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29 May 2000

You can’t pass the buck in Africa

Who is to blame for crises in Sierra Leone and other African countries? Colonisers and colonised mus

By Karl Maier

“One bunch of savages killing another bunch of savages” was one of those spontaneous outbursts that, however much it revealed about its speaker, Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail during a BBC News 24 chat show, also summed up what an increasing number of people in the west privately believe – the Heart of Darkness image of Africa is back. Heffer could have been talking about any number of current events in sub-Saharan Africa: the resumption of fighting between the Horn of Africa neighbours Eritrea and Ethiopia; the ongoing regional conflict in Congo, involving armies from half a dozen countries; President Robert Mugabe’s crackdown against the opposition and white farmers in Zimbabwe; or the long-term civil wars in Angola and Sudan. As it happened, the issue was the tiny west African state of Sierra Leone, where first an unwieldy multinational United Nations force and now British troops are attempting to restore stability to a non-existent state amid a particularly brutal guerrilla war.

Pictures of men, women and children who have had arms, hands or legs amputated courtesy of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) make a gory contribution to the media portrayal of Africa as a land of conflict, hunger and the explosive Aids epidemic, which has afflicted 23 million people. The new millennium has not proved the harbinger of better times, but has brought instead the recent floods in Mozambique, a new round of famine in Ethiopia and the various conflicts that blight central, east, southern and west Africa. Living standards are falling; physical infrastructure – including roads, schools and health facilities – is crumbling. Economic growth rates struggle to keep pace with population increases, and almost half of all sub-Saharan Africans live on the equivalent of $1 a day. Africans who are 18 years old and younger, who constitute half the population, face dimmer educational and economic prospects than their parents did a generation ago.

There are moderate success stories, such as diamond-rich Botswana, Namibia and, before the recent floods, Mozambique, and a recent rise in foreign private investment in Africa. And when, against many expectations, the incumbent Senegalese president Abdou Diouf stepped down in March after defeat at the polls, Senegalese democracy scored a small but significant victory. Yet the overall picture is one of gloom. Even the twin hopes of Africa – South Africa and Nigeria – have emerged from apartheid and military rule respectively badly scarred, if intact. South Africa breezed through the transition from Nelson Mandela’s presidency to that of Thabo Mbeki, and brought to an end the virtual state of civil war in Kwazulu-Natal province. However, Aids has emerged as a more deadly foe, with one in ten South Africans HIV positive and 1,500 more being infected each day.

While Nigeria and its 110 million people have returned to civilian government after 16 years of military rule, ethnic, religious and regional tensions are posing anew the age-old question of whether the centre can hold. Since General Olusegun Obasanjo’s inauguration a year ago, several thousand Nigerians have died in conflicts over religion, ethnicity and oil, the $12bn fountain of wealth that keeps the state breathing. Little of that trickles down to the masses. On a daily basis, Nigerians must cope with hospitals and schools in abysmal condition, unreliable telephones, constant power cuts and mass unemployment.

The Nigerian case is not unusual. African rulers have often treated their countries as little more than money making enterprises and forced out millions of their educated professionals into self-imposed exile. The eminent Africa historian Basil Davidson has described such leaders as “pirates in power”. They are modern equivalents of the warlords of the 18th and 19th centuries who built up wealthy kingdoms by selling millions of their people to the Europeans in the Atlantic slave trade. In their current incarnation, they sell their resources – oil, diamonds, gold – instead of human beings, and stash their ill-gotten loot with grateful western bank managers.

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Popular disaffection with the state is widespread in Africa, and the institutions of government are too opaque, corrupt and arbitrary to inspire public confidence. The wise Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake, who tragically died in a plane crash in 1996, once wrote that Africans are in revolt against their rulers and demand a second independence, not from colonial rule, but from their own leadership.

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No one is in any doubt that the European-directed decolonisation project, 40 years on, has failed. The immense potential of the continent has not been met, nor have the minimum aspirations of its people.

European colonialism had hit Africa when it was still traumatised by the slave trade and the warlords it spawned and, in South Africa, the shock waves caused by white occupation and the mass displacement sparked by the rise of the Zulu people. Most colonies were jerry-rigged, designed by European rivals at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which no African attended. As a result, some countries, such as Nigeria, Cameroun and Congo, are now made up of hundreds of ethnic groups. Borders split others, such as the Yoruba people between Benin and Nigeria, and the Bakongo between Angola and Congo.

The wreckage of imported western models litters the landscape like a line of rusting hulks. The socialist one-party states, so popular in the years immediately following independence, were overbearing monoliths and, in southern Africa, a guaranteed invitation to dirty destabilisation wars sponsored by South Africa and, on occasion, the CIA.

In the 1990s, renewed hope centred on the swing of the former French colonies towards multi-party elections, Mandela’s election as South Africa’s president, the fall of Zaire’s Sese Seko Mobutu, and the rise of apparently more determined leaders, such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and his counterparts in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rwanda. But now Rwanda, Uganda and four other countries have troops inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a collapsed state like Sierra Leone – and Eritrea and Ethiopia are at war.

In each country, the departing colonialists left time bombs in their wake. In Rwanda in the 1930s, the Belgians issued ethnic identification cards that solidified for ever the hitherto more flexible divide between Hutu and Tutsi, and then favoured one group, (first the Tutsis, then the Hutus) over the other. The competition exploded into genocide. In Zimbabwe, whites effectively stole most of the best land and left the majority of the population in desolate communal areas. Only Mugabe’s mismanagement of the economy, allotment of resettlement land to his cronies, crackdown on the opposition, and his $1m-per-day military adventure in Congo, could prove a worse legacy.

As for Sierra Leone, Freetown was, and still is, lording over the rest of the country in terms of economic prospects and political power; and historical resentment of the capital by those in the countryside partially fuels the war. Although the government has once again detained Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader of the Revolutionary United Front, any chance of containing his followers will depend on co-operation among the various foreign forces there – the UN soldiers, the Nigerians and a small British detachment – and a long-term programme of training and arms supply.

What’s going on in Sierra Leone is not, in fact, “savages killing savages”, but a complex crisis in which the government of a former colony has ceased to function and needs substantial outside help to survive. As elsewhere in Africa, the colonisers and the colonised share the blame – so they must share the solution.

The author’s forthcoming book on the Nigerian crisis, This House Has Fallen, is being published by Penguin