Colonial past

A bandage on a tumour

Fifty years ago, many Francophone African countries gained independence. Nigeria too separated from Britain in 1960. From 1960 to 1966, 46 of the continent’s 54 countries became sovereign. Else Engel and Stephanie von Hayek spoke with Salua Nour, a political scientist from Egypt, trying to find out whether there is much to celebrate 50 years later.

[ Interview with Salua Nour ]

How was the mood in 1960 compared to 2010?
1960 was extremely symbolic. At the time, the elite engaged the people in political life with great enthusiasm. The motto was: “We’re fighting colonialism.” A lot of hope was raised; thousands of people were mobilised. The anti-colonial fight was a real source of energy. Fifty years later, the people have noticed that the independence process did not fulfil its promises.

How was the transition from the status of colonies to that of post-colonial independence?
In the post-colonial era, class consciousness rose in African countries. The persons in power gained control of the national resources and the military. They simply took over the role of the colonial powers in the sense of marginalising and exploiting the people. Since there was no opposition in society, absolutist trends prevailed.

Has Africa been de-colonised?
No, not in the substantial sense. Africa has been formally independent for 50 years, according to official diplomacy – so it is assumed that something must have changed. This is how the donor community argues, and so do the governments of developing countries. But that is not the whole truth. The only difference from what happened in colonial times is that the colonial state and its exploitation system benefited someone. The colonial powers exploited riches and transferred them home in an orderly fashion. At home, they accumulated capital, promoted the development of technology and boosted economic growth. The post-colonial state practices the same type of exploitation, but the riches don’t serve any function. They are transferred to Swiss bank accounts, consumed and destroyed.

What do political structures look like today?
Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the transformation of the international system, African elites have learned to pay lip-service to Western standards. But the current, supposedly democratic institutions – parliaments and elections, for instance – have nothing to do with democracy as it is understood in the West.

Please give an example.
Consider the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is often said to be at the root of all calamities in the Great Lakes region. Some in the international community thought the DRC should be cut into four parts and disarmed, and that Rwanda, as the country that can secure order in the region, should be given influence over the eastern parts. Then elections were organised. The EU spent € 20 million on the elections; European troops were sent in to monitor the process. A parliament was born out of the election. But nothing has changed. Look at the power structures in politics and the economy! Corruption is visible everywhere. Even the names of members of parliament show that they are recruited from the same dominant class which has been ruling the Congo for decades. The same clique has stayed in power. Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator, is dead, but his son is still there and so are the forces that support him. If people want to resist, violence may seem to be the only remaining option.

So in day-to-day life, independence has made no difference?
Ghana and Botswana are obviously exceptions. Donors often present Rwanda as a success story too. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, that country rose from number 143 to 67 in two years. But we are not considering what is going on behind the scenes in Rwanda. Westerners express pro-Rwandan views because of the 1994 genocide, no matter what Rwanda is doing illegally in the eastern DRC. Donors pretend that this is none of their business. Rwanda is one of the largest exporters of diamonds on the world market but it has no diamond deposits. All diamonds are from the eastern DRC. And the situation of the majority of the Rwandan people still does not differ from that of the people in most other parts of Africa where the situation has deteriorated since indepen­dence.

Does Africa need development aid to escape poverty or, to quote Volker Seitz, a former German Ambassador to Cameroon and Benin, do the African elites need to finally assume responsibility for their own continent?
Ambassador Seitz’s comments are un­acceptable.
– First of all, they are utopian. He is arguing logically that aid has always gone to the ruling classes who keep the money for themselves – so let’s stop that. But he does not consider what role aid plays for industrialised countries and their partners. His proposal would require huge political and structural changes all over the world.
– Second, Africa has been exploited in the most brutal and bestial manner. You can try to think in a post-colonial fashion but a return to what Africa looked like in the 17th century is impossible. Africa is part of the modern world and it needs a lot of resources to compensate for what was lost. Africa will not be able to accumulate any capital and get out of trouble if it doesn’t have any capital to start with.

You know Africa well, what do you recommend?
You want an easy formula. The core problem is that aid flows into the hands of politicians. They cream off 80 or 90 %, and the rest is simply consumed. Aid should no longer go to the ruling class, it should serve the people and boost private-sector growth. That is how people can help themselves and get out of trouble. The Millennium Development Goals are not an effective tool, but more like a bandage applied to a cancer tumour.

And at some point there will be no more bandages?
The simple truth should be clear to everyone: as long as national economies do not run efficiently and generate tax revenues, it won’t be possible to make things work. Why doesn’t the international donor community invest in Africa’s business sectors? The reason is obvious if you consider the competitive dynamics of the international capitalist system. One does not support one’s competitors, one destroys them.

Are you saying that Africa’s role in the pre- and post-colonial eras has remained the same?
Yes, it has. Africa’s role in the inter­national economic system is to produce commodities and to serve as a market for Western goods. Europe supports its own farmers with subsidies, so their products are much cheaper than anything Africans can produce. That is the end of productive economic activity in Africa. Africa has been left behind, with no basis for growth and the accumulation of capital through world market integration.

What advice do you give idealistic youngsters in Germany who want to make a difference?
There are two options. The first possibility is to stay at the discourse level and say that things are as they are for some reason, so one cannot do much. The other option is to radically reject the system as it exists. I do not recommend either approach. What I recommend is to join the system as part of an institution such as the GTZ and to use the room it offers for manoeuvre. In general, there is far more scope for individuals to make a difference than people think and than they dare to make use of. My experience is that I could do a lot, sometimes by saying no or by opting for innovative solutions to problems.

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