Archive for the ‘Colonialism’ Category

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

February 4, 2010

A new generation of humanitarians and philanthropists has been reading such damning news reports about Africa for so long that it thinks the continent has to be saved. If they were asked what Africa has to be saved from, they would list any number of devils: poverty, disease, famine, drought, environmental degradation, civil war, tribalism, genocide, corruption, exploitation.

Though it is hard to find any lingering evidence of it, there was a time when the future of Africa was described in generally optimistic terms. Independence rolled across the continent with a forceful euphoria, violently shoving aside the old colonial order. Economies had been growing wildly across the continent, buoyed by global industrial expansion. Africa was known to possess vast untapped stores of natural resources. Labor was cheap. Infrastructure, thanks to colonial development projects, was better than ever. Even archaeology was on Africa’s side, as the Leakey family found fossils proving the continent to be the birthplace of all humans. Africa’s future was at least as promising as the developing regions of Latin America and East Asia, and many economic experts considered its prospects to be better than its peers.

In order to honestly assess what it is that Africa must be saved from, it is important to know what happened to so drastically change the continent’s prospects. If Africa was at some point shortly after independence beset by uninvited and unavoidable external calamities, then it would probably be accurate to say that Africa now has to be saved from whichever of these calamities are still lingering. If, on the other hand, Africa courted its own disaster, then would it not be more accurate to say that Africa now needs to be saved from itself? Or that Africa needs to save itself?

Africa has two fundamental problems: the ludicrous borders it inherited from colonialism and the persistent uselessness of its rulers. All of its many other troubles derive from these two.

The first problem, its borders, is a done deal. After nearly fifty years of independence they cannot be changed. Kenya is Kenya, whether or not it ever should have been. There has been exactly one change to the political boundaries in Africa since the independence era, the birth of Eritrea in 1993. The charter of the African Union unequivocally affirms the territorial integrity of all African countries.

Unlike so many of Europe’s wars, which historically have involved one country trying to expand into the territory of another, Africa’s many wars have been largely internal. The typical African war involves a dictator psychotically guarding power and territory from the advances of one or more revolutionary or secessionist militias (or, conversely, one or more psychotic militias fighting to wrest power and territory from the incumbent dictator.) Though African governments rarely fight wars across borders, neighboring states often support each other’s opponents. Throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia hosted the Sudan People’s Liberation Army while Sudan supported the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. At the same time, South Africa’s African National Congress was operating from rear bases in Mozambique and Angola while the apartheid government in South Africa supported RENAMO in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola. While African despots are happy to support rebels seeking to overthrow other, disliked, African despots, none are willing to support any changes to the continent’s international boundaries. This is for a very good reason: no African tyrant wants to support a precedent that might eventually lead to his own loss of territory.

Occasionally, though less often, one African country invades another. Rwanda invaded Congo twice in the 1990s. The second time Ugandan soldiers joined the Rwandese, while Angola and Zimbabwe fought on the side of the failing Congolese government in what became known as Africa’s World War. Both times Rwandan troops tried to obscure their involvement in the conflict by disguising themselves as an indigenous rebel movement from eastern Congo. Similarly, Liberian warlord Charles Taylor secretly sent a proxy militia of drugged orphan teenagers into Sierra Leone as the Revolutionary United Front. Both occupations were largely about plunder. Taylor stole diamonds from Sierra Leone while Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe ravaged all of the Congo’s vast natural resources, including diamonds, timber, bauxite, coltan, copper, and gold. Never did any of these countries state a territorial claim to the land they occupied. No one suggested that the borders of either Congo or Sierra Leone had been altered.

Through no fault of its own, Africa has been locked into its contrived borders. It is less easy to say that Africa bears no responsibility for the parasitic rulers who have leeched the continent of much of its potential. It is often stated that governments derive their sovereignty from their people, and that therefore governments are responsible to those people. But is it not also true that people are responsible for their governments?

