Wars in Africa since 1989 15. Slavery, colonisation and plunder

When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land.

They said: “Let us pray”. We closed our eyes.

When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.1

Desmond Tutu

Africa is a seething cauldron of desperation. Hunger, disease, plunder and tyranny are generating wars and perpetual flows of refugees. But the wars are no longer between different nation-states. In the 1990s, people in many countries have had to rely on armed gangs to ‘protect’ them against other armed gangs. The central machinery of state has crumbled and lost control. In practice, many governments have become gangs just like any other.

The term ‘failed states’ has been coined to describe this condition. “A failed state is defined as a state whose structures and institutions have broken down to such a degree that it is no longer possible to identify any overall, generally recognised authority.”2 Africa is a continent torn to shreds. In this chapter we explain how this is rooted in Africa’s colonial past. In the following chapter we take a closer look at the anatomy of barbarism and some of the wars in Africa in the 1990’s.

Africa, a rich continent – now devastated

During the Iron Age in Ghana, royal power was rooted in Stone Age com­munal husbandry. The kings were obliged to distribute the surplus, and take responsibility for the welfare of all. Al-Idrisi, who wrote extensively about Africa in the 12th century, described how the rulers of Ghana had a thousand guests, and served food and drink on a scale never previously witnessed. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and writer who travelled in Af­rica in the 14th century, visited the East African city of Kilwa in 1331 and described it as “one of the most beautiful and well-built cities in the world”. And in the early 16th century, Moroccan writer Leo Africanus portrayed Timbuktu as a seat of learning. The market for handwritten books was so great, he wrote, that the merchants made a greater profit on books than on any other wares.3

In 1497, three Portuguese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope under the captaincy of Vasco da Gama. Imperialist powers began establishing trading posts along the African coast en route to China and India. At first, no attempt was made to penetrate the inland. There were few roads, the rivers had perilous waterfalls and the white newcomers frequently died of fever. But when the slave trade got under way, traders began conducting raids along the rivers. Between 1600 and 1867, at least 11 million people were sold as slaves, primarily to America.4 Millions more were forced into slavery in Africa itself.

Then came colonisation. Belgium was first. Following his extensive travels up the Congo River, Henry Morton Stanley had long sought to persuade the British to colonise the region. But it was King Leopold of Belgium who first reacted to Stanley’s accounts of the riches in the Congo. Stanley returned to Africa in 1878 on a Belgian royal commission. On his previous trips, he had forcibly recruited local natives as bearers and guides. Now he began to introduce slave labour on a major scale.

At the end of the 19th century, this was a fairly simple task. The larger king­doms in the rainforest region around the Congo River had been decimated during a 200-year Portuguese reign of terror. What remained of the old kingdoms had withdrawn along the Congo’s tributaries, and had tried to reconstruct functioning communities. They were unable to defend them­selves against the machine-guns of raiding parties.

Stanley’s commission was to persuade the local kings to surrender their wealth to Leopold. He achieved this by deception, threat and terror. The colonisers seized the local population’s food supplies. Women were system­atically taken hostage to force men to work for expedition parties, in the rubber plantations, or in other forms of slave labour.

Terrified of the advancing Europeans, people fled from their villages and fields. Those who survived the gruelling work, or escaped being shot, often starved to death. Over a 30-year period in the late 19th and early 20th century, almost ten million people died in the Congo. The process was portrayed as a commendable exercise in free enterprise, aimed at putting an end to the Arab slave trade.5

The imperialists carve up Africa

When other states saw Belgian imperialism enriching itself in the Congo, the scramble for Africa began. The British and the French were the most successful. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, six Western powers – Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – had divided Africa between them. Borders were drawn as straight lines on the map with no consideration whatsoever for how people or ethnic groups lived. Thirty years later, when the First World War broke out, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries not to have been transformed into colonies.

The Berlin Conference did not spell the end of big-power conflicts. The French dominated West Africa, and wanted to open up a route to East Africa. The British controlled territory from Egypt in the north down to South Africa. In 1898 these two lines of expansion intersected on the Nile River in southern Sudan. The troops clashed at the village of Foshada. For weeks, Britain and France were on the brink of war. Frantic negotiations in Paris and London ended in a French withdrawal in exchange for certain other African regions. France had been weakened internally by the Dreyfuss affair, and was also anxious to enlist the support of the British in the forth­coming war against Germany, which it knew was inevitable. Britain in turn was not prepared to relinquish any part of the Nile as its entire Egyptian colony was dependent on the river.

Africa was the last of the world’s continents to be colonised. This was not because it was uninteresting from an economic viewpoint. Africa possesses enormous riches – gold, diamonds, copper, and, of more recent discov­ery, oil. Also, the continent has huge fertile tracts. But Africa lacked the infrastructure and centralised rule found in China and India. Adam Smith has observed that in many respects 18th century China was economically superior to Britain, although it was not a capitalist country. “The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe.”6 China had governments that levied taxes, financed ar­mies, and maintained roads and navigable channels. The Chinese state built giant edifices such as the Great Wall. India, too, had a central government.

In China and India, the colonisers, by means of enforced compromises with the ruling elite, were able to get their hands on more or less complete sys­tems of exploitation, despite China never having been formally colonized. In Africa, they usually had to create a privileged class. To achieve this, they often played off one community against another. “If you help us enslave village X, we’ll leave you in peace.” If a conflict already existed between dif­ferent groups, the colonisers took over by arming one of them.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsis in the region were traditionally cattle herders, while the Hutus were peasants. The Tutsis developed a military that enabled them to conquer and control large areas of grazing for their herds. They subdued peasants and forced them into economic dependence by hiring out livestock to them. But the dividing line between Tutsi herders and Hutu farmers was not a rigid one. Intermarriage was not uncommon, and people could swap ethnic affiliation. A Hutu who acquired a cow could build up a herd of his own and become a Tutsi (if you had more than ten head of cattle, you were a Tutsi), and vice versa.7 Also, some clans con­tained members of both groups.

Colonial rule deepened the difference between the two. Only Tutsis were allowed an education, and they were taught that they belonged to a superior race. Ethnic separation was consolidated by introducing ID cards showing which group each person belonged to. This was particularly absurd in view of the fact that the two groups shared the same language, culture and pre­dominantly Christian religious beliefs.

Once the imperialists had established their rule in Africa, plunder could begin in earnest. One of the first to realise what was going on was Edmund Morel, a shipping agent. During the late 1890s, he regularly supervised the loading and unloading of cargo ships on the Congo trade route. He noticed that every ship arriving at the port of Antwerp was packed with precious commodities such as rubber and ivory. The ships that returned to Africa contained only soldiers, arms and ammunition.8

The colonial scramble had a profound effect on Africa. People starved, because imperialism robbed them of the possibility of growing food for themselves. Africa is a large continent with a widely varied climate and dif­ferent natural resources, vegetation and types of rainfall. The colonial mas­ters saw to it that each country developed its special potential, not in terms of what benefited the population most, but in terms of what could be sold cheaply on the world market. Various exploitation models emerged.

Countries like Zambia and Congo were above all copper producers. Ghana (known prior to independence as the Gold Coast) mined gold. Sierra Leone specialised in diamonds. In these countries, various coercive measures were employed to turn peasants into mineworkers. In recent years, oil production has also become important, in countries such as Nigeria, Gabon, Angola and Sudan.

In eastern and western Africa, both of which have climates that suit Euro­pean immigrants, the Africans were first driven off the land, and then em­ployed as plantation workers. Coffee was produced in Angola, and tea and coffee in Kenya. In Zimbabwe, the colonisers invested in tobacco growing and cattle breeding.

Most African countries, however, had neither access to mineral deposits of any great size nor a climate that European immigrants found congenial. By demanding that taxes be paid in cash, there the colonial regimes forced people to produce crops that could be exported. This model is called cash crop production. It was put into practice at the expense of food production for the country’s own population. In Senegal, half of all the arable land is used to produce peanuts for margarine factories in the West; in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda the cash crop is coffee; in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast, cocoa; in Mali, Niger and Sudan, cotton; and in Malawi, tobacco. All these crops, whether farmed on large-scale or small-scale holdings, required intensive use of the soil and lead to soil depletion. The response was to import chemical fertiliser (which of course entailed additional cost). Most cash crops are also sensitive to drought.

