10 Feb 2014

Ellis's Afro-phobia apparent in broader context

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 289: Ellis's Afro-phobia apparent in broader context / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
10 February 2014

Pallo Jordan recently criticised UK academic Stephen Ellis's persistent attempts to portray the African National Congress (ANC) as having been manipulated by white communists (McCarthyism Rounds on Freedom Charter, January 23). The debate that ensued, however, failed to provide a broader context for understanding Ellis's Afro-phobia. This is, after all, the man who caricatured Oliver Tambo, one of Africa's greatest freedom fighters, as the "perfect frontman (who) could generally be relied upon to deliver whatever speech was put in front of him by his aides". One of Africa's most respected academics, Malawi's Thandika Mkandawire, described Ellis's work on Liberia's civil war as "poorly veiled racist" writing that suggests "there is something fundamentally wrong with African culture". Liberian intellectual Amos Sawyer accused him of being "preoccupied with the search for the primitive".

Ellis's 1999 book on Liberia's civil war, The Mask of Anarchy, is in fact riddled with rumour-mongering, exotica and prejudiced stereotypes. He is dismissive of the peacekeeping efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), in effect portraying its soldiers as armed bandits. While some incidents of looting did take place, there is no acknowledgment of the fact that regional peacekeepers lost more than 500 troops in 10 years of lonely peacekeeping that helped to end a ghastly war.

Ellis's most notorious act of prejudice was, however, his 2005 article in the US establishment journal Foreign Affairs, "How to Rebuild Africa", in which he proposed the profoundly offensive idea of establishing a "trusteeship" for Africa's "failed states". As he put it: "This idea, anathema since the end of colonialism, deserves rehabilitation." Borrowing a typology that employed the tired stereotypes of prophets of Afro-phobia, Ellis ranks fragile African states into "anarchic", "phantom", "anaemic", "captured", and "aborted": crude and meaningless phrases that confuse more than they explain. He suggests ditching what he regards as conventional peace-building methods by "occasionally ... overriding (the) traditional national sovereignty" of African states. He proposed that external actors, including US representatives, seize control of managing government revenues in Liberia, with the project being legitimised by the United Nations (UN). As he put it: "Intrusive outside meddling often smacks of colonialism and is thus a bitter pill for African nationalists to swallow. But sometimes there is simply no alternative." Needless to say, these neocolonial Afropessimistic musings are based on the arrogant and patronising assumptions of often deeply prejudiced analysts calling on the West to "craft strategies" for Africans who seem unable to stand on their own feet in the difficult conditions of western "civilisation".

Ellis also exaggerates the UK's role in stabilising Sierra Leone in 2000, again downplaying that of Ecowas, which sought to protect the capital from rebels for a decade before forming the nucleus of a UN mission. Though the UK's intervention did help stabilise the situation, it deployed only 800 soldiers, who stayed in Sierra Leone for barely two months. Ellis then predicts that "if the UN and the British leave Sierra Leone in the near future, there is every reason to believe the state will once again collapse". The UN left Sierra Leone by December 2005, and it has not collapsed eight years later. Two successful democratic elections have been held and the country has not returned to war.

Ellis also dismisses aid to Africa: "None of these problems can be solved by simply throwing more cash at Africa.... New infusions of aid would likely perpetuate the kleptocratic regimes that have slowly strangled the continent." Aside from the fact that the vastly larger sums that were "thrown" at the Balkans in the 1990s helped countries such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo to recover from devastating conflicts, Ellis fails to note that such aid was often abused in the past by powerful western countries such as the US as a political tool to buy off corrupt autocrats in Liberia, Somalia, Zaire and Angola; to subsidise the export of western goods and arms at inflated prices; and to provide jobs for western technical experts.

Ellis then makes the insulting claim: "Few Africans can muster the confidence to invest in their countries, whether financially, professionally, or personally." The fact that the remittances sent to their home countries by African diaspora communities have surpassed the aid provided by outsiders exposes the absurdity of this statement.

Finally, Ellis mentioned in his defence against Jordan that he is the "Desmond Tutu professor" in Amsterdam. Not only is this irrelevant, the phenomenon of South African icons lending their names to dubious individuals is not unusual: just think of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation linking Africa's most celebrated liberation hero to the most odious imperialist in history.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday.

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