Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Africa: the weakest link?

A New Bandung? Samir Amin

Interviewed by Christophe Champin

14 December, 2010 — MRZine

Would you say that you’re among the pessimists who regard the five decades of African independence as five lost decades?

I’m not a pessimist and I don’t think that these have been five lost decades. I remain extremely critical, extremely severe with respect to African states, governments, and political classes, but I’m even more critical about the world system, which is, largely, responsible for Africa’s setbacks. You know that colonization which people brag about today has been a historic catastrophe. At the end of its colonization, there were nine Congolese educated to university level in the Belgian Congo. After 30 years of Mobutu’s regime — one of the vilest regimes ever — this figure grew to hundreds of thousands. In other words, the worst African regime was 3,000, 5,000 times better than the wonderful Belgian colonization. It’s important to remember these things.

When you point the finger at the world system that is partly responsible for Africa’s position today, what specific criticism are you directing at this world system?

At the time of Africa’s independence Africa was, and remains today, the “soft belly” — the most vulnerable part of the world system. And a vulnerable part of the world system is condemned by the logic of this system to be exploited. Super-exploitation in Africa primarily consists of the plunder of the continent’s natural resources. In other words, Africa is useful for the world system in the sense that it is a source of fabulous natural resources. A useful Africa is an Africa without Africans. For the world system, the African people are too much. They’re not part of those fringe workers, save emigrants of course, who are exploited. What interests imperialism — to call it by its contemporary name — is the natural resources of Africa. And why is Africa vulnerable? Because after having gained their independence, African countries have not been sufficiently engaged — not engaged at all — in a path of rapid industrialization. I say the opposite to what is generally said: “Industrialization? It’s for later on. Africa is not ready for industrialization.”

This used to be said about China 50 years ago. This used to be said about South Korea. These are exactly the countries who industrialized, who industrialized in a purposeful way, who today represent the world’s emerging countries. Africa is 50 years behind. For this 50-year delay, there’s an important responsibility among the political class. But even the weakness of this class of leaders — the fact that they have accepted the status of client states of the West — does not diminish the responsibility of the Western countries.

Isn’t there also a risk of systematically putting these countries in the position of victims? Today’s leaders are political players in Africa.

Of course they’re political players! These are subaltern allies within the world system, so they have as much responsibility as their patron. But their patron has as much responsibility as them. Let’s take a simple question, that of corruption, because everybody talks about corruption and it’s true that a good number of African politicians are corrupted to the extreme. But those who corrupt them are no less responsible.

Let’s look back at history. 1960 was the year of independence for a number of African countries. Some of course achieved their independence earlier, but 1960 was an important year for many Francophone African countries and certain Anglophone ones. Where were you exactly in that era?

I was in Africa. I’d been in Egypt, in my country, between 1957 and 1960. In September 1960, I went to Bamako. I think it was the very day when independence was proclaimed, or the day after. So, from the beginning, I made the choice of putting my modest abilities at the service of the development of the new Africa, the independent Africa.

How did you experience that independence day?

I experienced it with a lot of passion and hope. Having regained their independence, these countries were finally going to be able to engage in development worthy of the name — that is to say, rapid development at the pace of a forced march, but also just development for everybody’s benefit, for the benefit of the popular classes.

I hadn’t chosen to go to Mali randomly. It was because the Malian government — the part which was calling itself the Sudanese Union at the time — had made radical choices, that is to say a choice of independence, a choice of independence that was not rhetorical but real, by battling on the ground to gain the largest possible room for maneuver and making the history of this party largely one of listening to the popular classes, notably the peasantry. Many conditions were in place for an auspicious start. And this start wasn’t bad, but the country remained extremely vulnerable, not only for geographic reasons — a very big country with a small population at the time (there were scarcely 4 million people), with enormous and uncontrollable borders, without access to the sea, and therefore with all sorts of reasons to be vulnerable.

The drift came soon after, for which the local political leaders have a particular responsibility because they had created a margin for maneuver which they haven’t used in the best way. The drift towards power — I would not say personal, but the power of an elite and a minority, including personal power — proved very quick.

There are other countries that made a choice: Guinea and Ghana advocated for certain economic independence, especially in relation to their former colonizers. In observing these countries at the time, did you perceive all the problems which would develop in the 1970s and 1980s?

Yes and no. I would not be so presumptuous as to say that I had predicted everything, but I saw fairly quickly the difficulties and the possible consequences, which proved to be veritable drifts, in Mali and also in Ghana. I have been to Ghana. Ghana always gave me a good impression. In other words, despite the difficulties, it had a capacity to recover, which proved to be the case, albeit with highs and lows of course. Guinea gave me a deplorable impression from the start — that is to say the impression of an extremely authoritarian government, especially President Sékou Touré, who was a good politician in the sense of knowing how to maneuver. He sometimes knew how to make concessions where necessary or things of this nature; he could sometimes negotiate internationally; but he had no political culture, no vision of the real difficulties and exigencies of development.

The bare minimum of development demands, has demanded, and will always demand a certain type of democracy, not in the sense of a blueprint (or a fixed recipe comprising multipartyism and elections which most of the time prove worthless) — not only under the conditions of Africa, but elsewhere too, including in Europe, because you can vote as you please in Europe and the result is as if you haven’t voted at all — but in the sense of taking the social dimension into consideration. In other words, it demands a democracy associated with social progress — and not disassociated from social progress — and not associated a fortiori with social regression, as is the case now when there are some elements of democracy.

