Untapped treasures for future generations

Africa’s megaliths

From Sudan to South Africa, archaeologists are only just beginning to properly explore the remnants of Africa’s magnificent ancient past

Meroitic pyramids at the archaeological site of Bajarawiya, near Hillat ed Darqab, some 250 km north-east of Khartoum. PHOTO: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP

“Pyramid diving” is an activity that you’d be forgiven for thinking was a dangerous extreme sport dreamed up by a reckless millennial. In fact, it refers to a new archaeological endeavour in the Nubian desert sands of Sudan. In early July 2019, the National Geographic television channel premiered a documentary about exploration of an obscure pyramid in Nuri, northern Sudan. Below the 2,300-year-old pyramid are tunnels and chambers that lead to the last resting place of a pharaoh named Nastasen. The problem for inquisitive archaeologists of earlier times – not to mention grave robbers – was the underground labyrinth flooding with water seeping through from the adjacent Nile River. “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” egyptologist and underwater archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman told a National Geographic editor, Kristin Romey, in July.

Creasman, a professor at the University of Arizona, is working with National Geographic to discover the secrets of this ancient African civilisation that probably rivalled the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians in advanced intellect, creativity and governance. Just weeks before, the intrepid professor had donned wetsuit and goggles, descended a flight of steps and plunged into the now watery tomb of Nastasen, the pharaoh of the Kingdom of Kush from 335 BC to 315 BC. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told,” he said. Visibility in the water at the entrance to the subterranean tunnel was zero due to the sand Creasman stirred up, but eventually he discerned stone features in the light of his torch as he swam through a series of chambers. Suddenly, he spotted what looked like a royal sarcophagus. It looked unopened and undisturbed. A glimpse inside that tantalising stone coffin must wait until 2020 when the excavation team hopes it will be logistically possible to open it.

For the moment, Creasman’s focus is on securing the safety of the lengthy piped air-supply system to divers because the tunnels are too narrow for oxygen tanks, as well as locating and removing easily accessible burial artefacts before teams start to excavate through the sediment and fallen roof stones. Given enduring public fascination with the likes of Egypt’s young pharaoh Tutankhamun, the opening of Nastasen’s sarcophagus has the potential to be a momentous global event – and could even be a turning point in international perceptions of Africa. The outside world’s view of Africa – and particularly its cultural heritage – is notoriously limited, not to say biased. “There is a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict – the coup, the war, the famine, the corruption – which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent,” BBC World News presenter Zenaib Badawi observed during an African history series that she presented in 2017.

This pervasive view – in the West and East – is informed by current events and takes little account of the rich heritages of earlier civilisations on the continent. Reasons for this include a paucity of paper-and-ink historical records and a legacy of European colonial attitudes of superiority and “civilising” zeal that swept away the memory and markers of the past. This situation was reflected in an infamous 1965 remark by the prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who declared that Africa is “no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit”. He went on: “There is only the history of the European in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre- European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Most scholars nowadays agree Africa does indeed have “history”; some argue that comparing it to European history is poor academic methodology.

Much of this history is slowly being revealed at ancient megalithic sites such as the pyramids of Sudan, the fabled Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe in South Africa and the Walls of Benin. Many of these sites are relatively unexcavated and under-explored and we can only wonder what revelations about ancient Africa await future generations. Sudan actually has many more pyramids than Egypt – about 300 of them at various sites in Nubia in the Nile Valley. The earliest examples date back to 2,500 BC and they were built by people who belonged to three great Kushite kingdoms. Made of sandstone and granite, sometimes looming black against the pale desert sand, they are generally smaller and steeper than Egyptian pyramids. The Kushites were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, commerce and the military – and competed with them; Kushite pharaoh Piye and his successors ruled Egypt for more than a century.

Unesco has described Sudan’s pyramids as masterpieces “of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years”. With such rare antiquities, Sudan should be a modern tourist magnet, with foreign cash bolstering the struggling economy. But decades of violent regional conflict have deterred all but the bravest tourists. The Tripadvisor website, for example, carries just eight visitor reviews of the Nuri necropolis from the past five years – most of them enthusiastic about the visual experience and complete lack of other tourists, but lamenting the abandoned and crumbling state of the sites. Similarly with Axum in neighbouring Ethiopia. The ancient city was the historic capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, a great naval and trading power that ruled a million square miles of the Red Sea region from about 400 BC through to the 10th century, and it is crammed with remarkable relics.

The Aksumites had their own written language, Ge’ez, and a distinctive architecture that incorporated giant obelisks, known as steles, the oldest dating back to about 5,000 BC. Christian and Muslim influences permeate through to the present day, while the place is trapped in something of a time warp, with camel caravans still to be seen setting off into the surrounding desert. The stele park in Axum contains an awesome collection of these towering stones, marking royal burial sites. Skilfully carved with doors at the base and storeys of windows above, stele look like sculptures of skyscrapers – though the idea of such buildings lay many centuries into the future. The tallest, the 33 m Great Stele, lies in pieces; it probably fell and was shattered during construction. In 1937, the invading Italian army removed the 24.6m-high Obelisk of Axum and installed it in Rome; it was returned in 2005 and re-erected in the park.

