Surrounded – an ethnography of new colonialism

ROAPE contributor Yusuf Serunkuma asks if the pillage we are witnessing on the African continent—mostly from the 1980s-onwards—is worse than the exploitation of the 1884-1960s, where is the resistance? Serunkuma writes that even after decolonisation has been achieved (the academy decolonised, stolen artefacts returned, Rhodes, and others, fall), Africa will remain an impoverished and looted continent. The reason for this absurd state of affairs is that the African intelligentsia still struggles to see and expose the performative, informal, localized, and seemingly benevolent manifestation of new colonialism.

By Yusuf Serunkuma

A recent study put the pillage of Africa at US$152 trillion dollars lost between 1960-2010 from just unequal exchange (consider that the US economy is just $25 trillion dollars annually). With 70% of products in Europe and North America coming directly or indirectly from “formerly” colonised places, clearly Kwame Nkrumah was visionary in calling neo-colonialism, more dangerous than the old form of colonialism.

Yet why are Africans seemingly content to magnify and celebrate otherwise small things such as black faces in office; so-called electoral democracies; some native capitalists; associations with former colonisers; football, the English language, wifi, and the penetration of European consumer ostentation? Even when West Africa remain under direct French colonialism—as recently, succinctly explored by Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla—why is there no concerted effort by Africans to liberate the 14 countries of West Africa as happened during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, or the liberation struggles in Mozambique.

My contention is that this state of affairs—of indifference, acquiescence, complacence, comprador-ism, and false happiness—is a product of carefully choreographed game, which must be the focus of the African intelligentsia.

Continued calls for “decolonisation,” are captured in noble demands such as “reparations,” “decolonising knowledge production” or “decolonising the academy.” Progressive hashtags including #RhodesMustFall, #CadaanStudies (or #WhiteStudies) or advocacy for collaborations between western scholars and Africa-based scholars are all good. But are terribly bereft of an actual decolonisation agenda. They do not make the new colonialism visible enough in its minute performative everyday details.  Look, even after these were to be achieved (the academy is decolonised, stolen artefacts returned, collaborations improved, Rhodes fell), Africa will remain an impoverished and looted continent.

Nkrumah’s vivid and prophetic 1965, Neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism is detailed in its description of the ways in which the coloniser will continue exploiting the continent. But the text has struggled to highlight the otherwise, “performatively friendlier” techniques through which pillage is executed.  And the genius of New Colonialism has been the power to seamlessly fetishize itself and endlessly mutate like an amoeba, appearing to align itself with the interests of the colonised.

There is a great deal of scholarship about the ruins of structural adjustment especially how the colonisers—through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—returned just 30 years after independence, preached and enforced privatisation and bought back (often extremely cheaply) or oversaw the utter ruin of all those things upon which any economy thrives—and upon which Africans were building themselves. While all this is well-known, there is a way the so-called ‘market-led economics’ have developed, taken on a new more disguisable life, convincing entire populations that African poverty is of Africa’s own making, a product of not just laziness but a failure to see opportunity and grab it:  Stereotypes such as “Africans are unable to do business” (because they lack business skill or are simply greedy), “Africans are unable to see opportunities” proliferate and inform many interventionist projects, both by government but more so by western interventionist organisations. There are incredible amounts of “education” and “self-help” programmes, and offers to start ups on the continent. Innumerable NGO intend to “teach” Africans ways of overcoming poverty, and competing in a free-market world inundate the African continent.

In truth, all this is nonsense, depoliticised, and deftly crafted as robust intervention. Because nothing has changed. The reason for this absurd state of affairs is that the African intelligentsia still struggles to see, let alone, expose the performative, informal, localized, and the seemingly benevolent manifestation of New Colonialism.  The devil is in its everyday forms that are subtle and seemingly gracious towards the Africans.

While the old colonialism was known for brutality, violence, whiteness, annexation, murder, annihilation, and absolute direct racism, this new order is known—or actually unknown—for an entirely different sets of performative practices. With the old order, the Native did not need to have a PhD nor a masters degree to see it. Everyone saw it and resistance was a natural involuntary response. These performative practices of the new colonialism range from the seemingly innocent and benevolent ones, to the hardcore structured ones, which are also often negotiated not only behind closed doors (and often presented in the language of security) but also without the spectacle of violence. They appear benign and mutually agreed. “This is the best we could get,” the African half-educated elite concludes. In moments where the elite is willingly conscripted, and is aware of the cronyism, they are made to see their condition as a helpless one: “what can we do?” they ask in resignation. Thus, we are witnessing a proliferation of a comprador industry where entire populations often knowingly or unknowingly are turned into accomplices in their own exploitation.

