Postcolonial Africa


September 2004

Decolonisation, recolonisation: an overview of Africa’s postcolonial underdevelopment

When his party, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, and the European Parliamentary group to which it belongs, the United Left (GUE-NGL) hosted a gathering of African experts on development issues recently, Erik Meijer, MEP, was asked to give the opening speech. Welcoming the delegates, Meijer provided a succinct summary of the problems they had come to Brussels to discuss in their search for alternatives to the IMF-imposed distorted development which afflicts the continent.

From the 1950s to the 1970s the West European imperial powers gradually decolonised the African continent. This process provoked optimistic expectations within Africa that her nations would at last be able to find their own way to a future of progress and prosperity. This way would be based on small scale economic activity, an emphasis on the meeting of the people’s needs as defined by the African people themselves, and greater public involvement. It would be built upon both indigenous traditions and experiences and European experiences of democracy and economic development.

Almost half a century after the beginnings of decolonisation by Great Britain and France in West Africa, these positive expectations have still not been fulfilled. Income levels are lower than in Asia and Latin America, desertification is on the increase, dependence on the export of non-industrial goods and on foreign corporations persists, and periodic famine continues to claim large numbers of victims. Infectious diseases which have long plagued the continent have not been eradicated, while the new scourge of Aids grows, threatening above all the young people who should be Africa’s hope for the future, the motor of its creativity and productivity, the parents of its children. Medicines which should be available to protect and cure have become nothing more than goods to be traded, so that it is for the most part those which people with relatively high incomes can afford to buy, and which thus guarantee profits to their manufacturers, which are developed and produced.

Africa has seen both urbanisation and widespread improvements in education, and educated Africans are as visible internationally as are educated people from other parts of the world, with UN Secretary general Koffie Annan providing only the best-known example. Yet this success has not filtered down to the majority of the population. The potential embodied in the young has been squandered as a result of government inaction, armed conflict, and disease. Moreover, even those who manage, in spite of everything, to achieve a high level of education are faced with problems. A shortage of work leads to high levels of emigration, including amongst well-qualified people, most of it to Europe. Even when they arrive there, however, African migrants must often do work for which they are massively overqualified, but which nevertheless pays better than would a professional job in Africa. This holds back Africa’s development. Those qualified professionals who remain gravitate towards the cities, an understandable individual choice which unfortunately leaves the countryside bereft of their talents, to the detriment of its development. Huge inequalities afflict the continent's cities, creating an urban élite which is too often falsely seen abroad as adequately representing the whole population.

Despite moves towards unity and co-operation between African states, problems caused by the fact that borders imposed by the colonial powers often took no account of language or culture persist. Europe has itself seen the problems which can be caused when people who feel themselves to be part of the same culture are divided from each other, or when those who feel no such identification are forced together, problems such as the division of populations into privileged and excluded groups, intercultural strife, or the undermining of democracy and progress. A failure of part of a population to identify with the state in which it lives can lead to armed conflict, unless it is addressed through education, the opportunity to be taught and to work in one’s own language, and respect for custom and culture. In Europe attempts to address these difficulties through military means, holding dissident populations within the territories of states whose authority they have rejected, have failed. In Africa, where differences within populations are even greater than they are in Europe, such attempts to impose unity from above have also failed and will continue to fail.

European countries have invested more in development than has the United States, but the target of 1% of GDP has, even in the best performing nations of north-west Europe, never been reached. Much of this money, moreover, is spent more with an eye to the interests of enterprises in the donor country than to the benefit of anyone in Africa, while there is an increasing tendency for it to be used to finance supposedly humanitarian military interventions, emergency food aid, and assistance to refugees.

The rich donor countries are quite correct to attempt to ensure that aid goes to those who need it, rather than disappearing into the pockets of powerful, unproductive groups. This legitimate right, however, effectively hands to the donor states the power to decide on what is and is not useful. A good education system or decent housing may count for less for these rich countries than do the interests of their own corporations or a continuing supply of cheap raw materials. The result is that the profits which flow from Africa to richer parts of the world outweigh the sums which flow in the opposite direction in the form of development aid, especially as African countries must also pay interest on debts owed to western banks.

Africa suffers from a low income level and retarded economic development, not only in comparison to Europe and North America, but even when compared to Asia or Latin America. This has forced the continent into playing the role of experimental laboratory for a wide range of competing economic models, each of which brings with it the hope of rapid economic growth and subsequent spectacular recovery. These models can be broadly divided into four groups.

The first model consists of the privileging of the economy, as in the time of colonialism. The states which colonised Africa had no interest in the small-scale economic activities which traditionally characterised Africa and no interest in providing for the needs of the African population. They were interested rather in fulfilling their own desires, those which could not be met domestically: for slaves, gold, coffee, cocoa, rubber, palm oil, copper, diamonds, uranium and so on. Instead of the colonised countries’ being able to develop their economies to their own advantage, in agriculture, mining or industry, they were forced to devote their energies to

producing for export, to deliver cheap raw materials to Europe and, later, to import expensive industrial products. This was and remains a recipe for continuing poverty.

