Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya

Africa is not a country

I didn’t really take much notice of the last Zambian election, one which pitted Michael Sata and Rupiah Banda, two men in their 70s.

My lack of interest could have been because I wondered why these men, who actually belong to the nationalist period that swept Africa in the 1960s, should be the ones battling to lead Zambia in the 21st century.

In their last election battle, in 2008, Sata lost to Banda. That election was called after the death of Levy Mwanawasa, president of Zambia from 2002 until his death in August, 2008.

So checking the papers last Sunday, I was surprised to see an article in The Observer whose blurb said “Zambia’s long-standing president stands down after losing an election … a sign that the continent’s fortunes might be changing for the better”.

Long-standing? Wasn’t Banda in office for just three years? My interest pricked, I read further. Banda’s stepping down was described by Ian Birrell as “inspirational”; the writer linked this development to the “remarkable year of uprisings and unpredictable events”. This, presumably, refers to the Arab Spring that brought down Hosni Mubarak, Zinedine ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi.

“In a continent where all too often presidents cling on to power by any means necessary, Zambia’s Rupiah Banda conceded defeat on Friday with astonishing grace and dignity,” Birrell wrote. Instead of lumping Zambia with Zimbabwe, Kenya and a FEW other countries where the presidents have refused to hand over power, why not actually try to look at Zambia’s own history.

Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s first president, lost an election in 1991 and stepped down. Frederick Chiluba, the diminutive man who defeated Kaunda, stepped down in 2002. To show how strong the country’s institutions are, after leaving office Chiluba was even taken to court to answer corruption charges.

But these particularities get in the way of the “Africa is a doomed continent” narrative. Birrell’s analysis sticks to the tried and tested template of randomly choosing an African country, taking an inconvenient fact about it, and then using it to support an entrenched view, no matter how outdated.

This is, of course, another instance of seeing the continent as one country and refusing to take into account each nation’s individual textures. Sata is going to be Zambia’s fifth president since the country got independence from Britain in 1964. The country’s founding president voted out of power in 1991, still lives in Zambia. Kaunda could have done a Mugabe and refused to step down after the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (on which the Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change was modelled) trounced his party, United National Independence Party. But he did the right thing and stepped down.

The recent change of power in Zambia, apart from it happening in 2011, has nothing in common with the toppling of the north African dictators. Nothing at all. Zambia has institutions that, although far from perfect, can’t be compared to Egypt, a country that has never had a democratically elected president.

Africa is not a country, you know.

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    • Paul Whelan

      Very fair. Part of the trouble today is that the lingering rhetoric of Mbeki’s Renaissance and the AU’s particular rather than general stance on the international scene encourage people to see Africa as one country.

    • David

      Nice piece Percy. At the end of the day, a piece in the Observer about Zambia is irrelevant – what carries more weight is how the election results are portrayed in editorials across the continent. Let’s hope Mr. Sata has the courage to speak his mind the way the late Mr. Mwanawasa did. Zambia provides a ray of hope for SADC.

    • Alta

      Thank you Percy Zvomuy, at last there is someone who can see the reality, South Africa is a country, Zambia is a country and so are the rest individual countries. I hate it when the uninforrmed talk about South Africa as Africa, I can not be associated with people, who do not even know where South Africa is or even know that South Africa exist. Nieu Zeeland and Australia, are. Countries on ther own, why can’t there be talked about us as a country.

    • George

      Very well written! Africa is a dynamic continent and each country should be looked at differently! None of our leaders have done anything to bring our nation to harm or unrest

    • Noks

      Thank you, thank you, thank you! Will this ever change though?

    • Piet

      Excellent journalism, Percy. This is a great continent, a great country and many great people (we also have great challenges) but Zambia shows that it can be overcome.

    • Micky Nsangwe

      Excellent piece. Zambia may be one of the poorest countries in the world but this has not translated into poverty of ideals cherished by the rest of mankind. Zambians may be poor materially but this has not compronised our democratic aspirations.

