BOOK REVIEW / In the imperial sunset: arms for the poor: 'Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism' - Frank Furedi: I B Tauris, 34.50 pounds

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TRIBAL slaughter in Rwanda, clan warlords in Somalia, black on black violence in South Africa - these are our images of the Third World. Western commentaries stress the irrationality of ethnic conflicts, the tyranny of Third World despots, the horrors of societies out of control. Implicit in such discussion is the idea that 'they' are in some way different from 'us' - that Third World societies are more in thrall to irrational, ancient customs and less willing to accept Western ideas of liberal democracy.

It is to Frank Furedi's credit that he challenges such easy perceptions. Both the image of the Third World and the reality, he suggests, have been to a large extent wrought in the West.

He has two main themes. First, he argues that through the Forties and Fifties there was a systematic campaign on the part of the British authorities to denigrate Third World nationalist movements and anti-colonial arguments. Nationalists were denounced as terrorists, criminals or subversives.

Comparisons with Hitler were particularly popular: the spirit of the Third Reich manifested itself in the most unlikely places. The resident commissioner of the Solomon Islands, for instance, believed that 'the mystic appeal' of the local independence movement provided a 'parallel with the strange fervour that swiftly swept over Germany and resulted in the Third Reich'. Our tendency to view Somalia's General Aideed as a 'warlord' or Saddam Hussein as a 'new Hitler' has a 'long and respectable history'.

Furedi's second theme is an account of how Britain did not simply denigrate but manipulated nationalist movements, largely by fomenting divisions along ethnic or tribal lines. Such manipulation involved what one British official coyly called 'special interpretation of facts, the dissemination of rumours, the use of guile and to some extent trickery'. The aim was on the one hand to associate a nationalist movement with one particular community or tribe, hence fragmenting its national appeal, and on the other to promote different regional and tribal groups as alternative political voices. A fragmented movement, Whitehall reasoned, would be less prone to radicalism and easier to deal with after independence.

Britain managed to divide nationalist movements, isolate more radical elements and transfer power to relatively moderate regimes - but at a cost. 'The success of the year has been in building up real opposition to Jaganism (a movement led by Cheddi Jagan, a Guianese socialist writer), Marxism and Communism,' a colonial official in British Guiana wrote in 1959. 'The dark edge to this success has been that it has largely been accomplished through racialism.'

The new societies were divided and unstable. During the Cold War the divisions were largely frozen, thanks to the arms and money poured in by the superpowers. But such realities are largely obscured by the dominant Western world view.

The success of Britain and other Western powers in denying the authenticity of anti-colonial movements in the Forties and Fifties has allowed the West to question the legitimacy of post-independence states. It has allowed the West to place the burden of the current anxiety on the particularities of the Third World itself. In challenging the imperial view of decolonisation, and in retrieving the real history of the end of empire, Furedi has played a valuable role in throwing new light on a contemporary crisis of the Third World.