Sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US, protests against racism and police brutality have flared across the world. Many demand an end to the structural discrimination faced by people of African descent in Europe and North America and changes in the way the history of their subjugation is remembered (or, more accurately, not remembered). The focus has been on the struggles of black people in white-majority societies for rights, dignity and equality.
Less has been said about the racism inherent in the existing international order and the obstacles faced by black-majority nations. In principle, all nations have equal sovereignty; in practice, they have anything but. A racial hierarchy is clearly evident, with white nations at the top of the ladder, those of black Africa at the bottom.
The situation of the African continent on the international stage has many parallels with that of American black people, including a history of political and economic marginalisation and exploitation. The continent is home to 54 of the UN’s 193 member states and 1.3bn people, but it does not merit a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
Economically, sub-Saharan Africa lives at the bottom of global wealth and trade indices, accounting for less than 1 per cent of global wealth, although their natural resources include a fifth of the planet’s gold. The UN’s high level panel on illicit financial flows from Africa, described the continent as losing an estimated $70bn annually to illegal flows, much of it to the west.
HSBC documents leaked in 2015 showed that east African elites had stashed away more than $700m in offshore accounts. A decade earlier, a leaked report by risk consultancy Kroll found that the regime of former Kenyan dictator, Daniel arap Moi, had used a web of shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen to hide more than $1bn in 28 countries — including Britain, the US, Belgium and Australia. An analysis of 39 African countries showed that between 1970 and 2010, $1.3tn had been moved off shore. It said that “in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, about half of each dollar borrowed flees the continent in the same year”.
The International Criminal Court has long been accused of an Africa bias. Currently 10 of the 13 situations being investigated by the Office of the Prosecutor are on the continent, although African countries comprise less than one-third of the membership.
The Black Lives Matter movement is pushing for recognition of systemic factors that created and perpetuate America’s black underclass. Similarly, any examination of current issues in Africa cannot ignore the centuries of foreign subjugation and domination of the continent. They have left a legacy of ineffectual and illegitimate states, ruling restive populations within borders that make little political or economic sense.
Africa’s place in the international hierarchy is reflected in the language of international discourse and the patronising and paternalistic relations between “developed” and “developing” countries. Such language sets up Europe as the standard to which other countries must aspire.
“Empire is a racket of assimilation,” says the Kenyan academic Wandia Njoya. “They basically say ‘I am superior to you and for you to be like me you have to do what I say and then I approve whether you are like me or not’.” The ideology of “development” can be seen as a rebranding of the “civilising mission” of colonialism and continues to justify many of the same hypocrisies and impositions.
At a moment when protesters are focused on how individual countries have dealt with black people, it is important to enlarge the conversation to demand justice and equality for the citizens of black-majority nations.
With US and European executives now eager to show themselves sensitive to the value of black lives, naming and shaming companies that minimise the taxes they pay in Africa could prompt them to change their behaviour. It is ironic that even as European countries sanction US groups for failing to pay taxes in Europe, large European companies operating in Africa are accused of doing much the same thing.
Last year, the Tax Justice Network’s Corporate Tax Haven Index listed the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg as well as four British territories and dependencies among the top 10 countries “that have done the most to proliferate corporate tax avoidance and break down the global corporate tax system”.
It is just as important to change the way history is told. As Ms Njoya points out, domination is about prioritising “a single story that silences all other stories” — the European story. Telling an alternative tale of the continuing struggle against a racist and extractive global system would begin to shift the conversation away from charity and dependence towards respect and dignity.