The ICJ judgment was read by the court’s president, Justice Joan E Donoghue. The panel of judges included Ugandan, Julia Sebutinde. PHOTO UN/ICJ
How the ruling against Uganda presents Africa a golden opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of ICJ
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Uganda for “looting” (among other crimes) the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should be celebrated across Africa, Latin America and those nations of Asia and Oceania that were colonised. It has set an important precedent that, although unlikely to bear fruit, provides considerable grist for the demand-for-reparations mill. It will also help expose the court’s role in protecting the interests of the powerful against those of the weak.
Western nations carry an irritating sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness. They feel entitled to lecture other nations on how to be good global citizens. They have made it their duty to intervene in other nations using moral persuasion, ideological indoctrination, financial bribes and in extreme cases military intervention to reshape these societies according to their fancies. Yet the bigger challenge for poor countries is local elites have swallowed, with remarkable naivety, Western pretentions to moral leadership.
The decision of ICJ came when I was reading Thomas Piketty’s second major work, Capital and Ideology. Somewhere, it deals with the end of slavery by Britain, France and USA, the advent of colonialism and the ideological justifications advanced to end the former and begin the latter. This sequence was no accident. We shall return to this to show how the end of colonialism marked the beginning of neocolonialism, cloaked as development assistance.
Great Britain was the first country to abolish slavery in 1833. Because slaves were private property, abolishing slavery meant forceful expropriation. But British ideological teachings, and therefore British law, treated private property as sacrosanct. The government decided to fully compensate slave owners up to the market value of their slaves. Some 20 million British pounds were paid to 4,000 slave owners – an amount equal to 5% of the UK’s GDP at the time. If this were done in 2018, it would have cost UK $136 billion or $30 million for each expropriated slave owner.
However, the slaves were never even considered for compensation for centuries of unpaid labour and/or the many physical and psychological abuses they suffered. On the contrary, once freed, slaves were forced to sign “relatively rigid and undercompensated long-term labour contracts which left most of them in semi-forced labour for long periods” after emancipation.
The case of Haiti, now labelled a “failed state”, is most illustrative. Slaves on that island nation rebelled and in armed confrontations defeated the army of Napoleon. In 1804 they declared independence. In 1825, France threatened to invade Haiti unless its government agreed to compensate French slave owners for their “loss of property.” It imposed an economic embargo; the French fleet imposed a naval blockade and threatened a military invasion. Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million gold francs, an amount equivalent to 300% of her GDP at the time or $45 billion in today’s dollars.
Writes Picketty: “With financing at an annual interest of 5%… not even counting the juicy commissions bankers did not fail to add in the course of numerous partial defaults and negotiations over the subsequent decades,” this meant that Haiti was forced to pay 15% of its GDP every year to France, indefinitely. And this was only payment of interest without even beginning to pay down the principle. Yet we hear that Haiti is poor because of “bad governance” by its corrupt leaders who “do not care about their people.” Yet Haiti spent 125 years paying France and later USA bankers (who bought the French loans). And all this for what? Simply because its people did not want to live forever as slaves.
Some African leaders, to wit Idi Amin in Uganda and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, have tried to redress these colonial wrongs. But they were forced to pay a steep price. Western powers reacted to these leaders’ expropriations of colonially inherited privileges and riches with economic sanctions and sabotage. Their economies were wrecked and their successors forced to surrender.
Can the DRC sue Belgium for the loot and genocide that lasted 80 years and actually continues today? Can all other colonised countries that suffered from extortionate taxation, land expropriations, genocide and forced labour under European colonial domination sue for reparations? Can African Americans sue the U.S. government for compensation for centuries of unpaid wages under slavery? What would be the ruling of ICJ and the U.S. Supreme Court?
Western nations claim these crimes were committed by their ancestors and therefore the current generations bear no responsibility. But Haiti continued to pay its obligations to France and USA until 1950. Germany and France up to this day compensate Jews who lost their property during the holocaust; the U.S. has compensated families of Japanese it interned during World War Two – over 75 years ago. ICJ cannot rule against Western nations for their lootings and genocides because this is a question of power, not justice.
Otherwise, even if we accepted the claim that colonialism was “long ago”, poor countries can sue for Structural Adjustment Programs imposed on them by IMF and World Bank backed by Western powers. Here, national assets built out of the savings of citizens, were sold to multinational corporations for a song – under duress from IMF on governments not democratically elected. Many multinationals stripped these companies of their assets and shipped money to their shareholders abroad.
Yet Africa’s real problem is the colonisation of the mind of the African elite. They believe their main problem is their leaders. They ignore the external forces that rob the continent but claim to represent its emancipation. The African Union commission chaired by Thabo Mbeki, former South African president, found that 70% of money Africa loses annually is through illegal activities of multinational corporations – via transfer pricing, tax evasion, smuggling, etc., only 5% is by African-leader thieves. Yet Africa’s “intellectuals” kill each other over this 5% and ignore the 70% – talk of chronic ideological bankruptcy.
Steve Biko, that great anti-apartheid hero-activist, once said that the biggest weapon in the hands of an oppressor is not their military but the mind of the oppressed. The African intellectual is mentally colonised. Western powers intrude into our affairs claiming to seek to liberate us from ourselves using democracy and human rights, which they spice with small gifts of economic aid (which they give with one hand and immediately take with another). Yet this messianic mission is a smokescreen for commercial motives. If European powers represent justice for Africans, let our nations sue at the ICJ seeking justice over all the looting, pillaging, genocide, etc. that Europe has committed on this continent – including in Libya only ten years ago- and we hear the verdict.