    • Robard

      Actually, the outline of failures of sub-Saharan African countries is depressingly similar. All of them also have majority black populations, so it is easier to see the similarities than the differences.

      (For a moment, when I saw the headline, I thought we have achieved a breakthrough with a black man stating things as they are. I mistakenly read “South Africa is not a country”.)

    • Robard

      Haha, I should’ve mentioned that the writer obviously got mixed up with Banda of Malawi, who truly was a long-standing president and which perfectly illustrates the point that Africa is more of a country than South Africa is one.

    • Kimani

      Great article Percy. The West’s lopsided view of Africa permits no other sense about us except as a continent permanently on the brink. There’s a fascinating book by Richard Dowden titled “AFRICA: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” where the author-although a Westerner-puts to shame his contemporaries in those European metropolises. As he says “…we have no other ideas of Africa, no sense of ordinary Africa. Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent”. I agree with you, Birrell is unlikely to allow facts to interfere with a ‘good’ story. And ‘good’ is the garbled ‘African diet’ that Western audiences have been fed since before Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

    • La Quebecoise

      Thank you. Well-tempered corrections go a long way.

    • K Mbewe

      Percy – nice article indeed.

      Note however that the events that happen in Zambia always have an impact on its neighbour and sister, Malawi.

      After Kaunda fell, Banda also fell. Both having ruled for 30 years.

      After Chiluba stepped down, Muluzi also stepped down.

      Now that Mutharika is trying to hand over power to his brother, his party will fall and the opposition will take over just as in Zambia.

    • Chris Roper

      Lovely piece, Percy. The incredible myopia of the mythmakers.

    • Kele

      Excellent piece Percy !

    • Mkhulu

      This perpetuated ignorance about Africa and her countries serves only western interest. Many people do choose to educate themselves about Africa, yet there remains elements of distortion widely in Europe and America media. I feel sorry for young generations fed this information.

    • Nduru

      Great article Percy! I have always found this kind of thinking very irritating. One point to add, however, is that many South Africans I meet (black and white) do EXACTLY the same thing to Africa north of the Limpopo – lump it all into one big mass of homogenous dark Africa without taking all the nuances and local contexts and histories into account. I often get asked questions about my home country Zimbabwe, that make me wonder if the askers know the difference between it and Somalia! Another South African myth is that everything north of the border is inferior to things found in South Africa (from education, to tourist attractions to footballers etc). Only if you travel around Africa do you see how wonderfully diverse and full of resilience and potential these places are, each in their own ways. Thank you.

    • Al

      Robard – the author got mixed up with Banda of Malawi? If you knew the vaguest bit about modern Zambian history, and had read his piece properly, you would know that he was referring to Rupiah Banda of Zambia, not Hastings Kumuzu Banda of Malawi.
      Having visited Zambia a lot, as well as its neighbours, I can vouch for the fact that Zambia is very much a different country. Awesome article, Percy.

    • Maria

      I agree, Percy!
      This is just funny since I stumbled upon a blogsite this morning with the interesting name: “Africa is a Country”!!!!

    • Philip Cole

      Excellent article Percy. The Observer used to have decent Africa coverage and, with Alastair Sparks as South Africa correspondant in the ’80’s paid an honourable role in showing the brutality of apartheid to the wider world. Sadly those days are long gone and its now just another rag peddling ‘lifestyle’ articles on a Sunday.

    • http://[email protected] muhia

      Well, africa is not a country. You got that right but you are arrogant as those western journos. KENYA’s post election violence was caused by the failure of raila odinga conceding defeat, whose call for mass action led to death and destruction by his (Raila) followers. Kibaki is serving his second term as a democratically elected president of Kenya. So before you group Kenya (incumbent president) with the likes of Zimbabwe do not copy and paste from the western newspapers, do your research first.

    • Induna

      Excellent piece to highlighten our rather dull westerners.keep it up bra

    • Peter Win


      A great article and in many ways true.