Ethiopians are adamant that the biblical Ark of the Covenant is safe and sound in Axum – in a small chapel built in the 1960s beside the ancient church of Our Lady Mary of Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Also in Axum are the largely unexcavated 4th century Ta’akha Maryam and 6th century Dungur palaces. There is also a great pool reputed to be the bathing spot of the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have lived here. Other antiquities are the Ezana Stone, written in Ge’ez, Greek and Sabaean, and King Bazen’s Tomb, one of the earliest of all African megalithic structures. Then there are the astonishing stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the secluded monasteries of Lake Tana, some of which are said to have links to early Christianity. With its historical marvels, Ethiopia has the potential for a tourism industry to rival Egypt’s.

But the decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, the economic and societal devastation of the communist Derg regime of the 1970s and 80s and proximity to the Sudan conflicts have severely constricted Ethiopia’s tourism dividend. However, recent signs of political commitment on various sides to resolving conflict in the Horn of Africa might see the situation change. Indeed, a flowering of peace and democracy across the entire continent might open eyes to an Africa different to the one routinely portrayed internationally. Great Zimbabwe is well known, such is its magnificence, but it might be regarded as something of a megalithic “outlier” when African heritage is considered. Few people outside Zimbabwe know of the spectacular ruins of the Kingdom of Khami to the south, near Bulawayo. These were built from 1450 onwards and contain the longest-known decorated wall in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, there are the remains of the 11th century Mapungubwe civilisation in Limpopo province, which pre-dates Great Zimbabwe, which have only been partly investigated in recent decades; the site was kept hidden during the apartheid years. This community had a sophisticated trading economy, powered by gold and ivory, which is epitomised in the golden rhino sculpture that has become an icon of democratic South Africa. These and other lights of ancient African history and culture are beginning to shine on the international horizon. A recent claim that the oldest man-made structure on Earth has been located in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province might attract some disbelief. In 2003 researchers announced the discovery of a meticulously arranged rock circle, dubbed “Adam’s Calendar”, which apparently constitutes a heavenly timepiece.

It is said to be 75,000 year’s old – far older than either Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The truth of these claims is to be determined. Yet this strange place will surely eventually stake a claim in the world’s consciousness of its history too, along with the pyramids of Nuri, the Stele of Axum, the Nok Caves of Togo and a myriad other megalithic marvels across Africa.

Mike Moon is a freelance writer, editor and researcher living in Johannesburg. He has been involved in journalism for 50 years, holding senior positions at the likes of the Sunday Times, Business Day, Rand Daily Mail and magazines. Henhas written for the World Economic Forum for 20 years and has edited several books on a variety of subjects. His sporting interests include horse racing – as a breeder of thoroughbreds and as a columnist in The Times.

A brotherhood of man

Senegal: Mouridism and identity

The Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform nationalism in the country

The only known photograph of Cheik Ahmadou
Bamba, probably taken before 1923.
Photo: SUPPLIED

Earlier this year I was sitting on the TGV high-speed train travelling across France listening to the BBC’s Africa Today podcast, which discussed the impact of the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral on the African continent. The discussion outlined the idea that Notre- Dame represented not only a spiritual base for Catholics in Africa, but also a historical landmark of the spread of Catholicism to the continent. As such, it also had become a point of reference, particularly for Francophone African Catholics. Some African Catholics experienced the near destruction of Notre-Dame as the near destruction of their history and the origin of their faith in a physical and symbolic sense. The landmark had stood for centuries, and had become sacred by belief and ceremony, and a key part of religious foundational myth. Such foundational myths can powerfully inform personal and national identity.

We can explore this by looking at the Mourides of Senegal and the impact they have had in creating a Senegalese identity. The Mourides do not have as long a material history as African Catholics, nor can they claim a history of proselytising (which might be described as an explicitly colonial act). Moreover, their religious world view has overtly immaterial aspects. Thinking about this that day on the TGV, I asked myself how a religious sect such as the Mourides in Senegal, which has an explicitly immaterial outlook and a small material history, constructs a view of history that understands the “self” and the “other” and the interactions between them, and is able to influence and shape a national culture. For the Mourides have played an important role in the creation of the nation state of Senegal. They have created a history that is intertwined with the creation of Senegalese nationalism. That is, they created a history that expresses a specifically Senegalese, anti-colonial and black Afro-Islamic position.

Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa are often forgotten within the Ummah, or greater Islamic community. Many are neither Arab, nor Arabic speaking. Most are black African, and many practice different forms of Islam than people in the west might associate with the religion. To other Muslims, they can appear to exist in a limbo between African tradition and an Islamic modernity based within the nation state. According to writer Donal Cruise O’Brien, Mouridism bridges this gap with its idea that all are equal, regardless of wealth or prestige. Through its interactions with Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mouridism was able to extend its ideas of equality and justice beyond itself, because the movement had a cultural grounding in a blackness, which resonated with Senghor’s black African take on Islam. It was also egalitarian in orientation, which suited Senghor’s belief in Afro-socialism. The founder of Mouridism, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, is known as the man who “said no” to the French when Senegal was still a French colony.

