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Today we’re going back to the 20th century and Decolonization, or as I like to call it, “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On The Way Out”.So remember about how WWII discredited the idea of empire? The Allies spent the war fighting against the Nazi empire in the name of freedom and self-determination. Which backfired when European colonies or mandates were like, “Um… Can we get some of that, please?” Plus, Europe was broke and couldn’t really afford to maintain land overseas anymore. For all of those reasons and more, Asian and African nations got full independence, sometimes for the first time in thousands of years. But it wasn’t easy and the stink of imperialism hasn’t fully worn off yet.
Act 1: Thanks Gandhi! | India & Pakistan
During World War II in the Pacific, Japanese expansion shook up colonial holdings by temporarily kicking European powers out. After the war was over, places like the Sri Lanka, Burma, Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia were not super keen on letting the imperial powers back in. Some fought wars and others were granted independence. But unfortunately we don’t have time to go there in detail, so let’s move on!
French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, devolved into war as France was not willing to give up those colonies quiet so easily. During World War II the Allied Powers had supported the resistance group the Viet Minh as they fought the Japanese. But now the war was over and France wanted its colonies back. After nine years of fighting, the French were forced to leave the colonies and the United States stepped in. Remember containment? This was just a few years after China had turned communist under Mao and the nationalist/communist forces in the north were being backed by the Soviet Union and China. The leader of north Vietnam was a guy named Ho Chi Minh. Remember him? The pissed off colonist who was ignored at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919? Yeah, maybe they should have paid a little closer attention.
The U.S. Vietnam War lasted for 20 years – from 1955 to 1975 – and it was the first defeat for the United States in its history, except sort of the War of 1812 where we basically just didn’t lose. Good job young America! But in Vietnam, we lost. Sure some textbooks say that we pulled out of Vietnam because of pressure back home, which is true. But that’s sort of like saying you were losing with only 5 seconds left in the game, but your mom was calling you for dinner so you had to go home. And Vietnam is still technically communist today, so… we lost.
We could talk about Vietnam for days but, honestly, you should just watch the Ken Burns documentary. Or Platoon. Or Apocalypse Now. Or Full Metal Jacket. Or The Deer Hunter. Or Good Morning Vietnam. Or Rambo: First Blood Part I. Or Forrest Gump.
For now, I want to focus on the largest colonial possession in Asia, the jewel in the British crown: India.
Before we look at how India got to be what it is today, let’s remember some of the context we’ve learned from world history. India is so diverse, there are 780 different languages spoken in the country today. And remember that throughout time they often broke down into localized rule amongst similar ethnic or linguistic groups. The subcontinent of India is so difficult to rule that it has only ever really been effectively unified as an empire with an autocratic ruler. Maurya – Gupta – Delhi Sultanate – Mughal – British Raj. So the modern nation-states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today are really the outliers. They’re trying something new and we’re waiting to see if it’s going to work.
While we’re at it, all of our modern nation-states that we think of as permanent truths on the map are incredibly new and experimental. The rest of world history has been empires and it’s just the last 50 years that we’re trying something else. I hope it works!
India gained independence relatively peacefully under the leadership of the Indian National Congress. Formed in 1885, this group continuously pushed for more representative of Indian colonists in the British colonial government. But after World War I, when India sent a million troops and lost 74,000 soldiers fighting for the British, they started asking for full independence.
The Indian Army sent way less soldiers to fight during World War II because many refused to serve the British without a guarantee of independence. They were like, “Fool me in the First World War, shame on you. Fool me in the Second World War… you can’t get fooled again.”
Leaders like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were imprisoned for the duration of the war because of their “Quit India” campaign that was pushing Britain to grant Indian independence regardless of the war. Some Indian nationalists actually fought for the Axis Powers because Hitler had promised them independence after they defeated the Allies.
But one group from within India did support the British war effort and that was the Muslim League. Under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim League was pushing for independence but with a catch – they didn’t want India to stay united as a subcontinent after independence. They wanted to create a Muslim state out of some of the regions in the northeast and northwest of the colony. By working with the British during WWII, they were granted this right so that when India gained independence in 1947, they created two states: India and Pakistan.
