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Surrounded: When colonialism is all around us

If the pillage we are witnessing on the African continent—mostly from the 1980s-onwards—is worse than the exploitation of the 1884-1960s, why is the continent not up in arms?

If the pillage we are witnessing on the African continent—mostly from the 1980s-onwards—is worse than the exploitation of the 1884-1960s, why is the continent not up in arms? A recent study put the pillage at $152 trillion dollars lost between 1960-2010 from just unequal exchange. (Consider that the US economy is just $25 trillion dollars). With 70% of items consumed in Europe and North America coming from formerly colonised places, clearly Kwame Nkrumah was visionary in calling neo-colonialism, more dangerous than the old form of colonialism.  But why do Africans appear content to magnify and celebrate otherwise small things such as black faces in office; electoral democracies; some native capitalists; associations with former colonisers; football, the English language, Wi-Fi, and the penetration of items of European ostentation?  Even when West Africa remains under direct French colonialism, why is there no concerted effort to liberate West Africa as happened during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, or the liberation struggles in Mozambique when the entire continent was involved? My contention is that this state of affairs—of indifference, acquiescence, complacence, comprador-ism, ignorance, and false happiness—is a product of carefully choreographed and now naturalised cues and role-plays, which need to be the focus of the African intelligentsia.

Continued calls for “decolonisation,” captured in demands for “reparations,” “decolonising knowledge production” or “decolonising the academy,” or progressive movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, or advocacy for collaborations between western scholars and Africa-based scholars are all good.  But they are terribly bereft of oomph and actual decolonisation. They do not make new colonialism visible enough in its minute everyday details.  Look, even after these were achieved (the academy is decolonised, stolen artefacts returned, collaborations improved, Rhodes fell), Africa would remain an impoverished and looted continent.  Why? Nkrumah’s vivid and prophetic 1965, Neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism is elaborate in its description of the ways in which the coloniser will continue exploiting the continent. But the text has struggled to highlight the otherwise, “performatively friendlier” ways through which pillage is disguised and executed.  This is the genius of New Colonialism, the power to fetishize itself and endless mutate, oftentimes, appearing to align with the colonised.

There is a great deal of scholarship about the ruins of structural adjustment, especially how the colonisers—through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—returned just 30 years after independence, preached and enforced privatisation and “bought” back (often extremely cheaply) all those things upon which any economy thrives.  Others they couldn’t buy were left to ruin. While all this is well-known, there is a way, the so-called ‘market-led economics’ have cultured, smoothed their way, convincing entire populations that our poverty and impoverishment are our own making:  Stereotypes such as “Africans are unable to do business” (because they lack business skill or are simply greedy), “Africans are unable to see opportunities” proliferate and inform many interventionist projects:  There are incredible amounts of “education” programmes, and offers of capital to starter ups, and NGO work meant to “teach” Africans ways of overcoming poverty, and enabling them to compete in a free market arrangement.  All this is nonsense.  The reason for this absurd state of affairs is that the African intelligentsia still struggles to expose the performative, almost ignorable, localized, informal, and seemingly benevolent manifestation of New Colonialism.  The devil is in its everyday forms that are subtle and seemingly helpful.

While old colonialism was known—performatively—for grabbing, brutality, violence, whiteness, annexation, murder, annihilation, and absolute direct racism, this new order is known for entirely different sets of performative practices.  With the old order, the Native did not need to have a PhD nor a masters’ degree to see it.  Everyone saw it and resistance was a natural involuntary response.  The performative practices of new colonialism range from the entirely seemingly innocent and benevolent ones, to the hardcore structured ones, which are also often negotiated not only behind closed doors (and often narrativized in the language of security) but also without the spectacle of violence.  They appear benign and mutually agreed.  “This is the best we could get,” the elite conclude. In moments where the elite are willingly conscripted, they are made to see their condition as a helpless one: “what can we do?” they ask in resignation. We are witnessing a proliferation of a comprador industry where entire populations are turned into accomplices in their own exploitation.

A friendly coloniser

As opposed to the men in short khakis carrying riffles, and ordering Natives about, our new colonisers are dressed in designer suits—normally with white shirts and red or navy-blue neckties—and are ever smiling from left to right.  They are our friends and we hang out with them.  We eat with them; we visit their houses and they visit ours too.  While most of them could be white, a good number of them are black folks. We even marry from them, and they marry from amongst us, thus making us blended, but they structurally sustain a fair social distance between Natives and new colonisers.

When sent to Africa on these new colonial missions (ambassadorial, foundation work, agencies, consultancies, or simple fieldwork), they are given special salary grades and upkeep. It does not matter whether they are doing the same work as the Natives; the native will be paid less.  It is often argued that this special emolument caters for the “inconvenience” of working abroad.  While I do not begrudge this argument, it should be baffling that remuneration remains huge even when the life expats enjoy in Africa (with all the cheaply available organic foods, and friendly souls around them) is far better than their blighted capitalistic lives back home.  With these often-humongous salaries, the new coloniser is enabled an exclusive lifestyle, including residence in exclusive suburbs of African capitals: Kololo and Muyenga in Kampala, Nyarutarama and Kiyovu in Kigali; Karen and Westlands in Nairobi; and Masaki and Oyster Bay in Dar-es-Salaam.  In West Africa, it is East Legon in Accra and Banana, and Victoria islands in Lagos. This is not simply a function of class, but a colonial model reproducing itself through class, which integrates the comprador elite into the ranks of the colonisers – who also live in the same neighbourhoods.

