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The West should be begging African nations for forgiveness

A cave mouth, roughly in the shape of Africa, on the continent's northern shore. Image: Kevin Walsh/Flickr

I'm sure some readers will have forgotten Donald Trump's recent disparagement of the entire African continent. But Africans haven't, you can be sure. Africans know perfectly well what Mr. Trump meant by "shithole countries."

It's true Africa has some serious problems, but even someone like Mr. Trump ought to be able to grasp their source. For example, as journalist Howard French pointed out in The Washington Post, "Trump's profane description disregards Africa's crucial role in making America a world power … More than any other factor, it is the wealth derived from Africa, especially the labour of people taken in chains from that continent, that accounts for the rise of the West and its centuries of predominance in world affairs."

Canadians need to learn this lesson pretty badly too, as former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman demonstrated some time back. Setting forth on an official visit to Kenya, Mr. Lastman fretted publicly about the cannibals he was certain he'd bump into on the continent.

Of course anyone who knows Africa at all understands the sheer idiocy of such myths. Mr. Lastman was going off to a modern convention centre in Mombasa, while an American president regularly meets African diplomats of sophistication and charm. But the Trumps and Lastmans care little about trivia such as the truth. Their attitude, sadly, represents a racism that runs deep.

The truth is this: The Western world's intervention over the past 600 years is significantly responsible for Africa's problems.

The slave trade robbed Africa of 12 million of its most productive subjects. At the same time, it created a new class of slave-owning planters in America who provided a powerful engine to drive the U.S. economy. Without them, the rich countries woud not be so rich.

Eventually, Western intervention turned into formal colonialism, with the European powers each arbitrarily claiming authority over certain African territories. Subsequent examples of Western turpitude are almost literally endless. Take the Congo, for example, the West's favourite incarnation of the heart of darkness. But the darkness was in the heart of its Belgian rulers, who, in the pursuit of rubber, murdered some 10 million of the 20 million existing inhabitants, one of the greatest genocides in human history. When, after almost a century of slaughter and destruction, Congo became independent, there were hardly any experienced or educated Congolese to run the country.

As if that weren't enough, the American government plotted with the Belgians to torture and murder the Congo's first -- and still only -- democratic president, Patrice Lumumba. The killers chose Joseph Mobutu in his stead, ushering in an unparalleled orgy of theft from the public sector. At the same time, as Mr. Mobutu handed out mineral concessions worth billions to friends of the West , U.S.-controlled institutions such as the World Bank kept showering billions more on Mr. Mobutu in loans that all knew would never be repaid. Not surprisingly, at the end of the 20th century, Congo became the site of Africa's first continental war, as a dozen nations fought on its soil for the enrichment of their various leaders, many using U.S. weapons.

Here's another example. For many years, in return for loans to African governments from the West, orthodox capitalist policies were demanded. In Zambia in the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS was just beginning its ravage of Africa. Loans were provided, but only on the proviso that no expansion of public services was to be contemplated. A country that so badly needed nurses was forbidden from hiring any more nurses. HIV was free to run amok, and took full advantage. In the absence of the needed human resources, about a million Zambians now live with HIV/AIDS, while the country has 600,000 orphans.

Instead of maligning Africans, we in the West should be begging their forgiveness.

But Mr. Trump knew exactly what he was saying. As former president Lyndon Johnson pointed out, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best coloured man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket." That's what the devious Mr. Trump instinctively grasps: He's got to give his backers "somebody to look down on," in Johnson's phrase. As if Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants weren't enough, Mr. Trump has served them up an entire continent.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: Kevin Walsh/Flickr

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