Countries with few natural resources were forced to supply labour instead. Mine and plantation owners used the colonial administrations in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and parts of Mozambique and Malawi as employment offices. Most paid a fee to the colonial government, which saw to it that the workers were transported far away from their homes.

Imperialism succeeded in totally destroying the social and economic fabric of African society. Africa has become a place where 75-80% of the popu­lation lives off the land, and the bulk of the GDP come from farming, but where a third of the continent’s food supply has to be imported. 80% of all malnourished children in the Third World live in countries where most of the soil is used for the cultivation of export products for the industr­ialised countries.9

The post-colonial era

The majority of African countries gained political independence in the 1950s and 1960s. But economically they remained in the grip of the impe­rialist states, which hampered their progress. Many African leaders turned to the Soviet Union and its planned economy. Several countries began labelling themselves as socialist states. The former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau abolished capitalism in 1975, following the revolution in Portugal, and established Stalinist dictatorships. Later, they were followed by Ethiopia. Many more nationalised at least parts of their industry. In doing so, they managed for a while to erect limited pro­tective walls around their economies. The rapid rate of economic growth in the West at that time helped stabilise the economic situation in Africa, at least in the 1950s and 1960s. The people also benefited.

But the continent was not peaceful even in this period. The apartheid re­gime in South Africa supported the UNITA terror group against the Ango­lan regime, and RENAMO against the government of Mozambique. The Angolan government in turn sought help from Cuba, whose troops fought off UNITA’s attacks. Between 1975 and 1991, this war cost the lives of 1.5 million people.10 In Uganda, Idi Amin organised massacres. In Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, parts of the population tried to break away and were brutally dealt with. But although barbarism showed its face from time to time during this period, it was not until the 1990s that it spread throughout the continent.

The WTO, IMF and World Bank paved the way

In their infancy, the industries of all the big powers had been carefully pro­tected by trade barriers, to allow them to grow strong. The story was the same in South Korea, one of the few ex-colonial countries that managed to develop into an industrial nation. For the developing countries, the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced their choices. Left to stand alone against the forces of imperialism, they had to abandon their policies of state owner­ship and import controls. Advances were reversed.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund), the WTO (World Trade Organi­sation), and the World Bank were the main tools for opening up the devel­oping countries to international corporations. These institutions are a part of the UN system, and they are supposed to help former colonial states with loans and advice.

The WTO was founded in 1995, and drew up a set of global regulations governing such matters as trade, investment and patent rights. While all member countries have a vote and decisions are taken by consensus, the WTO itself has noted on its own website that “Some of the most difficult negotiations have needed an initial breakthrough in talks among the four largest members.” Until recently, these ‘quadrilaterals’ or ‘quads’ (the EU, US, Canada and Japan) usually decided the direction of the WTO. How­ever, they do not always get things all their own way. At the WTO meeting in Cancún in Mexico in 2003, the talks broke down after 21 of the strongest developing countries jointly opposed the imperialist states.

The IMF and the World Bank are reliable tools of imperialism. A member state’s share of the vote is determined by how much its government has invested. In the IMF, representatives of seven countries – Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US – have 48% of the votes between them, and in the World Bank they have 46%.11

The IMF’s Structural Adjustment Plans, SAPs, forced countries to trans­form themselves into neo-liberal deregulated economies. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, some countries had to submit to structural adjust­ment. After 1989, almost none of the poor countries managed to evade the SAPs. Around a hundred states were drawn into these programmes.

As leverage to help enforce their plans, the IMF took advantage of the de­veloping countries’ extensive debts. When the post-war economic upswing in the imperialist states came to an end in the mid-1970s, the problems of the developing countries worsened. In the 1980s, they sought to compen­sate for this by borrowing money from private banks, governments and international institutions. But the growth that was supposed to pay for these loans failed to materialise. Instead, interest rates went up, while the prices of raw material exports from the developing countries went down. The debts grew dramatically.

