Cecil Rhodes must fall, but Mahatma Gandhi must stand – two statues and two controversies

21 Oct

In October of this year, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was removed from the grounds of the University of Ghana, only a few months after it had been erected there as a presentation from the visiting Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee. This statue was removed after a petition by Ghanaian scholars and academics, who pointed out that Gandhi, during is stay in South Africa, made racist statement towards black Africans, and that his example was inappropriate for modern-day Ghanaians. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, Jason Burke elaborates on the reasons why the petitioners were outraged by the prominence of the Gandhi statue:

The petition states “it is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian super power”, and quotes passages written by Gandhi which say Indians are “infinitely superior” to black Africans.

More than 1,000 people signed the petition, which claimed that not only was Gandhi racist towards black South Africans when he lived in South Africa as a young man, but that he campaigned for the maintenance of India’s caste system, an ancient social hierarchy that still defines the status in that country of hundreds of millions of people.

The Gandhi statue - the target for removal amid claims Gandhi was racist towards black Africans

The Gandhi statue – the target for removal amid claims Gandhi was racist towards black Africans

Gandhi’s life in South Africa, where he worked as a barrister defending the rights of the Indian community, is the subject of numerous scholarly works and articles. He spent twenty-one years of his life there, confronting an apartheid regime of strict racial discrimination, long before the authorities in Pretoria used the word ‘apartheid’ to describe their racially stratified society. His South African period is of especially relevance – why? This controversy around the Gandhi statue in Ghana arrives hot on the heels of a similar dispute that erupted back in March 2015 – Rhodes Must Fall.

Students and lecturers from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, began a campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, British empire-builder and racist entrepreneur-coloniser, from their campus. The campaign to remove the statue began a series of thoughtful and serious questions about the decolonisation of education, the progress (or lack thereof) of racial and economic equality in the post-apartheid South Africa, and the nature and role of the former British empire. A vociferous campaigner for British imperial rule, Rhodes founded the British South Africa Mining Company for the purpose of exploiting the rich mineral wealth of southern Africa.

Rhodes, whose name was given to the country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) openly expressed his motivations for empire-building – the superiority of the English people, as he saw it. He loudly and repeatedly expressed the view that British settler-colonialism was the highest priority for the British people, because the British were the ‘first race’ in the world. He made plain his disdain for whom he viewed as lesser races, namely, the black African people.

Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town

Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town – removed in April 2015 after student protests

Dying in 1902, Rhodes was unrepentant to the end, never wavering in his view that blacks must be ruled over by a class of wealthy whites. His history is one of racial hatred, treachery and deception in amassing enormous reserves of wealth and waging vicious wars against millions of black Africans. Rhodes is remembered today, if at all, for funding the scholarship that bears his name. Such a programme was intended to fund the brightest and best students from all of Britain’s colonial possessions, for the purpose of studying at elite British educational institutions. Australians can appreciate the academic calibre of Rhodes scholars until today, having made a lasting impact on Australian society with their superior intellectual skills.

Be that as it may, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign highlighted the importance of addressing racial and economic iniquities, not for the purpose of self-flagellation, but for the purpose of redressing historical grievances. Rhodes and his role in creating the regional dominance of the British empire should never be erased from the historical memory – Rhodes Must Fall wants the world to know his crimes for the purpose of re-evaluating the legend that has surrounded Rhodes and his impact since his death. Every historical figure, including Rhodes and Gandhi, accumulate a vast body of myths and half-truths after they pass on – whether deliberate hagiography or the product of rose-tinted views of their work. Each person must be evaluated, if only to fully appreciate their achievements and weaknesses. Rhodes was a racist land-hungry imperialist, and for that reason, his statue must fall.

If that is case, should not Gandhi’s statue also fall? Did he not make racist comments and statement about black Africans during his time in South Africa? Did he not support the British empire, going so far as to work as a stretcher-bearer for British forces in their war against the Boers in the early part of the twentieth century? Gandhi himself created and joined the Indian Ambulance Corps for the express purpose of providing service to the British military forces during the Boer War.

Mahatma Gandhi in the uniform of a sergeant as the leader of Indian Ambulance Corps. During the Boer War of 1899 and the Zulu Rebellion of 1906. He donned the Khaki uniform and set his mission of mercy and brought help and succour to many a wounded soldier.

Mahatma Gandhi in the uniform of a sergeant as the leader of Indian Ambulance Corps.

Gandhi, during his South African stay, made numerous statements that can only be interpreted as racist comments against black Africans. He was only concerned with the status of the Indian community in that country, and sought to improve their standing by cooperating with the British authorities. He intended to prove to his white counterparts that the Indian was unjustly dismissed as a ‘savage’ and ‘brute’, no better than a kaffir – the latter a derogatory term referring to black Africans. For instance, in his voluminous writings, you may find statements such as this:

A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.

In 1904, he wrote to the authorities in Johannesburg to complain about the mixing of Indians and Kaffirs in an unhealthy slum section denoted ‘Coolie location’, and he claimed that disease and epidemics would surely persist if this unsanitary mixing continue. Gandhi made various statements denouncing the heathen-beliefs of the black Africans, and strenuously sought to distinguish the Indian as an educated and civilised contributor to the British empire, unlike the ostensibly primitive black African. In 1893, soon after arriving in Natal, Gandhi wrote that:

“I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.

He arrived in what was then Natal colony, South Africa, in May 1893 an inexperienced and politically immature lawyer. He persistently couched his appeals to British authority in terms of the superior values of the Indian – in contrast to the black African. There is no question that Gandhi absorbed and reflected the prejudiced attitudes and values of his day and community. Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, admitted that his famous grandfather was at times ignorant and prejudiced about black Africans. As the author E S Reddy stated in an article for The Wire magazine:

The class and colour prejudices Gandhi carried from India were reinforced by those of the merchants and the white officers he dealt with. In countering the arguments of the white racists, he tried to show that Indians, unlike the Africans, had an ancient civilisation. He used the language of the whites, which was offensive to Africans, and referred to them as ‘kaffirs.’

Gandhi in Johannesburg 1905

Gandhi in Johannesburg seated in front of his law practice – 1905

Throughout his stay, he witnessed the many injustices done to the black African community, and the exploitative nature of the British empire. As he matured in years and political outlook, he began to take steps on the path that made him an agent of social and political change. Gandhi developed and refined the doctrines and practices of non-violent civil resistance which are today an inspiration for political leaders and people world-wide. Indeed, it is worth recalling the words of Nelson Mandela, and his analysis of Gandhi. For instance, in 1995, after his release from prison, Mandela wrote the following:

Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”

He also stated in 2003 that:

Gandhi’s political technique and elements of the nonviolent philosophy developed during his stay in Johannesburg became the enduring legacy for the continuing struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa. (Speech made during the unveiling of the statue of Gandhi in Johannesburg in October 2003)

As Gandhi took up the cause of his community in South Africa, he began to recognise the injustices of the racially and economically stratified society against which he and his supporters were fighting. The Boer war (1899-1902), during which the British armed forces committed numerous atrocities on the white South African minority, was a politically awakening experience for those who emerged from this trauma – Gandhi included. Non-white political organisations, paradoxically, were given a boost by the bitter experiences of this war. As the South African statelets – Natal, Transvaal and so on – moved towards establishing a national entity in the early years of the 1900s, the non-white communities found themselves collectively marginalised. In this context, witnessing the brutality of white-only rule against the indigenous and non-white populations served as a political awakening for the young Gandhi.

