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The Source of African Poverty, Part Two: Stationery Bandits

On Part One we spoke about the colonial age; and Japan’s near brush with colonialism at the hands of US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry. What we left out from Part One is that Japan developed (at least development as the concept is understood in the West) so fast after their experience with Perry in 1854, that by 1941 they were able to launch an attack on the country that had sent Perry to bully them 87 years earlier.

This is the infamous Pearl Harbour attack. Of course Japan lost the war that began after Pearl Harbour. But that they could go from a backwater to a first class industrial power so quickly is astonishing nonetheless.
In any case, let us continue where we left off on Part One of our discussion on the sources of African poverty.

Today our discussion will mainly be based on Ian Morris’ book, called War – What is it Good For – The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, From Primates to Robots (published in 2014, by Profile Books). No one article of ours is going to provide all the answers to the topic of African poverty. But on each article we will write on this topic, we will put forth some key concepts that we feel are worth considering.

Ian Morris actually has a book that came out before the one we will be using today; called Why The West Rules, For Now. We are going to use that book in our future articles on this series. It presents interesting ideas on why the Western World has been on the top of the economic food chain for the past 500 or so years. So stay tuned.

For today though, we will use the War book. This book presents an interesting concept that Morris has dubbed Stationery Bandits. According to Morris, some ancient leaders, if not most of them, were essentially criminals who were stealing from the tribal or national groups they ruled over.

But then these criminals who helped to build states stopped roving all across the land, and at some point decided to rob the same group of people who were situated in one area. Hence the phrase, stationery bandits. This is in stark contrast to the original nomadic bandits who went from place to place robbing residents of different places.

The main difference between stationery banditry and nomadic banditry is that for the former to work effectively the bandits need to make sure that the people they are stealing from are able to keep replenishing what was stolen, and the theft shouldn’t be blatant and too disruptive.

Also, a stationery bandit gets his money through ensuring that the people he is stealing from are not treated too unfairly. Otherwise the people can rebel, or they can just up and leave, or there could just be so little left after the theft that the whole banditry operation could be at risk.

A large majority of the African leaders of the post-colonial era apparently had never heard of the cardinal rules of being good stationery bandits. They stole from the people and ravaged the countries they ruled over with such reckless abandon that their banditry operations were never going to be sustainable. Martin Meredith’s book, called The States of Africa – A History of Fifty Years of Independence (2005, The Free Press), provides a chilling illustration of how one after another, Africa’s legendary colonial era Freedom Fighters turned into the worst kinds of stationery bandits after freedom was won.African states had been designed to siphon wealth from the land and from the people during the colonial era.

This continued unabated under an alarming majority of African leaders across the continent after independence. Africa’s wealth was stolen and deposited in Swiss Bank accounts. Politically, these stationery bandits did away with democratic elections, or simply just cheated the democratic process in the places where window-dressing democracy was still available. As any stationery bandit from history will tell ou, when you enslave people economically and politically, the only way for the people to attain redress is through violence. Thus a slew of civil wars popped up in many places across the continent.

Not all the leaders were like this of course. There were great leaders who did their best against many odds. But the bad were many; so many that the foundations of modern day African poverty were firmly laid. Catch us on Part Three, as we continue to ponder the topic of the sources of African poverty. Please note that we do not claim to have the one-size-fits-all explanation for African poverty. Nor do we have all the solutions. The purpose of these articles is to explore some of the reasons and possible solutions.

Further reading