The reconquest of Africa. Is Africa ripe for recolonisation? Some on the left think so. Richard Gott on the stupidity of Labour's intervention in Sierra Leone and the coming implosion of Nigeria

This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in crisis

Karl Maier<em> Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 368pp, £20

There is a growing belief, not least within the ranks of latter-day new Labour missionaries, that appears to favour the reconquest of Africa. No one really suggests how this would come about, nor is there a "plan" available for discussion. Yet the implicit suggestion of recent reporting from Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, sometimes echoed in London, is that imperial intervention might indeed be welcomed by peoples threatened with mayhem, anarchy and civil war. In the process, several decades of revisionist imperial history and leftist criticism of "neocolonialism" have been easily ignored or forgotten, and external interference is once again being made respectable. How else can one explain the revival of the gunboat diplomacy that is now being practised by the British government in Sierra Leone, more than a century after the repression of the hut tax war of 1898, and that this has been taking place with hardly a word of protest or criticism in Britain, except from the Tories? How else can one understand the barely disguised racism of the reporting from Zimbabwe, where an unexceptional land-reform programme is greeted as though it were affecting the economic interests of Britain's own Countryside Alliance?

A second line of argument deployed by this new generation of imperial activists, coupled with the notion that the empire was not all that bad, has been to suggest that Britain's decolonisation process was seriously at fault. If only the British had followed the far-sighted policy of General de Gaulle, who granted France's African colonies self-government while retaining imperial control over foreign policy and defence. Such counter-factual arguments have recently been put forward by R W Johnson, a former leftist academic who has moved to the right and now runs the "liberal" Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg. Reviewing in the London Review of Books (14 December 2000) an edition of Letters from Africa by Thomas Hodgkin, one of Britain's last great anti-colonial figures, Johnson regrets that Kwame Nkrumah's insistence on "seeking first the political kingdom", echoed all over British Africa in the late 1950s, effectively killed off de Gaulle's splendidly "right idea".

Johnson argues that Africa needed European assistance then, and still needs it today if present disaster is to be prevented from becoming a continental tragedy. "The poor people of Sierra Leone know this when they greet British troops with joy and beg them to stay, as do African elites when they make repeated demands for a 'Marshall Plan' for Africa." Yet European money will only be made available to Africa, Johnson suggests, on European terms: accompanied by the imposition of democracy, good government and "sound" finance. His hope - a vain and improbable one, though one to which the Helen Suzman Foundation is dedicated - is that Africa's elite will one day be obliged to accept this unequal bargain. Bizarrely, Johnson suggests that Thomas Hodgkin might have accepted this heretical view.

Some of these "new" arguments for colonialism are put forward in an interesting, if obscurely written, book about contemporary Nigeria by Karl Maier, an American journalist who reported on Africa over many years for the Independent and the Economist. Maier reflects benignly on Nigeria's colonial experience and, as he wanders through the colonial debris that still marks the streets of Akassa in the delta of the Niger, the scene of imperial atrocities a century ago, he finds people who "look back with nostalgia to the time of the United Africa Company". Chief Antony, a wealthy subcontractor for the oil industry, tells him: "I would say honestly that the UAC had a more positive impact on the people than the oil companies have."

Such views are worth reporting. But it would be a serious misreading of history to accept them at their face value. The imperial experience was a brutal exercise in wishful thinking, creating non-viable nations out of an assortment of tribes that viewed one another with undisguised hostility. As the entire package, imperial and post-imperial, falls to pieces in country after country, it is understandable, though foolish, to imagine that things might have been otherwise. Britain was defeated politically in Africa in the 1950s, its unrealisable imperial project largely unfinished. What was unobtainable during a period of absolute imperial control can hardly be secured in the very different circumstances of today.

Yet these false arguments about history, preparing the ground for fresh interventions, are not put forward by ageing correspondents of the Daily Telegraph. They come from two omnipresent interpreters of the African scene, the elite of the liberal commentators in the western press, and their views deserve serious attention. They reflect the view of some in Whitehall, and some within the liberal establishment in the United States.

Maier's book has its origin within that establishment. His research was funded largely by the US government, the money being channelled through the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College London. Other monies made available for his Nigerian investigations were received from the Open Society Institute, set up by George Soros. Maier admits that his book was "made possible" by financing from the United States Institute of Peace, but not many readers would be aware that this is an arm of the American government, and that its principal patron is Madeleine Albright.

In November 1995, in the wake of the international uproar aroused by the judicial execution of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the US was understandably concerned about the future of Nigeria. Suddenly, one of its most reliable allies in Africa was in danger of turning into an international pariah. Fortunately, the Independent's correspondent was at hand to provide advice, and the Institute of Peace gave him $35,000 in June 1997. His task was "to assess whether Nigeria can free itself from entrenched military rule and embrace democracy, or will succumb to ethnic and religious tensions which threaten to pull the country apart and spark a humanitarian disaster in the West African region".

The book that emerged from Maier's researches, This House Has Fallen (a phrase taken from Chinua Achebe), can hardly have been welcome reading to his sponsors in Washington. It describes his travels up and down the country, and reveals a Nigeria that has, in effect, collapsed. Although, since May 1999, there has notionally been a "civilian" elected government in Nigeria - ruled by a former army officer, General Olusegun Obasanjo - years of military dictatorship have destroyed the country's institutions and left a population that Maier finds to be as corrupt and cynical as its rulers. Maier leaves his readers in no doubt that Nigeria will eventually implode, sooner rather than later, and spin off into its component parts, succumbing painfully to the "ethnic and religious tensions" that he was asked to examine. The north-south divide, the imposition of sharia law in the Islamic north, the growth of Christian fundamentalism (Obasanjo is a born-again Christian), the permanent unrest in Lagos and the explosive atmosphere in the Niger delta: all mark the final chapter of an artificially established country that has reached the end of its natural life.

Maier's implicit suggestion is that, if Nigeria is ever to recover, someone will have to come from outside and dust it down, and put it together again. He recommends that "preventive diplomacy" should fashion "a multinational plan to help ease the foreign debt burden and to target funds and expertise to rebuild the country's education system". Maier believes that it is the duty of the US to offer leadership, and he is irritated by the American failure to absorb his message. Politicians in Washington are ignorant, and newspaper editors turn the other way when he sends in his articles (although, given how opaque his prose is, you could hardly blame them for that).

Yet the Clinton administration was once desperate to resurrect Nigeria as a regional superpower, hoping to make the nation one of its major partners in a new world order. When Clinton paid a flying visit to Obasanjo's fledgling democracy last year, he took American soldiers and businessmen with him. The military were there to provide training for the Nigerian army, for policing duties around the continent, while the businessmen looked around for commercial opportunities.

Maier recognises and deplores America's current African ambitions. His book, aimed principally at an American readership, shows how insubstantial is the ground on which American policy has been constructed. For today's Nigeria is "a basket case", not a potential imperial base. Maier is no advocate of commercial colonialism, either. He argues, rightly, that a country such as Nigeria has heaps of money of its own, and has no reason to beg for economic assistance from outside.

What Africa really needs, Maier seems to suggest, is the advice of a new generation of foreign missionaries, imbued with the new, secular religion of good governance and human rights. Men such as Maier himself and R W Johnson would fit the bill admirably. Other contemporary witnesses, the innumerable representatives of the non-governmental and humanitarian organisations that clog the airwaves and pollute the outside world's coverage of African affairs with their endless one-sided accounts of tragedy and disaster, echo the same message.

With the reporting and analysis of today's Africa in the hands of such people, it is not surprising that public opinion is often confused and disarmed when governments embark on neocolonial interventions. The new missionaries are much like the old ones, an advance guard preparing the way for military and economic conquest.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again