Remembering Mehdi Ben Barka, African liberation fighter

In Europe, the names of Ben Barka and the other great African liberation fighters of his generation are hardly ever mentioned. Yet their story is an integral part of our own, and their example still lights the way for oppressed people everywhere.

Fifty-one years ago, the Moroccan revolutionary leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, was assassinated after being abducted in broad daylight outside a Paris cafe.

His remains have never been found and nobody knows exactly what happened to him, although there cannot be the slightest doubt that it was imperialist powers that were behind the murder – as, indeed, was the case with several other African revolutionary leaders of that era.

“Between 1961 and 1973, six African independence leaders were assassinated by their ex-colonial rulers, including Patrice Lumumba of Congo, who was killed 50 years ago today.

“Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of newly independent Congo, was the second of five leaders of independence movements in African countries to be assassinated in the 1960s by their former colonial masters, or their agents.

“A sixth, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was ousted in a western-backed coup in 1966, and a seventh, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the west African liberation movement against Portugal of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC) in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, was assassinated in 1973.

“Lumumba’s death in 1961 followed on from that of the opposition leader of Cameroon, Felix Moumie, poisoned in 1960. Sylvanus Olympio, leader of Togo, was killed in 1963. Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition movement, was kidnapped in France in 1965 and his body never found. Eduardo Mondlane, leader of Mozambique’s Frelimo, fighting for independence from the Portuguese, died from a parcel bomb in 1969.

“The loss 50 years ago of this group of leaders, who all knew each other, and had a common political project based on national dignity, crippled each of their countries, and the African continent. The effects are still evident today.” (Africa – a continent drenched in the blood of revolutionary heroes by Victoria Brittain, The Guardian, 17 January 2011)

The importance of Ben Barka as a revolutionary leader lay in his clear understanding of the workings of neo-colonialism and his ability as an organiser to mobilise both within his home country, Morocco, and his home region, the Mahgreb, and at the same time on a world basis, uniting movements of the oppressed countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America to resist imperialism.

In April 1965, shortly before he was killed, he had proposed that the Organisation for Solidarity with the Asian and African People should convene a tricontinental conference to bring together the progressive and resistance movements of Africa and Asia with those of Latin America for the purpose of resistance to colonialism, apartheid and neo-colonialism. The conference duly took place in Havana, Cuba, in January 1966, but Ben Barka was already dead.

What he was most concerned with was warning the people of the oppressed countries of the danger of neo-colonialism now that their countries had been granted their formal independence.

He wrote: “All African countries must be alert to the dangers of neo-colonialism through a declaration of ‘independence’ that leaves intact, alongside colonial structures, every avenue for imperialist exploitation. Independence which allows the characteristics of colonial domination to carry on can only end up as a fraud.

“Our analysis of neo-colonial manifestations in Africa would be incomplete if it did not stress the danger posed by internal reactionary forces. Imperialism would never be able to preserve its chances of survival in Africa without being able to camouflage itself behind the interests of certain retrograde elements.” (From an interview with Robert Barrat, L’unité difficile in Témoignage Chr&eacutetien, 1961)

Moreover, he insisted: “Any political approach in Africa which does not demand the utter destruction of feudal and capitalist-colonial structures can only play the neo-colonialists’ game, notwithstanding any pretensions to industrialisation and economic planning, for all such projects would be built on sand.” (From the draft of an article for La Revue Africaine, November 1963)

Hence the objectives of the tricontinental conference were to intensify support for existing liberation struggles – Haiti, Vietnam, Palestine, Congo, etc; to extend action against apartheid, racial segregation and all discrimination; and to support Cuba and the people of Latin America generally, with a view to putting an end to imperialist and neo-colonial exploitation, oppression and armed aggression.

The loss of so many far-sighted and influential leaders, not least of whom was Mehdi Ben Barka, helped to ease the path for imperialism to have its wicked way in Africa, leaving the African masses in destitution, lacking medical care, without access to clean drinking water, short of food, and generally forced to live in conditions that can only be described as subhuman – in a continent unbelievably rich in resources of every kind.

While there has been no shortage of academics and economists denouncing the way that Africa is being bled dry by imperialism, the dreams of the visionaries of Ben Barka’s generation of a united anti-imperialist movement of the masses capable of destroying the imperialist mechanisms for superexploitation have not materialised. Imperialism did not stop at murdering influential revolutionary leaders; it has also used to great effect the time-honoured practice of divide-and-rule, setting tribe against tribe and/or people of one religious affiliation against those of another, to ensure that Africa was unable to concentrate its forces against the real enemy – imperialism.

The looting is shameless and is possible because of the neo-colonial arrangements that Ben Barka spent his life urging the oppressed people to resist. As Walter Rodney pointed out: “Under colonialism the ownership was complete and backed by military domination. Today, in many African countries the foreign ownership is still present, although the armies and flags of foreign powers have been removed.

“So long as foreigners own land, mines, factories, banks, insurance companies, means of transportation, newspapers, power stations, etc, then for so long will the wealth of Africa flow outwards into the hands of those elements. In other words, in the absence of direct political control, foreign investment ensures that the natural resources and the labour of Africa produce economic value which is lost to the continent.” (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972)

One person documenting some of the ways in which Africa is being looted is Patrick Bond, in his book Looting Africa. One of the important points he makes is that control is established through a creditor/debtor relationship from which African countries cannot escape.

“Between 1980 and 2002, sub-Saharan Africa’s total foreign debt rose at a faster rate than that of Latin America, the Caribbean and the middle east – from US$61bn to US$206bn – and the ratio of debt to GDP soared from 23 to 66 percent. As the poorest continent and as a recipient of much concessional finance, sub-Saharan Africa did not repay the debt at the same rate as other regions, but nevertheless retired US$255bn of foreign credit during the 1980s–90s, a factor of 4.2 times the original 1980 debt.”

The result is that “Africa now repays more than it receives. In 1980, loan inflows of $9.6bn were comfortably higher than the debt repayment outflow of $3.2bn, so the Ponzi scheme continued: by 2000, only $3.2bn flowed in, and $9.8bn was repaid, leaving a net financial flows deficit of $6.2bn.”

This is despite the fact that Africa’s wealth should be more than enough to cancel its debt.

“The two leading scholars of the phenomenon, James Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana, argue that a core group of sub-Saharan African countries whose foreign debt was $178bn suffered a quarter century of capital flight by elites – 1970-96 – that totalled more than $285bn (including imputed interest earnings): ‘Taking capital flight as a measure of private external assets, and calculating net external assets as private external assets minus public external debts, sub-Saharan Africa thus appears to be a net creditor vis-à-vis the rest of the world.’

“In relation to foreign debt owed, the sub-Saharan countries with the worst capital flight problems are Nigeria ($98bn more than its foreign debt when interest on capital flight is also added), the Ivory Coast ($15bn), the Democratic Republic of Congo ($10.1bn), Angola ($9.2bn) and Zambia ($5.5bn).

“Overall, the main sub-Saharan African countries financed over $100bn more in external capital flight during that quarter century than they owed in outstanding debt. This is not surprising in some countries, like Angola, where the United Nations reports that for every billion dollars invested in the offshore oil industry, only $100,000 is spent onshore.”

“In his book Capitalism’s Achilles Heel, Brookings Institution scholar Raymond Baker documents ‘falsified pricing, haven and secrecy structures and the illicit movement of trillions of dollars out of developing and transitional economies … Laundered proceeds of drug trafficking, racketeering, corruption and terrorism tag along with other forms of dirty money to which the US and Europe extend a welcoming hand.’

“Nearly one-third of the value of annual production in sub-Saharan Africa, adds John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, was taken offshore during the late 1990s. Across the world, eight million ‘high net-worth individuals’ have insulated $11.5tn in assets in offshore financial centres.” (All citations above from Patrick Bond, Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation, 2006)

Besides the miseries of superexploitation, many parts of Africa have found their territory to be a theatre for proxy wars between imperialist powers, as US imperialism, in particular, has fought to take over the interests of the old British, Portuguese, French and Belgian imperialist powers. In these wars, in which each contending imperialist power is masked behind some local warlord, innumerable totally innocent men, women and children lose their lives or are forced to flee their homes.

The advent of Chinese investment and trade has broken the old imperialist monopoly and is giving African countries something of an opportunity to do business on an equal footing rather than to submit to ruthless imperialist looting, but naturally this, too, induces the imperialist powers to intervene by use of force and/or economic measures to try to retain their stranglehold. US and French troops are nowadays present in large numbers in sub-Saharan Africa, purportedly fighting terrorism, but in actual fact attempting to safeguard imperialist interests.

“The US is not only involved in fighting back Boko Haram on the continent. In recent years, the US has quietly ramped up its military presence across Africa, even if it officially insists its footprint on the continent is light. The decisive point seems to have been the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

“For years, the United States Africa Command (known by the acronym Africom) has downplayed the size and scope of its missions on the continent, and, without large battalions of actual boots on the ground, as was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, you’d be forgiven for missing its unfolding.

“But behind closed doors, US military officials are already starting to see Africa as the new battleground for fighting extremism, and have begun to roll out a flurry of logistical infrastructure and personnel from west to east – colloquially called the ‘new spice route’ [or the ‘hippo trench’] – and roughly tracing the belt of volatility on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert; the deployment to Cameroon is just the latest of many.

“These support all the activities in which American troops are currently involved in Africa: airstrikes targeting suspected militants, night raids aimed at seizing terror suspects, airlifts of French and African troops onto the battlefields, and evacuation operations in conflict zones.

“Officially, the US has only one permanent base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Concrete figures on the number of troops stationed there are sketchy, but various reports put it anything between 3,500 and 4,500 soldiers.

“It provides a vital base for US special forces, fighter planes and helicopters, as well as serving as a base for drone operations into Somalia and Yemen, and maritime surveillance in the Indian Ocean.

“But the US has numerous other ‘temporary’ bases across the continent, and though on their own they seem small, together they are sweeping and expansive, forming a seemingly endless string of engagements, projects and operations.

“There are drone ports in the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles, off the eastern coast of Africa, as well as in Ethiopia, in the southern region of Arba Minch, that provide support for flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

“Nzara in South Sudan is another shadowy operating post on the continent where US special operations forces have been stationed in recent years, according to reports by investigative journalist Nick Turse, who has written extensively on Africom’s growing presence on the continent.

“Turse, author of the book Tomorrow’s Battlefield, US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, lists other ‘temporary sites’, sites including Obo and Djema in the Central Africa Republic and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).” (The ‘hippo trench’ across Africa: US military quietly builds giant security belt in middle of continent by Christine Mungai, Mail & Guardian Africa, 18 October 2015)

Thus, mindless atrocities committed by fundamentalist gangs, whose murderous actions are hard to reconcile with even fundamentalist religious belief, become the basis for US imperialist troops to be welcomed to Africa as saviours. However, we can be certain that the only thing they are interested in ‘saving’ is imperialist profit.

Under cover of ‘aid’, billions of dollars’ worth of wealth continues to be extracted by imperialism from Africa. Suffice it to say that in 2014 a group of NGOs felt compelled to denounce the continued looting of Africa by imperialist countries that claimed to be delivering ‘aid’.

“Western countries are using aid to Africa as a smokescreen to hide the ‘sustained looting’ of the continent as it loses nearly $60bn a year through tax evasion, climate change mitigation, and the flight of profits earned by foreign multinational companies, a group of NGOs has claimed.

“Although sub-Saharan Africa receives $134bn each year in loans, foreign investment and development aid, research released on Tuesday by a group of UK and Africa-based NGOs suggests that $192bn leaves the region, leaving a $58bn shortfall.

“The report says that while western countries send about $30bn in development aid to Africa every year, more than six times that amount leaves the continent, ‘mainly to the same countries providing that aid’.

“The perception that such aid is helping African countries ‘has facilitated a perverse reality in which the UK and other wealthy governments celebrate their generosity whilst simultaneously assisting their companies to drain Africa’s resources,’ the report claims. It points out that foreign multinational companies siphon $46bn out of sub-Saharan Africa each year, while $35bn is moved from Africa into tax havens around the world annually.

“The study … also notes that African governments spend $21bn a year on debt repayments …

“‘The common understanding is that the UK “helps” Africa through aid, but in reality this serves as a smokescreen for the billions taken out,’ said Martin Drewry, director of Health Poverty Action, one of the NGOs behind the report. ‘Let’s use more accurate language. It’s sustained looting – the opposite of generous giving – and we should recognise that the City of London is at the heart of the global financial system that facilitates this.’” (Aid to Africa: donations from west mask ‘$60bn looting of continent’ by Mark Anderson, The Guardian,15 July 2014)

History is far from over

Were Ben Barka able to see the world as it is today, he would see that, despite his best efforts, imperialism decisively won the first round, to devastating effect, ensuring that the most rigid neo-colonialism has been imposed almost everywhere. However, history is a match where round after round is played out, over centuries if necessary, until the progressive side decisively finishes off its reactionary enemy.

In this struggle, let Ben Barka’s words at the first solidarity conference of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America in Cairo on 2 September 1965, inspire us: “We are living though a decisive stage in our history. Imperialism finds itself in agony following the blows inflicted on it by the oppressed and enslaved peoples in the course of their struggle for liberation. But so long as imperialism exists, exploitation of peoples will exist as much as exploitation of individuals.

“Our people, who for centuries have suffered exploitation and humiliation, condemned to being backward countries, nevertheless possess great resources that have up to now only been exploited to secure the wellbeing and opulence of the exploiter imperialists – ie, a privileged minority. We have decided to put an end to these anomalies, which have been the cause of the numerous scourges humanity has suffered for a long time.

“There is no force stronger than that of the people when they decide to be free and independent and want to secure peace.

“People of Africa, Asia and Latin America: pursue your struggle up until the decisive battle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism.

“Long live the solidarity and unity of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

We will only add: Let the downtrodden proletarian masses of all countries, including those of the imperialist countries, add their forces too to this momentous battle, so as to hasten the birth of a new world free of exploitation, oppression and war.