Author:Uzoigwe, Godfrey N.


Although neocolonialism was a major political phenomenon in the newly independent countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, most politicians and scholars in the West rejected the concept, dismissing it offhandedly as the self-righteous ebullition of nationalist politicians and radical scholars who were confronted with a new age of change that they found uncomfortable, brought about by benevolent westernizers and exacerbated by the realities of independence. Some of the realities that were then regarded as the birth pangs of new nationhood included ethnic conflicts (popularly called "tribalism"), military coups and countercoups, religious differences, a lack of social amenities, nepotism, pervasive corruption, and most important, chronic economic backwardness. All of these were perceived as fatal to national unity and socioeconomic and political development. In the eyes of most of the practical political leaders of the new nations, therefore, these postcolonial traumas were of a more immediate concern than the occasionally erudite dissertations on neocolonialism of academics. The angry and sometimes uncouth fulminations of quasi-intellectuals and some socialist radicals on the same subject also did not help matters. Far from facilitating the much-needed practical and immediate solutions to the complicated problems of nation building, some of the haughty progressives became a source of anxiety and fear for the politicians. Deep down, too, these politicians were painfully aware that they could not demonize their departed colonizers and at the same time ask them for assistance. Some also knew that they needed their former rulers to remain in power. They were also aware of the terrible end of some of their compatriots who had boldly challenged the West. Thus, finding themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, self-preservation and self-aggrandizement became their major concerns. The result was a general hostility to the academics and the arrest and imprisonment of the most vocal intellectuals on trumped-up charges. The unlucky ones perished under mysterious circumstances. Some lucky ones fled to Europe and America, where, paradoxically, they were free to express themselves under the protection of the law, and others simply decided to stay at home, swallowed their pride, and served the very politicians they had pilloried in the past, thus becoming compromised and corrupted by them.

It was no surprise, therefore, that by the 1980s scholarly and political interest in neocolonialism was on the wane. Thus, by the close of the twentieth century, neocolonialism no longer occupied center stage in scholarly discourses about the problems developing nations faced. Nevertheless, its salient features--back-door economic, political, sociocultural, and military manifestations and so forth--continued to impact, in various guises, developments in the Global South. However, the different perspectives on this inevitable historical phenomenon of its proponents and its opponents alike, especially among scholars during the heat of the debate, essentially mirrored their perspectives on imperialism and colonialism. Those who regarded colonialism as a bad thing were alarmed at its continued existence through the back door after independence and vociferously denounced the phenomenon as nefarious and predatory, but those who regarded it as essentially a good thing equally stoutly denied the existence of neocolonialism and sometimes mocked their opponents as advanced radicals and nationalist scholars desperately in search of nations that never existed.

But clear-eyed students of colonialism always knew that the exuberant optimism generated by the winning of independence of the colonized countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa would not endure for long and that negative reactions to colonialism would follow. Right from the start, as anticipated, these countries faced one crisis after another--some arising from what they inherited and some of their own making--that inevitably threatened their sovereign existence. While some saw these crises as a temporary aftermath of colonization, others continued to see in them the nefarious intentions of the departed colonial powers; and yet, others blamed the poor leadership of the new nations. The fact is that, looked at historically, a single explanation of this phenomenon cannot be sustained. And yet some postcolonial scholarship, particularly of the Marxist and nationalist persuasions, tend to attempt to do so. In contrast, some of their opponents tend to see the proceedings of the ex-colonial rulers in their former colonies as essentially Christian, benevolent, and beneficial. The truth, I believe, lies between these extreme positions.

Because of growing scholarly interest in the subject, especially the widening perspectives on the concept, using the historical method and a broad variety of sources dating from the 1950s to contemporary times, this article discusses how neocolonialism has impacted developing nations, and the future dangers it may pose. Aware that discourses on the subject are characterized by ideological rigidity (and, sometimes, academic tribalism) and semantic confusion, I have made a deliberate effort has been made not to engage in an argument that seems to be going around in circles. The article concludes by positing that the idea of neocolonialism (including its practical operation), far from being dead, is alive and well and that if politicians sweep the subject under the carpet, dire consequences may follow. It is too important a phenomenon to be left to scholars and radical intellectuals. That being the case, the political leaders of both the developed nations and the Global South have an obligation to confront the phenomenon, not as superior or inferior partners or as colonizer and colonized but as partners in the pursuit of global peace, security, and prosperity. This is a goal that twenty-first-century progressive scholarship on the subject perhaps needs to pay more attention to. The emphasis scholars place on issues such as "coloniality" and "decoloniality," on abandoning the ideas of neocolonialism and "postcolonialism," and, for some, on substituting "Orientalism" as analytical concepts, is interesting for what these ideas may be worth, but the new wisdom has not demonstrated how it contributes to the betterment of future relations between the new nations and their former colonizers.


Essentially, what is broadly called neocolonialism is the nature of relations after independence between European powers and their former colonies of the non-European world. Thus, it is misleading to see current Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian proceedings in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East as neo-colonial. Such activities are important and deserve to be studied on their own terms and within their historical context. However, the word "neocolonialism," as far as I know, was first used internationally on April 19, 1958, when Ghana's foreign minister, Alex Quaison-Sackey, said in a speech at the UN General Assembly: "By neocolonialism we mean the practice of granting a sort of independence with the concealed intention of making the liberated country a client-state, and controlling it effectively by means other than political ones." (1) Thereafter, there have been various emotive definitions of neocolonialism, often indicating what Europeans and non-Europeans think of the intentions of each other. A notable example of these definitions is one offered by Kwame Nkrumah, under whose administration Quaison-Sackey served. He postulated that the "neocolonialism" of his day (1950s-1970s) "represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage." For him, its "essence is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside." (2) But for Nkrumah, without doubt, and very importantly, "neocolonialism is also the worst form of imperialism" because "those who practice it" exercise "power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress." He noted further that during "old-fashioned colonialism," the administrators of overseas colonial estates "had at least to explain and justify at home" their actions toward their overseas dependencies and the colonized "could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neocolonialism, neither is the case." (3)

Opponents of neocolonialism have largely accepted Quaison-Sackey's simple definition, which arose from Ghana's experience after about one year of independence. During the 1950s, scant attention seems to have been paid to the concerns of Ghana in this respect. But by the early 1960s, when the newly independent countries, especially in Africa, began to experience what Ghana was complaining about, they took up the matter at the Third All-African Conference held in Cairo, Egypt, in March 1961. They stated bluntly that the "greatest threat to Africa" and the "Third World" generally was "neocolonialism." Their worry was that the independence granted to the new nations was practically meaningless because colonialism still existed after independence by changing its tactics. (4) Thus, some African countries led by Ghana and Egypt (under Gamal Abdul Nasser) began to fight to eliminate it from the continent because it had become a real threat to their independence. The founding of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1963 was, in part, a first step in dealing with this danger because it was believed that a united front was absolutely needed to deal with it. At last, the ex-colonial rulers began to take notice. In a speech at the UN General Assembly on October...

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