Africa Bound By William Bowles

6 June 2005

Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King
Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King

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 Independent. The Independent, 1/6/05, p.2

The statement above pretty well sums up the Western propaganda line on Africa, the alleged ‘basket-case’. That it’s written by the director of the Royal Africa Society and former Africa editor for the Independent speaks reams about the interlocking nature and hence common ideological thrust that the Western ‘intelligentsia’ peddles to the ‘masses’ about how Africa got to be where it is today.

The irony of Dowden’s many misleading notions about Africa are that they could just as easily apply to Europe or indeed anywhere on Earth, perhaps in different forms due to different circumstances and at different times, but always reflecting the nature of who holds real political and economic power. That Dowden chooses to make a ‘special case’ for Africa reflects the inbuilt racism that colours just about all the attitudes the Western intelligentsia brings uninvited to the debate about the nature of Africa and its ways.

And Dowden’s comment about ‘winner-takes-all’ politics rings pretty hollow when you consider the rip-off the British electoral process is with its ‘first past the post’ system, but we’ll let that pass and focus in on what underpins Dowden’s essentially imperial view of Africa.

Dowden’s full page piece which is written in the context of ‘Sir’ Bob Geldof’s on-going nonsense, ‘Live8′ 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 fifty-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 one hundred fifty 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 five hundred years!

The major difference of course, between Africa and Europe was that the colonial powers grew powerful precisely because they colonised Africa and ripped it off for some five hundred years, accumulating capital that powered the industrial revolution.

Dowden’s piece 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.

Whilst it is true that many 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 pre-colonial 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 make 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 (accompanied by endless religious, ethnic and ‘tribal’ wars) to arrive at, is simply ignored by Dowden.

That the countries were deliberately kept un-developed by Europe is also missing from Dowden’s simplistic ‘analysis’. (For a brilliant analysis of this process see Walter Rodney’s classic ‘How Europe underdeveloped Africa’.)

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 eg 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 the myopia of people like Dowden. Or indeed, the civil rights struggle in the US that still sees many black Americans deprived 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 the UK or many other European states, with the equivalent networks of patrimony based upon political, business and ‘club’ connections, or in Italy, with the power of the Mafia or the Catholic church, or indeed in the most corrupt state of them all, the US and its network of business, political and family connections.

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

Dowden’s ‘analysis’ far from shedding light on the issue seeks to equate ‘corruption’ with the fundamental economic exploitation of Africa by the West, as if getting rid of corruption would somehow alter the unequal relationship between Africa and the West.

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 through) 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 Dowden’s racist approach to African politics is revealed on the same page as his article where we read that over the past twenty years, Africa has been deliberately impoverished through the economic policies of the developed world:

For every dollar given to poor countries in aid, they lose two dollars to rich countries because of unfair trade barriers against their exports

Africa has lost 50p for every pound it receives in aid because of the falling prices it gets for its commodities:

This is not say that Dowden ignores this aspect but that he distorts these problems by making a ‘special case’ for Africa, in effect telling us that underpinning the problems are issues that are inherently African, because “African states have no common understanding or experience of nationhood”.

With ‘friends’ like Dowden, who needs enemies?

So how does Dowden square the circle? Dowden refers to unfair trade, to the fact that we steal their hard won skills for our under-developed health service, that we sell them weapons and so on but he ends up by saying:

Most important of all, we need to make a long-term commitment to Africa and spend more resources trying to understand how it [Africa] works

Which sounds like more jobs for the ‘boys’, for based upon his own observations about ‘how Africa works’, the resources need to be spent on people like Dowden, who clearly don’t understand how ‘Africa works’. Even more importantly, it reveals that Dowden refuses to recognise how the West works!

With the great mass of the Western public ‘informed’ by the likes of Dowden, is it any wonder that racist attitudes persist, yet anyone who is interested in politics and who spends any amount of time on the Web must surely know by now that we have governments that lie to and deceive their citizens over the reasons why they do things, whether it be invading other countries or right down to relatively ‘mundane’ issues like taxation, trade or environmental policies.

Dowden will no doubt claim that he does highlight the unfairness of the relationship between Africa and the developed world but if this is the case, why does he need to set the relationship in the context of African countries as essentially being ‘basket cases’? Is he saying that even if the trade were fair, until African countries become ‘like us’, they’ll forever be corrupt and ‘failed states’? If so, why not come out and say it?

The problem is that the Independent speaks with forked tongue on the issue, even within the same story. On the one hand, it tells us that the problem lies in part with ‘corrupt’ African governments and on the other that it is the unfair trade between the West and Africa. What are we to believe? Are the two issues connected and if so, how? The implication is that ‘aid encourages’ corruption by ‘handing out’ big chunks of money but as the Independent points out, for every dollar the West ‘gives’ in ‘aid’ it takes back two!

So ‘aid’ is in fact anything but aid for invariably the ‘aid’ involves using the ‘aid’ to buy from the giver or so-called tied aid. Even the UK’s ‘aid’ which ostensibly disconnects the ‘aid’ from the donor country, on closer analysis gets around this by making the bidding process on contracts open to all countries including companies from the UK.

The role of people like Dowden is to mystify the process whereby the countries of Africa came to be, hence the contradiction between the fundamental economic realities that have largely determined the nature of Africa today and the false notion that there is something ‘special’ about Africans and African society that makes them especially prone to corruption and nepotism/despotism etc.

It should also be apparent that this is no crass argument, for at first sight, it appears to be an eminently reasonable one but one that depends on the false notion that if one opposes Dowden’s view of Africa then we are ‘patronising’ Africans by absolving them of responsibility for their own actions. But it is the West that has created the conditions that makes it possible for tiny elites to appropriate the so-called aid, a situation that has existed for decades before the revisionist history that Dowden peddles was invented.

Downden’s view is an entirely an a-historical interpretation of how modern Africa came to be. It ignores the historical process of colonialism; the anti-colonial struggles and the foreign interference that accompanied those struggles’; it ignores the fundamental economic reality that goes back centuries that deliberately kept Africa under-developed for fear of it becoming economically independent of its colonial masters and even, as was the case with Egypt, a competitor of Britain for the same markets.

Is it any wonder then that the myths persist when we have the ‘experts’ presenting such paradoxical viewpoints.

Most people should know that the massive subsidies governments hand out in the West to business result in the destruction of economies in the neo-colonial countries of the world, making it impossible for them to compete with Western imports. Virtually all developing countries are worse off now than they were 20 years ago as a result of the so-called Structural Adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

Many of the products Westerners buy in the high street are 15-20% cheaper than they were twenty years ago, but if you were to ask the ‘average’ shopper in an English high street if they are prepared to pay 15-20% more for their goods in order to redress the imbalance, they would in all likelihood say no way José! The wealthier amongst us might well say yes but then they can afford to for there are two connected issues here.

For alongside the more general issue of the unfair relationship between the rich and poor countries of the world, we have also seen an increasing gap between rich and poor in the so-called developed countries and the two processes are not unconnected.

There is a much more complex relationship between the lies we are told than is at first sight obvious, for it is not merely the specific lies we are routinely fed but the relationship between the lies and how they form a complex web of deception about the reasons for things being the way they are.

Dowden and co would have us believe that the fundamental problem lies with African governments, that removing corruption would, in some way, remove a fundamental obstacle to African development when nothing could be further from the truth. For the truth resides in hundreds of years of economic exploitation that has un-developed Africa to the benefit of the West.

The current song and dance around ‘Live8’ illustrates the essential issue we have to confront. Twenty years ago ‘Live Aid’ allegedly raised millions of dollars for Africa but conditions have gotten worse not better, with many African countries in even deeper debt to Western banks and financial institutions (Zambia pays back four times as much in interest on its debt as it gets in ‘aid’), so clearly ‘aid’ is not the solution. Only a complete restructuring of the international economic order will change things, not something that is likely to happen unless we change our governments and ultimately our economic order.

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