Connect with us


Africa Before the Doctrine of Discovery

7 min read.

How are we to discuss and deal with colonization in Africa without using language that acknowledges that we were something before colonization?



Africa Before the Doctrine of Discovery
Photo by Jay Eshie on Unsplash
In a January 2023 article, Cornell University professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò lays out his case against the use of “precolonial” as a useful marker to discuss African history. Táíwò makes multiple arguments—and offers several examples—to support his claim. These arguments can be summarized as follows: the phrase precolonial Africa is “vacuous,”“racist,” and “plain wrong.” In this reply to Táíwò’s thesis, I argue for the usefulness and continued utility of precolonial as a term that identifies a structure and event that shaped the continent’s history in ways never before, and never after experienced.As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that when used in the discourse on African history, the term precolonial relationally refers to the 19th- and 20th-century European colonization of Africa, what Táíwò calls the “modern European colonialism” in Africa. Táíwò does not reject or dispute this understanding of the phrase. Rather, his concern seems to be that the use of precolonial in this context flattens the very complex history of the continent before this specific incident. He argues that, if precolonial literally translates to “before colonization,” then the phrase as used in the discourse on Africa’s history must account for earlier experiences of colonization on the African continent before 19th-century European colonization if it is to be meaningful for the periodization of African history. Thus, he concludes that the use of the phrase in its narrow contextual sense is both wrong and meaningless, so it must be expunged from the discourse forever.

The problem is that nothing—no word, phrase, or method of understanding history—can ever be vast enough to capture what Táíwò acknowledges is the very complex history of the African continent, and yet be specific enough for discourse on the subject. Indeed, no word, phrase or expression can fully contain all the nuances of an idea or subject; this is a general foible in language. What is a “chair” if we insist that the word must account for every piece of furniture, device, or technology that has ever been used to support or facilitate the act of sitting? The work-around for this problem is to interpret words—and use language—within relevant context. This necessarily limits the potential interpretative scope that words and phrases carry, and thus facilitates communication.

It is important to flag this limiting context of precolonial early on because it is the foundation that grounds Táíwò’s concerns.

Precolonial Africa is (not) vacuous

Táíwò argues that precolonial tells us nothing or, at best, very little about the history of the continent; he is concerned that it defines little and elides a lot. He argues that precolonial does not offer any understanding of what the precolonial period entailed, of the nuances that characterized that era. If this reasoning were followed to its logical conclusion, then all periodization techniques would be judged as vacuous.

The task of periodization is not to define what the societies were in a given period, but merely to categorize the past into blocks of time to facilitate our study of history. Periodization often follows events, incidents, and structures that fundamentally altered the way societies were organized over the course of history. I’ll offer an example: the use of “Before Christ (BC)” and “Anno Domini (AD)” is a common periodization device in history; it divides history into two: the world before and the world after the approximate date of birth of Jesus, the Christian Christ. These designations tell us nothing about what society within these two periods entailed—what they looked like, and how they were organized—all they do is help arrange history in a way that serves the study of social evolution through time.

To further emphasize what he argues is the vacuousness of precolonial, Táíwò invites us to consider what is obfuscated. He asks us to consider what precolonial Yorùbáland or precolonial Ìbàdàn might mean. However, what he does not ask us to consider is what precolonial Nigeria means, or why precolonial Yorùbáland is today geographically divided between anglophone Nigeria, and francophone Bénin Republic and Togo. These latter questions demonstrate the utility and necessity of emphasizing the colonial experience in our accounting of African history—it is the only honest way to tell the story of how African countries came to be. This experience should not, and really cannot, be ignored in favor of exploring other aspects of African history. To insist that African historians ignore the colonial experience if they are to truly appreciate their history is to impose an unflattering simplicity on them.

Táíwò is additionally concerned about the homogenizing effect that the term precolonial imposes on African history; he argues that it flattens the contours of society before European colonization. He insists that one phrase cannot sufficiently account for the complex histories and experiences of African societies before colonization. Here again, a misappreciation of the task of periodization shows up. The utility of the phrase is that it acknowledges that the continent was something, a different thing, before the colonial incident, but it does not claim that it was one thing.

