'Cynical armchair know-it-all pigs, with hands clenched at the bottom of their mean pockets, shouting at the telly that they know better.' That was my favourite quote from news commentary last week. It was uttered by comedian Marcus Brigstocke, on Radio 4's The Now Show. He was talking about comments from members of the public on last week's allegations that part of the money raised for famine relief through Live Aid had been diverted to buy arms for Ethiopian militias.
You yourself may have experienced some of the public reaction. 'You see?' many people seemed to be saying, 'I knew it was all a scam! Africa does it to itself once again. We [meaning the wealthy, non-African First World] should stop helping.' And, in a sense we should. We should have done so a long time ago. We should have stopped 'helping' before we went in and 'civilized' Africa, the way King Leopold of Belgium 'civilized' Congo by killing over ten million people or the practice we helpfully gave them of using amputated human hands as proof of military work done (and the thousands of amputees that left behind).
We should have stopped helping before introducing the 'chicotte', a whip used to 'punish' Africans who did not go along with slave-life. This whip, made of dried hippo hide, was turned to a sharp-edged corkscrew at the end and applied to bare buttocks, where 20 strokes resulted in unconsciousness and 100 strokes would likely kill the ungrateful African being civilized.
We should have stopped before 1904, when Germany put down a rebellion in Namibia by issuing an order to troops that every man of the Herero tribe, armed or unarmed, be shot. We (the generous colonial benefactors) could also have stopped before poisoning their wells and leaving entire communities to die slowly of thirst in the desert (or be bayonetted and clubbed to death with rifle-butts).
We should have stopped before supporting the madder-than-a-bag-of-cut-snakes-on-PCP dictator, Mobutu, after helping him seize power from a democratic but anti-us-helpful-benefactors government in Zaire. We should have stopped before using his image, the one we created, as an excuse for imposing our own capitalist dictatorship in many African states in the 80s. The one in which 'structural adjustment' meant those nations were forced to stop funding public education and our own companies were allowed to devastate their agriculture sector, buy up vast tracts of land for a pittance and privatize water to the point where they actually owned the rain.
Oh I know what the apologists for colonialism will say: we brought roads. We brought order, and anyway, they did far worse things to each other before we came along. All true. But why, then, do you take such a hard line on the 'order' brought to bear in Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran? If you want to make a civilization omelette, after all, you need to kill and torture tens of thousands of brown people, right? The fact is, because we like to forget what has been done in the name of all this 'help' we have given Africa, we genuinely think it was, on the whole, positive. It was not. And it did not stop there.
Today, forest populations are forced off land they have held for centuries so that French, British, Portuguese and Belgian companies can cut down thousand-year-old forests and transport the wood to Europe. A vicious war in Eastern Congo continues, largely because it makes it cheap and easy to export the minerals we need for mobile phones and games consoles. And wealthy countries' security forces continue to run violent and illegal 'anti-terror' operations on African soil. Yes, we really should stop helping.
Good governance and transparency are important. Mistakes will be and have been made. But if we use that to justify an attitude that suggests we stop sharing even the pathetically small amount of our obscene wealth that we currently do with those starving or suffering in Africa, then God is not with us. And I myself agree with Marcus Brigstocke when he calls us 'pitiless b******s'.
Jonathan Langley is a columnist for the Baptist Times, writing on current affairs from a Christian leftist perspective.
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