What is “sub-Saharan Africa” exactly?
by Robin Dixon on April 6, 2012
article published earlier this year from Pambazuka News circulated
quickly around the Firelight office. Pambazuka took on the term
“sub-Saharan Africa” with a well-done outline of its history and debated
the use of the term. We hear critiques of the term every now and then
so we’re posting the article here for you to read too and join our
Let us know what you think.
“What Exactly Does ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ Mean?
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
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?
PRE-LIBERATION SOUTH AFRICA
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
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’.
2012 WORLDWIDE CLASSIFICATORY SCHEMA?
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:
- Australia hence becomes ‘sub-Great Sandy Australia’ after the hot deserts that cover much of west and central Australia.
- East Russia, east of the Urals, becomes ‘sub-Siberia Asia’.
- China, Japan and Indonesia are reclassified ‘sub-Gobi Asia’.
- Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam become ‘sub-Himalaya Asia’.
- All of Europe is ‘sub-Arctic Europe’.
Most of England, central and southern counties, is renamed ‘sub-Pennines Europe’.
East/southeast France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia are ‘sub-Alps Europe’.
- The Americas become ‘sub-Arctic Americas’.
- All of South America, south of the Amazon, is proclaimed ‘sub-Amazon South America’; Chile could be ‘sub-Atacama South America’.
- Most of New Zealand’s South Island is renamed ‘sub-Southern Alps New Zealand’.
Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama become ‘sub-Rocky North America’.
- 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