This idea went against the dreams of India’s most famous historical figure, Mohandas Gandhi. His first name is Mohandas, but he is better known by his title “Mahatma” which means “Great Soul.” Gandhi was a British educated lawyer born to a wealthy family in India in 1869. We’ll notice that this is a trend across Asia and Africa: independence leaders were often educated in Europe. They learned from the imperialists and then turned around and used that knowledge against them. It’s awesome.
In 1893, Gandhi was living and working as a lawyer in South Africa when he was thrown out of a train car in which he had a first class ticket because he wasn’t white. This event, and the atrocities he witnessed in apartheid-era South Africa turned his career toward social justice. He began organizing the Indian community that was living in South Africa to oppose racial and ethnic prejudice. During his 20 years in South Africa, Gandhi was arrested six times.
Gandhi returned to India during World War I in 1915. For the next 30 years he organized nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to the British occupation of India. The most famous was his Salt March to the Sea, earning him Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1930. Salt was a lucrative product that was monopolized by the British. Indians were not allowed to mine their own salt. To raise global awareness, Gandhi walked 241 miles for 23 days from his ashram to harvest salt from the Indian Ocean. Gandhi was arrested, sparking mass protests across the country that led to the arrest of 60,000 Indians. Although the Salt March accomplished little in terms of policy, it attracted global attention and inspired other oppressed groups around the world.
And now, for a quick side note about nonviolence. Gandhi did not invent nonviolence. Of course not. He was inspired originally by a letter written to him by Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace. In his “Letter to a Hindu” Tolstoy argued that the Indians should confront British imperialism with love and nonviolence. Gandhi published the letter in his own South African newspaper and built upon the idea. He was also impacted by his childhood growing up in a predominately Jain region. The Jain religion, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, has an idea called ahimsa which literally translates to “nonviolence” toward all living things. Gandhi took these ideas and revolutionized the act of protest by proposing civil disobedience – breaking the law in a way that is peaceful but confrontational enough to draw attention to your cause.
Gandhi wasn’t the only one. In the early 1900s, Vietnamese leader Phan Chu Trinh insisted that violent resistance to French occupation was the wrong way to go. He even turned down help from Japan because they were such a militaristic society. In 1919, mass strikes and mostly peaceful protests in Egypt led to the British recognition of Egyptian independence just a few years later. During World War II in 1943, 1,800 Jewish men were arrested by the Gestapo because they were married to non-Jewish wives. For one week, their wives gathered in the streets outside the Gestapo office, peacefully protesting the arrest. At the end of one week of the so-called Rosenstratz Protest, the Gestapo let the men go.
But Gandhi was by far the most famous proponent of nonviolent protest. And his teachings inspired generations of civil rights advocates, even after his death. African American Bayard Rustin, an openly gay early civil rights leader, traveled to India just months after Gandhi’s death to learn from those close to him. He returned home to advise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his book about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Dr. King mentions Gandhi dozens of times and calls him “the little brown saint of India.” In this way, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement directly inspired the nonviolence of Dr. King and the mainstream civil rights movement. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the football field during the National Anthem, he was carrying out Gandhi’s teachings.
Unfortunately, and very similar to Dr. King, not everyone agreed with what Gandhi was doing. Gandhi, in addition to nonviolence, was pushing for Indian unity regardless of religion. He did not want India to be split into two states. In 1948, a radical Hindu nationalist, believing Gandhi was too sympathetic to the Muslim minority, shot him in the chest three times at point blank range.
So, after World War II, it looked uncertain whether the British would allow for a two-state partition like the Muslim League wanted. They organized a Direct Action Day which was meant as a show of how much Indian Muslims wanted their own state. It turned into riots from both Hindus and Muslims and escalated into the Great Calcutta Killings. By the end 4,000 people were dead and 1000,000 homes destroyed.
Deciding that the two religious groups could not live together, the British agreed to a partition of India in 1947. The two nations would become India (majority Hindu) and East and West Pakistan (majority Muslim).
Not wanting to be the minority in their new state, millions moved across borders. Refugee camps were set up for the now-homeless who had left everything behind, causing disease to spread. Others were killed as new groups entered territory and took over towns and individual homes. All told, the estimates on how many died during the Partition range from 200,000 to 2 million. Women were especially targeted as symbols of community honor, with as many as 100,000 women raped or abducted.
