Listen to Your Ancestors By William Bowles

18 October 2003

[This is another essay out of the past that on rereading, seems even more relevant than it did when I wrote it almost exactly ten years ago in 2003. It exists in its old non-Wordpress form but republishing it here, makes it more accessible as well as tying into my current writing. WB]

I am a big fan of history. Ever since I was a kid, history fascinated me and perhaps in another life I might well have become a historian. And, in an age where history gets rewritten by the corporate media hour by hour, day by day, understanding where we come from and how we got here is a critical issue.

This essay was triggered by a play on the radio by Margaret Buzby about the Ashanti rebellion in what is now Ghana, at the turn of the 19th century, seen largely through the eyes of Queen Asentewas who led the rebellion. At the end, defeated and old, she is exiled to the Seychelles along with all the other leaders of the rebellion, where she spends her time telling the children all the tales of her struggle and that of her ancestors, so that the tradition and history of the Ashanti could be carried on.

It’s not so long ago that Kwame Nkrumah came to power in 1957, in Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence from the British. From then on, one after the other, by ballot or bullet, African countries achieved independence, at least nominally. And by 1975, with the exception of South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, Africa was no longer a colonized continent. All were in one way or the other products of the changing fortunes of the principal former colonial empires of England, France, Portugal, and the Cold War and the clash of ideologies and economics that mostly took place in what was called the Third World.

When the Portuguese vacated Mozambique following the overthrow of the dictator Salazar in 1975, they left behind a single railroad leading to a mine, and destroyed everything else of value in a fit of ex-colonial pique. Within a short space of time, the Apartheid regime, fearful of the rise of a professed Marxist government right on its borders, financed the terrorist organization Renamo, which systematically destabilized and terrorized the country, which led to a vicious “civil” war that lasted until 1990. But its legacy lives on and the same can be said for many African countries.

Mozambique was pretty typical for post-independence Africa in broadly following (with local variations), the socialist model in one form or another, either of the Russian, Chinese, or Indian variety. All were underdeveloped with most of the population engaged in subsistence farming and little or no industrial infrastructure. Most of the post-independence governments believed in “modernism,” which translated into rapid industrialization, land redistribution, education, health and housing, and holding the major means of production and distribution in state hands.

All things being equal, which of course they are not, there is no reason to believe that independent Africa could not have, by now, achieved many of its goals. This was the optimistic feeling that permeated Africa of the 1960s and into the ’70s, in spite of all the obstacles, setbacks, and mistakes. But unlike Europe, which had built its fortunes on the slave trade—the wealth systematically stripped from its colonies, and its domination of world trade—Africa struggled to build modern nation-states, either on the wreckage left behind by the departing colonizers or attempted to utilize systems of government built by the colonizers, with precious little else except the raw materials they possessed.

All had to submit to the reality of an international trading system that was skewed in favor of the West. Trading with the Soviet Union, China, or India may well have been cheaper, but rubles were worthless on the international currency markets; the world traded in the U.S. dollar or the British pound. Most important of all, the prices of all the major commodities that Africa produced were determined in London, Chicago, or New York. Caught between two fires, they were forced into taking sides and depending upon which side, depended the nature of the development process, or lack of it.

And while it was typical in the West to talk of Nkrumah’s corruption and his grandiose and “unrealistic” modernization schemes, the West  completely ignored the brutal dictatorships of Mobuto Sese Seko in the Congo and the like, many of whom were installed and supported by the Western Powers, depending on whether they possessed valuable natural resources or had some strategic value in the Cold War.

Starting in the 1970s with the rise of the so-called neoliberal economic agenda, there has been a concerted attempt in the West to shift the blame for the “failure” of African states back onto Africa itself. Predictably, most of the blame has been laid on the doorstep of “aid” and on the “inefficiency” of state ownership. “Aid” made them dependent, code word for lazy, and “inefficiency” carried two messages, one was ideological and the other was corruption, as if Western states are not also corrupt and inefficient? But of course, corruption in a poor country has a far greater impact than corruption in a rich one, and in any case, Western countries encouraged corruption through the use of kickbacks in order to obtain lucrative contracts.