For more than fifty years African countries have failed to install but the very odd and infrequent decent or even legitimate government. The occasional tyrant or idiot can be forgiven as a fluke, but if Africa allows or actively installs three consecutive generations of insanely corrupt and dangersous governments, then that is firmly the fault of African populations, and it is firmly the responsibility of those populations to find the right formula for establishing at least tolerable governments.

Consider the following sobering facts from The State of Africa by Martin Meredith:

• In 1980, at the age of 74 and after twenty years as the president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor “became the first African leader since independence to give up power voluntarily” (page 271).
• By the end of the 1980s, “of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power.” Three of the six had ruled for more than twenty years (page 379).
• In 1991, “Benin became the first African state in which the army was forced from power by civilians and the first in which an incumbent president was defeated at the polls” (page 389).

Though African citizens are ultimately responsible for their own governments, they are not helped by the international aid industry which makes partners of even the most corrupt and greedy African despots. Donors shower African governments in aid money, fully aware that much of that money goes directly to the personal wealth of corrupt politicians and the accounts of officials tasked with maintaining the incumbent clique’s stranglehold on power. Nimble, savvy dictators have learned that when western donors insist on democratic reform, what they really mean is the façade or semblance of reform. Elections must be held, but a fraudulent one is just as good as a legitimate one. If somehow the fraud fails, then the backup plan is to cook an election crisis which inevitably ends with a power sharing agreement. The new vogue in African democracy, in a power sharing agreement the election itself is discarded, the incumbent remains in power, and the challenger – almost certainly the actual victor – is thrown a bone. It is the ultimate insult to democracy, made all the more revolting when lauded internationally as a restrained, peaceful governmental transition. Are Africa’s standards now so low that all the world hopes for is the electoral equivalent of a fire drill, just testing the systems to see how badly they may fail should an actual democratic transition be attempted?

Western governments willfully support Africa’s broken form of democracy. It is common rhetoric that the west cannot use its aid money to influence the outcome of foreign elections, yet it is common knowledge that aid money is siphoned by the ruling party and used to ensure an indefinite stranglehold on power. Western donors need to openly acknowledge that any contribution to an African government is indirectly a donation to the ruling party.

Recognizing that the carrot of international aid money is not working to lure African governments towards democratic reform, a stick should be found and used alongside it. One option would be for western donors to openly threaten to donate to opposition groups. Since all donations to Africa are in effect political contributions, donors should feel free to give to the candidate most likely to represent democratic values, which in Africa is almost always the challenger. Direct contributions to challengers may offset some of the enormous handicaps they often face contesting rigged elections. Ideally the incumbent would realize that only by instituting true reform would that lost money be returned.

Foreign aid has contributed to many of Africa’s most infamous catastrophes. Ethiopia’s tragic famine in the 1980s was a politically orchestrated crisis designed to weaken opposition populations; aid food and money allowed the government to turn feeding centers into concentration camps, famously draining the sea to kill the fish. At the same time, in Somalia, the government used aid money to resettle refugees related to the ruling family to some of the most fertile land in the country; the rival clan that was displaced by the refugees eventually toppled the government in 1991, igniting the war which is still burning today. During the cold war, aid was used to prop up a succession of friendly dictators throughout the continent, American money famously going to tyrants like Mobutu in the Congo and “Chairman Moe” in Liberia; both countries later imploded when the Cold War ended and America largesse ceased, pulling the footstool of aid out from under the noosed rulers. In hindsight it is easy to see how each good intention paved a few more miles of the road to hell.

But in the end the international community is not responsible for reversing Africa’s run of abominable rulers. Africans are, and if democracy continues to fail then perhaps it should be discarded. “Whenever any … government becomes destructive … it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it … [and] … when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Many African peoples are perpetually in the course of human events calling for revolution.

The sad reality, however, is that most of Africa’s most heroic and inspiring reformers are quickly corrupted absolutely once they have won the absolute power that comes with ruling an African country. Nelson Mandela is the obvious, and perhaps the only, exception; more numerous are those who prove the rule: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Yoweri Museveni, Isaias Afwerki, …

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Castles in the African Sky

July 10, 2009

Countries build skyscrapers to announce their ascendance. Industrialized America in the early twentieth century was the first to do so, building the first several of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Now it is the new economies of Asia and the Middle East leapfrogging each other to the top – first Malaysia, now China, Taiwan, and Dubai.

The new countries of independent Africa announced themselves differently. Colonialism taught a form of government in which one central and powerful person ruled firmly and lived lavishly. Upon independence, new states acted quickly to emulate such audacious and autocratic government. After years of grand rhetoric about equality and prosperity for all Africans, new rulers rapidly and shamelessly seized all the same trappings of power and wealth as had been enjoyed by the departing Europeans. Many of the new heads of state moved immediately into the empty homes and offices of the former colonial governors. Euphoric populations allowed and even encouraged them to do so, pleased with the obvious symbolism.

Kwame Nkrumah, who in 1957 led Ghana to become the first independent country in black Africa, occupied Christiansborg Castle. Jomo Kenyatta claimed State House, in Kenya. Other rulers constructed new, more modern, palaces and gardens. Among the most flamboyant was the one built, with foreign aid money, by Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte D’Ivoire. Most international guests reported being appalled at the grandiose estate. Ivoirians, on the hand, were proud to display such an impressive mark of independence. One local journalist wrote of the home, “It makes me thrilled to be an Ivory Coast citizen.”

The birth of the Big Man was blessed, even midwifed, by the population he would plunder. Decades later, most Africans now resent the decadence of their rulers. The ubiquitous greed and corruption of Africa’s tyrants is truly and literally heartbreaking. What is remarkable and impressive is the resilience and humor of the many millions of other Africans.

What I choose to focus on any given day largely determines whether I love or hate the continent. When I read the newspaper, which every day is full of stories of scandal and graft, I feel sad, angry, and impotent. If it is depressing even for me, I always wonder, how must my African friends feel. I can only imagine the longterm psychological consequences of such persistent political frustration and powerlessness. Immense anger and resentment must be roiling and steaming inside everyone.

Yet everyone continues to joke and to laugh. Music plays on every street, and the continent continues to dance with a full, deep vitality. It is this robust spirit which makes it so inspiring to be in Africa. As the optimism of independence faded across the continent, a senior diplomat at the Organization of African Unity lamented, “Our ancient continent is on the brink of disaster, hurtling towards the abyss of confrontation, caught in the grip of violence, sinking into the dark night of bloodshed and death … Gone are the smiles, the joys of life.” But, miraculously in my opinion, the smiles and joys are not gone. When I remember to look through the muck of politics to see them, I am very happy to be in Africa.

The Scramble

April 4, 2008

The international borders of Africa are notoriously contrived.  To quote Martin Meredith in the Introduction to his book The State of Africa:


“The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognito.  When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground.  Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines, or arcs of circles.  In some cases, African societies were rent apart: the Bakongo were partitioned between French Congo, Belgian Congo, and Portuguese Angola; Somaliland was carved up between Britain, Italy, and France.  In all, the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups.  In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language, or religion.  Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethnolinguistic groups.  Officials sent to the Belgian Congo eventually identified six thousand chiefdoms there.” 


A few sentences later, the author mentions a particularly insidious and damaging effect of the carving up: “Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as the Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony.  In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south – Sudan, Chad, Nigeria – throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.” 


For a little meaningful color, he includes a quote from Lord Salisbury, the former Prime Minister of Britain: “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.”


“By the time the Scramble for Africa was over,” the author concludes, “some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates.”


And, pointedly: “Thus were born the modern states of Africa.” 


Defining dysfunctional states like Congo, Sudan, and Somalia, and promising countries like South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya, these colonial boundaries still exist, and they still confound.


