By Bonny Ibhawoh,

Comments on NGO Roundtable on “Neocolonialism, Neoliberalism and the Refugee Question,” organised by KARAWANE, Jena, Germany, October 2000.

Although African states are today independent of colonialism, they remain heavily dependent and exploited under the effects of internal political failures, neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism.This dependency and exploitation particularly through the activities of Trans National Corporations, adversely affects the living conditions of millions of people in Africa, creating economic hardship and in some cases encouraging political repression. These problems can be linked to the crisis of underdevelopment in Africa and the attendant refugee problem.

What is neo-colonialism?
One of the foremost proponents of neo colonialism was the former Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah who described neo-colonialism as the worst form of imperialism and capitalist exploitation. The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State that is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. Foreign capital is used for exploitation rather than development of less developed countries; investment increases gap between rich and poor. Aid given to neo-colonial state returns to the imperialist country.

Workings of Neo Colonialism
Largely because of the world capitalist system and the so-called international division of labour which sees Africa only as producers of primary commodities, most African nations have no viable integrated industries which can diversify their economies and supply the rest of the world with finished products. Mining production for example is destined principally for exportation. What stays in Africa is the wages paid for the mineworkers. A majority of money spent on salaries goes to Western directors, and much of the profit goes to Western Trans-national corporations.

Two examples: 1) Debeers and the diamond trade in Angola, Sierra Lone and the Congo that has encouraged the war in these countries and impoverished them. A recent UN report implicated Western firm and countries including Belgium in the illegal diamond trade. 2) Shell in Nigeria and the Ogoni crisis which led to the state execution of the environmental right activist Ken Saro Wiwa

African states often do not have very much capital with which to initiate or sustain industrialization. Although agriculture is important, industrialization is equally important in today’s industrial world. African states often do not get fair prices for their primary export commodities, which are usually their only source of income. This is because they have little control over the international money market. The prices of primary commodities such as cocoa, timber, rubber have all collapsed.  For many years, inflation in the prices of imported consumer good has affected Africans without anyone coming to their aid.

Obstacles to Economic Development
The global outcry and opposition over the inequitable trade regulations being put in place by the World Trade Organization has drawn attention to the inequities in the global economic system. The demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO meeting there are an example of this growing awareness. At no other time in history has there been greater disparity between very rich nations and very poor nations.

Nations in the West are forming coalitions to integrate protect their economies (NAFTA in North America and the European Union in Europe). Yet at the same time, poor developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are continually urged by the World Bank and the IMF to liberalize and remove protectionist policies from their economic programs. For Africa, redressing this is an urgent challenge. Neo-colonialism and neo liberalism make continental planning harder over time, because narrow national markets becomes structurally entrenched.

However, Neo-colonialism alone does not fully explain Africa’s present-day developmental challenges. There is also the question of corruption and the failures of political leadership. Some scholars would even suggest that the whole notion of  “neo-colonialism” as proffered by post-colonial leaders like Nkrumah enable them to deflect criticisms of their own failures and instead place the blame on external factors.

 Neocolonialism and the Refugee Question
·Although many people may not readily see it, there is an obvious link between contemporary neo colonialism in Africa and the refugee question which currently confronts many Western sates and affects the lives of so many displaces Africans. Historically, the wave of refugee migrations has always been associated with political and economic difficulties. People have also moved to other countries when confronted by economic hardship and political persecution.

The history of Canada is an example of this pattern of refugee migration. In the 17th and 18th century, the first migrants were English commoners seeking a better economic life in the New World. The English were followed by poor starving Irish who were fleeing the Irish Famine of 1845-50. Then came the Italian in the early part if the 19th century, again fleeing the economic hardship in post War Europe and later, came the Ukrainians fleeing communist persecution. Today, many of  those fleeing prosecution are from the Third World. They are fleeing both economic hardships and political persecution.

The economic hardship and political persecution induced by the workings of neolibralism has been one of the reasons for the influx of refugees from developing countries in Africa to the West. But as I have pointed out these migrations are not unique to Africa or historically unprecedented. They only reflect the present global economic and political realities.

To adequately address the refugee question, we must address both the internal and external causes of irregular migration. The internal causes centre on the failure of political leadership. The external causes include the the problem of global economic inequalities among the nations of the word, the exploitation of multinationals and the complicity of Western countries in the political persecution of opponents by African regimes.

The refugee question therefore has to be put in proper historical context and address in the light of the fundamental economic problems that give rise to it. The clamp down and harassment of refugees now being carried out by some Western countries will not adequately address the problem. Such tactic only addresses the symptom rather than the ailment.