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A new white man’s burden

December 28, 2012

A FEW weeks ago, I met a Briton who works in Nigeria for an international aid organisation. He was young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about my country, a combination rare in these isles.

We spoke of a project that had taken years to plan and research. Now it was under way, his organisation was working with the Nigerian federal and state governments, but remained reluctant to do so with grass-root cadres because of a fear of offending cultural sensibilities. In his view, meetings with local leaders were fraught with the danger of unknowingly offending cultural norms and thus scuppering this carefully planned project.

I, the native, said that such extreme caution was absurd. Minding cultural sensibilities was important but not to the point of excluding those rural poor the project targeted.

He, the burdened invader who’d travelled in Nigeria more extensively than I, remained adamant.

It is difficult not to construe every meeting between Africa and the West in these terms. It is difficult not to think of the white man’s burden when I remember my conversation with this man who chose aid work in rural Nigeria over bank work in London.

Kipling’s white men were goaded into far-flung regions of the globe by their sense of unassailable racial superiority. Things have somewhat changed in the 21st century. Many who take up the load of development do so, if not with guilt then with an acute awareness of all that has preceded their arrival among the less economically developed of the earth.

A Belgian in Congo must know of Leopold and Lumumba and the shadow these names cast on his or her actions. A Briton in Nigeria must be aware that the shadow of Lord Lugard, first governor general of Nigeria, haunts his footsteps. So they tread carefully, mindful of sensibilities that are both figment and real. They overlook corruption because it is how things are done in Africa. They laud substandard leaders because it is how people are ruled in Africa. To criticise or hold under too deep a scrutiny is to be accused of being an agent of a new type of colonialism.

Perhaps it is better that African countries are now beginning to deal with foreigners who have had little interaction with the continent in the near past. A deal recently struck between a Chinese construction company and the Kenyan government for the building of a railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi may have echoes of the British-built Kenya-Uganda railway line that also connected Nairobi to Mombasa; but such parallels are secondary when gauging the merits and demerits of the contract signed.

There are cries that China’s is a new imperialism. If so, at least it is new and not trapped in a stagnant history of ex-colonisers and their ex-colonies. Hearteningly, China does not hide its wish to make profit out of its dealings with Africa behind altruism or religion or paternalism. Thus, if indeed we are witnessing a 21st-century attempt to colonise Africa once more, at least there will be no hegemony to destroy when the fight for independence begins.

Perhaps the best way is to work in tandem with the past and the future. In Nigeria, where the power industry is being privatised, the Chinese Nigeria Power Consortium has won the bid for the Sapele power plant. It consists of Nigerian, Chinese and UK companies and maybe we can hope that all cultural and historical sensibilities will be preserved, while constant electricity is generated. — The Guardian, London

The writer is author of The Spider King’s Daughter.