In another remarkable text, John Reader adds explanation and consequence to his description of the Scramble.  The ambitious scope of the work is aptly suggested by its title, Africa: A Biography of the Continent.  The author suggests that “It was Africa’s misfortune…to have been colonized at a time when the concept of the ‘nation state’ was firmly entrenched as a primary determinant of the historical process,” a time when Europe itself was experiencing “convulsions of nation-building.”  The European colonial powers forced the idea of the nation state on their colonies in Africa, no matter how wanton or painful the process.  The effect of this amalgamation of ethnicities into centralized states is clear and tragic more than a century later: “Virtually all the wars that have flared up in Africa since the colonial period have been fought within national boundaries.”


Just as Europeans didn’t know where they were putting Africa’s borders when they put them there, many Africans still don’t know where their borders are today.  Somali refugees often claim that the date they fled from Mogadishu is the date they departed the whole of Somalia, even if they then spent several days, weeks, months, or even years in the country before crossing a recognized international border.  Oddly, however, Somalis in the refugee camps near Dadaab, firmly and deeply inside of Kenya, often believe that they are still living in Somalia.  Similarly, Somali refugees in the camps of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia make the same claim, that they are, to this day, in Somalia.  Without realizing their error or their wisdom, the refugees are making a fair and legitimate point.  Northeastern Province in Kenya and Ogaden Province in Ethiopia are almost entirely Somali.  The whole of Djibouti, tiny though it may be, is Somali.  It is understandable that Somali refugees in these familiar communities might not realize that they are no longer in Somalia itself.  Ethnically, they are still in Somali lands, even if politically they are in Kenya or Ethiopia or Djibouti.


Refugees from Rwanda make the same mistake when describing their escape to Tanzania in 1994.  Almost all of them say that they left Rwanda one day, crossing the international border at Rusumo which leads only and inevitably to Tanzania, yet, they say, they arrived in Tanzania a few weeks later.  Comically, and annoyingly, they are unable to say exactly where they were in between.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they leave one country is necessarily the day they enter the next country.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they left their hometown is not the day they left the entirety of Rwanda.  On the other side of the border, it is impossible to convince them that they day they finally settled in a refugee camp is not the same as the day they entered the country.  It would seem that in their minds, time spent traveling is time spent neither here nor there.  With all of Africa’s nomads and rebels and refugees and migrants, at any given moment a vast number of people would seem to be nowhere at all.


The creation of Eritrea is the only reconfiguration of the political map of Africa since the independence era.  Previously, it was the northernmost province of Ethiopia.  For decades, rebels in Eritrea and Ethiopia fought simultaneous and occasionally coordinated wars to overthrow a Marxist regime in Addis Ababa known popularly as the Dergue.  They were finally victorious in 1991, at which time the new government in Ethiopia granted a friendly and congratulatory independence to its rebel allies in Eritrea.  It was a remarkable concession on the part of Ethiopia, which immediately and voluntarily became the most populous landlocked country in the world.


The African Union strongly discourages any alterations to the political map of the continent.  African politicians like to say the policy is meant to minimize ethnic warfare by discouraging any hope in the outcome.  The unspoken and more ulterior reason is that the Big Men of Africa and their tribal cronies are always seeking to protect their own personal fiefdoms.  They rightly worry that the next region to secede might be the one which contains that valuable diamond, bauxite, or cobalt mine.  Though their motives are selfish, it is possible that their policy to maintain the status quo in Africa is the best of the options.  It took former allies Ethiopia and Eritrea all of six years to crash back into what became the most militarized war in the history of Africa.  Another war along their border is generally considered to be inevitable.


Though colonial capriciousness created the problem, the larger concern today is that governments in Africa view their borders as little more than a delineation of the spoils – my fence contains that which is for me to plunder as opposed to that which is for my neighbor to plunder.  There is little sense of responsibility for the people who live inside these borders.  It is for this reason that ethnicities take to war.  It is not because certain tribes are unwilling to live within the same international border as certain other tribes; it is because throughout Africa certain tribes are perceived to be reaping all the benefits of government and economy, happily leaving nothing for certain other tribes.  Governments not only allow this, they facilitate it.


Blame it on destructive European colonizers, blame it on corrupt African politicians, or just blame it on greed: like an egg, Africa got Scrambled.