Africa: From Colonialism to Jubilee

What an incredible trip! For three months we traveled in little puddle jumping prop planes down the west coast of Africa and up the east, visiting countries on the verge of independence. My father was a journalist, and editor of Toward Freedom, at that time a humble four page newsletter published in Chicago and dedicated to ‘the peaceful elimination of colonialism’.  He had befriended a number of African students studying in Chicago area universities.  These connections with young advocates of African independence helped open doors for us.

This was a time for hope for Africa. The late fifties and sixties saw the growth of the Third World movement, made up of developing nations that in the UN formed the Non-Aligned movement. For a time, this ‘project’ became a power block between the West and the Soviet Union. Colonialism was crumbling and enthusiastic and talented young (male) leaders were lining up to take power. Nkrumah stated, "Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of the African continent."

And now? The last of those old leaders is going down in flames of corruption and hubris – Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwee (Southern Rhodesia when we visited).  Some of the others – Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya of Kenya, Hastings Banda of Malawi, Lumumba of the Congo- are long dead or assassinated. What happened to their dreams?

Earlier this year I was in Africa on a delegation with JubileeUSA to visit Zambia to look at the connections between debt and poverty and I had time to ponder this question. AIDS, violence and resource piracy are killing Africa. But what structures allow these phenomena to flourish?

A recent editorial in the Nation by Vijay Prashad vividly describes this slow tragic spiral into poverty and war. "Today, the Third World project is no longer.  It was not a failure, for that implies it was doomed from the start.  No, it was assassinated. The main culprit was not corruption, one-party rule or famine; it was what we have come to call globalization.  From its inception, the third World project faced an enemy in the advanced capitalist states (led, with confidence, by the United States), determined to subdue any independent dynamic in the darker nations.

For three decades the Third World was able to fend off that challenge, partly due to backing from the Soviet Union and China, but mainly because of the widespread support the project enjoyed among the masses of people who lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America." Prashad then describes how new nations, indebted because of the plummeting prices for raw materials (and other factors) in the 60s and 70s, turned to the International Monetary Fund for assistance.

They found that they could receive loans only if they submitted their economies to ‘structural adjustments’. In our talks with Zambian activists and researchers we found that some of the conditions of structural adjustment that had impoverished Zambia for several decades was the IMF mandated ‘user fees’ in education and health care.  If a child’s family could not pay the school fee, the child had to drop out.  Many did.  Cuts in numbers and salary levels of public employees encouraged corruption as workers sought to bring their annual income up to a livable wage. Prashad explains, "The IMF desiccated the capacity of states to act on behalf of their own populations, and threw people to the wolves of destitution and hopelessness."

The Jubilee Movement

Participation in the Jubilee delegation was a fitting way for me personally to appreciate and take action on the issues my father introduced me to so many decades ago. The Jubilee movement – initially called Jubilee2000 and based on the biblical injunctions of Leviticus – advocates that every seven years, those enslaved because of debts are freed, lands lost because of debt are returned, and community is restored.

Jubilee 2000 grew from small beginnings in the 90’s to become an international campaign that brought great pressure to bear on G7 leaders to "cancel the unpayable debts of the poorest countries by the year 2000, under a fair and transparent process". By the end of the campaign, 24 million signatures had been gathered for the Jubilee 2000 petition, the first-ever global petition. There were Jubilee 2000 campaigns in more than 60 countries around the world. G7 leaders committed to writing off $100bn of poor country debts, and debt had been pushed on to the global political agenda.

However, since then the powerful nations have backpedaled on their commitments. Zambia, as one country that finally qualified for debt reduction after jumping through all sorts of hoops required of Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) has been able to cancel school fees, and hospital fees in rural areas. But we found that they still face onerous restrictions on development.  For example they have followed IMF instructions to put a cap on medical workers salaries; so nurses trained in Zambia are unable to earn a livable wage when they graduate, and often leave the country for work in other African countries, or England.

The Jubilee USA Network has grown into an alliance of more than 80 religious denominations and faith communities, human rights, environmental, labor, and community groups working for the definitive cancellation of crushing debts to fight poverty and injustice in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The Network is making a strong effort to reach out to faith communities, encouraging them to become more active in the fight to save lives and restore hope for the millions affected by the debt crisis. The website states "Jubilee Congregations aims to broaden and deepen the roots of U.S. faith communities in standing with our brothers and sisters in the developing world."

I will be going to their national conference in Chicago this June with Sebastien Hakizimana, a refugee from Burundi who has been living here in Burlington for the last three years.  Upon our return we plan to contact churches, synagogues and mosques to urge participation in this special Jubilee year, seven years since the millennium Jubilee of 2000 and midway towards the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN for 2015. Check out their website for resources and activities:

One final note about the impact of globalization: a memento that we brought back from Ghana fifty years ago was a spread of Kente cloth. It is hanging here in my office as I type. This brilliantly colored cloth is a woven material originally made for the royalty of the Ashante tribe of Ghana. It has become the icon of African cultural heritage around the world.  In commenting on the decline of manufacturing in Ghana  and its heavy indebtedness under structural adjustment, Vilay Prashad states, "In a tragic coda to this story, the Fiftieth Anniversary Jubilee kente cloth, with Nkrumah’s image emblazoned on it, was printed in China. ‘We must be able to print our anniversary clothes,’ said Abraham Coomson, general secretary of Ghana’s Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union.  ‘Otherwise what are we celebrating?’"

Robin Lloyd is the publisher of Toward Freedom.