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What exactly does ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ mean?

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

2012-01-18, Issue 566

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There are 5 comments on this article.

cc Wilfraco
The widespread use of ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ makes no sense and is undoubtedly a racist geopolitical signature.

It appears increasingly fashionable in the West for a number of broadcasters, websites, news agencies, newspapers and magazines, the United Nations/allied agencies and some governments, writers and academics to use the term ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ to refer to all of Africa except the five predominantly Arab states of north Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and the Sudan, a north-central African country. Even though its territory is mostly located south of the Sahara Desert, the Sudan is excluded from the ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ tagging by those who promote the use of the epithet because the regime in power in Khartoum describes the country as ‘Arab’ despite its majority African population.

But the concept ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ is absurd and misleading, if not a meaningless classificatory schema. Its use defies the science of the fundamentals of geography but prioritises hackneyed and stereotypical racist labelling. It is not obvious, on the face of it, which of the four possible meanings of the prefix ‘sub’ its users attach to the ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ labelling. Is it ‘under’ the Sahara Desert or ‘part of’/‘partly’ the Sahara Desert? Or, presumably, ‘partially’/‘nearly’ the Sahara Desert or even the very unlikely (hopefully!) application of ‘in the style of, but inferior to’ the Sahara Desert, especially considering that there is an Arab people sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania (northwest Africa) called Saharan?


The example of South Africa is appropriate here. Prior to the formal restoration of African majority government in 1994, South Africa was never designated ‘sub-Sahara Africa’, unlike the rest of the 13 African-led states in southern Africa, which were also often referred to at the time as the ‘frontline states’. South Africa then was either termed ‘white South Africa’ or the ‘South Africa sub-continent’ (as in the ‘India sub-continent’ usage, for instance), meaning ‘almost’/‘partially’ a continent - quite clearly a usage of ‘admiration’ or ‘compliment’ employed by its subscribers to essentially project and valorise the perceived geostrategic potentials or capabilities of the erstwhile regime.

But soon after the triumph of the African freedom movement there, South Africa became ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ in the quickly adjusted schema of this representation. What happened suddenly to South Africa’s geography for it to be so differently classified? Is it African liberation/rule that renders an African state ‘sub-Sahara’? Does this post-1994 West-inflected South Africa-changed classification make ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ any more intelligible? Interestingly, just as in the South Africa ‘sub-continent’ example, the application of the ‘almost’/‘partially’ or indeed ‘part of’/‘partly’ meaning of prefix ‘sub-’ to ‘Sahara Africa’ focuses unambiguously on the following countries of Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, each of which has 25-75 per cent of its territory (especially to the south) covered by the Sahara Desert. It also focuses on Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and the Sudan, which variously have 25-75 per cent of their territories (to the north) covered by the same desert. In effect, these 10 states would make up sub-Sahara Africa.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the five Arab north Africa countries, do not, correctly, describe themselves as Africans even though they unquestionably habituate African geography, the African continent, since the Arab conquest and occupation of this north one-third of African territory in the 7th century CE. The Western governments, press and the transnational bodies (which are led predominantly by Western personnel and interests) have consistently ‘conceded’ to this Arab cultural insistence on racial identity. Presumably, this accounts for the West’s non-designation of its ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ dogma to these countries as well as the Sudan, whose successive Arab-minority regimes since January 1956 have claimed, but incorrectly, that the Sudan ‘belongs’ to the Arab world. On this subject, the West does no doubt know that what it has been engaged in, all along, is blatant sophistry and not science. This, however, conveniently suits its current propaganda packaging on Africa, which we shall be elaborating on shortly.

It would appear that we still don’t seem to be any closer to establishing, conclusively, what its users mean by ‘sub-Sahara Africa’. Could it, perhaps, just be a benign reference to all the countries ‘under’ the Sahara, whatever their distances from this desert, to interrogate our final, fourth probability? Presently, there are 53 so-called sovereign states in Africa. If the five north Africa Arab states are said to be located ‘above’ the Sahara, then 48 are positioned ‘under’. The latter would therefore include all the five countries mentioned above whose north frontiers incorporate the southern stretches of the desert (namely, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and the Sudan), countries in central Africa (the Congos, Rwanda, Burundi, etc., etc), for instance, despite being 2000-2500 miles away, and even the southern African states situated 3000-3500 miles away. In fact, all these 48 countries, except the Sudan (alas, not included for the plausible reason already cited), which is clearly ‘under’ the Sahara and situated within the same latitudes as Mali, Niger and Chad (i.e., between 10 and 20 degrees north of the equator), are all categorised by the ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ users as ‘sub-Sahara Africa’.


To replicate this obvious farce of a classification elsewhere in the world, the following random exercise is not such an indistinct scenario for universal, everyday, referencing:

1. Australia hence becomes ‘sub-Great Sandy Australia’ after the hot deserts that cover much of west and central Australia.

2. East Russia, east of the Urals, becomes ‘sub-Siberia Asia’.

3. China, Japan and Indonesia are reclassified ‘sub-Gobi Asia’.

4. Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam become ‘sub-Himalaya Asia’.

5. All of Europe is ‘sub-Arctic Europe’.

6. Most of England, central and southern counties, is renamed ‘sub-Pennines Europe’.

7. East/southeast France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia are ‘sub-Alps Europe’.

8. The Americas become ‘sub-Arctic Americas’.

9. All of South America, south of the Amazon, is proclaimed ‘sub-Amazon South America’; Chile could be ‘sub-Atacama South America’.

