Tuesday, June 28, 2022

War and capitalism in Africa (1999)

 From the September 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The president of Zambia, Frederick Chibula, recently declared the “dawn of a new era for Africa”. Such comments have become something of a regular occurrence amongst African and international “leaders”, including that messiah of the “new world order” Bill Clinton. The latest round of platitudes coincides with a period of instability and armament amongst the competing representatives of African capitalism.

Despite the signing of accords which appear to declare the desire of capitalist interests to accommodate each other’s interests in Sierra Leone and the Congo, Chibula made his comments at a time of simmering conflicts across Africa including a savage war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and a rampant civil war in Angola. Even in Sierra Leone and the Congo the accords thrashed out seem likely to fail, with international “peace-keeping” forces (the US and western Europe) not being committed as the interests of their ruling classes are not threatened.

Unlike the huge resources deployed to Kosovo where Western leaders wish to “protect” the Kosovo Albanian population from mass slaughter as a pretext for extending their influence in the Balkans at the expense of Serbia, the hypocritical face of capitalism is revealed once more. A blind eye and an arrogant shrug greeted and continues to greet the mass killing in Africa (in the case of the Sierra Leone conflict the British government was in fact implicated in the supply of arms to the conflict in contravention of its own “rules”, as if such things exist in capitalism’s wars).

Ethiopia and Eritrea
It is in the little-mentioned conflict (the press coverage being remarkably little) between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments that Bill Clinton’s “new leaders of Africa” have revealed the degree to which the politicians of capitalism will sacrifice the lives of working-class men and women in the interests of profits. Originally intended as the leaders of a regional alliance for the US against the “threat” of Islamic Sudan, Presidents Issaias of Eritrea and Meles of Ethiopia descended into a quarrel in May 1998 ostensibly over a small area of barren and mountainous terrain. In reality it was over Eritrea’s new status as a potential African Singapore threatening Ethiopia’s commercial interests (principally coffee) and aims for economic self-sufficiency and protectionism.

Taking advantage of its coastal status and Ethiopian cheap labour and launching its own currency, to counter what it saw as an overvalued Ethiopian currency which hindered it exports, Eritrea began to threaten the interests of Ethiopian capital. Becoming landlocked in 1993, following the overthrow of the dictator Mengistu and Eritrea obtaining independence, Ethiopia perceived a threat to its cheap labour market from the new-independently Eritrea’s processing export industries and cheap Eritrean imports, and thus began to impose tariffs. The territorial boundaries between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which had previously been a matter of little formal control and even convenient administration by local authorities on either side of the borders, began in such circumstances to be marked by claims of encroachment and eventually an act of aggression which sparked off a war which may have already claimed as many as 50,000 lives.

In a country racked by civil war and droughts where the majority of men and women exist in dire poverty, its leaders see their interests served by spending vast sums on armaments and mobilising hundreds of thousands to mass slaughter. The death toll in this conflict between capitalists using working class cannon fodder has been particularly high with a ratio of dead to wounded of one-to-one (the average for most modern wars being one dead to three wounded). According to the Economist (8-14 May) “the death toll is high because the combatants use the weapons of the Korean war, the tactics of the first world war and the medical treatments of the 19th century”.

With war of course comes the massive displacement of populations with, in this instance, many tens of thousands of Eritreans forcibly ejected from Ethiopia. As with all wars the Ethiopia-Eritrea war has competing capitalist interests at its root and the mass slaughter and suffering of its workers as its consequence.

Central and southern regions 
This conflict, however, is only part of a general increase in tension between African governments whose interests are perceived to lie in the increased militarisation of the continent. This was most particularly evident in the central and southern regions. Indeed the wars in the Congo and Angola appear to be threatening to draw these regions into full-scale sub-continental war. Angola has threatened Zambia with invasion over its ruling-class support for the UNITA rebel opposition in Angola, a position also supported by some members of the South African ruling class. The Mugabe regime on the other hand supports intervention on the side of the Angolan government. Tension still runs high over the war in the Congo, with Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad drawn into the conflict in support of President Kabila and Uganda and Rwanda on the side of the anti-Kabila forces. Conflict over the Caprivi Strip between Namibia and Botswana also poses a threat, with the Zimbabwean ruling class supporting the former and the South African ruling class supporting the latter.

The underlying cause of this increase in tension is in the economic crisis facing the two most powerful economies of the region, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in the face of the global economic downturn. The ensuing economic competition between the rival ruling classes has forced the two governments to attempt to form regional alliances. Such action is taking on an increasingly military character with the Zimbabwean government, backed by Namibia, justifying its intervention in the Congo on the grounds of securing markets at the expense of South African multinationals. In another example of capitalist robbers fighting over their ill-gotten gains South Africa, backed by Botswana, asserted its influence over Lesotho to protect the interests of its ruling class following attempts by the Lesothon population to overthrow the existing dictatorial regime.

In such circumstances an ominous regional arms race is beginning to take place, with South Africa announcing at the end of 1998 a re-armament programme worth 20 billion rands. Botswana, South Africa’s main regional ally, has also been conducting a re-armament programme including the construction of a US-assisted military airbase. Zimbabwe, under the pretext of the conflict in the Congo, has also been spending billions of dollars on re-arming with its most recent purchase being over $1 billion-worth of Russian military equipment. A similar massive re-armament has taken place in Angola as a consequence of the intensifying civil war. It seems that the increasing trade war taking place between the capitalists of southern Africa may result in yet another war in which the workers fights for the interests of capital.

In the era of the “New World Order” capitalism once again proves itself to be an uncontrollable and destructive system of society. A system which accords the majority slave status and then expects them to die for their masters’ interests. The only solution to war and to the miseries of capitalism in Africa, as in the rest of the world, is for the working class to organise for common ownership and democratic control, a society where the root cause of war in the economic and strategic rivalry of a minority owning class is removed and the production and distribution of wealth is conducted in the interests of the whole community—Socialism. It is time the working class struggled for its own interests.

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