Climate Change and Political Consequences: Redefining Colonialism in Africa and Beyond

Author: Marcel Kitissou

This is a panel presentation on Climate Change, Society and Political Violence in Africa: Policies and Actions given at a venue honoring Ali Mazuri and the late Chinua Achebe at the 38th annual New York African Studies Association at Binghamton University.

Chinua-Achebe-With Ali-Mazrui-at-Achebe-Colloquium-On-Africa

Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s foremost literary giants, sharing a light-hearted moment with Ali Mazuri, one of Africa’s illustrious public intellectuals, in 2011 at the Achebe Colloquium On Africa In Providence, Rhode Island.


My approach is influenced by the work of the French political scientist, Leo Hamon, in Acteurs et donneés de l’histoire (1971).[1] He rejects the theory of determining factor in human affairs. He thinks that there is no single element that determines, in a permanent way, outcomes in human interactions and the course of history, be it economy or culture. Each period of time is determined differently. Only afterward, one is able to distinguish ‘movements’ in social evolution. This is a caveat not to establish too quickly a rigid causation in history. As we are dealing with the convergence of multiple correlation or causation, this caution will guide my description of the correlation between climate change and political transformation in recent past, particularly the process of colonization in tropical areas. The analysis presented here represents an alternative perspective and does not constitute a substitute to existing ones.

Climate Change and Political Consequences: the Case of Togo

On February 18, 2009, Erin reported:

After a series of droughts and resulting food shortages in the 1970s, then President Eyadéma Gnassingbé launched what he called a ‘green revolution’ to increase local production. Radio broadcasts and street signs promoted the ‘return to the countryside,’ with slogans ‘Produce more – the land will not let us down’ and ‘Each Togolese will depend less on imports.’ In the early 1980s the reforms helped boost Togo’s agricultural production enabling it to start exporting cotton, according to government reports.

But the improvements did not last long, according to former Foreign Affairs Minister Samuel Anani Akakpo-Ahianyo, who served during the reforms. ‘The land was still not cultivable, producers not trained and rural roads not constructed to link the countryside to markets.’ He added that political turmoil that broke out in the 1990s curtailed agricultural reforms.

Political violence led to donors cutting back or pulling out in protest of widespread human rights abuses, including security crackdowns during the 2005 presidential polls.

But for Akakpo-Ahianyo, the agriculture sector was a victim not only of political violence but also of ‘poor planning and bad management’ under the former president.

What does this report tell somebody like the author of this article who lived through that situation?

  • The totalitarian temptation: the government moved to increase its power by controlling production and access to food. The ‘Green Revolution’ slogan was more an ideological mobilization than the implementation of a scientific method.
  • Policymaking: if, according to government reports, ‘reforms helped boost Togo’s agricultural production enabling it to start exporting cotton,’ the insistence on cash crops indicates that decisions are made based on global strategy rather than local needs, thus worsening the country’s reliance on outside for food security contrary to public pronouncements that ‘Each Togolese will depend less on imports.’
  • Creation of self-sustained enclaves of poverty: as stated by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘The land was still not cultivable, producers not trained and rural roads not constructed to link the countryside to markets.’ However, success in the production and exportation of cotton (and other cash crops) was the result of a selective investment of capital and modern technology in the sector. This implies two things: a) various forms of land grab transforming farmers into farm workers and b) obsolescence of traditional modes of production leading to loss of income for farmers.
  • Personal and family dramas: famine, whatever the cause, also affects traditional roles within societies and relationships among individuals. In the case of Togo in the 1970s, unable to feed their children, some fathers committed suicide to avoid seeing their children starve to death before their eyes. That left mothers to feed their children alone while burying their husbands.
  • Social violence: The minister mentioned that ‘political turmoil that broke out in the 1990s curtailed agricultural reforms.’ In the struggle for survival, for the majority of people, consciousness of what Cederman, Weidmann and Gleditsch [1] (2011) called ‘horizontal inequalities’ sharpened.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Grievances began to be articulated. Protests broke out. The government responded by repression. On both sides, a lethal combination of hope, humiliation and fear, as analyzed by Dominique Moisi in The Geopolitics of Emotion (2009), created socio-political instability.[2]

In summary, the pattern we see here is that drought and famine are likely to create conditions conducive to the deliquescence of social tissues, the degradation of traditional roles, and a transformation of power between elites and masses, and between rulers and ruled.

