Firoze Manji diagnoses Africa past and present

Ugandan “walk to Work” protests staged after the rigged elections of February 2011 that Joweri Museveni won adding another 5 years to his already 26 years in power.

In a long interview with Ajong Mbapndah L for PAV, Firoze Manji, FAHAMU Founder and former Editor of Pambazuka, draws a relatively comprehensive picture of Africa, on where it has been and where it stands today. The following is only an excerpt.   

The people of Africa have always had enormous potential for freedom, justice and self-determination. Our history is littered with crimes that have undermined and prevented us from being able to determine our own future.

The Atlantic slave trade decimated the continent of some 20 million of its youngest and finest. Europe’s industrial revolution, the wealth it accumulated over that period was a direct result of the pernicious trade in human beings. The colonization of the continent by European powers destroyed our cultures, our creativity, and resulted in the integration of the entire continent to the needs for European capital.

But at the same time there has always been a spirit of resistance that has constantly reasserted our humanity and claims for freedom. In the post Second World War period, that resistance swept the continent, affecting every country from Cape to Cairo, from Djibouti to Dakar. It was that uprising – in the cities, on the farms, in the urban ghettos, in plantations and factories – that swept the nationalist movement into power that led eventually to some degree of political independence. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in that struggle – recall the wars of liberation in Algeria, Congo, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique, to name but a few.

Empire did not take these defeats lying down. They used assassinations, coups d’état, misinformation, invasion, and all manner of tricks to undermine the move to independence. The roll call of the finest leaders whose lives were cut off is too long to recall, but included people such as Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Augustino Neto, Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko, Samora Machel, and so on. And that is to say nothing of the many outstanding women and men who gave up their lives in the struggle to assert their humanity and cry for freedom.  But it is important to note that the betrayals and conspiracies came not just from empire, but included those who from within the movements.

Nevertheless, in the short period after independence, there were some extraordinary achievements. Whatever one might say about the shortcomings of post independence governments, one has to acknowledge that in a very short period of time they transformed their countries: where once there was no health care or education, there was universal access provided; where there were no roads, an extensive communications network was set up. Within a short period of time, parameters such as life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, child mortality and so on showed dramatic improvements.

Sadly that was not to last long. From the beginnings of the 1980s, we saw the reversal of all the gains of independence across the continent as a result of the willingness of our leaders to collude with the West in implementing the structural adjustment programmes (later called the ‘PRSPs’) by the international finance institutions including the World Bank and IMF. We saw wholesale privatization of what was then part of the commons – land, water, electricity, healthcare, education and so on. And what was not privatized was sold off to the Northern ‘development’ NGOs. Support for farmers, agricultural subsidies, inputs, cooperatives, marketing boards, all these were cut. Instead public funds were used to subsidise the private sector.

And the economies were transformed from being net food producers to being net importers of food. The countries were opened to the voracious appetite of the multinational corporations and banks. Currencies were devalued, and debts had to be repaid in dollars. To get dollars meant producing not for the need of the people but for the needs paying the banks and finance houses of the US, Europe and Japan. And in the process, the local elites got rich, while the majority got poorer. Enrichment of the few at the expense of impoverishment of the many.

The last 30 years have been marked by a mass scale dispossession, dispossession of land, dispossession of the commons, of mineral resources, oil, agricultural products and so on. But the worst dispossession of all has been the political dispossession: today our governments are more accountable to the banks, international financial institutions, the multinational corporations than they are to their citizens. That is the tragedy of the last three decades.

We are constantly reminded that many African countries are demonstrating significant growths. But the reality is that only a few have benefited from that growth. Today the majority are poorer today than they were even under colonial rule. This is what Walter Rodney characterized as growth without development. Can we call that progress? And meanwhile, the continent has faced military interventions on a wide scale – Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia, are just the beginning. The US AFRICOM is now spreading its wings across the continent. Everything is being militarized, with the encouragement and collusion of our ruling elite

But at the same time, we have witnessed important developments in the last few years. There have been significant popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, what the West has come to refer to as the ‘Arab Spring’, that led to the downfall of those close allies of imperialism, Ben Ali and Mubarak. What has inspired these uprisings has not been merely the existence of repressive regimes, but more importantly the growing discontent and anger at the loss of all the gains of independence, the wide scale impoverishment that the last 30 years have brought. But these uprisings have not been confined only to North Africa. Today, the gathering momentum of movements for change defines the social and political scene on the continent. We are witnessing not so much an Arab Spring as an African Awakening.

There have also been protests, strikes and other actions in Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Gabon, Sudan, Mauritania, Morocco, Madagascar, Mozambique, Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Djibouti, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Swaziland, South Africa, Malawi, Uganda and more recently in Nigeria and Togo. Indeed, they have much in common with events we have witnessed last year in Wisconsin (USA), Spain, Greece and indeed in the Occupy movement.

The mass uprisings and protests that erupted across the continent and in the Middle East share a similar aetiology. Over the last 30 years, countries in the global South, and in particular in Africa, have seen the systematic reversal of the gains of independence.  The net effect was to reduce the state to having a narrowly prescribed role in economic affairs, and precious little authority or resources to devote to the development of social infrastructure, resulting in the erosion of the ability of citizens to control their own destinies. These events have been the topic of a recent book edited by Sokari Ekine and myself: African Awakenings: the emerging revolutions (Pambazuka Press, 2012).

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