Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jamaica: Not much to show after 50 years of independence

Not much to show after 50 years of independence

By Keeble McFarlane

As Jamaicans everywhere pause to acknowledge 48 years of independence, we should reflect that we joined a bandwagon which had been gathering momentum since the end of one of history's most tumultuous events, the Second World War. With the exception of a strip along the Mediterranean Sea, Africa - the second-largest land mass on earth - remained largely unknown to outsiders until the voyages by European explorers between the 15th and 17th centuries. Egypt, of course, was one of the earliest centres of civilisation and the other countries running west towards the Atlantic had been under European influence since classical times. Two countries escaped the European scramble for Africa in the late 19th century - Ethiopia, which had always been independent, except for a few years of occupation by Italy starting in the 1930s, and Liberia, established by freed slaves from the United States in 1847.

The Europeans came mainly in search of the continent's vast mineral treasures. To this day, about one-third of the world's minerals, including more than half of its diamonds and almost half its gold, are mined in Africa. Other minerals, now highly sought after by the insatiable maw of the electronic factories which churn out cellphones, flat-screen TVs and the like, are now ruthlessly exploited from the continent. At the same time, the birthplace of mankind is ravaged by diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS, while poverty and underdevelopment have kept its teeming millions shackled in a never-ending struggle for mere survival.

Fifty years ago, 17 nations in sub-Saharan Africa gained independence from their European colonists. Fourteen of them were former French colonies and the largest African nation, Nigeria, severed itself from British rule. I recall the excitement some of us felt when as teenagers attending high school we learned about Ghana, the first British colony in Africa to break away from Whitehall's clutches. We looked up to Kwame Nkrumah, who led a non-violent struggle for the independence of the Gold Coast, as the colony was known, achieving that aim in 1957. He was prime minister for the first three years and then declared Ghana a republic in 1960, just as that other large bunch of countries gained their sovereignty.

The new crop of leaders included some worthy contenders - Patrice Lumumba in what was known as the French Congo, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Ivory Coast, Léopold Senghor in Sénégal and Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria. The new leaders and those who were to come later - like Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tankanyika (which became Tanzania after merging with the nearby island of Zanzibar), Milton Obote of Uganda and Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Nyasaland, which became Malawi - were all fired up about building a new future for their countries now that they had severed themselves from the suffocating strictures of colonialism.

Resentment of colonialism and resistance against it had begun early in the century in several parts of the world. But the colonial powers held all the cards, controlling the world's industry, banking, methods and means of trade right down to the ships in which the raw materials and manufactured goods moved around. The big powers also spent a lot of time and effort squabbling with one another, and the cataclysm we know as World War II soaked up all the available manpower, raw materials and attention of country after country, including the colonies, which now had to feed bodies into the giant meat-grinding machine that war constitutes.

The war left the colonial powers exhausted, both in spirit and in treasure, and they consequently lost the stomach to fight to continue control of the colonies. One of the weakest of the colonial powers, The Netherlands, never regained its prize colony, the Dutch Indies, which became Indonesia, while the much smaller and far less important holdings in the Caribbean lingered on until relatively recently when they detached themselves while retaining a fairly strong connection to the old colonial centre.

Britain was forced to give up its prized holding, India, which had proved most difficult to handle. But the Africans, who had their own complicated social, linguistic, religious and tribal make-up, were a bit easier to hold on to by the classic methods of divide and conquer. Even here, though, the inexorable forces of enlightenment brought about a trickle of changes after the war. Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco led the pack in the 1950s before Ghana in 1957 and Guinea, under Ahmed Sékou Touré, in 1958.

Curiously the earliest global empire was the longest lived - at almost six centuries - and the last to quit Africa. Portuguese seafarers were in the front line of European explorers, poking around the coasts of Africa from the early 1400s. After World War II, Portugal's Fascist strongman, António Salazar, conducted a long and bloody armed effort to hold on to the remnants of his empire. The rebels who overthrew him in 1974 immediately recognised the independence of all Portuguese colonies except Macau, a small enclave on the south coast of China. It eventually went in 1999, by agreement with the government in Beijing.

The African dominoes began falling at an unfortunate time - this was the Cold War, when the United States, together with its supporters and clients were locked in a deadly earnest conflict with the Soviet Union and its satellites and clients. Both big countries were not only arming themselves with the latest diabolical weaponry their scientists could devise, but threw vast amounts of money, arms and threats (veiled and otherwise), at the new countries which emerged from under the cruel yoke of colonialism.

So Africa became a battleground for the two camps, and its newly emergent states paid dearly in lives, stillborn development possibilities and distorted governance. Promising leaders like Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo were eliminated and replaced by corrupt figures such as Joseph Mobutu, who morphed himself into Mobutu Sese Seko, renamed his country Zaïre, siphoned vast sums of money meant to help develop his country, and presided over decades of disaster.

Promising leaders like Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Houphouët-Boigny and Robert Mugabe in Southern Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after a long and nasty struggle, turned into self-aggrandising tyrants interested only in holding on to power. Instead of building and nurturing vigorous and vibrant democratic political structures, they instead surrounded themselves with sycophants and toadies and eliminated opponents either by intimidation or brutality.

The Cold War eventually ended and outsiders lost interest, except as a place ripe for exploitation. Some countries are engaged in the arduous and painful task of building something in keeping with the aspirations of the early independence figures. A few have managed to remain stable and relatively prosperous. Now there is a new external contender - China - but it is motivated primarily by economic rather than political concerns.

At this half-century mark, there is little to celebrate. Much of the continent's difficulties can be attributed to its colonial heritage. But by the same token, many of Africa's problems are self-inflicted. So instead of celebrating, Africa's extraordinarily complex, complicated and differentiated societies need to examine where they went wrong and generate new ideas on how to tackle the enormous problems they face. They need only take a look across the Atlantic at South America, whose long-battered nations are dynamically devising new political and economic solutions to the demands of the 21st century.

August 07, 2010