The story goes that he was summoned to the then capital, Saint Louis, and ordered to renounce teaching Islam or face exile. He refused and proceeded to pray in the governor’s office – but praying only two rakas (the sets of ritual movements Muslims use when praying to God). Normally, a Muslim will pray three or four rakas. The shorter prayer session signified that Bamba felt he was in enemy territory. The idea is that a reduced time of prayer increases the time available to defend oneself. Whether the French colonialists picked up on the symbolism of this or not, we will never know. But in this moment Bamba demonstrated both his knowledge of his Islamic faith and his self-assurance regarding his black identity. In this moment, Mouride history coincided with black nationalism. It is this spirit that Senghor often invoked in his own pieces on African identity and being. The result of this encounter was Bamba’s exile, first to Gabon and then to Mauritania, for refusing to renounce his role as a teacher of Islam.

This act of defiance is nowadays celebrated in the Magal (or religious festival celebrating a particular religious leader) of the Two Rakas, which started in 1980. The story illustrates how the Mouride Brotherhood constructed a material history from immaterial beginnings. A Saint Louis schoolteacher started the magal, and after much soliciting, and supposedly with some reluctance, the Khalifa-Générale (the chief Mouride and leader of the Brotherhood since Bamba’s death) gave his approval. The magal is innovative in the sense that it takes its inspiration from religious and secular sources. It is thus about remembering a specific political act that Bamba, as the founder of the Islamic brotherhood, undertook as an act of defiance against white colonialists. The date of the magal, 5 September, is calculated by the Gregorian calendar, not the Islamic one. The event includes academic lectures on themes such as “Bamba and the Qur’an”, while also incorporating more traditional elements such as khasside (recitations of devotional poems written by Bamba), dhikr (devotional prayers), large meals and pilgrimages to the colonial office where the act of defiance supposedly took place.

The festival, then, is syncretic in that it brings different ideas together. It is a celebration not just of religion, but of blackness, of anti-colonialism, and of academic debate within this historical context. Its specifically anti-western cultural point of view highlights the power of blackness and Senegalese identity. This is particularly poignant when considering the religious and societal environment around the time of its founding. Marabouts (or West African Islamic leaders) and politicians were known to be working together, often in very close relationships. Institutional bribery and corruption were common. The Khalifa- Générale would issue an Ndiggal (or fatwa) to ensure the ruling socialist party was reelected. Anyone who failed to carry it out would, technically speaking, cease to be a Mouride. Aside from their involvement in institutional corruption, some marabouts claimed to have magical powers, entrenching their followers’ beliefs in ideas of magic, not scripture.

A classic example was the marabout who claimed he could drink whisky because it turned to milk in his stomach. This meant that it did not make him drunk, and his action remained halal. However, educated intellectuals in Dakar scorned the unlearned marabouts’ claims to magical abilities. This all changed when Abdou Lahatte Mbacké became Khalifa-Générale. He banned the use of tobacco and alcohol in the Mourides’ holy city of Touba, and urged a return to a simple lifestyle based upon the farming of millet rather than peanuts, and to the simple pleasures of Mouride and Senegalese tradition. Though the magal of the two raka was first organised as a religious and academic event, this occurred outside of entrenched power systems. The magal therefore became a symbol of religious and societal reform based on what had once made Mouridism individual: a real sense of black and African power going beyond a rejection of colonial narratives and involving the creation of new narratives based on social and political critique.

The Mouride movement also rejects subordination to the Arabic Ummah – unlike the other two main Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, which look to Fes and Baghdad for guidance. It, therefore, also celebrates the capacity of les noires to create their own philosophical paradigm, one which is proud of its differences. Narratives that emphasise taking pride in one’s identity and history play a role in Senegalese politics. Senghor’s secularism was based on the ideas of justice and equality as represented within Islam and Christianity, but with the religions in question functioning on a higher level of spirituality. As a Christian ruling a majority Muslim country, Senghor had to walk a tightrope between the two religions. In Senghor’s vision, the state’s role was therefore the champion of justice and equality between peoples and religions. The new state of Senegal’s rhetoric and policies would be based on aiming at the achievement of universal justice and equality – “a brotherhood of man” in Senghor’s words – as a secular idea informed by religion.

The aim of creating a brotherhood of man is now deeply ingrained in Senegalese society. Ideas of religion and religious duty are not overtly incorporated into the political narrative because they are understood as given. Instead, these are represented within the themes of nationalism. This makes politics the instrument that allows the creation of heaven on earth. In 1963, when Senghor opened the Great Mosque of Touba – the most important Mouride mosque and, according to some, the biggest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa – he proclaimed that a building of such glory represented the spiritual and material greatness of Senegal. It was built by unpaid Mouride volunteers and took over 30 years to complete. In the case of the Great Mosque, immaterial religious gestures helped to shape political realities. By projecting the Great Mosque as a nationalist symbol of Senegalese greatness, Senghor suggested that prayer was not only about devotion to one’s own god, but about creating a shared, universal justice and equality.

Through Senghor, the Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform Senegalese nationalism. Many Senegalese consider Bamba to be as important a national hero as Senghor himself, or Lat Dior, the Wolof king who fought off the first wave of French colonialism. A story that is told about Bamba illustrates this. While on the ship that was taking him to exile in Gabon, it is said that Bamba wanted to pray but the captain of the ship would not allow it. Bamba is said to have laid his sheepskin prayer mat down on the ocean and to have prayed on it as if on land. This miracle is recited across Senegal as evidence of Bamba’s Baraka (spiritual energy), while pictures of it can be found everywhere. The French colonialists allowed Bamba to return to Senegal in the later years of his life, realising that exiling him caused more problems than it solved. Bamba was a pacifist, claiming his only weapon was his pen, and this is a common element of the Senegalese identity nowadays.

