The Worst of Africa

Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, details his ultimate trip, he says, to Africa. Theroux loves Africa, as many do, but he is ruthless in showing us the worst of it. In his estimation of the worst of the worst, Angola is right up there.

Or maybe it’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as Dan Snow reports for the BBC. Or Somalia, or… In a continent vast enough to hold the US, China, India, much of Europe, and more, there are some 55 nations, and more of them than is reasonable to expect are in ghastly condition.

We can thank European colonialism for most of this. Quite aside from the slave trade, from which several black African tribes got as rich as white slave traders, virtually every European country with African colonies behaved abominably and brutally, cheating and mistreating every African they dealt with. It’s no wonder that the end of colonialism came violently in so many places. And then the liberators almost immediately became the new oppressors. Like Mugabe, who freed the thriving nation of Zimbabwe and then drove it into the ground.

We can thank colonialism
for what’s wrong in Africa.

Observers of the African politic speak of the curse of natural resources. The reason is that natural resources generate vast sums of money that politicians find impossible to resist. Virtually all of this national income goes into the Swiss accounts of corrupt politicians, and none to the people. In the cases of Angola and DR Congo this is quite literal; the people get absolutely nothing from the great national wealth.

I bring this up to encourage thinking about what is happening in the US right now. That’s not to say that the US is actually comparable to what we see in Angola and DR Congo, but it illustrates the direction we are going. There are two main reasons we are not comparable to those nations. Corruption, while certainly present in the US, is nothing like African corruption. Corruption in many African nations is endemic; at its worst it involves every politician, every cop, every soldier, and practically anyone with a job. With national wealth from natural resources, the money coming into the country gets as far as those in power, and there it stops.

The curse of natural resources

But the difference in corruption is mostly one of degree. For at least four decades, one change after another in the US has increased the flow of money to the rich, and away from everyone else. All of it perfectly legal, of course, just as it often is with the big African corruption involving the country’s top crooks. Here at home, we give those who have no conceivable need of more money vast additional sums, which have made them incomparably rich, while the general economic health of everyone else has eroded away, little by little.

The other big difference is that despotic African leaders are much more inclined to use bloody brutality with their police and military forces to maintain their power and assure that the poor stay poor. The mega-rich in the US use Congress, which they essentially own, bit by bit buying new laws and regulations that favor themselves. The result is no different than decrees by African despots.

Compare Africa to what is
happening in the US right now.

Cases of illegitimate power use involving the police as well as the military are not usually as bad at home as they are in Africa, rarely involving the murder of significant numbers of citizens. But there is a weekly parade of incidents in which an unarmed and harmless black man or youth is simply murdered, by either the police or by some white guy, with few repercussions, if any. It has been worse. Only after WWII did innocent black men gradually cease being the guest of honor at lynching parties, which were in fact actual parties, where white racists gathered to have some fun murdering an innocent man. But here again, the difference is one of degree.

Nor has our record with peaceful marches and demonstrations provided much reason to believe that the police and army are actually under control.

The record of police brutality is quite dismal.

The record of police brutality against demonstrators exercising their constitutional right to protest, and breaking no law, is quite dismal. It often involves police who gratuitously use pepper spray on people obviously of no threat, such as older women, or children. Who trap unarmed, peacefully marching people, then attack them with truncheons. Who arrest people breaking no law, often quite brutally, knocking them to the ground, then kneeling on their neck, or stepping on their head. By fastening plastic handcuffs so tight they cut off circulation, which can easily cause permanent nerve damage. By tossing wounded people in a cell and ignoring them for days, not allowing help for their wounds, withholding vital medications, ignoring their legal rights. It goes on and on. When some of these cases do get to court, the actions of the police are often found so egregious that cities are forced to pay millions of dollars in reparations.

So maybe the comparison with some of Africa’s worst isn’t so far-fetched. It’s certainly a direction we don’t want to go, but that’s exactly what we are doing.


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