As the Indian community mobilised for their rights in the new South Africa, Gandhi started to widen his political horizons, declaring in a speech that:

South Africa would probably be a howling wilderness without the Africans…”

“If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen.

In 1912, the South African Native National Congress was formed – the predecessor of the African National Congress. Gandhi welcomed this development, and never sought to impose his example or leadership upon it. He only offered his philosophy of satyagraha – insistence on truth – as a method to combat racial oppression.

Years later, after Gandhi had returned to India to struggle against the British rule over his native country, he made statements to demonstrate that his interest in and support for South Africa never wavered. In a speech to Oxford university in 1931, he declared:

As there has been an awakening in India, even so there will be an awakening in South Africa with its vastly richer resources – natural, mineral and human. The mighty English look quite pygmies before the mighty races of Africa. They are noble savages after all, you will say. They are certainly noble, but no savages and in the course of a few years the Western nations may cease to find in Africa a dumping ground for their wares.

Gandhi surrounded by his supporters - August 1942

Gandhi surrounded by his supporters – August 1942

Having learnt from the experience of anti-colonial nationalism, Gandhi applied himself to the struggle in India for home rule. One of his lifelong comrades and staunchest supporters, Jawaharlal Nehru, not only learned from Gandhi’s example, but applied it to all oppressed groups. From the 1920s onwards, Nehru advocated the necessity of uniting on a multi-ethnic and pluralist basis, including oppressed people of all colours in the struggle against colonialism. He went on to become the first post-independence Indian prime minister, as well as the architect and leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The non- aligned anti-colonial movements encompassed all races and ethnic groups for the common purpose of self-determination. One of the main exponents and practitioners of anti-colonial liberation was a black African political leader, Kwame Nkrumah – who lead his country, today known as Ghana, to independence. Nkrumah was a socialist and pan-Africanist, who derived inspiration from numerous sources. One of the sources from which he learned and drew inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi, whose doctrines of non-violence and non-cooperation profoundly influenced the Ghanaian anti-colonial campaign. It is obviously up to the authorities at the University of Ghana to decide whether or not to keep the statue of Gandhi on their campus. No-one can dispute that. However, rejecting Gandhi’s example would be a huge disservice to all those – from all races – who drew inspiration from the Gandhian model in their own anti-colonial struggles for self-determination.

The United States and Britain enable the catastrophe that has engulfed Yemen today

13 Oct

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf State allies, has pursued a relentless bombing campaign and siege of the nation of Yemen, in order to influence the political order in that country. This Saudi war, which has targeted hospitals, schools, the electricity grid and civilian infrastructure in Yemen, has been prosecuted because of the fulsome military and political support provided to Riyadh by Britain and the United States. This forgotten war has been largely eclipsed by all the media attention on Syria. While American officials loudly and emphatically condemn the war crimes of Russian military forces in Aleppo, they have enabled their Saudi allies to commit atrocities on a national scale in Yemen with impunity.

As the Common Dreams magazine reported, the Saudi-led air forces – whose warplanes are refueled by the United States – carried out an air-strike on a funeral hall in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. At least 140 civilians were killed, and 500 were wounded. The Saudi aircraft struck that particular funeral hall because the attendees included high-level officials from the Houthi-led insurgent movement, the latter waging a long-term political and military struggle to achieve self-determination for Yemen. The air strike on the funeral hall procession represents a major escalation of the Saudi offensive against Yemen. In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, thousands took to the streets to protest this latest Saudi outrage. The leader of the rebel Houthi movement, Abdul-Malek Houthi, angrily denounced the attack, and stated that these kinds of airstrikes are being done with the weapons and permission of the United States.

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick (center, in light blue shirt) inspects a funeral hall on Monday, two days after it was destroyed in Sanaa, Yemen, in an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition. At least 140 people were killed.

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick (center, in light blue shirt) inspects a funeral hall on Monday, two days after it was destroyed in Sanaa, Yemen, in an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition. At least 140 people were killed.


Such an attack constitutes a war crime, and questions are being raised in the United States about American culpability for this crime. The Saudi authorities announced that they would investigate this bombing, and denied responsibility. However, it is clear that the funeral hall attack is only the latest in a long string of assaults on hospitals, markets and places where large groups of civilians congregate. National Public Radio elaborated upon how the United States has become an indispensable partner for the Saudi Arabian government in its offensive against the Yemeni Houthi movement. The war was intended to be a quick and decisive victory over the rebellious forces, with the Saudis installing their Yemeni proxy, current President Abed Mansour Hadi, in power. However, the war has ground on for much longer than anyone anticipated, and the Saudis – along with their American and British backers – find themselves stuck in a quagmire of their own making.


Yemenis shout slogans during a rally in Sana on Monday protesting Saudi-led airstrikes that hit a funeral hall. (Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto Agency)

Yemenis shout slogans during a rally in Sana on Monday protesting Saudi-led airstrikes that hit a funeral hall. (Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto Agency)


Abed Mansour Hadi, installed as President in 2012 as part of a Saudi and American sponsored agreement, is the preferred candidate of the outside powers. His installation was meant to reduce the political upheavals and revolutionary demands that led to the ousting of his predecessor, long-term Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, this peace process was artificial and superficial, with the Yemeni Houthis sweeping to power, taking over the capital and large portions of Yemen itself. Hadi was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia where he has remained ever since, despite an occasional and temporary foray by Hadi into the Yemeni city of Aden.

While the United States involvement in the specific funeral hall attack is criminal, it is only one part of the wider role the US (and Britain) have been playing in enabling the Saudi regime to devastate the country and population of Yemen. The Common Dreams magazine published an article by C J Werleman called ‘The American-Made Catastrophe in Yemen’. In this article, Werleman draws attention to the fact that the United States provides billions of dollars worth of military supplies to the Riyadh government.

US President Barack Obama has the dubious distinction of being the president that has shipped more weapons and munitions to Saudi Arabia than any of his predecessors – since 2009, Obama has provided 115 billion dollars worth of military equipment, training and supplies to the Saudi Arabian monarchy. The relationship between the Saudi and American governments has come under renewed scrutiny, not so much because of any qualms about the Saudi assault on Yemen, but because of American unease over the more egregious crimes of the Saudi war machine.

A Saudi military member stands next to a destroyed building in Aden, Yemen. (Photo: Ahmed Farwan/flickr/cc)

A Saudi military member stands next to a destroyed building in Aden, Yemen. (Photo: Ahmed Farwan/flickr/cc)

Not only has Saudi Arabia waged an aggressive aerial campaign, but has also implemented a naval blockade of Yemen since 2015. Saudi forces stop and search any maritime traffic heading towards the Yemeni ports, and turn back any shipping. The blocking of sea ports has added to the misery of ordinary Yemenis, with millions facing the prospect of starvation. Food scarcity has hit the children of Yemen particularly hard, and it is apparent that a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions is unfolding in the war-ravaged country. Unicef has reported on the dire situation on the ground, and it is the Yemeni children that are paying the heaviest price. In these terrible conditions, it is unsurprising that diseases such as cholera have broken out in Yemen.

