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How West wrecked a continent

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Issue 1698

“Africans would now prefer to return to colonialism,” said a recent BBC report from Sierra Leone. Such claims bolster the idea that Western troops and mercenaries might be able to improve the desperate conditions in Africa. Yet every intervention in Africa by countries such as Britain, the US and France has been disastrous for ordinary people.

The earliest Western intervention was the slave trade. Between nine million and 13 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic. Then colonial invasion exploded. Africans ruled almost the entire African continent before 1880. Within a few years five European powers (and the King of the Belgians) had divided Africa between them, creating 30 new colonies spanning ten million square miles.

The great powers carved up the African continent at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-5. Not a single African was invited to attend. European powers seized these territories and squeezed them for profit. King Leopold of the Belgians transformed virtually the entire population of the Congo into rubber—hunting slaves who were slaughtered if they failed to deliver the required quota.

He made over £1 billion profit in today’s money during his terrifying 25 year reign. But around half of Congo’s population, some ten million people, died from overwork, torture and starvation. German colonists pioneered a new tactic of mass starvation to shatter opposition in Tanganyika in 1905. They laid waste huge areas of the country, hanged anyone who resisted, and drove the population into the most barren areas. Famine killed at least 250,000 Africans.

The British West African Frontier Force used the most savage methods during the repression of resistance in northern Nigeria in 1906. The force “emptied its magazines into the mob of peasants armed with hoes and hatchets, shooting them down as if they were vermin”. Prisoners were executed, their heads cut off and put on spikes. British colonialism also favoured the creation of militaristic and corrupt local rulers and set African against African as a means of “divide and rule”.

The British instituted labour compounds and racist pass laws in South Africa in the 1880s. These paved the way for the apartheid laws formalised by the country’s white governments from 1948 onwards. Colonialism was eventually defeated, although only at great cost. It took more than 20 years of war to drive the French out of Algeria. The leaders of the newly independent countries inherited broken economies and divided societies. The best of them tried to expand on the basis of state-run development.

But with limited resources they were unable to develop beyond a certain point. They turned to the global economic institutions for help.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed harsh austerity measures—the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP)—as a condition of aid and loans. To date 39 African countries have suffered under these programmes. They have eliminated the gains made by struggling independent countries during the previous 20 years. The infant mortality rate in Mali, West Africa, fell by 23 percent between 1960 and 1980, the year the SAP was introduced. It rose by 26.5 percent over the next five years.

The French government has continued to dominate the tax and currency policies of a huge swathe of African countries through its control of the CFA franc, a currency which had to be used by its former colonies. The French government devalued the CFA franc by 50 percent in 1993. This meant that workers’ wages were cut in half overnight and the price of imported goods, particularly medicines, rose steeply.

However, the French had told their allies in the ruling classes of the decision in advance. They saw their wealth double in a day by converting their money into Western currencies. The debt burden has continued to grow. Outside intervention has often been far more direct than financial pressure. Western countries have sent troops in. The result has been violence, division and more poverty for the vast majority in every case.

France imposed Colonel Jean Bedel Bokassa as president of the Central African Republic in 1965. Bokassa was probably clinically insane. This did not stop him becoming a favourite for Western aid.

His small country, with a population of just three million, had valuable uranium and cobalt reserves—and diamonds. Bokassa declared himself president for life, field marshal and then emperor in 1972. His coronation cost £20 million, in a country where less than one in five people had access to safe water. Bokassa used the country’s diamonds to pay mercenaries and French politicians. France backed a psychopathic murderer in return.

When in 1979 students rioted after they were told they must buy uniforms in stores owned by the emperor, 100 of them were arrested and taken to the French-financed Ngaragba prison. They were tortured and most of them killed under Bokassa’s personal supervision.

A French garrison protected Bokassa throughout this period. It intervened directly six times to batter the opposition back. The French government eventually removed Bokassa, but only to impose a new client regime. French troops were fighting in the streets to defend this regime as recently as 1996.

The horror in the Central African Republic was replayed on an even larger scale in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. President Mobutu ruled from 1965. He was one of Africa’s most corrupt despots. The West put Mobutu in power and then defended him. This process began when the US, Belgium and United Nations forces broke the left wing MNC movement of Patrice Lumumba and murdered him.

Around 90 percent of the cobalt used in the US aerospace industry came from Zaire, and the country was also rich in diamonds, uranium, manganese and tin. French forces flew to save Mobutu from his opponents on three crucial occasions. The West eventually became concerned that Mobutu was too obviously corrupt and that this would lead to instability.

French paratroops secured the mines while the International Monetary Fund took over the day to day running of Zaire’s economy. But Mobutu remained at the top and the West protected him almost to the end of his rule in 1997. Some 3,000 Western soldiers and aircraft backed the armed forces of Hissene Habre in north Africa’s Chad in the 1970s. This detonated a 20 year civil war. Habre murdered 40,000 of his opponents on taking power.

French troops have intervened in Africa 35 times in the last 15 years. The purpose has always been to prop up pro-Western regimes or to install new puppet governments. The French first armed and funded the government of Rwanda, which unleashed genocide against the Tutsis and their supporters.

France then sent troops to protect the killers. It has not acted alone. The West has supported the UNITA movement of Jonas Savimbi in Angola for 20 years while it waged war against the elected government. There was direct US military aid in the beginning. Later the South African military fought in Angola, and further Western arms, equipment and men were channelled through Mobutu’s Zaire. Over 750,000 have died in the war, two thirds of them children.

Similarly, the right wing Movement for National Resistance (RENAMO) in Mozambique received arms and money from South Africa and conservatives in the US. This fuelled a civil war which killed one million in the 1980s. Western governments have frequently tried to camouflage their real interests by saying their interventions are “humanitarian”. But the mission to Somalia shows the emptiness of the rhetoric.

US and UN forces swept into the country amid great rejoicing from much of the population. But these armies did nothing to end the food shortages and simply gave another brutal twist to the violence in the country. Their “achievement” was to unite much of the population behind the armed gangs which ordinary people had begun to break from.

The countries which suck debt from Africa, impose SAPs, plunder its resources through supporting multinationals and send troops to kill for corrupt regimes never act in the interests of ordinary people. They are enforcers for the bankers, hitmen for diamond merchants.

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