Let history be our teacher By William Bowles

8 August 2003

In the context of the events that are unfolding in Liberia, it’s important that we do not forget how these conditions came to pass, and the role of the West in making it so. This is especially important given the kind of media coverage and ‘analysis’ we are being subjected to, now that the West has ‘rediscovered’ Africa.

Ruth First’s ‘Coups in Africa’

Way back, around 1970, Ruth First, who was assassinated by the Apartheid regime, wrote a book called “Coups in Africa”. This seminal (and apparently largely forgotten) book was an analysis of the reasons that underpinned the never-ending series of coups and counter-coups that afflicted many African countries in the post-colonial period.

There are two issues here that need to be looked at in the light of the perceived state of Africa today and the way the Western media portrays the continent and its apparent state of chaos.

One myth that needs to be dispelled is that since the period of decolonisation, the breakdown of African states is somehow connected to the fact that the European colonisers are no longer around to bring ‘order’ to the continent. This fiction is part and parcel of the current revisionist history being peddled by a number of Western historians who now feel that it’s ‘safe’ to reevaluate the role of colonisers as one that was essentially benevolent in nature.

Implicit in this revision of history are the racist views of Western intelligentsia who would have us believe that the reasons for the breakdown of many post-colonial states in Africa is somehow connected to some intrinsic ‘quality’ or lack thereof, in the African ‘mentality.’ Hence corruption, the absence of an assumed inherent understanding of the idea of ‘democracy’ that the West has a monopoly on, precludes the development of a ‘modern’ African state without the intervention of ‘superior’ Western thought and values.

The value of Ruth First’s book, written over thirty years ago, was that it revealed that one of the reasons for the coups was rooted in the lack of an indigenous economic class strong enough to ensure the development of a stable political class and in turn the emergence of a strong civil society. The reasons for this are to be found in the colonial period that preceded independence.

How Europe underdeveloped Africa

Colonial economies were based upon the export of raw materials to the metropolitan centres, where value was added by transforming the raw materials into finished goods which were then exported back to the colonies. The surplus accumulated as a result, formed the basis for the industrial development of the Western world. The rest is history as they say.

Following WWII, and realising that the independence struggles threatened this unequal relationship, countries such as England consciously de-industrialised their African colonies, fearing that local industries would compete with their exports. From 1945 onwards, the industrial output of finished goods from most African countries actually declined (in comparison, the export of raw materials increased). This precluded the development of a domestic economy that was the equivalent of the ones that had developed in Europe. Morever, it also curbed the exports of finished goods from one African country to another. Overall, this had the effect of stifling the development of transport and communications throughout Africa and the subsequent development of a market internal to Africa.

Realising that independence was inevitable, the colonial powers, mainly Britain as the major coloniser, imposed various forms of ‘parliamentary democracy’ on their possessions as they ‘decolonised’. Colonies that for the most part were essentially unchanged outside of cities that were the administrative centres of the colonial elites, and which included military and civil services drawn from the indigenous populations, often separated on the basis of ethnic or religious origins.

For the most part, the working populations consisted largely of peasant, subsistence farmers, still based in traditional relationships that were rooted in rural communities, where patrimony determined political and social relations. Local leaders who became MPs under this bizarre, new dispensation were expected to ‘deliver’ to their local constituents, who were often related by marriage or blood. Civil society in this context took on the appearance of a Western ‘democracy’ but without any commensurate economic development that could transform a peasant economy. Civil society, as it was known in the West, was virtually non-existent. These newly independent countries were effectively ‘frozen in time’, trapped between the traditional and modern worlds.

Post-colonial development

As if this unequal relationship wasn’t enough, the newly independent countries of Africa were in turn caught between the two superpowers, with the USSR siding with the newly independent countries (for a number of reasons, some positive and some driven by competition with the West). Most post-colonial African countries took their cue from either the USSR, China or India, and took the road of a planned economy, administered by a central state, seeing rapid industrialisation in the Soviet or Chinese tradition as the fastest way to development. After all, both China and the USSR were developing countries as well. Societies that faced similar problems of development to those confronting African countries.

Yet for the reasons mentioned above, planned economies failed as well. To add to the burden that Soviet-style attempts at industrialisation placed upon newly independent African countries, they were still locked in a relationship of dependency with the West. A West moreover, that penalised countries that didn’t pursue a ‘market’ economy and open them up to uncontrolled penetration by Western capital. Denied access to Western markets except for raw materials, any accumulation of capital was siphoned off by a ruling elite that produced nothing. A ruling class which has no comparable dominant economic class, was and is, inherently unstable.

The reasons for the current breakdown were largely determined by the fact that for the most part, the post-colonial ruling elites were entirely dependent on foreign penetration of the local economies for their existence. Without a viable local economy, the ruling elites were effectively parasites, or as they were known in Central and Latin America, a comprador class, who collaborated with foreign capital in return for a life of luxury. Imports consisted almost entirely of luxury goods, paid for with the export of raw materials or products for a developed, Western market. As a result, there was no local accumulation of capital, and whatever wealth that was generated was squandered on the lavish lifestyles of a tiny ruling elite, often composed of military officers and elements of the former colonial civil service now transformed into the machinery of the state.

Structural adjustment was the final nail in the coffin of Africa. Forced to open up their economies to Western products and dismantle whatever planning, social investment and progress that had been achieved since independence, the downward economic spiral produced social upheaval and in many cases, the total breakdown of the newly formed nation states, most of which were the artificial creation of European colonisation in the first place. And although pan-African organisations such as the OAU, recognised the nature of the problem confronting the development of Africa, given the realities, it was for the most part, unable to to do much to solve problems that were continental in scope.

Today, we see the end result of this process, with the West content to supply ‘aid’ where the situation degenerates too much for them to hide it from their citizens and elsewhere, to blame the victim, whilst the West washes its hands, Pontius Pilate-style and puts out the line that ‘colonisation ended decades ago, it’s not our fault if Africans can’t manage their own affairs.’

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