It is noteworthy that American naval forces participate in this naval blockade of the country, and America has imposed financial sanctions of Yemen to interrupt the flow of goods and services to that nation. Britain and United States actively participate in intelligence gathering, provide targeting information and aerial refueling for the Saudi forces. American and British officers cooperate with their Saudi counterparts to coordinate attacks. The US Navy attacked and destroyed radar sites in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, after one of its warships was fired upon by missiles which the US claims originated from Houthi military forces. The Pentagon has signalled that it can directly intervene in Yemen, though that statement ignores the fact that the US has been heavily engaged in making the Saudi war on Yemen possible.

Despite all of these forces ranged against them, the Yemeni Houthis have remained defiant and resilient. The Hadi government, while officially recognised, has only a very thin base of domestic support. As the Saudis, and their imperialist enablers, haemorrhage money and credibility as they are bogged down in this tiny nation of Yemen, the outside world must speak out. As the United States and Britain stand behind their Saudi mercenary, we, the ninety-nine percent, must expose the system that rewards merchants of death. What kind of economic and political system enables profiteering from human misery and death? When arms sales and political alliances with fanatical warriors leads to a nightmarish scenario of destruction and heartbreak, it is surely time to hold those responsible for such criminal wars to account.

Colin Kaepernick sat down to make all of us consider what we stand for

28 Sep

The quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the American national anthem prior to the commencement of an NFL game. Why should this small act of defiance generate so much controversy and debate?

Firstly, the NFL is huge business in the United States. A multibillion dollar extravaganza, the NFL, along with baseball and other national sports, are fused with unbridled patriotism in American popular culture. The national anthem is played as a matter of routine. Chris Hedges, long-term commentator and political writer, wrote in an article back in 2014 that sporting events have largely become mass religious ceremonies tied to blessing American wars and militarism. The virtual religious reverie of the sporting arena – typified by NFL games – is used to normalise inflated war budgets, cultivate public support for the US military forces, and reinforce public opinion in favour of endless wars overseas. He wrote that:

The heroes of war and the heroes of sport are indistinguishable in militarized societies. War is sold to a gullible public as a noble game. Few have the athletic prowess to play professional sports, but almost any young man or woman can go to a recruiter and sign up to be a military hero. The fusion of the military with baseball, along with the recruitment ads that appeared intermittently Saturday on the television screens mounted on green iron pillars throughout Fenway Park, caters to this illusion: Sign up. You will be part of a professional team.

While traditional places of worship remain empty on Sundays, the sporting arena is where religious fervour is expressed. The uniforms, caps, and paraphernalia of football (and baseball as Hedges wrote) form modern-day holy relics, preserved in the museums and halls of sporting fame across the land. The collective outpouring of euphoria is accompanied by, among other things, the singing of the national anthem. It is not unusual for military aircraft to stage flyovers prior to NFL games. The beauty, power and precision of the airplanes – according to the NFL – demonstrate the close fusion of sporting prowess and military heroism in the public mind. However, there is no mention of the horrific toll that war takes on the population. As Hedges reminds us:

War is not a sport. It is about killing. It is dirty, messy and deeply demoralizing. It brings with it trauma, lifelong wounds, loss and feelings of shame and guilt. It leaves bleeding or dead bodies on its fields. The pay is lousy. The working conditions are horrific. And those who come back from war are usually discarded. The veterans who died waiting for medical care from Veterans Affairs hospitals could, if they were alive, explain the difference between being a multimillion-dollar-a-year baseball star and a lance corporal home from Iraq or Afghanistan. At best, you are trotted out for a public event, as long as you read from the script they give you, the one designed to entice the naive into the military. Otherwise, you are forgotten.

The NFL crowds roar their enthusiastic approval during the prematch flyovers – the military that produces crippled and traumatised veterans, while libraries and schools close, and billions are allocated to ever-expanding military budgets. Back in 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when the United States pummeled Iraq – the latter a military pipsqueak compared to the US – patriotic fervour was at an all-time high. Prior to the commencement of the SuperBowl that year, in Tampa, Florida, Whitney Houston – a black woman – sang a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Her talent was incredible and indisputable. Here was an America that had vanquished the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ – public opposition to overseas wars. America was patriotic and great again – what could be more emblematic than a black woman, surrounded by American flags, belting out the national anthem at the SuperBowl?

Decades later, America remains mired in the Iraqi quagmire struggling to turn defeat into something resembling a positive return on investment, the United States remains the starting point and epicentre of the terminal phase in the capitalist economic crisis, and a professional black American footballer refuses to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick’s simple protest action has sent shock waves throughout American society, and his action has filtered through not only the sports world, but also into the political system. Kaepernick, and those who have stood by him throughout this controversy, are challenging the blind faith in patriotism, the latter that makes all of us ignore the ills plaguing the country. Police violence against African Americans is at epidemic proportions, and Kaepernick highlighted this issue as one of the reasons why he took the action he did.

Not only are police officers avoiding accountability for their murderous actions, the financial oligarchy that is responsible for the current economic downturn has also avoided facing the consequences of its culpability. Kaepernick’s action is gaining support not only from African Americans and supporters in the Black Lives Matter movement. American war veterans, white and black, are also organising support for the quarterback. They are refusing to join the violent right-wing backlash against Kaepernick, pointing out that military service does not blind them to the fact that African Americans are being assaulted and killed by brutal police forces across the country. Former US Army Ranger Rory Fanning expressed his support for Kaepernick, stating in an interview that:

Anyone who’s been to a sports event in this country, or seen one on television, knows full well the connection that is made between sports and military. From the national anthem to the jets flying overhead to the convenient trotting out soldiers to “thank them,” nationalism and “patriotism” is constantly forced down the throats of sports fans.

Many soldiers thought they were going overseas to sacrifice for freedom and democracy. But they are not seeing those ideals being practiced in this country.

Kaepernick’s protest is resonating with soldiers who feel like they’ve been lied to. One thing that has come across clearly from so many soldiers’ tweets and posts is that soldiers do not feel like they are risking their lives so the state can kill with impunity here in the United States.

Fanning added that while the United States kills people overseas with impunity, the same thing is happening inside the US itself. He explained that he had served in Afghanistan; however:

Then after returning from Afghanistan I saw how the security state had grown at home. I saw that the United States has the largest prison population in the history of the world, with African Americans (there are a lot of people of color in the military) being disproportionately incarcerated. Public schools are being gutted in every city. The media and politicians barely mention our endless trillion-dollar wars and drone operations.

Let us listen to what Kaepernick is trying to say about the condition of his own society, rather than wrap ourselves in the false mantle of wounded patriotism. He is using his status and fame as an NFL player to raise awareness about the legalised, systematic form of racist police violence and jarring economic inequalities. As Dave Zirin commented in his column about Kaepernick’s protest:

It is also pathetic that so many in the sports media, who a few months ago were praising the legacy of Muhammad Ali, are coming down so ferociously on Colin Kaepernick. As if sports and politics can mix only in the past tense, and racism is something that can only be discussed as a historical question. People can choose to agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s analysis or arguments, but they should deal with the reality of the facts he’s risking his career to bring into light.

