CategoryPostcolony

Africa Today: The Legacies of Colonialism, by Henrietta Ezegbe

I960 often referred to as “The year of Africa” symbolized emancipation and a new dawn for the African continent. The Independence movement spread through the continent like wild fire, with seventeen countries on the continent gaining independence from Belgium, France and the British. Having just passed the semi centennial era, the legacies and residual effects of colonialism have persisted in nearly every sector of many of these “liberated” nations. European languages have been adopted as national and or local languages, Western religions have become mainstream reducing indigenous African religious practices to myths, while trade networks, education systems and governance infrastructure still remain deeply rooted in European dominance.

Evidence abounds indicating that most of Africa’s weaknesses nearly sixty years post independence are indeed rooted in the legacies of colonialism – a resultant effect of the general polity and colonial culture inherited by African elite nationalists. Ethnic division for instance is a strong case in point – from arbitrary borders ignorantly drawn up by colonists, to stressing the diversities of ethnic groups thereby igniting tribal rivalries that ensured different ethnic groups did not unite to resist the colonizers in a classic divide and rule approach. Furthermore, this ethnic separatist agenda intersected with governance leading to formation of political parties along ethnic lines that leaves opposition groups feeling marginalized and consequently developing ill feelings that resort in vicious conflicts. The Nigerian Civil war (Biafra war) of 1967-1970 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are a few examples. Africa’s commitment to these colonial borders drawn without cultural considerations- (manifested today as tribalism), together with religious extremism remains the driving force for violent wars and its grave costs and consequences on Africa’s development.

In spite of Africa “winning” the struggle for liberation from the alien dictatorship, political, economic, and other forms of exploitation of the continent has stayed on in the form of neo-colonialism. The idea of foreign aid is a foremost example. The belief that donor aid is Africa’s solution to poverty has sadly dominated the theory of economic development even though it is common knowledge that these interventions actually weaken political commitment and cause African states to be far less accountable to, and responsible for their citizens.

In the face of overwhelming evidence of the legacies of colonialism- past and on ongoing, the truth remains that Africa’s problems today are endogenous as much as they are exogenous. Endemic corruption remains a canker worm eating deep at the root of Africa’s development. With a vast sixty percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, abundant natural resources, and a population projection of over three billion by 2050, it is time for African policy makers to stop pointing fingers and aim for total sovereignty. Championing brave and innovative strategies, investing widely in the health and education sectors, encouraging intra-African trade, and generally embracing a true spirit of Pan-Africanism is the way forward.

Dr. Henrietta Ezegbe is a physician and public
health practitioner. A fresh graduate from the Simon Fraser University Master
of Public Health Program in the Global Health concentration, Henrietta is
interested in HIV/AIDS research specifically among underserved population in
high and lower middle-income settings.

The ruins of a mining economy, by Danny Hoffman

 Around the 23-minute mark in the short film, Uppland, an unidentified voice speaks over a series of historical images of Yekepa, Liberia. Male and American, the speaker is presumably a former resident of the town. Yekepa was a LAMCO company town in Liberia’s Nimba Mountains, home to hundreds of the Swedish mining conglomerate’s employees. “Life was pretty nice there,” the voice says. “But you weren’t really living in a real world.”

 Edward Lawrenson and Killian Doherty’s short film is conceived as an archeological project, an excavation of the physical and psychic ruins of industrial mining in West Africa. Lawrenson, a Scottish filmmaker and writer, and Doherty, a Northern Irish architect, set out for Liberia after Doherty comes across photographs of Yekepa from the 1960s and 70s. Such images are not hard to find. Iron ore mining was a central pillar of Liberia’s post-World War 2 economy. Foreign mining giants like LAMCO, backed by the Liberian governments of William Tubman and then William Tolbert, rapaciously harvested the country’s reserves until the global price crashes of the 1980s. Today the detritus of company towns and massive iron ore pits litter northern and western Liberia. These ruins occupy a prominent place in the lives and memories of Liberians and non-Liberians who inhabited the mines and their supporting towns. The “pretty nice life” that iron ore mining made possible is a complicated and important thread in the story of Liberia. So, too, are the consequences of a political economy that so thoroughly shaped the “real world” of most of Liberia’s inhabitants.

Lawrenson narrates the film and describes the origins of both the town and the project, though fortunately he dispenses with the usual filmmakers’ journey and arrival tropes. The visuals are primarily scenes of ruins: abandoned industrial equipment and infrastructure; housing; and the terraced hillsides and massive pits carved into the mountains. The film’s 30-minutes are divided into four variously timed chapters. The first, Yekepa, is ostensibly anchored by the contemporary town. A small population still lives there, including at the gated campus of ABC University, a Bible college. Old Yekepa, the brief second chapter, is framed by a visit to the abandoned village of Yeke’pa. The Bible college’s carpenter happens to be a community leader among the population displaced by the mining operation, and he leads the filmmakers back to the village’s original site. New Yekepa, the third chapter, travels to the site to which the displaced were relocated. There the residents describe the inadequacies of their compensation and tell their own version of how geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the iron ore deposit and captured the mountain’s guardian spirit. The final chapter, Stockholm, briefly brings the film to the apartment of a retired couple who describe the suburban Stockholm aesthetic of Yekepa and the failure of the company to leave much of anything behind.