Why was there so much violence committed on both sides? For one, Britain was hesitant to provide troops in the years after WWII to maintain law and order. Also, people were not only tied to their religious community, but also to the land that they had often lived on for centuries. The new boundary lines were drawn using outdated maps and census data and there were regions that were split between the two new states, creating disputes and long-term issues between India and Pakistan. One region that is still hotly contested is Kashmir in the northwestern corner of India (or the northeastern corner of Pakistan depending on who you ask). If we’ve learned anything at all, it should be that the British should never again have anything to do with drawing borders. Sorry Brits. You’re good at a lot of things, but creating nations without causing mass violence and longstanding animosity is not one of them.
A little while later, East and West Pakistan split into two separate countries, which makes sense considering they were separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory between them. West Pakistan became just “Pakistan” and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Side note: I have a student who is from Bangladesh and she always laments how we don’t talk about Bengali independence in more detail. So, Ani, I can give you two paragraphs. How does that sound?
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call East and West Pakistan by their names today. East Pakistan is Bangladesh and West Pakistan is Pakistan. The entire nation of Pakistan (East and West) held an election and the Bengali leader won. But that was not OK with the military junta from Pakistan, who launched an assault on Bangladesh and the hundreds of thousands who were practicing civil disobedience to protest for their independence. The Pakistani army committed a genocide against the Bengali people with civilian death estimates ranging from 300,000 (according to Pakistan) all the way up to 3 million (according to Bangladesh). Another 10,000 fled to India and more than 30,000 were left displaced inside Bangladesh. India eventually joined the war to support Bangladesh and Pakistan surrendered in 1971. The United States government, under Nixon and Kissinger, supported the conservative military government of Pakistan because of course we did.
The war and the atrocities committed against the people of Bangladesh aroused international attention. I knew about it because of the Concert for Bangladesh in New York City, organized by Beatle George Harrison and famous sitar player Ravi Shankar. Their rendition of “My Sweet Lord” is on my All-Time Favorites playlist on Spotify. But, more importantly, Bangladesh became an independent Muslim state in 1972.
So now, let’s move on to another part of the world that was equally inspired by Gandhi and, as we’ve learned, a country that played a big role in his own ideas about nonviolent protest of a violent system.
Act 2: Thanks Mandela! | South Africa
OK. So just like all of the other borders in Africa, the country of South Africa is an artificial collection of random tribes and people that were conquered by the British. First, in 1856 the British conquered the Xhosa people, prompting a massive suicide on the advice of one of their priests who claimed it would help drive out the invaders. Not everyone killed themself, Nelson Mandela was descended from a royal family of this tribe.As mentioned in an earlier episode, the British also conquered the Zulu tribe in 1879.
Finally, the British defeated the Boers, also known as the Afrikaners. These were the descendants of the Dutch who had been living in the region since the 1600s. They had the misfortune of discovering some of the largest stores of diamonds and gold in their regions so, naturally, they had to get conquered by the British. Eventually, these two groups united together to rule the black majority. South Africa became a self-governing nation-state that was still a part of the British Empire in 1934 and then a fully independent nation in 1960.
1948 was a key year for South African politics. The Afrikaner National Party that campaigned under the slogan “Apartheid” won the election and formally created the white segregationist government. Keep in mind that this was not unusual for the time period. Governments across Africa were ruled by white imperialists and the U.S. was still in the era of Jim Crow. But the National Party’s plan was not just to separate white people with colored people (that was already happening), but also to separate the different races from each other, and to divide the black community among tribal lines to decrease their political power
Eventually, all South Africans were categorized into four races: White, Black, Colored (like mestizo), and Asian (there were a lot of Indian and Pakistani people in South Africa because of the Indian diaspora in the late 19th century)
In 1959, a sociologist became leader of South Africa and he took the government to another level. He decided that the only way for South Africa to be successful was to “unscramble” the region by organizing all of the different groups into different geographic areas. This is called social engineering and it’s the kind of thing that may sound logical on paper where you can ignore the vastly upsetting human experiences that come with forceful relocation. This process geographically segregated South Africa.
People of color were forcefully evicted and sent to their “home lands” (although some people had never lived their in their entire life). Non-whites had to carry identification that would authorize their presence in restricted zones, which were basically any part of the country that wasn’t their “home land.” These were called “pass laws” and they will be hotly protested soon. 80% of the land in South Africa was reserved for whites, even though they made up only 19% of the population.