Kaepernick’s true sin – if you can call it that – is to highlight the injustice of an economic and political system in which he has thrived. Make no mistake – Kaepernick acquired wealth and fame in the NFL structure, and is risking losing all of that in taking the stand that he did. He is willing to sacrifice millions in endorsements, corporate sponsorships and salary to raise awareness of, and take a stand against, the racist injustice of an unequal corporate state. Kaepernick has broken the silence around the bargain that successful athletes make with corporate America – remain silent about the racism in society, and enjoy your millions as you rise the sporting ladder.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States drew a false finish line beneath the question of racism. After all, has not racism ended with the rise of a black man (actually a biracial man) to the top political office in the land? Is not Kaepernick himself biracial and successful? What grounds for complaint does he have? It is interesting to point out that Kaepernick, being of biracial background, is not the first person with mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Malcolm X had white ancestors, those ancestors passing on their reddish hair and lighter skin to the main who rose up eloquently and bravely against racism. Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery writer and activist;  W E B Du Bois, sociologist and the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University – both had white ancestors, and yet both became, each in their own generation, courageous and intelligent advocates for African Americans.

An elite composed of black faces is taken to indicate that America has resolved its racial divisions. Kaepernick reminds us that African Americans, regardless of whether or not individuals have ‘made it’, face a racist corporate state determined to defend its wealth and privileges at all costs. Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that human solidarity and empathy cannot be banished, while the fundamentalist doctrine of neoliberal austerity ravages the community. Individual success, while noteworthy, should not be acquired at the expense of societal resources. Kaepernick’s motivations are not unrealisable pipe-dreams; his colleagues in the NFL have taken their stand as well.

Laos and the long shadow of an American criminal war

16 Sep

US President Barack Obama visited the small nation of Laos in early September 2016. He is the first sitting American president to set food in that country. He did so after attending the G20 summit in China, a meeting of the largest economies and central bank officials, the purpose of which is to encourage economic and political cooperation to stabilise and strengthen the capitalist system. Laos was one of the invitees to the 2016 G20 summit. It is always encouraging when economically smaller nations, such as Laos, are recognised as growing in importance, and are invited to further their integration into the international community. Obama visited Laos specifically to welcome the Vientiane government, and boost bilateral ties between the two nations. This is all very well and good, but it does raise serious questions about the role of the United States in South Asia.

American investments and influence in Asia was acquired, not by peaceful means of trade and economic ties alone, but by waging criminal wars of aggression to carve out spheres of influence at the cost of millions of lives and casualties. This is illustrated no better than anywhere else than by the experience of Laos. In the context of the American war on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, Laos was also targeted by the US authorities. It is true that Laos, like Vietnam at the time, was experiencing a civil war between the Royal government, backed by the imperialist states, and the Pathet Lao, the nationalist and Communist political movement which was eventually supported by the former USSR and China. Laos became a battleground state, locked into the Cold War, in much the same way as Vietnam. Successive attempts to establish a Pathet Lao regime were undermined by the secretive political machinations of the West, cooperating with the Laotian Royalist forces. When these intrigues failed, the United States turned to a devastating, but no less secretive, type of warfare.

From 1964 to 1973, the United States air force dropped at least two millions tonnes of bombs on the nation of Laos, conducting 580 000 missions over the population of 6.8 million people. That effort means that a planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. This counterinsurgency effort was undertaken ostensibly to disrupt the supply lines of the North Vietnamese inside Laos, and bring further pressure on North Vietnamese forces. Actually, this aerial bombing campaign was part of the secret war, the CIA-sponsored programme of regime change, intended to establish a friendly pro-Western government in the country. The Americans had taken over from the French in trying to subdue the anti-colonial and nationalistic movements for independence, not only in Laos, but also throughout Indochina.  The bombings killed thousands, displaced many more – villages and towns were completely destroyed, the landscape left a cratered desolate wasteland. Areas of farmland were rendered useless and uninhabitable – more tonnage was dropped on Laos than on Germany by the Americans during World War Two.

The CIA and American authorities were heavily involved in all aspects of the Laotian fighting – the Royal Laotian army was trained by US personnel, CIA operatives armed and trained anti-Communist guerrillas from among the Hmong tribespeople, supplementing them with mercenaries from Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. The Hmong guerrillas, assisted and abetted by the CIA, funded their activities with the production and sale of opium. Countless thousands were not only displaced by the aerial war, but had their lives ruined by the outflow of heroin as part of this secret war. It was a secret war for the American (and Australian) populations, but not for the Laotians who endured this suffering.

Laos is still coping with the trauma of that war, with unexploded ordnance (UXO) dotting the countryside. Close to half the country is contaminated by UXO, and thousands have been maimed and killed long after the war and foreign invasion ended in 1975. In June 2014, Democracy Now published the stories of those who are living with the deadly legacy of the American bombing. The Democracy Now team spoke with Thoummy Silamphan, a bomb accident survivor from Laos, who explained what happened on that fateful day when as an eight year old, he went out to collect bamboo shoots:

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: One day, I needed to find some bamboo shoots for to feed my family, to make soup. So—and when I saw the bamboo shoots, and I tried to dig into bamboo shoots. After that, the bombie explode to me.

AMY GOODMAN: What you call a “bombie,” like a bomblet, exploded?

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yes, because at that time in my village or in those areas, we have a lot of the bombing, and we don’t know the bomb under ground. And when we’re digging for bamboo shoots, and then the UXO explode to me, yeah. And it get—I lost my left hand. And that time, it’s very, very difficult for me to continue my life.

The Legacies of War web site summarises some of the startling realities that Laotians must contend with in their everyday lives, surviving in the dark shadow of this criminal American war on their country. For instance:

  • Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).

In a way, the United States is still terrorizing Laos, by not providing sufficient funds and resources to adequately clean up the Laotian countryside and detoxify it in order to make it at least livable again. This malignant neglect has got to stop. This lack of funding reflects the grotesque priorities of a decaying social and economic system – boosting funding for large banking and financial institutions to stabilise the terminally ill system; neglecting the ecological and human costs of wars that are the products of that system.

President Obama, when speaking during his Laotian visit, expressed regrets about the consequences of the bombing campaign, and pledged 90 million dollars to help remove unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs from the country. That is all well and good, but it does leave us with two relevant observations to make; firstly, 90 million is still a pittance given the scale of the cleanup, and the horrific barbarism of the bombing visited upon the Laotian nation. Back in 2010, Brett Dakin, writing about this issue in The Guardian newspaper, stated that:

So far, the US has contributed an average of about $3m a year to bomb removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the US spent more than $2m a day (about $17m in today’s dollars) for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place. The US can, and should, do more.

The state department must make a sustained commitment to solving this problem, starting with an allocation of at least $7m next year for the removal of unexploded ordnance in Laos. According to the department’s own weapons removal and abatement experts, this would dramatically reduce the impact of unexploded ordnance in Laos. A modest increase in funding would have an enormous impact for the people who live among the hidden remnants of the Vietnam war in Laos.

