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Africa's destiny in its own hands

A new form of colonialism may be right for the regional powers of the continent, says Trevor Phillips
Africa strode across our stage several times this week, both literally and figuratively, and did so with a confidence that we have not associated with the continent for many years. Let us leave the depressing bit - Sierra Leone - out of consideration for the moment, and turn our attention to a joyously liberating event taking place in Hackney during the next week or so. Les Ballets Africains, the national dance company of Guinea, have taken their hugely physical, rhythmic and colourful show Heritage to the Hackney Empire theatre.

It is an astonishing show. The 35 dancers and musicians transform a rather banal series of episodes which (I think) concern a young musician's wanderings into a pulsating two-hour roller-coaster ride. The music makes you want to get up and dance. The sight of the dancers' perfectly honed, athletic bodies, male and female, remind you how pathetic your own shambling efforts would look next to what's happening on the stage. Yet this is not just a souped-up African version of morris dancing. It is truly ballet in that it is stylised, and has a clear physical language that works with the musical narrative brilliantly. But art aside, what you see here is the New Africa prophesied by Nelson Mandela. The young performers swagger across the stage with no attempt to validate their work in European terms, and they offer no compromises to classical dance. But they are not frozen in aspic; the men, who seem to fly through the air, also throw in some American-style break dancing, almost without breaking sweat. It is great, and it gives a flavour of what Africa could be - talented, unapologetic and whinge-free. That is what a really independent, post-colonial Africa would feel like.

The irony of this taking place at the Hackney Empire strikes you as you walk through the Edwardian columns and hallways of the theatre. When it opened in 1901, the word empire carried a different meaning. Far from being jingoistic and oppressive, for many young Britons the empire offered the prospect of freedom, of adventure and discovery. There were still parts of the world where the stuffy norms of the post-Victorian era did not apply and where young men (and a few women) could reject their parents' rules. And then there were riches beyond imagination. The problem was, of course that in most of the places the youth of Europe wanted to exercise their freedoms there were already norms in operation, and the riches involved usually belonged to someone else.

Never mind. Colonialism did its thing, and in Africa, the tradition of The Big Man helped in the humiliation. Even now, to get a decision in much of Africa, nothing can happen without the say-so of some key functionary. Often, even a minor government functionary's patronage and approval exceeds that often ascribed to Peter Mandelson. Whole populations would accept that their destinies could be determined by the wishes of a single man, who happened to be called the equivalent of chief.

Thus colonialists, though backed by the gun and the Bible, were able to persuade the majority of Africans that their new order was merely an extension of the historic tradition of deference to Big Men.

Inevitably, colonialism's greed killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The crude carve-up of the African map in Benin in 1884 drew a series of borders that artificially split clans, kingdoms and tribes, and set up the tensions we see in Rwanda-Burundi. After independence, the favours granted to Big Men led to the disgrace of Zaire and Amin's Uganda. And the failure to set up anything resembling a modern state left countries like Mozambique with illiteracy rates, at independence, of more than 90 per cent. How could places with this kind of legacy ever compete?

There is an answer, of course. The Francophone territories such as Ivory Coast, Gabon and Senegal quickly made it clear that though they had cut the formal ties, they intended to stay close to the power of Paris. They benefited hugely in terms of economic stability. In the South, Botswana took a less aggressive line towards the regional power, South Africa, and as a consequence has enjoyed decades of tranquillity and relative growth. (There is an alternative explanation : the fact that Botswana has always refused to set up a TV station may also have contributed to its stability and high educational standards; the jury's still out).

As a result, some African thinkers are beginning to ask, in whispers, whether colonialism is such a terrible thing. No one wants the Europeans to come back. But with the emergence of a group of less poor nations - you cannot call them rich - the possibility of African colonialism is being talked about. Kenya, Nigeria, Libya (which sees itself as an African power) and South Africa are the senior partners in the Organisation of African Unity. It was no surprise, then, that the OAU backed what was in effect a Nigerian invasion of stricken Sierra Leone. In many ways, this was the sort of decisive action that Europe should have taken in Bosnia. It would have been perfect had the Nigerians been militarily competent. However, they made an effort. The point is that the regional power has taken responsibility for the disaster in West Africa - precisely the sort of responsibility that imperial nations would have exercised in the past.

There is a logic to all this. Africans cannot continue to complain about the legacy of colonialism and the unfairness of the terms of trade with the rest of the world without some internal order. Currently, the Western obsession is something called democracy, though it is not often explained what this means in the African context; most of the nations which complain of Africa's despots are run by people who cannot claim to have attracted a majority of votes in their own elections. Yes, we would all like a universal franchise to operate freely; no, we do not approve of corruption and intimidation. But to achieve the stable environment which these conditions need may take some drastic action. It may be in Africa's own hands, if its people are prepared to accept that for some time at least they may have to surrender some national sovereignty in order to make progress.