Saturday, 1 November 2008

African Socialism

by Campsie SSP member, Bill Newman

A more appropriate heading for these notes could well be Whatever Happened to African Socialism? The progressive arrival of independence for sub-Saharan African colonies following Ghana's independence in 1957 saw the overt embrace of socialism by the continent's new leaders from Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Sekou Toure in Guinea (Conakry), Mobido Keita in Mali, Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, Patrice Lumumba in Congo (Kinshasa) and, later, though he was assassinated shortly before independence, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, among others. Their formative influences were diverse, but included anti-colonialists and Marxists such as Marcus Garvey, W E B du Bois and C L R James among the British colonies, Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon among the French colonies and Alvaro Cunhal in the Portuguese colonies. None of the new African leaders could be said to have been orthodox Marxists, though a number had spent time in the Soviet Union and the GDR, but they all believed, in varying ways, that Pan-African Socialism, in its different interpretations, represented the future for Africa. Indeed, the ideal seen by many was a united Africa and with this in mind, Kwame Nkrumah was largely instrumental in creating the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, though a group led by Leopold Senghor of Senegal (the Monrovia Group) was much more cautious concerning African unification.

On a more realistic scale, various attempts have been made to build regional federations, all of which, like the grandiose hopes of many in the early OAU, have failed. The catalogue is depressing. The entirely logical federation of Senegal with The Gambia never developed as a fully functioning body before collapsing. The East African Community of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, established in 1967, showed more hope of development before collapsing in 1977, though the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar has proved durable. However, fragmentation, feared by African leaders, has been at least as prevalent. The breakaway of Eritrea from Ethiopia and the establishment of the still unrecognised Somaliland (the former British Somaliland Protectorate) in response to the anarchy prevailing in Somalia illustrate this fragmentation. With some justification, the tensions in Africa have been blamed on the arbitrary borders created by European colonialists, but subsequent tribal and clan conflicts illustrate the difficulties in creating homogenous functioning democracies. The fragmentation of Nigeria into 36 states from an original three represents the tribalism still present in Africa's largest state, though increased opportunities for wealth creation for the corrupt elite as well as attempts to weaken regional power vis-a-vis the central government also have played their part. Indeed, the slow growth of truly national political parties can be, at least in part, attributed to ingrained tribalism as can be seen, for example in the Ndebele/Shona divide in Zimbabwe and the Hutu/Tutsi divisions in Rwanda and Burundi, though in the latter case Belgian colonialism in favouring the Tutsi populations can be held partly to blame. Worse, in some failed states, tribalism has fragmented into clan warfare, as in Somalia. Yet there are some glimmers of hope for regional co-operation as in the more modest remit of the Southern African Development Community and, hopefully, in the more ambitious East African Federation.

Why, then, have the early hopes of Pan-African Socialism failed and why have hopes of sustained socialist development in individual states failed to materialise. First of all, it is a sad truth that power corrupts and absolute power currupts absolutely. The transition from hopeful moderniser to intolerant kleptomaniac dictator can be seen in more than one state. Sadly, Zimbabwe is not unique. Equatorial Guinea gained independence from Spain in 1968 with Francisco Nguema as president. Under his notorious rule, a third of the population either fled or were killed. A ghastly example of his homicidal rule was the public execution of 150 political opponents to the playing of Mary Hopkins singing Those were the Days. One would hope that the UN, and developed nations, not least the USA, would react to such monstrosities, yet silence was complete. His overthrow by his reputed nephew, Obiang Nguema, gave hopes for the future, but although less vicious than his predecessor, the impoverished population has seen little, if any, improvement to their lives while their President salts away vast sums of oil wealth. It is almost possible to imagine that the plot allegedly financed by Sir(!) Mark Thatcher and Edy Calil, could not, if successful, have made the condition of the population worse. Their motives, however, were to grab the nation's oil wealth for themselves and their pliant allies. Obiang Nguema has now offered the British Government a deal: he will return Simon Mann to the UK to complete his sentence if the British authorities will deliver Thatcher and Calil to Equatorial Guinea for trial. A tempting offer!

Nkrumah is rightly held up as a model leader, but it should be remembered that for all his idealism, his democratic principals were far from perfect and as early as 1958 he banned all strikes. In 1966, he was overthrown and retreated to Guinea where in 1978 Sekou Toure renounced Marxism. Disillusionment with the willingness of populations to modify their life styles and disappointment at the lack of material growth after independence led to mutual frustration and the ability of armies to carry out coups, partly out of a desire for positive change but more often out of an opportunity to enrich themselves. Some countries have painfully pulled themselves out of lengthy periods of military misrule and, for example, Ghana is now a relatively stable democracy (though socialism has not been espoused by recent governments). Others are still suffering under corrupt kleptocracies.

The West, of course, is also complicit in poisoning the early shoots of socialism in Africa. The apparent murder of such promising leaders as Patrice Lumumba and Samora Machel, the support of anti-democratic armed forces as in Angola and the support of corrupt one-man fiefdoms as in the Zaire of Mobutu all weakened fatally any emerging democratic, socialist forces. It should also be said that the West's insistence on totally inappropriate free market 'reforms' before aid is provided gives almost no scope for socialist solutions to chronic economic problems.

But what about South Africa upon which so much hope had been heaped? After all, the tripartite association of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) promised much, not just in healing the wounds of apartheid, but in striving for a more egalitarian society. Under Mandela, much seemed to have been achieved, but social progress has been depressingly slow in recent years. And now we see ominous signs of fratricidal warfare in the ranks of all three tripartite members. The departure from the ANC of the former Defence Minister, Masioua Lekota and former premier of the Province of Gauteng, Mbhazima Shilowa seems to herald the birth of a new party (the South African National Congress/Convention). This in itself may not be an unwelcome development but the extreme reaction of the established ANC, COSATU and SACP gives considerable cause for concern. Calls at an inaugural rally of this new group by organised opposition that Lekota and Shilowa should be killed, though, hopefully, hyperbolic, do not augur well for the future. Already there are signs of revived tribalism as many isiXhosa speakers and isiZulu speakers line up on opposite sides. It is to be hoped that the SACP will encourage politicians back to the real needs of the working class, but recent utterings, notably at an address to the miners' union, have not been reassuring.

The future for socialism, even democracy, in Africa looks sombre, but there are hopeful signs. Some nations have established a progressive record and in this respect, Mozambique, Botswana, Sao Tome, Ghana and, at last, Liberia are among those with positive records. Moreover, the refusal of dockers in South Africa and Mozambique to unload arms from China bound for Zimbabwe shows that the power of the working class can still be marshalled. Perhaps it is necessary to go back to the vision of the early liberators of African colonies and, avoiding the straight jacket of Marxist formal terminology , encourage the growth of indigenous African Socialism. In a time when capitalism is clearly failing, socialism remains the hope for Africa just as much, it not more, as for the developed world.

Bill Newman spent most of his working life in banking, latterly as head of economics and then as Assistant General Manager of a City of London bank. For some 15 years he was also editor of and wrote for a journal on international monetary economics.

He has an interest in African matters, having been responsible for economic and political reporting on sub-Saharan Africa for Westminster Bank and writing for some years for the Europa Yearbook on Somalia and Ethiopia. More from Bill here

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