This is akin to a pattern of internal colonization. Then, protest and struggle for freedom are to be expected. Historically, similar cycles can be observed in external colonization.

Redefining Colonialism in Africa and Beyond

Under a crescendo of criticism for the corruption of his administration, the newly retired President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, his wife Julia, and his son Jesse left Philadelphia in spring 1877 for Europe…With James Bennett Jr. of the New York Herald paying the bar tab and the US Navy providing much of the transportation,  the ex-First Family plotted an itinerary that would have humbled Alexander the Great: up the Nile to Thebes, back to Palestine, then on to Italy and Spain, back to the Suez Canal, outward to Aden, India, Burma, Vietnam, China and Japan, and, finally, across the Pacific to California.[3]

The tropical areas then visited had in common more than the visit of the ‘American King,’ as he was called, and his family. Three years of drought and famine in Northern China killed between 8 million and 20 million people. In Egypt, the crop failure was almost total and thousands of people were dying from starvation due to a drought of biblical proportion. In India, by official account, more than 5 million perished from famine in the preceding three years. As historian Mike Davis put it, ‘What is germane is a coincidence in his travels that Grant himself never acknowledged, but which almost must have puzzled readers of Young’s narrative: the successive encounters with epic drought and famine in Egypt, India and China. It was almost as if the Americans were inadvertently following in the footprints of a monster whose colossal trail of destruction extended from the Nile to the Yellow Sea…with drought and famine reported as well in Java, the Philippines, New Caledonia, Korea, Brazil, Southern Africa and the Maghreb’.[4] In total, the second half of the 19th century witnessed three waves of drought, famines and diseases (1876-1879, 1889-1891and 1896-1902) causing between 30 million and 50 million victims. Mike Davis called it ‘the forgotten holocaust.’ He noticed that ‘The European empires, together with Japan and the United States, rapaciously exploited the opportunity to wrest new colonies, expropriate communal lands, and tape novel sources of plantation and mine labor’[5] while implementing industrial revolution and developing democratic institutions at home. ‘Famines are over the right to existence,’ he wrote. Reacting to this ‘ecological rapine,’ one African told a missionary, ‘Europeans track famine like a sky full of vultures.’[6]

Actually, during the drought of 1877 in southern Africa, Britain put an end to the independence of the Zulu empire. In 1889-1891, during the period of famine in Ethiopia, Italy tried to expand its domination over the Horn of Africa. By the late 1890s Germany, taking advantage of both the floods and drought in the province of Shantung, undertook to extend its influence to northern China. In the same period, the United States took over the Philippines, plagued by drought.

During the Victorian era and the French revolution, class division (and income inequality) within given societies was a universal phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century, what was more noticeable was rather the inequality of wealth among nations. The areas of the world affected by the series of drought in the second half of the 19th century never recovered. The ‘Third World,’ as it is known today, had emerged. And the rich countries in the ‘North’ had firmly established their prominence in world affairs.

However, as the concept of ‘horizontal inequalities’ might assume and Moisi’s trilogy of hope, humiliation and fear might explain, resentments, grievances and revolts began to be directed against the West throughout Africa, Asia, and South America. The extremism of those movements was directly proportional to ecological, existential as well as social challenges.[7] Because these nationalistic movements were rooted in a combination of natural (god-made) and socio-political (human-made) phenomena, with a lasting mission to fight for, ideologies of resistance tended to combine religious beliefs and eschatological overtones. In Africa, for example, in 1885, the British General Charles Gordon and his troops were slain by followers of Muhammad Ahmad (the Madhi) in Khartoum, a city situated at the junction of two key branches of the Nile. In 1898, a war almost broke out between Britain and France at Fashoda, another outpost on the Nile in southern Sudan.

