Defeated militarily and no longer able to extract wealth from Africa in the old colonial way, imperialism has turned to new forms of holding on to power: trade agreements, buying up resources, and aid are all tools of control...
In 1961, the UN General Assembly passed the “Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”. After the dreadful spectacle of the imperialist Scramble for Africa (see April issue of Workers), it seemed that at last a new era was dawning for the continent. This declaration was a result of newly independent nations gaining UN membership and exercising their collective power through the General Assembly.
Children in post-independence Angola – a country that fought for its independence.
Two years later, in 1963, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization was set up to oversee the implementation of the Declaration. That same year the Organisation of African Unity was established by those African countries that had won independence and by liberation movements from a number that were still colonies.
The OAU aimed to promote African unity, to defend the territorial integrity and independence of African countries, and to fight to eradicate all forms of colonialism. It was opposed to any outside interference in the internal affairs of African countries, took a neutral stand in the Cold War and called for respect of the artificial borders created by the colonial powers. The USSR, revolutionary Cuba and China had already committed their support, both financial and material, for colonial liberation movements around the world. So there was weight behind the liberation struggles.
But in Africa, the old colonial powers were not just going to roll over and die, and would not give up this continent with its wealth of resources and its cheap labour. They tried everything they could to keep control, even after independence.
The colonial powers tried to hand over power to leaders who would do their bidding, as Britain had done in Libya and Egypt. They tried ruthless suppression, as in Kenya. They tried post-independence sabotage as in Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique.
Britain had the Commonwealth to maintain its influence in newly independent nations, many of which had no indigenous infrastructure other than liberation movements and churches. They were going to need aid. But aid came only with strict conditions, and woe betide any country that was seen not to abide by those conditions – Zimbabwe a case in point.
France, which had tried to merge several West African territories into one to maintain its control, had somewhat similar arrangements with its Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.
Portugal, however, having no such mechanism, decided to fight every liberation movement that it was in conflict with. The advent to power in 1979 of Thatcher and in 1980 of US President Reagan saw a new approach.
The Portuguese had ruthlessly resisted all struggles by liberation movements in its resource-rich colonies, while Cuba and the USSR were actively supporting those movements. These wars precipitated a military coup in Portugal in 1975 by military officers tired of the war and its high Portuguese casualties. As a consequence, those colonies won their independence that year, and the new governments were friends of Cuba and the USSR.
Reagan and Thatcher, the two Cold Warriors, vowed to reverse this. South Africa was already ahead of them in the game. It had invaded Angola, determined to get to Angola’s capital, Luanda, before the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola – People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which had led the liberation struggle, declared the independence of Angola.
South Africa not only tried to topple the MPLA government in Angola but along with Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime in Rhodesia was actively sabotaging Mozambique. Thatcher and Reagan put their weight behind the South Africans in order to cling on to this part of Africa.
Mozambique, independent in 1975 and led by Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front), is a good example of how imperialism tried to regain control of a newly independent nation. Mozambique declared in its constitution that socialism was the nation’s objective. The government began to build schools and clinics.
Then it complied with UN sanctions on the white supremacist government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia and closed the so-called Beira corridor, which linked Rhodesia to the sea and had been Rhodesia’s lifeline. Smith’s government reacted by creating RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana – Mozambican National Resistance), an armed force that began destroying schools and clinics, killing doctors and teachers. This developed into a ruthless war.
When the Smith regime was replaced by ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and majority rule, South Africa stepped in to fund RENAMO which, by now, was destroying the country’s infrastructure. South African troops were directly involved.
Foreign intervention, coupled with drought, caused Mozambique to suffer what became known as the South African man-made famine: 200,000 starved to death while the death toll from the war reached 1 million.
Mozambique pleaded for food aid. The biggest donor was neighbouring Zimbabwe. The US, the biggest contributor to the World Food Programme, kept its food aid to a minimum. When the situation was so bad that Mozambique had no alternative, when even its President, Samora Machel, had been murdered by South Africa, it pleaded directly to the Americans.
