Debts, Despots and Domination

by Chris Ngwodo


At this time we have to go beyond celebrating the carrot of debt relief being offered to Africa by the West and look critically at the conspiracy of forces that has positioned this continent at the bottom of the global economic pyramid. It goes without saying that even with total and unconditional debt cancellation, African countries would still be in no position to launch themselves into the orbit of first world development. At best, their chances of such a transmutation might improve. To truly release Africa from the curse of servitude, we need to recognize the workings of the unholy trinity of transnational corporations, local despots and western governments and their satellite monetary institutions.

The scramble for Africa which culminated in the 1885 Berlin conference, where the continent was partitioned by European nations, was motivated by economic reasons. The Atlantic slave trade and the New World plantations had provided the capital which fuelled the industrial revolution. Subsequently as industrialization spread across Europe, it led to the production of far more goods than could be absorbed locally. New markets were needed for surplus goods. The acquisition of colonies whose economies could be dominated became imperative.

The demand for raw materials also became acutely competitive and the industrial nations sought to control the sources of supply of such raw materials as rubber, cotton and minerals in order to secure economic advantage. In light of the above, I suggest that the fundamental nature of euro-African relations even after over a century remains essentially economic and thus unchanged.

Colonial frontiersmen like George Goldie Taubman and Cecil Rhodes embodied the imperialist psychology that drove European expansion in Africa. Goldie upon his arrival in the Niger banded together competing British palm oil companies to from the United African Company in 1879. His dream was of an Anglophone commercial empire that would span the west and east Africa. Goldie used both military force and his influence with London to gain political authority over the chiefdoms from which he had earlier muscled treaties as well as establish a palm oil trade monopoly in the Niger delta area. This laid the foundation for full-blown colonialism under Frederick Lugard.

The megalomaniac ambition of Goldie was matched south of the continent by that of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes set up the De Beers Company and the British South Africa Company and through them instituted a monopoly of diamond trade and mining as well as political control over Rhodesia, now known as Zambia and Zimbabwe. Avid students of colonialism will note the coalescence of political and military might around the commercial enterprises which eventually evolved into the transnational corporations that have become fixtures on Africa's socio-economic landscape.

Even today, Britain's foreign policy is informed by her economic interests as represented by these enterprises. Prince Charles is the head of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, a cartel of powerful multinationals prominent in developing countries such as BP, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Nestle. The decision, for instance, to send British troops into Sierra Leone in 2000 was to secure the local government and therefore British investments.

Despite the paternalist Victorian claim that colonialism was intended to civilize and Christianize Africa, it is clear that European presence on the continent was motivated by economic interests. Those economic interests were vital to European advancement and domination of the world and constituted the true soul of colonialism. They were so vital that Lugard declared in 1938, "the cession of any colony or protectorate_ save as the result of a crushing defeat in war_ is simply unthinkable and would never be accepted by the nation."

The question must therefore be: if European economic interests were so vital that "the cession of a colony save as a result of war" was "simply unthinkable," why did the European nations relinquish their territories in Africa during the mid twentieth century?

The reason for colonialism was chiefly economic, I submit that its end was also inspired by economic pragmatism. It ended because the European nations could no longer afford the mounting costs of governing the vast expanse of the African continent. Colonialism had become economically unsustainable. Colonialism only ended in one sense, it could be continued by other cheaper more effective means. Thus the sixties birthed what Kwame Nkrumah foretold with remarkable prescience - the rise of neocolonialism. In leaving Africa, Europe was not about to abandon its economic interests. The colonialists had engineered socio-political structures designed to safeguard their economic interests. Their political engineering ensured that in many places, true African nationalists were subverted and marginalized so that they could not assume power. Instead, the colonialists installed Eurocentric elite that had been carefully groomed for this moment. Sadly, Africa was not helped by the fact that its leaders at the time for the most part were more interested in simply inheriting power than in discerning the deliberate flaws in the colonial structures they were inheriting and attempting to change them. With treacherous genius, the colonialists programmed African politics to be reduced to a race for spoils and in a few years the colonially engineered "tribal elite" were at each others' throats. The colonialists made a show of bequeathing democracy to their ex-colonies but those democracies subsequently failed because they could not be sustained by the inherently authoritarian structures that were left behind. After all, how democratic were the colonies when nationalist agitators were frequently jailed for treason?