According to UNICEF, the world’s poorest countries, those in sub-Saharan Africa, paid USD 12 billion a year in interest charges on loans in 1997 (and should have paid a further USD 8 billion, but quite simply lacked the means to do so). For between a third and a sixth of the amount they paid in debt service charges, they could have placed all children in the region in school.12

The SAP approach was to attack union rights, privatise, cut back welfare safety nets, abolish government grants for water, food, electricity and other essentials, let in the big international corporations, encourage the one-sided production of cash crops, and peg the local currency to the US dollar.13 If it failed to introduce structural adjustments, a country could not expect to be granted loans by the World Bank or the IMF, nor in many cases could it expect any further development aid from the industrialised countries. Not that aid amounted to much. Annually, it was a mere tenth of the sum of money that flowed out of Africa into the pockets of finance capital.14

A growing number of poor

Nowhere have the SAP’s benefited workers or poor peasants. “Unemploy­ment has increased. The price of public services such as healthcare and education has gone up, income gaps have widened, and small and medium sized business have been eliminated by competition from the trans-national companies that have entered the market.”15

Numerous domestic companies (often state-owned) have gone bankrupt as a result of IMF requirements. One of many places where this happened was Zimbabwe. After it fell into the IMF’s clutches in 1990 the production of goods declined by 40% within five years.16 In Pakistan, the government’s compliance with the demands of the IMF and the World Bank resulted in 7 200 factories closing down between 1998 and 2002.17

Peter Griffiths described his experiences as a World Bank consultant in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s.18 The oil refinery there had just been privatised when he arrived. This resulted in power cuts in most parts of the country, despite an increase in oil consumption. The reason was that the private refinery would only accept payment in dollars, something that the oil-fired power station supplying most of the country with electricity lacked. It was closed down. As a result, the sound of thousands of small diesel generators was heard from the richer areas of the capital, Freetown. Together these generators consumed more oil than the power station.

Peter Griffiths describes how an attempt to privatise the state-owned centre for food imports brought Sierra Leone to the brink of mass starvation. The World Bank claimed that it wanted to encourage local producers by abolish­ing imports of subsidised food. The problem was that an increase in domes­tic food production would take years to achieve. In the interim, hundreds of thousands of people, most of them already under-nourished, would be denied access to cheap imported food. They would quite simply die. Only at the last moment was the World Bank’s insane project called off.

There are different ways of presenting statistics on poverty in the world, and different results can be obtained depending on what criteria you use. Whichever way you count, however, Africa south of the Sahara is the poor­est region of all. Today, Africa as a whole, with a population of 600 million, has a smaller GDP than the Netherlands. Most countries are in a worse shape today than in the 1960s.19 The poorest countries are in a worse state than in 1820.20

War and barbarism have developed out of this miserable situation. The way barbarism works, what drives it, and how it is financed are described in the next chapter.


1 www.creativequotations.com/one/1455.htm

2 Caroline Holmqvist in Axess, September 2002

3 Basil Davidson: Africa in History, 1969

4 Populär historia, No. 1/97. Statistics on the slave trade.

5 Adarn Hochschild: Kung Leopolds vålnad, 2000

6 http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Adam_Smith#China

7 Länder i fickformat, No. 213, 1999

8 Adarn Hochschild: Kung Leopolds vålnad, 2000

9 T.P. Tomich, P. Kilby and B.F. Johnston: Transforming agrarian economics, 1995

10 IISS, Military Balance 2002, 2003

11 United Nations Development Programme 2002

12 UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 1997, quoted at www.bread.org/hungerbasics/


13 www.theecologist.org The IMF formula: generating poverty

14 United Nations: Human Development Report, 1992

15 On 10 April 2002, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter described a report (The Structural

Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative) on the outcome of the World Bank’s and the IMF’s policies. The headline was “World Bank policies a fiasco”. The report had been compiled by governments and a large number of organisations, and had taken four years to assemble. The SAPRI report is at http://www.saprin.org/global_rpt.htm

16 Länder i fickformat, Zimbabwe, 1999

17 Manzoor Ahmed: Speech in London, January 2003, www.ptudc.org

18 Peter Griffiths: The Economist’s Tale, 2003

19 Steven Metz: Refining American Strategy in Africa, 2000

20 United Nations: Human Development Report, 1999

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