It is worth noting that while a good number of the new colonisers believe in the new colonial mission—and are aggressive in its execution—majority of them are simply workers, simple conscripts. They have been convinced that their work in Africa actually promotes the well-being of the Africans.  Thus, they are handed seemingly benevolent projects such as promoting democracy, watching human rights, working on financial inclusion, protecting the rights of refugees, environmental work, fighting hunger and disease, protection of the rights of women, improving access to medical care, etcetera. The causes of these problems are never exhaustively discussed, but simply stereotyped as “typical African problem”.  And since the problems in question are actually existing and easily visible, the ordinary person appreciates whoever offers any anaesthetics because of the daily pain. The new colonisers then reproduce themselves through constant offers of anaesthesia to otherwise complex conditions whose actual remedy points to them as the problem.

Ever wondered why expats in European/North American agencies and foundations working in Africa are so committed to offering aid and grants, endlessly “calling for proposals” even when the things they have supported for years have never improved? Agencies and foundations remain far active in the areas of human rights, democracy, public health, education, business empowerment, etcetera.  Why do they continue supporting NGOs and CSOs even when they know things are only getting worse?  There is a double standard here: Because while for Europe and North America, it is the work of the state to create an environment in which people thrive (in terms of civil liberties, business inclusion, human rights, etc.), why then argue that for Africa, these things is the work of non-governmental organisations? This is nonsense. Consider business empowerment in Germany, for example: a start-up business starts paying taxes only after it has made €20.000 in profits.  In this same country, interest rates on loans might only peak at 1.5%.  These things are determined by government, and not a single NGO can fix them.  It is the same banks in Europe and North America that dominate the markets in Africa.  The point here is that the sleek colonialism of banks is enabled by a discourse that pivots towards claims such as “Africa’s poor saving culture,” “poor business acumen” thus an overwhelming emphasis on NGO work.

Let’s consider a related question: Why do donors simply continue “calling for proposals” when they know successful candidates use that money to fund their soft lifestyles? It is because the new coloniser has understood that to take as much as they want, they have to (a) appear benevolent, whatever the implications of their benevolence, (b) and have to capture the few educated Africans who start and run NGOs and CSOs.  Funded, through what appears like their good work and good proposals, the coloniser buys both their silence and accomplice.  What then happens is that once a hostile agreement is negotiated, the privileged Native (formerly in the academia, media, non-governmental work, and now government official) sadly sees the coloniser’s interests and mutually enjoined with theirs.  For the new coloniser, this is simply a long process of turning potential resistors, and yesterday’s public intellectuals into obsequious unsuspecting compradors.  The point I’m making here is that the New Coloniser is inherently, and unquestioningly ready to “help” the Natives – collectively or singularly.  In truth, they aren’t helping, but rather crafting, drafting, and conscripting unsuspecting accomplices into their own exploitation.

The early bird

The genius of the New Coloniser is not in negotiating and entering contracts, but in laying ground for the contract that will be negotiated and signed in future.  The coloniser is smooth and sleek, and performatively benevolent to their victims.  The story begins with massaging, seducing and cornering the African signatory, early enough before they ever become signatories:  it is not about cash handouts, but a more elaborate formular.  Normally, a blanket selection of potential leaders is rolled out annually. The net pools from students, advocacy groups, public servants or NGOs and CSOs.  Brilliant students in the targeted country are wooed through innocent engagements including either scholarships, fellowships or summer schools. If they are in the NGO or CSO sector—these sectors being themselves colonial constructions—they are offered with support for their well-written proposals—after responding to a call—which in turn makes them friendlier to their benefactors.

By the time this student graduates and enters a public position, or when a former CSO or NGO worker is appointed minister or permanent secretary or joins direct politics, they have already been softened and thus conscripted. They are infected with the colonisers’ discourses and tools, and convinced London, Paris or New York is where civilisation and benevolence begins. Neo-liberalism is their language, and Russia, China and Iran should be hated as a default position. They are turned into the unsuspecting compradors, sophisticated Uncle Toms of institutions and frameworks they innocently believe made them what they are.  Even if Gazprom were offering a cheaper deal for oil exploitation, the deal will be handed over to French Total, on the inexplicable intelligibility that the French are more trustworthy.

But there is another version of conscription—Nkrumah talks about it quite extensively in Neo-colonialism, but this time takes a more subtle everyday form: of offers of assistance (money, guns, budget support) to already existing politicians or passive-aggressive threats of eviction from office.  If the sitting politician was not helped when they were in the bush fighting or during their presidential bid, they are threatened with removal from office by signalling support to any of their challengers. Africans need to beware that many of their leaders and other politicians are threatened individuals.  Most of the decisions they are taking—on issues such as mining, banking, trade in agricultural exports, terms of trade—do not necessarily reflect their independent will, although they might curse and threaten their compatriots.  These decisions are only important for their hold onto power.  And this is not to downplay their role in this saga.  They are squarely responsible especially for their decisions to hold onto power for the small pleasures that come with holding a powerful political office. They have the capacity to ignore these threats and, if needs be, sacrifice their political careers for the good of their compatriots. But they never.

The point I’m labouring here is that the new coloniser quietly cajoles, massages and smoothly manipulates their signatories early enough.  While privatisation—as was enforced by the World Bank and IMF—remains operational to this day, we ought to understand that resistance also remains possible.  But because these are threatened—and by extension, cowardly folks—they are content to hold onto their servitude, while threatening their armless compatriots.

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