How the West exploits Africa

By Tony Iltis

US President Barack Obama used his African heritage in his July 11 speech to the Ghanaian parliament in Accra as justification for proceeding to blame Africa’s problems on its own people.

He acknowledged historical Western crimes, but denied that ongoing suffering is caused by the current policies of the West.

Western aggression and exploitation, Obama claims, are things of the past.

A July 15 Los Angeles Times editorial said: “It was the same message about good governance they’d heard from presidents [Bill] Clinton and George W. Bush. No new programs or initiatives for Africa.

“But just because the message is old doesn’t mean it’s not worth repeating.”

Obama played up his own ancestry to appeal to his audience. He referred to the indignities his grandfather suffered under British colonial rule in Kenya, including being briefly imprisoned during the independence struggle of the 1950s and ’60s.

Having thus established his credibility, he continued: “Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict … But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.”

Actually, the West has a direct responsibility for both, and for the endemic corruption and authoritarianism that Obama identified as a major cause of Africa’s problems.

The destruction of the Zimbabwean economy, for instance, is not just a result of President Robert Mugabe’s corruption and mismanagement, but even more his government implementing neoliberal policies dictated by Western financial institutions.

Obama acknowledged the criminal history of the slave trade. The slave trade came to an end in the 19th century, largely as a result of slave uprisings in the Caribbean, most notably the Haitian revolution of 1791-1805.

On the back of the slave trade, Europe and North America developed societies more wealthy, militarily powerful and technologically advanced than any previous civilisation.

In the 19th century, the British set about conquering Africa. Although less than a century earlier the British were the biggest slave traders in history, this conquest was justified as fighting slavery.


Other European powers followed suit. In 1885, Africa was literally carved up at a conference in Berlin, without regard for pre-existing linguistic and political boundaries. This “colonial map that made little sense” is still the basis for the political map of Africa today.

As much as slavery, colonialism meant the development and enrichment of the West at Africa’s expense. Again, millions died.

In the Congo, King Leopold of Belgium systematically enslaved the entire population to produce rubber and ivory. Between 1885 and 1908, 13 million people were killed.

In the mid-20th century, more than 3 million people were killed in the construction of the Brazzaville-Ocean Railway by France.

The creation of such infrastructure, which connected Africa’s raw materials to points of export to Europe, was described as giving Africa the benefits of Western civilisation.

The same process continues today and is now called “development”.

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