Tuesday, 7 December 2010

From the Cradle of Humanity to the Heart of Darkness: Africa's Bitter Legacy

The election in Ivory Coast in western Africa last week has descended into a dangerous stand off between the supporters of the incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo, who nearly all international monitors as well as the national electoral commission agree has lost, and his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. A political crisis threatens to develop into something much more violent - this after a campaign seen as the country's best chance in years of healing itself of its deep divisions. These had been suppressed for nearly three decades since independence, but the ousting of a dictatorship in 1999 unleashed the inherent tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south and they have featured prominently in Ivorian politics ever since.

It is a common theme across much of northern-central Africa - the faultline between the Muslim and Christian polities that skirts the northern zones of places like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and, most notably, Sudan. Much as these and other tensions have plagued similarly invented countries, such as Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Iraq, African states have frequently struggled to overcome their internal divisions, much to the mirth of western racists and apologists for colonialism who snort that it never happened under us.

And yet, if anything is a legacy of colonialism in Africa, even more than in most other places in the world, it is the ludicrous system of states that were left behind by the retreating European powers after 1945. If the winds of change were blowing, they didn't blow quite hard enough to change the borders of what were European imposed administrative divisions into the genuine geographical boundaries of nation states. Consider Zimbabwe - there, Shona were shoe-horned into a state with the Ndebele, even although the latter had much more in common with the people of Botswana to the west. Left to their own devices, a very different map would have emerged.
A Colonial Convenience - A Continent's artifical borders

Nigeria, scene of the dreadful Biafran war, was similarly an artificial entity, created from at least three major and many smaller ethnic groups - the Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north; the Christian Yoruba and Ibos in the south. Different cultures, different languages, different histories - their sole commonality was to have the same former Colonial Master, Britain, who had found it useful to lump them together into "Nigeria".

The Sudan was forged by British militarists, hellbent during the European "Scramble for Africa" at the end of the 19th century, to create a Red Corridor from the Suez to the Cape, so that you could travel from the north to the south of the Continent without leaving British territory. By bloody violence and conquest, they succeeded and for over five decades the Union Flag flew over the largest area of Africa, followed not far behind by the French Tricolour and the personal flag of the King of Belgium in the Congo (setting of Conrad's appropriately titled novel, "The Heart of Darkness").

When the Europeans bowed to the growing demands for independence in the 1950s and 1960s, they left behind poorly educated populations - when Belgium left the Congo, for example, in 1961, there were just 6 graduates in the entire country - hamstrung by the continued ownership of much of their land and most of their natural resources, especially minerals, by private companies from their colonial Mother Countries. With interference by these companies and their governments to ensure local regimes remained friendly, democratic institutions soon collapsed as military regimes took power and years of instability and corruption followed. Men like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (formerly Congo), the endless succession of military regimes in Nigeria and latterly the corruption of the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe conspired to ensure that Africans in whole swathes of the Continent were denied justice and freedom or the ability to develop their potential. The white supremacy in apartheid South Africa prolonged this, sponsoring terrorist movements like the UNITA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique, undermining left wing governments that, on the whole, sought African solutions to their problems.

Mobutu of Zaire - corrupt murderer and friend of the West
Indeed, in the last 15 years, democracy has swept Africa much as it had previously swept South America. It would be wrong to imply that good governance exists everywhere - the African Union itself has called for the development of far stronger institutions and much better behaviour by political leaders. But democratic rule is asserted now in the vast majority of African countries and Ivory Coast is as notable for its crisis being political in its nature as it is unusual now for an incumbent regime to refuse a transfer of power following a vote by the people.

But the tensions alluded to earlier remain - most African states would not have developed naturally into their current guises. That none of them has ever seized any territory from their neighbours is a testimony to their inherent common sense and restraint. Sudan, now embarking on a popular referendum which is likely to see it divided into two new states - a Muslim north and Christian south - may be showing a peaceful way forward. For just as it should be hoped that different ethnicities can and should learn to live together in peace and co-operation, this can only be achieved willingly and over time. It cannot be borne from the bitter, violent and rapacious legacy of Colonialism.

Europe's tribal wars killed tens of millions

And for those in the West who might sneer, let them consider a few things - our own struggle to make something of a multi-national, multi-cultural institution, the EU, is stuttering towards collapse amidst the current economic crisis. As for bloody tribal wars, surely the worst wars of all were the two that plagued Europe's tribes in 1914-18 and 1939-45? Just imagine, had some African Colonial Power lumped the south of England in with the north of France, and eastern France with western Germany and told them to live together as new, independent states - would they have lasted a week, never mind the fifty years that many African states have now existed for?

Africa was the cradle of humanity - in the final analysis, every human walking this planet is of African origins. All the more appalling then that this, our beautiful Mother Continent, and its inhabitants have been ravaged by slavers, "explorers" and armies with total disregard for any spark of humanity. Since independence, neo-colonialist covert operations, bribery and big business have continued the exploitation and through no fault of its own, Africa is now on the frontline of the climate change crisis.

Europe has no right to lecture Africa. No right to feel superior. We have only a duty and responsibility - to apologise and make reparations for the mess we made.

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