The silent war on Africa

“Zimbabwe shows Africa is still in the despots’ grip”, said the headline in the London Observer over an article by Keith Richburg.

“Thank God that I am an American,” writes this former foreign editor of the Washington Post: An African-American, Richburg says he is very pleased he is not an African.

He reminds me of middle-class black Americans I met when I first travelled in Africa. They were usually tourists looking for their roots and in their behaviour, reactions and ignorance, they demonstrated how quintessentially American they were. For them, Africa was another planet.

A decade ago, writes Richburg, Zimbabwe was “a humming economy” with “impressive growth”.

No, it was not. In 1998 Zimbabwe was a profoundly unequal society up to its ears in debt, with the International Monetary Fund waging war on its economy, waving off investors and freezing loans.

Moving his gaze north, Richburg describes Somalia as a “failed state”—a term Western governments like to use—while saying nothing about how this oil-rich country was manipulated and abused by Washington during the Cold War.

He mentions only in passing the role of the US and the “international community” as “enablers” in backing Ethiopia’s current bloody invasion of Somalia.

It is not surprising he tells us his hero is Barack Obama who, far from defying “conventional wisdom about race in America”, as Richburg credits him, almost every day falls in with conventional, white corporate wisdom.

Richburg’s view of Africa is from the same conventional, white corporate wisdom. That Mugabe is an appalling tyrant is beyond all doubt; yet there is a subtext to the overly enthusiastic condemnation of him by the “international community”, notably in Europe. “Unacceptable!” says British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having personally distinguished the campaign to morally rehabilitate the concept of empire.

“The days of Britain having to apologise for the British Empire are over,” said Brown not long ago.

“We should celebrate.” And what better way to celebrate than with highly selective condemnation of uppity despots like Mugabe while fawning before equally awful despots such as the Saudi Royal family?

If nothing else, Mugabe has provided retrospective justification for the glory days. And perhaps his greatest crime is having slipped the leash. After all, both despots and democrats in Africa provide an essential service, or as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, “the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged. [They are] quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Those who refuse the role of business agent have often paid with their lives: from Patrice Lumumba to Amilcar Cabral, Ken Saro-Wiwa to Chris Hani.

The wanton underdevelopment of Africa hardly makes headlines, yet its victims outnumber those of Mugabe many times over.

Once known as neo-colonialism, it began more than half a century ago with the rise of European federalism. “It can be argued,” wrote Dan Kashagama of the African Unification Front, “that the control of Africa was central to the creation of the EU and its forerunners —

“The six founder members of the EU could not maintain their economies without “association” with the colonial territories — In other words, Africa would never be allowed to have democratic economic choices — Europe would decide what kind of economy Africans were to build. Africa was to supply Europe’s needs —”

I recommend a succinct analysis by Africa’s Roman Catholic bishops of why 300-million Africans live on less than a dollar a day.

Their list is as follows: “huge crippling debts” mostly to Europe; an “iniquitous” and “atrociously immoral” system that keeps prices for African raw materials artificially low while those for rich-world exports continue to rise; the desecration of the African environment by Western corporations; the withholding by European banks of wealth looted by deposed and dead dictators; colonial interventions by European powers on the side of armed factions; and a devastating arms trade. 

While the British government claims it leads the world in the “fight against poverty” it is the major arms merchant to 10 out of 14 conflict-racked African countries.

In South Africa, the Mbeki government has been suckered by British arms companies into buying 24 Hawk fighter jets at £17-million each, “by far the most expensive option”, according to a House of Commons report.

Brown, together with his EU partners, is currently demanding free trade deals that will destroy whole African industries, such as Ghana’s once thriving tomato canning industry. “Europe,” says Gyekye Tanoh of the Third World Network in Accra, “is gaining 80% of our markets in exchange for what is effectively 2% of theirs.”

None of this excuses the outrages of Mugabe. But look beyond the West’s whipping boy and mark the enduring outrage of an imperial past that remains a war against Africa that Africans must win.

A warning from Mugabe to Mbeki
Why is Thabo Mbeki so soft on Mugabe? Is it simply loyalty to a past of “joint struggle”, as has been suggested? Here is a clue.

In September 2005, a study submitted to Parliament in Cape Town compared the treatment of landless black farmers under apartheid and their treatment today.

During the final decade of apartheid, 737 000 people were evicted from white-owned farmland. In the first decade of democracy, 942 000 were evicted. About half of those forcibly removed were children and about a third were women.

A law intended to protect these people and put an end to peonage, the Security of Tenure Act was enacted by the Mandela government in 1997. That year, Nelson Mandela told me: “We have done something revolutionary, for which we have received no credit at all.

There is no country where labour tenants have been given the security we have given them — where a farmer cannot just dismiss them.”

The law proved a sham. Most evictions never reached the courts and bitterness among black farm workers has grown inexorably and so too has the whole question of land, actual and symbolic. When the ANC came to power in 1994, the “priority” of land restitution was allocated 0,3% of the national budget. By 2005, it was still less than 1%.

When Robert Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second term as President of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe’s dictator a standing ovation. The embarrassment and message for Mbeki was like a presence. “This was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe’s despotism,” noted the writer Bryan Rostron, “than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance.”

It was also a warning.

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