Africa was carved up into a patchwork of Countries that bore little resemblance to indigenous power structures even if they had been in existence for thousands of years.
It paid little attention to ethnic and language boundaries and simply represented the division of Africa into spheres of influence and control.
The consequences were not pretty. The slave trade stripped Africa of its young men and women, thousands of whom died in transit and were then virtually enslaved to serve their colonial masters in their home countries. The struggle for resources of gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals intensified as the industrial revolution gained momentum in the Northern hemisphere.
In certain cases, the extraction and supply of raw materials from African countries was conducted on a basis that stripped these countries of their nonrenewable resources without creating any significant investment except that which was required to extract the product, get into the coast and then ship it to Europe. In this respect, it was no different to colonial experience in Asia where colonial occupation impoverished host countries. Stories of Japanese imperialism abound for the same reason.
Once the “Winds of Change” started to blow through Africa, the process quickly became irreversible. The push and pull influences overwhelming any opposition and eventually leading to the emergence of 54 newly Independent Sovereign States, albeit still locked into their colonial boundaries and cultural confusion. Countries like Zimbabwe (and there were many) had been under colonial control and management for a century or more. During that time the dominant influence and source of power had been English, Portuguese or French. Language, law, culture and even clothing. Indigenous cultures and practices were universally suppressed. On top of that the influence of the Churches and the massive drive to convert the Continent for Christ and His soldiers.
While boundaries remain, the rest was swept away and if their colonial masters had not invested in the future, their influence went with the changes. A strange conglomerate of indigenous culture and religion, western education and language, emerged, and the near total ignorance of the new elite in how to run a country with a central government structure, a Central Bank and Ministries responsible for everything from garbage collection to cancer treatment. Disaster was totally predictable and unavoidable – the extent of the disaster only prescribed by the legacy of their previous masters. Huge countries emerged with a handful of indigenous graduates and a tiny minority of educated and experienced people to take over from the rapidly departing colonial elite.
It is now more than 50 years since the Winds of Change speech by a British Prime Minister in a cinema in Harare. 50 years of painful experience and change, 50 years or more of trial and error and investment in domestic economies and people. The achievements have been enormous and every African needs to be proud of what has been done and sacrificed on the altar of freedom and Independence. But the mistakes have been many and must be acknowledged and if possible rectified.
A senior Judge in the Zimbabwean Supreme Court once said to me that every time he despaired of Africa, he read the history of Europe and then he did not feel so bad. But for sure the legacies of colonial occupation and control will be around for a long time and its scars will never be really brushed away. The danger is that we forget too soon and if we are not careful we will again fall into a colonial trap that might retard our progress as sovereign States into the future.
The geopolitical forces that created the colonial era in Africa remain – we are a continent made up very largely of rural populations with limited income and education. We are a continent that is wealthy in resources that lie dead under our feet and we do not have the capital or the technology to extract that wealth and put it to work for our people. We have created an elite that thinks that it has the right to make all the decisions and to live lives that are so far removed from the average that they resemble our old colonial elites or the Chiefs and Emperors of our past. We pay lip attention to the rule of law and human rights and everywhere our policies have impoverished or even destroyed our emerging middle class; the very people who might have a real interest in democracy and our own development.
And then then the most dangerous element in our situation today, the fact that geopolitical forces still exist and have an appetite for colonial domination, even if it does not call itself that. The danger is that these new forces are less principled (if that were possible) than the colonialists of the past. At least then we had the Church to speak into the conscience of the major powers and to abolish slavery and respect human rights and even invest in the human capital of African countries. These new geopolitical forces know nothing of this and are only interested in exploitation and plunder.
I sat next to the Ethiopian Ambassador to Zimbabwe at a Christmas celebration last year. I asked him to explain how Ethiopia had turned around so quickly and become an exporter of industrial goods to Europe and America. He said it was the Industrial Parks program. I was not convinced and then I watched a TV series on the Silk Road Project. I saw the President of China launch the program and then watched astonished as the Chinese engineers and contractors built thousands of kilometers of rail and road, ports and shipping capacity across Asia and into Europe.
In one of these series the program covered what they called the Silk Road program in Africa. I watched fascinated as I witnessed the roll out – new port capacities, a new railway line to Ethiopia. Then a panoramic view of the industrial parks – 7 of them with hundreds of new factories stretching to the horizon. They did a close up – every train driver was Chinese; Station Masters were Chinese. Inside the new industrial parks, the street signs were in Mandarin and then English – no concessions to the local languages.
The Chinese have invested US$2 trillion in Africa in the past 20 years and the record is mixed, but the one thing we can say is that this thrust has spurred a global 21st Century scramble for Africa. In the past African leaders played the cold war game to their own benefit and in securing support for their struggles. Now the game is again geopolitical – 54 votes at the United Nations, 60 per cent of the unused land suitable for agriculture, global dominance of a number of strategic minerals and 20 per of the global population – doubling in every 25 years with the youngest age profile of any continent.
The danger is that this new development will morph into a neo colonial program to control Africa’s assets and get access to resources. Not for the benefit of Africa, although there will be benefits, but the real priority will be to meet the needs of the new colonisers. How do we avoid these pitfalls and turn this situation to our advantage? We need leaders who are real nationalists and who put the needs and welfare of their people first, in every decision. If we can achieve that, we can use these new forces to our benefit and lift our people out of poverty.