Last week, Germany’s Africa Commissioner Gunter Nooke said that European countries should be allowed to lease land and to build and run cities in Africa as a means of stemming what he views as the unchecked expansion of migration from Africa to Europe. For Nooke, allowing the “free development” of these areas would stimulate African economies and create “growth and prosperity” and therefore, reduce the attractiveness of Europe as a destination for migration.
The proposal has elicited mixed reactions. Some have seen it as a novel economic proposition to stem a complex political challenge. Building on existing economic arrangements like Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Economic Processing Zones (EPZs), they argue that this would simply be the next stage in the evolution in the idea that economic exclaves that protect industries from the ravages of the open economy are the best way to stimulate growth. Now, instead of jeans and sneakers, we want to optimise people – or at least labour – by protecting them from the realities and ravages of their societies.
Understandably, there has also been considerable pushback. The word “colonialism” has been raised, with critics arguing that Germany, especially, with its history of violent colonialism and genocide in Namibia, Cameroon, Tanzania and Togo, has no moral authority to even table such an idea. More broadly, many African countries are still struggling to recover from the damage from European colonisation. In many African countries, land tenure is still irregular and skewed to wealthy and often white minorities, engendering generational economic exclusion. Many African economies have failed to move beyond the extractive, labour intensive economies they inherited from their European counterparts. The violence of colonisation is still very present in Africa – should we really be talking about a new, trendy colonialism that only really hopes to address Europe’s paranoia about a possible invasion by black bodies?
The easiest way to get to the heart of what’s wrong with this proposal is to go back to basics – what is colonialism and why is it bad? The dictionary defines colonialism as “a policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically”. Ultimately, it’s about exploiting a power differential in order to reorganise one society for the economic and social benefit of another: saying that one society’s economic and social imperatives are more important than the other’s.
So, Nooke’s proposal is fundamentally hipster colonialism – attempting to reclaim colonialism by couching it in neoliberal trends or ideology while advocating for a return to an essentially exploitative system of social and economic organisation. Many of those speaking in favour of this proposal do so it in sterile and agnostic terms, focusing on the economic dimensions and the potential financial growth and leaving out the most important element – the people involved and affected. Underneath this is a reductive premise that human beings, and Africans specifically, are not as fully actualised human beings who deserve holistic life experiences – Africans are just labour or economic opportunities.
Yet human beings are not just labour – we are complex, social and interconnected beings whose needs cannot just be collapsed into money. “We do not want to be reminded that it is we, the indigenous people, who are poor and exploited in the land of our birth. These are concepts which the Black Consciousness approach wishes to eradicate from the black man’s mind before our society is driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds,” said Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement and a leading light in the anti-apartheid movement.
Biko rightfully observed that colonisation and apartheid were about more than a process of economic disruption – even while that process specifically centred on the alienation of land was traumatic enough. Colonisation was also about mental degradation of black people in South Africa. The apartheid system was about breaking down the spirits of black people so that they could be malleable and even amenable to a system of political organisation that kept them demeaned, powerless and even ashamed in their own home. Colonisation is about unmaking one society for the benefit of another.
More urgently, Nooke’s hipster colonialism is only attractive if you ignore history and indeed, reality. Some facts about migration to Europe easily challenge its flawed premises. Nooke doesn’t go to the heart of the economic and political climate that makes migration an attractive alternative for young African people. What are they fleeing from that would make near-certain death on the sea a more attractive alternative to home? Nooke has nothing to say for the massive land expropriation by Western corporations and Middle Eastern governments; of a “war on terror” that has criminalised young black malehood across the Sahel and down Africa’s eastern seaboard; of an international political system that supports and sustains autocracy in pursuit of stability.
Then there is the simple issue of numbers. For one, the vast majority of people attempting to migrate to Europe are not African – they are from the Middle East. At the peak of Europe’s “migrant crisis” in 2015, of the just over one million people who attempted to enter Europe, nearly 80 percent were from the greater Middle East and primarily Syria – a country devastated by a war that Germany continues to profit from through arms sales to the regime that these people are fleeing. If Europe is serious about stemming migration, it should get serious about stopping war.
More broadly, African cities are already performing many of the functions that Nooke’s economic enclaves claim to work towards. Privileged people are already able to access better facilities, opportunities and representation than their rural or urban poor counterparts. This hasn’t stemmed the flow of migration. It has just created a power differential between the urban elite and the poor, in turn exacerbating problems like insecurity and state violence against the poor who are criminalised through the process of protecting the privilege for the few.
European schools and universities are clearly failing to educate their students on the underlying social, cultural and structural violence that made colonisation possible. It’s a fascinating coincidence that this conversation is happening in the shadow of the death of an American missionary attempting to take a vintage colonial, civilising mission to North Sentinel Island in India. The Sentinelese, a society last contacted by outsiders in the early 20th century, responded to the unsolicited invasion with a volley of arrows that almost instantly killed the young man. We are reminded that the “civilising mission” of European colonialism was ultimately an invasive, violent process. Dehumanising, neoliberal, hipster colonialism is being proposed so liberally and uncritically that it is easy to lose sight of what makes colonialism toxic.
Human mobility across the Mediterranean is indeed increasingly dangerous and that requires a robust, coordinated and concerted effort to resolve. But we can’t ignore reality and history as we throw around variations of old policies rephrased in modern, trendy language because such half-baked solutions will inevitably compound whatever problems we seek to resolve. Ultimately, hipster colonialism and Nooke’s proposal is yet another reminder that we need to re-centre people in our policymaking – it can’t just be about money – and that the road to solutions begins quite simply with reading a history book.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.