Up until 1960, most of the world didn’t pay much attention to South Africa, partly because what they were doing was relatively common. Not OK or justified, but also not unusual. But in 1960, the world started paying attention. In Sharpeville, around 6,000 protesters marched on the police station to protest “pass laws.” The South African Police fired into the crowd killing dozens, including 29 children. Photographs of the Sharpeville Massacre were published around the world, including ones of young people being shot in the back as they fled the police.
International outrage, led to the UN beginning the process of condemning the apartheid government. In 1973, a UN Resolution identified apartheid as a “crime against humanity.” They called for an embargo, especially on weapons, against South Africa. 91 member states voted in favor and 4 against (South Africa, Portugal, the U.K., and the United States) and South Africa was suspended from the UN.
Interestingly, South Africa reacted by strengthening its ties to Israel, who also helped them develop their own weapons manufacturing program – as we’ll learn next episode, Israel also had some experience with being a lonely country amidst hostile neighbors, so knowing how to make your own weapons was a pretty useful skill.
The South African team was also banned from the 1964 Olympics after Interior Minister de Klerk (who, ironically, would become the South African leader that ended apartheid) insisted that their teams would not be racially integrated. The IOC was considering letting them back in for the 1968 Games but a proposed boycott by other African nations ended this idea. It’s a cool example of the ideological impact of people like Gandhi and Dr. King spreading around the world. Who needs guns when you can boycott?
In 1976, when Afrikaans, the language of the white government, was introduced as the language of instruction in black schools, young people rose up in what became known as the Soweto Uprising. 20,000 students took part in the protests and up to 700 were killed by South African police – June 16 is now a national holiday in South Africa called Youth Day. It would be as if the March for our Lives had ended with the National Guard gunning down hundreds of teenagers. You can imagine the reaction.
This was also the largest challenge to the apartheid government and it set off another 20 years of instability and protests that finally pushed the government to recognize its black citizens. During this time period, the police and army death squads carried out political assassinations. State-sponsored vigilante groups would commit attacks on blacks and then the government would attribute it to “black on black” violence, justifying the security presence in their communities.
Out of the instability, the group that was best able to organize and control the direction of the protests was the African National Congress, or the ANC. And even though the ANC did eventually have a militant wing, the deaths attributed to them are far fewer than those attributed to the South African government and its allies. I’m not saying that makes any of it OK, but at the time the government definitely tried to paint the ANC as a militant terrorist organization.
So who was the ANC?
Founded in 1912, it’s original goal was to give voting rights to black and mixed-race Africans and, from 1940, to end apartheid.
Even though they get most of the recognition today, there were really two main organizations resisting apartheid with important philosophical distinctions. The Pan Africanist Congress, or PNC, broke away from the ANC to pursue a more aggressive strategy. They asserted black African nationalism and wanted a complete overthrow of the government to take Africa back for the original Africans.
On the other side, the ANC was attempting to work through the established systems and reform the existing government. They established a policy of “non-racialism,” claiming to work for equality for all as they advocated on behalf of all oppressed people. They believed that the system could be reformed from within, with rights given to all citizens of South Africa.
This debate is really similar to one going on at the same time in the United States between African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King advocated for passive resistance and reform through the current legal system – peaceful boycotting, pushing for change through the courts, etc. Dr. King also believed that sympathetic whites were crucial to their success. However, not everyone agreed with this. Malcolm X became the voice of the other movement that pushed for black nationalism. He argued that black people didn’t need the help of whites, they needed to take what was theirs by uniting within their own communities. He argued for more active resistance, and although his legacy is often mistakenly associated with indiscriminate violence, he did argue that where passive resistance was failing, militant resistance might be necessary.
Even the ANC eventually came to this same conclusion. They originally used solely nonviolent methods to protest apartheid but they changed course, or they added a new strategy, after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960.
The ANC was led ideologically by Nelson Mandela. He is generally seen as the Gandhi or Dr. King of South Africa, which is mostly true. Except that Mandela was willing to use violence when passive resistance failed. The ANC established a militant wing called MK, or “The Spear of the Nation,” after Sharpeville that Mandela was in charge of. But, it’s important to note, that their acts of violence were initially acts of sabotage aimed at installations of the state. They would bomb railroad tracks, for example. Later, as the government continued its assault on people of color, things escalated. They did turn to bombings that led to the deaths of civilians, like the Church Street bombing in Pretoria that killed 19 and injured over 200. Part of the reason for their turn to violence was because the political parties of the ANC and PAC had been banned. Without a legal voice, they were forced to find new ways to draw attention to their cause.
