Aristotle and Africa

aristotle in africa

Bryn Vaydik

If you have paid attention to any news outlet in the past year or even in the past week, you have probably seen a story about an African country that is either in poverty or turmoil, and most times both. Africa has seen its fair share of problems making it a continent crippled by a history of colonization. When Africa was colonized, borders were redrawn which forced tribes to become lumped together with others who had nothing in common with them other than their geographic location. Tensions obviously arose and many of the civil wars in African countries can be attributed to the colonial borders. For many more years, Africa became deprived of their strongest people during the slave trade which brought them out of their home countries and onto western lands. Although Africa’s history has undoubtedly made it weaker, it has not eradicated the continent’s hopes of building a better future. The focus has now been shifted from “What was wrong with Africa?” to “What IS wrong with Africa? And what can be done to help?”
One quick-fix solution that can be seen frequently is foreign aid going to African countries. That African country is impoverished and people do not have money to support themselves. So countries like America give financial aid to the governments of these countries in the hopes that this money will go to fund beneficial programs that can lift them out of poverty. Now here’s the problem. What happens when the governments do not use that money for beneficial programs? What happens when greed rules over the leaders? What happens when the best interest of the citizens is being ignored for the sake of the rulers? The answer is right in front of us as it has been for years: Africa stays exactly the same.
Poor countries in Africa are receiving money in foreign aid, yet because the leaders of their governments are unwilling to invest in their own country’s futures, the people suffer. Aristotle states in The Politics that “the state is composite, like any other whole made up of many parts”. Aristotle believes that the state, a system that is unique to human beings because of our ability to reason, is comprised of all of the citizens as well as those who govern them. It can be extrapolated by Aristotle’s definition of a state being a composition of many parts that each part plays an important role. The citizens and the government must work together in order to function harmoniously.

His definition of a state can be applied to any country, for example Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe assumed his position in 1987 and has been manipulating his people and his country for more than 20 years. Mugabe’s crimes include, but are not limited to, rigging elections, extortion, and bribery. All of these actions have been done in order to keep him in office. Mugabe’s outrageous price controls made inflation skyrocket until “an American dollars was worth fifty-five Zimbabwe dollars” (Guest 35). Mugabe had been taking money from foreign aid and rather than putting it into sound, domestic economic programs, treated himself and his fellow bureaucrats to lavish rewards and houses. When Aristotle states that “those [governments] which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms”, he must have had a state similar to that of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in mind (Aristotle).

Not only does Aristotle believe that the state is necessary for life, but he even goes as far as to say that the “state exists for the sake of a good life”(Aristotle). If the state, the composition of the citizens and the government, exists so that man can live a good life, all parts of the state must be in agreement of what a good life is. This is where Mugabe and his people differ. Mugabe’s people have been living under his “democracy” for nearly 3 decades now, with little opportunities to rid him of his title. They have suffered staggering inflation as well as shortages of basic needs. Their idea of a good life is one where they have all of their basic needs met; this is not what they are getting. Mugabe’s idea of a good life is one where he keeps his position as President and can take foreign aid and spend it on a new house for himself while the needs of his citizens remain at the back of his mind. How then can this state be good if its two components disagree fundamentally on what they are entitled to?

The complete disregard for the well-being of their citizens is perhaps the most significant reason that African governments are failing. African tyrannical leaders like Mugabe, who through election rigging and threats has perverted their democracy into nothing short of a dictatorship, are preventing their citizens from reaching their final ends. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concludes that a object’s final end is when it can exercise its faculties and perform its function. He says that human’s ability to reason and to rationalize is what set us apart from animals. If this is true, then man’s final end is exercising his ability to reason and think rationally. This is what he refers to as a life of contemplation.
With this idea of man’s final end in mind, Aristotle states “our nature does not itself provide all that is necessary for contemplation; the body must be in health, and supplied with food, and otherwise cared for”(Aristotle).

This statement gives support to the idea that if the Zimbabwean government is not adequately providing for its citizens because of their disagreement on what is truly good for the state directly prevents them from reaching their final end and therefore degrades them as human beings. In 2003, “everyone [in Zimbabwe] ate less, and children dropped out of school to grow maize on patches of wasteland” (Guest 27) and because inflation was so high, it was nearly impossible to buy new clothes, medicine, and fuel. This same year, Mugabe’s wife, Sally Hayfron, had her mansion knocked down and rebuilt while the normal citizens of Zimbabwe were suffering. They were being deprived of their basic needs, needs that could have been met had President Mugabe allocated money in the right places. Mugabe’s inability to recognize the needs of people led to their suffering, impeding them from reaching a life of contemplation and the importance of them reaching their final end as human beings was demeaned a minor insignificance.
It is important to acknowledge that not every African government is like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and that there is progress being made in other countries. When the state as a whole, both government and citizens agree on what is truly good for the man, they are able to create a system that is capable of leading all those in the state to a well-nourished life of contemplation. A perfect example can be seen in Zimbabwe’s neighboring country, Botswana. Botswana received a swell of foreign aid after its independence in 1966. Mostly all government investments were funded by aid, and in 1971 “aid was equivalent to 98% of state revenue” (Guest 155). Since then, Botswana has had the fastest growing economy in the world. How is the aid that Botswana has received different from that of Zimbabwe? Quite simply, it isn’t. The difference lies in where the money is being allocated. Botswana’s openness to trade and low inflation has allowed its economy to thrive and consequentially, the people have thrived too. Botswana is an example that aid can work, only if governments are willing to spend the money on sound economic policies with their people’s well-being in mind.

Botswana gives an example of what Aristotle believes to be a good state. All the parts of the state are in agreement on what is good for the man, and because the man is well cared for, he is able to exercise his faculties and his ability to reason. However, Botswana is a small country and this is a small victory. As of now, it is very difficult to find governments in African countries that are willing to do what Botswana has done, but it is not impossible. If the African states are able to agree on an Aristotelian idea of what is truly good for the man and what is good for the state, prosperity is definitely attainable in the future.

Works Cited

Guest, Robert. The Shackled Continent. London: Macmillan, 2004. Print.


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