Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Legacy of Colonialism

There are many nations throughout the world that are plagued by internal conflict.  The underlying source of the social and economic instabilities that are responsible for these civil wars can often be traced to the disastrous effects of colonialism.  The following are a few examples of the deleterious consequences of the imposition of foreign rule on the future prospects of an occupied country.


The Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Mathaai described her personal experiences growing up in Kenya.  She was born when Kenya was ruled by the British.  She watched as the beliefs and traditions of her people gradually died away as a result of the Western idea of progress.  The degradation of her local environment had a profound impact on her sensibilities.  Throughout the nineteenth century, western missionaries came to Africa followed by explorers, adventurers and fortune seekers in service of the European powers.  Missionaries came to Kenya towards the end of the nineteenth century.  They taught that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but in heaven.  The missionaries and the colonial administrators who followed them introduced new methods of exploiting natural resources such as logging, clear-cutting, creating plantations of imported trees, the commercial hunting of wildlife and commercial agriculture.  As a consequence of the implementation of these practices, hallowed landscapes were exploited.  In 1885, Britain and the other major colonialist European powers met in Berlin at the Berlin Conference to draft what came to be known as the "Scramble for Africa."  This conference formalized plans to achieve its ultimate goal - to lay claim to all of Africa within thirty years.

In Kenya, the British subdivided the country into different areas based upon the populations of different religious denominations who inhabited those regions.  In Maathai's region, there were Scottish Presbyterians and Italian Catholics.  In the 1910's, the British government encouraged British citizens to settle in Kenya, especially in the fertile highlands; these settlers received title deeds and the natives were relocated to the Rift Valley.  The British settlers introduced commercial agriculture and grew wheat, maze, coffee and tea.

As a result of colonial exploitation, the following changes in the natural environment took place:

·         Decimation of native plants for the purpose of growing so-called "cash crops" like tobacco

·         Importation of exotic plants for purely commercial purposes; this practice played havoc with the delicate ecological balance

·         Soil erosion as a result of extreme logging practices, especially clear-cutting

·         Imposition of agribusiness methods led to over cultivation and pollution of the soil and local environment with chemicals designed to improve crop production

·         Creation of commercial plantations supporting non-native trees i.e. Pine, Eucalyptus and Black Wattle, a species of Acacia normally found in Australia, for the timber and building industries - this had a profound impact on the natural ecosystem and its capacity to retain rainwater.


The impact of colonial rule on the native population was equally disastrous.  In the highlands, the area where Maathai was born, large British plantations usurped the native agriculture.  Although crops like tobacco brought in sizeable profits for the white settlers, native Kenyans were allowed to raise only pyrethrum as a cash crop.  In addition, the British imposed an income tax to be paid in money effectively transforming the livestock-based economy to a cash-based economy.  This kind of restriction imposed so much hardship; it was akin to slavery.

These practices imposed on the people of Kenya against their will solely for the purpose of exploiting the riches derived from the country's natural resources, had a destabilizing impact upon the nation's future.


As a nation, Nigeria was an artificial construct as a result of colonization by the British.  It was created from the remains of the Niger River Trading Company.  The Europeans helped themselves to vast territorial holdings in Africa as a result of the Treaty of Berlin as described above.

Northern Nigeria was populated by Muslims – the Hausa Fulani ethnic group ruled by emirs.  The people of northern Nigeria were relatively easy to control on account of the hierarchical nature of their social structure. The peoples of southern Nigeria, on the other hand, were more difficult to subjugate – they were fiercely democratic.  In order to subdue them, the British used religion, bribery, the influence of missionaries, and the power of the military.  It was British administration driven by economic considerations that carved out the Nigerian borders.  It was through the clever application of divide and conquer that the colonialists used the differences between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba peoples in the west and the Ibo in the east to control the country and extract the economic resources of the region.

When the country won independence from the British in 1960, the bureaucratic and administrative organization of government remained in place allowing for future problems.  Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958.  For over 30 years oil has provided over 30 billion dollars to the Nigerian economy.  However, this revenue fed corruption and enriched a small and well-connected minority of the nation's population.  The Ogoni people received no real benefit from their oil-rich land.  Quite to the contrary, they had no reliable electricity, no pipe-born water and they were not the beneficiaries of any significant social or economic projects.  In addition, their language was disappearing and they were effectively pushed into slavery as their environment became increasingly assaulted by irresponsible practices on the part of the oil industry.  The famed Nigerian author and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for his attempt to mobilize opposition to the economic and environmental devastation wrought by oil production in his country.  Nigeria remains plagued by problems that had their roots in the practices established and employed by their previous colonial masters.