With the rise of protests and international attention, leadership in the South African government began to turn toward reforms. Some of the apartheid laws were repealed in the late 1970s or 1980s, although apartheid as a system was still in place. From the government’s perspective, the white South Africans were “riding a tiger” (the black population that was growing economically aware and politically eloquent); the problem with riding a tiger is how to dismount without getting yourself killed. They realized things were unsustainable but they didn’t know how to end it without losing all of their power or, worse, their heads.
They were also hesitant because of the clear links between the ANC and PAC and communism. Most leaders of the two parties were also registered members of the Communist Party. Even worse, the Soviet Union had been providing support for the anti-apartheid movement. Remember that this is still during the Cold War when the West was willing to overlook a lot of bad things in the name of containing communism.
The escalation of violence and protests in the 1980s convinced the government that there was no way of doing this with just reforms, they would need complete governmental transformation. F.W. de Klerk, the guy who got South Africa banned from the Olympics, became president of South Africa in 1989. He instituted reforms that allowed protests and released all remaining ANC prisoners except Mandela (he held talks with him instead.) In 1990, de Klerk surpassed expectations and surprised the ANC when he made a speech in which he opened the way to negotiations, putting everything on the table.
So what made this possible? Why the change of heart?
By 1987 – all sides had accepted that there wouldn’t be an armed solution (SA realized they could keep going for 20-30 more years, but under really negative circumstances; ANC realized that a full revolution wasn’t going to happen.) South Africa was just concluding years of fighting in Angola with Russian and Cuban forces. They had been holding on to control of Namibia, to the south, to aid in the war effort but with the end of the Angolan Civil War, the UN convinced South Africa to give up control of Namibia. They were declared independent and the UN oversaw relatively successful elections in the country. This showed the South African government that there could be a peaceful solution after years of oppression, if it was done within the context of a constitutional framework.
Finally, black South Africans were working their way up the social ladder, despite all of the obstacles put in their way by the government. In 1970 the black share of disposable income was 20%, but by 1994 that was up to 38%. Perhaps more important, the white share of disposable income dropped from 70% to 50% in those 24 years. This trend increased bargaining power of black South Africans. The economy was becoming more integrated with young black people entering the economy at higher levels. This made societal and legal segregation much more difficult to uphold.
Ultimately, de Klerk released Mandela from prison in 1990, after 29 years behind bars. The two worked together, with representatives from their parties, to dismantle the apartheid system and in 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first completely free elections in its history.
Before we move on,
Who was Nelson Mandela?
He was born into a royal family of the Xhosa tribe and was named Madiba. When he was in primary school, his teacher gave him the name Nelson as part of the tradition to give black Africans white English names. How nice of them.
Mandela excelled at track and boxing and was incredibly intelligent. In 1939 he was admitted into an elite university that was the only higher-learning opportunity available for black South Africans at the time. But he was kicked out of school after a year because he and his friend Oliver Tambo boycotted racist university policies.
After he returned home, he learned that a marriage had been arranged for him so he fled to Johannesburg where he worked as a night security guard and then a law clerk, completing his Bachelor’s Degree by correspondence. He eventually earned a law degree, finishing it through correspondence while in prison. But during his studies, he came into contact with black and white student activists and developed his Dr. King-like ideology that the only way to solve South Africa’s problems was for all the races to work together toward reform.
After the ANC was banned, Mandela was forced to go underground and wear disguises to avoid arrest. It was then that he decided that a more radical approach to resistance was necessary, diverging from the paths of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. He actually became one of the leaders of the militant wing of the ANC and said at his trial,
“[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
After finding evidence tying Mandela to acts of sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy, it’s amazing that he wasn’t sentenced to death. Probably the only reason he wasn’t killed was because, at that point, the world was watching South Africa and Mandela had become such a recognizable face and eloquent speaker.
The first 18 years of his imprisonment were brutal. He was living on a former leper colony in the Robben Island Prison. He lived in a small cell without a bed or plumbing and he spent his days doing hard labor in a lime quarry. Apartheid reigned even in prison, and Mandela and the other black inmates received fewer rations than the white prisoners. He was allowed to see his wife, Winnie, once every six months and inmates told stories of human rights abuses by the guards. Some reported being buried in the ground up to their necks and then urinated on.
