Moreover, corruption is more a consequence, and less a cause, of underdevelopment. Poor countries, because they’re poor, pay meager salaries to government officials. This increases the likelihood officials will stoop to corruption to pad their paltry incomes. And limited government budgets mean there are few resources to prevent graft.
But Obama’s concern about corruption has little to do with its role in hindering development, and everything to do with safeguarding the investments of US banks, corporations and wealthy US citizens. US investors don’t want to invest their capital in countries where the returns can be stolen by corrupt government officials, any more than they want to invest in countries in which there is a high risk of expropriation by nationalist or socialist governments following paths of independent development. A major foreign policy function of the US president is to create safe and stable overseas environments in which US businesses and investment can thrive. Corruption is inimical to that goal.
On top of corruption, conflict based on religious, ethnic and tribal differences is also keeping Africa poor, according to Obama.
“We all have many identities, of tribe and ethnicity, of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century.”
It has long been a practice of imperialist countries to foment ethnic and religious tension as a means of keeping oppressed people fighting each other rather than their oppressor. The ancient Romans called it divide and conquer. The British elevated it to an art form, and used it to undergird their empire. It has always served to: (1) disrupt and disorganize a united front of the oppressed against the oppressor; and (2) to provide a humanitarian justification for imperialist countries to continue their domination of subordinate countries.
The imperialist country must maintain a guiding hand, it’s said, otherwise the ethnic and religious tensions that roil beneath the surface will spill over into open warfare. The massacres in Rwanda have served the useful purpose for the West of reinforcing the imperialist idea that Africans are ready on the flimsiest pretext to go on bloody rampages out of atavistic tribal bloodlust. Exploitation, oppression, unequal access to critical resources, and foreign meddling: none of these causes of conflicts in Africa figure in Western accounts. Instead, the causes of war are to be understood to originate in irrational hatred. And irrational hatred, the narrative goes, is best held in check by Western powers.
While Obama attributed Africa’s poverty to corruption and tribalism, he also, indirectly, and unintentionally, pointed to one of the true reasons for Africa’s underdevelopment: one-way free trade. “Wealthy nations,” he said “must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way,” which says the doors of wealthy nations are not open in a meaningful way today. And they’re not, and never have been. Despite African doors being pried open, usually by force, threat or economic coercion by wealthy nations, the doors of Western countries have only ever been open to Africa on terms that benefit the West. And that’s because there has never really been anything Africa could do about the unfair bargain the West has forced upon it, except to unite and pursue a path of self-reliant development, drawing upon its own immense resources and seeking out critical machine and industrial inputs from sympathetic countries. It didn’t have the military power to force the doors of Western Europe and North America open, as the West forced its doors open. Nor could it use the tools of economic coercion to exact concessions from wealthy countries, for African economies, having been adapted to the requirements of their colonial masters in the period of colonial rule, and never having escaped this legacy, have typically been based on agricultural monoculture. What could African countries do — stop all exports of groundnuts, tobacco or bananas to force the West to open its doors? Doing so would hardly hurt the West, but would deprive Africa of the foreign exchange it uses to import a multitude of goods it depends on the West to provide. To put it succinctly: the West has always had Africa over a barrel.
There are two other egregious misconceptions that Obama articulated in his Accra speech: (1) That “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade…” and (2) that “African-Americans…have thrived in every sector of (US) society.”
The decline in Zimbabwe’s economy since 2000 is attributed by US officials to Robert Mugabe’s mismanagement, an explanation amplified by the Western media and treated by both the media and Western publics as indisputable. The year 2000 marked the beginning of Zimbabwe’s fast track land redistribution program. The goal of the program was to reclaim prized agricultural land stolen by force by European settlers. The land was to be redistributed to indigenous farmers. And it has been. Zimbabwe has democratized land ownership patterns, distributing land previously owned by 4,000 farmers, mostly of British origin, to 300,000 previously landless families, of African origin.
In more sophisticated analyses, the root cause of Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties is understood to lie in the disruption of agriculture caused by land reform. According to this analysis, had the Mugabe government not pressed ahead with its aggressive land reform program and settled for the sedate, glacial affair that characterized land redistribution prior to 2000 — and which has marked agrarian reform elsewhere on the continent — Zimbabwe would not be in the straitened circumstances it finds itself today.
Until 2000, land reform moved at a snail’s pace. As part of a negotiated settlement with Britain, the independence movement agreed to a willing buyer-willing seller arrangement, whereby land could only be acquired for redistribution if the owner wanted to sell. This restriction was to remain in effect for the first 10 years of independence. Since most farmers of European origin were unwilling to sell, little land was available to redistribute.
Eventually Harare was free to expropriate land from farmers who didn’t want to sell. Britain had agreed to help compensate expropriated farmers but renounced the agreement, denying it was ever under any obligation to fund land reform. Since Harare didn’t have the funds to pay for the land it needed for redistribution, it had two choices: Carry on as is, with land redistribution proceeding at a glacial pace, or expropriate the land and demand that expropriated farmers seek compensation from London, which after all, was ultimately responsible for the theft of the land and had promised to underwrite the land reform program. The Mugabe government chose the later course, setting off alarm bells in Western capitals. Mugabe couldn’t be allowed to get away with uncompensated expropriation of productive property.
Analyses that attributed Zimbabwe’s economic disaster to mismanagement overlooked the reaction of Washington to the Mugabe government’s lese majesty against private property. For not only did the turn of the century mark the beginning of fast-track land reform, it also marked the passage of the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZDERA.)
ZDERA is not a regime of targeted sanctions against individuals, as many believe. Sanctions against individuals do exist, but ZDERA is something altogether different.