Since you are alive today, you can be forgiven for having an optimistic view of history. Your time on earth has most probably reinforced that perspective.
Living in a nation like Tanzania, for example, in your early days you were probably sent to maduka ya kaya to buy consumer goods. You used to spend hours queueing waiting for mobile shops to arrive – and most often than not, those didn’t turn up on expected days. Today you have access to what you want, when you want, with minimal fuss.
In those days, water supply was a big issue – you probably have experiences of going several kilometres away to fetch water. Today, the situation has changed (for most of you). But, just in case, you had that 10,000 litres water tank installed. You still can’t shake off past uncertainties, can you?
You have gone through days where you had to visit a relative in a government office to make an important call to witnessing multiple revolutions in mobile communications technology: 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, and now we are talking of 5G.
Everything in life tells you that history is moving gradually and linearly from bad to good, from scant to plenty, from primitive to modern. So, what if there are elections issues? Yawn. Trouble in Cabo Delgado? Yawn. Problems with the agriculture sector? Yawn, yawn, yawn.
We only got independence a few decades ago, you will say, and given time things will surely get better.
Unfortunately, history provides no guarantee that life will continue to get better with time. If you take a slightly longer view of history that will become clear.
If you were growing up in ancient Romans times, you would have witnessed magnificent engineering projects: the known world was connected with roads and bridges and cities were supplied with running water from far afield. You would have seen no war – two centuries of peace led to a boost to trade through the Mediterranean Sea, making many coastal cities rich. As a citizen you could stand tall because your rights as an individual were respected. As a result, you and your peers would likely have spent many careless hours debating the minutiae details of Greek philosophy assuming that the future was going to be hanky dory!
Then from the north some rumblings were heard. The barbarians. Similar noises appeared from the desert. Some nomadic Arabs. They had hardly lived in cities before and were not used to any organisation that you are familiar with. But they had a religious code which you had to conform to. And, if you not, a certain tax is extracted from you. For your protection they say.
Before you know it, the Mediterranean waters become treacherous, religious wars erupt, and the empire is plunged into the Dark Age.
It will be another 1000 years before the great intellectual works are brought back to people’s attention. By then you are used to burning witches, purchasing indulgences, and think that Latin is the only language that knowledge can be transmitted through.
That’s called a historical turning point – and there are many of these in history. Marxist delusion aside, that history will inevitably end in a Communist utopia, the main takeaway from turning points is this: history provides no guarantee for continuous progress.
The history of Haiti is very enlightening in underlining this lesson.
When Haiti, the world’s first black republic and the most populous nation in the Caribbean, got independence from France in 1804 after a slaves’ revolt, it was the richest French colony in the world. Its independence provided a ray of hope for all people of African descent, and many freed slaves emigrated from other colonies to Haiti. But that ray of hope was extinguished as Haiti moved from one misfortune to another.
Today, two centuries later, Haiti is poverty stricken and holds an undesired reputation of being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
To be balanced, Haiti has had its fair share of natural disasters and interference by strong Western powers. For example, imperialist France’s demand, at the threat of war, that Haiti pay the modern equivalent of USD 21 billion for the loss of slaves, who freed themselves, and for the land, which the former slaves were using for agriculture, was a significant burden on this black nation. It took over a century to pay that oppressive debt. A serious injustice.
That aside, Haiti’s leaders’ disregard for rule of law set the tone for two centuries of misery very early on. For example, Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first ruler, declared himself an emperor and followed the autocratic path which led to his assassination in 1806. Since then Haiti has seen dozens of dictators coming and going. Francois Duvalier, popularly known as Papa Doc, president between 1957 – 1971, was the most infamous for killing 30,000 Haitians. His son ‘inherited’ the presidency at 19! Imagine that.
Whether one is leading nations or organisations, one cannot bank on time to make things better. If a solid foundation for long-term success is not laid, if institutions are not strengthened, things can get bad. Unbelievably bad.
Therefore, African leaders should stop playing Russian roulette with their nations’ futures. Remember Haiti.
Charles Makakala is a Technology and Management Consultant based in Dar es Salaam