In May 2000 the global news and business magazine, The Economist, published a sensational cover story that focused on Africa. The cover of the magazine carried a picture of a militiaman, with a rocket launcher on his shoulder, transposed on to a map of the continent.

The simple yet depressing cover line read: “The hopeless continent.”

The story the magazine carried was just as brutal, with a tinge of droll colonial condescension, self-satisfaction and perhaps racism: “Since January, Mozambique and Madagascar have been deluged by floods, famine has started to reappear in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe has succumbed to government-sponsored thuggery, and poverty and pestilence continue unabated. Most seriously, wars still rage from north to south and east to west. No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent’s shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African — brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere — but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them. The outrage over that cover story — what does “for reasons buried in their cultures” mean when there is no mention of centuries of colonial subjugation? — continues to this day in academic journals and debates. This week, I wondered what The Economist...

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