The pre-eminent historian and scholar, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe takes on the meaningless and racist classification of Africa by the West's news media giants. Rather than some benign construct, “sub-Sahara Africa” is, in the end, a bizarre nomenclatural code that the West employs to depict an African-led sovereign state – anywhere in Africa, as distinct from an Arab-led one. It is of course the West’s non-inclusion of the Sudan in this grouping, despite its majority African population and geographical location, which gives the game away! More seriously to the point, though, the West uses “sub-Sahara Africa” to create the stunning effect of a supposedly shrinking African geographical landmass in the popular imagination, coupled with the continent’s supposedly attendant geo-strategic global “irrelevance”. “Sub-Sahara Africa” is undoubtedly a racist geo-political signature in which its users aim repeatedly to present the imagery of the desolation, aridity, and hopelessness of a desert environment.
By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe
For the West’s leading news organisations (CNN, BBC, International Herald Tribune, Reuters, Associated Press, Fox News, Yahoo! News, etc., etc), the recent commemoration of 50 years of Ghana’s restoration-of-independence (after the British conquest and occupation) occasioned, once again, the increasing absurdity that underscores these agencies’ understanding of the fundamentals of political geography in describing Africa. The very ritualised invocation of the misleading, if not meaningless, epithet “sub-Sahara Africa” was the choice of each of these media outlets in its description of Ghana in their respective anniversary coverage. Indeed all of Africa, except the five predominantly Arab states of north Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) and Sudan, which has an African majority population but an Arab minority that has wielded supreme political power since the country’s restoration-of-independence from Britain in 1956, is also frivolously labelled “sub-Sahara Africa” by these institutions in this outlandish classificatory schema.
It is not obvious, on the face of it, which of the four possible meanings of the prefix, “sub”, these agencies attach to their “Sahara Africa”. Is it “under” or “part of”/“partly”? Or, presumably, “partially”/“nearly” or even the very unlikely (hopefully!) application of “in the style of, but inferior to”, especially considering that there is an Arab nationality sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania (northwest Africa) which calls itself Saharan? The example of South Africa is apt here. Crucially, this is a reference underlined in the relevant literature of the epoch especially those emanating from Western states, the United Nations (principally UNDP, FAO, UNCTAD, ILO), the World Bank and IMF, the so-called NGOs/“aid” groups, and some in academia, who are variously responsible for initiating and sustaining the operationalisation of this dogma.
Prior to the formal restoration of African majority government in 1994, South Africa was never designated “sub-Sahara Africa” in this portrait unlike the rest of the 13 African-led states in southern Africa. South Africa then was either termed “white South Africa” or the “South Africa sub-continent” (as in the “India sub-continent” usage, for instance) i.e. “almost”/“partially” a continent – quite clearly a usage of “admiration” or “compliment” employed by its subscribers to essentially project and valorise the perceived geo-strategic potentials or capabilities of the erstwhile European-minority occupying regime. But soon after the triumph of the African freedom movement there, South Africa became “sub-Sahara Africa” in the quickly adjusted schema of this representation! What suddenly happened to South Africa’s “geography” to be so differently classified?! Is it African liberation/rule that renders an African state “sub-Sahara”? Does this post-1994 West-inflected South Africa-changed classification make “sub-Sahara Africa” any more intelligible?
Just as in its “continent” example (above), the application of the “almost”/“partially” or indeed “part of”/“partly” meaning of prefix “sub-” to “Sahara Africa” focuses unambiguously on Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, each of which has 25-75 per cent of its territory (especially to the south) covered by the Sahara Desert. It also focuses on Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, which variously have 25-75 per cent of their territories (to the north) covered by the same desert. In effect, these 10 states make up sub-Sahara Africa.
The five Arab north Africa states do not, correctly, describe themselves as Africans even though they unquestionably habituate African geography, the African continent. The West governments, press and the transnational bodies we referred to earlier (which are predominantly led by West personnel and interests) have consistently “conceded” to this Arab insistence on racial identity. Presumably, this accounts for the West’s ludicrous non-designation of its “sub-Sahara Africa” dogma to these states as well as the Sudan, whose successive Arab-minority regimes in the past 51 years have claimed, but incorrectly, that the Sudan “belongs” to the Arab World. On this subject, the West does no doubt know that what it has been engaged in, all along, is blatant sophistry and not science. This, however, conveniently suits its current self-serving propaganda packaging on Africa, which we shall be elaborating on shortly.
