How the West exploits Africa
By Tony Iltis
July 18, 2009 -- US President Barack Obama used his African heritage in his July 11 speech to the Ghanaian parliament in Accra as justification for proceeding to blame Africa’s problems on its own people.
He acknowledged historical Western crimes, but denied that ongoing suffering is caused by the current policies of the West. Western aggression and exploitation, Obama claims, are things of the past. A July 15 Los Angeles Times editorial said: “It was the same message about good governance they’d heard from presidents [Bill] Clinton and George W. Bush. No new programs or initiatives for Africa. But just because the message is old doesn't mean it's not worth repeating.”
Obama played up his own ancestry to appeal to his audience. He referred to the indignities his grandfather suffered under British colonial rule in Kenya, including being briefly imprisoned during the independence struggle of the 1950s and ’60s.
Having thus established his credibility, he continued: “Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict ... But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.”
Actually, the West has a direct responsibility for both, and for the endemic corruption and authoritarianism that Obama identified as a major cause of Africa’s problems. The destruction of the Zimbabwean economy, for instance, is not just a result of President Robert Mugabe’s corruption and mismanagement, but even more his government implementing neoliberal policies dictated by Western financial institutions.
Slave trade and colonialism
Obama acknowledged the criminal history of the slave trade. The slave trade came to an end in the 19th century, largely as a result of slave uprisings in the Caribbean, most notably the Haitian revolution of 1791-1805.
On the back of the slave trade, Europe and North America developed societies more wealthy, militarily powerful and technologically advanced than any previous civilisation. In the 19th century, the British set about conquering Africa. Although less than a century earlier the British were the biggest slave traders in history, this conquest was justified as fighting slavery.
Other European powers followed suit. In 1885, Africa was literally carved up at a conference in Berlin, without regard for pre-existing linguistic and political boundaries. This “colonial map that made little sense” is still the basis for the political map of Africa today.
As much as slavery, colonialism meant the development and enrichment of the West at Africa’s expense. Again, millions died.
In the Congo, King Leopold of Belgium systematically enslaved the entire population to produce rubber and ivory. Between 1885 and 1908, 13 million people were killed. In the mid-20th century, more than 3 million people were killed in the construction of the Brazzaville-Ocean Railway by France.
The creation of such infrastructure, which connected Africa’s raw materials to points of export to Europe, was described as giving Africa the benefits of Western civilisation. The same process continues today and is now called “development”.
Like slavery, colonialism was ended by the revolutionary struggles of Africans. However, the bonds of exploitation have endured.
Assassinations and coups
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, independence was won in 1960 by a movement led by one of the 20th century’s greatest political leaders, Patrice Lumumba. However, Western powers were not about to accept the loss of control of the DRC, one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world. Less than a year later, the US and Belgium conspired to have the socialist Lumumba murdered.
After several more US and Belgian-backed coups, in 1965 a brutal, kleptomaniac army officer, Mobutu Sese Seko was installed in power. For the next 31 years, while Mobutu grew immensely rich from his cut from copper and gold exports and from pocketing “development aid”, the US used the DRC as base for aggression against neighbouring countries. One such country was Angola following its 1975 revolution that overthrew Portuguese rule.
Obama spent much of his speech praising his host nation, Ghana, for its progress in building democratic institutions since 1992. He neglected to mention that the preceding 26 years of military rule were the result of a 1966 US-backed coup against the democratically elected president Kwame Nkrumah.
“America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation”, Obama claimed. “The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. But what America will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and responsible institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance.”
However, democracy is something that Africans have had to fight for against the US and other Western countries. This was the case in South Africa, where the US, Britain and Israel supported the apartheid system until its downfall in 1994.
South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, was branded a terrorist by US and British leaders during his 27-year imprisonment. It was only last year that the US removed Mandela from its state department list of terrorist suspects.
In claiming that “the West is not responsible for ... wars in which children are enlisted as combatants”, Obama is simply wrong. The multisided war that has killed more than 6 million people in the DRC since 1998 is not simply the result of tribal animosities.
The war has coincided with the information technology boom that has caused a huge demand for the mineral coltan. Coltan is used in mobile phones, computers, iPods and other electronic gadgets. The DRC has most of the world’s coltan reserves. The war is over control of coltan mines and the forced labour to work them. The armies of Uganda and Rwanda, both US allies, sell coltan from the DRC to Rwandan dealers. The US imports most of its coltan from Rwanda, which does not have its own coltan reserves.
Obama said military conflict was a “millstone around Africa’s neck”. He cited Somalia, which has been fought over by warring militias since the last central government collapsed in 1991, as a threat to stability. He neglected to mention that in 2006, when a coalition government led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed restored stability, this administration was overthrown by a US-instigated Ethiopian invasion. Ethiopian occupation cost 10,000 lives.
Obama called on Africans to extradite African war criminals to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. However, when Rwanda tried last year to extradite 33 French political and military leaders charged with organising the 1994 genocide that killed more than a million Rwandans, France treated the move with derision. Other Western countries ignored it. To the West, that European war criminals should stand trial in Africa is unthinkable.
Obama said the US and the West would continue giving Africa “development aid”, but African nations could not rely on this indefinitely. This ignores the fact that most “development aid” is used to service debts from variable interest rate loans foisted on African countries, often governed by unaccountable dictators, by Western governments and institutions.
A July 16 Pambazuka article said that between 1990 and 2003, African countries received US$540 billion in loans, paid back $580 billion in total and still owed $330 billion. Such “aid” is merely another way of bleeding the impoverished continent.
Furthermore, Western aid and loans come with conditions. These were described by the 2005 G8 finance ministers as the “elimination of impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign”.
Typically, this means aid and loans are conditional on African countries privatising public services such as transport, water supply, sewerage, education and health, taking these services out of the reach of the poor majority.
Lack of water, sanitation, food security, medicines and healthcare kills 11 million children each year. It also means respect for “intellectual property rights”, thereby denying Africans the ability to produce badly needed medicines patented by Western pharmaceutical corporations.
It also involves ending protective tariffs for agricultural imports, while Western countries continue to massively subsidise their agricultural sectors. Every cow in the European Union receives a $2 daily government handout — twice the income of 1.2 billion people. In Ghana, this means imported food is cheaper than that locally produced, destroying Ghana’s agricultural industry.
If the wealth that flows from Africa to the West from debt repayments, Western corporations buying privatised infrastructure and the exploitation of African labour are calculated, it changes the picture of who is giving aid to whom.
And that is without even taking the preceding centuries of the slave trade and colonialism into account.
[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #803, July 19, 2009.]