The institutions of the United Nations are slaves to the objectives of Western powers, and these powers are determined to make Africa an appendage to the West. Or so Thabo Mbeki claims. Mbeki, the former president of South Africa and the founding chairperson of the African Union, made these comments in a recent speech deploring what he termed the ‘re-colonisation’ of Africa. Mbeki went on to suggest that recent armed interventions in Africa were representative of the West’s willingness to exploit the universal principles of democracy, human rights and good governance to further their material interests.
Re-colonisation is an idea that by now suffers from severe intellectual fatigue. The harshness of Mbeki’s terms of reference is reminiscent of the ramblings of one Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. It is difficult to forget Mugabe’s reference to Tony Blair as ‘Bliar’ and his continued insistence that the then Prime Minister be arrested for crimes against humanity. Mbeki, however, is no fool. The continent itself was not spared a severe tongue-lashing from the Sussex-educated man, whose speeches are interspersed with quotes from Yeats, Keats and WEB DuBois. Mbeki criticised Africa’s disunity and weakness in preventing such re-colonisation.
Indeed, Mbeki is no Mugabe. It would be all too easy to dismiss his utterances as those by a typical African strongman determined to lash out at those who stole from Africa. But this would be something of an injustice. However tired notions of re-colonisation and unwanted Western interference may be, at least three events over the past year mean that Mbeki’s position is deserving of closer inspection.
The resolution of the presidential crisis in the Ivory Coast is the first instance. Members of the African Union wanted one thing — a mediated resolution — while Western powers wanted another. They were hoping Laurent Gbagbo would admit defeat and step aside for Alassane Ouattara. But there was little sympathy outside of Africa for the AU’s position and ultimately Gbagbo was arrested by French servicemen (France being the former colonial power of that country).
Fast forward to the crisis in Libya, and the result is almost identical. The African Union wanted one thing; Western powers wanted another. In the end, NATO got what they wanted and the AU considered largely irrelevant.
Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, and his bid to run for a third term in office is the root of a third flashpoint. Regardless of what Western powers say, this is yet another example of Western wishes clashing with those of Africans.
But are clashing perspectives on how to resolve these issues enough to label the West as ‘re-colonialists’? Is intervention in a country an act of colonisation simply because the intervening country has something to gain? Should African leaders make more of an effort to delineate Western interests from those of African states?
The answers are complicated. There is certainly a naivety amongst many in the West as to the extent to which African leaders believe that they are in danger of re-colonisation. It is a genuine fear that guides policy, and is not simply a means for one autocratic leader to justify protecting another. But there is an equal naivety amongst African leaders. Yes, colonisation was a form of intervention for the purpose of explicit material gains. Yes, in most cases, Western powers will only intervene in an African country if there is some explicit advantage for them. But that does not mean that contemporary intervention is a form of colonisation.
It has been said many times, and is worth saying yet again: African leaders need to break free of colonial thinking. Colonialism was an extreme where foreign powers crudely removed any sense of self-determination from local inhabitants, and did not allow African states any sense of sovereignty. Nowadays things are slightly different. It is right to claim that actions are now being taken that are both in the interests of Western powers and that undermine the sovereignty of African states; but to frame them in ‘colonial’ terms is inflammatory and risks becoming associated with statements from less well-meaning leaders. Mbeki, one of Africa’s leading intellectuals, should know better.
Seamus Duggan is a MPhil student in International Relations at Oxford.