Book Review: ‘An African Winter’
Round the horn
‘An African Winter’, by Preston King. (Penguin, 1986)
The area occupied by Sudan and Ethiopia became a focus of world attention as a result of the recent drought and famine. This study attempts to analyse the problems suffered by these countries and by Africa as a whole as it competes in the world of international capitalism. The various states suffer from many problems, not least in relation to their former colonial rulers. Added to this is a climate of devastating heat and uncertain rain with the threat of pest devastation. If that were not sufficient, these problems are further exacerbated by eruptions of conflict between and within the African states.
Ironically, if we examine infant mortality rates they compare with those in Europe and America at the turn of the century, as King points out:
“the major infant killers in New York, Birmingham and Paris eighty-five years ago were those which now scissor their way through Addis Ababa. Nairobi. N’Djamena and the so-called Homelands of South Africa, (p.35)”
These include diarrhoea, pneumonia, bronchitis and infections such as tuberculosis. The famine in Ethiopia that received international attention after October 1984 caused a massive influx of aid. Yet that attenuation of human misery did not relieve the underlying causes of the misery. There are also political considerations affecting how and why aid is granted. The establishment of the regime of Colonel Mengistu in 1974 after the overthrow of Haile Selassie, led to shift in support from American and the EEC to Soviet sources. Ethiopia has also suffered from an internal conflict with Eritrea which it absorbed in 1962 after federation with Ethiopia had been established by UN charter in 1952. After 1975 there was a revolt in Tigray province on the southern border of Eritrea. Ethiopia suffered from military incursions by the Somalis especially into Ogaden. It is these conflicts that have absorbed the energies of Mengistu’s government. During the period 1977- 79 it is estimated that debts of some US $2 billion were owed to Russia for armaments — debts which it could not possibly meet. King argues that “Ethiopians are dying in the north because combatants on both sides place a higher value upon future political structures than upon immediate human suffering” (p.64). It is not simply the internal war over who will achieve political supremacy that is the problem but also a conflict within the Horn of Africa between the rivalry of America and Russia “to demonstrate which of the superpowers is blessed with the more powerful musculature” (p.64). In the nineteenth century the same conflict had occurred between France and Britain.
The Horn juts into a region containing the world’s major oil reserves. Sudan and Ethiopia may have extensive reserves themselves. The Horn also represents a major strategic area for both America and Russia as well as being adjacent to the important transport routes of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It is little wonder that when drought and famine occur, there is a limited capacity for response. The absurdity of this situation is pinpointed by King when discussing the Somali-Ethiopia conflict:
“the 1977-8 war could not have been fought had the modem weaponry not been so indulgently supplied. The Americans (after the Second World War) first armed the Ethiopians; then the Soviets (after 1963) armed the Somalis; then the Somalis (1964 and 1977) attacked the Ethiopians; during which the Soviets re-armed the Ethiopians; after which the Americans and their allies re-armed the Somalis, (p. 116)”
Even where a country has been funded for development purposes the problems of international finance can have disastrous consequences. By 1985 Sudan’s debt was $11 billion representing $500 per head of population in a country whose GNP per capita was less than $400. The IMF’s typical response was to suggest austerity measures.
It is no coincidence that Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia have doubled as theatres of war and famine. In 1985 the government of Siad Barre spent 65 per cent of its budget on military expenditure. The Somali government has pursued a policy of absorbing neighbouring territories inhabited by people whom it sees as having a Somali identity, regardless of the national barriers arbitrarily imposed by the former colonial powers. Somalia has courted aid from various sources as was seen above. For Russia it is reported that in return for military aid they were granted unrestricted access to Somali airfields which would allow reconnaissance over the Indian Ocean. Since 1980 the United States have been offered the use of Soviet built air and naval bases at Barbera for their Rapid Deployment Force.
The double standard involved in the conflicts within the Horn over autonomy and independence fail to recognise the dependency on foreign aid and on the very fact of having to exist in modern capitalism. The fuelling of nationalistic claims is contrary to the international nature of capital. Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia waste precious energies upon causes which have little benefit for the inhabitants of those countries. Rather they exacerbate the inability to cope with natural disasters that periodically occur. For the superpowers it is a battle to achieve spheres of influence again with scant regard for the needs of the indigenous populations.
The world is economically interdependent and for King this emphasises the waywardness of pursuing nationalistic imperatives. He seems to have a view of a one-world capitalist system which could be of benefit to the emerging African states through such multi-national organisations as the UN. He wishes to see a system whereby the poorer states can exercise more control over their lives and this would involve equalising power between rich and poor states:
“there are various measures which can be pursued — liberalizing trade, providing greater aid., stabilizing commodity prices, stabilizing arrangements with multi-nationals, increasing investment in Third World agricultural and industrial development — which in fact should prove mutually beneficial to Africa and the North. (p.211)”
Yet this flies in the face of all the evidence he has previously presented of an essentially competitive world in which conflict is endemic. His warnings about nuclear armageddon or ecological collapse are real threats and point to the need for an alternative future, but his view is limited and this he admits when he accepts that “development — meaning the achievement of greater equality between nations — will most certainly not end all inequity, brutality, exploitation and the rest. But there is no alternative” (p.221). His programme is to offer alternative relative poverty. He admits that the difference between poor and rich in developing and developed nations is little different in that “the domestic gap between rich and poor within developing states is on average no more than 4 per cent greater than within developed states” (p.220) but argues that the relative standards of living would see an actual improvement for the “third world” nations.
What King fails to extrapolate from his evidence are the possibilities inherent within technology and world resources for a radical alternative future. This is not based on the pious hope of a transformed. caring capitalism, which even King admits is untenable. King wants democracy so that the needs of individuals can be met. but this notion is not consistent with capitalism. It is only when we begin with the desire to fulfil the needs of individuals that the transformation of society can begin and the inequalities and impoverishment imposed by capitalism be removed.