Respect of origin, identity and religion are mutual, sect is not important, and beliefs are enquired about, not questioned or rebutted. The pacifistic element in both Bamba and Senghor’s thought is another element that connects them and is therefore probably why it features so strongly in the Senegalese national consciousness. This national consciousness is often seen in the artwork of Senegalese artists, mainly done on glass. These paintings often depict Bamba himself; contrary to Salafist Islam, Sufism does not discourage the representation of human figures, but sees it as an act of worship. Depictions of leaders are regarded as carrying their baraka; touching a photo or painting of Bamba confers his power and blessing. These paintings often involve the colours of Senegal, or the outline of Africa, alongside the figures of Bamba and of the Great Mosque of Touba. They combine nationalism, religion, and race and Mouridism – all within one piece of art.

In some paintings Bamba’s figure emerges from the middle “L” of the word “Allah” written in Arabic, as if the saviour of Africa, Senegal and Islam were emerging from the heart of Allah. As an icon, Bamba crosses historical boundaries and permeates his blessings into an understanding of faith that goes beyond devotion, moving into politics and interacting with values of a universalist appeal. Stories of the past, his actions and the interaction of spiritual images with Sufism come together to create a materialistic history based on interpretations of these values and morals, not just by politicians and marabouts but by disciples too, making them about personal interactions of equality, not just inaccessible scripture. Mouridism’s influence on the state and the creation of a national consciousness includes the Baye Fall and what they represent. A sub-sect of Mouridism, disciples of Baye Fall follow the example of Cheikh Ibra Fall, Bamba’s first and most devoted disciple. This includes the disavowal of all materialism and the embrace of hard labour as the highest form of prayer.

From one point of view, this could be said to be akin to the Protestant work ethic that Marx and Weber observed, but there is more to it than this. Baye Fallism involves the idea that sacrifice through hard work creates equality among men on earth as well as before god, meaning that all achieve heaven in the same way, no matter their socio-economic position. Baye Fall traditionally wear clothing made out of scraps and do not cut their hair, which results in long dreadlocks. Their aesthetic resembles that of Rastafarians, who believe that they will one day return to Africa, the promised land, but for the Mourides their home and spiritual land is, very specifically, the city of Touba. There, Baye Fall function as members of the police, or as labourers or as administrators of religious schools. The image of Bamba and the Baye Fall as a blacknationalist symbol therefore has an impact beyond Senegal. Bamba is seen not just as the saviour of Senegal, but of Africa, and the gateway to return to Africa for those who have moved away.

Through the use of aesthetics, politics and spiritual relations with the state, Mouridism has created its own history and at the same time contributed to Senegalese consciousness. This originates in the figure and actions of Bamba himself, who created a material history that is based not only on the overt materialism of buildings (such as the Great Mosque) and their spirituality, but also on a historical account interwoven with political and religious philosophy that gives power to the community and the nation. Bamba is thought not only to save Senegal, but all of Africa from the problems of social and political injustice that it faces. That this internalisation took place in Senegal was due partly to the way that Senghor constructed a multi-confessional state. But it was also due to the presence of Mouridism: an indigenous, black African approach to the religion of Islam.

Jack Poole has recently finished his undergraduate degree at SOAS, London. His interests are in mainly non-Anglophone Africa, mainly Senegal and Islam in Africa. His current research is on religious and political philosophies and he wants to look into the aesthetics of politics.

A revolution of the aspiring bourgeoisie

African communism: a pragmatic approach

Communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union

A high level of industrialisation is, according to Marx and Engels, the crucial trait of societies ripe for revolution. Since they first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, however, these authors have been repeatedly contradicted by reality. In later times, communism emerged victorious in circumstances very different from those its fathers envisioned. In fact, a communist revolution gained control of a state for the first time in Russia, a mainly rural and underdeveloped country. Other countries where it later took power were even further removed from the relations of production which Marx and Engels had predicted to be necessary for a proletarian takeover. Many of these countries were in Africa, where communism had a pivotal influence during the 20th century. As in Tsarist Russia, most parts of the continent lacked the masses of industrial workers that had been supposed to be the catalyst for the advent of a classless society.

Africa’s masses weren’t proletarians with “nothing to lose but their chains”, as Marx and Engels said of the workers they thought would want to free themselves of the capitalist yoke. Instead, communism gained prominence in Africa through state-directed action based on geopolitical interests. Until the beginning of the cold war, Africa’s exposure to Marx and Engels’ theory came through a tiny minority in countries with white European groups. “The first appearances of communist ideas in Africa were introduced by European workers in newly industrialising colonies with a significant concentration of settlers,” writes Edmond J Keller in a 2017 paper, “Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa”. In most African countries, it was of almost no consequence. In the metropoles, communism was outlawed or demonised by the authorities, who feared change at home and in the colonies.

