased their
share of the market in what had been African

At the end of the Cold War, Africa was abandoned. Its
indebted economies were left to the economists of the
IMF and the World Bank. Aid was cut and the economists
decreed privatisation, floating currencies and minimal
government as the cure for Africa's poverty.

The stereotype of the Big Man tyrant is now the

But Africa already had minimal government and
businesses would not invest in countries without law
courts or proper roads. Currencies crashed and
spending cuts destroyed what was left of Africa's
civil services, the one group essential to holding
these states together.

By the mid-1990s, Africa reached its nadir. From the
north-east tip of Somalia to the South African border
countries were embroiled in war. More than half of
West Africa's states were suffering from rebellion and
civil strife. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide jolted
outsiders into realising that neglecting Africa would
end in catastrophe.

Re-engaging with Africa

At the same time Nelson Mandela's election as
president of a new South Africa, created a euphoric
vision of what Africa could achieve.

Things began to change.

The majority of African states including the military
dictatorships were forced to hold elections - though
economic inequalities mean votes, even whole
elections, can be bought.

The stereotype of the Big Man tyrant is now the
exception. The press is freer and burgeoning radio
stations keep people better informed.

There have been success stories; Botswana for example
has managed its diamond revenues well and has
reserves, not debt. Wars in Angola, Sierra Leone,
Liberia, Congo and Sudan have ended or quietened down.

Some of these changes have been created by outside
pressure, some were generated internally

The African Union, a continent-wide organisation with
a sense of purpose and responsibility, was set up in
2000 replacing the old ineffective Organisation of
African Unity.

Freer media enables people to be better informed

The New Partnership for Africa's Development, a plan
for African development known as Nepad, aims at a more
equal, less dependent, relationship between Africa and
the rest of the world. Africa has agreed to deal with
its own wars and take responsibility for its own

The rest of the world has re-engaged with Africa.
Britain has taken a lead in trying to find ways of
relieving Africa's debt relief, sending more aid and
establishing a fairer international trading system.

But coming to grips with Africa's problems,
particularly its fractious politics, is not easy. And
it is still not clear whether Western governments will
deliver on their promises of more help for Africa, or
whether African rulers will deliver on their promises
of better government.