Are we in danger of misusing the neo-colonial card?

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A week ago I engaged in twitter conversation with my fellow Ugandans on the issue of neo-colonialism in Uganda.

The conversation kicked off with this tweet;

Why is it still “easy” for most foreigners to come to Uganda, ably set up successful businesses, when locals with the flair & acumen can’t?

— Twino Kwesiga (@MR_TWINO) November 16, 2013

As we delved deeper into the reasons why this is, the neo-colonialism card came out. My counterparts argued that unless you are in constant contact with the foreigners in Uganda you cannot appreciate the impact of neo-colonialism.

My stance on the matter was that, the situation my fellow Ugandans had described was not down to neo-colonialism per se but instead privilege. I argued that governments all over the world pursue development strategies that include attracting foreign investors, however that they also have a duty to create an environment that fosters the creation of local enterprises and innovation. As far as I could work out, this is not the case in Uganda.  We have  instead ended up with a system that privileges one  lot of investors/business over another and this has quite rightly caused resentment.

Uganda is not alone in this regard, a similar situation has been reported in Zambia and Zimbabwe leading to the government in Zimbabwe introducing an indegenisation policy. The last time Uganda tried a similar policy,  Idi Amin expelled the people who were running the economy  and we know how the outcome of that policy.

Since that exchange on Twitter, I have wondered whether we as Africans are at risk of misusing the neo-colonial card.

What is neo-colonialism?
My understanding of neo-colonialism is derived from the work of Kwame Nkrumah who is credited with the original work that helps us understand and articulate neo-colonialism. In 1965 Nkrumah argued that Europe had annexed African countries to continue its colonial tendencies, be it subtly. He explained that:

“The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state, which is subject to it, is in theory independent and has all the outward trappings of the international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (cited in Shaw T, 1982)

The question that faces us today is whether African economies are still controlled from the Metropolitans of the Global North leaving African leaders with no scope to influence their economic strategies and the extent to which Africa’s relationship with the Global North is exploitative

The answer to this question is complex and requires a great deal of qualification. For instance, the imposition of conditions that favour desired outcomes for global corporations and western institutions in Africa illustrates an imbalance of power and leaves Africa in a “take or leave it” situation. By implication this creates an exploitative situation that gives credence to the neo-colonial charge

A useful example of such imposition is the European Union’s (EU) policy of incorporating African economies into the global system which has left Africa in a situation where it has to open up its markets but is unable compete on equal terms due to a lack of technological and infrastructural advancement as well as the hierarchical nature of the system divided into the rich industrialised core and the poor mostly agricultural periphery. The effect of this, is that whilst transnational companies and by extension the EU have benefitted from this practice, the ordinary man in Africa has not.

On the other hand African governments and institutions are culpable with respect to reinforcing neo-colonial tendencies. These governments inherited a system that privileged them as elites and they have had at least 50 years to change it but most resist that change. Because of this, commentators argue that African politicians are in politics to get rich and not necessarily to serve. They do this by misappropriating of aid/development funds as well as Africa’s natural resources.

For instance in 2005, officials at the Ministry of Health in Uganda, and project managers misappropriated $1.5 Million of Global Fund that was given to Uganda to mitigate TB, Malaria, and HIV/AIDS (Aidspan 2008). And in 2012 the employees of the Office of the Prime Minister in Uganda, diverted over £9 million that was meant for health care facilities in Northern Uganda into their personal accounts . More recently in what has been termed “Cashgate” billions of dollars have disappeared from government of Malawi’s coffers.

And then there is the issue of poor tax collection in African countries which leaves governments unable to provide social services or infrastructure programmes. The EU and other donor agencies operate a budget support programme that helps mitigate this shortage by transferring financial resources directly to the treasuries of African governments. In practise this compounds the poor tax collection situation, meaning that African governments with poor tax collection rates have no incentive to improve, has implications for accountability and its been argued that it encourages corruption

Finally there is the misappropriation of the natural resources of minerals, oil etc, by the ruling elite. When resources are not used for the benefit of all citizens and instead held in the hands of a few inequalities occurs.

Can we honestly blame all of this on neo-colonialism? I would argue not. Equally, I am not saying that neo-colonialism does not exist rather that we cannot explain away our governments’ shortcomings including greed, corruption etc with the neo-colonial paintbrush and indeed to do so would be doing ourselves a disservice.

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