Reacting to this colonialist model, the decolonised countries developed, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, a completely opposite approach. Important productive enterprises would be state-owned instead of remaining in the hands of foreigners whose principal goal was to export as much profit as possible. The goal would now be the improvement of the welfare and security of their own people. In theory, such a model can work, but in practice it is seriously hindered if a large part of the technical apparatus must be bought from abroad and a large part of the product sold abroad. These facts meant that the old colonial relationships could in reality persist, reinforced when nationalised industrial plant became obsolete and the means to replace it was lacking. Under these circumstances the state finds itself the owner of something which can no longer be used productively, and because of this it can no longer ensure satisfactory levels of employment, income or supplies of consumer goods. Foreign investors can then decide whether and under what conditions the country in question can renew its plant.

The third model originated as a reaction to these failures and can be seen as a new, adapted form of the old colonial model. The division of labour between the advanced industrial countries and those whose task was to supply these countries with the products of agriculture and mining was reinforced, but new elements were added. Industrial production for the world market would also become permissible, but exclusively on the basis of extremely low wages. Foreign corporations invest in energy, transport, water supply, and education and health care for the richest sections of the population. Corporate taxes are kept low in order to protect profit margins, leaving less space for education, health care, housing or public transport for the great mass of the population. Harbours and pipelines which facilitate the export of raw materials are also financed by foreign capital. Economic growth is seen as a panacea for all ills, while the division of its returns is ignored. African countries thus develop elites of rich and super-rich people. The problems endured by African societies are little changed by this, however. The vast majority of the population has gained little from this sort of economic growth and has indeed, in many cases, seen its position deteriorate as money for public services becomes still scarcer.

Because this third approach is not solving Africa’s problems, a fourth model is sorely needed, one that has more in common with the second model, but one which does not share its illusions, its belief that everything can be achieved overnight – one also which places more emphasis on the achievement of a position of equality, which sees Africa not as the supplier of raw materials for the rest of the world, but as a continent which needs to direct its development towards the fulfilment of its own needs. This should be achieved so far as is possible without having to depend on imported goods, rather than pursuing a strong export-oriented position, thus putting an end to problems attendant upon the fact that exports are cheap and imports dear. In order to achieve this, however, both money and expertise will be needed.

The question of imports and exports is also important in relation to the development of European opinion on Africa. Major corporations argue for free trade hindered neither by export subsidies or import controls such as tariffs. In this model the firm that can produce and sell most cheaply wins the struggle for markets, while one which shows more concern for the social or environmental consequences of its activities sees its products become too dear and consequently loses out. Those who have drawn the conclusion that no alternative to such a model exists argue that Europe must increase its imports from the Third World, including Africa. Their answer to the persistence of the colonial relationship is simply more economic colonialism, their answer to liberalisation of world trade is more of the same. They want to see every possible barrier to increased imports, such as the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), done away with. African countries must in addition sell more and more of their fishing rights to the EU, for the benefit of Europe’s fishing industry, thus limiting the space for the development of an African fishing industry. Amongst the supporters of such a liberalised world market are not only profiteering corporations, but those who genuinely believe that it would be good for Africa. I do not agree, however, that these methods can work.

To some extent exports are of course unavoidable. Africa is a source of tropical farm produce which will not grow elsewhere, and for which its own population has limited need. The income from exports may be needed, at least temporarily, if economies are to be reorganised in order to bring about greater self-sufficiency. This should not, however, condemn Africa to a future of continuing dependence on the export of raw materials. As long as this dependence persists Africa will never catch up with other parts of the world.

Poverty and the lack of possibilities for development are not natural phenomena. They are created by human beings. We must uncover the mechanisms which keep Africa down, whether they are to be found in African countries themselves or in developed countries or the world market. We must create as much space as possible for solutions to be found and implemented, even if these solutions are disadvantageous to rich countries or multinational corporations.

It is incumbent on the countries which do not control the world economy to resist. They tried to do so in the ‘60s, with the organisation of non-aligned states. After a lengthy interruption something similar is being attempted, notably at the conference of the World Trade Organisation in Canjun, Mexico in September 2003

The European Union and a large part of the European Parliament has repeatedly expressed the view that such moves only delay the inevitable development towards international free trade and the protection of foreign investment, and that EU-US demands must be met. At the same time Europe continues to pay export subsidies for our agricultural surpluses and even for tobacco grown exclusively for export.

It is important to remember that Africa also has allies in Europe, even if within European politics self-interest prevails, a self-interest which revolves around military spheres-of-influence, cheap raw materials and corporate profits.

My own party, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, and the international parliamentary group to which we belong, the United Left (GUE-NGL), do not share these opinions, but believe rather that there must be more space for the development of alternative economic models in the Third World. Only then can Africa’s creativity and drive at last realise the ideals of the optimistic years after independence was achieved.

Erik Meijer has been a Member of the European Parliament since 1999.