Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso

Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary

I have reached an interesting paradox in my readings about Africa. It seems like the more I read about the continent, the more elusive it becomes. With each book I read, I inherit a vast amount of new information, however, I am unable to decipher it and apply it to broader theories or ideas. I suppose what I am trying to say is that even though I know a great deal about Africa, I cannot hope to understand Africa.

Thinking that perhaps it was a problem with the materials I was reading, I began reading books by African novelists, a huge jump from the non-fiction to which I most often dedicate myself. One of these authors is the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, whose memoir, There Was a Country, I reviewed for Nigeria. I found myself both drawn and repulsed by his characters; they were not characters with whom I found myself sympathizing. Yet at the same time, they provided incredible insights into the soul of African life, which operates on a vastly different sphere than western life.

The sole idea that has been reinforced over and over again in my mind is that there has to be African solutions for African problems; we in the West cannot dictate solutions to a people who have a culture drastically different than our own. Despite having read so much and talked to so many Africans, the concept of a “tribe” still eludes me; its importance to me seems inconsequential and I cannot imagine creating policy which could take these social intricacies into account. Of course, African solutions for African problems is much easier said than done – and to my personal disappointment, has been the rallying cry for the West only when they don’t want to become involved in human catastrophes, like genocide or war. I want to stress that the reason for this is not because Africa does not contain brilliant and competent individuals, but rather the traps of development which the continent as a whole often falls into.

One of the books that I have enjoyed reading the most over the last few months was Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. In this book, he discusses the cyclical traps that poor countries fall into, which prohibit them from gaining a certain degree of sustainability and wealth. One conflict to which he dedicates a chapter is the “conflict trap,” essentially meaning that poverty makes a country more susceptible to military coup, civil war, and rebel guerrilla movements – yet these oftentimes violent political changes also contribute to a country’s poverty. This is quite evident throughout the African continent. Collier mentions the research of Jeremy Weinstein, who has noted that rebel movements often find themselves not filled with true believers in social change or justice. Instead, they become filled with sadists (an estimated 3% of all populations) and opportunists, “attracted by the prospect of power and riches, however unlikely; if the reality of daily existence is otherwise awful, the chances of success do not have to be very high to be alluring.” Africa is actually filled with examples of successful guerrilla bush leaders, particularly Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, whose regimes have stabilized and helped bring development to their countries. However, for every successful bush leader, there are a myriad of guerrilla leaders who have failed and brought nothing but unrest to their communities.

I mention African leadership to introduce the African hero, Thomas Sankara. For Christmas, a friend gave me Sankara’s only biography written in the English language, requesting that I read it for my book blog. A short book published by the Ohio University Press in 2014, “Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary” was written by Columbia University scholar Ernest Harsch. Never having heard of Sankara beforehand, I was told that his influence expanded far outside the borders of his home country of Burkina Faso and has indeed shaped Africa as a whole, but that he has been generally overlooked in the West.

Reading this book, I could definitely see how he may have rubbed many in the West the wrong way, especially in the midst of the Cold War. (His presidency lasted a little more than 4 years, from 1983 to 1987; interestingly both beginning and ending with military coups.) He attempted one of the greatest programs of reform on the entire African continent, incorporating a great deal of socialist rhetoric in his public discourse. However, “whatever his personal views, Sankara was careful to not tag the labels of ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ onto the revolutionary process he was helping to lead. Upper Volta, he pointed out, was an extremely underdeveloped country, with little industry and just a tiny wage-earning working class... The most important tasks facing revolutionaries were therefore to fight against external domination, construct a unified nation, build up the economy’s productive capacities, and address the populations most pressing social problems, such as widespread illiteracy, hunger, and disease.’” (page 55-6) In his political rhetoric, he tried to build a country based on hope and optimism, harkening back to the independence movement of his country.

