A British colleague once told me his experience in a posh restaurant at Victoria Island: a young man of limited means was soliciting alms from the stately seated diners who promptly and harshly dismissed him. Then came the security guard who trashed and landed terrifying blows on this poor man. He, the foreigner had to rush and intervene on behalf of the well-beaten when no one else moved. What if he, the white man, was the one was harsh with the poor man, he later recalled. All those indifferent diners would have rounded on him. There would have been screams of racism! Modern day imperialism! The new colonialism! It would have spilled over into the media. The Nigerian and British governments would have been trading threats and sanctions. The completely human situation and its governing moral anxieties would have been lost into a welter of abstractions of isms. But to the poor man on whose behalf he had intervened and given alms in hard currency, who was he?
Dr Edwin Madunagu’s piece Libya and the New Imperialism (The Guardian, Thursday, 29th September 2011) is also a welter in which the human situation and moral anxieties have been lost. Hence, distortions, half-truths, short-circuited arguments that minimise the need to spark intelligent insights, dogged insistence to compel reality to bow before out-of-touch intellectual systems and ultimately of course, paranoid tiresomeness effortlessly define the piece. First, contrary to Madunagu’s call for ideological conformity: “Every conscious African ought to categorically condemn the armed intervention of NATO in the Libyan civil war,” I supported a military intervention to remove Gadhafi by all means necessary, and last February, I with many Libyan exiles and other activists of goodwill took our protest to Downing Street urging the UK government to intervene pronto. Secondly, I’d like to give enormous credit to the unsung but inimitable Prof Joy Ogwu, who despite the odds back home cast Nigeria’s UN Security Council vote for armed intervention, a vote Madunagu appallingly disparaged as secured “through a combination of blackmail, threat, bribery and fraud.” (Heavy charges there, but he didn’t supply any proof.) A protégé of Emeka Anyaoku’s anti-Abacha principles at the Commonwealth, Prof Ogwu too rose above the usual neo-colonialism, imperialism, racism (NIR) sloganeering, invoked the clause of conscience and protection of long suffering Libyans, and cast Nigeria’s vote in support of the Security Council’s resolution 1973. Imagine having the evil nightmare of General Sani Abacha or Idi Amin for 42 years; that was what Libyans had.
In post-colonial African politics, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, no African leader willingly wanted to relinquish power even the ex-colonial freedom fighters. What is common to all of them: they are fiercely pan-Africana, spurting anti-west, anti-imperial radicalism with nuclear intensity and robotic regularity. These of course, as I argued in my piece Lending Nigeria and South Africa to the Arab Spring, (The Guardian, May, 2011)are there is disguise their own nefariousness and distract the people from the quest for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and human rights, and economic prosperity. From Mobutu Sese Seko who spent 32 years as the president of Zaire, and was richer than his country, to Idi Amin, the butcher of Uganda, they were all devils of governance but archangels of anti-west enthusiasms. Mid- eighties, during the days of SAP and MAMSER, President Babangida too asked us to blame World Bank and IMF for that pain-spreading age of austerity whereas he and his AFRC cohorts continued to juicily expand the possibilities of public fund embezzlement.
Why do these despots recourse to anti-west sloganeering? Because it calls on one of the most unrefined but powerful instincts of man and his society. Once an attack is regarded as coming from the outside, everyone in the threatened society, no matter where their true allegiances lay, usually unite behind their leader - no matter who he is - to confront the attack, more so, when the west had actually been an enemy in the past. Sit-tight tyrants and power-crazed potentates usually recourse to this tactic to garner unadulterated loyalties of their people at the expense of good governance and economic security.
They know it will work; it has been working. From Paul Biya who has ruled Cameroon for 29 years, to Museveni who is sitting tight on Uganda for 25years, none of the African leaders supported military intervention even when Gadhafi was threatening to kill his own people house by house with “no mercy” except the Rwandan president. He recognised the humanity of the endangered Libyans not abstractions of NIR: “My country is still haunted by memories of the international community looking away. No country knows better than my own the costs of the international community failing to intervene to prevent a state killing its own people. In the course of 100 days in 1994, a million Rwandans were killed by government-backed "genocidaires" and the world did nothing to stop them.”
Had Edwin Madunagu been the president of United States with great diplomatic clout and military firepower, what would he had done when Srebrenica or the Rwandan mass murder was looming? Give up intervention so as not to be dubbed colonialist, imperialist, purveyor of double standards?
