Slum area of Kampala, Uganda. (Photo by Farm Images)
Artillery Row

Don’t blame Britain

Obsessing over the sins of empire only serves to hide the flaws of dysfunctional modern states

Intervening in the increasingly polarised debate on the impact of the British Empire, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi courageously offered the view that post-colonial nation-states need to take more responsibility for their current-day problems.

Polarising debate on the British Empire lacks serious analysis

Zahawi challenged the belief that there were no benefits to the British Empire by using Iraq, his country of birth, as an example. He referred to Iraq’s British-inspired civil service system of the past and how it served the Middle Eastern country well in the pre-Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party era. The Ba’athist Iraqi regime had dictator Saddam Hussein at the helm for nearly a quarter of a century with the support of his corrupt criminal allies. It certainly played its part in driving Iraq towards social, political and economic stagnation after a period of high growth and broad-based prosperity.

Like many other discussions that touch on sensitive territory, the divisive debate over the impact of the British Empire is lacking serious analysis. We should guard against what Indian intellectual and former diplomat Dr Shashi Tharoor calls “historical amnesia” surrounding the atrocities of empire. This includes the detention camps of the Boer Second War, the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, the famines in pre-partition India and the brutalisation of Kenyans during the Mau Mau Uprising.

While the horrors of the British Empire should never be washed away from the pages of history, neither should the “legacy of colonialism” be opportunistically cited to justify current-day underachievement in self-governing nation-states. Among former territories of the British Empire, there have been stunning cases of internal mismanagement for which Britain simply cannot be blamed.

Take Uganda for example, which gained independence from the UK on 9 October 1962. A decade later, its authoritarian racial-nationalist leader Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of South Asians from the east African country — doing away with his country’s economic backbone in the process. Their businesses were expropriated and transferred to Amin’s cronies and sycophants, who simply did not have the skills and expertise to successfully run such enterprises.

As a thriving commercial and industrial class, the expelled Asian-origin population was, according to historian A.B. Kasozi, “the grease that lubricated the upper sector of Uganda’s economy”. As well as being a fundamentally racist endeavour, Uganda’s project of “Africanisation” was hugely counterproductive in terms of nation-state economic interest.

An uplifting case study — one admittedly close to my heart due to my own ancestral origins — is Bangladesh. Formerly known as East Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947, it recently celebrated its 51-year anniversary as an independent nation-state. To achieve independence, Bangladesh fought a brutal liberation war with West Pakistan in 1971. During the War, West Pakistan (modern-day Pakistan) launched two particularly horrific initiatives in East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh): the systematic sexual torture of Bangladeshi women and an orchestrated campaign to eradicate the newly-independent country’s spine of leading academics, medical professionals and highly-skilled engineers.

Anti-independence Islamist militias such as Al-Badr and Al-Shams, formed by a partnership between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the now-banned Jamaat-e-Islami political party, committed some of the most devastating atrocities ever witnessed on the Indian subcontinent.

With the assistance of the Delhi-Moscow axis, Bangladesh defeated Pakistan. Fifty-one years on, Pakistan now trails Bangladesh across a number of socio-economic metrics — including literacy rate, life expectancy, GDP per capita and female economic activity. Bangladesh also has a superior ranking to Pakistan for Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

Post-colonial national sovereignty means political responsibility

Sailing past Pakistan, Bangladesh’s secular-oriented values and relatively positive approach to female empowerment have helped it become a rapidly-developing nation-state and a rising member of the Commonwealth. The fact that Bangladesh has borne the brunt of the Rohingya refugee crisis makes its recent achievements all the more astonishing. Meanwhile, according to the latest Fragile States Index figures (factoring in a range of social, political, economic and “cross-cutting” indicators), Pakistan suffers from a greater level of fragility than North Korea, Mauritania and Palestine.

We should be discussing why certain former parts of the Empire have fared much better than others in the post-independence era. It is true that the brutality and plundering of resources was not evenly distributed under British colonialism — and that should be part of the conversation. But a truly comprehensive examination would also require post-colonial nation-states to examine their internal systems of governance.

How successful have they been at rooting out corruption within their public institutions? What is the prevailing mainstream culture’s approach to tackling religious extremism and communal tensions? Are there domestic initiatives in place which promote female educational advancement? Have self-governing countries done everything they can to create the economic and political conditions that can attract meaningful levels of foreign direct investment? These are questions worth asking before citing British colonialism as the primary reason for underwhelming post-colonial outcomes.

Grave social, political and economic failures among self-governing nation-states in the post-independence period should not be overlooked. Post-colonial national sovereignty means taking on political responsibility and acknowledging glaring internal shortcomings which, quite frankly, have nothing to do with Britain.

Conversations about the history of the British Empire are all too often engineered to deflect attention away from contemporary internal failings within modern-day nation-states. By challenging simplistic “Blame Britain” narratives when it comes to a lack of economic development and social progress in post-colonial states, the UK’s Baghdad-born education secretary has bravely stuck his head above the parapet.

For that, Nadhim Zahawi — who is proving to be one of the more impressive members of the cabinet — ought to be congratulated.

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