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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Glance at Africa

In a Quiz Night yesterday the teams were each given a map of Africa with just the coastline and the boundaries of states shown. The object of the exercise was simply to identify twelve of the very many states that now litter the continent; but the impact of the map was to cause serious reflection about a whole range of issues.

One person emphasised how few straight lines there are, other than the borders of Egypt. This is such a contrast with the boundaries of the majority of states in the USA, where straight lines seem to predominate. Thus arises the observation that although the borders were mostly set in colonial times they tend to follow geographical features, notably streams and rivers [which objectively exist, and cannot readily be shifted] to save all the hassle of establishing and maintaining artificial boundary markers. Donald Trump's wall would be an inconceivable project even along a small length of frontier in Africa.

The next obvious observation was that the borders were very rarely drawn to grant territorial integrity to some ethnic group: all over the continent ethnic groups [even quite small ones] are split between states, and most states have complex ethnic composition which makes political and social compromise difficult - sometimes impossible. The world paid attention - briefly - to the trouble attendant on the two recent attempts to run a fair and free election in Kenya, which is a reasonably sophisticated state with strong institutions and functioning [though anachronistic] legal system. As the frontiers are drawn, the Kikuyu are very clearly the dominant ethnic group: therefore they have a majority in parliament. One hereditary opposition leader drawn from another tribe, whose advancing age makes it impossible that ethnic change would occur to enable his tribe to predominate, has asserted that the system is simply undemocratic and withdrew from the second-run of the election. In his terms, Kenya cannot ever be a democracy in the sense that there is an alternation between parties of government. It may be possible to form some sort of coalition, provided the subordination of the smaller populations is inbuilt into the mindset of the participants.

Some states in Africa come close to being genuinely democratic, with stable governments [think Botswana and Namibia]; but the majority do not. In some, dictators [some of them second-generation] rob the country of wealth for their own gratification; in others war lords control massive swathes of land with conscripted armies that exploit the population to grab the resources that provide the funds with which their guns and bullets are to be replaced.

For the last few decades while the Soviet Union maintained the mission to spread Communism around the world various regimes and guerrilla movements were supported; while South Africa and Rhodesia [as long as they existed in their ugly, racist form] sent expeditions and counter-guerrilla units to oppose them. The further such operations were conducted north of the Limpopo River, the more secure were the governments in Pretoria and Salisbury that armed uprisings were little threat to them. The former colonial power, Britain, ultimately intervened to close down the beleaguered Rhodesian government and force the whites there to accept black majority rule. A democratic constitution was bequeathed to the local politicians, of whom the most powerful were those who had led the various exiled armed groups. For only a couple of years, there was a semblance of following the constitution: then the largest ethnic group [the Shona] grabbed control. The Matabele, who had collaborated most effectively with the white settlers, suffered most as a brutal policy of 'Africanisation' was imposed. White settlers' farms, especially the large ones that were among the most successful businesses in Africa, were occupied and ruined. From being a major exporter of crops, the new Zimbabwe [named after a set of ruins that had been ascribed to a forgotten African 'superpower'] became a net importer of food and the economy collapsed. The president who presided over this disaster was - still is - Robert Mugabe, who is honoured all over Africa as a former freedom fighter. His position is unassailable.

Britain could not make the ex-Rhodesia a democracy. A large army from any of the former colonial  'powers' could not bring peace to Libya, the end to ethnic tension in Kenya or a terminus to any of the other conflicts and stresses to which Africa is prone; and none of the former colonists would think it worth spending scarce resources on political reconstruction in Africa. Even China has recognised the limits of its formerly-aggressive 'economic colonisation' of parts of the continent. The general opinion in even the most democratic and high-minded advanced countries is to leave the Africans to stew in their own problems: and to sell them such military equipment and luxuries for the ruling elites as they can buy, cash-on-the-nail. Nineteenth-century European children were told of their countries' 'civilising mission' in spreading their imperial control over the 'dark continent': twenty-first century  children are told virtually nothing about an embarrassing post-colonial inheritance. And there the matter is left to lie.

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