Primitivising Africa; Paying for being Colonised

“When Sékou Touré of Guinea decided in 1958 to get out of french colonial empire, and opted for the country independence, the french colonial elite in Paris got so furious, and in a historic act of fury the french administration in Guinea destroyed everything in the country which represented what they called the benefits from french colonization.

Three thousand French left the country, taking all their property and destroying anything that which could not be moved: schools, nurseries, public administration buildings were crumbled; cars, books, medicine, research institute instruments, tractors were crushed and sabotaged; horses, cows in the farms were killed, and food in warehouses were burned or poisoned.

The purpose of this outrageous act was to send a clear message to all other colonies that the consequences for rejecting France would be very high.”

I came across this from an article I read today and thought it needed sharing around and if you help with a request from its author to send him any material that would help explore this topic further. Here is the article

Here are some interesting reports from the Bank of France and the Central Bank of West African States around which this discussion is unfolding (Thank you Kit for digging them up!)

Here is an introduction to topic overall from David Graeber’s book ‘Debt; The first 5000 years’ – it helps to fit the above article into a glocal context:

“Nowadays, for example, military aggression is defined as a crime against humanity, and international courts, when they are brought to bear, usually demand that aggressors pay compensation. Germany had to pay massive reparations after World War I, and Iraq is still paying Kuwait for Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. Yet the Third World debt, the debt of countries like Madagascar, Bolivia, and the Philippines, seems to work precisely the other way around. Third World debtor nations are almost exclusively countries that have at one time been attacked and conquered by European countries-often, the very countries to whom they now owe money.

In 1895, for example, France invaded Madagascar, disbanded the government of then-Queen Ranavalona III, and declared the country a French colony. One of the first things General Gallieni did after “pacification,” as they liked to call it then, was to impose heavy taxes on the Malagasy population, in part so they could reimburse the costs of having been invaded, but also, since French colonies were supposed to be fiscally self-supporting, to defray the costs of building the railroads, highways, bridges, plantations, and so forth that the French regime wished to build. Malagasy taxpayers were never asked whether they wanted these railroads, highways, bridges, and plantations, or allowed much input into where and how they were built. (With the predictable results that they weren’t actually built to make it easier for Malagasy people to get around in their own country, but mainly to get products from the plantations to ports to earn foreign exchange to pay for building the roads and railways to begin with.). To the contrary: over the next half century, the French army and police slaughtered quite a number of Malagasy who objected too strongly to the arrangement (upwards of half a million, by some reports, during one revolt in 1947). It’s not as if Madagascar has ever done any comparable damage to France.

Despite this, from the beginning, the Malagasy people were told they owed France money, and to this day, the Malagasy people are still held to owe France money, and the rest of the world accepts the justice of this arrangement. When the “international community” does perceive a moral issue, it’s usually when they feel the Malagasy government is being slow to pay their debts. But debt is not just victor’s justice; it can also be a way of punishing winners who weren’t supposed to win. The most spectacular example of this is the history of the Republic of Haiti-the first poor country to be placed in permanent debt peonage. Haiti was a nation founded by former plantation slaves who had the temerity not only to rise up in rebellion, amidst grand declarations of universal rights and freedoms, but to defeat Napoleon’s armies sent to return them to bondage. France immediately insisted that the new republic owed it 150 million francs in damages for the expropriated plantations, as well as the expenses of outfitting the failed military expeditions, and all other nations, including the United States, agreed to impose an embargo on the country until it was paid. The sum was intentionally impossible (equivalent to about 18 billion dollars) , and the resultant embargo ensured that the name “Haiti” has been a synonym for debt, poverty, and human misery ever since. (The United States, for example, only recognized the Republic of Haiti in 186o. France doggedly held on to the demand and the Republic of Haiti was finally forced to pay the equivalent of $21 billion between 1 9 25 and 1 946, during most of which time they were under U.S. military occupation.)