The horrific legacy of the US assault on Laos (and Vietnam) is still afflicting the people in that region until today. Millions lives in fear of their lives from the unexploded cluster bombs that litter the countryside. These cluster munitions are particularly lethal weapons because they contain multiple sub-munitions within one canister. The main ordnance disperses its payload over a wide area, causing casualties and injuries indiscriminately. Until today, the United States still uses, and trades in, cluster munitions.

The trade in cluster munitions brings us to the second relevant observation; while it is commendable that Obama has acknowledged the Lao victims of the US bombing, his administration is still creating more war victims. That is the point made by the writer and historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, in an article published in the Huffington Post. He wrote that the aerial and CIA-war on Laos provided a disturbing template for the current war on terror, a war that Obama has maintained and escalated throughout his years in office. As Kuzmarov observes:

The U.S. pioneered weapons systems in Laos such as drone surveillance and electronic ground censors connected to computerized bomb targeting centers that are a feature of the so-called revolution in military affairs guiding U.S. operations in the Middle East.

The U.S. government strategy in Laos was to subcontract counterinsurgency to proxy forces and rely heavily on Special Forces units and air power in the absence of regular ground troops while censoring media coverage. The manipulation of public opinion was epitomized by the fabrication of a story of a North Vietnamese invasion, during the monsoon season no less, when the roads were actually impassable.

Yes, the Obama administration changed the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror, referring to it as ‘overseas contingency operations’ (OCO). However, the content and substance has remained the same. Obama, throughout his two terms in office, has done nothing but escalate American military operations, deployment of US special forces, expand drone surveillance and warfare, and pivot increasingly to Asia, securing alliances with countries that can serve as allies in any potential conflict with China. Obama’s Laotian visit can be understood within the context of this pivot to Asia. Obama’s motivations to set foot in Vientiane is not just to spread a charm offensive, but also tactical – Laos is a potential gateway to Southeast and East Asia.

Laos has been getting on with rebuilding its country – after the end of the Laotian war in 1975, it was the former USSR that assisted in rebuilding the country from scratch, providing technical and financial assistance. Laos remains dependent on Chinese and Russian investment, though it has been steadily opening up to Western investment. The United States would like to claim a stake in the Laotian economy, and Obama’s historic visit is the first step in that endeavour. It is one thing to remember the Lao victims of the American bombing. However, Obama shows a perverse disregard for the Laotian casualties of that war and its lethal legacy by adopting the central doctrines of aerial bombardment and war by proxy – the very tactics developed by those responsible for bringing calamity on that country. It is time for the Obama administration to be held accountable for the war victims that it creates.

The Long Tan commemoration – a manufactured controversy

2 Sep

In August 2016, Australian government officials and the corporate media denounced a decision by the Vietnamese authorities to downgrade the scale of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Long Tan. The Hanoi government, after much diplomatic wheeling-and-dealing, decided to reduce the scope and extent of the planned ceremony for the Long Tan battle. The event itself was intended to be on a much larger and more lavish scale than previous years, with a concert planned and that visiting Australian veterans were to wear their full uniforms and medals. The Vietnamese government decided to deny permission for such an event to proceed, and returned to their usual practice of allowing a low-key event.

The fact that a controversy erupted in the pages and web sites of the major Australian newspapers and media outlets is quite telling – it reflects on how Australians are manufacturing the memories of the Vietnam war. This particular battle is usually depicted as an unequal contest – a David-like Australian contingent, far outnumbered by the superior Goliath-like Vietnamese enemy, bravely holding out and winning against insuperable odds. This way of commemorating the battle, couched in terms of Australian courage in the face of overwhelming enemy advantage, plays an important role in disguising the true nature of the Vietnam war. The hypocrisies that surround this commemoration allow us in Australia to remember the Vietnam war, not as a savage assault by a militarily superior imperialist power against a rural people fighting for their independence, but as a study in platitudes.

Binoy Kampmark, writing in Counterpunch magazine, elaborates on the hypocrisies of this type of commemoration. The war of US imperialism against Vietnam, extending over decades, was a sustained assault on the majority of the population. The Vietnamese were firebombed, scorched, poisoned and tortured, and are still dealing with the calamitous consequences of that attack until today. While Australia’s role in that particular slaughter was only small, it was however complicit. The Australian government at the time, headed by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, deliberately and aggressively pushed for a more active combat role in Vietnam.

While Canberra does play the role of subservient underling to the imperial power of the North, it never forgets its own calculated and cynical self-interest. Menzies and his cabinet colleagues aggressively lobbied the power-that-be in Washington for an Australian military mission in Vietnam; they did not wait to be asked. Participating in the assault on Vietnam was motivated partly by Menzies’ anti-Communist ideology, but also partly by self-interest. As the Canberra authorities saw it at the time, making a small investment now on the side of the Americans would pay large dividends in the long-term.

The Australian socialist writer and activist Tom O’Lincoln wrote about Australia’s contribution to the Vietnam war:

One way Australia’s peculiar boutique imperialism is presented as superior is to suggest our troops are free of war crimes. Is it true? The Australian troops in Vietnam committed no major massacres, but there’s much more to be said. The main culprits of atrocities are not the soldiers at the front line, but the leaders in Canberra and their mates who backed – even-egged on – the genocidal American war effort.

The commemoration of Long Tan attempts to wash away any guilt about or association with the crimes of US imperialism in that country. How can a heroic stand by a small and determined troop of Australian soldiers against a numerically superior enemy be considered part of a larger criminal enterprise?

The battle itself was the largest loss of Australian lives in a single battle – 18. Each one of these deaths is an individual tragedy, and the families of those killed live with the trauma and emotional scars of that time. We would do well to remember that the losses sustained by the Vietnamese in that battle were ten-fold the number of non-Vietnamese casualties. The Australian veterans of that conflict are fully entitled to commemorate their experiences as they see fit – in Australia. To travel to the country that was devastated by the conflict, a victim of a larger imperial assault, and expect their views to correspond to ours indicates either a willful conceit to expunge Vietnamese suffering from remembrances of the war, or a startling ignorance about the impact of that war on the domestic population of Vietnam.

Allen Myers, long-time socialist and activist, wrote in an article for the Red Flag newspaper ‘What’s behind the carry-on about Long Tan?’ that there are definitive political objectives behind the fuss about Long Tan;

The reason is that the veterans are being used by Australian governments and media, who want us all to believe that wars waged by Australian governments can be noble and just and worthy of our support. This propaganda strategy uses the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers involved to conceal the vile purposes of the people who organise and benefit from war.

To do this, the propagandists seize on one or a few events and build a myth around them, attempting to make them emblematic of the whole war so that we will forget what it was really about.

It is interesting to note that at the official Long Tan commemorations in Canberra, there were a number of activities, including aircraft flyovers by two B-52 bombers from the United States air force. It was the US air force’s use of the long-range B-52 bombers, carrying out the indiscriminate bombing of densely-populated regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for years, that cost so many millions of lives. It was not just the carpet-bombing that devastated the region and resulted in millions of casualties, but also the constant use of chemical defoliants.

Rather than react with arrogant and condescending indignation regarding the decision of the Vietnamese authorities, there is another course of action open – disagree, but respect and accept their decisions about affairs in their own country. Let us remember the Vietnam war, address the trauma and suffering of that conflict, but avoid turning Long Tan into a shrine to aggressive militarism.

Obama’s Africa policy – an expanding military footprint to grab resources

9 Aug

US President Barack Obama, the first African American to occupy the White House, has used his part-African background to leverage influence in the continent of his ancestors. Let us first get something out of the way – no, Obama is not a secret Muslim; no, he is not ignoring the rest of the world to focus exclusively on Africa; no, his ethnic heritage is not anything to be ashamed of; no, his place of birth is not in dispute – let us dispense with these Trumpist, ultra-right Republican talking points for what they are – rubbish. Obama has used his personal heritage as a political bridge into an important part of the world; Africa.

What kind of African intervention has Obama carried out over his two terms in office, and how exactly has he intervened in Africa? The answer to this question is put forward by John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and author of numerous books and articles about US foreign policy. In an article published in Common Dreams magazine, Feffer outlines that Obama’s initiatives, putting asides the public relations spin about entrepreneurial outreach, is an extension of the previous colonial, imperialistic policies: “Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods.” As Feffer states in his article:

Unfortunately US policy towards Africa have largely translated into holding the door open for U.S. multinationals to do what outsiders have done for centuries: extract the continent’s wealth.

Ethiopia has always been important

A series of outstanding articles and interviews in Tuck magazine have correctly highlighted the international importance and growing regional influence of the African country of Ethiopia. In interviews with Ethiopian academics and foreign policy experts, the importance of Ethiopia, a lynchpin in the East African region, has been emphasised and it has an increasing role in the African Union. Major international players, such as the United States, are giving Ethiopia and the East African region more attention and are establishing cooperative relations with that country. However, there is an assumption underlying these articles that has as yet remained unexamined.

Ethiopia, and East Africa generally, has always been strategically important to the great powers. It is not just from the early 1990s onwards that Ethiopia acquired the attention of the imperialist states. When Ethiopia was governed by the Communist regime (1974-1991), it was always regarded as a strategically important ally, for the former Eastern bloc countries. It maintained extensive trading, cultural and political relations with the other socialist countries, such as Cuba. The latter provided technical assistance, agricultural products, trade based on a system of mutual benefit and not profit-making with fluctuating stock market prices, and educators to school young Ethiopians in the socialist world-outlook.

The United States, Britain and other imperialist powers viewed Ethiopia as a battleground – indeed, Africa was in the midst of a Cold War fought between the allies of the rival superpowers.Ethiopia was no exception to this, and the United States sponsored various ethnic-based militias in secessionist wars to topple the socialist regime in Addis Ababa. The United States at this time was interested in opening up Ethiopia to its economic imperatives, and using the disguise of humanitarian intervention, funneled arms and support for the ethnic-separatist groups, gathered together in the Maoist-oriented Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This formation, having acquired power in 1991 after the disbanding of the Eastern bloc and removal of the socialist regime in Addis Ababa, has hung onto power ever since through dictatorial measures.

The EPRDF quickly abandoned any pretence of commitment to Maoist-style socialism and became an enthusiastic ally of the capitalist West. It has implemented IMF economic programmes, where corruption and mismanagement have become endemic. Human rights violations, including the suppression and torture of dissidents, is normalised. Agricultural products account for the largest portion of exports from Ethiopia, even though there are chronic food shortages in the country. The threat of famine is never far, and indeed famine has struck Ethiopia with depressingly regularity given the levels of poverty and food insecurity. As Graham Peebles explained in one of his regular articles for Counterpunch magazine about Ethiopia:

More than half the population live on less than $1 a day; over 80% of the population live in rural areas (where birth-rates are highest), and work in agriculture, the majority being smallholder farmers who rely on the crops they grow to feed themselves and their families.

The people of Ethiopia have suffered chronic food insecurity for generations: the major reason, as is the case throughout the world, is poverty. Other causes are complex; some due to climate change, others result from the ruling regime’s policies. Action Aid (AA) reports that unequal trading systems are a factor. The Ethiopian government purchases crops from farmers at low, fixed prices. International organisations encourage Ethiopia to produce cash crops to export, which reduces the land available for growing domestic crops – yes, Ethiopia – where millions rely on food aid every year – exports food. The country’s top exports are Gold (21%) Coffee (19%), vegetables and oily seeds, followed closely by live animals and khat – a highly addictive narcotic.

The Ethiopians experienced drought and famine during the socialist regime in the 1980s. The widespread famine of the mid-1980s brought the political situation to the attention of the international community. This reaction of the imperialist powers was to exploit the suffering of the Ethiopians for Cold War political purposes – food became a political football, with the BBC and various corporate media outlets broadcasting heart-rending images of the famine’s victims and concerts were organised to raise money for food aid.  There were no humanitarian motivations on the part of the governments of the imperialist states; they promoted the Euro-centric view that black Africans – and in particular, socialist black Africans – cannot feed and govern themselves. Any suggestions that there were natural causes contributing to the famine were dismissed out of hand, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the regime.

Here we are in 2016, and Ethiopia is facing famine and food insecurity – as of late last year, the number of people requiring food aid doubled to 8.2 million. Schools, hospitals and facilities have been forced to close down due to water and food shortages. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released startling figures that place the number of food-insecure people in Ethiopia at just over ten million. The OCHA report makes clear that there are definitive natural causes for this drought and resultant famine – the OCHA states that:

More than 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood. Their vulnerability is frequently exacerbated by natural and man-made hazards, including drought, flooding, disease outbreaks, intercommunal conflict and refugee influxes from neighbouring states. Drought and flooding increase the risk of water-related disease outbreaks, particularly Acute Watery Diarrhoea, malaria and measles and especially among children under age 5. Access to clean water and basic health care, including life-saving maternal and neonatal services, remains low.

How has the Ethiopian government responded? Firstly by denying the severity of the crisis, and secondly by downplaying its deleterious effects. The regime has imprisoned its opponents, suppressed journalists and has carried out repressive measures against Muslim and ethnic minorities, namely in the Ogaden region in the south-east of the country. These are crimes of which the former socialist regime was accused and condemned. As Graham Peebles explained his article called “Ogaden: Ethiopia’s hidden shame”:

The ruling party, the EPRDF, uses violence and fear to suppress the people and governs in a highly centralised manner. Human rights are ignored and a methodology of murder, false imprisonment, torture and rape is followed.

The ethnic Somali population of the Ogaden, in the southeast part of the country, has been the victim of extreme government brutality since 1992. It’s a familiar story of a region with a strong identity seeking autonomy from central government, and the regime denying them that democratic right.

However, the Addis Ababa regime has avoided outright international condemnation – because it is a valued proxy of the United States. In July 2015, US President Obama visited East African countries, including Ethiopia. He celebrated Ethiopia’s role as a solid ally in the ‘war on terror’, praised the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and expressed his appreciation of the Ethiopian military’s role in American-supported wars in Somalia, the latter having been the target of various ground-invasions by Ethiopian and Kenyan troops in a bid to stop Islamist militias in that war-torn country. Obama let slip on the real nature of Ethiopia’s post-1991 friendship with the United States:

Obama, who has delivered vague homilies about the importance of “democracy” and “human rights” in Africa, avoided, as he did in his previous stop in Kenya, any direct criticism of the Ethiopian regime. Instead, he bluntly spelled out what Washington values in the regime in Addis Ababa: “We don’t need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters.”

This is not to romanticise the period of socialist government in Ethiopia. There was political and economic mismanagement, the suppression of the ruling stratum from the former feudal-monarchical regime, the demand for political loyalty to the new regime and its allies in the Eastern bloc. The point is that we are quick to present the United States as an ethical friend of Africa, uniquely committed to human rights and democracy, unlike all the other major powers. Ethiopia, along with its neighbours Kenya and Uganda, is a military and economic outpost of the United States in the East Africa region, and provides its US-sponsored military force as a willing recruit for American foreign policy objectives in the region. Its lack of internal democracy does not provoke the slightest whisper of protest or rebuke from Washington.

Red Africa

The Soviet Union, in its day, intervened in the affairs of Africa. The political leadership of Moscow paid great attention to the politics and emergent nation-states of Africa in the wake of decolonisation after World War Two. How did they intervene? An article in The New Statesman provides an answer. Anoosh Chakelian, deputy web editor at the magazine, wrote an article called “What the untold Soviet history of “Red Africa” reveals about the racism of modern Russia”. She writes that there was a time, during the Soviet period, when anti-racist solidarity was a distinct component of Russia’s support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Racist violence in Russia today is endemic, and it is a terrible problem for Russia’s current authorities. However, as Chakelian explains:

But there was once a time when Russia was ahead of the rest of the world in welcoming migrants, and its attitude towards Africans and African Americans. Overshadowed by the Western preoccupation with the Cold War in Europe, the USSR’s relationship with Africa is a forgotten piece of Soviet history.

“In the Twenties and Thirties, not only was Russia not racist in relation to black people, but it was encouraging migration,” says Mark Nash, curator of Things Fall Apart, an exhibition held by the contemporary Russian culture foundation Calvert 22 in London.

“Four or five thousand black people came in the Twenties and Thirties to the Soviet Union per year,” he adds. “A number of them stayed because they were equal citizens and they had equal rights, which they didn’t have in the States until the Sixties. The official ideology was really anti-racist.”

African Americans, facing lynchings, discrimination and racist mob violence at home in the US, decided to make the Soviet Union their home, with its promises of racial equality. These emigrants found acceptance and a new life in the USSR, in stark contrast to their American homelands where discrimination and strict segregation still ruled the day until the major civil rights upheavals of the 1960s. While these African American emigrants have now become footnotes in history, their example serves as a useful reminder that in the not-too-distant past, anti-racism was an official ideology in a political sphere long demonised as a totalitarian nightmare. The Washington Post asked “What would compel a black American to move to Stalinist Russia?” Many reasons are provided, but one explanation is more compelling than the others; because class mattered, but not race.

What has this got to do with Africa? The Soviet Union, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, provided material and ideological support for those African parties and groups fighting imperialism and colonialism in their home countries. The Soviets made great capital out of the systemic problems of racism and economic exploitation in the United States, and supported those African political parties that adhered to its Bolshevik ideology. Was this political propaganda? In a way, yes. There is no such thing as a racial utopia, and the Soviets were out to export their political beliefs and philosophy to African countries.

However, we would do well to remember that in the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela were regarded as terrorists by Britain and United States, the Soviet Union heavily promoted the ANC, staunchly opposed the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and thousands of ANC activists were trained politically and militarily in the Soviet bloc. Mandela himself, after his release from prison in 1994, paid tribute to the role of the USSR in assisting the anti-apartheid struggle. As Russia Beyond the Headlines explained:

It is easy for critics of Mandela to label him a communist and downplay Russia’s intentions in ending state-sponsored racism in South Africa. Mandela refuted these claims in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote, with a tinge of humor, “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?”

The USSR had its own problems with ethnic minorities, particularly in the lead-up to and during World War Two – with the Volga Germans, the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. None of this is in dispute. Even today, we can see the political use of the Crimean Tatar issue by the United States to rally more public opinion in its current round of anti-Russian measures, downplaying the extent of political collaboration between the Crimean Tatars and hostile outside powers. The point is that racism in Russia today is a very serious malignancy, and any solution to this problem must examine the example of anti-racist solidarity and practicing international outreach provided by Russia’s recent history.

The American empire of military bases

The heading above comes from an article by Nick Turse, investigative journalist and writer for TomDispatch. Turse has written a compelling and rigorously researched series of articles demonstrating just how the United States, under a guise of secrecy, has constructed an enormous and extensive network of military bases, outposts and spying facilities that has turned the continent into a laboratory for American warfare. In an article called “America’s empire of African bases spreads”, Turse has documented his ongoing battle with the US military to uncover exactly just how many, and how geographically extensive, the archipelago of US military bases is in Africa. Turse elaborates that:

So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa?  It’s a simple question with a simple answer.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent.  It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.

The US military prefers to use a new euphemism – cooperative security locations (CSLs) to describe its military outposts in Africa. When taking into account all the other military facilities, spying locations, drone bases and considerable military settlements the US has, the number is astounding. Turse describes it as an AFRICOM base bonanza:

Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, GabonGhana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.

When the Romans built military bases, fortifications and militarised frontiers, at least they had the honesty to call it an empire.

The American military footprint, initiated by George W Bush, has escalated under Obama. The first African American president has overseen a massive increase in the US military presence in Africa, and all this activity is nothing new. Back in 2012, Lee Wengraf wrote an article for the US Socialist Worker newspaper entitled “Obama’s war in Africa”. The author writes that;

IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama’s doorstep.

Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from “boots on the ground” towards “alliance-building.” The idea is to cement American “indispensability” to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas–from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.

Rather than the direct deployment of massive numbers of American troops, Obama has shifted to a more cautious, tactical, but no less insidious policy of proxy-building; acquire reliable allies on the ground, such as Ethiopia, and they can perform the bulk of the hand-to-hand fighting. Meanwhile, US special forces, military experts and foreign policy planners provide the backup where needed. Let us not forget that usual driver of imperialist ambition; rivalry and competition. Wengraf explains that:

Today, global competition drives Obama’s foreign policy. During the past decade, the U.S. has engaged in a fierce battle with China for worldwide economic and military preeminence. The aim has been to encircle and contain China’s growing reach. The Economist reported a Department of Defense announcement that by 2020, 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia, along with “a range of other ‘investments’ to ensure that despite China’s fast-growing military might, America would still be able to ‘rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.'”

Intensified competition with China, and other powers such as Russia, is fueling the higher levels of U.S. military involvement in Africa and a new scramble for resources. This scramble is mainly about oil, in which Africa plays a critical supply role for both China and the U.S., but also about increased overall investment in resources–from diamonds and gold to land for agricultural investment.

Beijing is of course looking out for its own interests; neither the Chinese regime, nor for that matter the former Soviet Union, was motivated by benevolent altruism. China has dealings with repressive states in Africa, such as the Sudan; the latter receives military equipment and arms in return for oil. Beijing has successfully acquired the oil markets of the new nation of South Sudan, importing 77 percent of the latter’s country’s oil.

This is galling for the US, because the birth of South Sudan was nurtured by the Americans, who provided arms for its secessionist ambitions. The Chinese are building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, providing billions in every sector of the economy, from roads to telecommunications to health. The Chinese government is better at presenting itself as an equal trading and business partner for Africa, with the volume of trade reaching 222 billion dollars last year.

The United States is viewing the soft power approach of the Chinese in Africa with anxiety. It has responded with a mixture of escalating militarisation of the continent, and corporatisation of its business interests. The United States, while portraying its intervention in Africa as an anti-terrorist exercise, is actually the main purveyor of political destabilisation and violence. It is time to examine the US war on Africa, this undeclared offensive that the US military wants to keep hidden from public view. The election of an African American president was used to draw a false finish line underneath the problem of racism in American society. An African American president in the White House did not change the system, because it is not the presidential office that needs changing, but the imperialist system itself.

The Russian scientist, indigenous people and the Australian connection

29 Jul

Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian anthropologist, biologist and explorer who lived and worked in Sydney, NSW for a total of nine years, established himself as a respected member of the NSW scientific community. He created the first biological research station in the Southern Hemisphere, and made important contributions to the Linnean Society, the main scientific and natural history institute in the self-governing British colony of NSW at the time. He married the daughter of the five-times Premier of NSW, John Robertson. That should have solidified Miklouho-Maclay’s position in the Sydney scientific community and earned him a place in our history. However, he is largely forgotten, and his story has been revived through the efforts of researchers and historians, who compiled a fascinating documentary about him for the ABC in 2013 called ‘Remembering Nikolai’.

There is a large reason why he has been ignored – Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked among the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for three years, and championed the rights of the native nations to resist colonisation. Why is that important?

In the 1870s and 1880s, both the British colonies of Queensland and NSW were eyeing the natural resources of Papua and New Guinea for themselves. The Australian colonies, while not politically organised into a federation, were expanding on a capitalist basis. The Pacific islands, Polynesia and Melanesia were viewed as unexplored and untamed frontiers. NSW and Queensland lobbied the British government to colonise Papua and New Guinea. European colonisation of indigenous people and territory was in full swing in the late nineteenth century. The English, Germans, Dutch and French were already grabbing portions of the South Pacific and Asia – Melanesia was in their sights. Germany had set up a colony in the northern half of New Guinea, and the Queensland government strongly urged the British to get their foothold in the southern half of Papua.

Queensland’s ruling landed gentry, and to a certain extent, NSW – engaged in the practice of blackbirding. This involved the forcible recruitment, through kidnapping and trickery, of Melanesian workers into a scheme of indentured labour. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua – the indigenous people of these nations were forced into a system of slavery, working in the sugar cane plantations and landed estates in Queensland and NSW. The full story of blackbirding is still being literally uncovered until today. As Jeff Sparrow explains in his article for The Guardian:

Between 1863 and 1904, 62,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia, landing in Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Innisfail and Cairns. The majority of the indentured labourers came from today’s Vanuatu, with a substantial proportion from the Solomons, as well as smaller islands. Some came voluntarily (even accepting multiple trips). Others did not – and varying degrees of deception and outright coercion were used by blackbirders to persuade them.

By the 1890s, the so-called “Kanakas” were providing 85% of the workforce for the sugar industry.

What has all this got to do with Miklouho-Maclay?

Nineteenth century European anthropology was the hey-day of pseudo-scientific racism; the belief that different human races represented different species, and could be organised hierarchically into an evolutionarily-upward structure, with the lower races – such as the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia – at the lower end of the spectrum, and the white race, the colonisers at the top. Anthropology was used in the service of this colonising project, with pseudo-scientific devices such as phrenology and craniometry provided a veneer of respectability to a new imperial endeavour of systematic racism. Into this environment, Miklouho-Maclay worked tirelessly to refute this pseudo-scientific nonsense.

In a powerful article for Russia Beyond the Headlines, Miklouho-Maclay’s unending efforts in defending the colonised people are discussed at length. Early in his career, he travelled to the Canary Islands as an assistant to the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The latter espoused the pseudo-scientific racist views prevalent at the time, and Miklouho-Maclay was determined to disprove these supremacist theories. Europeans certainly did believe in liberty, equality and fraternity – as long as you were white.

Miklouho-Maclay was the first white man to settle and work among the indigenous Papuans – he moved there in 1871 and worked for three years among people deemed cannibals and flesh-eating savages. He formed close bonds with the people there, noting their complex societal structures and learned one of their many languages. He continued his ethnographic studies, and provided ample refutation of the predominant racism of his time. He wrote the following, quoted in the Russia Beyond the Headlines article above that:

“There is no ‘superior’ race,” Miklouho-Maclay wrote after finishing his research in Papua New Guinea. “All races are equal because all people on Earth are the same biologically. Nations merely stand upon different steps of historical development. And the duty of each civilized nation is to help the people of a weaker nation in their quest for freedom and self-determination.”

While making Sydney his second home, Miklouho-Maclay spoke out against the rising tide of colonisation, and criticised the push by his adoptive home to make Papua New Guinea an economic colony. Distrust of the newcomer turned into outright hostility, as he maintained his opposition to the new imperialism, driven by economic interests in the emergent colonies of NSW and Queensland. His campaign to defend the targets of creeping colonisation was examined in a biographical program on him for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). That program quoted his words on the issue of Papuan annexation. Miklouho-Maclay spoke of his time living in Papua New Guinea:

During my stay among the natives… I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives… about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.’

He went on, ‘should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.’

‘I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.’

Sadly, the tide of colonisation was too strong, and the British did eventually carve out a portion of New Guinea, taking possession without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. At the end of World War One, Papua New Guinea was handed over to Australia as a colonial possession. With the injustice of this act, the resultant implacable hatred that Miklouho-Maclay warned against was realised. That lead to a prolonged struggle for independence and self-determination in Papua New Guinea.

Ignored by the rising federative colonialism of Australia, Miklouho-Maclay was feted as a hero in his native Russia, and in the subsequent Soviet Union. His fight for racial equality was upheld by the Soviet authorities as a worthy example of a fighting intellectual-scientist. He was acclaimed by the Communist authorities as a man who saw beyond racial differences, and advocated the fundamental equality of human beings. Was this a case of the Soviet authorities exploiting his story for political purposes? In a way, yes. However, his life and work were celebrated during Tsarist Russian times, and his contemporaries, such as the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also sang his praises.

Tolstoy was moved to write about Miklouho-Maclay that, “You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being with whom communication can and should be established through kindness and truth, not guns and spirits”. Given the serious nature of racism in Russia today, perhaps the current authorities would do well to remember that not so long ago, the Soviets did actually elevate anti-racist scientists such as Miklouho-Maclay into a cultural hero because of his humanist and anti-colonial stand. His life exemplified cross-cultural and multi-racial solidarity.

Miklouho-Maclay is largely forgotten in Australia, because his life and work reminds us of an ugly chapter in the foundational history of the Australian capitalist state. With the unfolding discoveries about our genetic makeup facilitated by the human genome project, science is providing irrefutable evidence that there is no scientific validity for racism. However, we must confront the racism that exists in our own society, a racism that is damaging and ruining people’s lives everyday.