By William Pfaff
When I was a young journalist, I had the experience of traveling for a month in what was then the Belgian Congo. It was one of the most important events in my political education. Colonialism was then understood to be a system that had to end, but few believed it would end in Africa within the next decade. Africa seemed an exception, a racialist judgment certainly, but also one that seemed to have solid grounds in the cultural, educational and institutional realities of mid-1950s Central Africa.
The Congo had an appalling colonial record, begun in the expeditions of the journalist Henry M. Stanley (sponsored by the Paris edition of the New York Herald—today the International Herald Tribune). In 1871, Stanley “found” the Scottish missionary David Livingstone (who never considered himself “lost,” but who was in precarious health and died within two years).
Stanley’s subsequent expeditions ended in the creation of the Congo Free State, solely owned by the Belgian monarch Leopold II. The atrocities committed there, in the exploitation of its rubber and other natural resources, became an international scandal, resulting in the Belgian state’s annexation of the colony in 1908.
Following the Second World War, it had become a model, if paternalist, colony with nearly universal literacy, but based on the assumption that educational and political development would require generations. In fact, when I was there the colonial government had five years to last.
Africa underwent a precipitous and largely disastrous decolonization, the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) possibly the worst of all. It has been conventional to ascribe this to postcolonial exploitation by the ex-colonial powers; the failure of the European colonists to prepare the colonies for independence; and the Cold War, which ignited wars between African political groups or regimes backed by the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union or China. Today China is extremely active in buying rights to African raw materials, more often than not from corrupt African authorities. Democracy has scarcely figured at all in the government and the transition of rulers in the new Africa, which is afflicted by militia armies, child soldiers, European mercenaries and ruthless battles for control, or theft, of such resources as diamonds and strategic minerals.
France is the only European country to maintain small troop detachments in Africa through “defense” treaties with some of its former colonies, useful to France to protect its African investments, and protecting heads of state with often tenuous claims to legitimacy, but providing some kind of order. In the Ivory Coast, it currently is supporting efforts by the African Union (created in 1999) and the United Nations to allow the president-elect of the country (in an internationally endorsed vote on Oct. 31) to claim his office against the resistance of his opponent in that election, the country’s former president. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has apparently also passed a warning to the officers of the Ivory Coast army that the military is expected to remain neutral in the affair.
This international/African contest—thus far without serious violence—is being played out as I write, but it is a familiar enough story in contemporary Africa. It cannot directly be blamed on neocolonialism or imperialism. But on the other hand, who else can be blamed?
Ibrahima Thioub, a Senagalese historian in Dakar, and an expert on slavery, the slave treaties and decolonization, puts much blame on Africa’s modern elites, who, he says, resemble their predecessors from the age of slavery.
If you want to see the slavery system of the past, he wrote in the Paris newspaper Le Monde last June 1, you have only to look about you. “In African villages I am always struck by their two prevailing methods of transport. One is the prestigious 4x4 western off-road vehicle. The other dates from the neolithique age: the burden carried on a woman’s head.” The first provides transportation for the elite and the foreigner.
The system is that of the past. “The elite, through violence, appropriates the resources of the country, exports them, spends the result on foreign goods totally without social utility in Africa, other than to symbolize the capacity of the elite for violence.”
“The response of the most dynamic part of the population is to take flight—by the fishing boat meant to reach the Spanish coast, or the Canary Islands, or paying the contrabander who promises to get them to Malta or Italy.”
“In the past, the Europeans brought equally useless or destructive goods to Africa: trinket jewelry, alcohol, firearms. With these they paid the elites to capture and deliver slaves. The village even then accepted this exchange, as it does today. It is even easier today. The slaves deliver themselves. They are the immigrants.” He says: “If a ship arriving in any African port today should advertise that it wanted slaves for Europe, it would be loaded within minutes.”
“We in Africa have all we need to succeed. Go to any market at five in the morning and you see hundreds of women at work to feed their families. We have nothing to learn about physical courage. Our problem is that outsiders have installed a predatory culture. To break with that is a vast undertaking.”
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.