Accordingly, a more accurate picture is to regard precolonial as a gate or a boundary. Step through the gates back in time and you enter the discourse on vast and varied African societies prior to colonization; step through the gate in the opposite direction and you enter the discourse on 19th-century European colonization of Africa and its continued impact on the structures and institutions of African states.

Precolonial Africa is (not) racist

Táíwò also argues that the use of precolonial to describe Africa before 19th-century colonization leans into racist ideas about Africa. This argument contains two ideas: the first is that precolonial Africa existed; the second is the racist idea that precolonial Africa was a land “outside of time” and not worthy of consideration in a conversation about world history. Táíwò conflates both ideas to reach the conclusion that to speak of a precolonial Africa at all is to buy into the racist idea of Africa’s history beginning from European colonization. He inexplicably binds himself to only two choices: either precolonial Africa exists as it does under the racist imagination, or it does not exist at all. In other words, he argues that, if racist scholars have said precolonial Africa was a primitive wasteland, then Africans must uphold this definition. A different approach, which other scholars have adopted, is to say, the Europeans got it wrong—precolonial Africa was not a primitive wasteland. This latter approach has the advantage of resisting the European narrativizing of African history, which is the goal Táíwò has in mind. Táíwò, however, fails to achieve it because he makes the European understanding of precolonial Africa the starting point of his exposition.

Another aspect to Táíwò’s claim that the phrase is racist is his concern that “the ubiquitous phrase is almost exclusive in its application to Africa: ‘precolonial Africa.’” He asks, “How often do we encounter this designation in discourses about other continents?” First, it is worth noting that precolonial is traditionally also applied to other countries that similarly experienced 19th-century European colonization, such as India, Canada, and Australia, amongst others. The point is taken, however, that there is a certain racist idea that underlies the way the phrase precolonial Africa is typically applied.

Might I suggest that the quarrel is with the wrong half of the phrase precolonial Africa. Perhaps what Táíwò is picking up on is the still-alive instinct to read Africa—including postcolonial Africa—as universally primitive and sub-developed. Thus, it is the assumptions about Africa that reflect racist ideas, and if this is the case, then the problem is not solved by capitulating to these racist ideas. The valid concern about the over-simplification of complex African societies as one (primitive) identity should not be exploited as an impetus to propose a similarly overbroad approach, which is what Táíwò’s suggests.

Precolonial is (not) plain wrong

The last theme of Táíwò’s attack on precolonial is that it is “plain wrong.” He argues: because colonial events occurred within and by African societies before the 19th-century European colonization, it is wrong to make the latest incident the focal point of our discussion around colonization in Africa.

This argument presumes that the only way to fully engage with the robust and complex precolonial history of African societies is to look away from the reality of the European colonization of the 19th century. This presupposes that African scholars are incapable of multitasking; of appropriately foregrounding the colonial event while acknowledging the many inter- and intra-community relations that took place prior. This argument imposes a simplicity on African scholars, researchers, historians, and readers quite akin to what he describes as the racist over-simplification of African history as just one thing.

Another prong in Táíwò’s argument is the concern that the term precolonial divides African history into three periods—precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. Indeed, precolonial suggests a periodization of Africa in relation to the colonial event, but this is not wrong or useless as Táíwò suggests. We cannot deny that the European colonization of the 19th century is at the center of the identity of almost all African countries today. “Nigeria” did not exist before European colonization. To speak of a precolonial Nigeria is a natural way to acknowledge the precolonial indigenous communities that were foisted together under one political and sovereign identity by the British. To do otherwise is to ignore the ways the shared experience of colonization across and among these different communities necessarily puts these communities and their histories in conversation with one another.

Furthermore, there is an important consideration that Táíwò appears to be overlooking: the existence of periodization that centers the colonial event does not preclude other methods of periodization. The discourse around African history is broad enough to accommodate precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial; ancient, medieval, and modern; or whatever other schema may serve the specific study in question. What remains crucial however is that African history must duly acknowledge the colonial event as a significant marker that ushered in a new era for the continent.