The examples cited above share numerous aspects in common with many other troubled spots throughout the world.  The excesses of colonialism have effectively outlived the colonial powers such as Great Britain, Portugal and Spain whose empires are no longer extant.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

President Jimmy Carter

James Earl Carter Jr. was born on October 1, 1924 in the provincial southern farming town of Plains Georgia.  His father was a farmer and businessman and his mother was a nurse.  As a young child he moved with his family to a farm in the neighboring town of Archery.  Carter grew up in a rural community; their home was without electricity and his neighbors were predominantly African-American. 
Although at the time of his birth the highly segregationlist and prejudicial cultural and legal climate that collectively was referred to as Jim Crow was everywhere in evidence, his mother, Lilian, volunteered her nursing services as a midwife and health care provider to her black neighbors.  Her generous and caring nature had a profound influence on the young Carter.  His father was an astute businessman and expanded his farm to include 4,000 acres; he subsequently became a peanut broker and a retailer of farm supplies and equipment.
Carter was educated in the public schools and went to the Georgia Institute of Technology before he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland.  His professional interest initially gravitated towards science and technology.  He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and ultimately pursued graduate studies in nuclear physics.  It was shortly after his graduation from the Academy that he married Rosalynn Smith of Plains, Georgia.  After earning his doctorate in nuclear physics, Carter was chosen as an engineering officer on the Sea Wolf – the second nuclear submarine commissioned by the U.S. Navy.
Carter's military and professional career was suddenly cut short by the sudden death of his father in 1953.  In response to this tragedy, he resigned his post and returned to Plains with his family - that now included three sons – to assume the responsibilities of his father's various family businesses including the family farm.  His father had served in the Georgia state government as a House Representative.  Carter, like his father, felt a responsibility to serve his community and consequentially ran for a seat in the Georgia Senate.  At first, it appeared that he had lost the election, but a transparent fraud was uncovered in which his opponent had registered fictitious voters some of whom had died.  Once the fraud was exposed, Carter became a member of the Georgia State Senate and readily won reelection.
In 1966, Carter ran for governor of his state, but was defeated by the overt racist and segregationist Lestor Maddox.  Following this defeat, he was inspired by his sister Ruth Carter Stapleton to reevaluate his life and had undergone a spiritual reawakening that he later describe as being, "born again."   Four years later he became Georgia's governor and during his acceptance speech made the exceedingly controversial and unprecedented statement that, "the time for racial discrimination is over."
During his term as governor, he implements many reforms including:
·        Increasing the percentage of African-Americans in Georgia's civil service by 40%
·     Equalizing the public funding for rich and poor school districts in the state and, thereby, greatly enhancing educational opportunities for those most in need
·  Increasing educational opportunities for prisoners and the developmentally disabled
·         Streamlining government and eliminating wasteful project
·  Canceling construction projects that would be detrimental to the natural environment.
His progressive programs drew the attention of the Democratic Party and he was chosen to be the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Campaign Chairman for the 1974 congressional campaigns.  On account of the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon of the Republican Party and the lack luster administration of President Gerald Ford, the democrats did well in the 1974 elections.  Since the constitution of the state of Georgia barred Carter from running for a second term as governor, he decided to run for the Presidency of the United States.  With highly focused energy and resolve, he campaigned rigorously in the democratic primaries throughout the country and did so well, that he won the nomination on the first ballot at the party's convention in Madison Square Garden, New York City.

Jimmy Carter became the President of the United States.  His effectiveness has been called into question by some who felt that he was not strong enough especially in regards to how he dealt with our adversaries.  Although he was instrumental in getting the leaders of Egypt and Israel, President Anwar El Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin, respectively, to agree on a plan for peace – the so-called Camp David Accords (a peace that is still in existence) - he had the misfortune of being president during the successful Fundamentalist Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 that led to the toppling of the Iranian monarchy under the Shah.  This ultimately led to the taking of American hostages.  The resulting standoff lasted for 444 days beginning on November 4, 1979 and lasting to Jan 20, 1981.  Coming under considerable domestic pressure, Carter authorized a rescue mission referred to as Operation Eagle Claw that took place on April 24, 1980.  This mission was an abysmal failure.  It should be noted, however, that all the hostages were ultimately returned safely and that no war ensued.  However, Carter lost the support of the American people and he failed in his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.  The hostages were released within minutes of Reagan's swearing-in ceremony.

Unlike many presidents who have gone before him, Carter has devoted his post-presidential life to the causes of peace and social justice throughout the world.  He has accomplished this through the creation of the Carter Center.  He describes this work in the following way, "Our most dedicated investments of time and energy have been among the poorest and most forgotten people of Guyana, East Timor, Haiti, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Liberia, Cote d'lvoire, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Ghana and other communities throughout Africa, Latin America and the Middle East."
The Carter Center recruits experts for the purpose of dealing with following kinds of issues that plague many parts of the human world:
·         Conflict Resolution
·         Human Rights
·         Mental Health
·         Agriculture
·         Disease Control and Prevention
·         Promoting Democracy.
These experts analyze complex political relationships that underlie trouble spots around the globe and meet and exchange information through intelligence briefings.  The Center also employs interns from some 350 different universities worldwide.  The staff of the Center works closely with local governments and meets with those local homes and villages that are in need of assistance.  The Carter Center is a non-profit enterprise and depends upon individual and corporate donations in order to function.  Carter sold the remainder of the family businesses in order to help finance this monumental endeavor.  The site of the Center along with the Carter Presidential Library is located in Atlanta, Georgia.  As stated on the Carter Center website (, the Center's mission is based on the following five principles –
·   "The Center emphasizes action and results. Based on careful research and analysis, it is prepared to take timely action on important and pressing issues.
·         The Center does not duplicate the effective efforts of others.
·         The Center addresses difficult problems and recognizes the possibility of failure   as an acceptable risk.
·         The Center is nonpartisan and acts as a neutral in dispute resolution activities.
·        The Center believes that people can improve their lives when provided with the necessary skills, knowledge, and access to resources."
It is not so much a think tank as it is an action agency.  Thanks to Carter's careful and judicious planning and conservative economic development, the Carter Center now has an endowment of over 250 million dollars, and programs do not proceed until the funding is assured.  Some of the programs that have been put into play through the Center include the fight against diseases endemic to the tropics, especially malaria, river blindness and trachoma and improving food grains in Africa. 
In addition, considerable efforts have been made towards conflict resolution.  For this purpose, the Center employs Dr. Doyle Powell a fellow in conflict resolution.  As a result of an analysis done regarding the nature of conflicts, it has been found that nearly all the thirty-four conflicts studied, involving battle deaths of at least 1000 individuals, are civil wars.  In order to help settle these conflicts nonviolently, the Center has often called upon some of its more influential members including Desmond Tutu, Oscar Aria, the former President of Costa Rica, and Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor.  In the course of its work, the Carter Center has monitored almost 70 elections throughout the world in the course of 18 years.
On account of these extraordinary efforts President Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2002.   The decision was based upon the following reasons as stated by the Norwegian Nobel Committee -
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2002 to Jimmy Carter, for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
During his presidency (1977-1981), Carter's mediation was a vital contribution to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, in itself a great enough achievement to qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. At a time when the cold war between East and West was still predominant, he placed renewed emphasis on the place of human rights in international politics.
Through his Carter Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2002, Carter has undertaken very extensive and persistent efforts at conflict resolution on several continents. He has shown outstanding commitment to human rights, and has served as an observer at countless elections all over the world. He has worked hard on many fronts to fight tropical diseases and to bring about growth and progress in developing countries. Carter has thus been active in several of the problem areas that have figured prominently in the over one hundred years of Peace Prize history.
In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international co-operation based on international law, respect for human rights, and economic development."
President Jimmy Carter's devotion to the causes of peace and social justice has certainly earned him such an honor.  His tenacity is so formidable that his efforts continue to this day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Xiaobo Liu

In December of 2008, 303 Chinese activists, lawyers, intellectuals, academics, retired government officials, workers and peasants supported and signed a manifesto, Charter 08, that called for an end to autocratic rule and a move towards a constitutional government that would respect human rights and institute democratic reforms.  Despite the obvious threat this posed to the Chinese government and its continued repression of those holding disparate views, Charter 08 gained a nation-wide audience through the Internet.  The signatories to this charter reached ten thousand; the government's response was both swift and brutal.  Dozens, if not hundreds, were called in for questioning, and a handful of those regarded as the incipient movement's "ring leaders" were detained.  Promotions of professors were held up, research grants denied and travel abroad was curtailed for those who were considered to be the instigators.  Newspapers and publishing houses were ordered to blacklist any signatories.  Liu, a prominent writer, vociferous dissident and one of the important drafters of the Charter was arrested on December 2009 and was subsequently sentenced to eleven years in prison.

The following is an excerpt taken from the preamble of the Charter: "China, as a great nation of the world, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and a member of the Human Rights Council, ought to make its own contribution to peace for humankind and progress in human rights. Regrettably, however, of all the great nations of the world today, China alone still clings to an authoritarian way of life and has, as a result, created an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization. This situation must change! We cannot put off political democratization reforms any longer. Therefore, in the civic spirit of daring to take action, we are issuing Charter 08. We hope that all Chinese citizens who share this sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether officials or common people and regardless of social background, will put aside our differences to seek common ground and come to take an active part in this citizens' movement, to promote the great transformation of Chinese society together, so that we can soon establish a free, democratic, and constitutional nation, fulfilling the aspirations and dreams that our countrymen have been pursuing tirelessly for more than a hundred years."


Before we examine Liu's life in greater detail, we will embark on a cursory examination of recent Chinese political history.  China is a vast country that has the longest continual history for any human civilization.  We will, however, restrict our attention to the era encompassing the latter part of the ninteenth century to the present. 

Between the years 1894-1895 China was involved in a war with Japan – the first Sino-Japanese War, in which it suffered defeat.  At that time the Qing Court was ruling the country and it was involved in a brutal suppression of all attempts at reform.  The Xinhai Revolution (1911) supplanted the imperial system that had been extant for over 2000 years and established Asia's first republic.   Attempts at democratization and political reform were curtailed, however, by foreign invasion and civil conflict. 

China ultimately became victorious in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), and the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949 after the Communist defeat of nationalist forces under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, whose efforts were supported by the United States.  Mao Zsetung was instrumental in leading the communists to victory and became the country's chairman.

Once in power, Chairman Mao instituted a number of radical national policies that proved horribly disastrous.  One was the so-called, Great Leap Forward (1958-1963) and the other was the Cultural Revolution (1965-1968).

The Great Leap Forward was instituted in order to develop China's agriculture and industrial base.  To implement this ambitious goal, China was restructured into a series of communes according to Mao's vision.   

The size of the communes were not fixed, but most consisted of about 5000 families.  Within these communities, tools, agricultural equipment, farm animals were all shared.  Everyone worked for the commune - the life of the individual was thoroughly constrained and controlled.  Families were divided into teams – each team consisting of twelve families and twelve teams made up a brigade.  Every aspect of living was under the direct management of the party.

By the end of 1958, 700 million individuals had been placed in 26,578 communes.  In the beginning, the progress towards the goals of agricultural and industrial development seemed impressive.  However, the pragmatic aspirations of this radical approach eventually became subsumed by an extremist political agenda that placed an emphasis on reaching impossible goals rather than on real and reliable production.  This reality was exacerbated by poor growing seasons in 1959 and 1960.  As a result, it has been estimated that some nine million people died of starvation by 1960.  This number had risen to twenty million deaths by 1962.  Ultimately, Chairman Mao admitted that the Great Leap Forward had been a failure.

The other notable failure of the Communist Party under the direction of Chairman Mao was the Cultural Revolution that occurred between the years of 1965 and 1968.  It is believed that Mao instituted this policy in an attempt to reassert his absolute authority that was beginning to dissipate.  The movement was initiated with a speech by Lin Piao, the Chinese Communist military commander (1907-1971), who encouraged students from schools and colleges to actualize the basic precepts of the revolutionary movement.  These students were also encouraged to openly criticize liberal elements of the Party. 

Beneath the rhetoric was the underlying fear that intellectuals, academics and the professional class were accruing too much power.  Mao was concerned that a new class of Mandarins was beginning to emerge in the new China.  The propaganda that was promulgated as an essential aspect of the Cultural Revolution inspired the creation of so-called "Red Guards."  Members of the Red Guards were encouraged to openly attack those who were suspected of having a superior and condescending attitude.  Chief among these was Mao's rival, Liu Shao-chi. 

The supposed rationale for this movement was the desire to create a truly classless society.  However, the movement rapidly got out of hand and the social climate became dangerously chaotic.  It was then that Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China until his death in 1976, urged a return to normal conditions.  Finally, in October of 1968 Liu Shao-chi was removed from the party.  Once Mao's main rival was no longer a threat, he saw no need to continue the Cultural Revolution.

Mao died on September 9, 1976.  After his death, there were major social, economic, and political reforms instituted.  The era dominated by the cult of personality finally came to a close.  In regards to the post-Mao Zedong era in China, Liu addresses it this way:

"The "Reform and Opening Up" of the late 20th century extricated China from the pervasive poverty and absolute totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and substantially increased private wealth and the standard of living of the common people. Individual economic freedom and social privileges were partially restored, a civil society began to grow, and calls for human rights and political freedom among the people increased by the day. Those in power, while implementing economic reforms aimed at marketization and privatization, also began to shift from a position of rejecting human rights to one of gradually recognizing them. In 1997 and 1998, the Chinese government signed two important international human rights treaties.2 In 2004, the National People's Congress amended the Constitution to add that "[the State] respects and guarantees human rights." And this year, the government has promised to formulate and implement a "National Human Rights Action Plan." But so far, this political progress has largely remained on paper: there are laws, but there is no rule of law; there is a constitution, but no constitutional government; this is still the political reality that is obvious to all."


 Liu was born in December of 1955 in Changchun, Jilin and grew up during this tumultuous era.  He was born into a family of intellectuals.  As a matter of fact, his father took him to Inner Mongolia in the rural countryside – a move that was mandated as a part of the Cultural Revolution as discussed earlier.  As a young man Liu was accepted into Julin University and graduated with a B.A. in literature.  From there, he received in M.A. degree in literature from Beijing Normal University in 1984 and became a teacher.  It was during this time that Liu began to openly express in writing his criticism of Chinese culture and especially the authoritarian nature of the Chinese political system as he had begun to understand it.  In June of 1988, he received his PhD in literature, and published his thesis entitled, Aesthetic and Human Freedom.  He subsequently travelled to Columbia University in New York and the Universities of Hawaii and Oslo where he was guest lecturer.

He returned to China abruptly in 1989 when the now famous protests at Tiananmen Square began in earnest.  He was unabashedly pro-West in his political views and sentiments to the extent that he was quoted as saying, "…Westernization is not a choice of a nation, but a choice for the human race."  As part of the protest movement, Liu began a three day hunger strike along with three others.  He encouraged dialog between representatives of the government and students.  Although his efforts could not prevent the massacre that occurred on the night of June 3, he did manage to facilitate negotiations between the army and students that allowed several thousand students to peacefully withdraw.  On June 6, Liu was arrested and held in Qincheng Prison and subsequently expelled from Beijing Normal University; all his publications were also banned.

In January 1991, some nineteen months following his original arrest, he was convicted of, counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement."  He was not jailed, however, on account of the fact that the judiciary recognized the actions that he took at Tiananmen Square that helped avoid significant bloodshed.  After his release, he returned to writing; although, he was not allowed to publish on mainland China.  This did not deter him; he published his first book, The Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor in Taiwan.

Liu was considered such a serious threat to the government that he was subject to constant police harassment and within the space of the next fourteen years he was arrested twice, put under house arrest and at one point a police sentry post was constructed next to his residence.  In spite of all of these attempts to suppress his influence in regards to the pro-democracy movement, Liu never relented or altered his resolve to encourage reform.

As mentioned earlier Liu played an instrumental role in the inception and writing of Charter 08 which was released on December 10, 2008 – a date that purposefully coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This document called for greater individual freedoms, an end to human rights abuses, more democratic elections and Western-style economic reform.  This document was met with such popular approval that 10,000 signatures were collected by September prior to its release.  As a consequence, Liu was arrested for his participation.  On December 25, 2009, he was sentenced to eleven years of imprisonment.  The charge was, "Inciting subversion of state power."



Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China".  Being in prison, he was unable to attend the award ceremony.  In his absence, the following is an excerpt of what was read on his behalf:

"…For hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy.  I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with best of intentions and defuse hate with love…"

Although Liu may currently be incarcerated, the ideas he has fostered and encouraged among his own people cannot be as easily silenced.  Over the long term, his efforts will prove to be of significant value, for the human thirst for liberation will eventually be heard.