Sometimes, though, debt seems to mean the very opposite. Starting in the 1980s, the United States, which insisted on strict terms for the repayment of Third World debt, itself accrued debts that easily dwarfed those of the entire Third World combined-mainly fueled by military spending. The U.S. foreign debt, though, takes the form of treasury bonds held by institutional investors in countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Gulf States) that are in most cases, effectively, U.S. military protectorates, most covered in U.S. bases full of arms and equipment paid for with that very deficit spending. This has changed a little now that China has gotten in on the game (China is a special case, for reasons that will be explained later) , but not very much-even China finds that the fact it holds so many U.S. treasury bonds makes it to some degree beholden to U.S. interests, rather than the other way around.

So what is the status of all this money continually being funneled into the U.S. treasury? Are these loans? Or is it tribute? In the past, military powers that maintained hundreds of military bases outside their own home territory were ordinarily referred to as “empires,” and empires regularly demanded tribute from subject peoples. The U.S. government, of course, insists that it is not an empire–but one could The U.S. government, of course, insists that it is not an empire–but one could easily make a case that the only reason it insists on treating these payments as “loans” and not as “tribute” is precisely to deny the reality of what’s going on.

Now, it’s true that, throughout history, certain sorts of debt, and certain sorts of debtor, have always been treated differently than others. In the 172os, one of the things that most scandalized the British public when conditions at debtors’ prisons were exposed in the popular press was the fact that these prisons were regularly divided into two sections. Aristocratic inmates, who often thought of a brief stay in Fleet or Marshalsea as something of a fashion statement, were wined and dined by liveried servants and allowed to receive regular visits from prostitutes. On the “common side,” impoverished debtors were shackled together in tiny cells, “covered with filth and vermin,” as one report put it, “and suffered to die, without pity, of hunger and jail fever. “3 In a way you can see current world economic arrangements as a much larger version of the same thing: the U.S. in this case being the Cadillac debtor, Madagascar the pauper starving in the next cell while the Cadillac debtors’ servants lecture him on how his problems are due to his own irresponsibility.

And there’s something more fundamental going on here, a philosophical question, even, that we might do well to contemplate. What is the difference between a gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you give him a thousand dollars of “protection money,” and that same gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you provide him with a thousand-dollar “loan”? In most ways, obviously, nothing. But in certain ways there is a difference. As in the case of the U.S. debt to Korea or Japan, were the balance of power at any point to shift, were America to lose its military supremacy, were the gangster to lose his henchmen, that “loan” might start being treated very differently. It might become a genuine liability. But the crucial element would still seem to be the gun.

There’s an old vaudeville gag that makes the same point even more elegantly-here, as improved on by Steve Wright:

I was walking down the street with a friend the other day and a guy with a gun jumps out of an alley and says “stick ’em up” As I pull out my wallet, I figure, “shouldn’t be a total loss.” So I pull out some money, turn to my friend and say, “Hey, Fred, here’s that fifty bucks I owe you” The robber was so offended he took out a thousand dollars of his own money, forced Fred to lend it to me at gunpoint, and then took it back again.

In the final analysis, the man with the gun doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. But in order to be able to run even a regime based on violence effectively, one needs to establish some kind of set of rules. The rules can be completely arbitrary. In a way it doesn’t even matter what they are. Or, at least, it doesn’t matter at first. The problem is, the moment one starts framing things in terms of debt, people will inevitably start asking who really owes what to whom.”

A key point to all this -aside from the wealth extraction- is to recognise as the author of the first quote points out, “African leaders would work in the interest of their people if they were not constantly stalked and bullied by colonial countries.” Hence next time we are eating a croissant, drinking a glass of wine and engaging in a discourse of asking, ‘oh why can’t Africa just sort itself out’ and then ‘Lets help Save Africa from itself’ -then we are perpetuating a discourse of primitivising ‘Africa’ – we should stop ourselves right there.

It is precisely this rhetoric that perpetuates interventionist and paternalistic policy, based on the idea that those poor primitive people can’t help themselves properly so lets pile in, help ‘the right people’ take charge and try and help those people remake themselves into our image of the Modern Man. Amongst many other examples the above example of french neo-colonialism demonstrates many complex activities are built on this simplistic rhetoric and its primitivising philosophy, whereas in fact the situation is more complex and not what we easily assume (e.g. the Green Revolution, National Parks, National-scale Aid programmes etc etc).  If you work in a sector somehow involved in this, then take a step back and think about how to you can better address this discourse and the related activities.