Meanwhile, most European colonial societies were dominated by government officials, landowners and industrialists who were reluctant to consider the need for change – and who were certainly hostile to revolutionary change. Early Marxists in Africa often enlisted in the struggle secretly and at great personal cost. The four countries mentioned by Keller as having a significant communist presence were South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and the Sudan. This was particularly the case in South Africa. The British colony at the southern tip of the continent was arguably the most autonomous and dynamic colonial territory on the continent. Energised by diamond and gold rushes, its white society soon became a well-established, vibrant community with a sizeable working class employed in the mines and other industries. It was in this context that left-wing trade unions and ultimately the South African Communist Party (SACP) were born and achieved notable muscle.

Ethiopian President Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (R) makes a V-for-victory sign as he stands with Fidel Castro (C) and Raul Castro (L) during an official visit to Havana, Cuba, in April 1975. Mengistu took power in 1977 after a coup. Photo: PRENSA LATINA / AFP

This strength did not at that stage result in the advancement of black people’s rights. The 1922 Rand Rebellion saw the party and its allied trade unions protesting a relaxation of the colour bar on the mines, a measure which would have resulted in lower salaries for white workers. Nevertheless, communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to win the continent in the battle for global hegemony with the US-led capitalist bloc. At the time, some African countries had just become independent or were about to, and there was a strong need for a sense of direction and economic support. So Moscow stepped in. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah became a Moscow protégé. He put in place socialist inspired policies and aligned his country with other international actors hostile to the West.

More importantly, Nkrumah’s potent symbolism as Africa’s first black post-colonial leader was a tremendous asset for the Soviets in their contest with the Americans for worldwide cultural influence. Not without American resistance, the Kremlin repeated this approach with other freshly-installed black nationalist presidents. Moreover, the Soviet Union began arming, training and sponsoring insurgent movements fighting western colonial dominance and the capitalist white regime in South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Soviets did not focus on the oppressed masses; rather, they wooed members of local elites who had been educated by missionaries or who had achieved so-called évolué status in French territories. It was this thin layer of the population that produced African activism for equal rights. Early forms of the struggle against discrimination and injustice around the continent were far from the revolutionary positions they would become from the 1960s.

Many liberation icons – among them Nelson Mandela and other major figures in South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) – were professionals who came late to the socialist discourse for which they are known today. Their struggle was not against capitalism as such; rather, they wanted to end discrimination and open the door to prosperity for masses of fellow Africans who had been deprived of their rights. In their early stages, many liberation movements shared this liberal, reformist approach to change. Their leaders were, after all, aspiring bourgeoisie. In retrospect, we can ask: why did they let themselves be seduced by an ideology that rejected everything they cherished and yearned for? According to Keller, African leaders at the time made alliances with their Soviet and Chinese backers “primarily because they offered material support to the movement or dominant party in a regime, rather than being based on a clear and consistent acceptance of the guiding ideology of either the western or communist partner”.

Supporters of the pro-communist Ethiopian
Workers’ Party wave in front of a huge portraits of the founders of “scientific socialism” on 13 September 1987 in Addis Ababa, on the 13th
anniversary of the Ethiopian revolution led by Haile Mariam Mengistu. From left: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Mengistu set out to create a socialist state in Ethiopia aligned with the communist bloc.
Photo: ALEXANDER JOE / AFP

FRELIMO leader and future Mozambican president Samora Machel acknowledged this in the early 1970s, when he described the major communist powers as “the only ones who will really help us”, according to a 1973 report by Michael Calvert on “Counter- Insurgency in Mozambique” in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, too, alluded to what one could describe as the “minginess” of the support from liberal democracies for Africa’s quest for freedom. Shortly after his release, he gave short shrift to criticism from Miami of his visit to Cuba in 1991. Responding to attacks on his praise for a non-democratic leader, Fidel Castro, he said: “Who are they to call for the observance of human rights by Cuba? They kept quiet for 42 years when human rights were being attacked in South Africa.”

He noted that some countries had “suddenly” become keen on the ANC as its accession to power got closer. Arguably, many members of African liberation elites might have wanted to see their countries become capitalist, liberal societies. But some of the liberal democracies were former colonial powers that had denied Africans the freedoms their citizens enjoyed at home. Some communist powers, among them the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and Cuba, moved in to fill the void, offering a plausible vision of full citizenship and human dignity. And, as we know, the Americans worked to counteract their influence. The Soviet and American interventions in Africa occurred mostly behind the scenes. As the cold war heated up, proxy conflicts proliferated around the continent, of which the Congo crisis in the first half of the 1960s is a relevant example.

Perhaps the only direct involvement of any communist country in Africa was the Cuban intervention in Angola, where it deployed military forces between 1975 to 1990 to keep the Marxist regime in power and repel an anti-communist military campaign of the apartheid government. Its mission in Angola only ended when Namibia became independent. The presence of Cubans in the former Portuguese colony made an indelible impression on many Africans. The solidarity of that enterprise, which was widely perceived as selfless, is still hailed in the region today. Perhaps more extraordinarily, many who lived and worked with Cuban personnel – not only in Angola, but in other African countries to which Castro sent military and civilian missions – were inspired by the Cubans’ lack of racial prejudice and the naturalness of their interaction, at least by colonial Africa’s standards.