Finally, assuming we take it as fact that precolonial obfuscates and that there are aspects of African history that are elided under the blanket of precolonial Africa, is that enough to dispense with the precolonial designation? If all of Táíwò’s charges against the phrase were true, is it not also true that the phrase exposes a very important shared history among African communities that can only be captured by this phrase? To be sure, the thousands-years-old civilizations and evolutions matter a great deal, but they do not and, in fact, need not matter at the expense of the more recent European colonial experience, which in many ways irreversibly impacted the ways our societies are organized.

European colonization completely reorganized the structure of African states, taking them from empires, kingdom, and autochthonous communities to sovereign states, countries that closely resemble their colonial forebears in laws, institutions, language, and culture. How then can we say that this incident is not epoch-defining enough as to form the basis of periodization? The fact that an aspect of history leaves a sour taste in does not make it one that we should ignore. Indeed, it is this exact quality that makes it impossible to ignore; that makes it momentous. What happens if we ignore the incident of colonial intervention in our historical narrativizing and periodization? How then do we account for the ongoing effects of colonization, a reality that exists only because of the colonizing incident?

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.


Ọláolúwa is a PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. She researches the intersections of law, literature, film and other popular culture. Her debut novel, The yNBA is sold in bookstores across Nigeria.


End Times in Malindi: The Shakahola Forest Tragedy

The Shakahola Forest tragedy was decades in the making and won’t lend itself to easy policy prescriptions.



End Times in Malindi: The Shakahola Forest Tragedy

As the body count of victims from the Shakahola Forest mass graves has ticked up, the Kenyan public has reacted with a mix of revulsion and horror. President William Ruto’s description of Pastor Paul Mackenzie, head of the Good News International Church, as “a terrible criminal” and someone who “did not belong to any religion” captures something of the incredulity that many Kenyans and observers of the church scene in the country feel, particularly following reports that many of the victims most probably starved themselves to death, while others, including children, may have been “strangled, beaten, or suffocated to death”.

While many are puzzled as to why Pastor Mackenzie’s parishioners would agree to starve themselves to death in order to “meet Jesus in heaven,” others are at a loss as to the depth of the hold that a barely educated 50-year-old pastor exercises on the minds of his followers.

As Kenyans search for answers to these questions, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, beyond Pastor Mackenzie and the specific relationship between him and his congregants, these dilemmas point to broader issues around civic distrust, deepening social precarity, and state-society disarticulation that transcend Kenya as a country. At the same time, far from the irreligious monster that an understandably frustrated President Ruto takes him to be, as a sociological type, Pastor Mackenzie is as a matter of fact a familiar and ubiquitous presence across the African Pentecostal landscape, the beneficiary and driver of profound alterations in the social structure of many African countries. In the epicentres of the Pentecostal resurgence in Africa (Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Kenya) “Men of God” like Pastor Nthenge cast a growing shadow over politics, the economy, education, and increasingly, popular culture, raising fundamental questions about the location of authority as the state continues its acknowledged retreat from people’s lives.

Pastor Mackenzie is as a matter of fact a familiar and ubiquitous presence across the African Pentecostal landscape.

If that is the case, the real question is not about Pastor Mackenzie in specific relation to his enchanted parishioners, though that itself is illuminating, but about the outsize influence of his tribe of Pentecostal pastors in the lives of their congregations and the larger public across various African countries. As “existential micromanagers”, pastors increasingly “play god” in a variety of life situations, from congregants’ choice of spouses and sexual partners to seemingly mundane decisions about what to eat, what to wear, and, in a few eyebrow-raising cases involving female church members, when to undress.

In order to answer the question of pastoral influence successfully, the antecedent question of why religion, particularly Charismatic Christianity, has come to occupy such a prominent role in people’s lives must be discharged. As the extensive literature on the subject has copiously documented, popular desperation for meaning and anchor in the aftermath of the economic crisis of the 1980s precipitated a spiritual turn that simultaneously transformed the social landscape in favour of religious authorities and changed the terms of social engagement in favour of sundry spiritual agents and intermediaries. Put differently, recourse to the authority of the spiritual increased in direct proportion to the decline of the state.

