The historical disadvantage of Africa

The start of the transatlantic slave trade around the year 1519 was the beginning of tragic events that systematically displaced millions of people in Africa.  By the time the last slave ship left Africa around 1867 to Cuba, the continent had been stripped of valuable human capital for nearly 3 centuries. After the abolition of slavery, the scramble for Africa in the late 1800s saw European countries colonising the well resourced African countries for another century. The history of colonialism has  lived on to affect the the contemporary sociopolitical issues in Africa with detrimental effects that have hampered growth and stability for the continent. In this article I argue that Africa lags in development performance in comparison to other continents, due to its history which subjugated free thinking to develop in Africa.

Initially before the slave trade, the Portuguese were the first to establish contacts with sub-Saharan Africa and much to their surprise, they found societies which were engaged in trade, had a similar range of pre-historical industrial crafts and they were also organised into Kingdoms with class divisions. The sub-Saharan Africans were much advanced than the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean or the Brazilian littoral such that they were able to maintain equal relations with the Europeans. For the next centuries to come, Africa fully engaged in the transatlantic slave trade which accounted for an estimated 10 million slaves.

The transatlantic slave trade disturbed any pending advances in African society such that Francis Moore a merchant along the coast of Senegambia in the 1730s observed,

“Since this slave trade has been us’d, all punishments are changed into slavery.”

In 1730 the Dutch Director General of Elmina Castle on the modern coast of Ghana also observed,

“The great quantity of guns and powder which the Europeans have brought have caused terrible wars between the Kings and princes and Caboceers of these lands”.

What is evident from these observations is that the slave trade brought chaos (which in some respects is irreversible) to the continent of Africa. For 2 centuries Africans got accustomed to one mode of trade and that was the capturing and selling  of valuable human capital for the development of other continents. The it can be inferred that the slave trade may well have hindered Africans from having innovative ideas, those which could have helped in the development of trade and the advancement of other aspects of society. The chiefs of Africa in conjunction with the Europeans systematically raided villages of humans, who could have played an important role in the development of Africa.

What started the transatlantic slave trade is hard to pinpoint, but evidence points out that slavery was prevalent in African societies when the Europeans arrived. Whatever the cause, the slave trade changed the African landscape in that it encouraged inter-ethnic wars with the sole purpose of capturing slaves for sale at the north African coasts. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, the most lucrative trade in Africa was the slave trade, which helped Africans to acquire guns which were used for slave wars. The violence and brain drain of Africa carried on for atleast 2 centuries and it is no wonder that by the time missionaries arrived in Africa, they witnessed brutal scenes of savagery.

Africa reeling from the effects of slavery, European countries carved up Africa into nation states which bundled different ethnic groups together. The rush to colonise Africa by the European powers, was influenced by the vast deposits of untapped natural resources which were mostly unknown to the locals of Africa. For nearly 70 years, indigenous Africans were utilised to provide manpower for farms, to fight wars,  in mines and many other income  generating avenues for the benefit of European countries.

To add on from the 2 centuries of slave trade, another century of colonialism was added on to the ills that crippled Africa. It was the politics of colonialism which championed the tactics of ‘divide and conquer’, where some African tribes were pitted against each other to avoid the unification of people. These tactics were triumphant in that modern-day societies of Africa still have tribalism as a hampering obstacle to national unity. Today some countries in Africa are embroiled in bitter tribal wars which seem to have no end in sight, due to long standing feuds which stem from the effects of colonialism.

During colonialism, African natural resources were excavated for the sole purpose of developing the imperialist countries while neglecting Africa. Africa’s palm oil, petroleum, copper, chromium, diamonds, platinum and in particular gold helped Europe’s earlier development, which has lived on to contemporary societies. Robert Beckford who shot a documentary titled ‘The Empire Pays Back’, claims that Britain’s debt to Africans on the continent and in the diaspora is estimated to be in the trillions of pounds. This assessment by Beckford’s experts was considered to be false because the real amount of wealth that was pulled out of Africa is arguably incalculable. It is incalculable because vast deposits of resources were pulled out of Africa, to the point that it is near impossible to document or estimate the actual volume of wealth extricated from the continent.
Which is why it is insulting. deeply offensive and laughable altogether to attack ‘migrants’ as the source of Europe’s economic and social problems, when the same European countries are largely responsible in creating the conditions which have greatly hampered the development and prosperity of African countries today.