I once met an ex-Sierra Leonean rebel who on hearing I am Nigerian began to tell gut-wrenching tales of their civil war: how they raped 12, 13 year old girls, cut out their tongues or breasts and ask them to go and hand these body parts to the rebel leader Foday Sankoh! Village after village, in drug-fuelled revelry, they massacred everyone there including lizards and dogs. The government troops also did that, he claimed. Looking back now, he showered praise on Nigeria and Nigerian troops. “Though a few Nigerian soldiers committed some atrocities, countless people with their families are alive today in Sierra Leone because of the brave combats put up by Nigerian troops.” Who was the Nigerian leader that did this? General Sani Abacha. He was working for peace and democracy elsewhere but killing democracy and its activists at home! Yet at that time, we rebuked Abacha for venturing into Sierra Leone to defend his business investments. So how can I not support anything to overthrow Gadhafi? Is ECOMOG, the West African NATO an agent of Nigerian imperialism? What exactly is neo-imperialism? Compared to the real imperialism of old, do the so-called new imperialism compare? Isn’t the readiness to review encounters between blacks and whites, West and Africa through racism or imperialism not an alienation of depth and intelligence? Why is subtlety being denied relevance altogether? And yet the callous practices of Nigerian businesses along West African states that surprisingly have not broken into our national conversation are not different from those which done by the multinationals in Nigeria we call imperialism, neo-colonialism, racism.
When BP’s Macondo rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last year with human deaths and the worst oil pollution in history, the Obama administration said they would keep “the boot on the neck” of BP until it clears up every inch of the oil and offer compensation to the affected. BP quickly coughed out $20 billion dollars. Yet ecological disasters always happen in Niger delta unpriced, unchecked, millions of oil barrels go unaccounted for, taxes and tariffs go unpaid. But because our government is not assertive enough with the oil companies, otherwise respectable intellectuals put the multinationals’ crimes and malpractices down to western imperialism…neo-colonialism…racism. Imagine Americans screaming BP is an agent of British imperialism?
What exactly is the meaning of the West in this protracted post-colonial era that stubbornly refuses to melt into the next phase? Some months ago, at the time when Libyans and others Arabs rose to defeat their forever-rulers, British prime minster, David Cameron rose from London to visit the Middle East to sell arms. As a campaigner of the Arab societies to de-sheikh and democratise, he was capitalising on the panic of the moment to do arms to the sheikhs. There was no sector of the British society that did not excoriate him when the news came out. And yet to people outside of Britain, say, Germany: “when the Arab young rose to free themselves from tyranny, THE BRITISH, went to sell arms.” To those outside the west –say people in Kenya: “when the Arab rose to embrace democracy, THE WEST, was selling arms to the oppressors. The actual fact is David Cameron went there to represent himself and the ego-selfish defence contractors not Britain or Europe or the west. Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment giant can go to sell junk credit derivatives to the Asian tigers or teach Greece how to hide its debts from EU regulators during the boom days, but when the inevitable calamity arrives, THE AMERICANS have done this evil, THE WEST is fraudulent rents the air. But Goldman doesn’t represent the American government and it is even prepared to work against the American people. Goldman Sachs is just Goldman Sachs working for its own interests. The countries of the west or their businesses and institutions are not a monolithic entity. Just as African intellectuals complain that the “west” treats Africa as if a single component, the same also goes for Africans mistreatment of the west too.
Our intellectual discourse must begin to feature the necessities of a strong cooperation with the western businesses and institutions that transcend NIR and other albatross of history. There is a reason why stark developmental differences exist between the Arab-influenced northern Nigeria and the west-influenced south. Even when the wound of colonialism was still very fresh and biting, Awolowo collaborated with western businesses which made western Nigeria first in many things in the whole of Africa. There is a reason why South Africa is the cultural and economic powerhouse of Africa. Nelson Mandela put rest to the nationalist falsehood that whoever collaborates with whites or western institutions and businesses is a puppet of foreign interests and not worthy of being an African strong man. Even when the pain of apartheid is still fresh, President Mandela told the whites South Africa is their home too and blacks should fully embrace them for good.
Businesses whether Chinese, Korean, French, Ghanaian exist to maximise profit by paying less for proportionate labour, bypassing taxes or raping the environment. It is the responsibility of the government to powerfully assert itself and not let these happen. This is the advice the current National Transitional Council in Libya should take and not cave in to the NIR jingoists. Inelastic intellectuals characteristically resent the civilisation that makes their life possible.
Damola Awoyokun is a writer and former Managing Editor at Farafina. He lives in London.