Saturday, December 19, 2009

Power, Culture & Coups in Africa

`We learn history not in order to know how we behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are` - Leszek Kolakowski

There is much to learn from Africa...especially when it comes to understanding the long-term impact of the `colonial hangover` that afflicts many parts of the world...

Like most former colonial territories, almost all countries in Africa are set on borders that were defined by the power struggles among the former imperial powers of Europe. During phase referred to as "Old Colonialism" (16-19 century) most rulers of Western Europe handed out 'charters' to private trading companies, with an eye on the easy profits to fill their coffers. So people who had initially set sail hoping to undercut the Arab spice traders, and to `reveal` Christianity to the pagans, turned themselves into the first generation the most unscrupulous multinational companies ever.

On top of the pile were the Dutch East India Company (aka VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC). For nearly 200 years VOC handed out an annual dividend of no less than 18% to its investors. High profitability led them to acquire quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies. The fate of entire continents hung on the decisions of the company`s board of directors sitting in Amstredam or London. (When the rise of EIC pushed the Dutch East India Company into bankrupcy in 1800, a survey revealed that the whole of Africa was being controlled by about 10,000 Europeans, 95% of whom were based in Cape Town!)

Later, during `New Colonialim`, European governments took over the operations of these MNCs. Two scholars - Friedrich Ratzel (a German geographer) and Rudolf Kjellen (Swedish political scientist), came up with the idea of the `continental block` - an idea enshrined in the Theory of Geopolitics. According to them, states should grow and evolve as blocks, with each block being self-sufficient (economically, militarily). From this, came Ratzel’s Seven Laws on the Growth of States:

  1. The space of States grows with the expansion of the population having the same culture.
  2. Territorial growth follows other aspects of development.
  3. A State grows by absorbing smaller units.
  4. The frontier is the peripheral organ of the State that reflects the strength and growth of the state; hence, it is not permanent.
  5. States in the course of their growth seek to absorb politically valuable territory.
  6. The impetus for growth comes to a primitive State from more highly developed civilization.
  7. The trend towards territorial growth is contagious and increases in the process of transmission.

These ideas provided not only the ideological backing for colonial expansion but World Wars that came much later. Blocks were to be an enlarged version of the colonies acquired by the European powers and included Africa, South & S East Asia.

Therefore in keeping with Ratzel`s `laws`, the colonies were administered in such a way that higher education was open only to the collaborating elites. This was a typical `policy of cultural assimilation` followed by the colonists with the explicit purpose of `keeping the natives as natives`, and of ruling them with this elite who identified themselves completedly with the colonial master`s. Elementary education and training in basic skills was encouraged while higher education was reserved for the elites who learnt about the history and cultural traditions of the colonial master`s, and to look down upon almost everything that was their own.

One of the few universities that provided a neutral form of higher education was Howard University in Washington DC -- an institution that encouraged a less doctrinaire higher education to people in European colonies. From this university came an Assistant Professor named Kwame Nkrumah, who was to turn around the ideology of the colonisers to start the `Pan-African Movement`. His book, `Africa Must Unite` set the tone for his campaign and was quite effective in convincing other African countries that they ought to be ruling themselves, while preserving the artificial borders that had been drawn by the colonisers.

Nkrumah returned to Gold Coast, fought and won independence from the British, and renamed the country `Ghana`. But within a few years, he was overthrown by the military and his vision of independent, economically strong Africa was tossed aside. This became the typical pattern in other new African states -- of democratic forces being overwhelmed by the armed forces. This brings us back to the question: why are there so many coup d'Ă©tat`s in Africa?

A part of the answer lies in a strategy followed by the former European colonisers of dividing civilian and military power between different tribes. So even after independence, internal ethnic frictions were easily transformed into a confrontation between the military and the civilians leadership who came from different ethnic groups.

Since the former colonists continued to give generous scholarships to promising youngsters from both the military and the civil administration, they continued to weild a strong cultural influence over the ruling elite in the newly independent African countries. But still, there was a difference -- Ali Mazrui, a leading African scholar based in University of Binghamton, NY, has observed that the military leaders who mounted coup-detat in Africa were usually traditionalists, who strongly believed that African should be ruled by culturally independent people, rather than `pseudo-Europeans`.

So this combination of a power structure inherited from the colonizers (dividing power among tribes) and the lure of traditionalism proved to be a fatal combination for the new democracies. In Uganda, for instance, Idi Amin belonged to the Kakwa tribe that had been excluded from the civil power structure for generations (the forte of Acholi and Lange tribes). So when he got the chance, he ousted Milton Obote`s `pseudo-European` leadership and seized power in 1971. But once in power, it was soon apparant that politics and civil administration is not a game that a soldier can master so easily!

The same pattern was repeated in Congo (Zaire) under Mobuto, Ivory Coast under HouphouëtBoigny and other newly formed African nation-states.

So, Africa seems no different from what we see even today in much of Asia - the colonial legacy is a pretty difficult thing to overcome - especially if it has embedded itself in the minds of a ruling elite, hollowing out much of their own sense of self esteem, turning them into pathetic `brown-sahibs` whose self-worth depends on recognition and acclaim from their former masters.




Coup Traps: Why does Africa have so many Coups d’Etat? -

Colorado-U Geoplitics Course PP:

The Black Bourgeoise:

American Library of Congress - Country Studies:
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