Pentecostalism was particularly primed to take advantage of this emergent formation. Armed with a coherent theory that grounds both private crisis and public underdevelopment in an intangible realm of spirits, it found easy appeal among sections of the underclass who had become frustrated at the protracted failure and hit-and-miss explanations of secular institutions. This is not to say that Pentecostalism is an exclusively underclass phenomenon, though poverty is an undoubted lubricant. Among the educated classes pegged back by the sudden freeze in social mobility, Pentecostalism’s theology of prosperity resonated. Across the class spectrum, its contagious sensuality and theological deregulation furnished opportunities for self-making not otherwise available in the mainline churches.

Pastoring is the centrepiece of this new-fangled space for self-curation and the expected upward mobility. In a majority of cases, and unlike what obtains in the mainline churches, “calling” is the only “certification” needed to become a Pentecostal pastor. For instance, we are not surprised to learn that Mackenzie, after years of a dogged quest for stability, including a stint as a street hawker and taxi driver respectively, eventually found his “calling” as a pastor, following the same path as many young African men caught between peer pestering to “catch up” and “fit in”, and communal pressures to “become someone”. In this regard, the correlation between the crisis of masculinity in Africa and the popularity of pastoring becomes difficult to ignore.

For many young men, the attraction of pastoring is almost irresistible. In a status-conscious African society, it is the quickest route to social eminence and prestige without the rigours and uncertainties of professional certification. At the same time, such is the high regard in which pastors are held that, oftentimes, being a pastor is as good as living in a state of (ecclesiastical) exception.

As pastoring has become socially irresistible, so has the pastorate become a prime target for elite political co-optation. In many African countries, Kenya included, the pastor-politician alliance has become a key component of elite dealmaking. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing battle for political supremacy between President Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga has devolved into a battle among Kenya’s clerical elite. In Kenya as elsewhere, the pastor-politician alliance is a model of mutual gratification. While the politician seeks a path to the pastor’s vast following and connections within civil society, the pastor desires the perks and preferments available only through political access. In a continent-wide arms race for political capital and social prestige, the pastor and the politician are joined at the hip.

Following the Shakahola discovery, the Kenyan government has promised to crack down on “fringe religious outfits” in the country. President Ruto has vowed to “get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of . . . people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology”. Many church leaders apparently agree with the government. For example, the Coast Christian Clergy, comprising clerics under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), thinks it should be mandatory for preachers and churches to “identify with” umbrella bodies with “guides or codes of conduct”. Other religious leaders have urged the government to drop the hammer on “fake pastors” who “use religion as a cover to carry out their illegal activities that harm society”.

In a continent-wide arms race for political capital and social prestige, the pastor and the politician are joined at the hip.

While the outrage is understandable, this may be easier said than done. While “regulation” or “monitoring” is a good idea in the abstract, the devil is, as always, in the detail. For one thing, it is not entirely clear what exactly is to be regulated and how such can be implemented without infringing upon the individual’s rights to freedom of worship, a right guaranteed by the Kenyan constitution. Furthermore, as our analysis in the foregoing has shown, the state itself is hardly an impartial arbiter in these matters. True, the Kenyan political elite may not have any direct links with the Good News International Church. However, and crucially, it is deeply imbricated with the Pentecostal pastorate and the Kenyan Christian elite. Kenya’s first family is a Pentecostal family; both Ruto and his wife, Rachel, are born-again Christians. In September last year, after Ruto’s victory at the polls was upheld by the Kenyan Supreme Court, the new president invited about 40 evangelical pastors led by popular televangelist Mark Kariuki to “purify” the presidential residence in Nairobi “until all the evil forces are driven out”.

Finally, and as experience from other societies has shown, it is not always easy to claw back from the state powers handed over to it in an emergency. If the state is allowed to “regulate” what churches can and cannot do, what about the rest of civil society?

Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.

Continue Reading


Smallholder Agriculture and the Challenge of Feeding Ourselves

In the first of a series on smallholder agriculture, Christine Gatwiri discusses the challenges facing small-scale Kenyan farmers.