President Barack Obama last year addressing 500 young Africans who were attending a leadership course:

“As powerful as history is, and you need to know that history, at some point you have to look to the future and say, ‘OK, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward,”

This statement by Obama is a double-edged sword because a people’s history defines how modern day society is formed. It is through history that one tends to look for answers to contemporary problems which hamper nation-building activities.  It is indeed true that Africa needs to look to the future rather than the past, but how is that possible when colonial borders are still a source of attrition for the thousands of tribes in Africa? When there is a huge economic divide between black Africans and Whites who live in Africa (many of whom benefitted from the proceeds of colonisation and slavery)
Further, there are young and educated Africans today with no assets who can’t get loans(therefore can’t start impactful businesses), and are barred from participation in their country’s politics because of ageism and a neopatrimonial culture. They are powerless and Obama’s statements can’t address their plight.

Ethnic conflicts in Africa are well documented and one of the clearest examples is that of the Arabs  (and the Tuareg, who are Berbers) and sub-Saharan Africa(black Africans)s. Historically, the Arabs enslaved sub-Saharan Africans for about a 1000 years with about an estimated 18 million people carted off into slavery. In the 1800s when the Scamble for Africa begun, the Arabs and the sub-Saharan Africans were thrown together to form modern countries along the Sahara such as Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan. This history of nations in Africa has been detrimental for nation-building, because different ethnic groups were lumped together to form nations when they had no sense of belonging to these nations.
In the past decade Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan have experienced rebellions fought over resources, politics, religion and history. In the middle of all these causative agents, ethnicity played a central role, when it came to which side the Arabs or sub-Saharan Africans picked to fight for.

Perhaps one of the most bloodiest ethnic conflicts in memory on the continent of Africa is that of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. In 1994, Rwanda’s 7 million population was composed of Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14) and the Twa (1%). In the early 1990s Hutu extremists resented the Tutsis with claims that all the social, economic and political problems that Rwanda was going through, was down to them. On 6th April 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down and Hutu extremists under the cover of war, began to systematically exterminate the Tutsi population. Within weeks after 6th April, 800 000 men, women, and children were killed in a brutal manner, with ethnicity being the dividing line.

Years of animosity between tribes who were forced to form nations together, remains one of the biggest challenges for development in Africa. When Obama says that Africa has to look in the future to move on, the past still has a nefarious hold on Africa’s nation-building capabilities. Africa’s history of being under subjugation and slavery has all to do with the current disorganisation of the society of Africa. To look beyond history as Obama asserts, would be quiet difficult because the reconciliation solutions of Africa lie in the past where current problems were created. It is therefore important that the past is revisited to help in establishing the starting points of the many problems that have engulfed Africa.
The same could be said of the problems faced by African Americans, who for years have been persecuted in one form or another.

The other problem that lies with Africa is that through slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism periods, Africans have always lived in the shadow of the West. For centuries Africans have not been self-thinkers, and this has obviously affected innovative ideas on the part  of African free thinking. It was through slavery and colonialism that the African way of life was made to be inferior, and whole cultures and traditions were systematically wiped out only to be replenished by western culture. Today, most sub-Saharan Africa struggles to emulate western cultures because their culture through years of subjugation, was made to look inferior. This in turn has created an identity crisis with modern Africa where society struggles with being an ‘African’,  in a world where western culture is seen to be superior.

Looking at the political picture of Africa, one can see how a western style of democracy is not working in Africa. A lot of African countries that became democratic states, are today still grappling with corruption and bad governance issues because of poor accountability structures. Since the the early 1980s of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), Western ideology has been central to African affairs and time and again this has led to failure.

