A way of looking

13 01 2008

Someone left the comment on my post about one laptop per child saying that Africa was an Enigma to them. I must admit that how so much has gone wrong for Africa does seem baffling. The commentator asked how they could still be blaming colonialism 50 (he accidentally said 60) years since independence.

As a way of trying to put Africa in terms I might understand I’ve started to play with the idea of what would have happened if colonialism had been reversed; if, instead of Europe colonising Africa, an industrialised Africa had colonised a pre-industrial Europe. In this scenario different African nations divided Europe arbitrarily, exported white slaves to the Americas, imposed their languages and religions onto Christian Europe and installed an African elite to administer the savages of Europe before finally granting “independence” to an arbitrary set of countries populated by disparate sets of people.

In my imaginary world southern England (where I grew up) was ruled by Xhosa speakers from southern Africa as part of a region that also included northern France. The capital of the new country of Wessex is Paris and the official language is Xhosa, completely alien to the native French and English speakers who inhabit the country, but still the language of the law, civil service and universities. Anyone who can’t manage its clicks and nuances is assumed to be stupid. Scotland, the north of England and Denmark were the domain of Swahili speakers from East Africa. France largely converted to animism while England remains Christian. As a native of Southern England I’m divided from my co-religionist English speakers in Birmingham by an arbitrary border and different official languages. Instead I’m ruled from Paris by people who don’t share my language or religion.

During the colonial era southern England (or northern Wessex as it was referred to) was largely used to supply agricultural products and labour for the slightly more industrialised northern France (or south Wessex) and Africa. As a result infrastructure and education weren’t considered important for England and there were only a handful of secondary schools in the whole of the region, and no sealed roads, at independence 50 years ago. I never got the chance to learn Xhosa, so had no chance to get on. Instead I see French speaking administrators lording it over us. What little money gets paid in tax by the Zulu company mining the Kentish coal fields and Cornish Tin mines goes straight to Paris to build schools and infrastructure in the French speaking areas. As a result I have little loyalty to the nation of “Wessex”, despite its being named after an ancient English kingdom. I look to my (English) politicians to grab whatever they can, however they can, for me and mine. The wheat grown across North Wessex can’t compete with the heavily subsidised maize and millet grown by the wealthy African farmers, who also have access to cheap loans and subsidised fertilisers. The Kentish fruit farmers gave up production long ago and now live by subsistence farming.

In the rest of Europe the Germanic tribes in heavily forested central Europe have collapsed into chaotic civil wars, fighting over the mineral wealth of the Ruhr. The Zulu speaking colonialists who occupied much of central Europe had deliberately played off one tribe against the next to maintain their control, and after leaving different African nations, as well as the rising black power of America, used their intelligence services to fund different groups in an attempt to maintain control of the resources, and in the cold war against Asian influence. The discovery of North Sea oil has caused the nation of Scandinavia to lurch between corrupt civilian regimes and corrupt military regimes. Since Africa has better technology it is African companies drilling and pumping – an Igbo company with experience from the coast of Nigeria almost monopolises North Sea oil production and judicious bribes ensure that it pays very little in tax. Most of the North Sea wealth ends up in Lagos.

Wealthy African states promise tiny proportions of their wealth to an impoverished Europe and deliver even less. Much of what is given has often been tied to unequal trade agreements, with the recipient nations having to spend the donations on goods from the donor countries, often military. In effect these are less donations than covert subsidies of the donor nations’ own industries.

Another practice that causes as much harm as good is that of shipping at great expense food grown in America and Africa to relieve European famine rather than buying it locally. The wheat industry in North Wessex was devastated when American rice shipped to the Low Countries to relieve hunger there was illicitly sold in Kent and Sussex. Ironically there was no need to pay for the rice to be shipped, a grain glut in Hampshire could have been sent to Holland at much lower cost benefiting both countries.
Despite having destroyed much of their own rain forests centuries before well meaning Africans campaign to preserve the temperate forests that cover much of Europe. This is after African colonialists started the timber industry, exporting large swathes of European forests to Africa and America.

I think it would take somewhat longer than 50 years, and something more structural than simple aid (which can have counter productive effects) to sort Europe’s problems in my scenario.

An alternative perspective is to try to understand a Europe that did industrialise first, colonised large parts of the world has massive mineral and other resources but still managed nearly a century of the most barbaric wars and regimes resulting in the deaths of 100s of millions, industrialised genocide and the devastation of their natural environment. But boringly that is actual history rather than speculation.




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