10. Most of New Zealand’s South Island is renamed ‘sub-Southern Alps New

11. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama become ‘sub-Rocky North America’.

12. The entire Caribbean becomes ‘sub-Appalachian Americas’.


So, rather than some benign construct, ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ is, in the end, an outlandish nomenclatural code that its users employ to depict an African-led ‘sovereign’ state - anywhere in Africa, as distinct from an Arab-led one. More seriously to the point, ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ is employed to create the stunning effect of a supposedly shrinking African geographical landmass in the popular imagination, coupled with the continent’s supposedly attendant geostrategic global ‘irrelevance’.

‘Sub-Sahara Africa’ is undoubtedly a racist geopolitical signature in which its users aim repeatedly to present the imagery of the desolation, aridity, and hopelessness of a desert environment. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of one billion Africans do not live anywhere close to the Sahara, nor are their lives so affected by the implied impact of the very loaded meaning that this dogma intends to convey. Except this steadily pervasive use of ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ is robustly challenged by rigorous African-centred scholarship and publicity work, its proponents will succeed, eventually, in substituting the name of the continent ‘Africa’ with ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ and the name of its peoples, ‘Africans’, with ‘sub-Sahara Africans’ or, worse still, ‘sub-Saharans’ in the realm of public memory and reckoning.


* Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is the author of ‘Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature’. (Dakar and Reading: African Renaissance, 2011)
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

That's very interesting discussing such a terminology, but have we also seriously thought of another term "dark or black continent" coined by historians and widely used by academics across the world? Which part of this world is dark, black, red, yellow and/or green?
We are in modern world and certain old terms must necessarily change just as we don't use Afro-American instead African American.

Buziness Africa

Herbert Ekwe is right.Sub-Saharan Africa means Black Africa,period.

This classification may have been regarded as benign geographical category. However, as Ekwe as highlighted succinctly here, it is a protean category that is defined by who (is taken to be) ruling some piece of the Motherland.

"MA World History's " comments above are laced with paternalism, vile indignation or sheer ignorance:

a) The term "Arab" is today in the popular imagination taken to mean the pale skinned people who answer to this appellation.

b)" Arab" is not a homogeneous language and cultural group unless Islam comes to play.

C) Pursuant to the above, it is a fact that most "Arabs" are Black-from Africa all the way to the " middle-east".

D) during the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, the Persian, Turks and sundry tribes of middle eastern origin(read the "atypical arab" of today) swept into Egypt (Kemet) spreading east and south.

However, these invaders were checked in their southern incursions deeper into the motherland. Their commentators dubbed these difficult areas "Bint el Sudan", land of the Blacks.

When the Europeans came into the continent, their interest and those of the atypical Arabs dovetailed as far as obfuscation of African interests were concerned.

This is why for example you find even universities in "sub-saharan" Africa grouping Ancient Kemet (Egypt ), a Black African creation from at least 5000 years ago- with "Middle Eastern" civilizations like Mesopotamia!

This subterfuge by european "Egyptologists" and their "atypical Arab" associates has robed generations of Black children in Africa and the diaspora ignorant of their classical civilization and in dangerous awe of ancient Greece and Rome. It has warped the minds of European and middle eastern children by encouraging an assumption that their forefathers helped bring civilization to degenerate Africans.

So this sub-Saharan coding has a sinister purpose and I agree that only Afrikan agency in writing our story will erase such mischief.

Mboya Ogutu

You will not have any debate from me about the ongoing significance of racism in global relations. 'Sub-Saharan' can have somewhat useful, if limited, analytical value - of a sort i briefly discussed in an article on Pambazuka last year. Your argument could actually be extended to challenge the creation of 'Africa' as a continent separate from the middle east and the Mediterranean world. These distinctions of course did not exist prior to the 16th century.

Toby Moorsom

"Could it, perhaps, just be a benign reference to all the countries ‘under’ the Sahara?" this is exactly it. The Sahara, for most geographical intents, is a sea, the sahel, literally, its shore. Between ancient mediterranean and later arabic influences, the northern part of Africa has had a vastly different history than that of most of the rest of africa. Would you deny this? if not, how is differentiating between the two a meaningless exercise?

my entire academic career was focused on east africa, and I have never once heard someone refer to Sudan as anything but subsaharan. In fact, I can remember articles in both the NYT and the WaPo that have had map insets of the "sahel".

Lets see how the occupynigeria thing pans out, in the off chance news outlets begin to describe an African Spring for all that has occurred over the past 14 months. it could happen.

finally, most westerners with some knowledge of Africa have a vague understanding of the Bantu migration. That event (episode? socio-demographic shift?) encapsulates upwards of 80% of sub-saharan Africa, yes? In many ways "sub-saharan" is short-hand for "bantu-ized" Africa.

For you to write a article dismissing the use of "sub-sahara" without bothering to discuss the Sahel or the Bantu migration is ridiculous, ignorant, and doesn't help your cause among other academics.

cheers :)

MA-world history

I have always disliked the use of this terminology exactly for the reasons outlined here. I told my students in development economics that I found the phrase to be inaccurate in every connotation it implies and can only be a racist classification. Therefore, I did not and will not use it! I urge every one, especially Africans everywhere including governments and the African Union, to please stop using this phrase and say what they mean in a more appropriate terminology.

Michael Yigzaw

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