This historical disadvantage has and is still one of the biggest factors why Africa lags in the social, economic and political arenas. To disregard the linkage of the past and the current problems of Africa, would be a mistake because it is through history that nations are built. Africa’s tumultuous history needs to be understood and addressed, to create the many needed solutions for the continent because on the average, many African countries have only been independent for 50 years. To forge a strong Africa, Africans need to disregard assertions like those of Obama and seriously begin looking into the past to rectify the factors that disadvantaged societies, economically and politically. The options are few (for example it’s hard for countries to reunite into bigger and stronger nations), but it’s not an impossible task.

When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren’t Called ‘Hitler’

image from Mad Monarchist
Image from Mad Monarchist

Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is?

Most people haven’t heard of him.

But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in your stomach as when you read about Mussolini or Hitler or see one of their pictures. You see, he killed over 10 million people in the Congo.

His name is King Leopold II of Belgium.

He “owned” the Congo during his reign as the constitutional monarch of Belgium. After several failed colonial attempts in Asia and Africa, he settled on the Congo. He “bought” it and enslaved its people, turning the entire country into his own personal slave plantation. He disguised his business transactions as “philanthropic” and “scientific” efforts under the banner of the International African Society. He used their enslaved labor to extract Congolese resources and services. His reign was enforced through work camps, body mutilations, executions, torture, and his private army.

Most of us – I don’t yet know an approximate percentage but I fear its extremely high – aren’t taught about him in school. We don’t hear about him in the media. He’s not part of the widely repeated narrative of oppression (which includes things like the Holocaust during World War II). He’s part of a long history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and genocide in Africa that would clash with the social construction of the white supremacist narrative in our schools. It doesn’t fit neatly into a capitalist curriculum. Making overtly racist remarks is (sometimes) frowned upon in polite society, but it’s quite fine not to talk about genocides in Africa perpetrated by European capitalist monarchs.

Mark Twain wrote a satire about Leopold called “King Leopold’s soliloquy; a defense of his Congo rule“, where he mocked the King’s defense of his reign of terror, largely through Leopold’s own words. It’s 49 pages long. Mark Twain is a popular author for American public schools. But like most political authors, we will often read some of their least political writings or read them without learning why the author wrote them (Orwell’s Animal Farm for example serves to re-inforce American anti-Socialist propaganda, but Orwell was an anti-capitalist revolutionary of a different kind – this is never pointed out). We can read about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but King Leopold’s Soliloquy isn’t on the reading list. This isn’t by accident. Reading lists are created by boards of education in order to prepare students to follow orders and endure boredom well. From the point of view of the Education Department, Africans have no history.

When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricaturized Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (which of course now is long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we don’t learn about the Great African War or Leopold’s Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially killing in upwards of 5-7 million people from bombs, sanctions, disease and starvation. Body counts are important. And we don’t count Afghans, Iraqis, or Congolese.

There’s a Wikipedia page called “Genocides in History”. The Congolese Genocide isn’t included. The Congo is mentioned though. What’s now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo is listed in reference to the Second Congo War (also called Africa’s World War and the Great War of Africa), where both sides of the multinational conflict hunted down Bambenga and ate them. Cannibalism and slavery are horrendous evils which must be entered into history and talked about for sure, but I couldn’t help thinking whose interests were served when the only mention of the Congo on the page was in reference to multi-national incidents where a tiny minority of people were  eating each other (completely devoid of the conditions which created the conflict no less). Stories which support the white supremacist narrative about the subhumanness of people in Africa are allowed to be entered into the records of history. The white guy who turned the Congo into his own personal part-plantation, part-concentration camp, part-Christian ministry and killed 10 to 15 million Conglese people in the process doesn’t make the cut.

You see, when you kill ten million Africans, you aren’t called ‘Hitler’. That is, your name doesn’t come to symbolize the living incarnation of evil. Your name and your picture don’t produce fear, hatred, and sorrow. Your victims aren’t talked about and your name isn’t remembered.