It was in prison that he completed his law degree by correspondence from the University of London and he mentored the other black inmates, organizing nonviolent resistance to earn better treatment. You know what they say, you can take the guy out of the civil rights movement but you can’t take the civil rights movement out of the guy. I think that’s the saying.
In 1980, his old friend from college Oliver Tambo, now exiled in London, organized the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign that made his name and face an international icon. He was actually offered his freedom with a few political compromises but he refused to be released until apartheid was completely dismantled.
In 1982 he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison and, six years later, he was put on house arrest. Two years later, he was released by de Klerk and began the work of building a new, multiethnic South African government.
As president, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the human rights abuses of the apartheid regime. He oversaw the creation of a new constitution with a strong central government based on majority rule, with strong prohibitions against minority discrimination, including whites.
Nelson Mandela is like their George Washington. There are so many other ways this could have gone. The black majority could have turned around and implemented a racist regime against the whites that had treated them so poorly. They could have kicked them out of the country completely. But because a generally peaceful, enlightened person was in charge of the transition, South Africa has been able to establish a (mostly) democratic society based on equality for all.
Today, now that Mandela is gone, there are some issues. The ANC as the main political party has come to dominate the government and some of their leaders have been less than Mandela-like. Just recently, President Jacob Zuma stepped down amidst corruption charges. But, remember: the new South Africa is really just 25 years old. Give it some time.
Act 3: Decolonization in Africa
The rest of sub-Saharan Africa has a relatively similar story to South Africa. White governments were installed by the imperialists across the region, despite an overwhelming black majority in each country, obviously. It’s Africa. But not every country had a Nelson Mandela to guide them through the independence process along the balance beam between peaceful resistance and violent overthrow.
Rwanda had an incredibly horrific experience as civil war raged between two black ethnic groups in the country. During their time as a colony of Germany, the German government had favored the royal leadership of the Tutsi, who also happened to be the minority of the country. This divide-and-conquer strategy built up enormous animosity between the Hutus, who made up the majority of the country but were oppressed by the Tutsis, who were collaborating with the European imperialists to maintain power.
After independence, civil war between the two groups ensued. Eventually, in 1994 the Hutu majority committed mass genocide against the Tutsis. In just 100 days, about 1 million Rwandans were killed, eliminating 70% of the Tutsi population. A heavily armed force called the Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide and took control of the country. This group was mostly made up of Tutsis who had fled the country to neighboring Uganda during the 1959 Hutu revolt for independence. They were resentful of being forced out of their country and watching their people being murdered in the streets. There was a backlash against Hutus that led to the displacement of over 2 million Rwandans from their homes. Ironically, this military was backed by the Tutsi, and its leader, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi who is still the president of Rwanda today. The imperial legacy lives on.
The British attempted a similar strategy in Kenya. They continually tried to pit the various tribes and ethnic groups against each other, but they weren’t willing to give control of the government to one of the black groups so it wasn’t as successful. The various tribes united together, although there was some infighting, against the white colonial government during the Mau Mau Uprising. Throughout the 1950s, black Kenyans waged war against the government until eventually they were granted independence in 1964.
Their first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was an enlightened thinker who had met with other Pan-Africanists across the world. He was part of an elite group of new political philosophers that included W.E.B. Du Bois from the United States and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. We’ll talk about him in a second. Similar to Nelson Mandela, Kenyatta was imprisoned for seven years during the war. Also like Mandela, he created a multiethnic government to try to forestall friction between the various tribal groups.
The problem with both modern South Africa and Kenya, though, is that they created highly centralized national governments.
This makes sense for a few reasons. One, they wanted to make sure they had enough power to control the various groups in their country that might fight or cause problems. But also, that’s just the way the government has always looked in Africa. White imperialists got to have a ton of centralized power, why not the new black governments? The problem with a highly centralized national government is that, without a lot of checks on its power, a country’s success is highly dependent upon the individual person who leads the government. So Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela wielded their power relatively effectively and fairly. But what happens when someone comes into power who isn’t quite as enlightened?
To answer that question, we can look at a lot of countries in Africa that developed what are called “strongmen.” Like I mentioned in a previous episode, these are men who stepped into the leadership role after their country’s independence. Basically, they replaced the power of the entire European colonial government, giving them massive control over their country’s economy, legal system, and society. Many of these strongmen drained their country of its natural resources for their own personal gain. They typically emerged as warlords in the fight for independence, as opposed to political statesmen like Nelson Mandela.