But perhaps even more insidious and racist messages underlay the counterattack by the West on independent Africa, the most common of which are the labels “tribal” and “ethnic,” both of which imply backwardness. Thus the racist preconceptions of the West are justified by the collapse of the central state in countries like Rwanda, Liberia, or Somalia, predicated on the essentially “backward” nature of the African [either the African or Africa] that led, according to the West, to genocide and the rise of the “warlord,” and the current buzzword, “failed state.”

Laughably, if it wasn’t so tragic, the industrialization of genocide carried out by German Fascism or that of the “ethnic” war in Northern Ireland, now in its second century, or indeed the ongoing war against black Americans, is conveniently forgotten. I could go on, but the point is we operate a double standard that Robert Cooper, the former British proconsul to Afghanistan has unashamedly made into de facto official British foreign policy, the “double standard” theory.

The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era—force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle. — Robert Cooper, “The New Liberal Imperialism, The Observer, April 7, 2002.”

Cooper goes on to define this “new liberal imperialism” as:

 “a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle.”

Acceptable to “us” in the West, that is. Cooper wrote this essay in 2002 and it spells out the ideological framework for the re-establishment of a New World Order, virtually a “bible” for the invasion of Iraq and it is one of many documents that form part of an array of weapons that the so-called neoconservatives—from Bush to Blair—use as a justification for re-conquering the world.

And whilst [while?] not wanting to turn Africa into one giant, defenceless, and helpless “victim,” aka the despicable “Live 8” phenomenon, the reality is that of a world with all the rules loaded in favor of the West. We need only look at the Anglo-American corporations involved in the giant con-game called debt cancellation and “aid” to Africa.

Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Starbucks, Raytheon, Microsoft, Boeing, Cargill, Citigroup, Anglo American, Shell, British American Tobacco, Standard Chartered Bank, Barclays, and De Beers are just a few of the alleged philanthropic corporations that overnight have acquired a startling “change of heart” concerning Africa.

When you break down the numbers, which sound so enormous, not only is the “debt cancellation” a small fraction of the total owed by African countries (estimated to be on the order of $300 billion), it amounts to something like 5¢ per day per person, at most, hardly likely to make a difference. Compare the “aid” to the amount extracted from Africa by the multinationals, which according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), at current prices the value of the goods and services Africa produces in a year is $773 billion. And to “benefit” from “debt cancellation” they will have to open their markets completely to Western capital; guarantee that the “free market” operates without let or hindrance; reduce their governments to little more than branch offices for the multinationals in the name of fighting corruption and in the case of the United States, agree to become forward bases for U.S. military penetration of Africa in the “war on terror.”

While it is a fact that the leaders of the “free world” have been forced to recognize the reality that the poor are poor because we are rich, the problem for the West has been how to sideline exposing the real cause of Africa’s problems and how to deal with this reality. Enter “Live 8,” Make Poverty History, etc., and of course, Blair’s much lauded but illusory “debt relief.”

To become eligible for help, African countries must bring about “a market-based economy that protects private property rights,” “the elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment,” and a conducive environment for U.S. “foreign policy interests.” In return they will be allowed “preferential treatment” for some of their products in U.S. markets. “Africa’s new best friends.” — George Monbiot, The Guardian, Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Just how deeply entrenched the racism is that determines the Western view of Africa is revealed by the following:

Africa’s winner-takes-all politics lies at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with Africa. . . . It is the reason why it has fallen behind the rest of the world economically, the reason for its wars and poverty. — Richard Dowden, director of the Royal Africa Society and former Africa editor of the London Independent

Dowden’s article, which was written in the context of “Sir Bob Geldof’s ‘Live 8’” roadshow goes on to tell us:

Imagine a united European state—united by force not by referendum—which has to elect one president, one government. A Europe in which the French are Muslim, the Germans are Catholic, the British Protestant and there is only one source of income, oil, and it is under the Germans.

