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It is not uncommon for ocean waves to crash violently against the cliffs of the Ghanaian town of Elmina. Some speculate that the violent seas are a manifestation of the anger of the spirits of countless Africans who endured unspeakable tortures or violent deaths at a slave trading castle that still stands on the Elmina shore.  It would not be surprising if those waves were crashing more violently than usual when Tony Blair stood before the world recently and announced that he, on behalf of Great Britain, will lead a western campaign to save Africa from itself.

For those who are uninformed, Blair’s hopes for increasing foreign aid to Africa by an additional $25 billion per year may seem not only reasonable, but commendable. The proposed foreign aid increase was suggested in a report by Blair’s Commission for Africa that, among other things, urges Africa to reform itself, and for the Western powers to be more sensitive to the continent’s plight.  However, the absurdity, even outrageousness of Blair’s piety and the implication that Africa made its own mess, are apparent only when one understands that, in this instance, Great Britain is not unlike an individual who offers to help pay the medical expenses of a crime victim when the good Samaritan is actually the person who perpetrated the rape, robbery and humiliation of the patient.

England was among the most notorious colonizers of the African continent. For an extended period, England was directly involved in the slave trade, sending inestimable numbers of Africans into Caribbean plantation hell. The workers in England’s colonies in Africa were paid unconscionably low wages that were often immediately reclaimed as “taxes.” African land was taken by force, as was the labor of thousands of African peasants in Sierra Leone who were forced to build that country’s cross-country railroad.

England thoroughly and completely underdeveloped countries like Ghana, which had the capacity to become agriculturally self-sufficient. However, the sweet tooth of “Mother England” resulted in the dedication of numerous acres of farmland to the production of cocoa, which in turn caused a need for Ghana to import agricultural products of other types that the country could have otherwise grown for itself. The damage done to Africa by England and other European colonizers is simply unquantifiable. It is against this backdrop that Blair has the nerve to offer his “help” as though the country he leads is blameless.

This is not the first time that England has piously assumed a posture of holiness during disingenuous efforts to “save” Africans. Back in the 19th Century, England’s was a leading voice in the call for the abolition of the slave trade. The country’s abolitionist posture had nothing to do with humanitarian impulses, and everything to do with facilitating England’s entry into a then newly-emerging global free market that promised larger profits. To understand this, consider that England built its Industrial Revolution on an exclusive mercantilist trading relationship with its Caribbean colonies. This ensured that West Indian planters had a guaranteed market for their agricultural products, and “Mother England” had a guaranteed market for its manufactured goods. But when it became clear that greater profits could be obtained by negotiating for cheaper raw materials from other suppliers, and by placing manufactured goods on the open market, England sought with a vengeance to crush the Caribbean planters by cutting off their supply of the slaves who were indispensable to the islands’ agricultural operations.

England was never forthright about the true reasons for its opposition to the slave trade. Similarly, Blair is saying nothing that suggests that he has anything other than humanitarian concerns. However, the truth may have something to do with the fact that, to all appearances, Great Britain’s influence on the African continent has been eroding at an ever increasing pace. When Blair suspended Zimbabwe from the British Commonwealth, there were other African states that were not at all intimidated. In fact, many politicians and grassroots activists throughout Southern Africa were emboldened by Zimbabwe’s defiant response. Inspired by Zimbabwe’s stubborn determination to pursue its land reclamation program (which drew British ire in the first place), Africans in other countries have begun to demand, in ways that cannot be ignored, that their own governments take a similar approach to the land issue. This is particularly true in Kenya. Add to this the continuing efforts to promote African self-sufficiency through the African Union and otherwise, and it becomes clear that England is becoming ever more irrelevant to a continent that it once dominated in the way that a parent dominates a child.

We can all watch with some amusement as Tony Blair pathetically makes the rounds trying to persuade the world that he is still the Great White Father, and that Africans are his ever-dependent children. We should watch with even greater amusement George Bush’s bewilderment with Blair’s pleas that the U.S. join him in this enterprise. By his actions, Bush has at least honestly affirmed that he has never cared about Africa, and he is not about to start just because Blair suggests that he should. In the end, it may be a difficult pill to swallow, but Blair and those who share his perspective need to come to terms with the fact that the sun has set on the British Empire. If Blair really wants to do something for Africa, he should receive with grace a bill for reparations and restitution for all that England took from its African colonies and the enslaved individuals forced into the Diaspora. After England pays that bill, Blair should just back away from Africa and shut up.

Mark P. Fancher is the author of "The Splintering of Global Africa: Capitalism's War Against Pan-Africanism."

 

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June 23 2005
Issue 143

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