Each chapter weaves together historical still and moving images, on-camera interviews, and beautifully shot observational footage. Given that neither Lawrenson nor Doherty are ever named or made visible in the film (Doherty is simply referred to as “the Architect”), Uppland is surprisingly personal and reflexive. Lawrenson speaks frequently in the first person and includes both narratives and visuals that make the filmmaking process an engaging subplot. For example, the filmmakers cleverly include a few seconds of footage of Thomas, a young man assigned to keep an eye on Lawrenson, trying in vain to direct the action of people walking into and out of the camera frame. Uppland avoids most of the pitfalls of the narrated, exploitation documentary genre, its disembodied voice-over never becoming too authoritative, outraged, or self-indulgent—a rare achievement in this ever-expanding field.

The sum total of the film is nevertheless familiar. It is a galling portrait of the harvesting of African resources and the damage done to both land and people. The mountain that once housed the deposit is now a giant stagnant lake. New Yekepa appears as a soulless, impoverished, and somewhat embittered place. The Swedish retirees, meanwhile, are surrounded by a national museum’s worth of artifacts in their bright, comfortable looking apartment. And everywhere there are rotting husks of metal and concrete, useless now that the mine has closed.

Both visually and narratively, Uppland is too clever and interesting a film to stop at that. “Life was pretty nice there, but you weren’t really living in a real world” is a line that could arguably have been spoken by everyone in the film and everyone behind it. Certainly, this is true of the white foreigners who worked for LAMCO, who appear in their greatest numbers in swim trunks, splashing around in the company’s swimming pool. The Swedish retirees speak of their intentions to leave a sustainable economy at Yekepa, but “it’s a pity” is the best they can offer as commentary on the fact that they failed to do so. The American professor at the Bible college certainly seems to be having a good time, but his alienation from the “real world” around him is absolute. His earnest Old Testament history lesson about the disappearance of manna is deliciously apropos of the surrounding context but obviously lost on the man himself.

That the past was better but never real even for the Liberian residents of Yekepa is painfully clear in a conversation with two men named John, both former local employees of LAMCO. They fondly recall the town’s hospital, schools, and ice cream shops, all of which they claim made the residents of the town feel like they were “living in America” right there in the rainforests of northern Liberia. But they are unreliable narrators. One of the Johns describes the perfect racial harmony and integration of Yekepa, but there are no black bodies in the swimming pool images; a line of school children shows whites in the front and blacks in the back; and footage of a white Swede tending his vegetable garden is contrasted to a young Liberian houseboy stripped to the waist mowing the lawn.

The ruins of Yekepa make everyone look to the past and complicate their relationship to the real present. The residents of New Yekepa implausibly claim that their lives today would be better if only they hadn’t lost the written resettlement contract Clarke gave them when he forced them to move. And as the film abruptly ends, audio clips of President Tubman’s 1962 speech to LAMCO employees extol the virtues of mining, celebrating the company’s commitment to exploiting a wilderness inhabited only by spirits and bringing both wealth and civilization to Liberia’s upplands. The visuals, of course, are of a scarred landscape and still, rusting machinery.

In the film’s penultimate moment Lawrenson describes being approached by security guards as he filmed those ruins. It is cutting testament to the slippery unreality of memory and hope when they ask if he is here to restart the mine. Lawrenson smartly spins the encounter into a comment about his own position; the filmmaker must pack up and depart for Europe before he can engage them in meaningful dialogue, taking away the richness of his film and leaving them with their disappointment and their ruins. But the moment is more poignant than that. Rising world iron ore prices have led a number of multinational companies to revisit Liberia’s abandoned mine sites, and iron ore now accounts for about 30% of Liberia’s foreign export earnings. Small enclaves of foreign workers are building new company towns that are largely off-limits to local residents, who continue to inhabit the ruins of the old company towns. New mining equipment and infrastructure is being imported to do the work, much of it less dependent on human labor and therefore even less dependent on the “real world” of the people who live around it.

What kind of ruins this new mining economy will leave, and how they will be remembered, will no doubt be the subject of a film to come.

