States of Neglect

by zunguzungu

Blogging will be light for a bit, I fear; between a move and a cold and a mountain of papers, there’s just less of my brain available these days. But this is a slightly revised comment I wrote at a post over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place that seemed worth slightly revising and posting:

One of the worst things Europe did was conquer Africa and then do… nothing. This is not to say that it would have been fine and dandy had they Christianized and educated everyone — as they grandly pretended they were doing — but what they actually did was insidious in a different way: having smashed or delegitimized the existing societies and political orders that had existed, they also failed to put anything legitimate in their place.[1] There were a very few places where colonial empires actually took seriously their “white man’s burden” to develop and uplift, but for the majority of the continent they mostly didn’t, investing as little in the enterprise as possible. This was an empire on the cheap:  The few gunboats and soldiers that were necessary to hold the colonies were a lot cheaper than the massive capital it would have taken to bring “development,” and so they went for cheap and easy, from the beginning to the end. The claim that Britain acquired its colonies in a “fit of absentmindedness” is, of course, deeply disingenuous, but when it comes to Africa there’s a kernel of truth; because Britain was much more interested in defusing potential threats to its empire elsewhere than in actually developing and ruling Africa itself.

It happened that way, because Europe more or less acquired its possessions in Africa to prevent others from getting them. Britain in particular didn’t particularly want to own African territories as such, but wanted to make sure other empires couldn’t use Africa as base from which to disrupt British control of the seas, among other thing. Africa, in this sense, represented not an opportunity to develop but a threat (from other empires) to be defused. Kenya, for example, was only incorporated as a Protectorate in the 1890’s because Britain was afraid Germany would expand from the south into the headwaters of the Nile, which they worried the Germans could somehow dam up. Most of the scramble for Africa was that sort of thing, which is why the whole thing was orchestrated by Bismarck in Germany, who didn’t himself have big colonial ambitions in Africa at all. Because he just wanted a peaceful settlement, he arranged a system by which all the great powers could be confident that no other power could cut off an important trade route for them, where nice neat lines could prevent Africa from becoming a European battleground.

This disinterest, however, had huge consequences for Africa itself: because most of Europe had more of an interest in making sure other empires didn’t control the continent than in actually doing anything with the continent themselves, the result was that very little capital or labor was ever invested in development, education, roads, or other infrastructure; to keep the empire as cheap as possible, they just handed power over to whatever warlords or tribal leaders they could find (or if they couldn’t find a “traditional” despot, they would just invent one) and tasked them with keeping the peace by whatever means necessary. Rather than build and develop a new society, after all, the colonial administrations realized that you could just pay off a local warlord and make him *your* warlord, and in that way keep the peace, balance the budget, while still painting the continent red (and you can trace lines of connection from a lot of those warlords to the gangster capitalists of today).

It’s a lot like the America approach to “nation building,” actually, if I may; a lot of high minded humanitarian rhetoric, but when push comes to shove, the invaded country is expected to pay for itself and you blame the thugs you put into power for not having built a democracy.


[1] This is the real meaning of phrases like “the invention of tradition,” (Ranger and Hobsbawm) by the way, the process by which European imperial powers extended political control over African societies by mediating it through local authorities: by co-opting local tribal leaders (and when appropriately despotic tribal leaders didn’t exist, they invented them), imperialism radically changed the political nature of culture, de-democratizing local power structures by making them more dependent on external powers for their political reproduction than on internal citizenry. For what it’s worth, J-F- Bayart argues that this was the case even before colonialism, but in any case the general trend is clear.