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A New Gang in the Neighborhood: The Collusions of Neoliberalism and Colonialism in Africa

Valentine Eben
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007
    The US is following the leadership of hundreds of years of European colonialism in Africa, using the cover of a worldwide “war on terror” as a smokescreen to assert military dominance in the region, while using sophisticated tools like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to achieve economic dominance. For US activists, it is important to understand the role of European colonialism in Africa as the US brings its own model to the continent. Below, Valentine Eben brings us a short summary of recent European—and especially French—colonialism in Africa.

Rwandan genocide The year is 1994. During a period of 90 days from April to July, the French-supported Hutu Militia went on a killing spree with guns and machetes. By the time it was over, 77 percent of the Tutsi population of Rwanda had been slaughtered by the Hutu militia. Thousands of Hutus who rejected the hateful propaganda from the Hutu Militia were also killed, along with their families. Contrary to media attempts to blame only the Rwandans, France played a major role in planning and executing the genocide. In fact, France attempted to use the genocide to impose on Rwandans the extremely unpopular and corrupt French puppet regime of Juvenal Habyarimana (president since 1973). Rwandans would have voted out the regime in an election. One of the many French special operations setup to do the job was called “ Operation Insecticide,” led by the French gendarmerie officer Paul Barril. With French help, the regime jacked tribal differences to full-scale tribal conflict. France provided the funds for the building of the Radio Mille Collines—the clearinghouse for the Hutu hate propaganda and for coordination of the genocide. Operation Insecticide provided training for the genocidal militia and coordinated the supply of weapons from abroad. In a 1999 report Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch reported two occasions when French planes re-supplied ammunitions to the genocidal regime through a French controlled airport in Goma in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. This arms trade happened right in the middle of the genocide, when the country was under a UN arms embargo. Questioned on this issue, the French consular officer in Goma explained that these weapons had been paid for before the arms embargo. As public outrage at international inaction increased, the French asked the UN to approve a French Humanitarian operation called “Operation Turquoise.” The French used Operation Turquoise to bring heavy weapons into Rwanda to support Operation Insecticide, leading to the massacre in Bisesero. French involvement in the genocide is slowly being unearthed by the grassroots-organized Citizens Commission of Enquiry (CEC) in France. The media persistently misreported the genocide as a civil war between two ethnic groups. Francois Mitterrand, then president of France, is said to have told one of his staff that a genocide in Africa is nothing serious to worry about, with no political repercussions. Rwanda has no large reserves of mineral deposits. For the French, this colonial exercise seems to have been for the purpose of asserting its power in the region, rather than for profit. Congo-Brazzaville The Congolese pro-democracy uprising of the 1990s swept the French-controlled dictator Denis Sassou Nguesso (president since 1979) out of power. In 1997, on the eve of the second presidential election since the uprising, the Congolese woke to an ambush by a sophisticatedly-armed French gang. The gang was composed of foreign mercenaries recruited by the French enforcer Paul Barril, members of the former genocidal militia from Rwanda, French-trained former soldiers of the Zairian ex-dictator Mobutu, and a French-funded local militia known as “The Cobras.” The democratically elected government was overrun, and the dictator Denis Sassou Ngueso put back in charge. The gang then started indiscriminate assaults on villages and towns believed to have supported president Pascal Lissouba during the days of the first elections. This war of extermination cost more than 10,000 Congolese their lives. Since seizing power, Sassou has held the country in an undeclared state of emergency. The IMF privatization initiatives so seriously contested by labor unions have expanded. For example, big giants like Hydro-Congo (the state company responsible for the sale and distribution of petroleum products) have been taken over by the companies Shell and Total. The regime is eager to satisfy its corporate friends at any cost to the public. With oil as the driving force of the US-led neoliberal agenda, even a thug like Sassou becomes a US friend. Sassou’s control of the oil reserves of Africa’s fifth-largest oil producing country makes him a regular guest to the White House. Murphy Oil and Chevron are the two US companies running small oil operations in Congo. But with much of the fields offshore about to be brought online, it is clear that US involvement is going to increase—offshore drilling is a US specialty. Sassou told reporters after his last meeting with Bush at the White House about US oil companies “delight” at their increasing involvement in Africa. Despite all his crimes, the US press talked about Sassou mostly in the context of efforts to bringing peace to Darfur. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, neocolonialists (led by France) and neoliberalists (led by the US and the European Union) have gone into overdrive, seizing territories and natural resources throughout Africa. Sometimes the seizure is so brazen it jars the minds of observers. The corporate media, when not ignoring conflicts in Africa, turn their coverage towards reinforcing racist stereotypes: tribal conflicts, failed states, and the “war on terror” are among the most popular framing for the media. Cameroon In the case of Cameroon, neocolonialism and neoliberalism reached a sinister agreement to share the profits of joint exploitation. The year is 1950; all across Cameroon the Union of Cameroon Peoples (UPC) is leading uprisings for independence. With virtually no weapons, the population is achieving spectacular victories against the French. UPC leaders in Cameroon and in Belgium are assassinated, but the resistance continues. With the global anti-colonial movement on the march, the French change tactics and begin to build their neocolonial regimes. On January 1, 1960, the French declare Cameroon’s independence with a French collaborator, Amadou Ahidjo, as president. The same day the French sign a military pact with Ahidjo and made Colonel Noiret and Captain Leroy the unofficial assistants to the president. Their job description: “military assistance.” The French then deploy a special crack force to subdue the population with a tank squadron, helicopters, and T26 bombers.. In the west of the country where the rebellion is believed to be very popular, 56 villages are razed to the ground with napalm bombs, and116 classrooms, 3 hospitals, 46 dispensaries, 12 agricultural stations, and 40 bridges are destroyed between February and March 1960. By 1965, when the population is finally pacified, the numbers of deaths range between 400,000 and a million people. The French still control Cameroon. Their control is asserted through no-bid contacts for most major state supplies, control of the currency, exploitation of oil and mineral resources, and indiscriminate cutting of trees for lumber. Uninterested in the roots of Cameroon’s malaise, the IMF and World Bank prescribed privatization of public companies. Efficiency, growth, better services, and modernization are the buzz words. In 2005, the US company AES Corporation took over the national electricity supply company SONEL. Since then, they have fired 500 of the 4000 employees; the power supply has become more unreliable, and electricity bills have gone up 10 percent. For all the excuses AES is giving for their Cameroon adventure, a look at the AES adventure in the Republic of Georgia from 1999 to 2003 clearly makes the Cameroon case a deja vu. In the meantime, a European company, Suez, has taken over the Cameroon national water supply corporation SNEC. As if using an identical script, the results of the water privatization have had the same impact. They have caused an increase in the cost of water, a drop in the quality of services, and the firing of workers. For the French-imposed puppet regime, all that matters is new friends that can support them in maintaining control over the people of Cameroon. Lurking over this is the huge $4.2 billion World Bank-negotiated Chad-Cameroon pipeline, with Exxon at the helm. As the biggest infrastructure project in Africa, it is also the largest US investment in the continent. Exxon will reap a gigantic $6 billion from the pipeline. Neocolonial defeat For 77 days, from December 16, 2001, to March 3, 2002, Africans followed developments in Madagascar with anxiety. After a long struggle came the December 16, 2001 presidential election. The French were prepared. They came with weapons and the most modern terror gear, and they trained a back-up militia who roamed the country intimidating people. But Madagascans were not willing to have one more day of a puppet regime, so they came out in full force to vote for the opposition candidate Marc Ravalomanana. Aware of the massive turnout and deep rooted anger, the old President and French lackey Didier Rasiraka decided to split their coup in two stages. That is, give Ravalomanana 46 percent and Rasiraka 41 percent of the votes, to force a second round of voting. Then, in the next round, Rasiraka could be declared the winner with a slight margin over Ravalomanana. The regime thought no one would protest, especially since the possibility of an election had been unimaginable only a few years before. They were in for a rude surprise. As soon as the Interior Ministry announced the 46 percent to 41 percent victory and the date for the second round of voting, Ravalomanana supporters poured into the streets to protest the rigging. Within days the country was brought to a complete standstill. The regime declared a state of emergency and with their militia, raised oppression a notch higher, killing and injuring dozens. For the Madagascans, the train had left the station. On February 24, the New York Times reported that the United Nations, the US, the Organization of African Unity, and France all condemned Ravalomanana for declaring himself the winner and urged him to resume talks with Rasiraka. The corporate press in the US and Europe reported that the strike had seriously increased hardship, and destroyed a booming economy. Even US companies were supposedly losing money from the clothing business—all the while making every effort to describe the assault on Madagascans as a strictly internal matter. Ravalomanana’s new government was installed as Rasiraka’s cabinet members fled. Rasiraka’s militia bombed bridges and blocked access into the capitol to starve it of fuel, food and other goods. Ravalomanana and his supporters declared the end of the strike. Madagascans won. Corporate attack These examples demonstrate the role of French neocolonialism and US neoliberalism in just four countries. French neocolonial interests run rampant through twenty African countries; in Zaire and Angola they work in collaboration with the US. This means that half of the land mass of Africa, more than two-thirds of its population, and more than two-thirds of the natural resources of the continent are under the control of the French neocolonial gang (La Francafrique). Despite the misery, the truth is that Africans are resisting and have won some great victories: Algeria and South Africa are two important examples, but pro-democracy uprisings have defeated puppet regimes in Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Benin and even Congo-Brazzaville (for a while). In other countries the populace has succeeded in imposing multi-party politics, opening new fronts for resistance. But the new US economic assault, led by US corporations, is having a devastating effect on the local struggles. And there is every indication that things will get worse, if there is not a coordinated and determined engagement by both US and African activists. Take the case of Cameroon. In addition to Exxon’s Chad-Cameroon pipeline, the second-largest US investment in Africa is a methanol plant in Equatorial Guinea, just a few miles off the south coast of Cameroon. The country is becoming the US coordination center in the Gulf of Guinea. Last year the US completed the building of one of its largest embassies in the world in Cameroon. Of course, Exxon has a very disturbing record in its activities in Nigeria, Indonesia and other places. Reports on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline show that environmental standards were repeatedly violated in the planning and construction of this pipeline, which has destroyed some of the world’s last pristine forests. A mere three years into operation, they had their first oil spill in January, 2007. Exxon’s contract with Cameroon relieved Exxon of all liabilities in the case of a major oil disaster. AES Corporation, kicked out of communities in California and Maine for violation of environmental regulations, today controls Cameroon’s electricity and thousands of other energy resources around the world. The opposition US corporations, with the support of Washington politicians, are using the IMF and World Bank to bring the resources of communities across Africa under their control, funding oppressive regimes in the process. They are also building new debts for future generations by approving more IMF and World Bank loans tied to these transactions for corrupt dictators. The despotic regimes also get diplomatic legitimacy in the process. The most powerful press in the world—the US media—is working on the public relations front. If Africans manage to elect a democratic government that tries to renegotiate IMF privatization or to cancel monopoly contracts, then neocolonialists and US corporate interests can shut it down by using debt repayments as a form of control. With no loans and no way to invest in social services and repay debts, it is a matter of time before social unrest breaks out. Under the rules of this game, the Africans always come out the losers. The fight is not lost, and African activists continue to struggle. US activists have done an important job by delegitimizing the World Bank and IMF as well as putting corporate profiteers in the spotlight. Despite the billions these corporate criminals spend on public relations and image management, US activists are working hard to keep dollars from the World Bank and IMF from being used in these transactions between corrupt dictators and corporations. To succeed on both fronts in the struggle against these corporations, activists from the US and Africa will have to seriously engage one another. They will have to do some serious information-sharing and work to counter the US media spin in order to take apart the discourse being constructed to legitimize the African adventures of these companies. For US activists, it’s important to have a clear public discussion on the issues. Now is the time to begin. The US has relatively less direct involvement in Africa—for now. About the Author Valentine Eben is an alternative media activist from Amabzonia (annexed to French Cameroon in 1961) and Editor of The IMC a New Model. He presently coordinates a campaign for justice for students murdered by French Cameroon forces at peaceful protest. For more information, see .