Before the presidency of Sankara, Burkina Faso (which means “land of the upright man” was known as Upper Volta. Landlocked and gaining its independence from France in 1960, Burkina Faso is still one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world; the author noting that according to a United Nations report in 2012, the level of human development in the country was the fifth lowest in the world. In the 1980s, when Sankara came to power, the majority of people survived based off of sustenance agriculture, however due to the remnants of the French colonial cotton industry, many still went hungry even in prosperous years, as all technology and resources were dedicated to this cash crop. Moreover, there was only an 11% literacy rate and only 18% of children attended primary school (the number dropped to 3% in secondary school.) Pragmatic, he told the press that his goal for Burkina Faso: “Our economic ambition is to use the strength of the people of Burkina Faso to provide, for all, two meals a day and drinking water.” (page 88)

Although he was only in power for 4 years before being killed in a coup, his legacy continues in the hearts and minds of many, because of the unique aspects of his leadership; essentially, he provided African solutions for African problems:

  • Standing up against culture for progress: Although Sankara was proudly African, he was not afraid to attack traditional societal structure which he felt impaired his country’s development. He tried to mobilize and empower his people, often forgoing the traditional power of local chiefs. He believed “that women had to organize, that traditional customs had to shed their oppressive features, that social inequality had to be combated, and that the revolution would triumph only if women became full participants.” (pages 13-14)
  • Strong believer in African solidarity: Sankara made his career and name through the military, however, he did not believe in war. In his mind, “war was senseless, having erupted over some badly drawn lines on a colonial map and pitting against each other two poor African countries with shared cultural and ethnic affinities.” (page 31) 
  • Removing the colonial mentality from his country: The French kept very strong relations with their colonies following World War II. Sankara believed that this relationship was ultimately detrimental to the spirit of his people. Slowly moving away from France’s sphere of influence, he claimed “What is essential is to develop a relationship of equals, mutually beneficial, without paternalism on one side or an inferiority complex on the other.” (pages 112-113) His actions eventually left France removing direct budgetary aid to Burkina Faso in 1983 and the World Bank following suit in 1985. Sankara did not seem to mind, sought out other donors, and mobilized individuals for public works, such as bridge and road building.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

South Africa, Book 2

South Africa, Book 2

Diamonds, Gold, and War

It all comes down to textiles, or the lack thereof. This is my new life philosophy.

I will not explore the ethical or moral implications that could be associated with this philosophy, but rather a few economic and historical examples instead. We all remember learning about the Industrial Revolution in school – with the spinning jennys and flying shuttle looms that prompted the modern era of industrialization. Yep, that’s right: we developed based on technological innovation in textiles.

Another example close to home (as I live in South Carolina) is the American Civil War. This was essentially a conflict brought on by the textile industry, as the southern Confederacy sought to maintain an economic system, based on slaves picking cotton for export.  Textiles, of course, have played important roles throughout the entire world, not least of all, India: Mahatma Gandhi was passionate for Indian self-sufficiency against the economic power of the British Empire - so much so that he spun his own yarn for his own clothes in protest. In 1931, the Indian National Congress actually incorporated Gandhi’s hand spinning wheel in its flag, which was changed to a chakra wheel in 1947, partially for aesthetic purposes as the previous flag was asymmetrical. (Gandhi was apparently not pleased with the change.)

Textiles also played an important role in the development of South Africa. In fact, seventeen year old Cecil John Rhodes was initially sent from his native England to join his brother on a cotton farming venture in Natal. Initially, he overlooked the potential for gaining riches in the diamond mines, believing cotton to be more of “a reality.” Of course, as history tells us, Cecil Rhodes eventually did give up cotton for diamonds, founding the now-infamous De Beers diamonds, which is now often criticized for monopolizing and price-fixing in the diamond industry.