In Uganda, you had Idi Amin. He ruled the country for eight years, killing 300,000 civilians as a brutal dictator. He was kicked out by exiles, supported by Tanzania, but he spent the rest of his life in Saudi Arabia and was never brought to justice for his crimes. I guess it was pretty great to be Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for it.
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s rule began in 1980. Last year, in November of 2017, when the news reported that Mugabe was stepping down as president, I said, aloud to no one, “He is STILL alive?!” I couldn’t believe it. He started out as a more intellectual ruler. He was a teacher – giving me hope that I, too, can one day take over a country – and he encouraged conciliation with the white minority that had ruled Southern Rhodesia. This was the name of Zimbabwe during colonial times – remember Cecil Rhodes? The diamond guy? Yeah this was part of his territory he got to name after himself.
But more recently, Mugabe instituted extreme economic measures, like taking over white-owned commercial farms. Zimbabwe’s economy is a complete wreck. In 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion percent. I don’t even know what that means. $1 USD was worth 2.6 billion Zimbabwe dollars. Like… what?
My favorite strongman – not in a “I really like this guy!” kind of way, but in a “This guy is so insane it’s weirdly fascinating to learn about!” way – is Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was chief of staff for the army, and, backed by the U.S. and Belgium (who was hoping to keep some of the trading relations and land that it had during its colonial rule of the Conco), he overthrew the democratically-elected president.
His big initiative was to re-Africanize the country and eliminate any vestige of European influence. That’s why he renamed the country Zaire (they changed it back when he died in 1997.) He is typically seen wearing a leopard-skin fez-like hat. But this initiative is ironic considering he was backed by the United States, thanks to his strong anti-communist stance, and he amassed a ton of personal wealth by stealing from his own country. His government forced political scientists to create a new type of government: a kleptocracy, or a government whose leader acts like a kleptomaniac because he steals so much of its national wealth. It’s estimated that his personal wealth, mostly hidden away in Swiss banks, totalled up to $15 billion. He took private jets to Paris just for lunch and reportedly had fleets of Mercedes-Benzes.
Also, when he became president he changed his name. His birth name was Joseph Mobutu, but he changed it to a name that translates to, “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” He’s a terrible human being, but that is some Alexander-Caesar-Napoleon level ego right there.
In northern Africa, Algeria was forced to fight a brutal war against France for its independence. Algiers, the capital city on the Mediterranean, was home to many French people and was a vacation destination. In a lot of ways, Algeria was like France’s Cuba. Similar to how American citizens and businesses viewed Havana as an almost-extension of Florida, the French sort of thought of Algeria as part of its own country, albeit without the rights and privileges. The Algerian Civil War, fought from 1954 to 1962, was one of the reasons why the French had to pull out of Indochina – they couldn’t afford to fight both wars.
The war also actually contains a lot of lessons for how to fight a war on terror. The FLN, or National Liberation Front, organized itself a lot like modern terrorist organizations. Members often didn’t know of anyone else in the movement so that if they were captured, they didn’t have any useful information. And whenever one perceived leader was captured, others popped up in his place. There is an incredible movie called The Battle of Algiers made in 1966. It is so impressive that the Pentagon screened the film for its leadership in 2003 to offer insight into the newly-begun Iraq War. You should watch it.
The last leader that I really want to you to know about is Kwame Nkrumah. He’s pretty incredible. He grew up in the Gold Coast, now called Ghana, and was educated in the United States. He was a teacher but he went back to school and earned degrees in philosophy and education from the University of Pennsylvania. Again, adding fuel to the fire of my dreams to go from teacher to ruler of the world. At university, he studied Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin – uh oh – and he also read a lot from Marcus Garvey, an African American who advocated for a united Black nationalism. He then moved to England where he organized a Pan-African Congress in 1945. I mentioned this earlier, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya was there; W.E.B. Du Bois of the U.S. was in attendance. It was like a Continental Congress of enlightened black leaders who all discussed how to help each other in their quest for black liberation.