Leopold was just one part of thousands of things that helped construct white supremacy as both an ideological narrative and material reality. Of course I don’t want to pretend that in the Congo he was the source of all evil. He had generals, and foot soldiers, and managers who did his bidding and enforced his laws. It was a system. But that doesn’t negate the need to talk about the individuals who are symbolic of the system. But we don’t even get that. And since it isn’t talked about, what capitalism did to Africa, all the privileges that rich white people gained from the Congolese genocide are hidden. The victims of imperialism are made, like they usually are, invisible.

Why the recent anti-immigrant wave in Europe is a far-right racist agenda of repression of minorities

P1060334The 80 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. – Oxfam

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw” 

– Nelson Mandela

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

– Nelson Mandela. More quotes here.

There are some people out there who are proud of imperialism. You know that sick idea of going to other people’s countries, and beginning wars, killing innocent people, grabbing away land, raping women, enslaving their men, terrorizing their way of life…. all in the name of ‘conquering lands’ for the motherland. Yes, that lawlessness; there are some people who would try to justify it.

There are also some people alive today who believe that their version of history, governance, and politics, is the best version there is. That other systems of governance different from theirs are backward, unworkable, impractical, inferior or repressive. This skewered mentality is exactly the kind of thing that causes a seemingly sensible diplomat to write an article such as this titled To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran. These people’s only solution to every geopolitical challenge is guns, missiles, bombs, and much recently, drones.

No wonder their actions often create uncontrollable monsters along the way, besides the trail of misery they leave behind.

Funny enough, among those who support imperialism and those who prefer a militant foreign policy (as opposed to a peaceful and diplomatic one) are many who correctly classify Nazism as a vile and unacceptable ideology.

The question then becomes how does one form of extreme violence and persecution of the other become fair game, while another – which was evidently harsher and more inhumane – is universally prohibited? Shouldn’t all violence and persecution be denounced? To which you will hear responses such as ‘Our work is necessary to protect our interests‘ , ‘We don’t kill innocent people‘, ‘We don’t have gas chambers’, and ‘We don’t classify others as lesser human beings’...and so on. In this sphere, ‘interests’ are more important than the lives of humans.

The cynics in the corner will cite Godwin’s Law, that such a comparison is hysterical. Apples, they will say, must not be compared with oranges. I care not about their scorn. Because it’s easy in the gluttonous world they inhabit to accuse, denigrate and attempt to undermine a viewpoint they don’t sit comfortably with. It’s easy to airbrush history when you are a beneficiary of its oppressive machinations. Even a fool knows that.

What is clear to me is that most such answers are unconvincing if not disingenuous. For a start, how many people have died while trying to reach the shores of Europe, or trying to reach Australia. over the last 20+ years? Are their numbers not an atrocity, against which governments all over the world should seek a permanent solution? They may not have died in gas chambers at the hands of the SS, but that doesn’t mean that their deaths should be dismissed or accepted as an unavoidable eventuality.

It is clear that the smugglers who provide the boats are partly to blame, but those criminals didn’t create the demand. No smuggler ever forced anyone to cross the Mediterranean on a dinghy they themselves wouldn’t cross a river with.

But who can deny that foreign policy of countries in Europe have disadvantaged African countries in some important respects?

So in my view Britain and its allies must shoulder part of the blame. Not only for the recent chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, but also for age-old atrocities which have created deep divisions across countries, and which fuel such migration. Ed Milliband’s comments on David Cameron’s role in Libya were correct. Tony Blair, George Bush and Dick Cheney all need to answer similar questions over their roles in Iraq.

The loss of life in the mediterranean represents an ongoing massacre sanctioned by the powers that be, through their foreign policy. It can be prevented with certain humane measures, or at least greatly curtailed by the actions of governments.

The question is not what Europe can do to stop migrants coming to Europe, but instead what Europe’s obligation is (considering its colonial history) to help restore African countries to an economic position whereby their citizens want to live in them.