Land-hungry Italians, taking pretext of ‘famine abandoned lands,’ occupied Asmara in 1889 as a launching pad to colonize the drought affected highlands of Eritrea and the plateau of Tigree. The remaining part of Ethiopia was declared under the ‘protection’ of Rome. Drought and famine brought diseases. Thousands were killed by dysentery, smallpox, typhus, influenza, and cholera. Animals became bold, attacking villagers. Human predation increased. Governors abandoned their responsibilities.  Warriors became marauding bands: a descent into a Hobbesian world. A second wave of drought struck in 1892. Menelik previously wrested his throne from the Tigreans with the support of Italians. Now, deprived of his horses and lacking provisions to sustain a large army, he was reluctant to attack. Empress Taitou came close to accusing her husband of treason and exhorted him to defend the national sovereignty. Using his strategic skills and French weapons, he sent his hungry soldiers to the battlefield. In March 1896, Ethiopia defeated Italy at Adwa. The biggest European military defeat in the history of Africa put an end to the dream of Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi to rebuild the Roman Empire beginning with the land of the Queen of Sheba. However, population shifts caused by the 19th century droughts still affect domestic politics in Ethiopia today.[8]

Should also be mentioned revolts of the Spirit Boxers in China, of the Tonghak Revolution in Korea, protests in the Philippines and, in Latin America, the Canudos in Brazil. Resistance and riots in India preceded the creation of the Indian National Congress in 1896.

Of God and Men: El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Debate about Nature and Culture

The recurrent plague of drought in tropical zones was not without theoretical debates. It pertained to the classic dialectical discourse about nature and culture. Drought and famine have consequences other than mass starvation. They are accompanied by diseases as the body presents less resistance to illness. That in turn disrupts social solidarities, weakens local political institutions, and delegitimizes indigenous authorities that prove unable to fulfill their traditional functions and respond to the needs of their populations. Doors are open to external interventions.

During the 19th century colonial interventions, the breakdown of political institutions –hence their inabilities to resist- was aggravated by the imposition of crops that meet European demands rather the needs of local populations. Therefore when drought strikes, these populations no longer had the coping mechanisms that protected them in the previous periods.[9] Based on this observation, some critiques, principally Karl Max, argued that imperialism was the cause of the misery in tropical zones. Then, it was man-made. Other theories in the West asserted that the cause was embedded in nature itself: sun spots. They argued, to counter the Marxist theory, that changing patterns of spots in the sun affected differently different places on the planet and caused the recurrent drought and famines observed in the southern hemisphere.

It was not until the 1960s that an American scientist articulated a credible explanation. Jacob Bjerknes of UCLA, in a 1969 paper, demonstrated that the Southern Oscillation resulted from a chain-reaction: the exchange of energy between the ocean and the atmosphere.[10] It was named El Nino (the Child Jesus) because it happens around Christmas time every 18 months to 3 years in the Tropical Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru.


Drought may be a natural cyclical phenomenon. However, human behaviors and climate change mutually reinforce each other. In his book, Destruction massive: géopolitique de la faim, the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler (2011) introduces a distinction between structural hunger (faim structurelle), permanent and invisible, and cyclical hunger (faim conjoncturelle) caused by severe weather that makes the implicit explicit, mainly affecting the already poor.[11]

To conclude with the pre-existential relativist, the 5th century Greek philosopher, Protagoras of Abdera, ‘Of all things the measure is Man; of the things that are, that they are; and of the things that are not, that they are not.’ Indeed, ‘Man is the measure of all things.’

[1] Lars-Erik Cederman, Nils B. Weidmann & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, ‘Horizontal inequality and ethnonationalist civil war: A global comparison.’ American Political Science Review, Volume 105, Number 3, 2011, pp. 478-495.

[2] Dominique Moisi, The Geopolitics of emotion: how culture of fear, humiliation and hope are reshaping the world. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

[3]  Mike Davis, Late Victorian holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the Third World.  London, New York: Verso, 2002, p. 2.

[4] Ibid. p. 6.

[5] Ibid. p. 7.

[6] Mike Davis ibid. p. 139.

[7]  Mike Davis, ibid.

[8] Mike Davis, ibid. pp.137-138

[9] Also see Samir Amin, L’Afrique de l’Ouest bloquée: l’economie politique de la colonisation 1880-1970. Editions de Minuit, 1970.

[10]  Mike Davis, ibid. p. 231

[11] Jean Ziegler, Destruction massive: la geopolitique de la faim. Paris XIV: Editions du Seuil, 2011.

[1] Leo Hamon, Acteurs et données de l’histoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.