How and when should one country’s obligation to another come to an end? Should Britain, for example, still be able to make claims against France for the death, destruction and terror caused by the Normans? Were we compensated byScandinavian governments for similar activities inflicted by the Vikings? Has Germany properly made restitution to us for its actions in two world wars? And we must not exclude Italy from blame for four centuries of occupation by their ancestors – after all, what did the Romans ever do for us? Conversely, should long-independent colonies continue to have a claim on former imperial masters? The question arises as thousands flee numerous African countries and head toward Europe.
As a result of The Berlin Conference of 1884-5 the major powers (the German Empire belatedly included) agreed how to divide Africa among themselves. When administrators subsequently created maps, they did so with some incongruously straight boundaries which embraced little, if any, regard for the tribal, ethnic, religious, civil and physical realities on the ground. By 1914, the political geography of almost every country on its land mass was fixed and, of its 11,668,600 square miles, only Ethiopia and Liberia (barely 4%) remained free of European control.
Many colonies achieved their independence in the 1960s and Britain was more successful than most in relinquishing them with a minimum of bloodshed. Men formerly deemed terrorists by one side, but freedom fighters by the other, achieved high office in the new countries, often as head of state. But soon after liberation, mayhem regularly ensued with civil war a common feature. It continues to this day and many nations still experience deadly inter-tribal rivalries and endemic corruption. Not to be overlooked are the failures, greed and sheer incompetence of their leaders whose self-aggrandisement ranked higher than serving the people. Tragically, for all its natural beauty, cultural diversity and mineral wealth, it remains a deeply divided and troubled continent.
Independence should, by definition, mean self-determination. With it comes responsibility and the moment from which to act and be treated in a mature manner. However, cynical evasion seeks to place blame on others and feign victimhood rather than take charge. Those who may have been guilty of past misdeeds or are successfully convinced into believing they are otherwise accountable respond in the misguided belief that foreign aid somehow makes amends. Post-colonial guilt is a rich seam and many African leaders have mined it ruthlessly. But, however well intentioned, aid acts like a drug; as such it creates addicts and like most addicts with a benevolent supplier, there is no incentive and little willpower to break the habit. It also creates a paradox; having fought to rid themselves of European servitude these nations still seemed content to suckle at the imperial breast. They felt owed but how could this ever have led to a sense of maturity, confidence and sovereignty with the resulting pride and dignity? To everybody’s shame, however, this beneficence more often than not filled despots’ bank accounts, not the people’s stomachs. A greater shame was that little was done to recover the money.
Racism is usually seen in white on black terms but the rarely-mentioned black on black variety is flourishing. As Zimbabwe continues to falter, many have fled to adjacent South Africa, itself riven by internal strife. Their arrival has caused much resentment and hostility among the already hard-pressed, mostly black inhabitants. Despite wide-reaching government assistance programs, South African inequality is worse now than in 1994, when apartheid ended, and poverty rates remain obstinately high.
Thus, in 2015 and decades after independence, the situation seems little better. Can Africa ever find the resolve and means to achieve peace, stability and prosperity within its continental boundary? Can it any longer be argued that its misfortunes stem from the colonial past or does the evidence now support the contention that those ills are largely of its own making? If the latter, do we have any special obligation?
Author’s note: The title of this article is derived from Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem.