Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Goodbye to Banda, Mugabe and Africa's Big Men

A couple of days ago, I woke up to this tweet from the much-loved Reverend Richard Coles:

'It is the 20th anniversary of the death of Dr Banda, the only MP from Willesden to have become president of a nation (Malawi). He murdered four of his ministers by having tent pegs driven into their temples and was an Elder of the Church of Scotland.'

Unsurprisingly, the tweet, with all its non-sequiturs -  was followed by a string of facetious responses about tents, pegs, the Old Testament, brain surgery and the church. Twice I crafted pedantic replies attempting to bring some balance to the story, which I immediately deleted, not wishing to take things over-seriously.

I wanted to refer to Banda's struggle to achieve an education in the country which we British had made one of our 'protectorates', his rejection by colonial society and, worse, by missionary hospitals despite his hard-earned medical training and experience and his genuine attachment to both Scotland and England, where he had lived and worked. I wanted to point out how such rebuffs and racism contributed to his becoming the nationalist leader he was, for good as well as for ill - for good there was, among all the lurid evidence of violence, tyranny and rapacity. To this day, Malawians express considerable respect for (Hastings) Kamuzu Banda. We British need to understand this and try to appreciate why that was. If you wish to find out more, read my earlier post Remembering Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Nice man though Richard Coles is, his tweet smacked of White Man's condescension.

It is just coincidence that this minor incident concerning Malawi's first President took place the same week that President Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first President, also became its first ex-President. What do we know, then, about Robert Mugabe? What do we know about Zimbabwe, or rather Southern Rhodesia, as it used to be ? What do we know about the impact of British colonialism on Rhodesia and on Mugabe himself?

The impact of colonialism on Rhodesia

The clue is in that name, Rhodesia. The country, like its northern counterpart, now Zambia, was demarcated by the imperialist Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company (BSAC) in the 1890s. Its foundation was both commercial and ideological. Rhodes dominated the diamond market from his base in South Africa and was attracted by the prospect of mineral mining elsewhere in southern Africa. He also believed that the British were 'the first race in the world'. It was Rhodes who said 'the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is'. As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, he described Africans as 'living in a state of barbarism'. He was one of the architects of the Native Lands Act 1913 which limited them to 10% of the land. Rhodes claimed that 'the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa'.

Through trickery, Rhodes managed to persuade Lobengula, king of the Ndebele of Matabeleland (in what is now Zimbabwe) to let him open mines on his land. When the British colonial office found out, they did nothing. In 1889 Rhodes obtained a charter from the British Government for his British South Africa Company to rule, police, and make new treaties and concessions from the Limpopo River to the great lakes of Central Africa. He attempted to get the concessions in Katanga (in Congo) and Bechuanaland (Botswana), failing in the latter when local kings appealed direct to the British government. His BSAC fought the Ndebele and Shona to gain control of what became Rhodesia. His dream was for the British to govern Africa 'from the Cape to Cairo'.

Rhodes died one of the wealthiest men in the world. His will included a bequest for the development of a Secret Society which would work towards the extension of British rule throughout the world, including emigration from and colonisation by Britain. Clearly, that bequest never became reality, but Rhodes' beliefs and actions and those of other colonisers like him, had already done enough damage, and damage continued over decades.

In Rhodesia, the Land Apportionment Act of 1931, which remained in force for decade after decade  decreed that 58 million acres be reserved for whites and 25 million (later reduced to 1 million) for blacks.  By the time Zimbabwe belatedly achieved its independence in 1981, its 700,000 indigenous farmers occupied 53% of the country's land - the poorest land, unsuitable for large-scale  agriculture. In 1990, only 8% of black farmers owned productive land suitable for commercial farming. The rest of the productive land, 15.5 million hectares, 39% of the total area, was owned by 6,000 commercial white farmers.

Most of these settlers, like Alexandra Fuller's family, had arrived relatively recently, after the end of World War II and in full knowledge of what white rule entailed. White people of modest means and little education could move to Rhodesia and 'live like kings', as colonialists had done in India for centuries. While it may be true that white farmers successfully developed the productivity of their fertile land, their increasing wealth was not shared with the people whose country it was. They made no efforts to develop in the black majority the agricultural and technical skills required to make best use of the land, nor would they sell their land except to other whites, usually those arriving from Britain after the war.

During the early 1960s, most of Britain's colonies achieved independence. In Rhodesia a few brave politicians and activists suffered for their opposition to the overtly racist regime of Ian Smith. However, most white settlers overwhelmingly supported him (one of 'ours', an ex-fighter pilot) and his white minority party. His Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 would have excluded the black majority from power until well into the 21st century, an intolerable proposal.

Robert Mugabe, imprisoned for 10 years by the regime for a 'subversive speech' and even refused permission to go to the funeral of his three-year-old son, in due course led the black guerilla struggle against white rule. While in theory Britain had imposed sanctions against the illegal white-led regime, it did not enforce them with any conviction. After all most of Britain's Conservative Party supported the settlers: 'our kith and kin', as they called them. Surprisingly, it was the pragmatist Margaret Thatcher who eventually took practical action to deal with the impasse, in the interests of the free market.

In due course, talks were held, compromises were made and preindependence elections eventually took place. Mugabe, whose party Zanu-PF won, said afterwards, "I never trusted the British. Never at all. I do not think they meant well towards us...I do not think they wanted a liberation movement, and especially one which I led, to be the victor."

Nevertheless, despite his reservations, Mugabe made a powerful speech of reconciliation.

"The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If we ever look to the past, let us to do so for the lesson the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are inequalities that must never find scope in our political and social system. It could never be a correct justification that because the whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today because they have power."

Unfortunately, and largely because of the intransigence of the settlers, Zimbabwe never went throught the truth and reconciliation process which South Africans in time experienced. Despite Mugabe's refusal to take revenge, most settlers did not take up the offer of reconciliation. They continued to support Smith and white supremacy through further elections. Smith never apologised for his illegal action, although thousands of people had died during the 10-year civil war it triggered. While some settlers may have become marginally more respectful to their African neighbours than before, most however, retained the racist attitudes which had brought them to the country in the first place and which had become entrenched over the years.

However, the settlers had a bolt hole, Britain, which many of them now used. They live among us to this day, probably voting for UKIP and Brexit. The indigenous population, on the contrary, had nowhere else to go. They also owned very little productive land, for the land issue was never properly resolved. Although it is said that Britain provided £2 billion to transfer some land to the indigenous people, it is unclear how much actually did change hands. Britain was cautious about land transfer because of the precedent it might set. The result was that it was Mugabe who carried out these transfers years later to provide recompense for the veterans who fought for independence. They forcibly took over white farms but without the skills and experience which subsistence farming required, let alone commercial enterprises.

In 2002, Francis Sengwe said to the newspaper This Day: "There are a few white people who individually own plots of farmland as big as the size of Imo and Abia states combined. Where is the justice and equity in that? Our parents suffered in the hands of these people. My parents worked in a tobacco farm owned by a white man and we had nothing; in our own country. President Mugabe is only trying to correct some of these imbalances and the British would not allow him to have any peace."

We all know the rest of the bitter story, for example, the violence meted out by Zanu-PF to the people of Matabeleland. Zimbabwe, like all but two of the 54 African countries invented by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, is ethnically divided, with 17 national languages. Many of the current tensions in African countries directly relate to those colonial decisions: think of Nigeria (tension between Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo), Kenya (tension between Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin) and Cameroon (tension between Anglophone west and Francophone east), to name but three. This is not to excuse the violence nor the deaths of 20,000 Ndebele. We do, however, have to understand Britain's contribution to so much that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe. And not just Zimbabwe.

The impact of colonialism on Kenya

Kenya very nearly became White Man's Country, like southern Rhodesia and South Africa. The British colonial government had displaced the Kikuyu from the most fertile land, replacing them with dissolute younger sons of the British aristocracy, who made Happy Valley their playground. The Kikuyu, expelled from their ancestral lands, moved into the lands of the Luo and other smaller tribes. The tensions were still present in this year's elections, which still had their basis in tribal loyalties. Kenya has 42 tribes, with three mutually incomprehensible language groups. Tribes which lived on the border with Uganda are split between the two countries. Debate as to exactly where the border should be continued right up to Idi Amin's day. Families and clans remain divided.

Kenya's white farmers made a fortune during World War II but nevertheless forced down the wages of their black workers. After the war, more settlers came. The slogan was 'Officers to Kenya, men to Rhodesia'. The Kikuyu launched the Mau Mau rebellion, a bitterly fought conflict. The British deployed 12 battalions as well as fighters from other tribal groups. They carpet-bombed the rebels' forest hiding places then shot them down when they emerged. The British set up concentration camps where appalling atrocities took place, including death by beatings, torture and castration. It has taken until now for reparation for these atrocities to be made by our government. The casualty rate by the end of the rebellion included 12,000 Mau Mau supporters, 1,800 African civilians and 3,000 African soldiers and police. How many white settlers were killed? Thirty two.

Unjust expropriation and allocation of land, exploitation of tribal divisions and both overt and implicit racism were some of the key methods which the British used to manage their imperial possessions. These methods have had a longlasting impact on the political situation in many ex-colonies. And Britain was by no means the worst of the colonising nations. Which was the worst? Well, in a competition for lowest ranking, it would be difficult to find any colonialists worse than the Belgians,with the blood of 8 million Congolese on their hands.

The role of the Big Man

An important element in these post-colonial African conflicts is the role of the Big Man, which is how we started this post. I have explained in a separate post how I was surprised by the respect with which Kamuzu Banda is still held in Malawi, despite acknowledgement of his failings. He is rightly seen as the father of his people. He is also respected because of the way in which he stood up to British bullying. In the 1950s, Southern Rhodesia proposed a federation with Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), a highly unpopular move. The latter two countries rightly believed that the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia were hoping to lead the federation and, hence, Central Africa. Banda said that under colonial government, the relationship between Africans and the authorities was that of 'ward and warden', but under Southern Rhodesia it would be one of 'slaves and masters'. Nevertheless, Britain gave way to Southern Rhodesia.  Following violent protests in Nyasaland, a group of young radicals asked Banda to return to lead the resistance and support the independence movement. 

Sadly, the promise of the new country of Malawi was never really fulfilled. Despite the action taken to support ordinary people, the presidency of Kamuzu Banda was characterised by increasing corruption. Thousands of pounds were stolen during his incumbency and even more during those of succeeding presidents. Similar examples of excessive theft from national coffers can be observed in Nigeria, Kenya and, of course, Zimbabwe. Partly this dishonesty may be because the skills required to build a country are not the same as those required to achieve independence. Partly it may be because the traditional role of the Big Man is incompatible with that of a modern head of state.

Many of the first presidents of newly independent African countries were freedom fighters, larger than life characters who could fight for independence but did not necessarily have the skills required to lead their people into a new era. President Museveni of Uganda, another Big Man, is in this mould. He has exploited his reputation as the leader who defeated the regime of Idi Amin and won the subsequent Bush War in order to persuade his people to re-elect him decade after decade. Development, however, has stalled and corruption has become entrenched.

Idi Amin himself was a quintessential Big Man. During our very first week in Uganda, Stuart and I were lectured about what an impressive leader he was by a young man we met in the Kampala market. Amin was nicknamed Dada, or Daddy: another father of the nation. This young man really wanted us to know the respect in which he was held by many of the population, despite his cruel regime. Again, he was held in high regard because of the way he stood up to the British.

The strong man who achieves a position of importance and then provides for the friends, family and community who helped him to get there - 'eating' - is a familiar figure in some African countries. Key values relating to mutual cooperation within the family or social group may undermine the wider social contract expected in modern democratic societies. Our turn to eat by Michela Wrong describes how this pattern of obligations and favours has influenced and damaged political life and society in Kenya. When one considers how new most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are, it is hardly surprising that there are conflicts between the traditional culture of the Big Man who helps his people to 'eat', and modern political systems based on civil codes and legislation.

The role of education

Finally, we need to remember how recently secondary education has been developed in most African countries. Colonial authorities were only too pleased to leave it up to missionaries to provide education, with colonial officers simply supervising rather than managing schools. In Uganda, for example, which has had an established education system for longer than most other countries, the government only founded its first secondary school in 1924. By 1950, the number had increased to three secondary schools, supplemented by mission schools, one or two of which date back to the 1890s.

In Malawi, government financing of schools only began in in 1963 and supported 22 primary schools. Only 35% of children received primary education. The proportion receiving secondary education was infinitesimally small. In 1949 the colonial administration provided two post-primary years for those men who had undertaken military service during the war.  Secondary education was neglected throughout the colonial era and left up to missionaries. In 1963, there were only two church-funded secondary schools, at Blantyre and Zomba in the far south of the country. By independence in 1964 there were four secondary schools, two of which had previously been primary schools, which educated pupils to certificate level. The governments of almost all new African countries had to set up and fund education systems for black children from scratch, a policy preferred by their erstwhile colonial masters, it was said, to ensure that less money was available for defence, particularly in the white minority regimes in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa.

In Rhodesia, publicly-funded education was segregated and favoured white pupils. Whites comprised less than 5% of the population, while their schools received more than half the annual education budget. The teacher-pupil ratio in white schools averaged 1:15. In black schools, the ratio was 1:44. Education for black pupils was mainly provided by missionaries. It was primary education designed to provide the basic literacy and numeracy skills for reading the Bible and becoming effective workers. The secondary curriculum for Africans was restricted to basic vocational training designed to support white society, principally as farm labourers: training in agriculture, carpentry and building. In South Africa that situation persisted with the establishment of separate Bantu education (as described in Down 2nd Avenue).

The  British failed to provide proper secondary and tertiary education for generations of young Africans because the colonial authorities did not consider the possibility that these young people would become the leaders and civil servants of the future. Too much education was considered dangerous as it raised expectations. The British Empire was one on which 'the sun would never set'. But, set it did, after the Africans and Asians who had helped the British to win World War II demanded for themselves the democracy for which they had fought and for which their compatriots had died. However, the result was that these new countries came into being without many of the educated civil servants and politicians which western societies take for granted. Their leaders, people like Banda and Mugabe, had had to struggle for an education. Many of those who wanted to train as doctors or other professionals had to find funding to study abroad.

In Zimbabwe, the right to a free public education was one of the key issues of the seven-year guerrilla war that led to the collapse of white rule. It was a major campaign plank for Mugabe in the 1980 preindependence election. After independence, Mugabe's government increased education funding by 356%, spending more on education than on defence. The number of schools doubled and the number of teachers and students tripled. Many teachers, however, were unqualified and schooling was provided through double-shifting. As in most African countries, families had to pay for fees, uniform and educational materials, a heavy burden for the desperately poor. 

Zimbabwe, already more than twenty years behind those African countries which became independent in the early 1960s, was inevitably going to find it difficult to catch up. Reporting in Britain's tabloids focuses on how the government under Mugabe has mismanaged the country's natural and financial resources. This is true. However, we British have to be careful in our criticisms. In all these sub-Saharan countries we have to ask ourselves how effectively we prepared them for independence. Those leaders whom we humiliated - Banda, Mugabe and others - ended up being enthralled by the power they gained once in office. They burned with the injustices of colonialism and of their rejection by whites. They surrounded theselves with sycophants and became more and more paranoid. They made gross policy errors which they were unable or unwilling to address. Mugabe did not start off as a dictator. Once, he was an African hero. During his first 10 years in power, he transformed the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. 

As Olusegun Adenyiyi puts it, "At the end of the day, whatever may be the other sins of Mugabe, it was the mismanaged land reform, not the fact that he stayed too long in power or that he was a dictator that accounted for the challenge of his last two decades in office fuelled largely from Britain." 

These Big Men may have become monsters, but they were our monsters, British monsters. We made them.

Other posts you may be interested in 

Remembering Hastings Kamuzu Banda - an account of his life and work

Let the people speak - an account of the political make up of Uganda and the European decisions which created the country at the end of the nineteenth century

Promoting girls' education in Kigezi - about the impressive educational work of missionaries in south west Uganda during the early twentieth century


Pictures of Robert Mugabe are being torn down all over Zimbabwe, The Economist, 23 November 2017

Mugabe and me, A personal history of growing up in Zimbabwe, Petina Gabbah, BBC News 25 November 2017

Zimbabwe: If Mugabe had failed, he would be a world darling, Yusuf Serunkuma, Pambazuka News (Weekly forum for social justice in Africa), AllAfrika, 23 November 2017. The article compares the post-colonial histories of Zimbabwe and Uganda, and Mugabe with Idi Amin.

Uganda: After Mugabe, all eyes are on Museveni - how long can he cling on to power?, All Africa, 23 November 2017

Africa: Mugabe, Like Mobutu and Gaddafi, Clung On Knowing He Had to Go, Dauti Kahura, Daily Nation 22 November 2017

Zimbabwe transforms school system, Glenn Frankel, the Washington Post, July 1985

Zimbabwe and the African tragedy, Olusegun Adenyiyi, This Day, 23 November 2017

African literature and history

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden, 2009. A masterly overview of individual countries and of the continent as a whole.

Our turn to eat: the story of a Kenyan whistleblower, Michela Wrong, 2009, an account of bribery and corruption

Don't let's go to the dogs tonight: an African Childhood, Alexandra Fuller 2001, an account of settler life by someone whose family actually settled in Zimbabwe during the war of independence. Her parents had come from colonial backgrounds and the writer describes almost unintentionally and without critique their inherited racism.

A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiongo, 1967, Kenya's foremost writer. The novel is set in 1963, just before Uhuru - independence day. It describes the impact on villagers and rebels of the Mau Mau uprising.

Down 2nd Avenue, Es'kia Mphahlele, 1959, an autobiography depicting the struggles of the writer to gain a proper education and then survive as a teacher in apartheid South Africa.

King Leopold's Ghost, a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild, 1998. A history of how 8 million Congolese were killed by the colonial ambitions of King Leopold of Belgium and the methods the Belgians used to exploit the local population through forced labour, in order to drain the country of its resources.

The Scramble for Africa, Thomas Packenham, 1992. A historical account of how the continent of Africa, still largely unexplored in the 1880s, was carved up by five European countries over a period of 30 years: Britain (which got most), France, Germany, Belgium and Portugal.

The African Child, Camara Laye,1959. A wonderful autobiographical account of a child growing up in Guinea in the 1930s and 1940s.

Things fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, 1958. One of the great African novels in English. The clash between the values of traditional Nigerian culture and those of the colonial rulers. It contrasts pre- and post-colonial life.

Malawi - History background - Education Encyclopaedia educationstateuniversity.com

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