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Airstrip One
by Emmanuel Goldstein

May 23, 2000

The African Problem, and Us


I've written about Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, saying that we are getting ourselves into almighty messes. However, I think that we are missing the all-important point that the internationalists tell us we miss, the big picture. The reason is not to show that we need to intervene because Africa can't hope to sort itself out, or to show it as a despairing swamp that will never do well. I just want to demonstrate that the course on which we are embarked is dangerous. There is a better way, we just have to find the courage to accept that the peoples of Africa are grown-ups, who will only act that way if we take them seriously.


Both Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe have been boiling in the recent weeks. It is obvious that these are not isolated cases. Just about the whole of Africa seems to be in trouble. The conclusion has been drawn that the Africans are helpless, in need of benign guidance. To not accept this diagnosis of subnormal African intelligence is to be bizarrely labeled a racist, now sub-normality is equality and colonialism is independence, just like freedom is slavery. On the other hand, there is the view that Africa is an irrational mess, a heart of darkness, which will drive us mad. Although I agree with the conclusion that Africa should be left to itself, I disagree with the hopelessness. I have what should be a tediously obvious, but seemingly revolutionary, view; that Africans are as human as the rest of us but have different cultural and economic standards. After all if we can accept that of the Chinese, Indians or the Russians what is the difference with Africa?


One of the main perceived sources of conflict have been the borders drawn up by the European imperial powers. It is true that some of the rationale for drawing the borders was bizarre. Mount Kilamanjaro was a birthday present from Queen Victoria to her favourite nephew, the German Kaiser, which is why it is in Tanzania rather than Kenya. However, this particular pudding is over-egged. Few borders were drawn on maps, following lines of latitude or longitude. Most of these arbitrary borders followed geographic features, mainly rivers, which is not a purely African phenomenon. The idea that Sudan or Somalia will be settled by some judiciously drawn borders ignores the fact that the peoples of Africa are far more intermingled than it seems from State Department maps. Somalia in fact should be one of the most peaceful countries; they are of the same ethnic group, are all Muslim and speak the same language. Of course, some borders could be revised, but the West is not the best judge of local desires.


The present conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has shown that redrawing borders on more ethnic lines is not always a way to peace. In what seems like a lifetime ago the brutal Marxist dictator of Ethiopia, Mengistu, was replaced by an army of reformed Marxists, the backbone of which were provided by separatists in the north west provinces of Tigre and Ethiopia. During the post-liberation euphoria, Eritrea was given her independence. Now the world's largest conventional war is being fought ostensibly over stretches of semi-arid farmland, but in reality by Eritrea's control of landlocked Ethiopia's trade. The borders are more logical than ten years ago, but it does not make for peace.


Of course, we are told, Africa's real problem is her lack of capitalism. If only Africans embraced the market, then peace and democracy would follow like night and day. As a rather radical capitalist, I should agree with this. I don't. The fact is that for capitalism to be successful it has to be accepted, otherwise it will be overthrown. Capitalism when it has been imposed on Africa has often become a lawless parody of capitalism, as in the Kleptocracy of Mobutu's Zaire. Similarly democracy is not necessarily always going to work on the same template, remember that Zimbabwe is in fact one of the more democratic countries in Africa. The cultural roots of a democratic and capitalist society are much deeper than listening to the lectures of Tony Blair or the IMF. That's not to say that capitalism can't take root in Africa, but just like with democracy it will have to do so in its own time, and in its own way. Where capitalism has been imposed it has created it's own problems, as in Kenya which is going through it's own land crisis. The fact that imposing capitalism kills far fewer people than imposing socialism is not a reason to impose it. Far better for Africans to accept capitalism and democracy on their own terms and in their own time, much as Europe and North America did.


Africa is poor, that's why they fight and suppress their people. This is what we are often told. The solution, we are also told is to give more aid and to forgive debts. Will this really work? The short answer is, if it does it should have done so by now. An example is Ethiopia, which gets a large amount of aid from the west, while also fighting a war with Eritrea. It regards the war with Eritrea as more important than feeding its own civilians, and therefore depends on Western Aid to do so. In one crucial respect, Western aid is helping to prolong a war. Debt relief is also going to prove very popular – with the manufacturers of military hardware. The economist Lord Bauer once commented that foreign aid was a very effective way of taking money from poor people in rich countries to give it to rich people in poor countries. To keep on giving money to African governments to help her become sensible is a foolish course of action, like giving money to a drug addict in the hope that he will use it to build a better life.


The most idiotic argument for intervention is the idea that we made the mess in the first place, and we therefore have to clean up. While we did make (some) of the mess, colonialism broke a lot of the bonds of African society while the Cold War fueled the regional and civil wars, there is no guarantee that we can sort the problem out again. The very prospect of the military superiority of the "international community" being brought to bear on a conflict tends to fuel it, in that one or both sides sees a prospect for total victory rather than compromise. If we want to make amends for what we have done, the best thing to do is not to repeat our mistakes.


Africa is soluble, but not to the West. The fact is that Africans are not children, but as with all adults if you treat them like children they will develop child like characteristics. Africa can settle down, but at its own pace and in its own time. Just like we did.

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