Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kidding Ourselves About Colonialism

Elliot Ross recently published a piece at the blog Africa is a Country titled “Even after the Mau Mau case the British will never stop kidding themselves about the crimes of empire”.  The subject of the article was a case brought by several torture victims of Britain’s 1950s struggle against Kenyan anti-colonialists.  The British government paid out some paltry compensation, fudged an apology, and allowed the right-wing jingo press to carry on spinning the myth of a kind, gentle, civilising empire, on which the setting of the sun was a tragic global event.

Cecil Rhodes, who built a corporate empire in Africa
To understand why it remains so easy for the British government and public to engage in such national delusion, it might be helpful to scrutinise the leader of another country which shows a signal unwillingness to be self-critical about its own imperial hubris or the violence of its global hegemony. 

Before a July 2009 visit to Ghana, President Barack Obama—yes, the socialist, Islamist, fascist, secularist, anti-colonial Kenyan leader of the United States—declared (as reported by Britain’s Daily Telegraph) that “ultimately, I’m a big believe that Africans are responsible for Africa”.  He went on, in an address that won him plaudits not only from predictable quarters in the U.S. and Europe, but from more than a few Africans I know, “I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism—I’m not a big—I’m not a believer in excuses”.

Citing a specific example, the President reflected, “And yet the fact is we’re in 2009, the West and the United States has not been responsible for what’s happened to Zimbabwe’s economy over the last 15 or 20 years”.  Obama prefaced his remarks about Zimbabwe above with this, “I’d say I’m probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who’s occupied my office”.

I suspect that he’s right.  Because of his heritage, he will know something about Africa’s experience of colonialism, and doubtlessly spent time reading about Kenya’s history, and perhaps that of the continent.  And because of his relative youth, he will have been fed a slightly less noxious version of the West’s recent engagement with Africa, one which perhaps allowed for the violence of colonialism, instead of dwelling on self-serving (and manifestly false) versions of its benevolence.

And yet the President’s slipshod Americanisation of Africa’s history (hard work, self-responsibility, omission of structural inequities) rings if anything more hollowly than when applied to our own unequal society. 

I’m sure that the publics of many an African nation would be happy with a state of affairs in which “Africans are responsible for Africa”.  But such a scenario exists neither in practical political terms, nor in the more sweeping economic provisos which structure our world.  European interference in African affairs did not end as colonial bureaucrats and functionaries withdrew across three bloody decades. 

And neither the armies nor the industries of European countries departed as the flags fluttered down at glittery independence celebrations.  In fact, the two as-yet-unrealised departures go hand in hand.  European powers—joined during the 1960s by the United States—intervened to protect commercial interests, to overthrow politically-unpalatable leaders, and to engineer an economic bonanza for the arms industry. 

How could a country like the Congo take responsibility for its own fate when its chosen leader was deposed by an uneasy coalition of Belgian soldiers, American agents, and UN ‘peacekeepers’?  When its chosen form of government was subverted by Belgian financial and military backing for southern secessionists who just happened to be sitting on extraordinary mineral wealth?  When its people proved unable to exercise self-government because of the misrule of a dictator backed by successive U.S. presidents because of his vapid anti-communism?  When its administrative structures continue to be suborned by U.S.-backed incursions from neighbouring nations?   When its extraordinary wealth in natural resources remains off-limits to its people because that wealth is being plundered by multi-national corporations?

And what of Zimbabwe?  When the country’s British colonisers drifted towards an acceptance of the principle of majority-rule in the ‘60s, white Rhodesians declared themselves independent, and ran an apartheid-style regime backed by the South African government (which was in turn armed by European and American arms companies).  After a lengthy civil war, an agreement was signed in 1980 whereby Britain promised to finance the gradual redistribution of farmland from the white minority to those who had been dispossessed of the same land by that minority, by chartered companies, and by colonial authorities.  In the ‘90s, Tony Blair reneged on that agreement, infuriating Zimbabweans and leading Robert Mugabe to do exactly what Obama would have us believe he would like him to do—assert his responsibility over his own country.

Instead, Britain—driven by a deluded, fanatical, messianic Prime Minister (who probably has more in common with Mugabe than he’d care to admit) and a jingo press nostalgic for the days when African upstarts could be put in their place by a rattling of imperial sabres—and the United States led the effort to impose the sanctions which have crippled the Zimbabwean economy and plunged it into turmoil.  Mugabe is decidedly not a good-guy—in the 1980s the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade massacred political opponents (many of whom were framed by the apartheid government in Pretoria) for non-existent subversion—but his cry of “So Blair, keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe”, is one which reflects the wish of many a Zimbabwean as well as a certain historical reality, and the West bears as much responsibility for the state of the Zimbabwean economy as does ZANU-PF.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, with varying degrees of success, African leaders—many of them with impressive intellectual pedigrees—tried to follow Obama’s advice and build economic structures and frameworks which serviced the needs of their people instead of the economies of Europe and America.  In some places these proved to be failed experiments.  In others, while such experiments didn’t usher in an industrial revolution or ensure mass prosperity, societies did see improvements in the standard of living, the growth of more responsive institutions, a more equitable distribution of wealth, and comparative social harmony. 

But in the 1980s, in the name of political and economic reform, institutions representing global capital proceeded to re-colonise African economies, imposing stringent controls on autonomous economic management, generating a cycle of debt, imposing destructive privatization, paving the way for the onslaught of multi-national corporations, and disciplining political leaders who sought to deviate from economic paths laid down in the financial capitals of the West. 

Corruption and poor-governance certainly exist in Africa.  But to suggest that we ignore the links between these features and the legacies of colonialism and the current realities of neo-colonialism is wrong-headed at best and malicious at worst.  Colonialism was corrupt—far from granting good governance, it relied on Catonistic patronage networks, on the performance of periodic acts of spectacular brutality, on the enshrinement of arbitrariness, on the need to unquestioningly accept dictates based on the whims of colonial officers granted sweeping authority without oversight, and in its final decade on the substitution of technical “expertise” for democratic governance.

Over the decades since formal decolonisation, the West has sent conflicting signals, propping up dictators where necessary; issuing diktats about good governance where it feels the luxury of doing so; telling Africans to “take responsibility” one minute; imposing political, economic, and social straitjackets the next; talking about the need to try war criminals in one breath; prosecuting its own terroristic war moments later.  These actions, sometimes taken unilaterally by American or European governments, sometimes promulgated through institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and the United Nations, create a climate of uncertainty and instability, incompatible with good governance and self-driven development, replicating as they do the calculatedly arbitrary and exploitative nature of colonial rule.

Billed as a dose of the hard-truth, Obama’s remarks actually exhibit either extraordinary ignorance or cynical denial about the true relationship between Africa and the West.  His words, so incompatible with reality, also help to permit the perpetuation of fantasies about the “good old days” when Europeans ruled Africa with a kind hand and a quiet word.  The problem isn’t that Africans are unwilling to put some distance between themselves and their past.  It’s rather that the institutions, agents, and interests which made that past so difficult haven’t gone anywhere.

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