You don’t keep birds away from your garden by poisoning the seeds and nuts in them. Or by catching them and returning them to the same drought-stricken wilderness they’ve fled. You ensure there is enough food to eat in the forest, and plenty of trees to provide safety, so that the bird doesn’t have to come all the way to your garden.

As an immigrant, the racist undertones of the anti-immigrant debate cited by the following articles are all too familiar (not only in my life, but in the lives of many other immigrants I know, and their children). I’ve heard it all, and nothing surprises me any more:-

I’m not saying everything each of these writers say is gospel. No, that’s not what I’m saying. But equally, you can’t dismiss it all as impractical left-wing dross. It’s not, and many other sensible people agree with me:-

Sadly no one in a position of authority wants to sort it out. The recent measures by the EU to try to address the situation are lacklustre and evidently temporary. I don’t know, maybe they think the problem will go away.
But will it? Why hasn’t it ended of itself in the last 20 years? It won’t go away, and their policies are merely postponing the ending of a crisis whose roots they have neither the willpower nor the leadership to address.

Whichever view on migration you choose to believe, the question I’d like to address is why is this still happening. Why are so many people putting their lives in danger, for a dream that may never materialise? As I’ve written before, here and here, it’s a combination of factors, chief of which is desperation. The crippling poverty which Frantz Fanon wrote about in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, and which Walter Rodney described in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, is real. And it has had far-reaching consequences, some of which may not be that easy for westerners to accept. The immigrant crisis in the mediterranean is merely one visible manifestation of such consequences. And it’s come to the fore because the far-right anti-immigrant agenda at play especially here in Britain is being challenged in the face of so many deaths.

somefactorsdriving-migrationBut how did this whole picture emerge? What happened? Well, the roots of such dysfunction (at least the last 200 years) can probably best be summarised by the following:

Most African countries became independent after long periods of oppression in which a considerable and inestimable amount of their wealth was plundered by colonial institutions (the likes of the East India company) for the benefit of their colonial masters. After becoming independent, with no industry (so no tax base), yet huge private enterprise interests belonging to foreign nationals, they struggled to raise enough funds to finance government functions, failing to create independent institutions. The lack of money fuelled corruption and nepotism, and meant that foreigners could take advantage of the financial situation to cause divisions on tribal lines (as happened in Rwanda). It also meant that the African countries needed to borrow funds from somewhere (organisations like the IMF – which emphasized austerity and cuts over growth of the economy). So these countries borrowed, and borrowed, only for their debts to increase exponentially, to a point they could not be repaid, let alone serviced. Many were then asked to liberalise their economies, selling critical assets to foreign corporations, weakening yet again their already precarious positions. Debts were cancelled and replaced with more loans, but because the states owned very little means of generating an income, they still had to borrow money. Further, the corporations which bought state assets used international law and other schemes to shift profits out of the African countries, depriving these countries of critical foreign exchange and also avoiding paying tax. This vicious cycle continues until today in most parts of Africa, with austerity policies only serving to harm the poorest in society. And that’s even before we mention Trade / Import tariffs which have been known to damage trade.

What was needed for those African countries soon after independence was growth of industry and diversification of their economies (to grow the tax base, and create jobs). Further, they needed value addition (enabling raw materials to be processed before export – thereby attracting more competitive prices), an end to illicit financial outflows, investment in infrastructure, and the creation of entrepreneur friendly environments where innovators could thrive. It would be easier to establish everything else once these cornerstones were in place.
Most dictators who took over from the colonialists didn’t achieve this, so they too are partly to blame, for their shortsightedness as much as the societal divisions many created during their reigns. Similarly, those leaders who came after the dictators but did little in the way of rectifying these challenges must also shoulder some blame.

I await the day a European/ World leader will be born who will come clean on these issues. Someone who will decide to do the right thing and truly remove the impediments to growth choking African economies. If that doesn’t happen sooner than later, please feel free to return to this blog (or its future successor in some archive somewhere) in 2030, or 2050, or 2070, to read this article again.