By Michael Holman
SOME 18 months ago, then American secretary of state Colin Powell took South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki to task for his handling of the crisisin neighbouring Zimbabwe. Last we
ek his successor, Condoleezza Rice, entered the fray with a bang.Along with North Korea, Cuba and other traditional suspects, she putZimbabwe 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 thecontinent.
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 orstrategic concerns continue to take precedence over principles: West Africa, for example, is expected to provide 20% of US oil imports in 10years, 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 becomebogged down in debate about the shortcomings of colonialism. But Britain’s record in Africa in general, and in southern Africa inparticular, is no better than its record in the Middle East, even if it doesreceive less attention. Just about wherever Britain and the West has been involved, from the Horn ofAfrica to the Cape of Good Hope, Africa bears the scars. The legacy liveson.
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 inthe 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 routeswhich ran through white-ruled Rhodesia, which was to wage a 15- yearstruggle 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 Rhodesiasand Nyasaland on the voteless African majority. And it was Britain thatpresided over its dissolution, on terms that gave the bulk of the armedforces to white-ruled Rhodesia, soon to declare illegal independence,triggering a war that scarred the region.
It was Britain that jailed theleaders 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 TonyBlair pursuing a sinister neo-colonialist strategy. The British primeminister genuinely believes that the colonial past belongs to the historybooks.
He, like Colin Powell, just fails to understand that, as in the Middle East, Africa’s history still shapes events, still moulds values, and stillinfluences policies. Perhaps Britain, at least is learning. The visit to Africa two weeks ago by UK finance minister Gordon Brown may signal a fresh look at the batteredcontinent.
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 nosooner 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 thecontinent, its problems and its sensitivities, it will be partly because hehas been wearing his historian’s hat.
Alas for Africa, its history has, for the most part, been written by itsconquerors, and truth, accuracy and perspective are casualties. The fact isBritain is still in the process of learning just what really happened duringthe colonial period, as two important books published last 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 their 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 aremoral dwarfs.
*Michael Holman, born and brought up in Zimbabwe, was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 to 2002.