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Beyond Slavery

The impact of slavery on modern Africa

Author: Bob Koigi

More than 400 years since over 12 million men and women were forcibly removed from their native land in Africa along treacherous routes and delivered as slaves in Americas and Europe, the impact of that historic forced migration continues to shape the continent and redefine the socio cultural, economic and political development of the African people.

Researchers posit that slave raiding in Africa which ultimately weakened the social and fabric of the continent giving rise to colonialism altered not just Africa but the new world order and how the world relate to each other to date.

Man looking in distance.
Robbing African countries off the much needed labour force not only affected the economic activities then, but has been attributed to the poverty experienced in the continent over the years.

“Although research understanding the long-term impacts of Africa’s slave trades is still in progress, the evidence accumulated up to this point suggests that this historic event played an important part in the shaping of the continent, in terms of not only economic outcomes, but cultural and social outcomes as well. The evidence suggests that it has affected a wide range of important outcomes, including economic prosperity, ethnic diversity, institutional quality, the prevalence of conflict, the prevalence of HIV, trust levels, female labour force participation rates, and the practice of polygyny. Thus, the slave trades appear to have played an important role in shaping the fabric of African society today, wrote Nathan Nunn a Frederic E. Abbe, Professor of Economics at Harvard University in the book The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History Volume II. Africa and Asia.

Robbing African countries off the much needed labour force by taking men and women at their prime and productive age not only affected the economic activities then, but has been attributed to the poverty experienced in the continent over the years. Researchers like Nunn have pointed to the correlation between countries where majority of slaves were taken and rising poverty over the years.

They indicate that if slavery never took place, the 72 percent gap in average income between Africa and the rest of the world would not be experienced today. If anything, they argue, Africa would be at par in development with Asia or Latin America.

“Human capital from post slave trade was one of the most valued assets across African societies. Slaves were captured to go work in plantations in Americas and Europe at the height of the agricultural revolution. Now you can imagine the difference this would have made to the economic development of the continent if these strong and energetic labour force was allowed to develop their own farmlands and societies,” said Harry Munendo a historian and lecturer at Department of History, Archeology and Political Studies of Kenyatta University in Kenya.

Researchers argue that there would have been 112 million more Africans if there was no slave trade.

Beyond denying Africa of the much needed human capital, the export of slaves also altered the continent’s population with the impact being felt in modern societies. Existing data estimates that in 1750 African population accounted for 13 percent of the global population which dropped to 8 percent in 1900. Only in 2014, some 250 years later, did the population return to 13 percent. Researchers argue that there would have been 112 million more Africans if there was no slave trade. “It is a whole set of arithmetics considering that those who were taken as slaves were in their fertile age, between 16 and 35 years. This meant that those who were left behind, their parents, were at a point where they couldn’t bear children. By being taken captive, this youthful population depressed future population growth and a whole set of processes including marriage, a phenomenon that continues to be experienced in modern Africa,” added Harry.

Reproduction was also affected by introduction of venereal diseases that were brought by slave merchants especially from Europe. The Mpongwe people of Gabon for example suffered a huge population loss following an outbreak of Syphilis and smallpox, introduced by European slave traders. Most of those who died were at the prime of their reproductive years.

But what perhaps continue to be the most pronounced impact of slavery on contemporary Africa is racism and skewed value judgments that created class, social status and respect based on colour. As slavery ended in other areas, slave traders found new frontiers in Africa with the trade still being practiced in the 19th century. With Africa having been the last to carry the tag and prejudice associated with slaves who are treated as second class citizens, the colour hierarchies have persisted to modern society. According to Harry, the superiority complex exhibited by white people towards blacks today stemming from the historic perception of colour and class has been a catalyst for many of the extreme decisions and activities black people have taken to change their colour including using skin lightening and cosmetic surgeries.

“The history of slavery should be a mandatory course in all African schools so that every African can appreciate from a point of information the journey of their ancestors, the struggles and the impact slavery has had on them. It is through this knowledge that they will learn to appreciate themselves and respect their heritage,” Harry said.