But of course, a mere 50-odd years ago, Europe was united by force—it was called WWII—albeit into two blocs that faced each other down, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, and Dowden’s comments (made about Nigeria) are patently nonsense as a mere 150 years ago, Europe was a motley collection of states and statelets (Germany didn’t become a country until 1848, Italy a few years later) that had constantly been at war with each other for over 500 years!

The major difference, of course, between Africa and Europe was that the colonial powers grew powerful precisely because they colonized Africa and exploited it for some 500 years, accumulating literally trillions of dollars of capital at today’s prices that powered the industrial revolution.

Dowden goes on: “With a few exceptions African states have no common understanding or experience of nationhood. Their flags, their national anthems, their identities were created by outsiders. Patriotism in the good sense is in short supply.”

While it is true that most modern African nations came about through the colonial division of Africa after the 1889 Berlin Conference that divvied up the continent according to a pecking order of power (with Britain getting the proverbial lion’s share), to say that the newly independent African countries had no understanding of nationhood is not only insulting to the liberation struggles that led directly to independence, but is a lie of grand proportions.

To say that the struggles of Kwame Nkrumah and Eduardo Mondlane were devoid of an understanding of the importance of nationhood in the struggle for independence reveals the dual standard that the West uses when dealing with Africa.

Dowden’s uninformed comments also ignore the precolonial history of Africa, a history that it shares in common with the rest of humanity, one of empires, artistic and technological innovation, as well as that of pre-national formations. The fact that Dowden makes a “special” case for Africa reveals more about the bankruptcy of thought in the West than it does about Africa.

That the countries of Africa were forced into a world capitalist order in the space of a few decades, a process that Europe took hundreds of years to arrive at (accompanied by endless religious, ethnic, and “tribal” wars), is simply ignored.

That the national politics of many African countries are powered by patrimony, merely illustrates the complexity of the struggle between tradition and modernity within which Africa seeks to develop. Again, these are battles that were also waged in Europe, some not so long ago for example, the “rotten boroughs” of English politics of the late 19th century, or the unequal voting system in Northern Ireland that existed until the late 1960s (based on property), illustrates. Or indeed, the civil rights struggle in the United States that still sees black Americans deprived, through political chicanery, of the right to vote.

And for contemporary examples of comparable processes, we need look no further than the corrupt nature of local politics in Europe, with the equivalent networks of patrimony based upon political, business, and “club” connections such as in Italy, with the power of the Mafia or the Catholic church, or indeed in the most corrupt state of them all, the United States and its network of business, political, and family connections, i.e., Bush–Saudi–Bechtel–Halliburton.

To suggest that African networks are essentially any different just illustrates the kind of thinking that powers the alleged intelligentsia of the West, mired as it is in generations of domination.

Most African economies are still at the subsistence stage of economic development, with agriculture being the primary source of income, hence political networks reflect the connections between village, clan, and family rooted in the countryside and an agrarian economy, and a political order based in the cities that reflects the dichotomy between city and country, again something that Europe went through (and which it is still going on in the UK, France, and other European countries) in a period that lasted some several hundred years, culminating with the enforced migration of millions of agricultural workers from country to city that made the industrial revolution possible.

The irony of the West’s racist approach to African politics is revealed when we realize that over the past 20 years, Africa has been deliberately impoverished through the economic policies of the developed world. That for every dollar given to poor countries in aid, they lose two dollars to rich countries because of unfair trade barriers against their exports. That Africa has lost 85¢ for every $1.75 it receives in “aid” because of the falling prices it gets for its commodities.

