Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Africans Deride Western Engagement

With their experience of western misrule, Africans appear sceptical that the West will now do the right thing – in Zimbabwe or elsewhere on the continent.
By Michael Holman

Some eighteen months ago, then American secretary of state Colin Powell took South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki to task for his handling of the crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe.


This week his successor, Condoleeza Rice, entered the fray with a bang. Along with North Korea, Cuba and other traditional suspects, she put Zimbabwe on what can only be described as a US hit list.


Rice may well be puzzled by the immediate chorus of derision from Africa, and the sound of ranks closing; and she is probably baffled by the fact that President George W Bush trails a very long way behind Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in Africa’s popularity stakes.


Let me offer a possible explanation:


Pundits and politicians abroad seem to have forgotten the legacy of western misrule in Africa, and its contribution to the problems of the continent. And I suspect that Africa has no confidence that western politicians will, this time, do the right thing - whether in Zimbabwe or elsewhere on the continent.


After all, patronage of tyranny and tolerance of corruption have long been at the heart of western policy across Africa, from Kenya under Daniel arap Moi, to Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko and Liberia under Samuel Doe.


Today, for all the protestations to the contrary, commercial interests or strategic concerns continue to take precedence over principles: West Africa, for example, is expected to provide 20 per cent of US oil imports in ten years, a forecast that buys political leeway for some of Africa's most venal and mismanaged governments.


The US and Britain should not be surprised if this doctrine proves to be a two-edged sword, and provokes what they see as a perverse and irrational solidarity among the weak.


Britain at least should know better. It has more experience after all. Yet far from recognising that Africa’s past still shapes current events, the government appears to believe that it can start afresh, without the baggage of history. For those in Britain who determine policy, it seems that the continent’s history begins when Labour won office.


Life is too short, and we are too busy, one minister told me, to become bogged down in debate about the shortcomings of colonialism.


But Britain's record in Africa in general, and in southern Africa in particular, is no better than its record in the Middle East, even if it does receive less attention.


Just about wherever Britain and the West has been involved, from the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, Africa bears the scars. The legacy lives on.


Nowhere are the consequences of western misjudgement more evident than southern Africa, where the denial of responsibility is at its loudest.


Britain was as complicit in the consolidation of white power in Rhodesia in the early 1960s, as surely as it helped create Iraq's fearsome armoury.


Indeed, from the petty to the profound, Britain has usually got it wrong.


In the 1950s, for example, Britain made clear its dismay at the prospect of Seretse Khama, who was to become president of Botswana, marrying a white woman. It was London that effectively vetoed a request from Zambia, on the verge of independence, for a World Bank loan to build a railway link to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. Zambia was left dependent on trade routes which ran through white-ruled Rhodesia, which was to wage a 15- year struggle against majority rule.


And when Zambia became independent after British rule lasting six decades, it had barely a dozen university graduates.


It was Britain that imposed the Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland on the voteless African majority. And it was Britain that presided over its dissolution, on terms that gave the bulk of the armed forces to white-ruled Rhodesia, soon to declare illegal independence, triggering a war that scarred the region. It was Britain that jailed the leaders of African nationalism in nearly every one of the colonies.


I do not believe that Britain and the US are driven by malice, nor is Tony Blair pursuing a sinister neo-colonialist strategy. The British prime minister genuinely believes that the colonial past belongs to the history books.


He, like Colin Powell, just fails to understand that, as in the Middle East, Africa's history still shapes events, still moulds values, and still influences policies.


Perhaps Britain, at least is learning. The visit to Africa last week by UK finance minister Gordon Brown, may signal a fresh look at the battered continent.


Yet Brown must be careful. He was coming to learn, his advisers said. After all, it was his first visit to Africa (apart from a stop-over in Johannesburg a few years ago). He must be a very quick learner, for no sooner had he landed than he was coming up with policy suggestions, ranging from a Marshall plan for the continent to more debt relief.


Whether these and other measures will add up to a solution remains to be seen. And if he has taken back to London a better understanding of the continent, its problems and its sensitivities, it will be partly because he has been wearing his historian’s hat.


Alas for Africa, its history has, for the most part, been written by its conquerors, and truth, accuracy and perspective are casualties. The fact is Britain is still in the process of learning just what really happened during the colonial period, as two important books published this month illustrate. A study of Britain’s fight against the Mau Mau in Kenya suggests it was far more brutal than was appreciated at the time; and Michela Wrong has revealed how the UK government stripped Ethiopia and Eritrea of its industrial infrastructure in the 1940s.


It is not so much the West's lectures about human rights abuses that irritate Africa. It is that they are delivered selectively, and are based on ignorance. All too often the admonitions smack of hypocrisy, coming as they so often do on behalf of powerful men who may wield big sticks, but are moral dwarfs.


Michael Holman, born and brought up in Zimbabwe, was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 to 2002.