Criminal & Delightful: Harvard’s Campaign of Plunder in Africa

Former British PM Tony Blair in Sierra Leone.

The great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, published a short story in 1972 titled Dead Men’s Path. In this story Achebe details a tense encounter between Michael Obi, the appointed headmaster of the Ndume Central School, and the village priest of Ani. Headmaster Obi, intent on building a “modern and delightful” society that would save the “superannuated people” of Nigeria from their backward ways, aroused the discontent of the indigenous community after he blocked their ancestral footpath with sticks and coils of barbed wire. The exchange between Obi and the priest followed as such:

Priest of Ani: Look here, my son. This path was here before you was born and your father was born. The whole life of the village depends on it. Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of our children coming in to be born.

Obi: The whole purpose of our school is to eradicate just such beliefs as that. Dead men do not require footpaths. The whole idea is fantastic. Our duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas.

This short passage from Achebe’s tale speaks volumes to what many regions of Africa had to endure under the banner of “modernization ” and  serves as an allegory for what’s unfolding in Africa today.

A recent study produced by the Oakland Institute titled Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa sheds light on a campaign of dispossession taking place at the behest of European and US corporations. While the involvement of private agricultural companies–Monsanto, Summit Farms, Stine, etc.–is expected, the more disturbing aspect of this campaign is that it has received a stamp of approval from the halls of academia.

Two wheat farmers in Ethiopia

The Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, has exposed the fact that Harvard, Iowa State, Vanderbilt University, and Spelman  College have all participated in the plundering of the continent by “[putting] money into the hands of specialized investment funds” and “[maintaining] secrecy on such unpopular activities. ” These unpopular activities, based on current figures, will threaten the territorial integrity of 700,000 indigenous Ethiopians, 162,000 Burundian refugees, the availability of farming lands, and access to clean water. But the “affluent” owners of the Universities appear unperturbed by the implications of this act of theft. Like Headmaster Obi, their job is to teach us to “laugh at such ideas”.

Yet while the privileged find atrocities of this kind laughable, the tragic dimension of this crime is illuminated by the fact that this is not an unusual occurrence. Indeed, from the Orissa mountains in India to the ceremonial grounds in Mexico, the process of globalization has made it crystal clear that indigenous people are, at best, a hindrance to “progress” and rapid modernization can only come about at the expense of the poor.

What’s more disgusting about this current episode of conquest is that it’s being carried out with loftiest of rhetoric, with vows to integrate African farmers into the world of “modern agriculture” where they would have access to “quality seed, fertilizer, credit, value added process facilities, and technical training.” This piece of propaganda published by the Pharos Global Agricultural Fund forgot to add one important fact. That African farmers will also have access to beatings, prisons, and flying bullets if they dare to resist the hegemony of their Western overlords. To find an example of this look no further than Tanzania where refugee leaders who have organized groups to combat this expansion were systematically arrested and imprisoned. Another instance can be found in Samana Dugu, Mali where members of civil society were brutalized and jailed for protesting massive tree removals.

When this brutal legacy of plunder is paired with the glistening, air-conditioned corridors of the Ivy League it’s difficult not to fall over in ridicule when commentators regurgitate platitudes about esteemed scholars at prestigious institutions. Well, I’ve grown exhausted with the bloodless lectures about human rights and our respect for democratic values. The millions of African people enduring the barbarism of our “civilized” tribes do not want our handouts. Like the priest of Ani, I’m sure the people of Africa find our ways neither “modern” nor “delightful”. To be precise, I think they rightfully view us as criminals.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique psychoanalyst and author of the classic Wretched of the Earth, also had something to say to the oppressed people of Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Zambia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone. Striking out against the bloody legacy of European imperialism, he wrote, “No, it is not a question of dragging man back to nature. It is the very basic question of not dragging man in directions which mutilate him. The notion of catching up must not be used as a pretext to brutalize man, to tear him from himself and his inner consciousness, to break him, to kill him.”

Perhaps the distinguished scholars of Iowa State or Vanderbilt should visit the University library and check Fanon’s book out. It’s a great read and maybe (just maybe) it will help them realize how much blood we have on our hands.


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