Huge Untapped Natural Resources

Many moons ago, in my first teaching gig at a New England prep school’s summer session, I was responsible for a unit on Africa. I poked around in the school’s library and found an old educational film intended for American kids that had been made in the early 1960s.

It was a quintessential bit of Cold War geopolitics. The film’s basic presentation of contemporary Africa went something like this:

1. Africa has huge untapped natural resources that will benefit American industries!
2. There are many new nations in Africa that have just been freed from British and French imperialism. They are full of hope! We are their friends!
3. But: watch out for Commies.
4. There are huge untapped natural resources!
5. There are dams and railroads and a few skyscrapers in Africa, all of them brand-new! Also: people there have many age-old traditions which will fade as there are more dams and skyscrapers and cars.
6. There are huge untapped natural resources!

The narrator’s voice as he said “huge untapped natural resources” (at least six times in a ten-minute film) was so full of unironic lust and desire that the students in my class were howling with laughter by about the third time he said it.

This particular trope applied to Africa may have felt new to American audiences, but it certainly went back to the mid-19th Century and the origins of modern European imperialism on the continent. Africa’s untapped resources weren’t always seen as mineral or natural: in late 19th Century British politics, Joseph Chamberlain made a lot out of the idea that future African workers would be important consumers of British manufactured goods.

Still, I think the most interesting or characteristic working out of the trope during the imperial era of African history came in Frederick Lugard’s Dual Mandate. I’m reminded of Lugard’s tortured and contradictory thinking about the question of Africa’s material wealth and its relationship to imperial rule because it very much echoes, in depressing and ominous ways, the manner in which Afghanistan’s resource wealth has been suddenly “discovered” by the New York Times at a moment of political and managerial crisis for American military power in Afghanistan.

Lugard was writing in part to justify the continuation of British imperial rule in Africa to a public that sometimes viewed Africa as a secondary or burdensome commitment (as opposed to India). He was also writing to try and solidify what he considered to be the orthodox managerial strategy for British officials in Africa, a sort of “operator’s manual” for future bureaucrats.

Lugard’s central contradictory argument went something like this:

1. The British Empire rules in Africa primarily as part of a “civilizing mission”. Its presence is substantially for the benefit of Africans themselves. British rule is intended to gently modify African institutions, society and culture so that Africans can enter the modern world without changing their essential beliefs, culture or identity. This process is expected to take a long time. Africans who already act like modern, liberal individuals, who demand political and civil rights, who are urban, cosmopolitan and ‘detribalized’ are inauthentic, un-African individuals who are the unfortunate result of missionary education or other intrusions by alien institutions, and should be ignored or contained.
2. The British Empire rules in Africa primarily for the benefit of Great Britain itself. African societies were incapable of making proper use of their enormous material wealth or labor power and because of their violent, disorganized character, posed a serious threat to the security of any effort to develop that wealth or use that labor for the good of the global economy. The British Empire will maintain the peace and organize economic enterprise in Africa through firm imperial control, which will in the long run benefit Africans themselves.

Some scholars, most particularly Mahmood Mamdani, see in Lugard’s formulation a totally instrumental kind of conscious contradiction that strengthened imperial power, as opposed to mere cynicism or a more accidental, incoherent kind of contradiction. I tend towards that latter interpretation: I read Lugard as switching helplessly between the humanitarian and nationalist explanations (and between the internal contradictions that attend on both logics of imperial rule).

Anyway, it seems pertinent today because both of these ideas are raging like a forest fire through American policy at the moment, in ways that are almost direct reproductions of Lugard’s rhetoric. “We’re here to help reconstruct Afghanistan’s government and culture so that it can be a productive part of the global system!” and “Hey, there’s a lot of lithium in them thar hills, and they’re not really mining it properly by themselves! This is how we’ll get rewarded in the end for spending blood and treasure now.”

If you take Mamdani’s view, this contradiction is entirely to be expected, a revelation that American intervention is and has always been imperial in character. I also think it reveals that there’s an imperial element to Afghanistan and Iraq, but one that is as confusing to American policymakers and military officials as I think it was to Lugard. The impulses that drive the decision to intervene aren’t the same as the forces that shape the management of an intervention. Since I tend to think there’s something to the proposition that modern European imperialism involved the proverbial “fit of absent-mindedness”, I tend to think that Lugard was more or less throwing every justification he could think of at the wall to see what would stick.

As are American policymakers. Because every action of this kind, whatever its initial justifications, creates a clientele of officials, consultants, experts, lobbyists, politicians, demagogues and so on who become dependent on its continued existence. So when there’s a political threat to the ongoing operation, they throw everything you have at the wall to see what sticks. And the “wall” in this case is the New York Times or whatever other publication or reporter they can get to compliantly print leaks or briefings without asking inconvenient questions. Say, in this case, questions like “Um, haven’t we known about these resources for at least three years? Or maybe more like twenty years?”

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