Even after Nelson Mandela’s triumphant return to power in South Africa that held the promise of systemic change in Sub-Sahara Africa, life is worse today than in the 1990s. In a speech before foreign diplomats in June 1978, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere argued that neo-colonialism denied the people of Africa self-determination and sovereignty. Nyerere’s speech is as applicable today as it was then. We must reject the principle that external powers have the right to maintain in power African governments that are universally recognized to be corrupt, or incompetent, or a bunch of murderers, when their peoples try to change.
The peoples of an individual African country have as much right to change their corrupt government…as in the past the British, French, and Russian peoples had to overthrow their own rotten masters. Are African peoples to be denied that same right? Exactly three years before Nyerere’s speech, Mozambique’s President Samora Machel delivered a somewhat similar speech, warning that the institutions left behind by European colonialists were “profoundly retrograde and reactionary” and changing them was the challenge for Africans.
Besides the legacy of colonialism, Africa’s de-colonization took place during the Cold War when exploitation at all levels and for various reasons by both East and West made it even difficult to develop sovereign and healthy institutions. Both Machel and Nyerere made the exact same points that progressive African leaders and intellectuals from Kwame Nkrumah to Samir Amin have been saying for decades about the imperialist West that has been exploiting Africa’s natural resources and cheap labor for five centuries.
Breaking the continent’s monocultural dependence and export-oriented growth of the primary sector of production, Africa’s best bet in order to evolve toward self-sufficiency is a combination of continental integration, import-substituting industrialization, and inward-oriented primary sector–foodstuffs, building materials, and manufacturing production to meet the domestic population’s needs. None of this can be done unless government is committed to a) peaceful co-existence in the continent, and b) promotion of socioeconomic justice instead of serving the small comprador bourgeoisie, military, political elites, and of course foreign interests.
China and India could help Africa, but I believe that like their western counterparts India, which has a large community scattered throughout the continent and part of the elite, and China as a more recent trading partner will concentrate on merely purchasing raw materials from Africans and selling finished products to them at unfavorable terms of trade. China and India could play a constructive role to improve the declining terms of trade, especially given that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is so dominated by advanced capitalist countries and unlikely to introduce favorable terms for Africa.
There is also a debt relief program that the IMF/World Bank Group have in place for a number of years; a program that applies to the poorest countries in the world. Merely expanding that program during the current crisis to include more African countries would not be sufficient to make up for financial retrenchment by foreign multinationals and individuals who have taken money out and decapitalized the continent amid the current world economic crisis.
Unlike advanced capitalist countries, African nations have a much weaker and more corrupt state and very anemic fiscal structure, while the multinational corporations and IFIs with international lending consortiums behind them enjoy enormous influence. In the absence of systemic societal change–political, social, and economic–the state in African countries cannot and will not rise to the level of the West. After Movimento das Forcas Armadas staged a revolution in Portugal in April 1974, the USSR reached an agreement with Cuba to back Angolan rebels (1976), to support for the Soviet-backed regime in Ethiopia, and the rebel movement against the corrupt Zaire regime (1978).
Robert Mugabe’s election in Zimbabwe in March 1980 was symbolically significant for all Africa, perhaps more so than that of Tanzanian president Nyerere. But with the exception of South Africa that is under majority rule and trying to make progress although very slowly in raising living standards for the majority population, where is the rest of the continent’s progress and where is it headed in this century? What happened to all the idealist African leaders, and that includes Mugabe who started out so deeply committed to social justice but has ended up a tyrant like so many others that the West and/or East backed because they served their geopolitical and economic interests to the detriment of Africans?
History in the last half century has taught that very little progress has been made in comparison with the rest of Southern Hemisphere: Asia and Latin America. De-colonization, the USSR and US manipulating African countries and various tribes within countries during the Cold War and suffering the deadly consequences; African countries experimenting with varieties of regimes, everything from authoritarian/militarist to Marxian revolutionary; yet, nothing has worked to lift peoples’ quality of life comparable with any other continent on earth.
China’s role in Africa today is commercial and geopolitical, rather than a campaign for Afro-Asian solidarity aiming to develop it toward a self-sufficient economic course under a socialist order as Chou En-Lai once proclaimed. In the 1960s the Chinese came out strongly against white neo-colonialism in Africa and even opposed white European Socialist activities in the continent. Because China had suffered a legacy of Western imperialism, and internal strife and wars as a result, and because Mao was seeking Asian leadership before and during the Cultural Revolution, China enunciated principles of mutual respect for territorial integrity, peaceful co-existence, non-interference in the other nation’s internal affairs, and equality of relationships as the foundation for Afro-Asian solidarity against the Western international order (imperialism) rooted in capitalist integration and unequal relationships.
Africa’s future cannot be either with East or West. In the absence of a leader like Nasser who tried to forge solidarity with Sub-Saharan as well as North African leaders, in the absence of a non-aligned bloc, in the absence of a UN that has the continent at the bottom of its priorities there does not seem to be much hope for Africa. As long as there is no grass roots movement to compel African leaders to form a strong economic and political bloc to make a competitive play for East and West in the same manner as the old non-aligned bloc countries, the continent will remain the poorest and most exploited on the planet. Africa will remain a continent exporting cheap raw materials to the more advanced countries, a continent where the narcotics trade will continue to flourish along with piracy, the weapons trade and other illegal activities like human trafficking.
Africa will remain a continent in the grip of the chronic external dependence.