The Angolan writer Adriano Mixingue, who studied on the Caribbean island, described the Cubans he met at home as “hardworking, friendly, fair and fun” and being “popular and well-liked”. Apart from Moscow, the other great pole of communist power in the world was Beijing. Maoist China aimed at challenging Soviet hegemony in Africa and exerted its own influence through means similar to those employed by the Kremlin. Mao Zedong’s third-world nationalism and his own experience of non-conventional guerrilla warfare made him a popular example among members of several liberation movements. Mao’s quest for relevance in Africa was especially successful in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, “two countries where different aspects of the Maoist repertoire were applied with particular vigour through the late 1960s and 1970s,” writes Julia Lovell in her book Maoism: A Global History (2019).

Replicating Maoist practices such as rural collectivisation, nationalisation and the use of violence to support a leader’s absolute authority had disastrous results in Africa, as they had in China itself – among them famine in Tanzania and “one party-thuggery and economic calamity in Zimbabwe”, the author notes. Soviet-type policies brought a comparable authoritarianism to other African countries. A marked example was that of Ethiopia under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. He is believed to have killed half a million people during the “red terror” campaign of 1977 and 1978. Combined with a persistent drought, Mengistu’s social engineering involved extensive nationalisation and the state seizure of all land, and it caused a famine that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the mid 1980s. As highlighted by academic William Gumede in a 2017 article, African liberation movements were often “structured along variations of Soviet Marxist-Leninist or Chinese communist party lines with a powerful leader at the head”.

African liberation movements “were organised in a top-down, secretive and military-like fashion” that concentrated “power in the hands of either the leader or a small group”, writes Gumede. It was a pattern they maintained after assuming government. The price of having undemocratic regimes as a model is still being paid on a continent that has a deficit of democratic culture.

Protesters try to topple a giant “socialist realist” statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on 23 May 1991 in Addis Ababa, two days after the departure of Ethiopian pro-communist strongman Mengistu Haile
Mariam into exile. Photo: JEROME DELAY / AFP

Marcel Gascón Barberá is a freelance journalist and writes for several Spanish and international publications. He has previously worked as a correspondent for EFE Spanish news agency in Romania, South Africa and Venezuela.

Will it ever?

Angola: out of stock

Sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest economy still does not have a stock exchange

Will Angola’s stock market ever float? © David Stanley

By Louise Redvers

Angola is Africa’s fifth largest economy, its second producer of crude oil, a magnet for foreign direct investment and the custodian of one of the continent’s biggest sovereign wealth funds. Yet, rather surprisingly, unlike many of its smaller and poorer peers, Angola does not have an equities exchange. Trading government bonds outside of the central bank began only in May. “Fund management as an industry doesn’t exist in Angola, which is crazy because basically you’ve got the third largest financial market in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Anthony Lopes Pinto, the managing director of Imara Securities Angola, the Angolan arm of Botswana listed asset management firm Imara Holdings Ltd. “Total assets in the banking sector are now more than $70 billion and the inefficient allocation of capital is directly inhibiting economic growth,” he said. At around 20% after costs and commissions have been included, the high cost of borrowing from banks was one of the reasons why “you never hear of many small to medium-sized companies becoming regional players,” he added.

Mario de Carvalho, an investment entrepreneur, told Africa in Fact that the country was crying out for an exchange. “Equities trading would be a very positive thing for Angola,” he said. “There is a big need for alternative financing options and it would help diversify our economy, which is very focused on oil and therefore highly vulnerable to price shocks.” So why does Angola not have an equities exchange? Will it ever? For more than a decade, global investors have salivated over media headlines heralding the inauguration of share trading in Luanda. But anticipated dates have come and gone, only for government officials to belatedly blame the “wrong economic conditions”. The country has had a capital markets commission, or regulator— known as the Comissão do Mercado de Capitais (CMC)—since 2005. In 2006 the Bolsa de Valores de Angola (BVDA) was set up to run the exchange. Newly trained BVDA and CMC staff took up a plush office building in downtown Luanda amid expectations that equities trading would begin after the September 2008 general election, the nation’s first in 16 years.

But this happened just as the global financial crash interrupted several years of heady post-war growth and sent oil prices into free fall. Angola, which depends on crude oil for more than 90% of its exports, was plunged into a liquidity crisis, forcing it to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a $1.4 billion loan. Plans for share trading appeared to fall off the agenda. Black plastic sheeting was taped over the silver signage on the front of the BVDA’s office and most of the staff were let go, frustrating asset management firms that had been working hard on their Angola entry strategies ahead of the exchange’s launch. In the following years various ministerial announcements proclaimed the exchange would “open next year”. But the BVDA was quietly wound up in June 2013 and liquidators were called in to return its assets to investors. With little fanfare and even less explanation, it was replaced by BODIVA, the Bolsa da Dívida e de Valores de Angola (Angola Debt and Securities Exchange), in July 2014 under the leadership of a former central bank governor, Antonio Furtado.

In May this year, BODIVA, housed in new premises in the capital, began trading government bonds, previously only available in-house at the central bank, the Banco Nacional de Angola. Although volumes are still small ($47m in May and $188m in June, according to BODIVA) relative to the size of Angola’s economy, investors and asset management firms have called the move an important first step. “We believe that securitised debt will be able to give depth and liquidity to capital markets, which, combined with the perception of sovereign risk, lead to a learning curve for the corporate debt segment, the stock market—and later the futures market,” Mr Furtado told investors at a business roundtable in Luanda in July. With the government debt market now in place and corporate bond sales due to follow next year, a new date of 2017 has been set for equity trading. A futures market may open in 2019. But after so many missed deadlines, it is difficult to take these dates too seriously. And questions remain about which companies would list on the new stock market.

