A Legacy of Exploitation

Africa's Slavery System Survives

When I was a young journalist I traveled for a month in what was then the Belgian Congo. It was one of the most important events in my political education. Colonialism was understood to be a system that had to stop, but few believed it would end in Africa within the following decade. Africa seemed an exception, a racist judgment certainly, but also one that was grounded in the cultural, educational, and institutional realities of mid-1950s Central Africa. 

The Congo had an appalling record, begun in the expeditions of the journalist Henry M. Stanley (sponsored by the Paris edition of the New York Herald—now called the International Herald Tribune). In 1871, Stanley “found” the Scottish medical missionary David Livingstone—who never considered himself “lost.” Stanley's subsequent expeditions ended in the creation of the Congo Free State, owned by the Belgian monarch Leopold II. The atrocities committed there in the exploitation of its natural resources became an international scandal, ended by the Belgian state’s annexation of the colony in 1908. 

After World War II, the Congo had became a model colony. It enjoyed nearly universal literacy, even though many assumed that educational and political development would take generations. Beginning in the 1950s, Africa underwent a precipitous and disastrous decolonization—the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) possibly worst of all. It has been conventional to ascribe that to postcolonial exploitation by ex-colonial powers, the failure of Europeans to prepare the colonies for independence, and the Cold War, which ignited wars between U.S.-backed African political groups and the Soviet Union or China. 

Today China is buying rights to African raw materials—usually from corrupt African authorities. Democracy has scarcely figured at all in the transition of rulers in the new Africa. That transition has been afflicted by militia armies, child soldiers, European mercenaries, and ruthless battles for control or theft of resources such as diamonds and minerals. 

France is the only European country to maintain small troop detachments in Africa through “defense” treaties with some of its former colonies. Those deployments help to protect France's investments in the region, and provide some kind of order. In the Ivory Coast, for example, France is supporting efforts by the African Union (created in 1999) and the United Nations to allow President-elect Alassane Ouattara to claim his office against the resistance of his opponent, the country’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has apparently warned the officers of the Ivory Coast army that the military is expected to remain neutral in the affair.

This international African drama—thus far without serious violence—is being played out as I write, but is a familiar enough story in contemporary Africa. It cannot be blamed directly on neocolonialism or imperialism. On the other hand, who else can be blamed? Ibrahima Thioub, an expert on slavery, the slave treaties, and decolonization, puts much blame on Africa’s elites, who resemble their predecessors in the age of slavery.

If you want to see the slavery system of the past, he said in Le Monde last summer, you have only to look about you. “In African villages I am always struck by their two prevailing methods of transport. One is the prestigious 4x4 Western off-road vehicle. The other dates from the Neolithic Age: the burden carried on a woman’s head.”

“The elite through violence appropriates the resources of the country, exports them, spends the result on foreign goods totally without social utility in Africa, other than to symbolize the capacity of the elite for violence," he continues. "The response of the most dynamic part of the population is to take flight—by the fishing boat meant to reach the Spanish coast, or the Canary Islands, or paying the contrabander who promises to get them to Malta or Italy."

“In the past," he writes, "the Europeans brought equally useless or destructive goods to Africa: trinket jewelry, alcohol, firearms. With these they paid the elites to capture and deliver slaves. The village even then accepted this exchange, as it does today. It is even easier today. The slaves deliver themselves. They are the immigrants.” And he adds: “If a ship arriving in any African port today should advertise that it wanted slaves for Europe, it would be loaded within minutes.” 

“We in Africa have all we need to succeed" he concludes. "Go to any market at five in the morning and you see hundreds of women at work to feed their families. We have nothing to learn about physical courage. Our problem is that outsiders have installed a predatory culture. To break with that is a vast undertaking.”

© 2010 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).