It would appear that we still don’t seem to be any closer at establishing, conclusively, what the West media and allied institutions mean by “sub-Sahara Africa”. Could it, perhaps, just be a benign reference to all the countries “under” the Sahara, whatever their distances from this desert, to interrogate our final, fourth probability? Presently, there are 53 sovereign states in Africa. If the five north Africa Arab states are said to be located “above” the Sahara, then 49 are positioned “under”. The latter would therefore include all the five countries mentioned above whose north frontiers incorporate the southern stretches of the desert, countries in central Africa (the Congos, Rwanda, Burundi, etc., etc), for instance, despite being 2000-2500 miles away, and even the southern African states situated 3000-3500 miles away! In fact, all these 49 countries, except Sudan (alas, not included for the plausible reason already cited!), which is clearly “under” the Sahara and situated within the same latitudes as Mali, Niger and Chad, are all categorised by the West as “sub-Sahara Africa”. To replicate this obvious farce of a classification elsewhere in the world, the following random exercise is not such an indistinct scenario:
1. Australia hence becomes “sub-Great Sandy Australia” after the hot deserts that cover much of west and central Australia
2. East Russia, east of the Urals, becomes “sub-Siberia Asia”
3. China, Japan and Indonesia are reclassified “sub-Gobi Asia”
4. Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam become “sub-Himalaya Asia”
5. All of Europe is “sub-Arctic Europe”
6. Most of England, central and southern counties, is renamed “sub-Pennines Europe”
7. East/southeast France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia are “sub-Alps Europe”
8. The Americas become “sub-Arctic Americas”
9. All of South America south of the Amazon is proclaimed “sub-Amazon South America”; Chile could be “sub-Atacama South America”
10. Most of New Zealand’s South Island is renamed “sub-Southern Alps New Zealand”
11. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama become “sub-Rocky North America”
12. The entire Caribbean becomes “sub-Appalachian Americas”
Rather than some benign construct, “sub-Sahara Africa” is, in the end, a bizarre nomenclatural code that the West employs to depict an African-led sovereign state – anywhere in Africa, as distinct from an Arab-led one. It is of course the West’s non-inclusion of the Sudan in this grouping, despite its majority African population and geographical location, which gives the game away! More seriously to the point, though, the West uses “sub-Sahara Africa” to create the stunning effect of a supposedly shrinking African geographical landmass in the popular imagination, coupled with the continent’s supposedly attendant geo-strategic global “irrelevance”. “Sub-Sahara Africa” is undoubtedly a racist geo-political signature in which its users aim repeatedly to present the imagery of the desolation, aridity, and hopelessness of a desert environment. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of 700 million Africans do not live anywhere close to the Sahara, nor are their lives so affected by the implied impact of the very loaded meaning that this dogma intends to convey. Except this increasingly pervasive use of “sub-Sahara Africa” is robustly challenged by rigorous African-centred scholarship and publicity work, the West will succeed in the coming decade to effectively substitute the name of the continent “Africa” with “sub-Sahara Africa” and the name of its peoples, “Africans”, with “sub-Sahara Africans” or worse still “sub-Saharans” in the realm of public memory and reckoning.
It should be noted that this characterisation of Africa comes in the wake of the virtual collapse of the continent’s economy in the 1980s. This was caused by the catastrophic failure of the so-called “economic structural adjustment programme”, formulated by the World Bank/IMF and implemented on the ground by the infamous African kakistocratic regimes. The age long terms of the glaring asymmetrical Africa-West socioeconomic relations, that have always favoured the West, worsened even further for Africans. Even though tagged a “developing continent”, Africa crucially became a net-exporter of capital to the West as a result, a cardinal feature of its economy since 1981. In these past 26 years, Africa has transferred the gargantuan sum of US$700 billion to the West. These exports do not include those routinely made by thieving heads of state and other state officials. The other stunning consequence of the economy’s collapse is the flight of its middle classes to the West and elsewhere. They are part of the 12 million Africans who have fled the continent in the past 20 years and who are now the principal external source of capital generation and transfer to Africa. In 2003, they dispatched the impressive sum of US$200 billion to Africa. These African émigrés also include the cream of the post-restoration of independence intelligentsia (scholars, scientists, writers, artists, journalists, doctors, nurses, other medical/health professionals, engineers, accountants, teachers, etc., etc), very talented men and women who presently enrich, quite ironically, the West’s intellectual and cultural heritage most profoundly.
It cannot be stressed too often that the extant (European-created) African states that are immanently hostile to the overriding interests of the African humanity have not ceased to be havens that continuously enrich the West most dramatically. The flip side of the coin that tells the tale of the extraordinary wealth which the West and its African regime-clients expropriate from Africa, day in, day out, is the emaciated, starving and dying child, woman and man that has been the harrowing image of the African on television screens and other publicity channels across the world. At stake, of course, is the case that the state in Africa demonstrates a glaring inability to fulfil its basic role to provide security, welfare and transformative capacities for society’s developmental needs and objectives. It is still a conqueror’s and conquest state, precisely the way the European creator envisioned its ontology. It is virtually at war with its peoples, a genocide-state that has murdered 15 million in Biafra, Rwanda, Darfur and southern Sudan, the Congos and elsewhere on the continent in the past 40 years. It is the bane of African social existence. Africans now have no choice but to dismantle this state (“sub-Sahara”, “sub-sub-Sahara”, “proto-Sahara”, “quasi-Sahara”, “supra-Sahara”, whatever!) and create new state forms that expressly serve their interests and aspirations. This is the most pressing African task of the contemporary era.
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is the author of Biafra Revisited (African Renaissance, 2006).