“Who would be in a position to list and who would want to? That’s the challenge,” de Carvalho said. “After the banks and maybe the mobile phone company Unitel, there are very few Angolan corporates that are in a position to join an equities exchange.” The country’s large state-owned enterprises, such as oil company Sonangol and national air carrier TAAG (Transportes Aéreos Angolanos), would certainly elicit plenty of interest if they listed. But few believe that the government is willing to relinquish control of such critical national assets, or that it is ready to open up its books to full public scrutiny. Angola is notorious for its corporate opacity. Transparency International ranks it as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Many firms—and entities holding shares in corporate ventures—are registered as Sociedade Anônima (SA), which means their ownership is not publicly known. Banks now publish audited financial statements in the local press, a legal obligation, but this requirement does not apply to other firms.

Tracking down company reports and accounts can be a challenge at best and is often next to impossible. The problem is that a company cannot list on an equities exchange unless it can produce audited reports and make them public. But after three decades of war that ended in 2002, some firms do not have sufficient book-keeping skills to produce these documents. Analysts have often cited this absence of a reporting culture as a reason for the delays in setting up equity trading. According to this view, the government had wanted a big launch with a full exchange befitting the country’s economy, rather than one on which only a handful of companies traded—which could have been branded a low-value flop. But Mr Pinto rejects the narrative that Angolan companies are unable or unwilling to list. On the contrary, the option of raising capital on a local stock market would act as an incentive for more disclosure and adherence to best reporting practices, he said. The Angolan exchange is being held back because the country’s government and corporations have little knowledge about equity trading, he conceded.

The general lack of appropriate knowledge and skills has created high levels of caution and risk aversion among companies that might otherwise consider listing. “There are very few people who understand how capital markets work [and] on the back of that, there is an extremely high fear that the capital markets will crash,” Mr Pinto said. The poor performance of markets in former colonial power Portugal, still a major economic reference for many Angolans who do not speak English, has added to this sense of risk aversion in the public and private sector. Another potential barrier to the 2017 launch is Angola’s current economic climate. The country showed good signs of recovery following the 2008-09 crisis, though it never managed to repeat the double-digit growth of the years before. Now Angola’s outlook is grim because oil prices have collapsed. Government revenue between January and May this year is down 85% on the same period in 2014 and the kwanza, Angola’s national currency, has plunged from 98.5 to the dollar in September last year to 126 as of mid- August.

This has put enormous strain on liquidity, which in turn is forcing more currency devaluation. After several years of downward movement, inflation is creeping back up. In February, the government announced an austerity budget, slashing public spending by some 25%. The private sector has also put projects on hold and cut back staff. The mood in the country is doom and gloom. The economy’s vulnerability to oil price shocks is a loud reminder of the need to grow a strong and diversified private sector. A stock exchange could breathe new life into small and medium-sized companies outside the oil industry, which in turn would create badly needed jobs. Introducing capital markets when an economy is in a rut might even be a clever way to ensure a good appreciation of assets in the future. “The bond sales have likely moved forward because the government desperately needs to mobilise more financing for its debt,” noted Søren Kirk Jensen, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think-tank.

“Also, some of the people who were behind the exchange back in 2008 have recently returned to central positions in government and that could be another reason why things are finally progressing,” he added. Imara set up in Angola in 2009 hoping to be a first mover on the exchange. Mr Pinto agrees that the equities market may finally open. “I think the stock exchange is definitely back on the agenda and I think it is taking shape, albeit at an Angolan pace,” he said. “We are headed in the right direction and with a little patience we will soon have a formidable market.”

Louise Redvers is a freelance journalist who has reported from Angola, Swaziland and Zambia for the BBC, the Mail and Guardian, The Africa Report and other media. After five years in Africa, she recently relocated to the Middle East.

Huge potential, wrong time?

Mineral continent

African mining development is challenged by a shortage of investment funding

Africa’s buried treasure: phosphate mining in Togo © David Stanley

By Jade Davenport

Africa’s mining sector has proven to be something of a mixed blessing. The continent’s mineral resources offer enormous possibilities of wealth, but they are also hard to reach. Sub-Saharan Africa, along with the inhospitable Arctic, remains the most under explored region on earth, geologically speaking. Yet the continent accounts for approximately 30% of the world’s mineral reserves. The geographical and logistical difficulties involved in locating and accessing Africa’s resource wealth have been exacerbated by the constrained post-2008 macroeconomic climate. Investors have been reluctant to fund new projects in far-flung geographies despite the rich rewards such projects offer in the medium to long term. One lingering consequence of the 2008 global financial crisis has been that equity markets have largely closed up, says Wickus Botha, a mining and metals expert at EY, an accounting and professional services firm. Companies in high-risk, long-term industries such as mining have a harder time finding funding. This applies even more for projects in more remote regions. Two factors have compounded the decline of interest in mining investment, Mr Botha says.

