Africa: the return of colonialism

We tend to think of problems on the African continent as purely internal. But, argues Adam Elliott-Cooper, that ignores our own role in fuelling the brutal conflicts that are taking place.

Features, The Anti-Imperialist - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 5:05 - 1 Comment

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Adam Elliott-Cooper

Warfare has changed. Gone are the days of states following their noble, ideological paths into battle. New wars appear to be wars of ethnicity and ancient hatreds – a return to a primitive tribalism, infecting remote corners of southern regions.Hunger, genocide, rape, AIDS, forced resettlement, child soldiers.

These are all buzz-words linked with the conflict epidemic to which news channels occasionally devote the odd five minutes. Violence and suffering embedded in politics, often brushed aside in sweeping statements blaming corrupt governments, or weak economies. Distant tragedies, just managingto pluck at our heartstrings as we feel a fleeting concern for a few unfortunate souls.

It’s very easy for us, as enlightened and educated Westerners, to pity these people and countries. To wish they didn’t have the misfortune of being governed by corrupt leaders who rule with an iron fist, in countries that can barely produce enough to look after the well-being of their citizens. People often ask questions, like: is our government doing enough to help these countries? Are international bodies doing enough to help the situation? One may be led to believe that government funding to NGOs, the deployment of UN troops, and investments made by multinationals in poor countries, are all valiant efforts to bring economic development and sustainable peace to conflict zones on which we have had little influence. This assumption could not be further from the truth.

Vicious and bloody wars are ongoing in many parts of the world: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Angola – to name but a few. These conflicts have given rise to an enormous international arms market in which Northern actors sell huge amounts of lightweight and – more importantly – cheap weapons to groups in the South. According to Transparency International, G8 states controlled 85% of the arms trade in 2002,With regard to lightweight weaponry, mercenaries and child soldiers are used to wage battles against enemy forces or civilian populations. The most devastating and unsettling feature of a new war is the repeated targeting of civilians by soldiers. Whether these armies are public or private, ethnic cleansing through forced resettlement, rape and genocide, has plagued ‘new wars’ from the outset. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict states that “in some wars today, 90 per cent of those killed in conflict are non-combatants, compared with less than 15 per cent when the century began”. Torture and killing with basic weaponry such as Kalashnikovs and AK-47s haves also increased sharply. A study by the Small Arms Survey estimated that, on average, there is one death every minute as a result of lightweight weaponry.

Discourses on development

The general consensus of the international community, international aid agencies and discourse on development and conflict is that the causes of new civil wars are internal. Much emphasis has been placed upon the governments in the host states being corrupt and greedy, who are advocating and instigating conflict for their own selfish means. So as moral missionaries, Western governments deploy troops and aid workers to change poorer countries; to essentially make them more like us. The distinct aims of modern colonialists echo around hollow attempts at fulfilling empty promises

There is an alternative perspective and explanation for the causes of new wars. This perspective stems from the work of two political theorists: Raul Prebisch, the Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America during the 1960s, and Andre Gunder-Frank. According to this perspective, globalisation is not useful for the economic development of ‘dependent countries’ – which are countries in the South that rely on primary commodity exports, such as oil in Nigeria or diamonds in Sierra Leone, to sell to the richer, dominant countries in the North. The forces that perpetuate underdevelopment and, in turn, conflict are not internal problems as Western developmental discourse and modernisation theory may suggest. Dependency theory looks at multinational corporations, international banks and global markets as tools for the dominant states to further their own national economic interests in the South. For example, American farmers are heavily subsidised by the US government so they can sell products, such as rice, to people in many African countries more cheaply than African farmers can sell to their own people.

These economic tactics kick local farmers out of the market, forcing them to abandon agriculture, thus making the country dependent on imports from the dominant country. If the dominant country raises prices, the people of the dependent country starve.

One of the core insights of dependency theory is that, according to Gunder-Frank: “Poor countries exported primary commodities to the rich countries that then manufactured products out of those commodities and sold them back to the poorer countries.” One can highlight the fact that the greatest economic development in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Chile occurred when European countries, particularly Spain, were at war or suffering economic depression and therefore not constantly exploiting their raw materials and cheap labour. There are of course many more recent examples. Columbite-tantalite, a metal used in mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, is found across Africa in countries such as Zambia and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. This metal is sold to China, where it is processed and the value is added so it can be used in electronic equipment. The manufactured goods are then sold back to people in the African countries for an enormous profit. Despite the African nations being intrinsic to the production of the product, they will never make enough profit to aid the development of their country if the value of the product can only be increased by richer nations.