And now the new imperium has exhumed yet another invention from a previous age, the rehabilitation of the colonial empire, by promoting the works of historians such as Niall Ferguson, blue-eyed boy of the latest revision of British history. Ferguson’s book, Empire (also turned into a BBC television series), described British colonial rule in Africa as “nation-building.”

And in line with current Western propaganda, asserts that the British Empire laid “the foundations of . . . [the] rule of law, non-corrupt administration, and ultimately, representative government.” Ferguson also claims that a period of “relative world peace” and a global order within which economic development was unquestionably easier as a result of the British Empire. Ferguson goes further, stating that poverty in Third World countries is not a product of colonialism or globalization, but is rooted in the fact that those “areas of the world have no contact with globalisation. It’s not globalisation that makes them poor, it’s the fact that they’re not involved in it.” An amazing claim considering the devastation caused by the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In a later book, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Ferguson, now a professor of history at Harvard University, has been calling on U.S. officials to take on their role as the new colonial master, as inheritors of the British empire. He even talks of an “imperial gene,” no doubt an Anglo-Saxon one.

Coincidence? I think not, for it fits perfectly into the assault on the past that justifies the present and in doing so, ramps up the current onslaught on the poor of the world.

One of the most insidious aspects of this current rewriting of the past is that because it is so far in the past, the genocidal policies of colonialism are blunted and softened by time. Hence, the current revisionist histories are able to implant the idea that we have changed but “they” haven’t in spite of all our attempts to “civilize” them. Hence the need to reimpose “our” values on “them” as they have proved incapable of doing when supposedly left to their own devices.

When we look at the words of Tony Blair, we see the transmission of the Ferguson version of history translated into the world of vox pop, where the struggle is that of “civilization” against the “dark forces” reigned against us. The “virus” that will “infect” us unless we reimpose our control. Who said which? The medical reference is interesting as it implies that invasion and occupation are in actuality, more like an “inoculation,” a preventive measure that neatly links up to the idea of “pre-emptive strikes.”

[In] another part of the globe, there is shadow and darkness where not all the world is free, where many millions suffer under brutal dictatorship and poverty


Iraq; another act; and many further struggles will be set upon this stage before it is over. We are bound together as never before.

These are the words of Tony Blair to the joint houses of the U.S. Congress in 2003. Note that “we are bound together,” that is, the “civilized” world, as elsewhere it’s a world of “shadow and darkness.” These deeply racist images strike a chord in populations long raised on a diet of being citizens of empire and reinforce the idea that the “dark hordes” are at the gates, hammering to get in, either to destroy us or take what is rightfully ours because it is ours by might.

One of the things I learned during my time living in Africa, was the importance of acknowledging the existence of the ancestors, although for me it translated into being connected to the past rather than believing in them literally. For through a connection to the ancestors, the past becomes solid ground rather than shifting sand. The ancestors are a transmission line to the past that remains stubbornly unbroken. Through the ancestors, a different history is preserved and carried down, not by education, books, or TV. It is both a private conversation and a collective memory, as in speaking to one’s ancestors you are also speaking to their time, calling upon their experience, their wisdom.

I know it’s a bit of cliché that history is written by the victors, and I know it sometimes seems like pissing in the wind, as the saying goes, but that is no excuse for us not to take the victors to task. Language, and through it, control of our collective and individual histories, is the only weapon we have in the struggle that we can call our own. And I know we all make the mistake of reducing the “struggle” to clichés, I suppose it is an inevitable product of the nature of struggle. All I can say is that I was raised by folks who carried with them a sense of the importance of their own history and their place in it and that thankfully, it was communicated to me.

So while the victors ensure that their transmission line to the past remains firmly under their control, we need to reestablish the fact that we are part of a continuum that embodies our struggles, our experiences of lives we have lived and continue to live. Thus rather than surrender to a world reordered, reconstructed by the Coopers, the Dowdens, and the Fergusons in their image, it is for us imperative that we reconnect ourselves, here in the West to our common heritage, our humanity, to our ancestors.

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