Danny Hoffman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Washington.
This text originally appeared on the blog Africa is a country

Reflections on ECAS and Fieldwork in African Conflict areas by Marsha Henry

Attending the European Convention of Africa Studies this past June for the first time, it was encouraging to see several panels devoted to methodological questions raised by conducting research in African conflict areas and violent settings.  The topics discussed in the multiple sessions included, amongst others, how researchers make sense of proximity and distance in relation to field methodologies, participants and epistemologies; how researchers negotiate the unstable and insecure settings; and how the research experience and context affects a researcher’s own identities, narratives and representations.  One roundtable, in particular, brought many key ethical dilemmas and methodological challenges into sharp focus, and provided some opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion and debate.  However, the discussions revealed a number of gaps, which I think are worth exploring in order to push methodological discussions within Africa Studies further.  In particular, I argue that methodological discussions should reflect on the identities of researchers when considering issues of proximity and distance.  Who the researcher is, and how they are socially, culturally and economically located in the world, is of significance in any reflections on the challenges encountered in insecure field sites in Africa.  In doing so, I hope to both acknowledge the genealogy of research privilege that haunts such discussions, and draw attention to the limits of perspectives that emanate from a homogenously racialised and embodied experience that can perpetuate an unacknowledged Euro-centric researcher habitus.

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The new sterile and faceless Africa?

Finally I got the chance to see Jens Assur’s photo exhibition Africa is a Great Country at Liljewalchs in Stockholm. There have been a lot of discussions concerning the provocative Africa-is-a-country  title and this has partly overshadowed the content. Is the title ironic or not? Colleagues of mine have already discussed this at NAI Forum. Assur himself states, in his introductory text to the exhibition, that it is meant as an irony directed towards Swedes who still talks about travels to “Africa” – as a monolith – and doesn’t break the continent down into the 50 + countries it contains of. But he doesn’t clarify why he pairs “great” with Africa as a country. Is that also an irony? That is probably not his intention; yet it comes out as a not a very thought through title. Or maybe it is; maybe it has been one of the few ways to lure an audience to an otherwise rather dull exhibition?

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The Malian crisis: causes, consequences, responses by Morten Bøås and Mats Utas

Even if Northern Mali has been in the hands of armed Salafist forces since spring 2012, it has not yet morphed into another ‘Afghanistan’. The Salafist forces, may have taken the name of al-Qaeda, but they are of a different origin and nature than the one in Afghanistan. The danger is, however, that if the international response to Mali is too heavy-handed, it may create a dynamic that pushes the conflict into a similar pattern like the one in Afghanistan.

On January 11, 2013, French airplanes attacked strongholds of Islamist rebels in the north of Mali. Soon thereafter land troops followed in a quick sweeping raid, clearing most of rebel controlled areas. French forces, assisted by several thousand troops from Chad and Niger, thereby efficiently ended the offensive of Islamist rebels and gained nominal control over the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. This was, however, the easy part.

The Islamists have not completely lost the battle for northern Mali. They still have the capacity to resist and even strike inside towns formally under French control. As France is scaling down its number of troops from 4,000 to 1,000 by the end of the year, controlling this vast territory will prove even more difficult for the remaining French force and the joint ECOWAS/AU mission and the Malian army.

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Mali: Towards a neo-trusteeship? (by Yvan Guichaoua)

This is the second part of a two-part analysis of the present situation in Mali. Part I, entitled “Mali: the fallacy of ungoverned space” is available here.

Preventing the fall of Bamako into Islamist hands is the official trigger of the French military campaign in Mali, which kicked off on January 11th and soon drove out Islamist forces from northern Mali main cities. Whether the Islamists really had the intention to seize Bamako is unclear. Taking control of Sevare and its strategic airport, 600 km northeast of the capital, might have been their main goal. But at the same time, French security sources argue, a coup in Bamako was being fomented by ex-junta affiliates, meant to ‘connect’ with the Islamists’ offensive southward conducted by Ansar Eddine. Hence the immediacy of France’s heavy-handed response. It is premature to make this narrative historical truth but this is a plausible one.

Continue reading

Mali: Towards a neo-trusteeship? (by Yvan Guichaoua)

This is the second part of a two-part analysis of the present situation in Mali. Part I, entitled “Mali: the fallacy of ungoverned space” is available here.

Preventing the fall of Bamako into Islamist hands is the official trigger of the French military campaign in Mali, which kicked off on January 11th and soon drove out Islamist forces from northern Mali main cities. Whether the Islamists really had the intention to seize Bamako is unclear. Taking control of Sevare and its strategic airport, 600 km northeast of the capital, might have been their main goal. But at the same time, French security sources argue, a coup in Bamako was being fomented by ex-junta affiliates, meant to ‘connect’ with the Islamists’ offensive southward conducted by Ansar Eddine. Hence the immediacy of France’s heavy-handed response. It is premature to make this narrative historical truth but this is a plausible one.

Continue reading

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