Students celebrate the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes
Of course, to stereotype Cecil Rhodes as solely a mineral magnate would be to do him a great disservice.  A controversial figure, there is no doubt that he was driven by power, colonizing southern Africa in the name of the British Empire through extreme political maneuvering. His legacy is mixed at best and was recently brought to light with the recent removal of his statue from the University of Cape Town, amid cheers from the student body after a social media campaign #RhodesMustFall, due to his racist legacy. The legacy of Cecil Rhodes was outlined extensively in the second book I read about the country of South Africa, Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith. To be honest, I got through this 500+ page brick out of sheer willpower, as I found reading about the Boers rather “boering.” That being said, I think that this is a book well worth the read for those interested in colonial Africa and the background from which the apartheid rule came to be.

The book focuses on the conflict between three key players: the British, the Boers, and the Africans. The British were actually the latest players in the game, only gaining possession of the Cape Colony territory in 1806 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The Boers (which translates to “farmer” from the Dutch and Afrikaans languages) were settlers from the Dutch Republic, who began to settle in southern Africa in the eighteenth century. They spread across the countryside and can be characterized for their religious zeal, as well as their hostility against the indigenous Africans. These three entities created a toxic compound and “what followed was a titanic struggle fought by the British to gain supremacy throughout southern Africa and by the Boers to preserve the independence of their republics. It culminated in the costliest, bloodiest, and the most humiliating war that Britain had waged in nearly a century.” (page 9)

From the beginning, the British interest in the southern Africa region was strategic. At first, the motivation was to keep the region out of the hands of the French during the Napoleonic Wars. London thought the area “needed to be ‘maintained at all hazards and irrespective of cost.’ Strategic consideration overrode financial concerns.” (page 63) As the years progressed, so did the threat to British strategic interests. By the Boer War at the turn of the 19th century, the British were worried about the increasing power of Germany on the African continent, which London viewed as a natural ally to the Boers due to language and religious similarities.

The Boers were resentful of British presence from the very beginning, believing that their communities’ individual autonomies were at risk. Their fears were exacerbated as they saw the British continuing to make changes to their unique ways of life. In 1834, slavery was abolished in all of the empire, which upset several Boer groups. At first, the Boers decided to not actively resist British growth. This was due not only to the increased economic prosperity brought by British development, but also to security concerns. As the British expanded, they demolished several rebel movements of the local Africans. However, by the end of the century, the Boers began to realize that they would soon be outnumbered by British settlers and without action they would soon by overpowered politically.

The conflict boiled over in 1899 in the Second Boer War, which lasted until 1902. Initially believing that it would be a “tea time” war and would be finished within a few months, it caught the British completely by surprise and the Boers disbanded into small guerilla groups to attack the large British army. By the time peace was reached, instead of feeling victory, the British just felt relief. They had deployed 450,000 troops to southern Africa to fight against the Boers and 22,000 troops had died (the majority from illness and sickness, rather than combat. Although war costs were originally estimated at 10 million pounds, it had grown to over 217 million pounds. There was also a moral cost. In order to win, the British had engaged in scorched earth tactics and had even put many Boer women and children in concentration camps in order to squelch the resistance movements.  

After such a violent conflict, “the priority now was postwar reconciliation between the two white groups.” (page 465) This essentially meant that the indigenous Africans were overlooked, as the British conceded demands to the Boers. “While whites were engaged in their own political manoeuvres, the black population was relegated to the sidelines. Black hopes that British rule would lead to improved political rights and status were swiftly shattered.” (page 494) Reconciliation between the two white groups culminated on May 31, 1910, in which The Union of South Africa was created. It was within this new government that apartheid was ideated and bureaucratized.

In the midst of this saga, we have the infamous Cecil Rhodes, making money and gaining increasing power by playing the British and the Boers off of each other. His political power culminated with being given a charter by the British government to expand the empire’s power into Zambesia, which in 1895 came to have his name and became Rhodesia. Ironically, despite all of the animosity he had created and the role which he played in the conflict between the British and the Boers, he died in 1902 at the age of 48 and did not see the results of the war. Often hypothesized to be a closeted homosexual and leaving no children, his last will and testament created the prestigious Rhodes Fellowship at Oxford University.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!