Do you consider the political failings of these countries as a failure of the ideas that you’ve defended or of the application of these ideas?

An argument based on “these were good ideas but their implementation was poor” is not my line of reasoning. If the implementation was poor, then the ideas themselves weren’t perfect. I wouldn’t say that they were poor. It could be said that the main principles adopted by a certain number of African countries at the dawn of their independence were good, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to go further than that. These principles need to be translated into sub-principles — I would say methods of action — and then we’ve seen contradictions appear quickly.

Does Africa have a place in globalization . . . which you’ve criticized, by the way?

Africa must find its place. If it must, it can. But this is a bit theoretical. In the short term, Africa remains extremely vulnerable. And as I was saying, in the near future, Africa remains for the whole world — especially the developed capitalist powers — a source of primary materials, be they hydrocarbons, uranium, rare minerals, rare metals (very important for the future), the opening of agricultural land under the expansion of Western, Chinese, Brazilian, and other agribusinesses, solar power (whose electricity may be in the future transferred long distances), or water. International capital is purely concerned with these opportunities. For international capital, Africa and the Africans don’t exist. The African continent is a geographic continent full of resources. Period. And this is against the idea that Africa should organize itself, not only to refuse to submit to this looting, but to use these natural resources for its own development.

Following independence, various heads of state tried to put into place approaches to development said to be auto-centered or more independent of the former colonizers: Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. . . . These approaches didn’t achieve their goals. Today we are in this period of complete globalized capitalism. What is to be done in fact?

These means and these leaders didn’t achieve their goals, it’s true. But neither did the others. At that time there was a lot of boasting about Houphouët-Boigny’s choice to open up Côte d’Ivoire as an unregulated, uncontrolled country. And where’s Côte d’Ivoire today? I think its situation is even worse than Ghana’s. This is to say that, despite everything, it’s because of the heritage, the positive part, of what Nkrumah did that Ghana is in a better situation today than a neighboring country comparable to it, by virtue of its assets, type of agriculture, natural resources, and size — i.e. Côte d’Ivoire.

Today, what room for maneuver do African states have to find a middle path?

This room for maneuver is experiencing a rebirth precisely because of the success of the so-called emerging countries: China, India, Brazil, and other less important ones like South Korea, and, even within Africa, South Africa (the only one on the continent). These countries are already in conflict with Western countries. This was seen during Obama’s visit to Beijing and subsequent visits. And this conflict, which isn’t simply about access to natural resources but also access to markets and to finance, is going to intensify. Equally, this conflict constitutes a guarantee that the US pursuit of the project of military control of the planet, which is very bad now, won’t continue. Even if there are many drawbacks, these emerging countries will understand that they have an interest in contributing to this renaissance, this reconstitution (there is no reconstitution in history), of something like a Bandung — in other words, I wouldn’t go as far as saying a common front, but a broad alliance, even with the most vulnerable countries, with the countries of the African continent, in a way that they can collectively strengthen themselves and roll back the Western ambitions and the looting of the continent.

Many African countries are turning to China and India, sometimes as if they were a lifeline to get out of their situation. Isn’t this a mistake? Won’t the solution instead be to learn to play with different partners?

Playing with different partners is a dangerous game. At the time of Bandung, many countries — including Nasser’s Egypt — wanted to play on the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, playing the Soviet card at times, and the American one at others. They lost on both counts. I think that today, a country which engages in . . . let’s say an active diplomacy, which plays a Chinese card one day and an American one the next, would fail in the same way. Conversely, I think that it’s necessary to work towards rebuilding this group of 77 (the 77 are much greater in number today and the group of 77 is called the “77 plus China” at the United Nations). The Chinese offer many African countries what the West does not: the construction of huge infrastructure, which is one of the conditions of possible development, of industrial development, of development worthy of the name, which isn’t simply a few agricultural products for export under miserable conditions, but rather transport infrastructure, railways, roads. After all, the only example of major railway construction in the history of modern post-independence Africa has been Tanzam, which was carried out by the Chinese. Now, alas, it isn’t possible that in the race for natural resources, the Chinese, the Brazilians, and others would behave very differently, in a way very different from the Western countries.

Doesn’t Africa risk falling into the same pattern albeit with different partners?

No, I don’t think so, because the partners are different. The Chinese and the Brazilians are not in the same situation as the United States or Europe. Firstly, they don’t have a project of military control of the planet like the United States. If the United States has a project of military control of the planet, Europe, alas, follows. Europe — with its involvement in NATO — is simply a subaltern ally of the United States. No matter one’s opinion on the nature of their political classes and their choices regarding the economic and social development of their countries, neither China, nor India, nor Brazil is in the same position.

Many observers speak of a historic period that would become a kind of second independence, especially for Francophone Africa. What do you think about this?

These are great words. We’re in a second wave. It could be better or it could be worse than the first — history is always open. Despite the title of René Dumont’s book, L’Afrique noire est mal partie, Africa didn’t start out too badly. It started off badly in certain respects, on certain plans, and René Dumont was right on this point, regarding agriculture. But Africa, which didn’t get off to too bad a start in 1960, quickly got stuck, and I hope that what it is being proposed does become a second wave of independence — if we’re going to call it that — for the African continent.

Samir Amin is an Egyptian economist. The original interview “Samir Amin : «Le système mondial est en grande partie responsable des échecs africains»” was published by RFI on 8 March 2010. The text above is adapted from Alex Free’s translation provided by Pambazuka News under a Creative Commons license.

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