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COLUMN

Africa: The Invisible Empire

Basil Enwegbara

With the slave trade brought to an end in the 1830s, Africans had a great sigh of relief that the traumatic and dehumanizing trans-Atlantic traffic of millions of able-bodied African men and women as commodities of trade for five centuries had finally ended. But they were later to discover that Europe had not finished with the continent. A new brutal, traumatic, and bloody encounter, they came to realize, was emerging to replace slave trade with European empire builders arriving in large expeditions eager to conquer Africa and install new systems of exploitation and the looting of African wealth. This time it was colonialism -- a direct political hegemony to render effective the occupation of the continent and its wealth. European colonialism meant that kingdoms, empires, and nation-states had to be brought to an abrupt end, with rulers overthrown, dethroned, or killed for absolute occupation and installation of colonial governments, alien authorities, laws and order. Boundaries were replaced with ones drawn to suit European trade and commerce, according to the Berlin Conference in 1885, as the basis for effective occupation.

The ending of colonialism in the 1960s, just like the ending of the slave trade, brought great joy to the new African nationalist leaders who were so eager to take over the ruins and give new life to a continent and people long reduced to silence and subjection. But were the empire builders and their multinational bandits ready to leave Africa? In other words, were the European colonial tyrannical authorities really satisfied with their looting of the continent? It did not take long for these nationalists to come to the painful realization that colonialism was part of the process of exploitation of African wealth -- and that invisible empire, an advanced form of occupation, had emerged to replace colonialism. To the colonial powers, the granting of independence to African colonies was because Europe no longer had the need to subject its colonies to the rigors of political control since the forces of invisible empire are better able to guarantee the perpetuation of European economic hegemony in Africa in a political void.

Invisible empire therefore requires giant European (and later Western) multinational corporations and traders to cooperate to perpetually impose their interests on the postcolonial African countries. As a system of informal power, invisible empire has been carefully designed to guarantee the monopolization of African postcolonial economies, with no political accountability. But for this invisible empire network to flourish in the absence of political power, Western companies operating under invisible empire must keep their activities as invisible as an electrical field. In addition to the privileged access to authoritarian governments (which invisible empire frequently props up to protect and promote Western interests), sponsoring ethnic factionalism, religious fundamentalism, and civil reactionary groups are among the ways to orchestrate instability and divide and conquer in an invisible empire economy. Dramatizing corruption is part of another strategy to continuously render impotent and heighten leadership and institutional crisis in an invisible empire economy. But should the dangers posed by democracy to the invisible empire persist, rival political parties and candidates carefully recruited and trained to undermine nationalistic interests are left to cause political and economic confusion. Should the interest of the giant multinational corporations really come under threat, the forces of invisible empire would resort to sponsoring soldiers to topple legitimate, democratic governments.

Economies under invisible empire are ruinously and continuously undermined by systematically moving the economy from one form of fiscal crisis to another, with the intent to perpetuate underdevelopment and dependency on Western financial institutions. This way the banking sector of an invisible empire economy is controlled and kept undercapitalized. By controlling the banking sector, the country’s productive and industrial sector and the social responsibilities of the government are destroyed since allowing them to grow is perceived as great threat. Even the presence of the World Bank and IMF are not accidental, but help complete to circle of exploitation and looting. Washington-based institutions force macroeconomic measures on the country so that the domestic economy is opened to predatory Western manufacturers as their dumping ground for inferior consumer goods.

While the root and complexity of the exploitative machinery of invisible empire are difficult to understand, what seems abundantly clear is the increasing difficulty with which the social and political institutions of Africa have survived under this system. No wonder why Africa under the forces of invisible empire is deeper in trouble than under the worst of colonial occupation. Africans and African leaders have realized the painful truth that the mere hoisting of a new national flag, the singing of a new national anthem, the replacement of colonial army with national military personnel, or the conducting of elections that replaced colonial dictators have never and would never have translated into the birth of a new nation free from Western economic manipulation. Rather, it has given way to the present price Africans are paying as the continent is damaged to witness 16 of its nations currently in civil conflict: 6.5 million Africans spread in various refugee camps; 17 million Africans (mostly civilians) internally displaced; 5 African states collapsed; $8 billion annually spent on arms (not including arms illegally supplied by the West); millions of Africans AIDS-infected; and millions of African children suffering malnutrition. Perplexed historians still have not found an explanation for this insatiable exploitation and looting of a continent that for eight centuries only witnessed Western occupation, exploitation, looting and dehumanization. Some African historians such as Basil Davidson conclude “it was not the restoration of Africa to Africans, but the onset of a new period of indirect subjection to Europe and America.”