Smallholder Agriculture and the Challenge of Feeding Ourselves

Most farms, they say up to 70 per cent, that produce our everyday food crops— cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes, beans, green grams and peas—are small-scale. The landholding averages 0.2 to 3 acres and is mainly family owned. Crops like maize and wheat are grown on a large scale in some parts of the country. However, overall, most food is produced by smallholders who practice subsistence farming, selling only the surplus.

Some regions specialize in one crop type. For example, rice and legumes such as peas, green grams, beans and chickpeas are grown in mid- and lower-eastern Kenya. Those who specialize also tend to consider land leasing options and take a commercial approach to farming. They consider the costs of their inputs versus the value of the output, compared to the average subsistence farmer who only sells the surplus.

At this scale of operation, mechanization is complex—and most farms utilize human labour for crop production activities like planting, weeding and harvesting. Tractors might be used for initial ploughing and harvesters might be used to harvest crops like rice and wheat. But access to mechanization is limited by scale.

The use of improved seeds depends on the individual farmer. Some might buy certified seeds, while others prefer to use seeds from previous harvests. Overall, a lot is invested in the form of capital, labour and time. However, without the benefit of large economies of scale, smallholder farmers are not able to maximize the returns to get the full value of their investment.

Over-reliance on rain as a source of water

It is said that crops do not need rain; they need water. On small-scale farms, crops are planted to coincide with the rainy seasons. But rains do fail as they have for the last few years, and with that, the crops fail too. Irrigation systems are available in some pockets of the rural areas, particularly where farmers have organized themselves into groups to source and pipe water to their farms. However, this is the exception.

Those in peri-urban areas are more likely to have irrigation infrastructure that guarantees year-round production. They tend to grow vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, cabbages and leafy greens. Peri-urban farmers’ proximity to urban markets where the demand for these types of farm produce is high guarantees better prices and a return on investment. They are therefore more likely to invest in irrigation infrastructure.

The rural-urban divide

Where a farmer is situated, their proximity to the market and the immediate food needs of that market influence the type of crops grown or livestock kept. The majority of peri-urban farmers focus on growing food for urban dwellers. They might focus on livestock such as poultry to provide eggs and meat as well as indigenous vegetables that have a ready market.

In rural areas, food crops serve immediate family needs, and the surplus is sold or stored. However, as most rural farmers tend to grow the same types of crops, the surplus does not always have a ready market. Poultry is kept and vegetables are also grown, but to a lesser extent than on peri-urban farms. In addition, rural smallholders grow other types of food crops—including bananas, potatoes, beans and maize—to a greater extent than do peri-urban farmers.

Aggregators seeking to supply major towns with food often traverse the countryside collecting produce from farmers. This is a major logistical challenge as buyers have to travel long distances, often on poor roads, to fill up their lorry, pay cess fees across counties and take on the risk of transporting perishable commodities. For example, avocados that ripen and spoil during transportation are discarded. The remaining fruits still have to compensate for the cost of transport. All these challenges contribute to increasing the cost of food in urban areas.

This dual nature of smallholder agriculture poses additional challenges such as: What market are you farming for and what control does the farmer have over the market? Peri-urban farmers have a better grip on their markets and consumer needs. But are rural farmers the invisible party whose work is to produce while someone else dictates market prices and conditions? Is this not the same problem we have with our tea and coffee?

Farming as a side hustle

Farming is a side job for most small-scale farmers. The farmers are engaged in other economic activities to support themselves financially. In the rural areas, they might own a business—a small eatery or a hardware store at the shopping centre, for instance. In peri-urban areas, they might own similar businesses or be employed at a government or private firm.

The farm is not always perceived as a commercial enterprise with considerations about business expenses and revenues. Splitting time between the farm and other economic activities means the farmer is not able to devote much time to it or even expect much from it. They employ farm managers and labourers to manage it, often leading to “telephone farming”, with its share of mismanagement and misappropriation of resources.

The farm is not always perceived as a commercial enterprise with considerations about business expenses and revenues.

