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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.

Comments (9)

  • Bisi's picture

    This is a well written article, and it is very educating. It always amazes how easy we conform to western labels without us knowing how political it actually is.

    Jul 08, 2017
  • Anastasis Theandropolis's picture
    Anastasis Thean...

    I had a similar pet peeve about the declaration that winter "starts" on Dec 21st in the northern hemisphere, or Europe being classified as a "continent" when I was a child in grade school. What is a continent? If we look at the majority of regions that are classified as "continents", they are North and South America, Africa and Asia. Australia has been classified as an island, and Europe as a continent. If you look at the 4 unambiguous cases, you will see that the characteristics are 1) a very large land mass 2) mostly surrounded by ocean. Australia fits this categorization while Europe does not. So why was Europe ever classified as a "continent"?!?! I suspect a case of Freudian continent envy. At best it might be classified as a sub-continent like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If there is such a thing as "sub-continent". Your opinion piece on "Sub-Saharan Africa" had numerous logically sound and interesting points, which I enjoyed and agreed with. However, the total of your points do not equal your wild-eyed conclusions. Myself and the people I know aren't as devious as you seem to assume. I think most people who might ever use the term "sub-Saharan", mean it simply as it does at the one point in your pieice where you suggest: " a benign reference to all the countries ‘under’ the Sahara" or in my words , "non-Muslim-dominated Africa". As a linguist, I learned long ago that people are unanalytical and uncritical in their use of language and include all kinds of technically factual errors in their day to day speech, like "I flew to Tehran at sunrise". People don't fly, planes do; and the sun doesn't rise, but the earth revolves.

    Feb 16, 2018
  • Mrs. Saby J Jimenez (SHOBBE)'s picture
    Mrs. Saby J Jim...

    I have been against labeling since my interests in education as a student and educator. However, I've learned through DNA testing where my ancestry lies. I was raised with Hispanic grandparents and learns recently that I'm 59% Sub-Saharan. I'm not sure of which country in Africa but I am. I can understand your frustration, but I'm glad to learn where my roots lie in Africa and Europe primarily.

    Mar 13, 2018
  • adam.bloomfield's picture

    I also did a DNA test which has since made my own personal research into DNA structure / roots / splicing ect. very interesting. I came back with 61% Touareg (Fezzan) on my mother line... I have recently found that humans are not all the same, we have Subspecies categories due to the mutations within our DNA... hense we are not "all the same species" etc. But one thing is true, we can all try to treat each other with mutual care and respect...

    Aug 03, 2018
  • Omamir's picture

    Thank you for the article although I think you make some generalizations that I disagree with. I've always been offended by the racist designation "Sub-Saharan." I am Egyptian and am very clear that we are indigenous African people, there long before the Arabs. Arabs had varying degrees of mixing with the people across Africa. While they did bring Islam and the Arabic language, they did not change the race of the diverse tribes nor erase the rich heritage across the land. There are many of us who understand this, and do not consider ourselves Arab because of it, any more than an African who is Christian and speaks English and eats hamburgers would consider themselves English. Don't commit the same error of the oppressor in trying to make your point!

    Jun 30, 2018
  • richie.batra's picture

    I don't see a problem here. People Say South Asia, East Asia. I'm an American citizen of Indian origin. My wife is an American of Filipina origin. SO while we are both Asian-Americans, she is an East-Asian American, while I am a South-Asian American. SImilarly, there are terms like "Latin America", which refer to countries in the Americas which are predominantly Spanish Speaking. Not seeing what the problem is. People refer to Southern Europe, Western Europe, Eastern Europe. Every single thing does not always have to be racist, you Know.

    Jul 25, 2018
  • adam.bloomfield's picture

    I'm not so sure the term Sub-Sahara, is supposed to be derogatory, per say, from my knowledge its main linkage is to do with DNA structures within the human Subraces? which 100% do exist, also the bottom part of the article, which could be described as reactive and petulant, is subsequently incorrect. I fail to see how this term of Sub-Saharan is considered offensive?? Strange and very negative article, seeping in bias, the very thing the author was so intent on discrediting / criticising.

    Aug 03, 2018
  • Mental and Floss's picture
    Mental and Floss

    Very interesting article. Unfortunately, there's a history of European Scientific Racism and Colonialism when it comes to Africa and its inhabitants (Black and Non-Black). So, it would be naive not to consider the role racism played archaeologically and politically. Having said that, the use of the classification "Sub-Saharan Africa" does warrant further examination. The term has geopolitical racist undertones because it perceptively divides (or divided) the continent into three separate geographical areas according to race: North Africa (non-black government rule), Sub-Saharan Africa (black government rule), and South Africa (pre-liberation white government rule). The consequence of which is that Africa isn't, or rather, hasn't been seen by the West to be ONE complete continent. But instead, Africa has historically been seen as three "unconnected territories." And now that South Africa is black government ruled and considered a "Sub-Saharan" nation, Africa is perceived as two unconnected territories (i.e., North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa). So there is a basis to contend that the use of the "Sub-Saharan Africa" classification is indeed racist.

    Sep 07, 2018
  • ET's picture

    To me as an art historian, the term Sub-Sahara is neither racially tinted nor politically or religiously. It is very clear that the art of the "Above" Saharan countries and cultures are influenced by the Mediterranean world (e.g. Greece was influenced by Egypt) and have very little in common with the "Sub" Saharan concept of artistic expressions. Another good example of such a divide would be China and Tibet - separated by the Himalayas. Even though China now occupies Tibet and forms a political unit, Tibetan culture (religion and art) was formed independently from China and is much closer related to India or Nepal. Perhaps, not all uses should be lumped in that one "racist" basket. Thanks. ET

    Sep 29, 2018