During Ghana’s push for independence, Nkrumah organized what he called “positive action.” Inspired by other activists around the globe, this included nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with British authorities. Although he was arrested, the British had allowed for a slow move toward independence by overseeing parliamentary elections. While in prison Nkrumah was elected to parliament and he eventually became the first prime minister, overseeing the transition to complete independence. In 1957, Ghana was official independent – the first African nation to achieve full political and economic independence from imperialism. Way to go, Ghana!
Much like other first leaders, his government was fairly authoritarian. But he used his power to institute social improvements to the country. He built new roads, schools, and health facilities. He also campaigned for wider African unity, wanting a larger political organization of newly independent African countries, sort of like the EU. Losing focus on his own country, they began to spend too much money and he looked to communist countries to help him – uh oh. With the economy in a nose dive, a growing resistance movement opposed his government. He increasingly turned to more dictator-like governing strategies and he was overthrown by the military while on a trip to China. He died of cancer while in exile a few years later.
To me, Kwame Nkrumah is a really great, and sad, example of the problems Africa faced – and is still facing – after imperialism. He was an ideal leader on paper – grew up outside of the elite, western educated, with his mind toward unity and improvement for Africans. But the structures and legacy that imperialism left in Africa have made it so difficult to get it right.
The economy is geared around taking natural resources out of the country to the benefit of more industrialized nations. The government tends toward one-man authoritarian rule, mimicking the colonial governments that came before. And the infrastructure is so lacking but it takes so much money to build it up that leaders often have to take their country into extreme debt to provide roads and hospitals.
In our mind today, we look at the news about Africa and see mostly negative things. We’re like, “Come on, Africa. Get it together!” But remember: they haven’t been able to completely rule themselves since the postclassical era. The slave trade decimated their population, imperialism structured their economies to benefit the leadership and foreign companies, and often the independence movement exacerbated tribal tensions. Not to mention the fact that their borders, based on the Berlin Conference, make absolutely no sense.
Africa is a great case study for the entire future of the so-called “Third World.” All of the places that have been the subjects of imperialism – Latin America, Africa, and Asia – are still trying to find their place in the new globalized world. They haven’t had a lot of time to figure it out yet and the so-called developed world isn’t doing much to make it easier. Think about it: they come into independence right at the moment when the west is trying to break down barriers to trade. That’s fine for the U.S. and Europe, but there’s a reason those barriers are called “protectionist.” They’re meant to protect domestic economies from being overrun by outsiders who are more developed.
So they finally push their way out of colonialism, only to have the industrialized world telling them that the only way they can get loans or have businesses set up shop in their country is if they open up their economy to the new globalized trade. And then their economy gets flooded with cheaper products from the U.S. and China so that their own producers can’t compete.
Add on to this the fact that they became independent right when the environmental movement was gaining steam. International groups are pushing for all countries to lower their pollution rates. Meanwhile, Africa is like “Oh come on! The U.S. and Europe have had 300 years to pollute all they want during their Industrial Revolutions! We just want to build one coal plant to try to catch up!” Now, for the record, I’m totally anti-pollution, but this is just a really good example of how exasperating it must be to be a country in the southern hemisphere right now.
All of this is to say: give them time. Think about how long it took Europe to recover after the fall of Rome! And things are already looking up in Africa. They have a young population with a growing labor pool; and jobs are growing 1% faster than the workforce so there’s going to be a lot of opportunity. Urbanization and increasing consumption is making Africans a new, highly-sought-after consumer for global companies. Finally, since Africa doesn’t have a ton of established infrastructure to work around, they’re weirdly well-positioned for the new technological advancements that are coming. East Africa is the global leader in mobile banking and Smart Phone ownership is expected to rise from 2% in 2010 to 50% in just 10 years. Finally, spending on infrastructure in Africa has doubled over the last decade.
Anyway, it’s important to look at current events and see them as a continuation of history. Humans want to look at the world and think of it as the way it is, the way it has been, and the way it always will be. But history shows us that it’s the exact opposite. Things are always changing. Just 75 years ago, the idea of self-determination was laughed at by many. The thought that the world map would look so complicated, with so many different nations, all trying to assert their own sovereignty, would have seemed crazy. Remember, most of world history has been ruled by massive empires. Individual rights, individual voices, and the right to live under a government that looks like you and represents you – these are all experiments that we’re trying out. So, everyone keep your fingers crossed! Or, if you prefer to be ruled by an emperor, let me know and I’ll start my global campaign a few years earlier than planned…
To be continued.