Without taking the farm as a serious commercial activity worth of dedicated time and investment, it is no wonder resources are poured in without matching outputs to show for it. But can farmers live on income from a small-scale enterprise only? Probably not.

Transportation and agricultural logistics: The middleman

As mentioned above, transportation is a challenge for most small-scale farmers. Access to an almost-free-to use van/lorry/pickup is a prerequisite as the means of transport factors in two ways. First, taking your farm produce to market yourself can mean a difference in the profit made. Without transport, middlemen or brokers come in; they swarm at individual farmers’ farms dictating quantities and prices. Without alternatives, and staring at already spoiling produce, farmers sell their produce at giveaway prices. Hiring farm transport as an alternative can be expensive, especially with the high cost of fuel. It increases the cost of operations, eating up the already marginal profits.

While taking the produce to the market is not always a viable option—remember farmers have other things to do—it is still an option when you have transport. Peri-urban farmers have found a way around this—loading up produce in their personal cars and selling from their car boots in the evenings.

At a small scale, it is imperative to consider the costs of operations as they can rack up fast, turning losses every year. This has discouraged many, and despair and hopelessness are common among farmers today. For how long can you put in the effort daily but still have failed crops and losses every year? Without a say in the transport and marketing of their produce, farmers will always be at the mercy of brokers.

The agrovet model of farmer education

When rural or peri-urban small-scale farmers need information about a particular crop or livestock pest they approach the local agrovet who advises them on which product to buy and apply. In this context the agrovet is king, supplying products and providing vital information regarding pest and disease control and crop and livestock management and productivity.

With the breakdown of public-funded extension services, farmers adopt a product-first approach to addressing pest or disease problems. This is not only expensive but also potentially harmful to the farmer, the produce, the environment and the end consumer. With profit incentives in mind, the agrovet may not always guide the farmer appropriately in the use of pesticides. They might recommend their own products even where a more conservative approach would be sufficient.

With the breakdown of public-funded extension services, farmers adopt a product-first approach to addressing pest or disease problems.

Without proper guidance on use, safe handling and disposal, the result is farm produce with higher than recommended levels of pesticide residues, chemical-damaged soils and toxicity to beneficial insects and other members of the farm ecosystem.

Traceability and food safety monitoring

As described above, small-scale farming is too fragmented and this has consequences for food safety. It is almost impossible to monitor the produce from each farm—the levels of pesticide residues, and the storage and post-harvest processes that affect food quality and safety.

When government agencies monitor food safety, they do so at the market level, after it has been aggregated and sold to retailers. It is therefore difficult to trace produce back to the farm from which it originated. The alternative, self-regulation by individual farmers, would be too high an expectation.

For the consumer, trying “to eat healthy” can cause more harm than good. You try to add more leafy greens but they are contaminated with factory/sewage waste. Add more fruits? They have high pesticide residues. More nuts and grains? There’s probably aflatoxin waiting for you.

When government agencies monitor food safety, they do so at the market level, after it has been aggregated and sold to retailers.

Large retailers are able to bypass the fragmented nature of small-scale agriculture and source produce directly from farmers. This way, they have better control over quality and safety, albeit at a premium price.

Inequalities such as these can cause harm because you not only have to buy the food, but you also have to pay extra for its safety/quality.

Is there a way out?

Small-scale agriculture as it is practiced today is too impractical to be profitable. The costs of production are high and a lot of the production aspects are still outside the farmer’s control. Huge investments are made in terms of labour, money and time without outputs to show for it. Unless a farmer is growing food for their own personal use, more deliberate efforts should be made to enhance production, minimize costs and ensure the safety of the produce. Is there a way to apply to small-scale farming the methods used in large-scale operations? Small-scale agriculture may be difficult to reform but creating farming zones could simulate large-scale operations in small-scale settings.

Continue Reading


God Tax the King

The British royal family has tried to shake off its colonial past. But its long reign over these wrongs was succeeded by a new form of plunder, exacted today by Britain’s tax haven empire.