Friendly agents

As opposed to the men in short khakis carrying riffles, and ordering Natives about, our new colonisers are dressed in designer suits—normally with white shirts and red or navy-blue neckties—and are ever smiling from left to right. They are our friends and we hang out with them.  We eat with them; we visit their houses and they visit ours.  While most of them could be white, a good number of them are black. While some aren’t racist in the overt sense, the majority of them are not racist at all. We even marry from them, and they marry from amongst us. Take for example, there are no ‘European or White Only’ neighbourhoods nor restaurants.  This colonial distancing of the colonised and coloniser is now embedded in the prices of things (rent and foods), and emoluments of colonial labour.

Increasingly the continent has taken on a class appearance. So, the new coloniser lives an entirely exclusive neighbourhood, which is not necessarily closed off to the colonised (through gates, permits and any other such barricades)—and could actually be visited—but structurally shut off. Members of the colonised group, with the financial muscle are absolutely welcome to reside in these otherwise, posher, and formerly white neighbourhoods.  But the cost is higher for this native, than the new coloniser who is structurally enabled by the neo-colonial organisation that sent them.

Continuing with our example, when sent to Africa on performatively soft colonial missions—ambassadorial, foundation work, agencies, consultancies, or simple fieldwork—agents are given special salary grades or special upkeep (and depending on where they go on the continent, “danger money”). It does not matter whether they are doing the same work as the Natives; the native will be paid less. It is often argued that this special emolument caters for the “inconvenience” of working abroad. While I do not begrudge this argument, it should be baffling that remuneration remain huge even when the life these so-called expats enjoy in Africa (with all the cheaply available organic foods, and friendly souls around them) is cheaper and far better than their blighted, miserable capitalistic lives back home. With these often-humongous salaries, the new coloniser can access an exclusive lifestyle, including residence in elite suburbs of African capitals: Kololo and Muyenga in Kampala, Nyarutarama and Kiyovu in Kigali; Karen and Westlands in Nairobi; and Masaki and Oyster Bay in Dar-es-Salaam etc.  In West Africa, it is East Legon in Accra and Banana, and Victoria islands in Lagos. This is not simply a function of class—as many scholars of neoliberalism would wish to contend—but an old colonial model reproducing itself through class.

This is not class, but colonialism.

Lords and ladies of poverty

It is worth noting that while a good number of the new colonisers believe in the new colonial mission of extraction—and are aggressive in its execution— the majority of them are simply workers, simple conscripts. Yet they have been convinced that their work in Africa actually promotes the well-being of the Africans. Thus, they are handed seemingly benevolent projects such as “promoting democracy,” “watching human rights,” working on financial inclusion, teaching a culture of ‘savings’, protecting the rights of refugees, environmental conservation, fighting hunger and disease, protection of the rights of women, improving access to medical care, etc.

The causes of these problems are never exhaustively discussed—and connected to the extractive machinary on the continent—but are simply stereotyped: Africans lack this, Africans lack that, and thus intervention this, and intervention that. Even when discussed, the approach is often pre-determined and the conscripts are only required to execute it, not attempt to reform it. And since the problems actually exist and visible even to the blind, the ordinary person, the sufferer of these problem, appreciates whoever offers any anaesthetics. The very efficient conscripted giver (the foundation worker, ambassadorial staff) finds pleasure in relieving pain. The process is then repeated, as the new colonisers and their myriad emissaries reproduce themselves through constant offers of anaesthesia to otherwise complex conditions.

Ever wondered why expats in European/North American agencies and foundations working in Africa are so committed to offering aid and grants, endlessly “calling for proposals” even when the things they have supported for years have never improved?

Agencies and foundations remain active in the areas of human rights, democracy, public health, education, business empowerment, etc. Why do they continue supporting NGOs and CSOs even when they know things are only getting out of hand? There is a double standard here. Because while for Europe and North America, it is work of the state to create an environment in which people thrive (democracy, business inclusion, human rights, etc.), yet they argue these things can be improved by non-governmental work on the African continent. Why?

Double standards

Consider business empowerment in Germany as an example: a start-up business starts paying taxes only after it has made €20,000 in profits. In this same country, interest rates on loans might only peak at 1.5%. These things are determined by government, and not a single NGO can fix them. It is the same banks in Europe and North America that dominate the markets in Africa. Sadly, while these same banks are opening benevolent foundations on the African continent, they are endlessly pressuring African leaders not to push for lower interest rates. And the reason? They have trust issues with the African borrower.

When Kenyan in 2016 “capped commercial-loan rates at four percentage points above the central bank’s policy rate” The Economist reported, “the move backfired. Bankers slashed credit to small businesses, reasoning that the rewards of lending no longer matched the risks.” The Kenyan central bank responded by scrapping the cap in 2018. This was an actual act of sabotage on the Kenyan economy. The point here is that the sleek neo-colonialism of banks is enabled by a discourse that pivots towards claims such as “Africa’s poor saving culture,” or “poor African business acumen” thus an overwhelming emphasis on NGO work to teach these Africans business.

Let’s consider a related question: Why do donors simply continue “calling for proposals” when they know successful candidates use that money to fund their soft and beautiful lifestyles?

Cases of corruption are really high among the African NGO and CSO elite. In fact, the joke goes that these agents spend most of their time in offices “writing proposals and forging accountabilities.” (See Makau Mutua’s edited book). But why are our ethically attuned benefactors never concerned about how the ways in which their monies are misspent? It is because the new coloniser has understood that to take as much as they want, they have to (a) appear benevolent, whatever the end results of their benevolence, (b) and have to capture the few educated Africans who start and run NGOs and CSOs through some long-convoluted train of corruption.

Funded, through what appears like their good work and good proposals, the coloniser buys both their silence and  complicity. What then happens is that once a hostile agreement is negotiated, the privileged Native (who might be still active in the academia, media, non-governmental work, and now government official) sees the coloniser’s real interests and combines with them. Even when a government-multinational deal (say on extraction of minerals such as oil or gold or marble) is clearly bad, potential resistors and or public intellectuals—the CSO and NGO elite—are in a different world of their own.  Their lives will not be affected by the bad deal since theirs lifestyles are sealed off from societal concerns.  They have a major grant to complete.  For the new coloniser, this is simply a long process of turning potential resistors, and yesterday’s public intellectuals into obsequious (sometimes, unsuspecting) compradors. The point I’m making here is that the New Coloniser is inherently, and unquestioningly willing to “help” the Natives – collectively or singularly.  But in truth, they are crafting, drafting, and conscripting unsuspecting accomplices, sadly, into their own exploitation.

Get them while they are young

At the end of the day, Africans have to understand that genius of the New Coloniser is not in negotiating and entering contracts, (which are, to be fair, no different from the coerced agreements of protectorates and colonies) in which entire minerals, industries and ecosystems are handed over to the coloniser. But the genius now lies in the ways in which the ground is set for entering this contract—years before even a contract is ever considered. The coercive arm nowadays has a longer, performatively, non-coercive history, but the coercion is rather cultivated. It is really not about cash handouts (although these might be part of the game at some point), but a more elaborate and discrete formular.

The story begins with massaging, preparing, panel beating, and capturing the (potential) African signatory before they ever become signatories.  Normally, a blanket selection of potential leaders, mostly the smartest youngsters in any specific country, happens annually. The cohorts come from students, advocacy groups, public servants or NGOs and CSOs. This takes the form of innocent engagements either in the form of scholarships, fellowships or summer schools. Presently, there is competition in Europe and North America for souls and minds of young Africans, and other persons from the formerly colonised world.

The scholarship market is inundated: Germany has DAAD and Erasmus (for both of which I’m a beneficiary), among others; the UK has Chevening, Commonwealth, Cecil Rhodes (doesn’t get more colonial than that), and British Council scholarships among many others. Including several others funded through endowments. America has its flagship programme, Fulbright, in addition to several others offered by independent institutions. Scandinavian countries have many similar programmes pitched as benevolence to the Africans. Even China nowadays has the China-African Friendship programme, China Scholarship Council, etc. In truth, however, weighed against what the benefactor countries take out of the African continent in terms of minerals, food resources, market access and eco-systems, these offers not only pale in comparison, but emerge as absolute tools of patronage and control (the corporate and financial sector have a raft of similar programmes, scholarships and positions). It is like the stuff called corporate social responsibility invented by the capitalists to calm the emotions of those being exploited.

Figures show that by 2020, 1.46 million students from across the formerly colonised world studied in Europe.  Of these, 368 700 were in Germany. Other major numbers were in France with 17 per cent and 9 percent in the Netherlands. These numbers are humongous. Consider this revolving door, which benefits the coloniser whichever way it turns: If these brilliant young minds ever return to the continent after their time in Europe or North America, they return as friends of the imperial power, which benefited them with a supposedly free education. These are David Scott’s sublime examples of “conscripts of (colonial) modernity.” If they never return, as more frequently happens, they remain in the benefactor countries, using their talents in service of the coloniser. It never goes the other way. Thus, it becomes some sort of tragedian dilemma, “damned if you do, damned if you do not,” especially that the conditions of education in the formerly colonised world are made difficult by the same people airlifting their best brains. In some rare cases (which were more common under direct colonialism) these graduates returned to the continent as more conscientized revolutionaries ready to challenge the empire.

If the young brains selected were not students but actors in the post-1980 NGO or CSO sector—these sectors being themselves colonial constructions—they are offered with support for their well-written proposals. By the time these folks enter public position, or get appointed as ministers or permanent secretaries or become politicians themselves, they have already been softened and thus conscripted by the agents that used to fund their NGO or CSO work.  But as we noted earlier, the NGO world conscripts the elite, the potential public intellectual (who are very few in many countries on the African continent) is turned into accomplice. At most they are turned into satiated individuals who cannot speak independently as their mouths and stomachs are bloated.

Compradors under New Colonialism

There is another form of conscription that Nkrumah talks about quite extensively in Neo-colonialism. But this time under New Colonialism, it takes a more subtle everyday form: namely, offers of assistance in terms of money, guns, or budget support to already existing politicians. This often comes alongside passive-aggressive threats of eviction from office. If the sitting political head was not “helped” when they were in the bush fighting (especially with political heads of the 1980s and early 1990s) or if they were not supported during their presidential bid, they are threatened with removal from office by signalling support to any of their challengers. By indicating potential to support their challengers, they are coerced into handing over the economy. If they were beneficiaries of any help during their political struggles, they are then effectively turned into compradors. This has happened in Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda. Indeed, Africans need to beware that many of their leaders and politicians are threatened individuals coerced into a comprador situation. Most of the decisions they are taking—on issues such as mining, banking, trade in agricultural exports, terms of trade—do not necessarily reflect their independent will.

When discussing the violence of structural adjustment programmes still enforced to this day, the African intelligentsia ought to appreciate the ways in which direct and subtle forms of violence are disposed on the daily.

I am not trying to downplay the agency of African political leaders in this mess. They are squarely responsible especially for their decision and obsession to hold onto power for the small pleasures that come with holding a powerful political office. They have the capacity to ignore these threats and if needs be, sacrifice their political careers or even their lives for the greater good of their compatriots. But they very, very rarely do that.

The point I’m labouring here—as I have throughout this entire essay—is that the new coloniser needs to be seen in their informal and performative initiative. There is no direct animosity between the colonised and the coloniser. Most of these engagements appear mutual, friendly, and benevolent to the colonised. While Africa’s problems are stereotyped as needing standardised interventions. Intellectuals, the elite, and the smartest youngsters are quietly, subtly, cultivated, conscripted, and manipulated into comprador positions.  While privatisation—as was enforced by the World Bank and IMF—remains operational to this day, we ought to understand that resistance is also is possible. While we are surrounded as I have explored, resistance is difficult if the victims remain blind to the subtle and seemingly friendly ways in which they are being preyed on and turned against themselves.

A version of this long-read appeared in The Pan African Review here

Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, and a regular contributor to As a scholar, Serunkuma’s recent publications include an edited volume with Eria Serwajja, Before the First Drop: Oil, capitalists and the wretcheds of western Uganda, and Non-Essential Humans: Essays on Governance, Ruin and Survival in Covid-19 Uganda, both books published by Editor House Facility (EHF), Kampala.

Featured Photograph: Julius Nyerere demanding complete independence from the British Empire in 1961.


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