French adventurism in Africa is a perfect example of the western agenda on the continent. De Gaulle's secret service chief, Jacques Foccart established a covert network designed to keep francophone Africa locked in the French orbit. This included French military and intelligence services, local armies and companies such as Elf and Bouygues. Military coups killed true nationalist leaders like Sylvanus Olympio (Togo), Patrice Lumumba (Congo) and Modibo Keita (Mali) replacing them with autocrats like Eyadema and Mobutu who virtually parceled off their countries' natural resources to western commercial interests. The cold war also provided the convenient excuse of resisting soviet designs as an umbrella for western hegemony.

As with the end of colonialism, we should realize that the current prominence of debt relief in international circles is driven by much more than altruism. Tony Blair, one of the strongest advocates for debt relief blamed the terrorist attacks on London in early July on poverty. This reflects a certain line of thought in the west at the moment. Global terrorism, to a considerable extent is a reaction to American and western hegemony in the Middle East. As in Africa, western governments and transnational firms have forged links with autocratic dictators and monarchs in the region in order to guarantee the flow of oil. The west is in the grossly indefensible position of supporting repressive regimes that brutally suppress dissent, abuse human rights and mismanage their oil rich economies. In 1992, western nations looked the other way while the Algerian government annulled an election won by the radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Thus, the west is unable to honestly support democratic reforms in the Arab world for fear that it would inadvertently enthrone virulently anti-American Islamic radicals. This coupled with the spread of poverty in the Arab under class has fanned the embers of a strain of extremist Islam for which holy war on the west and her Arab allies is an article of faith.

In a certain calculation, debt relief is aimed at altering the social climates that support the spread of extremism and terror all over the third world without altering the global economic balance of power. It is essentially designed to stabilize countries like Nigeria, looked upon increasingly as alternative sources of oil in the light of growing unrest in the Middle East. The U.S. naval presence in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, aimed among other things at securing Nigerian oil installations and those of Sao Tome and Principe, is part of this western geo-strategic repositioning.

Today, over a century later, the legacy of Goldie and Rhodes lives on. The symphony of Africa's destruction that they composed is being performed flawlessly by the triune concert of despots, multinationals and western governments. Africa remains a source of cheap labor and raw materials because of the ubiquitous presence of the powerful multinationals. The monopoly of these corporations was preserved by a despotic ruling elite who having no agenda but "to kill, to steal and to destroy," plundered their countries and stashed their loot away in western banks leaving their economies comatose. Western governments subsequently moved in as willing lenders with loans intended to enslave those nations for generations. Most of those loans ended up in private pockets and back in the western banks as code numbered loot. Broken by the debt burden, economic mismanagement and poverty, these nations thereafter submitted themselves for therapy at the hands of the western controlled IMF and World Bank, who promptly conducted the ritual of assisted economic suicide through their structural adjustment programs that were in vogue in the eighties. This is the sequence of events that brought Africa to this point.

The ongoing campaign for debt relief must be articulated from the perspective of its moral economy. Much of those debts are odious because they were incurred by dictatorships which were unrepresentative of the masses now groaning under the debt burden. Those dictators were supported by western governments and their multinational confederates who were interested only in the bottom line. Thus these debts are not only unsustainable, they are immoral and unjust.

Secondly debt relief must be accompanied by the institution of justice in the global economic system. The pious hypocrisy of the west in championing free markets in Africa while maintaining subsidies and guarding its own markets strategically is obvious. Now a level playing field has to be created in the international trade arena so that Africans can access western markets.

Corruption in Africa has often been tackled one-dimensionally, focusing on governments while ignoring western duplicity. The scandals involving multinationals such as Halliburton or Shell are not unrelated to the mosaic of sleaze on the continent. The western press trumpets the looting of Africa by its despots but understates the fact that Europe has always been a ready haven for stolen wealth. Presently, Switzerland a nation whose economy is built on the wealth of holocaust victims stolen by Nazis and the plunder of African despots is brazenly refusing to return Abacha's loot to the Nigerian government. This is despite a Swiss court ruling to that effect. On this issue, the European Union has been mysteriously silent. The willingness of so many western countries and banks to receive stolen funds is as criminal as the original theft itself. The debt issue should be tied to the repatriation of Africa's stolen wealth that has been piling up in foreign vaults. A campaign for economic justice and reparations for the looting of Africa through slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism can be articulated from here.

Fourthly, African nations must look inward and tackle decisively the culture of graft that is destroying governance and impoverishing their people. It would be profound to see past leaders and government operatives being put on trial and convicted for economic crimes, theft and embezzlement. I believe that such a day is not far off in countries like Nigeria.

Finally, Africa must decisively set out to transform herself from being a source of cheap labor and raw materials to an economic powerhouse in the 21st century via the diversification of the economy, infrastructural expansion and human resource development.

The challenges are truly daunting and the Promised Land seems so far away but that should not stop us from starting the journey today.


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