Leta Siasa

Friday, January 28, 2005


An Opinion Piece by Meshack Owino, Ph.D.(Rice University), Assistant Professor of African History at

Bloomsburg University

"...The chameleon gets behind the fly, remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when well within reach, he darts his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly..."

(King Lobengula of Ndebele Kingdom).

With the entry of two more foreign companies bidding for an economic monopoly of

Lake Victoria (The Sunday Standard, January 22, 2005), what more can we, the ordinary people of Kenya, expect in terms of controlling the resources of a country we should be calling our own? The people we elected to be our "leaders" have turned into robber barons selling off our country bit by bit. Soon these people who masquerade as leaders will be selling the people off to the highest bidder. By the end of this century, it will be a miracle if any Kenyan will still be left standing by these greedy African agents of neo-colonialism, agents who, in cahoots with multinational and transnational companies, are milking and bleeding the Kenyan people dry.

After selling off every moveable and portable asset in the country, every public toilet and every public cemetery, these greedy Kenya African leaders have now turned their greedy eyes onto inalienable, natural resources of our land like Lake Victoria. We are reading exposes in newspapers such as the Standard that these leader-turned-robbers have received, and have actually started to consider, applications by foreign companies to privatize Lake Victoria, the second largest water lake in the world, the source of livelihood for millions of people who are indigenous to the region. Whoever gave these leaders the right to award exclusive rights to our Lake Victoria to foreign companies is another matter altogether, but when these leaders claim that they are only but trying to see how to carefully and judiciously award a monopolistic control of the lake to a foreign concern without jeopardizing the rights of access of the local ordinary people, you are left wondering whether they know their history.

Applications such as the ones we are reading about with respect to Lake Victoria ought to be tossed into the garbage dump the moment they land on a government desk. Instead, we are reading that the applications are actually being considered by our leaders, who, unbelievably, come from around the Lake Victoria. It is incredible! By even considering the application to privatize Lake Victoria, the leaders, especially the ones from around Lake Victoria, are betraying a disturbing ignorance of the history of the last five hundred years of foreign exploitation of the African continent, a history which tells us exactly how empty rhetoric, sugar-coated lies, and outright and blatant violence have been used to take over the resources of the people of Africa. Our leaders seem to have forgotten that the fore-fathers of the same people who have now tabled an application to own exclusive rights to Lake Victoria were once slave traders, who forcibly captured and sold Africans like livestock at market places, putting Africans to the yoke and working them on plantations and mines. They seem to have forgotten how Africans who were too sick, tired, or old to work during the era of slave trade, were unceremoniously disposed off like dogs. This is something that went on for four hundred years. More than 20 million Africans died during this infamy, and the African continent was nearly destroyed. Have these leaders not heard about the slave trade, and sugar-coated lies that were used to justify it?

No sooner had the slave trade ended than the slave traders came back under a new guise and with another scheme. Colonialism, they said, was a good scheme for the African people. It would bring Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization to the "Dark Continent." The colonization of the African continent, Rudyard Kipling argued, was a "White Man's Burden," a white man's responsibility to shoulder on behalf of the hapless African. Colonialism was imposed on the African people using nearly the same rhetoric that are being used to sugar-coat applications to colonize Lake Victoria. In 1876,

King Leopold II of Belgium formed a company with a high sounding name: "The International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Congo." The company, just like the ones now lining up to grab Lake Victoria, was marketed in Africa, Europe, and America, as a philanthropic outfit whose main objective was to "civilize" Africans in Central Africa, promote "legitimate commerce" as an alternative to the slave trade, and generally develop Africa. But Africans rued the day King Leopold II chanced on Congo. No sooner was King Leopold II's gimmick approved by the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 [never mind who gave the conference the right to divvy up the African continent] than he turned the people of Congo into his personal slaves, and their land into his own personal fiefdom. Millions died during Leopold II's civilization missions in Congo. Men and women were brutalized if they did not go to work for Leopold's companies, and their hands were chopped off as punishment. If one's hand had been chopped off, but one continued to malinger, Leopold II's companies would chop off one's children's hands! Children as young as five years were not spared in King Leopold II's philanthropic Congo Free State. The outcry unleashed by King Leopold II's atrocities in the Congo were too much even by the standard of European brutality at the time, and Belgium was forced to step in and take over the colony in 1908, promising to rehabilitate the colony. But that promise, too, was a pack of lies. Have our leaders not heard about Leopold and the nightmare he visited on the Congo?

Throughout the African continent, Africans were facing a similar fate after signing sugar-coated agreements with Europeans. Packaged and marketed as panaceas to Africa's problems, these agreements turned out to be elaborate schemes designed to dupe Africans into selling their birth-rights. In Zimbabwe, King Lobengula of Ndebele signed an agreement with the British South African Company after the company assured him after much hesitation that the agreement was only for the exploration of minerals in Ndebeleland. But no sooner was the ink on the agreement dry than King Lobengula learned that the Europeans, as usual, had tricked him. A furious King Lobengula tried to fight back, but by then it was too late. Using the fraudulent agreement, the British South Africa Company took over Ndebeleland, declared King Lobengula a terrorist, and hunted him down till he died in the bush, but not before the king ruefully recalled how he had been tricked into selling off his land the way a chameleon tricks a fly to come near, darts out a tongue, and gobbles up the fly; the Europeans were the chameleon, and Lobengula was the fly. Have our leaders not heard about the fate that befell Lobengula?

The Italians tried to pull off the same trick in Ethiopia when they lured

Emperor Menelik into signing the Treaty of Wichalle in 1889, keeping secret the fact that while the Amharic version of the agreement simply stated that the Italians and Ethiopians had entered into an agreement of friendship, the Italian version of the very same treaty declared that Emperor Menelik had agreed to place Ethiopia under the Italian protection. Emperor Menelik only learned later that he had gullibly signed off his country's sovereignty. He was only saved when he declared war on the Italians, and scored a massive military victory over them at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Have our leaders forgotten about the Italian betrayal of Menelik?

Foreign, especially, Western, modus operandi of exploiting Africa and the Africans has always been the same. Lies and guile, and when lies and guile fail, force is used. They mislead you into entering an agreement proclaiming it as being in your interest, that the agreement can be temporary, and that there can be room for redress should you want to change your mind in the future. Only after signing the agreement do you learn of its full implications, and traps within it. You learn that you have been had, and there is no room for arbitration. The British misled Lenana into signing off the land of his own birth, the land of his people. To this day, the Maasai are refugees in their own land, still yearning for justice. When the British tried to pull off the same trick on the Nandi and failed, they resorted to force. It is always the same thing- the exploitation of the African people through lies or force or both - whether or not one is talking about the slave trade, colonialism, or neo-colonialism. It happened to

Khedive Ismail when he tried to modernize Egypt; to

Sekou Toure when he declared Guinea independent of France; to

Kwame Nkrumah when he tried to develop his country through programs of industrialization; to

Laurent Kabila when he tried to free his country from the shackles of western exploitation; it is a story that is as old as foreign relations with Africa. The evidence of foreign exploitation of Africa under the guise of developing Africa is all over the place. The evidence of foreign mendacity and duplicity in the exploitation of our continent is all there. Why our people don't see or get it, I just don't understand!

Why are we African people so gullible? When will our leaders learn from our history? Why do we make the same mistake after mistake instead of learning from our history, which is littered with example after example of foreign ventures that were marketed to our people as being altruistic only to become millstones around our necks? Or do the leaders know about the history only that they are too greedy to care? In that case, pity the African people – for the fate of Lobengula awaits us.