Vol. 23 No. 2 · 25 January 2001

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Recolonisation Issues

R.W. Johnson suggests (LRB, 14 December 2000) that Africa’s present misery is its own fault, or the fault of its leaders, and that we should consider ‘recolonisation’ as a way out of the ‘impasse’. This is a little like asking the burglars back in to sort out your insurance. In something like eighty years we Europeans managed to screw up Africa’s political structure, kill much of its population through disease, and severely damage its environment. What is even more dismaying is that not only do we not recognise the scramble in and out of Africa as one of the great crimes of humanity, but we are also beginning to feel nostalgic about it. ‘There were no wars,’ Johnson elegises, ‘everything worked (more or less), countries were developing quickly’ – but now the same countries have ‘gone backwards, looted and almost destroyed by the nationalist elites which came to power in them’. Hang on. Who imposed nation states on a complex of tribal areas? Who educated those elites? And if we’re talking about looting – who set the example?

Anyway, as Johnson surely knows down in Johannesburg, we Europeans never really left. Lord Lugard at least put it transparently: ‘For two or three generations we can show the Negro what we are: then we shall be asked to go away. Then we shall leave the land to those it belongs to, with the feeling that they have better business friends in us than in other white men.’ Britain, unlike France, carried this out with such characteristic minginess that the difference was still clear, I remember, in Cameroon in the 1970s: the health and education infrastructure in the ex-British part was pitiful in comparison with the ex-French part. The problem is that Lugard underestimated our mendacity; business-wise, the land (and the sea, for that matter, with its gargantuan European trawlers) belongs to the whites. Take the timber trade as an example. The richest long-term resource in equatorial Africa is the forest. It stretches over six countries, was made literary (and symbolic) by Conrad, and is known officially as the Congo Basin Rainforest. Ninety per cent of its creatures and plants have yet to be discovered. It is the size of twenty Englands yet day after day we Europeans are busy getting rid of it. Most of the damage is done by European mining and logging companies, and most of the clientele are European – lovers of mahogany wardrobes and all-weather teak (iroko) tables. According to the latest UN report, ‘deforestation has been halted and reversed in parts of Europe and North America,’ but the African forest is well on the way to disappearing. It covers around 200 million hectares, and some 50 million hectares have been felled in the last twenty years – which gives Conrad’s ‘invincible’ wilderness until around the middle of this century. (Since the Yaounde Forest Summit in March 1999, a few tiny spots – five million hectares – are theoretically ‘protected’.) Nigeria, once a major exporter of timber, now has to import the stuff. I remember standing on a beach in the Côte d’Ivoire and marvelling at the way the white sands were beetle-browed by the misty forest; now there is scarcely a shred left in the country.

Matters are made worse by new roads that have been driven through the bush to areas that were inaccessible a few years ago. Poachers bounce down them in their 4x4s, armed with high-powered guns that turn everything that moves into bush-meat. Animals such as gorillas, chimps and rare types of antelope are being driven to the brink of extinction, and aboriginal forest-dwellers like the Baka of eastern Cameroon or the BaMbuti of north-eastern Congo into roadside hovels. And who funds these roads? The EU, of course, doing their bit for trade. When the absence of trees causes the inevitable change in coastal monsoon patterns, bringing drought to West and Central Africa, will the EU still be there, plump wallet in hand?

Properly harvested, discreetly tapped of its oils and medicinal plants, even of the odd mature bole, the forest could make money, too, for the countries it lies in. At present these countries make next to nothing out of its destruction: a mature mahogany is worth about $30,000, of which some $30 goes to its country of origin. No wonder African leaders talk in utopian terms about ‘restructuring’ the world financial system, as Johnson scoffingly reminds us. So Africa ‘still needs Europe’s assistance’? Well, yes; the way a Sicilian restaurant owner might need the Mafia’s.

Adam Thorpe
Monoblet, France


The particular culpability of the processors and vendors of the cattle feed that spread BSE through the British herd and probably sent it elsewhere is raised trenchantly by Elizabeth Young (Letters, 4 January). Although the Phillips Report does not give complete absolution, stating that ‘we … censure (although we do not have the means to identify) those in the feed industry who deliberately breached the ruminant feed ban … after 18 July 1988,’ it apportions hardly any blame to them. The Report does, however, analyse in detail the legal activities of the firms involved, giving their names.

Far from being a modern practice, the feeding of meat and bone-meal (MBM) to farm animals was well established early in the 20th century in Britain and many other countries. It was specifically mentioned in the British Fertiliser and Feedingstuffs Act 1926 and was heartily supported by nutritionists. During the Second World War the inclusion of recycled meat in animal feed was made compulsory in the UK.

Phillips records that MBM exports from Britain rose from 12,553 tonnes in 1988, the year its use as feed for cattle (but not for pigs and poultry) was banned, to 25,005 tonnes in 1989. The view of the Government was that because the Chief Veterinary Officer had informed EU countries and had used official channels to tell the rest of the world about MBM and BSE, it did not also need to ban the export of a product which could still be lawfully sold in Britain for feeding to pigs and poultry. There was even a strong possibility that such a ban would be open to legal challenge. The guiding principle was caveat emptor. Phillips agrees, but with more than a hint of reluctance. He leaves one feeling that if blame were to be apportioned, the CVO would be the first to receive it – but that he did just enough to avoid it.

So the cattle-feed story is like the rest of the BSE saga. Villains dressed in black and carrying smoking guns are hard to find. On the contrary, everyone seemed to be following the advice of experts and officials. But policy was being driven by wildly optimistic guesses, about the infectivity of MBM as about other issues. The real failure was that nobody in the upper reaches of government challenged these comforting assumptions. It didn’t need a scientific training for someone to ask where the evidence was. There was a system failure.

Hugh Pennington
University of Aberdeen

Ferocious Fathers

The record of production rediscovery, over the last fifteen years, of plays that had seemed unplayable suggests that, despite Barbara Everett’s doubts (LRB, 4 January), we won’t know whether Dryden’s plays might work on stage until they are performed. Aureng-Zebe would be the obvious first choice and I confess myself completely baffled as to why nobody attempts it; its rhymes were once the reason, but we have become used to clever rhymed translations of plays from other languages, so it’s probably only a matter of time.

Further to the Hamlet core of Everett’s argument, a striking aspect of Dryden’s early plays is their relentlessly Oedipal theme, their obsession with ferocious fathers who are forever interfering with their splendid sons’ loves. This is the other way round from Hamlet, at least from the Freud-Jones Hamlet: it is as though Claudius, or for that matter a still-alive Old Hamlet, were to try to exercise their fatherly/ kingly ‘rights’ to possess Ophelia. The central irony of Dryden’s move from the heroic drama to Absalom and Achitophel is that real-life politics in Britain suddenly did become a matter of a rebellion of a son (the illegitimate Duke of Monmouth) against a father (Charles II, quite a man for the ladies, as Monmouth’s own existence testified). Dryden now goes over to the father’s side, brilliantly so, while finding another father-figure to excoriate in Achitophel (the Earl of Shaftsbury), who may be seen as a version of Claudius if we view the poem through a Hamlet optic.

John Thompson
London SW13

The Great Lie

Edward Said (LRB, 14 December 2000) failed to note two points not irrelevant to his contentions. First, the great quantity of new Palestinian housing that has greatly enlarged every village on the West Bank, turned many into sizable towns and some into veritable cities – Ramallah, for example, is now something of a metropolis. Much of this housing is spacious, even luxurious. This hardly fits Said’s depiction of Palestinians in the grip of unrelieved poverty under Israeli occupation. And it is not just Arafat’s cronies and a few compradors who have prospered: there are tens of thousands of fine new houses. Second, Said tells us nothing about an important aspect of the present uprising, as of the earlier Intifada: the prevalence of Muslim intimidation and outright violence against Christian Palestinians – everything from street corner insults to vandalism of homes, shops and churches. This has driven many Christians to emigrate, turning even Bethlehem into a Muslim city – its ex-Christian Christian souvenir shops are all owned by Muslims now.

Said’s Christian Arab origins scarcely deny him the right to choose his own emphases, but it is not quite accurate to say, as he does: ‘Recent small arms fire directed at the new Jerusalem settlement of Gilo from the neighbouring Palestinian village of Beit Jala has been unanimously reported in the media without anyone mentioning that Gilo was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala. Few Palestinians will forget their past so easily.’ The implication, obviously, is that the people of Beit Jala have been avenging the loss of their land. I do not know who originally owned the uninhabited and uncultivated rocky hillside on which Gilo was built, though ownership would scarcely have been vested in an entire village. But I do know Beit Jala very well, having been a frequent visitor to the Salesian monastery of Cremisan over the years. It is an exceptionally prosperous village and, as all the news photographs show, its Gilo-facing houses are veritable mansions. Beit Jala is also becoming exceptional in today’s West Bank in still being solidly Christian. It would be passing strange if rich Christians were to expose themselves and their fine houses night after night to Israeli return fire – including 120mm tank guns – for the sake of the al-Aqsa Intifada, whose focus is so distinctly Muslim, and indeed the inhabitants of Beit Jala have had absolutely nothing to do with the firing. The Muslim militiamen from Bethlehem who entered the village every night to fire at Gilo could have done so far more advantageously from the surmounting hilltop. They chose instead to fire from village houses and courtyards. If the local Christians were also driven out by Israeli retaliation, their very fine houses would remain, as do the houses of Bethlehem once occupied by Christians and now inhabited by Muslims. Beit Jala is not fighting Gilo, as Said suggests: it is really a case of Muslims attacking Christians by way of Israeli counter-fire. It is enough to look at Gilo and the hill above it on a detailed topographic map to see the compelling tactical reasons why this must be so.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Edward Said writes: ‘Tens of thousands of fine new houses’ are what Edward Luttwak claims to have seen on a visit to the West Bank. Fine, nice houses, rich ones, too! Did he count them? Amnesty published a report last winter on the number of Palestinian house demolitions undertaken by the Israel military since 1987: 2650 houses were destroyed and 16,700 Palestinians made homeless. Other statistics are no less brutal. By December 2000, losses to the Palestinian economy came to about $1,782,500,000 (this included $93 million withheld by Israel in unpaid revenue): the figures are from USAID. According to the World Bank, 90-120,000 jobs have been lost due to the closures. Since each wage-earner supports six people, this means that 744,000 Palestinians are without a wage-earner to support them. The United Nations estimates that 45.5 per cent of the Palestinian population in the Territories (1,370,000 people) are suffering serious economic handicaps. Unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank combined has gone from 11 per cent in the first part of 2000 to 30 per cent. Israel’s GNP is $17,000 per capita: the prosperous house-building West Bank’s is $1600, Gaza’s $900. doesn’t sound like a place in which to prosper.

Luttwak’s other point, that Beit Jala is Christian, that the gunners there are Muslim, and that the real problem is not Israeli-Palestinian but Christian-Muslim, is entirely debatable. The theft of land, however, is not. Gilo was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala. He may not like to admit it, but it is a fact. Why did Beit Sahour, also a mostly Christian village, stage a long tax revolt that practically ruined its economy during the first Intifada? Was it because of Muslim pressure? There, too, the villain was Israeli occupation and the injustices, immiseration and humiliation it has imposed on all Palestinians. There has been no significant history of Christian-Muslim sectarianism among Palestinians until the last few years, and this, as the case of Nazareth amply demonstrated, was either encouraged by the Israeli Government inside Israel, or aggravated in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli occupation. One of the characteristics of Zionist ideology is that it takes sectarianism between groups for granted, so as to come to the conclusion that Jews must live separated from everyone in order not to endure persecution.

Lastly, I find it offensive that he should allude to my ‘Christian Arab origins’. What is that supposed to mean? Would he feel it justified if I referred to his origins with regard to the ‘arguments’ he presents?

Naomi Shepherd’s response to my piece (Letters, 25 January) is a demonstration of the problems presented by the current situation. She doesn’t make a single factual point in refutation of any of the historical and present realities that I laid out. Not one. All she presents is some mumbo-jumbo (the normal flattering unction of the Israeli ‘peace’ camp) about early optimism for Oslo among Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and even more unspecified ‘co-operation’ between the two sides. Optimism, if there was any, and co-operation were confined to Arafat’s circle and to those who believed that the Palestinian ‘problem’ looked as if it might be solved at minimal cost to Israel. But where were the positive feelings and co-operation when the settler population and areas quintupled in size and number, bypass roads cut up the whole area, house and orchard demolitions went on furiously, frequent closures imprisoned millions of Palestinians, and when in addition to de-developing Gaza and the West Bank, Israel used helicopter gunships and tanks to destroy Palestinian homes and cause ten thousand injuries and over three hundred deaths in two months, none of this in contravention of Oslo? Oslo wasn’t a genuine attempt at a settlement: it was a fraud to perpetuate Israeli control and occupation, as Israeli leaders made clear to their people. The maps – carefully, deliberately, malevolently plotted inch by inch – created the bantustans and settlements, and they don’t lie, as Shepherd, who lives in occupied Jerusalem, should know. And yes, the Palestinians are the victims, and have been all along. It is one of the appalling distortions of Zionism that so many supporters of Israel fail to own up to this elementary truth.

J. Spencer (Letters, 4 January) asks us to remember those Jews who ‘had to leave the Arab countries which are now “Judenrein"’. The reality is more complicated than this formulation suggests. There was a systematic and public campaign by Israel before and after 1948 to encourage/guilt-trip such Jews into moving to Israel, despite their deep roots in a number of Arab countries and mostly harmonious relations. In the case of Iraq, when this approach did not succeed, a campaign of terror bombing against Jews in 1950 led to an exodus of over a hundred thousand people to Israel. The bombs were planted by Zionists, who were not fully exposed until 1966.

The other reason to remember these Jews at the moment is that Oriental Jews, who have always been despised by European Zionists, could, as Edward Said has argued, provide allies for a dialogue about a true peace, as opposed to the fraud currently being played out.

Gerard Watson

tarry easty

C.K. Stead (Letters, 4 January) shouldn’t use the term ‘mistress’ to refer to Olga Rudge. The connotations of this term are entirely inappropriate. Rudge had a relationship with Ezra Pound lasting almost fifty years, was mother to his only daughter and took care of him during the last depressive years of his life. These facts are well known to Stead and he must be aware of the negative connotations that the term ‘mistress’ implies.

Peter Wilson
Waltham Abbey, Essex

Utzon’s Legacy

Sylvia Lawson (Letters, 30 November 2000) puts me right on the date of the death of Peter Hall, the architect who completed the Sydney Opera House. Her correction, however, is itself a year out. I said (mistakenly) that Hall died in 1989. In real, as opposed to either Sayle or Lawson fact, Hall died, according to the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, who ought to know, on 19 May 1995.

Murray Sayle
Aikawa, Japan

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