      But here’s the thing. Africans are satisfied with very little from their Governments. Far too little. Let’s compare two places : Zambia and Singapore.
      Zambia : independant in 1964; Singapore in 1965
      At independance, Zambians earned about $800 per capita; Singaporeans $511 per capita.
      Today, Zambians earn about $395 per capita; Singaporeans have the world’s highest number of household millionaires.

      It’s time for Africans to wake up and demand more from their rulers…

    • JohanL


      I ask myself if The Observer would have expressed delighted surprise at Tony Blair or Gordon Brown stepping down after election results. The fact is that many African countries’ leaders display a remarkable reluctance to step down. Instead, they cling to power with a bitter obstinacy, often resulting in violence and bloodshed. The list of these countries is long. And if these African leaders would begin to act according to accepted democratic principles, then writers might cease to find it remarkable that an African leader, such as Banda, steps down after being voted out.

    • Bovril24

      Well corrected Percy. Ian Birrell had obviously not done his homework and put his foot in it. .
      Sadly, however, one swallow does not make a Summer and his generalisations, about other African countries – except, hopefully, this country – are true.

    • percyz

      Thanks for the comments, folks.A few individual responses: @Kimani, i havent checked out “Richard Dowden’s “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”. I will do so soon. @Mbewe I am hoping Malawians botch Muthawarika’s plans for the fraternal power [email protected] , I think it will. But people should challenge it; we should use the social media at our disposal to do it. The genesis of this article was a 140 tweet; one of the editors saw it and said I should write a longer piece. @Alta, I see lots of Sausi Africans who want to know the continent, who travel it, read about it (check out Sihle Khumalo’s Dark Continent, My Black Arse). It wont happen in an instant, but I see the desire…

    • Helen

      Well said. This tendency – to speak of ‘Africa’ as if it were a single homogenous country, as well as the doom-mongering that you describe so well – is amazingly widespread in the Western media, including at the BBC, which should know better (!)

    • Robard

      @Al- Obviously I was referring to the writer of the original Observer article. The larger point is that outsiders will naturally focus on the similarities because they are more likely to explain why African countries do in fact perform very similar in terms of all the important socio-economic indicators and governance. And the most important similarities have to do with the inhabitants, not geography or resources or history. That is why Haiti is more similar to almost any country in Africa than to the Dominican Republic it shares an island with.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Sihle Khumalo’s book “DARK Continent My Black Arse…from Cape to Cairo” is one of the best books I have read recently – I found it much funnier and more insightful than Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” which was full of angst and drang!

    • KateBomz

      Right on!

    • John Patson

      What chance of informed coverage of the first year of the new Zambian president in South African papers? My guess is what coverage there will be will come from AP, Reuters and AFP. It is as if South Africa does not believe Zambian journalists exist.

    • http://yahoo Husvu

      Slowly moving towards being a country. Very few obstacles the likes of Mugabe and a few. Dynamic Africa with incredible Godly resources, will rule the world in the near future.

    • Lennon

      A single country indeed. Pffft!

      My earliest chat room experiences (circa 1997) confirmed the ignorance that many people in Europe and the USA have / had. Conversations would typically go like this:

      Chatter: Where are you from?
      Me: South Africa.

      Chatter: Africa? Seriously?
      Me: Yes.

      Chatter: Are you on safari?
      Me: No. I live here.

      Chatter: Do you guys have TV and telephones there?
      Me: Yes. I’m chatting to you over the Internet, aren’t I?

      Chatter: Do you have wild animals roaming through your village?
      Me: No. I live in a plush suburb much like you have and our animals are kept in zoos or game parks.

      Chatter: So you live there. I take it you’re black?
      Me: Nope. I’m white.

      Chatter: Really?
      Me: *facepalm*

      Of course some days I’d just mess with their heads and tell them that I’m a black kid named Sipho who lives in a reed hut with a pet lion chatting from my 386 laptop via a satellite connection. That people actually believe any of this never failed to make me laugh.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Please don’t blame whites or the west for this “one Africa” ideology- it comes from the black slave diaspora, starting in America, where a whole mythical Africa was created – one ideal culture-and is in hundreds of books, as well as being the basis for Pan Africanism and the African Renaissance. It is even taught in universities as Egyptology or African Studies.

