A Case for Re-Colonialism


June 09, 1993|By LAURENCE FRANK

Of all the political experiments of the 20th century, none has failed as dramatically as post-colonial Africa. Since gaining independence in the 1960s, most countries of sub-Saharan Africa have spiraled steadily toward economic and social chaos, devastated by corruption, ineptitude and malign neglect by dictatorial kleptocracies.

Food production, medical care, education, human rights and many other quality-of-life measures are lower than before independence. There is uncontrolled population growth, and grinding poverty is the norm for all but the elite. Older Africans talk wistfully of the better lives they led under colonial rule. Angola, Chad, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Zaire have all violently self-destructed.

Apologists blame European colonialism and Western indifference for the disaster, implicitly denying that Africans can be responsible for their own societies. But anyone who has lived there knows that the continent's problems are a reflection of cultural norms that are at odds with democratic government and technological development.

Colonialism indeed set the stage for chaos by creating artificial nations out of hundreds of distinct and frequently hostile tribes. In many traditional cultures, raiding neighboring tribes was a way of life. The political unit was the family and village; social responsibility extended little further. When a man loyal only to his tribe finds himself in control of a nation comprising largely tribal enemies, it is not surprising that he loots and plunders, just as his ancestors did.

While there is a shift toward democracy in some countries, can we expect new leaders to behave more responsibly in the absence of a change in basic social values? The record would suggest not.

We tend to forget that until this century most African societies were at a technological level comparable to Europe and Asia centuries ago. We take for granted concepts like preventive maintenance, precision work and attention to detail on the job. Africa has not had time to assimilate these essentials of an industrial society, and in their absence vehicles don't run, phones don't work, roads crumble and hospitals become morgues. It would be absurd to suggest American consumer society as a model for Africa (or anywhere else), but the human benefits of basic technology, agriculture and medicine are undeniable.

Optimists in the West counsel patience, hoping that incremental improvements in education and gradual democratization will slowly move Africa fully into the 20th century. Unfortunately, burgeoning population, declining agricultural production and ecological degradation will tend to lead to widespread famine and war instead.

If we care about the welfare of Africans, the West needs to take a much greater role in managing Africa. For decades, we poured in development aid, ignoring the fact that most was stolen or squandered. We must demand accountability. At the very least, this means putting Western managers in charge of planning, spending and project execution.

Above all, Africa requires role models of good leadership. Given its failure to produce responsible government from within, it may be time to consider returning to a modern version of benevolent British-style colonialism, administered by the U.N. or a group of donor countries. This process has started in Somalia, and similar interventions in other countries will be necessary in the future. A generation of honest government would give Africans a new foundation for effective self-rule.

To many in Africa and the West, any form of recolonization may seem abhorrent, but the alternative is far worse. If we do not have the moral courage to impose social order in Africa, the apocalyptic horsemen of famine, war and pestilence will wreak havoc on an immense scale.

Laurence Frank has worked many years in Africa. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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