First, many investors claim they did not substantially benefit from mining portfolio investments during the commodities super cycle of the early 2000s, which saw a boom in prices for food stuffs, fuels and other resources. Second, commodity prices have fallen considerably since 2008. A significant drop in demand for metals and minerals, particularly from the Asian market, followed the commodities boom. This was followed by a general slump in commodity prices. As a result, willingness to invest in exploration and mining projects has waned considerably, he says. Energy-related commodity prices decreased by 41.7% between the first quarter of 2014 and first quarter of 2015, according to an April World Bank report. Those for metals and precious metals decreased by 13.4% and 3.4% respectively over the same period. If the price of a commodity drops, even by a few percent, mining companies will notice the difference in their profit margins. This influences the amount of money they can make available for other things. “Although there is still funding available for brownfield expansion and some for acquisitions, there is virtually no investment capital for greenfield projects,” Mr Botha says.

Mining companies now have to pay far more for project financing than they did a decade ago because investment capital is scarce, says Tony Zoghby, a mining industry expert at Deloitte & Touche South Africa, an auditing firm. When investment funding is scarce, it costs companies more to access it. “This of course drives up the cost of the investment and reduces returns, which might then lead to the project not meeting the hurdles and requirements set.” Mining companies around the world are encountering reluctance from investors, but African mining companies face additional obstacles to finding funds. One of these is a lingering perception that African governments may nationalise resources that mining companies spend huge amounts on extracting. Others are unhelpful legislation, a lack of infrastructure and logistics, insufficient skills, corruption and a dearth of geo-mapping and mining data. As a result, the continent’s mining sector has experienced limited growth since the downturn in the super cycle. Yet investment in African mining projects has not fallen away.

About 30 large-scale projects are expected to be commissioned between 2015 and 2018, including nine in copper, four in gold, four in diamond, three in platinum and two in uranium, according to a Deloitte & Touche February report. These projects alone will account for $18 billion in investment across the continent. Given the current economic climate, low commodity prices and investor scepticism, mining companies need to find alternative methods to raise capital. Innovative approaches are crucial when it comes to funding projects in financially constrained times, says Nivaash Singh, international mining finance head at Nedbank Capital, based in South Africa. If a company cannot turn to a traditional source of investment funding, such as a large bank, it could go to a private company, such as a venture debt provider that will lend it the money it needs under strict conditions, including a fixed pay-back period. Such a loan may also involve a promise to allow the lender to buy shares in the company at a favourable rate if the borrower does not repay the loan. If a mining company does not want to risk a promise to sell shares in its business, it could also raise money by taking out other kinds of loans, known as subordinated and mezzanine debt.

But these come with a higher risk to the lender because they will only be paid after other creditors have been paid. This makes them more expensive. “Senior debt providers always have the ‘first bite’ of project cash flows before mezzanine and lastly fully subordinated debt providers,” Mr Singh says. “Second- and third-ranking debt providers often take more risk than senior debt providers.” This may require them to demand a share in the business in addition to repayments on the debt. Development finance institutions from the developed countries are another possible source of funding for African mining companies, he says. They may be willing to provide funding for such projects because they have an interest in the strategic nature of the commodity or because they see a substantial developmental benefit. African banks may also have a bigger appetite for mining risks if a solid development case exists. In contrast, their counterparts in the developed world might feel that their understanding of African funding is too limited to justify such risks. African banks, according to Mr Botha, can allocate more funds to mining than other areas because they understand the continent’s environments.

They are also more likely to operate their lending business throughout the commodity cycle. Mr Singh agrees. Nedbank maintains its resources lending business throughout the commodity cycle, he says. “We hold the view that good, robust projects will always attract debt and equity finance. There is appetite for African mining risk where a solid development case exists.” But African banks will want to ensure that their criteria for financing are met, he adds. “Due to the economic climate, they may have to do so at higher rates and with fairly restrictive covenants,” Mr Singh says. “So the pressure is still on the mining companies to keep their cost of funding as low as possible in order that their returns still meet the investment return hurdles.” Development finance institutions represent the most prominent sources of capital for African mining projects. But companies in the sector have other possible sources of investment funding—including internally-generated funds and resources debt funds. The latter are professionally managed programmes that invest in resources related debt. Miners may also turn to large metal financiers such as royalty and streaming companies.  A company interested in royalties buys the right to share a producer’s annual revenue, while a streaming company makes a payment upfront in exchange for an annual slice of the miner’s production at a fixed, discounted price.

In both cases, the money received upfront could be used to pay for the technical development of a new mining project, for instance. Companies looking for investment may also be able to generate interest in African mining projects among commodity traders who have an eye on the strategic future of a particular resource, Mr Botha says. Mining companies interested in African projects face greater difficulties in raising project finance than their counterparts in the developed world, Mr Singh cautions. But this can have a considerable “positive effect”, as he sees it: the challenges involved will generally separate genuine project developers from the pure market speculators, whose main interest is in short-term profit. African miners face bleak prospects. Several major mining companies involved in operations on the continent have recently announced plans to scale back on their African operations and retrench thousands of workers. The consensus among African financial institutions, Mr Botha concludes, is that African mining projects will attract capital more easily when demand increases and rises in commodity prices are sustained enough to generate profit levels that investors regard as worth the risk.

Jade Davenport is the author of “Digging Deep: A History of Mining in South Africa”. Her work has been published in magazines and online news sites including Mining Weekly and African Business.