Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Africa

A young man snatches the ceremonial sword of King Baudouin of Belgium during a procession with the newly appointed President Kasa-Vubu, on the eve of the independence of the Belgian Congo, Leopoldville; June 30, 1960

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Ambroise Boimbo was a Congolese citizen who snatched the ceremonial sword of King Baudouin I of Belgium on June 29, 1960 in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) on the eve of the independence of the Belgian Congo. He was a former soldier who originated from Monkoto in the Équateur Province.

The king’s entourage was driving from the airport into the city when it slowed to enable the monarch to stand and salute the flag of an honour guard of the Force Publique drawn up by the side of the road. A widely published photograph, taken by journalist Robert Lebeck, shows an exuberant Ambroise Boimbo, in jacket and tie, flourishing the sword while Baudouin and Congolese President Joseph Kasa-Vubu appear unaware of the incident. Further photographs taken by Lebeck show Boimbo encircled by Belgian and Congolese colonial gendarmes, as they wrestled him to the ground. According to media reports the “nationalist demonstrator” was taken away in a police vehicle but released later the same day at the king’s request. The sword was apparently quickly retrieved and returned to King Baudouin, who was filmed wearing it at the Independence speech-making ceremonies the next day on June 30.

To some commentators the seizure of the sword symbolized the independence of the Congo, although others saw it as simply an instance of high-spirited behavior at a time of celebration.

(From Wikipedia)

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel shortly after arriving in North Africa-Unknown date, 1941

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum...

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum…

Rommel was able to get a combat command due to his relationship with Hitler. Rommel had known Hitler for years and had asked Hitler for a combat command. In France his division became known as the Ghost Division. That’s generally seen as praise. However, it was called that because no one in his own chain of command ever knew where it was because Rommel kept out running his own lines of communication and command. If his French opponents had been more on the ball they could have cut him off in a Kessel (surrounded) and destroyed him.

German military officers were trained to think for themselves. Today this is known as Mission Type Tactics. The commander was supposed to give an order which stated the resources available to be used (troops, tanks, etc) and the objective. It was up to the lower ranked officers to use their own initiative in how to obtain the objective.

Rommel however was quite an interfering General. He gave orders with specific instructions and expected them to be followed to the letter. He would also drive around the front and give orders to soldiers thus cutting their actual officers off (there’s accounts of him issuing individual targets to anti tank guns rather than let their own officers decide and almost being killed by the return fire. In fact, Rommel lost quite a few aids while “touring” the front in this manner). This could lead to confusion and also resentment. Rommel was loved by the enlisted men under his command and quite detested by his officers as they considered him interfering and that he didn’t trust them to do their actual jobs.

By going around the front Rommel also quite often cut himself off from everyone. No one knew where he was and it could be quite difficult to get in communication with him.

People also seem to cherry pick things Rommel did or said to prove he was great. They will point out that Rommel believed the Allies would invade Normandy but then leave out that he thought said invasion would be a feint which made him like every other German officer.

I also think that Rommel looked good in North Africa due to the Allies helping him with that image. Churchill “stole” quite a lot of troops from Wavell for the impossible task of defending Greece. Wavell was so worried about his job that he didn’t say anything and thus made it easier for Rommel to attack him, which Rommel did against orders. Wavell also isn’t considered one of Britain’s finest. It is easier to look great if your opponent isn’t.

A lot of people try to make North Africa look like this huge battle for the control of the Suez Canal, to block access to oil fields in the Middle East, etc and thus state that Rommel was sent there as he was the best of the best. In reality the years of war in North Africa were pretty much because Rommel disobeyed orders to not attack.

Which leads me to my next point that if Rommel was so great why wasn’t he on the Eastern Front? Why was he never given that “prestigious and highly important command?” In the West we like to “pretend” that North Africa and Western Europe were every bit as important as the Russian Front, but to the Germans the Russian Front was it. That’s where they sent over 2/3 of their military and suffered 80% of their casualties. Rommel wasn’t even privy to knowing that the invasion of the Soviet Union would be happening which is why he thought when he launched his attack across North Africa that he would quickly be given all the men and supplies he would need. Sadly for him this wouldn’t be the case.

Rommel though was a gallant enemy. He didn’t order his men to execute troops. He didn’t set out to oppress Jewish populations. If he could have avoided this on the Eastern Front we’ll never know, but we can credit him for it where he did fight. In fact, he is said to have ripped up an order from Hitler that ordered him to execute prisoners and then announced that the order wasn’t clear to those around him.

The Australian General Morshead considered Rommel to be highly predictable in how he would initially attack. This is one of the reasons why he failed to take Tobruk from the mostly Australian garrison. Morshead was able to time and time again work out where Rommel would attack and would have the needed defences there to resist. Morshead said that if Rommel had shown a bit more unpredictability the “Fortress” would have fallen as the defenders did not have enough antitank guns, etc to defend everywhere.

I feel that a lot of people talk Rommel up because he’s well known and he’s the “Nazi” you can openly talk about respecting without people looking at you funny. However, I would say he was a mediocre general who was promoted above his means due to his relationship with Hitler. He was a captain trapped in the body of a General/Field Marshal. As a captain things he did wouldn’t have been a problem, in fact they would have worked well. As a general though he acted as a captain. Rommel is quite often praised for his tactical abilities. Tactics though (the small scale stuff, what soldiers do in battle) wasn’t supposed to be what a general worried about.


Did celebrity efforts like Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” actually help alleviate famine in the 1980s?

In 1994 South African photojournalist Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer for this photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in the Sudan. Later that year Carter committed suicide.

Some people will say that the musicians selflessly raised large amounts of money to help the world’s neediest. Others – myself included – would say that when projects like this don’t involve professional humanitarianism and the beneficiaries (i.e. the people who are supposedly being helped), the law of unintended consequences allows for the best of intentions to pave a road straight to H-E-double-hockeysticks.

There’s three broad ways that Celebrity Aid is often asserted as a success, or conversely, criticized as a failure. Namely they are (1) the amount of aid that actually hit the ground, (2) the stereotypes of Africans it created in the media, and (3) that they may have actually been complicity in ethnocide in the Sub-Saharan African context. I’ll address each separately.

(1) The amount of aid that hit the ground.

Band Aid famously started when Bob Geldof led the charge to raise money for famine in Ethiopia. Naturally, it was done with the best of intentions. The problem is that whereas most people think of famines as natural disasters they are in fact socio-political disasters. To put it another way, there are two models of famine, “food availability decline” and “food entitlement decline” (this is most famously discussed by Amartya Sen). In most cases of famine – for example Ethiopia in the 1980s – there was plenty of food available – the problem is that the poorest people didn’t have access to it, i.e. they weren’t “entitled” in the sense that they couldn’t afford it. When crops fail, there is usually still enough food around to feed people, however the reduced amount of food creates inflation, thus driving up prices. Dumping more money into a hurting economy doesn’t help this (see Dambisa Moyo or Paul Collier’s discussion of aid and Dutch Disease), it worsens things by putting more money in the hands of the wealthy. Additionally, don’t forget that a huge amount of the money raised goes to covering costs of holding these events (honorariums for the artists are a part of this). Much is further siphoned off on the way (including by governments, I’ll get to that in part 3). This is assuming that the aid that arrives is delivered professionally. Humanitarian actors have learned in the last two decades that projects not directly involving local beneficiaries are doomed to failure, and this is still rarely put into practice. Therefore, though millions of dollars are raised, much of it doesn’t hit the ground, and what does hit the ground is more likely to cause further damage and upset the local economy, than to actually save lives.

(2) Media portrayals of Africa

By showing lots of images of starving children with flies on their faces, the image of Africa becomes one of suffering and backwardness, rather than being a continent of diversity of life, culture, religion and experience that rivals that of any other. This video of a tract by Binyavanga Wainana (read by Amistad’s Djimoun Hounsou) describes this issue much better than I can. Basically, the image of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ full of savage warriors and starving babies is not an accurate depiction, and events like Band-Aid and We are the World perpetuate these not only false but outright racist depictions of life in the developing world. The interaction that most people have with “Africa” as a concept therefore becomes the starving child with the flies on its face, rather than learning of the history of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Great Zimbabwe, Shaka Zulu, or of learning the literature of Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, or even learning the inspiration recent struggles of anyone from Nelson Mandela or Zackie Achmat amongst countless others. Instead, when you ask people what happens in Africa, you get the image of the starving child. Band Aid played a more central role than anything else in constructing this image.

(3) Complicity in mass murder and ethnocide

This is the most controversial aspect of Band Aid and related endeavours that there are. Many (including Tim Allen, Alex de Waal) have argued that Band Aid was directly complicit in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is a highly contentious point. A brief history lesson: Ethiopia was ruled by the West’s darling Haile Sellasse, before he was ov3ertrhown by a nominally-Marxist ruler called Mengistu Haile Mariam. His party, known as the Derg, received support from the USSR. In the early 1980s, a group of Ethiopian ethnic minorities rose up against his rule (a larger one was the Oromo Liberation Front, although Eritrean groups were very active). When crops began to fail (this occurred cyclically, with the worst year being 1984), Mengistu blocked aid to the region, blocked refugees from leaving, as while limiting the international assistance that arrived. What assistance did arrive was taken by the regime, and not sent to the minority areas. Though the regime definitely didn’t cause the famine, they undoubtedly made it worse, using it as a cheap form of counterinsurgency (similar uses of famine as a form of counterinsurgency occurred in the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1970s, and in Darfur in the 2000s). Support for “Ethiopia” became support for the Derg, and the famine it perpetuated in minority areas of Gojjam, Eritrea, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo. Basically, in their attempts to raise money for starving children, fundraising ended up providing legitimacy to the Ethiopian regime, while also sending it lots of money that was inevitably re-directed to other areas (especially corrupt politician’s pockets).Along with Operation Lifeline Sudan, and assistance in the Biafran War, the Live Aid / Band Aid exploits are held up as the three most famous examples of humanitarianism gone wrong, and the best of intentions being manipulated by local actors to pursue policies of ethnocide.

The idea that we must “do something” and that we must “save the world” is dangerous if you don’t deliver aid professionally, through professionalized humanitarian channels no embodied in organizations like MSF, Oxfam, etc., with the involvement of the beneficiaries on the ground. The rather embarrassing Band Aid saga speaks to this point as well as anything else. Good intentions and cash simply aren’t enough; we need to do better.

How much did Band Aid/ We are the World/Live aid help? The optimistic answer would be “not much”, while the cynical answer would be “it actually made things worse”. But the silver lining would be that it helped professional humanitarians (i.e. not musicians, but actual trained NGO staff) sharpen their game and improve their delivery, to avoid the disasters that come when you deliver aid in an unprofessional manner.


A Zulu tribesman pulling his female employer around in a cart. Durban, South Africa, 1930s

Never before has a subject as complex as the British Empire been so perfectly encapsulated by a single image.

Never before has a subject as complex as the British Empire been so perfectly encapsulated by a single image.

Upper class privilege… Most white Brits did not see the fruits of empire but struggled, fought and died for it. Whether in the factories and mines or on the battle fields.

That is the nature of corporate state-capitalism.