Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I am Clark, Scourge of Tigray, Hammer of the Oromo

Canadian public policy circles tend to discuss African politics as a backdrop to a familiar argument about a proposed "Duty to Protect". "Internationalists" are all telling us that state sovereignty is completely outmoded and that if Canadians weren't such sorry selfish wusses, we would be spending half the GDP on invading various impoverished places and sorting out their governance and identity issues. Africa is a handy example for them to use, because it indeed has and has had serious problems of predatory states and ethnic-based slaughter.

But what few of us talk about is that Canada's historic role in Africa has frequently been to actively promote predatory states and ethnic-based slaughter. It's at least arguable that the real lesson should be "first, do no harm."

Trudeau and his foreign minister Mitchell Sharp strongly supported the federal government in Nigeria when it starved and bombed Biafra, homeland of the Igbo (the "Jews of Africa"), into submission. Trudeau and Sharp saw the situation in Nigeria as analogous to Quebec secession, and they were prepared to countenance a bit of ethnic massacre to prevent a bad precedent. (Another possibile motive is raised by this report from the BBC. Apparently, the Biafran conflict was an Franco-British proxy conflict, even though such things were no longer supposed to be going on in 1970. Trudeau in 1970 saw France as Canada's major foreign antagonist.)

The Progressive Conservative and NDP opposition protested Trudeau's stand in Biafra. But the most shameful episode was tripartisan. In the mid-eighties, the military-communist government of Ethiopia repeated Stalin's forced collectivization experiment in 1930s Ukraine, with similar results. The Reagan administration was mildly critical. The Trudeau and Mulroney governments -- for different reasons -- saw their African policy as a way of distinguishing themselves from the US.

This led Canada to knowingly finance forced resettlement programs. Disfavoured ethnic groups -- the Oromos in particular (since the Tigrayans and Eritreans could defend themselves) -- were dumped Soviet-style far from their homes with generous assistance from the Canadian taxpayer. Much well-meaning rhetoric about "overpopulated areas" was forthcoming, on the theory that Canadian bureaucrats know better than Ethiopian peasants about what land is overpopulated.

Biafra and the mid-eighties famine in Ethiopia are hardly minor black spots in the recent history of Africa (and our intevention in Somalia didn't work out perfectly either). In both cases, we did something in Africa for reasons that have more to do with our own obsessions than what was going on there. But it will always be thus. Canadian politicians react to Canadian political realities. Even if an intellectual could design the ideal humanitarian intervention in her head, it would never be what was in fact delivered.

No comments: