Author: Natraj Vairavan, Graphics: Bella Aharonian
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The BRB Bottomline:
Even after their purported decolonization, many African countries face economic imperialism from their former colonial powers. Leaders who try to break away from the economic stranglehold imposed by Western powers are often met with assassination.
If you think that Western imperialist powers have actually relinquished control over their former African colonies, think again. Even after many Western nations supposedly granted their colonies independence in the mid-20th century, they still continue to exploit the vast mineral and natural wealth of Africa and exert de facto influence over the continent’s financial systems. As such, many African leaders who attempted to enact measures that are seen as threatening from a Western viewpoint—namely, policies that aim to attain economic independence from the West—have been met with resistance and assassinated by Western powers. This article examines the assassinations of leaders from three former African colonies—Togo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya—and the subsequent effects on their economies.
CFA & Togo
The Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA) franc is the currency that France has coerced 14 African nations—including Togo, Guinea, and more of its former colonies—to use as their form of legal tender. The Bretton Woods Agreement in 1945 required many countries, including France, to peg their currency, or set a fixed exchange rate, to the U.S. dollar. The U.S. dollar became the world’s new reserve currency, thus greatly devaluing the French franc. In an attempt to combat this devaluation, France set up the CFA franc, a currency set at a fixed exchange rate with the French franc, as a proxy hedge. Although the introduction of the CFA franc was an effective measure that succeeded in stabilizing French inflation, it unfortunately also paved the way for the further economic exploitation of former French colonies in Africa. For starters, according to the terms of the Bretton Woods Agreement, CFA nations have had to deposit 50% of their nation’s reserves in France’s Treasury, effectively transferring half of their economic agency into the hands of France. Furthermore, the CFA franc was devalued by a factor of 100% against the French franc, which resulted in increased French purchasing power in African countries using the CFA franc. While these measures might have initially boosted the economies of these nations due to rising exports coming from key economic sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture, benefits for African countries were short-lived; by the mid-1990s, French monetary policy imposed on African nations eventually led to drastic spikes in inflation in the African countries involved.
In response to the imposition of harmful French international policy on Togo as a solution to France’s domestic issues, Sylvanus Olympio, Togo’s president from 1958 to 1963, tried to institute the Togolese franc as an independent currency of Togo, as well as a Central Bank of Togo. Before he could finish implementing these changes, however, French-trained Togolese soldiers assassinated him in 1963, and Togo’s new French-backed dictator kept the country in the CFA system under a de-facto French regime.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Like France, Belgium also has a history of meddling with the economic affairs of its former African colonies. Two weeks after what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, Katanga, its southernmost province, declared itself an independent nation. Intending to capitalize on the vast natural resources and mineral wealth of Katanga, Belgium backed the Katangan rebels with mercenaries in the hopes that the rich resources of the region could then be controlled by a Belgian-ran puppet regime.
Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected president of the Congo at the time, was unequivocally opposed to Katanga’s attempted secession due to his aspiration for a united Congo—which was driven by his belief that it was a critical part of keeping the mineral resources of the area from being exploited by Western powers. After the U.N. rejected his plea for military support to quell the Katangan secession, he then turned to the Soviet Union for help. This move angered Belgium as well as the U.S. due to concerns that the Congo would become a communist nation after depending heavily on the Soviet Union. As a result, Lumumba was detained by Belgian, American, and U.N. authorities, only to be summarily executed and replaced by Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator ruling from 1965 to 1997.
In addition to Togo and the DRC, Libya is another notable example of an African nation that had its internal affairs interfered with by Western nations. Muammar Gaddafi, former leader of Libya, was assassinated for trying to champion African economic independence over foreign reliance on Western nations by instituting the African Union, or an African Central Bank, and establishing an independent African currency backed by gold. According to a leaked email to Hillary Clinton from her advisor, Sydney Blumenthal, “143 tons of gold, and a similar amount in silver” that the Libyan Central Bank held was to be used to create a “pan-African currency based on the Libyan gold Dinar” and was “designed to provide the Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French franc (CFA).” Here, Blumenthal details to Clinton Libya’s plan to create a gold-backed African central bank. The idea of an African central bank sent the West into disarray for two main reasons. Firstly, a new gold-backed currency would challenge the international dominance of the dollar, as many African and Arab nations participating in the new currency system would no longer use the dollar as their reserve currency in favor of the new pan-African currency. In fact, the French President at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, even went as far as to say that Libya would “be a threat to the financial security of mankind,” suggesting that he felt threatened by a potential upheaval of the global economic status quo. Secondly, the new currency challenged France’s economic control over its former colonies because it would provide CFA colonies with an alternative currency to the CFA Franc. In his email, Blumenthal references this threat to France’s economic control over Africa as a contributing reason for Sarkozy’s French attack on Libya, in addition to other factors such as greater control over Libya’s oil production.
In conjunction with the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 in Libya—which increased civil unrest and empowered radical terrorist groups in the region—Gaddafi’s vision for Africa and its potential ramifications for the West was more than enough for Western officials to justify and propel an attack on Libya that subsequently removed Gaddafi from power.
In attempts to justify these assassinations, Western powers have cited humanitarian reasons or rationalized that their actions would be better economically for the African nation in question. While there may be limited validity in these arguments, these alleged motivations are mere excuses for the exploitation of businesses and natural resources in African nations, all while hiding under a guise of benevolence and morality.
Countries such as the U.S. have tried to justify their assassination plots by stating that they were for humanitarian purposes. An example of such a rationalization is the case of Libya, where the perpetrators behind the assassination claimed that it was motivated by humanitarian reasons. Admittedly, Gaddafi had committed numerous human rights violations by detaining, mutilating, and publicly hanging political opposers—simply put, he was an authoritarian dictator. However, it is critical to understand that he was not assassinated due to humanitarian reasons but rather for his ideas regarding African economic independence and his goal to break the shackles of Western control over the African financial system. Numerous political scientists and figures in academia support the idea that Gaddafi was assassinated as a result of the West’s greed for economic hegemony and natural resources. In fact, to this day, the location of Libya’s gold and silver reserves is not publicly disclosed, thus preventing the public from being able to hold the government accountable for its management of national resources. The key powers in both de-jure and de-facto control—many of them Western—can thereby make economic decisions—decisions that have huge implications for the ordinary citizens of Libya—unilaterally and without necessary consideration of how they would impact the experiences of the Libyan people.
Even assuming that the assassination of Gaddafi happened solely on the basis of humanitarianism, the U.S. still ironically left Libya in a worse state. The assassination created a power vacuum in Libya for numerous political and military factions to take advantage of—one notable example of which is ISIS. According to the University of Texas at San Antonio Professor Mansour El-Khikia, the current condition of infrastructure, law, order, and poverty in Libya have deteriorated—in fact, many Libyans wish that Gaddafi were still in power. Compared to the state of anarchy that Libya suffers from today, many feel as though Gaddafi’s Libya felt more secure and offered a higher quality of life. Under his rule, Libya launched many poverty reductions and development programs such as the Great Man-Made River project—a social project that delivered water to all parts of Libya and increased agricultural production, causing malnourishment to fall below 5%. In spite of his efforts, in 2010 the United Nations Development Program declared Libya a high-development country in both the Middle Eastern and North African regions.
The story of Libya is similar to that of the Congo. According to Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese scholar who specialized in studying Lumumba’s history, Western international intervention is what set the foundation for two civil wars in the Congo in addition to major economic instability—unfortunate developments which still result in residual issues today. Time and time again, Western nations use the “humanitarian” excuse to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Even in recent years, America has attempted to justify military intervention in countries like Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and more by citing humanitarian concerns; however, the story often ends in the same way, with the invaded country experiencing declines in quality of life—marked by decreases in stability, and increases in poverty and welfare.
In addition, many Western leaders try to rationalize their foreign economic policies with regard to Africa by stating they have the affected nation’s best interests at heart. For example, many proponents of the CFA claim that the currency offers economic stability to these less-developed nations. During a visit to the Ivory Coast in 2019, Emmanuel Macron claimed that France “only [wanted] to help her brothers and sisters to succeed and to help this African youth to conquer its future”; however, to this day, 11 of the 14 CFA nations are deemed “least developed” by the UN Human Development Index—an index that takes into account factors such as GDP and business freedom.
On the other hand, keeping the CFA system in place allowed for the French to buy valuable African natural resources and goods on the international market at extremely low prices—casting doubts on France’s supposed motive of compassion. Furthermore, any attempt to justify this blatant price control by saying that France is doing it for the economic benefit of African nations by promoting international trade is rooted in neo-colonialism. It is an argument fundamentally based on ideas of European paternalism, or the idea that the exploitation of Africans and the restriction of their economic freedoms are somehow beneficial to them. For one, Sarkozy’s reaction to Libya’s proposed pan-African bank shows that France clearly does not have the CFA nations’ best interests at heart. But, even if France were genuinely motivated by the interests of the CFA nations, its actions show that they do not believe that its former colonies are capable of resolving their own political and economic issues—and that France needs to play the “savior” by interfering in their affairs.
Similarly, Lumumba’s assassination is another case of Western imperialist powers going to great lengths to maintain their economic stranglehold on their former African colonies. Lumumba was one of Africa’s most outspoken critics of imperialism, a man who dreamed of uniting the Congo as a democratic nation devoid of foreign interference, a visionary who wished to use the Congo’s rich mineral resources to help all of Africa—and most importantly, a strong leader in a position to get it all done. As a result, many scholars such as Nzongola-Ntalaja fervently argue that he was assassinated over Western greed for mineral resources, which is another prime example of how Western powers continue to refuse to let African nations practice any sort of agency over their own wealth. Although the Belgian government has formally apologized for the role that they played in the assassination of Lumumba, they have not stated the exact motivations as to why the assassination took place.
In no way does this article aim to argue that the economic policies these African leaders tried to implement would be necessarily beneficial to their countries’ economies—they could very well have had negative consequences. However, African nations should have the agency to experiment with and institute the economic policies they think would benefit them without any interference from Western nations. In the example of the Congo, Western intervention came almost immediately after its independence and didn’t even give them a fair shot at self-determination. The West, and specifically America, prides itself on providing its citizens with the freedom to make their own choices. Thus, their ideals become extremely hypocritical when they refuse to let go of their tight grip on Africa, ensuring that implicit Western pressure will shape Africa’s decisions about their economy and natural resources—all while espousing supposed ideas of self-reliance, individualism, and freedom. How can the West continue to champion the ideas of rights and freedoms that they were built upon while, in turn, denying them to developing nations in Africa?
This economic independence and freedom is a large piece of the puzzle of international cooperation that is currently missing. In the current status quo of international affairs, the businesses in these African countries suffer because they are subjected to stringent economic restrictions and oversight from Western nations. Moreover, the natural resources that could be sold and used by businesses in these nations to aid critical development are instead redirected back towards businesses in the West, allowing Western businesses to profit off the backs of African countries, which continue to suffer in an endless cycle they cannot break.
If Western nations truly desire to aid African nations from an economic standpoint, they must encourage the organic development of new businesses in Africa, thereby causing a huge rise in the employment of Africans. This, in turn, allows the African people to spend their income in a free market of goods and services. The invisible hand can then do the work: consumers can acquire the products they need, such as food, water, and other necessities, and the businesses earn a profit to keep running and pumping the economy. This crucial economic cycle is then bolstered by the creation and support of new businesses, resulting in a sustainable feedback loop, and so this is the policy we must strive to achieve, not one that exploits the natural resources in African countries or imposes a new currency on them. And perhaps, in turn—and even ironically—the West can reap the rewards of this new system by gaining valuable new allies and trade partners.
Even after independence, African nations have been met with economic regulation. African nations deserve full economic independence and freedom and should utilize their natural resources to benefit themselves, not colonial powers. The assassinations of prominent figures in Africa by the hands of Western nations such as France, Belgium, and the U.S. have left a damaging legacy in these nations and have caused them to suffer from economic instability, corruption, and civil wars.
- Western imperialist powers may have technically relinquished control of their former African colonies, but in actuality, continue to exert de-facto control of their colonies.
- One prominent example of de-facto control is present in Togo, as seen with the case of the CFA franc.
- In the DRC, Western powers attempted to exert control through Belgian-funded Katangan rebels.
- Libya tried to create a pan-African bank backed by gold, which would have threatened the global dominance of the U.S. dollar. As a result, Gaddafi was removed from power.
- Western powers often cite excuses relating to humanitarianism and economic welfare as rationalization for their international policy regarding former African colonies.
- Many of these arguments are deeply rooted in economic paternalism, the idea that coercive acts conducted at the discretion of the Western nation are ultimately necessary to the well-being and development of the colonies involved.
- Economic independence should be granted to African nations, which may ironically end up being more beneficial to Western nations compared to their previous policies of exploitation.