For Kaunda’s Zambia, independence ‘failures’ have been exacerbated by the West
When Kenneth Kaunda, former president and founding father of Zambia, passed away last week at the age of 97, what followed in Western media was a series of quite predictable and rambling summaries of the long career. of an African leader in politics and public life.
Mention has been made of his upbringing in the church in a part of Africa then known as Northern Rhodesia, and its lasting effects on the moderating humanism of Kaunda. There were the infallible descriptions of his assignments, like wearing a white pocket square, which he pulled to smear his eyes when he occasionally shed tears in public, or his love for songs that were popular at the time. of mainland independence in the early 1960s, marking Kaunda as some sort of ancient relic to a younger audience who seemingly forgot about them.
But above all, there was a kind of easy verdict about a man treated almost condescendingly as sympathetic enough, perhaps, to many of the rougher African figures of his time, but sadly uneven in the job. to lead a poor nation like his through the early stages of its independence. Almost all of the foreign accounts have concluded that he was a failure on two fronts, both diplomatic and economic.
The verdict of failure, however, is primarily a matter of the Western press’s reluctance to consider African history in depth, or to frankly acknowledge how hostile the tides of the Kaunda era were to the prospects of autonomy and self-government. development of Africa. Even less do they recognize how profound the West’s contribution has been in making life on the continent difficult.
This omission is most prominent in many of Kaunda’s obituaries where they present him as a sentimental and naive figure who, in his repeated diplomatic attempts to engage with then White-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa, did not failed to get them to moderate their behavior, either by ending their persistent military efforts to destabilize or overthrow the black-ruled southern African states, or, later, by allowing democracy to take hold. settle in South Africa itself.
Rarely have these chronicles noted how the West itself, led by Britain and the United States, was to accept black domination in this part of the world, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reluctant to oppose significantly in apartheid until the late 1980s. Even the official website of the US State Department today recognizes much of this, claiming that the “Western defenders of the apartheid regime … promoted it as a bulwark against communism.”
This time coincided precisely with the last stage of Kaunda’s 27-year rule, and it is difficult to see how he himself could have done more through diplomacy when the greater Western powers still tacitly supported the minority regime. white from South Africa.
The disturbingly anhistorical treatment of Kaunda’s life and career, however, begins at a much earlier stage. Few of the obituaries even bothered to mention the crippling legacy of European colonialism in Zambia, as in most of the newly created countries in Africa in the early 1960s. The Europeans had done little. to prepare their so-called neighborhoods for success. This meant little roads or other infrastructure, and little education. How little? Britain left Zambia when it was born without a university and only 0.5 percent of its young people even completing primary school. As it existed, the country’s economy consisted of copper mining, which was entirely held in foreign hands, mostly British, leaving most Zambians to either subsist in the obscurity of their villages, that is that is to say, literally, without electricity or most of the other amenities we usually take for granted – or to place their hopes in a life of dangerous and poorly paid migrant workers in South Africa.
Kaunda quickly took up the challenge of education and in 1966 had created schools in every district of the country. Surrounded by hostility from Rhodesia and South Africa, meanwhile, he set out to forge new international relations for his nation, reaching out to the Soviet bloc, while remaining proudly independent of it while ‘it was helping to consolidate the emergence of the new, so-called Non-Aligned Movement.
Unlike most recent portraits, Kaunda was a leader who played a weak hand boldly and imaginatively.
Unlike most recent portraits, this was of a leader playing a weak game boldly and imaginatively. Zambia from Kaunda contributed to Beijing’s entry into the United Nations in 1965 and was rewarded soon after with what by some measures remains the biggest foreign aid investment China has ever made: a $ 500 million railway connecting landlocked Zambia to the Indian Ocean via neighboring Tanzania. The United States had notably refused to support the project, which allowed Zambia to bypass hostile South Africa and Rhodesia, and thus maintain its political independence.
In their consensus that Kaunda was a failure in his economic management of the country, the obituary writers committed their perhaps most egregious, but hardly unprecedented, oversight. What is most remarkable when one considers the record of his peers from the independence era in Africa is how nearly all should be described as having failed when applying the most conventional journalistic criteria. narrow, as these writers do.
This includes a range of progressives, some of whom were arguably much more to the left than Kaunda. Consider Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, who, rejected by the West, asked the Soviet Union to help him build the huge Akosombo Dam to fuel his ambitions of rapid industrialization based on an industry. aluminum which he aspired to build by relying on the large reserves of bauxite. Consider Sekou Touré of Guinea, who despised the former colonial ruler of his country, the French, believing it was best to leave his land’s huge mineral reserves in the ground, where they would be kept for future generations, rather than submit to the pursuit of Paris. economic and political domination. Consider Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who sought to institute a new form of African socialism based on collective efforts to improve life in rural villages, where most of the population lived, and thus achieve greater national self-reliance. They have all received negative verdicts just as drastic as those just delivered on Kaunda.
Where it gets more interesting, however, is when you consider the economic performance of African conservative leaders of the same era, even those who most enthusiastically aligned themselves with the West. It is hard to find a resounding success among this group either, and you will seek in vain for a real economic take-off. Here, the career of the late founding father of Côte d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, is instructive. A fervent follower of capitalism, his three decades of rule ended with Côte d’Ivoire permanently classified as one of the world’s leading producers of cocoa and coffee, but with blatant poverty and inequalities still endemic. Today, per capita income in a country once presented as a showcase for the West is an extremely modest $ 2,276. according to the World Bank, a very fine margin higher than that of the former neighboring socialist Ghana. Other countries that have been touted as the economic darlings of the West for complying with the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – like Uganda, for example, where the per capita income is $ 794 – are rank even lower.
Too few in the West, including those who orient policy towards Africa, care much about what this tells us. It is true that Africa has had more than its share of really bad leaders, but this explanation for the continent’s general failure to break through economically has only one so far. Late in their political life, with their almost opposite policy – one on the left, the other on the right – Kaunda and Houphouët-Boigny each made daring, almost desperate bets to get out of the economic blockages in which their countries were locked up. Kaunda nationalized copper production in his country, hoping to ensure that the income could be used to improve the lives of Zambians instead of just enriching foreign investors. Houphouët-Boigny has refused Ivory Coast cocoa to European buyers, hoping he could shock world markets by paying a fairer price for his country’s most important commodity. Both offers failed and both men were severely punished by markets that cared little for the needs or aspirations of their people.
What the writers of easy conventional judgments on modern African political history fail to recognize is the level of difficulty facing the continent’s new fragile states as they enter the world stage, crippled by greed for colonial rule and intimidated by a West that only took an interest in them in a superficial and episodic way that was totally framed by Cold War competition.
What Zambia or Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana or Guinea then needed most were investments that would allow them to start transforming their own products into finished and semi-finished products, such as the start of ‘a process of industrialization – and that’s what they still need most now. And to this day, they will need the wealthy Western countries to open their markets much wider than they have ever been willing to do for African products, especially agricultural products.
It was this legacy of parsimony and neglect that prompted much of Africa to eagerly turn to China when that country began re-engaging with the continent more than two decades ago. Nowadays, without any sense of irony, Westerners are frequently heard to warn of an ongoing Chinese “takeover” of Africa. While it is true that when it comes to offering investments to African countries, China is there above all for itself, it is even more true than when it comes to accepting these offers of investment, African countries are also there for themselves. What is even more obvious is that when it comes to Africa, the West has never answered the call.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, the most recent of which “All Under Heaven: How the Past is Helping to Shape China’s Push to Global Power. ”You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.