Africa’s Development and The Ship of Theseus Paradox: Can Africa Remain The Same After it Changes?

By Solomon A. Mutagaya

Historically, Theseus, son of Aegeus, the mythical King and founder of Athens, arguably traversed many journeys and did exploits throughout the ages. In one of his most popular escapades, he killed the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in the Labyrinth, to which King Minos of Crete always offered seven Athenian boys and girls to be devoured. Consequently, he escaped with young Athenians who had been held captive by the King. 

According to The Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, “The Ship wherein Theseus and the young Athenians returned had 30 oars, and was preserved by the Athenians, down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks in new and stronger timber in their place.”

However, over time, this mode of preserving the ship by replacing its rotten planks with new ones posed a valid and strong philosophical question. Could it still be considered the same ship or not?

Theseus’ ship is currently a thought experiment in the field of Identity Metaphysics, with discussions on whether an object that has had all of its original components replaced over time remains the same object. 

This is the pertinent question that African scholars are debating about the African continent. Has Africa remained the same after going through periodic changes? What did Africa stand for before? What does it stand for now?  

Is Africa the same?

Has Africa maintained its integrity – the basic elements that define it to the core – morally, culturally, politically, economically, socially and in many other areas? What will be left of Africa, after it becomes WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic? This article will only cover a segment of this vast discussion.

Early this year, I was privileged to attend a course on African history through the economic lens organised by the London School of Business Wheeler Institute of Business and Development. This open-access short course designed in collaboration with historians, political scientists and anthropologists as an inter-disciplinary lecture series, aimed at studying Africa’s history on contemporary development. 

It covered recent contributions in economic history using geospatial data from anthropological maps, colonial archives and secondary sources. It also explored current economic and development challenges by drawing parallels between the past and present.

Out of the rich discussions by the expert presenters and professors in the different fields, it was evident that throughout history Africa has grappled with the idea of changing while fighting to stay the same at its core. So much so that, at certain points it is hard to tell whether the change is for the better, worse or if it should be happening in the first place.

Several elites and scholars have grappled with the African development paradox. Over time, many questions have been modelled and academically discussed. These have touched on the perceived slow growth; why has Africa grown slowly? Why has it been associated with chronic failure of growth? Why do developing African countries tax so little? Why do African nations fail and why is Africa poor?

In his presentation, Professor Jerven Morten observed that for a long time, this talk has been characterised and associated with two non-intended statistical pitfalls. Firstly is the utter and untimely “compression of African history” where many scholars and African elites tend to use recent evidence to make statements about long-term trends.

Secondly, the insatiable mode of comparison of using a “subtraction approach” rather than “reciprocal comparison” where many elite scholars tend to explain Africa merely as a gap and a shortcoming lacking something rather than a progressively developing entity. 

Status of African economic development

In light of the African development question, one wonders when the African economic development commenced. As one may observe, current data sets on growth started in 1960, while on taxation in 1980 and poverty in 1990. 

However, there are documented periods of growth in Africa since the 17th century. The revenue bases of the states have changed dramatically through recurring periods of growth and expansion, with the character of the state determining how and whether these revenues were re-invested.

Periods of rapid economic change were accompanied by institutional changes. These patterns of boom and bust crucially affected state revenues, and thus necessitated the reorientation of the states, a process that was often slow, costly and associated with conflict

With the growth in many economies from the 1890s to the 1970s and then only interrupted from 1975s to 1995s, writing about 20th century Africa as a ‘growth tragedy’ is a mistake, caused by lack of data.

The lack of time series data on taxation in Africa has meant that the dominant focus has been on explaining a very important, but perhaps too reductive question of why some less developed poor countries are taxing so little in comparison with rich countries today.

Statistical evidence on unskilled labour days per capita between the periods of 1900 to early 2000s suggests a rather steady growth by a factor of 10 in the monetary revenue extraction, despite stagnation and decline in the late 1960s and early 1980s. Research in itself has sometimes focused on the important, but perhaps an overly reductive question of why African states tax so little rather than exploring trajectories of fiscal states in the 20th century.

Since the introduction of the ‘one-dollar per day,’ extreme poverty measure in the 1990s, ‘Africa’ and ‘poverty’ have become intimately linked darlings. For instance, 12% of the world’s inhabitants with incomes less than the median lived in Africa in 1950. But by 1992, it was 30% representing an18% rise in a gap of only 42 years, according to Bourguignon and Morrison 2002.

Yet, according to Frankema and Wajenburg’s presentation, new evidence on real wages and anthropometrics indicate a long and sustained increase in living standards from the 1890s until the 1970s. Beyond the divide of ‘causal history’ and ‘compression of history’, it is important to expand the quantitative boundary of investigation by not only amassing more numbers but also interrogating the numbers using multiple data sources.

Recognising and substantiating historical, economic and institutional change is critical in its own right. To fail to recognise the growth of African states and branding them as failed risks not learning from history. The key is to understand the circumstances surrounding the development or underdevelopment of these states. 

For example, politically, the decade following the end of World War II was a formidable period for African political development. Movements against colonial rule evolved into large-scale pan-African organisations that reflected the ideological divide of the international socialist and labour movement. One part reflected the western European-style socialists, such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. Yet another represented radical Maoists, such as Frantz Fanon in Algeria, Dedan Kimathi in Kenya, and Ruben Um Nyobé in Cameroon.

These two sets of leaders advocated radically different paths towards independence. However, this is not to downplay other determinants of post-independence institutions as geographical insurgency- rural versus urban – and economic variables such as land and natural resources.

In totality, however, if the planks that make Africa – the ship of Theseus – are each taken away over time, one by one, through western assimilation and WEIRD-ness, what remains as original Africa? More radically, however, when no original plank remains, is it still the ship? Secondly, if the removed planks are restored and reassembled free of the rot, is it still the ship of Theseus?

Solomon A. Mutagaya, a chemical engineer and author, is the director of Bouyant Quality Management Synergy Limited. He is a pan- Africanist and social industrial policy commentator, leveraging data-driven statistics to make informed analyses on African geopolitical juxtaposition, environmental topology and morality.

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