The implications of attempting to put this theory into practice would mean that Northern donor governments, the organisations affecting humanitarian policy, would have to curb the huge profits they make from Southern regions in the global market. These ideas, however, have gained little credence in Western developmental discourse. What we have seen instead is a shift of responsibilities.

Northern governments have decided that instead of ending the clear economic dependency that the South has on the North, humanitarian organisations must change their policies in order to stimulate development. According to convenient theories such as the ‘cosmopolitan approach’, societies in conflict regions need to change, and they will be helped to do this through the change in aid policy of NGOs such as Oxfam and CARE. Apparently poorer countries will only develop by providing cheap goods and labour for rich Northern states. Again, the colonial undercurrents are impossible to ignore.

Moreover, attention to the impact of foreign markets on underdevelopment and conflict will raise the uncomfortable issue of the mass sale of weapons from Northern donor governments to governments, groups and individuals in the South where the new wars are taking place. Advocates of the Western-centric modernisation theory to conflict resolution have taken into account the huge flow of weapons in international markets. Michael Klare insists, for instance, that there has been a “transformation of the global arms trade from its earlier focus on sales of major weapons systems to its current focus on sales of light and medium weapons.” But Klare fails to cite the fact that, according to recent studies, the United States arms transfer agreements with developing nations rose from $6.5 billion in 2005 to $10.3 billion in 2006. The same study also recognises an increase in light weapons being sold to the South, and that they have in fact come from smaller sellers of arms, such as Israel. However, the ‘cosmopolitan approach’ does not involve any proposal to curb this monstrous and savage market

According to a 1998 report by Oxfam, between 1995 and 1997 the UK sold small arms to over 100 countries. So by passing the buck, as it were, Northern governments are changing the policies of humanitarian organisations so that the pressure is on them to prevent future conflicts. The notion that Northern governments should bear this responsibility is almost completely ignored. To quote John Bolton, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for arms control, as he was speaking at a UN conference addressing the issue of small arms: “[the USA] would not support moves to outlaw any arming of rebel groups, nor would it help fund a campaign by human rights groups to raise awareness of the [small arms] trade”.

So in essence, national governments and international trade organisations have made no effort to change the things that induce war and poverty in the South. “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms,” said former US President Jimmy Carter, during his presidential campaign of 1976. It appears, from the evidence presented, that President Carter was wrong. It appears that Western governments pay no attention to the effect their hugely profitable foreign investments have on the nations they are exploiting.

Following the generally-accepted view that the problems of conflict and development in Southern regions are internal, one may be led to believe that national governments and international bodies are doing every conceivable thing to tackle the causes of new wars. The approach they have adopted creates the impression that they are acting selflessly to tackle problems that have little to do with their past or present actions.

In truth, this is a shameful façade, attempting to draw a veil over the way Northern bodies have benefited from profitable trade which serves to further entrench Southern nations in underdevelopment and poverty. In addition, attempts to curb the mass sale of arms have been ignored, or met with contempt. The notions that Northern governments have perpetuated underdevelopment through their trade practices and perpetuated conflict through the sale of arms have barely been admitted by the perpetrators. Governments insist on treating the symptoms rather than the causes of conflict and underdevelopment. Acting in this way ensures that the poor countries they are claiming to help will only develop to the point where their citizens can provide cheap labour and raw materials for the West.

Colonialism’s a thing of the past? I think not.

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Lesego Angel moselane
Apr 6, 2009 10:12

I really appritiate the fact that you were able to write about colonialism because as the youth in African countries we dont have a clue to why so many social critical issues such as poverty, unemployment, our economy , hiv/aids and so much more are at a high in Africa. Making it much more difficult for Africa as a whole to develop like the coutries that underdeveloped it.. Its a shame that Africans can see that colonialism is the cause of our present day problems and in order to move forward we need to understand our history as it holds crutial elements for us to develop ourselves by empowering thy self and increasing the level of education as well as implimenting relevant education, going back to our roots and using our own use of traditional med as indigenous people have proven that their medication are as relevent as those of western and have no side effects wht so ever. i could go on and on about this topic so til next time, thanx for coming up with such a great topic.

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