God Tax the King
Prince Charles in Kigali, Rwanda. Image credit Simon Dawson for No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The world’s biggest tax haven empire has a new king. King Charles III will be anointed, blessed, and consecrated on May 6. He is sovereign over Great Britain, the Crown Dependencies, and the British Overseas Territories, which collectively inflict nearly 40 percent of the tax revenue losses around the world.

Britain was starting to spin its web of tax havens around the time Charles was born in the late 1940s. Britain allowed and often encouraged this insidious second empire as many nations were breaking from the shackles of European and British colonialism. Currently, British tax havens aid and abet multinational corporations shifting profits out of the countries where most of the real business happens. Wealthy and powerful individuals are also able to hide money and assets behind the secretive laws of the spider’s web.

The Tax Justice Network—a coalition of activists, and scholars campaigning against tax avoidance—sent an open letter to King Charles urging the monarch to address the economic and human cost imposed by the British tax havens over which he is sovereign. The letter details the organization’s latest research which estimates that British tax havens mete out a total tax loss of more than US$189 billion per year on the world. The total tax losses are more than three times the humanitarian aid budget the UN needs this year to help 230 million people living on the brink after multiple disasters.

While Britain’s overseas aid has dwindled in recent years, unwinding the web of tax havens instead would help many governments fulfill the rights of their citizens. If we were to reverse the tax revenue losses caused by the UK spider’s web, there would be 36 million more people with access to basic sanitation, 18 million more people with access to basic drinking water, and almost seven million children could attend school for an extra year, according to the Universities of St. Andrews and Leicester modeling tool GRADE.

Yet, the British political establishment doesn’t look ready to reform. Successive Conservative prime ministers and their families have been fingered in leaks and investigations, including the Panama and Pandora Papers. The wife of current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also played the tax game, avoiding an estimated £2.1 million per year in taxes from foreign income.

The British government has also undermined efforts to transform international tax law. For the last 60 years, the UK—along with the exclusive club of the richest nations at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—has set rules to their benefit. African states, in an act of defiance, presented a resolution at the United Nations in November 2022 that paves the way for negotiations on an international tax cooperation framework at the UN instead. The UK and its OECD friends unsuccessfully pulled out all the stops to prevent a vote, and spoke out against the resolution, but ultimately joined in its unanimous adoption. They will likely throw many hurdles in the way to stop negotiations from getting off the ground at the UN General Assembly later this year, as their initial input to the Secretary-General’s Tax Report makes clear.

In his speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Rwanda last year, King Charles, then Prince of Wales, expressed his sorrow over Britain’s “most painful period of history.” “To unlock the power of our common future,” he said, “we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past.”

The British royalty’s long reign over these wrongs was succeeded by a new form of plunder, exacted today by Britain’s tax haven empire. King Charles has an opportunity to stop the clock running on this plunder. As the inheritor of the British Crown and its legacy, King Charles could use his unique position to encourage dialogue on UN leadership over international tax rules—a move that could pivot the course and legacies of history—and support the right of African countries to exercise sovereignty over their taxing rights at the UN General Assembly.

At home, the King might rightly argue that he has no business interfering in the UK government’s policies. It may be His Majesty’s Government, but it’s a democratically elected government of its people. We should not expect Charles to outline his positions on the need for the UK finally to meet its commitments to end anonymous companies that make it too easy for criminals and would-be tax evaders to hide assets and illicit money, or to introduce public country-by-country reporting so that multinational companies’ tax abuse remains largely out of sight. In the UK, the reporting would have increased corporate income tax by £2.5 billion per year.

What we can hope for, however, is that the new King will set the tone for the end of his tax haven empire. By acknowledging publicly Britain’s leading global role in tax abuse, and the human costs this imposes all around the world, Charles could make a necessary break from the history of imperial and royal denial. He could point the way to reparative funding for territories that make up the tax haven empire, as well as to those countries in Africa and elsewhere where the empire’s most violent extraction took place.

Extensive slavery routes and sanctioned colonial pillaging all added jewels to the crown over centuries, some of which make appearances at coronations. King Charles himself also has some questionable wealth and tax practices. Without changes in its tax havens and the global tax rules, Britain will continue to rack up its bill of reparations to former colonies.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading