Close

SECURITY COUNCIL SEAT

Now reform racist international order at UNSC

There is a tendency to understate the legacy of colonial occupation and extraction

In Summary

• The framing of black countries as pitiful victims of nature and incompetence requiring charity ignores the extraction that daily undermines their capability to build themselves up.

• We should not just deal with the systemic problems faced by black communities in majority white countries, but also systemic problems faced by majority black countries in a white international order.

The United Nations Security Council General Assembly
The United Nations Security Council General Assembly
Image: COURTESY

In October 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta attended a special Summit of the African Union in Ethiopia and struck a familiar theme.

“Africa is not a third-rate territory of second-class peoples. We are not a project, or experiment of outsiders,” he declared as he denounced the International Criminal Court that had indicted him and his deputy, William Ruto, for crimes against humanity.

Although his tirade was self-serving, the accusation of 'race-hunting' did strike a chord with some who decried Africa’s place at the bottom of the racist global pecking order.

"Race is such a strange construct," says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Americanah, an exploration of an African navigating the discovery of blackness.

For much of human history, skin colour did not say much about a human being, except perhaps where he or she came from. Many scientists today argue that race is not a biological category, in any case not a significant one.

ace says nothing about a person’s capabilities, character or intelligence. Yet when one looks out across the modern world, it becomes clear that race is one of the pillars undergirding it. A racial caste system, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom and everyone else sandwiched in the middle is discernible everywhere, whether one is looking at the level of individual countries or at the global level.

For example, even as their raw materials and labour power grow in nearly all parts of the globe, African countries remain rooted to the bottom of almost every index of wealth and well-being. Yet, even at this time of heightened racial sensitivities and demand for countries to face up to their racist pasts, there is little discussion of reforming the global system to make it less toxic to the black people of Africa.

Yet, this international structure is a major contributor to the social and economic fragility of the continent and the many humanitarian tragedies bedevilling it.  The framing of black countries as pitiful victims of nature and incompetence requiring charity ignores the extraction that daily undermines their capability to build themselves up. We should not just deal with the systemic problems faced by black communities in majority white countries, but also systemic problems faced by majority black countries in a white international order.

Problems such as the impact of climate change, which primarily falls on the black and brown countries that did little to pollute the environment. Or restrictions on trade that keep African countries as primary producers, penalised for adding value to their raw mineral and agricultural exports.

Also important to address are the predatory and extortionate international lending practices that are bleeding the continent dry. For example, between 1970 and 2002, sub-Saharan Africa had borrowed a total of $294 billion (more than Sh31 trillion today)and despite repaying $268 billion over the same period, had barely scratched the surface, and still owed $210 billion.

Many will retort that African countries that have been independent for nearly 60 years have actually been the architects of their own poverty and misfortune through incompetent leadership. While it is true that most governments on the continent are astoundingly kleptocratic and inept, unless one prescribes to racist assumptions about the abilities of black Africans, this is a fact that needs explanation.

In fact, the late James Blaut of the University of Illinois described the essence of cultural racism as the idea that “non-Europeans are not racially, but rather culturally backward in comparison to Europeans because of their history: their lesser cultural evolution. And it is for this reason that they are poor. So they must follow, under European guidance and ‘tutelage’, the path already trodden by Europeans as the only means of overcoming backwardness. Non-Europeans were thereby defined as inferior in attained level of achievement, not potential for achievement.

This is the thinking behind the common division of the world into developed and developing nations which conveniently ignores that many of the former 'developed” at the expense of the latter.

There is thus a tendency to understate the legacy of colonial occupation and extraction, which established an international racist hierarchy and deeply traumatised communities on the continent. Or to ignore the fact that it left in its wake countries borders that make little political or economic sense, vulnerable to continued manipulation by former colonisers who routinely imposed puppet regimes that served as little more than the agents of a parasitic international order.

Ironically, the indebtedness of African countries described above is a sleight of hand that disguises the fact that the continent is actually a net creditor to the rest of the world. A 2014 analysis of 39 African countries found that between 1970 and 2010, the equivalent of more than four times their total external debt had been extracted and hidden in countries across the world!

Having just been elected to a two-year tenure at the UN Security Council, Kenya has the opportunity to push for reform of the racist international order. It will be interesting to see whether Uhuru will now put his money where his mouth is.