Africa, the key to global economic growth,” was a refreshingly honest recent headline from the Washington Post, but hardly one that qualifies as news. African labor and resources—as any decent economic historian will tell you—have been key to global economic growth for centuries.
When the Europeans discovered America 500 years ago, their economic system went viral. Increasingly, European powers realized that the balance of power at home would be dictated by the strength they were able to draw from their colonies abroad. Imperialism (aka capitalism) has been the fundamental hallmark of the world’s economic structure ever since.
For Africa, this has meant nonstop subjection to an increasingly systematic plunder of people and resources that has been unrelenting to this day. First was the brutal kidnapping of tens of millions of Africans to replace the indigenous American workforce that had been wiped out by the Europeans. The slave trade was devastating for African economies, which were rarely able to withstand the population collapse; but the capital it created for plantation owners in the Caribbean laid the foundations for Europe’s industrial revolution.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as more and more precious materials were found in Africa (especially tin, rubber, gold and silver), the theft of land and resources ultimately resulted in the so-called “Scramble for Africa” of the 1870s, when, over the course of a few years, Europeans divided up the entire continent (with the exception of Ethiopia) among themselves. By this point, the world’s economy was becoming an integrated whole, with Africa providing the basis for European industrial development as Africans were stripped of their land and forced down gold mines and onto rubber plantations.
After World War II, the European powers, weakened by years of unremitting industrial slaughter of each other, contrived to adapt colonialism to the new conditions in which they found themselves.
As liberation movements grew in strength, the European powers confronted a new economic reality—the cost of subduing the “restless natives” was near the level of wealth they were able to extract from them. Their favored solution was what Kwame Nkrumah termed “neo-colonialism”— handing over the formal attributes of sovereignty to trusted handpicked cronies who would allow the economic exploitation of their countries to continue unabated—adapting colonialism so that Africans were forced to shoulder the burden and cost of policing their own populations.
In practice, it wasn’t that simple. All across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, mass movements began to demand control of their own resources, and in many places, these movements managed to gain power; sometimes through guerrilla struggle, sometimes through the ballot box. This led to vicious wars by the European powers—now under the leadership of their upstart protege, the U.S.—to destroy such movements. This struggle, not the so-called Cold War, is what defined the history of post-war interna tional relations.
So far, neo-colonialism has largely been a successful project for the Europeans and the U.S. Africa’s role as provider of cheap, often slave, labor and minerals has largely continued unabated. Poverty and disunity have been the essential ingredients that have allowed this exploitation to continue.
Preventing the “Threat”
Chinese investment in Africa over the past ten years has been building up African industry and infrastructure in a way that may begin to seriously tackle the continent’s poverty. In China, these policies have brought about unprecedented reductions in poverty and have helped lift the country into the position it will shortly hold as the world’s leading economic power. If Africa follows this model, or anything like it, the West’s 500 year plunder of Africa’s wealth may be nearing a close.
To prevent this “threat of African development,” the Europeans and the U.S. have responded the only way they know how—militarily. Four years ago, the U.S. set up a new command and control center for the military subjugation of Africa, called AFRI- COM. The problem for the U.S. was that no African country wanted to host them. Until recently, Africa was the only continent in the world without a U.S. military base, and this fact is, in no small part, due to the efforts of the Libyan government.
Before Gaddafi’s revolution deposed the British-backed King Idris in 1969, Libya had hosted one of the world’s biggest U.S. airbases—Wheelus, located in Tripoli. But within a year of the revolution, it was closed down and all foreign military personnel were expelled. More recently, Gaddafi had been actively working to scuttle AFRI- COM. African governments that were offered money by the U.S. to host a base were typically offered double by Gaddafi to refuse it. In 2008, this ad- hoc opposition crystallized into a formal rejection of AFRICOM by the African Union.
Perhaps even more worrying for U.S. and European domination of the continent were the huge resources that Gaddafi was channeling into African development. The Libyan government was by far the largest investor in Africa’s first satellite, launched in 2007, which freed Africa from $500 million per year in payments to European satellite companies. Libya had also allocated $30 billion for the African Union’s three big financial projects aimed at ending African dependence on Western finance.
The African Investment Bank—with its headquarters in Libya—was to invest in African development at no interest, which would have seriously threatened the International Monetary Fund’s domination of Africa—a crucial pillar for keeping Africa in its impoverished position. Gaddafi was leading the AU’s development of a new gold-backed African currency, which would have cut yet another of the strings that keep Africa at the mercy of the West, with $42 billion already allocated to this project.
Ending Libya’s Trajectory
NATO’s war is aimed at ending Libya’s trajectory as a socialist, anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist nation in the forefront of moves to strengthen African unity and independence. The rebels made clear their virulent racism from the very start of their insurrection, rounding up or executing thousands of black African workers and students.
The African development funds for the projects described above have been “frozen” by NATO countries and are to be handed over to their buddies in the National Transitional Government to spend on weapons for their war.
For Africa, the war is far from over. The African continent must recognize that NATO’s lashing out is a sign of desperation in its inability to stop the inevitable rise of Africa on the world stage. Africa must learn the lessons from Libya, continue the drive towards pan-African unity, and resist AFRICOM. Plenty of Libyans will still be with them when they do.
Dan Glazebrook is a freelance writer and independent analyst.