For four hundred years, the African was a commercial item in international trade. The Transatlantic Slave Trade flourished from the 15th to the late 19th centuries, at the expense of Africa. For the African was the most sought for item in this trade, also known as the Middle Passage Trade, or the Triangular Trade.
A poster from the period has been widely reproduced in history books. It reads in part, “To be sold, on 23rd day of August next.” This handbill went on to give details of the sale and the goods, “A cargo of ninety-four prime healthy Negroes, consisting of thirty-nine men, fifteen boys, twenty-four women and sixteen girls. Just arrived.”
Other Africans, of course, initially sold these people, mostly from West Africa, to Europeans. This does not negate the reality, however, that the African has been an item of trade in international commerce. She would be exchanged variously for whisky, linen, mirrors, arms and sundry basic industrial goods.
Africa must never forget this whenever she sits at table to negotiate matters of trade with the rest of the world. From being an item of trade, you have now been received at the negotiating table as a partner in trade. It can never be a dialogue of equals, however. A British colonial governor in Rhodesia infamously said that the only partnership possible between the rest of the world and Africa was like the partnership between the horse rider and the horse. The African was the horse in this matrix. He remains so.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) only underscores this reality, even when it comes to Nairobi. The jamboree in our capital this week has not transformed the Western mercantilism of the 16th – 18th centuries. The mercantile system was the economic converse of political absolutism in Europe. Through high tariffs, nations sought to dominate others via trade control, especially in finished goods. Colonies were not permitted to trade with other nations, except through the colonizing power. Even domestic consumption was restricted, through non-tariff barriers!
Any change since the 1700s only amounts to tokenism. And now for 14 years, the world has failed to make any meaningful conversation on “fair global trade.” From Doha in 2001, the world has stumbled on to Cancun, Mexico. It has moved from Cancun to Hong Kong and travelled from here to Paris, France and on to Potsdam, Germany. From Potsdam it has gone to Geneva, Switzerland. It eventually came to Africa this week. The issues have remained the same, the positions as hard as ever.
The WTO debates constitute the perfect Einstein paradox of lunacy. The world has done the same thing the same way and expected a different outcome each time. Such is lunacy. Dialogue is only possible among equals. Everything else is receiving instructions from the strong. The powerful will get their way while the weak at the best only have their say. It never goes beyond that. The powerful come to protect their goods and markets, while killing yours.
Tragically, the weak come expecting sympathy, charity and an elusive fairness. But the world is not about fairness. It never has been. Life is not fair. Fairness is indeed what romantic idealists of my kind dream about. In reality, however, we should know that the world does not function that way. It favours the strong.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o has reminded us in the novel Petals of Blood that some things eat. Others are eaten. It is the simple law of nature – you either eat or you are eaten. The weak will be eaten. That is why very few have ever seen a limping antelope. It will be eaten the same day it starts limping. In international trade, you are either a lion prowling to eat someone, or an antelope running away from predators. If you limp, you will go. Are Africans the antelopes in international forums? Why do our representatives go to these forums expecting pity?
In the end, such forums are of little value to the people of Africa and those from other poor nations. Simply put, they are useless. Going forward, Africa must seek to be strong. She needs to restore the intra Africa economic dialogue of the 1980s. Then the continent talked about opening up Africa to Africans. Under the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the continent reflected on strengthening economic and commercial ties within Africa. That remains the way to go.
The trade forums that will change Africa must first be exclusive forums of Africans, for Africa. They would focus on how we could trade better among ourselves, beyond existing regional blocks like SADC, COMESSA, ECOWAS and the like. Only when we have solidified our economic cooperation on the continent could we expect meaningful dialogue with the rest of the world. And when it comes to Africa talking to the world, we don’t even need a jamboree like the one just ended in Nairobi.
We only need to send three or four individuals to read to the world our terms. If they want our gold and timber, they must do so on our terms. We will determine our coffee prices, restore our cotton production and generally revamp our agriculture. We will even harness our industrial and manufacturing potential and migrate from primary production to viable value addition. Only then can we sit down as equal partners with those who still think we are items of trade.
When you come to think of it, the slave mode of primary production has not changed. It is only the theatre of production that has migrated to Africa, Latin America and Asia. The dictators who reign on these continents remain the biggest impediment to visionary unity and economic cooperation and liberation.