The US agreed to provide food aid on certain conditions. 1) Mozambique and Frelimo must remove all reference to Socialism in their constitutions. 2) Frelimo must share power with RENAMO and, most importantly, 3) No aid to be handled or distributed by the government, but instead all aid must be distributed by NGOs.
This effectively removed all power from a government now totally dependent on aid, and handed power to NGOs, most of which were funded by USAID and run by Christian fundamentalist organisations. Mozambique was re-colonised by NGOs and the churches.
The South African-led war on Angola supported by Reagan and Thatcher was also ruthless. It’s another example of imperialism's determination to hold on to Africa. But Cuba was directly supporting Angola in many ways. The battle at Cuito Cuanavale in Southern Angola in 1987/8 (see workers.org.uk/features/feat_0710/angola.html) effectively marked the end of both the apartheid regime in South Africa and the colonialism defined by the Scramble for Africa of the 19th century.
There was no history of a working class in many African countries, and with the exception of South Africa, most economies were peasant agriculture. Many post-colonial countries were still dependent on big western companies exploiting their natural resources.
But EU and US industrial decline meant less demand there for many of the raw materials from Africa, while the demand from countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and India was rapidly growing, particularly from China. Is this neocolonialism? Given that the 19th-century Scramble for Africa was about finding resources and markets to satisfy the industrial revolution in Europe, the answer is possibly yes.
But this time it’s not about sending armies and enslaving the native population. China builds infrastructure in the African countries it does business with instead of exchanging raw materials and commodities for cooking pots and beads. The Chinese build roads, railways, ports, airports, even houses and sports stadia. The African Cup of Nations football finals in Angola in 2010, for example, were only possible because China built all of the stadia. Imagine the Victorian capitalists doing this.
Yet there are Chinese hedge funds investing in Africa in exactly the same way as British or US hedge funds, so it is still capitalist exploitation. But EU and US holdings in Africa remain greater than China’s $200 billion worth of investment.
But what of the OAU? It was abolished in 2002 and replaced by the African Union (AU). The differences between the two are stark. The OAU declared that the old colonial boundaries should be respected. The AU says the opposite. The OAU declared that there should be no interference in a sovereign state’s internal affairs. The AU says the opposite. (Hence Chadian troops in Mali). The OAU was a collective of sovereign states. The AU has an African Parliament. The AU is modelling itself on the EU. There is even talk of a single currency.
But it’s not straightforward, because Africa is not the EU. In 2009, for example, Muammar Gaddafi, President of the AU at the time and President of Libya, proposed to the AU the establishment of the Gold Dinar. This implied that those African countries exporting oil should sell it for gold and not the US dollar, and that a currency across the continent should be based on gold. This would have revolutionised the relative value of African currencies at the expense of the US dollar.
Gaddafi offered the publicly owned Libyan State Central Bank as the driving force to set it up. Two years later his country was destroyed by NATO, he was murdered, and the new regime’s first act was to abolish the State Central Bank and set up a private Central Bank.
The jury may still be out on the AU. It is surely not comparable to ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, which is based on sovereignty and non-interference. Perhaps more worrying is the foreign militarisation of Africa. The US has had a major base at Djibouti since it established the US Africa Command. There are now US drone bases not just in Djibouti, but in Niger, Libya, Ethiopia and the Seychelles and other US military bases in Uganda, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and shortly South Sudan.
France has military bases in Mali as well as Gabon, Ivory Coast and Djibouti. Britain also maintains a military presence in some of its former colonies.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s bleeding of the continent continues apace. Timber, minerals and commodities are sucked out of Africa to satisfy capitalism’s need for these resources across the world, from China to Brazil and from the EU to the USA. Sometimes this fuels wars, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, (which has cost 4 million lives), in order to sate capitalism's rapacious appetite for such rarities as coltan, used in mobile phones, diamonds in Sierra Leone or Angola, and, of course, gold in Mali. The African people have yet to gain control of the resources of their continent to meet their own needs. ■