      The basis is that all civilization and culture started in a black Africa, in Egypt, and spread through the rest of the world.

      Prince William is reported to have said that Americans don’t understand Geography. I agree. The Sahara Desert seperates Egypt from Sub Saharan Africa, and blacks only migrated into Africa after the Sahara Desert formed.

      The fossils found in Africa are those of the ancestors of the Bushmen (San), a small group of whom migrated out of Africa before the Saharan Desert formed.

      Even today there are still about 20 Bushman languages, all completely different.Although there are about 500 Bantu languages – they all come from a common root, called Ur Bantu – which is one of the proofs that the Bushmen were the original people.

    • Levi

      Well said Percy!

    • john carter

      I agree with the author, but please don’t try paint African post-colonial history such a rosy colour, by saying that only a FEW African countries have had leaders who choose to step down or who dont run for life. THAT IS NOT THE TRUTH. unfortunately, so far, and for a myriad of reasons, A democratically elected leader who serves dutifully and doesnt overstay their welcome is very much the exception, not the rule. You are denying history or skewering it to suit your views if you truly believe that.

    • Jack Sparrow

      A good and accurate Thought but of course it ignores the reason why journalists writing about Africa are so lazy. That is because most of the countries have a massive negative in common. Peter Win touched on it and essentially it’s bad leaders and good people that condemn their countries to poverty. Poverty = disinterest. SA is little different in this regard. Oh yeah, and I have travelled and done business in Africa; Maurititius, Namibia and Botswana are vastly different to Zimbabwe, Congo and Angola but the majority are in one word; “dodgy”.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Journalists all write the same rubbish – what their readers want to hear. I have numbers of examples from biographies of how journalists were all too lazy to investigate conflicts in Africa (and Pakistan/Afghanistan) and spent their time on the same stories, boozing it up in the same hotels, with all the other “opposition” journos.

    • david hurst

      Something rings too true here. A criticism of an article, yah. It stinks of everything is cool here, we are teaching Poutrugese, even got a white man as VP, the village tells.
      This is Africa, one country Zambia. SADC. How is Zambia different? Well, lets not talk about that, because Zambia, though a member of SADC, is different. It is indeed perfect. Zambia is not prototypical Africa, where tribalism usurps neo/Chinese colonialism, and eurocentric prejuduces junk in general southern African hand in the cookie jar ie; Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Madigascar, Zim ignore voting, prop up territorialism with Mao’s barrel of the gun, indigination of bantu speakers and spreading of the wealth in Angola. Great article. Africa is not one country. But southern Africa is essentially one situation, and it will be interesting to see Zambia’s and Botswana’s independance from some cold war toilet. When you can speak your mind against the ‘common wisdom’, you are in your space and not just a card-board cut-out of Africa.

    • George Makubalo

      Thanks Percy for the article. However, a few things need to be said about the supposed seamless transfer of power. While Kaunda stepped down after losing to the MMD in 1991 his successor Frederick Chiluba unsuccessfully tried to alter the constitution to allow him to go for a third term. He only stepped down after that proved to be unsuccessful. Yes, Rupiah Banda has stepped down but this is after attempts to rig the elections were thwarted. Further, contrary to your claims that Zambia has strong institutions, Zambia actually has very poor institutions: the judiciary is frequently manipulated by the executive, organs like the Anti-Corruption Commission are also amenable to interferance and the supreme law of the the country, the constitution is frequently changed to suit the whims of those in power. Yes, Zambia has seen transfer of power by different leaders but this has not happened in ideal circumstances,

    • ClaytonM

      Its very true that your article is well tempered, if I were to author such a correction, I wouldn’t have no kind words to the stereotype engineers like The Observer writer. I have heard people from the Western countries asking me if I am on holiday ‘in Africa’ when I tell them that I am in Zimbabwe, a country situated in Southern Africa. Are they implying that the continent is not good for permanant residence?