Nation & World

Post-colonial wars parsed at Radcliffe

6 min read

Nuanced analysis, range of views mark interdisciplinary conference

Last week, a two-day interdisciplinary conference on post-colonial wars got under way at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The Oct. 30-31 event was the capstone of two years of private meetings at Radcliffe by high-level experts on the wars that followed independence movements in Africa and Asia after World War II.

Under the scholarly microscope were divergent conflicts in three regional groupings: Algeria, Angola/Mozambique, and Vietnam; Kenya, Malaya, and Sri Lanka; and Congo, Burundi/Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.

Scholars, policymakers, experts in humanitarian aid, and former military officers arrived at Radcliffe, bringing with them a fresh reminder of the real world. Just a few days before, renewed fighting had broken out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former colony of Belgium where a fragile peace had reigned since 2003. In just a few days, about 250,000 civilians were displaced or threatened; tens of thousands had fled — starving and unprotected — into the bush.

“The subjects we’re addressing … are of enduring importance,” said conference co-organizer Louise Richardson. She’s executive dean at Radcliffe and a recognized world expert on terrorism.

Richardson’s hope for the conference is “a written volume that will have lasting impact on the field” — a book of essays that she later said would likely appear in 2010.

“The presentations are brief,” said conference co-organizer Jennifer Leaning. “The [book] will be long and complex.” Leaning, a physician, is co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and professor of the practice of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The Radcliffe conference was a look at “the deferred violence of decolonization” — the wars big and small resulting from the weakening grip of colonizing Western powers following World War II and the newly independent states writhing out of that grip.

Were these wars a consequence of the colonial years, or the consequence of pressures that pre-existed the colonies? That was one of the conference’s abiding questions.

Wars often followed colonization but that “does not imply colonial causality,” said panelist and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole. He fled his native Sri Lankia because of death threats he received for associating with human rights groups.

“Not to excuse” colonial regimes, said panelist Manuel Carballo, the Geneva-based director of the International Centre for Migration and Health, but “violence and slavery were not new to any of the countries colonized.”

Still, most panelists agreed, imperial power often played a role in causing post-colonial wars, or making them more violent than they would have been.

In Algeria, a centuries-long history of colonization — by Britain and then France — contributed to the war that started one night in 1954 and ended nearly eight years later. “This was not a storm in a blue sky,” said panelist Francois Bugnion, a retired official with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The brutal war in Algeria decades ago illustrated at least two mistakes that colonizers often made, both of which exacerbated the violence that ensued.

For one, land grabs enriched European settlers at the expense of native peoples, making the latter laborers on farms they once owned — second-class citizens in their own lands.

And colonial powers overreacted to tremors of national liberation, prompting torture and mass arrests, and barring intervention from international aid groups.

In contrast, Mozambique was colonized by Portugal — a “weak but resilient” power that forbade any discrimination on the part of colonial administrators, said panelist Witney Schneidman, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

But Portuguese rule was oppressive in other ways. Its widespread censorship and culture of domestic spies led to Portugal’s colonies becoming known as “the kingdom of silence,” he said.

Many of the conference experts agreed that colonial regimes often exacerbated regional and ethnic tensions, which in turn fueled, prolonged, and brutalized post-colonial wars.

Sometimes a region’s internal tensions predated colonial rule. When France ceded partial independence to North Vietnam in 1945, it withheld self-rule from South Vietnam. That misstep opened wide cultural rifts between the rural, cohesive north and the socially mobile, entrepreneurial south — rifts that had appeared in the 19th century.

These regional differences were widened by France’s colonial rule, said panelist Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Harvard’s Kenneth T. Young Professor of Sino-Vietnamese History. And after the French Colonial War (1946-54), the United States balked at the idea of a Vietnam united by elections. That meant Vietnam’s clashing cultures became “a pawn in the Cold War,” said Tai, dragging what would have been a different post-colonial war over extra decades.

That was another salient feature of these conflicts: They often became proxy wars, shadow conflicts that pitted one Cold War power against another.

The British colonial experience in Kenya provided another lesson — that “winning hearts and minds” often has the opposite effect, said panelist Caroline Elkins. She is Harvard’s Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies, whose “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” (Henry Holt, 2005) won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

In Britain’s colonies, there were clashes between two contradictions: Britain’s outwardly progressive “civilizing mission” abroad and the growing dissent of its colonized natives.

Kenya provided an abject lesson in subduing natives by enforced civilization, said Elkins. Its schemes of white settlement on rich lands and native containment in poor reserves exploded into the infamous Mau Mau Uprising (1952-60).

Over time, about 300,000 men were detained in gulag-like detention camps to be re-educated. Women were sequestered in “strategic hamlets” echoed later in the Vietnam experience.

This “hearts and minds campaign,” said Elkins of Britain’s misguided path to civility, “was the ultimate crystallization of these contradictions.”

At the conference’s end, Bugnion called any easy understanding of post-colonial wars “an impossible task.” But he added that “the frustrations, the unfairness” of colonial rule often led to violence, to disrespect for international law, and to post-colonial regimes that repeated patterns of dominance by a political elite.

Colonized nations, once freed, were often subject to violent breakdowns that were more prolonged and destructive than they otherwise would have been, said Carballo. In part, he added, this was because the colonizers left their former domains with better bureaucracies, better weapons, a tradition of ruling elites, and the legacy of dehumanizing divisions based on ethnicity.

European colonizers “legitimated” post-colonial violence too, he said — by providing the horrific example of World War II.

Carballo echoed other panelists, who praised the Radcliffe conference for opening a subject that needs more study. This kind of “forensic history,” he said, might help explain such wars and prevent them in the future — by knocking down cycles of violence that otherwise simply perpetuate themselves.

After all, said Carballo, “Nothing happened yesterday that is forgotten today.”