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Africa, China and the West: an Exchange With Thomas Mountain

Ron Jacobs: Hi Tom, first can you provide a little background on yourself to help the readers understand your perspective on the matters we are discussing?

Thomas Mountain: I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. I married an ex-fighter from the Eritrean independence war in 1999 that I met in London and in 2006 we permanently relocated to Eritrea. I describe myself as an activist and educator and for what it’s worth, the most widely distributed independent journalist in Africa. I have been contributing to CounterPunch, amongst other publications, since 2003.

My political activism goes back to helping organize a walkout from Punahou School (Obama’s alma mater) to protest the US invasion of Cambodia in 1970. In subsequent years I was involved in the environmental movement, community organizing against evictions, and labor support. I attended technical school where I received a certificate as a heavy equipment mechanic, a field in which I was to work in, as well as teach until 1993 when I was permanently disabled.

In 1975 I started working with the Revolutionary Communist Party USA (RCP USA) and was sent by the Party to work at Waialua Sugar Company on Oahu’s North Shore. In 1977 I was elected by the rank and file as a member of the ILWU full negotiating committee for what became the last state wide sugar workers strike in Hawaii. I was also elected as the co-strike committee chair for our local unit during the month long strike. I was eventually fired from Waialua Sugar for my political activism. In 1982 I stopped all work with the Party and in 1983 began my work with the Pan Africanist movement in the USA as a part of educational work on Black and African matters which included my support for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front beginning in 1983.

In 1982 I also started my support for the Palestinian people/anti-Zionist movement during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Eventually this lead to my becoming the local coordinator for what was then known as the Eyewitness Israel program with the Palestine Human Rights Campaign.

As I part of my work as Co-Chair of the Hawaii Black History Committee starting in 1983 I organized a series of programs that included Kwame Ture’s (Stokely Carmichael) return to Hawaii, appearances by representatives of the South African Pan Africanist Congress and the

Azanian Peoples Organization as well as Jamaican Reggae poet Mutabaruka. In 1987 I was invited to be a member of the 1st US Peace Delegation to Libya and in 1988 represented the USA at the Anti-Racist Anti-Apartheid Conference in Tokyo Japan. From 1983 until 1997 I organized a series of cultural events focusing on Black and African culture including a Tribute to Bob Marley featuring the original band the Rastafarians, Peter Tosh, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ramsey Lewis, Taj Mahal, Tito Puente, Junior Wells, Aswad, Steel Pulse and others.

In 1993 I founded the Hawai’i Artists in the Schools, Inc. and, as well as producing statewide cultural and educational programs created and co-taught a graduate level course for public school teachers for the University of Hawaii titled “The African Influence on World Civilization” as a part of my work with the late Asa G. Hilliard and Ivan Van Sertima’s Journal of African Civilization contributing writers. In 1989 I began working with the late Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the National Black Theater Festival which included two dramatic residencies in Hawaii’s Schools. I was extended an ongoing Residency invitation by Larry to the Festival which I was able to accept for the 1995, 1997 and 2001 Festivals in Winston-Salem North Carolina. In 1996, as a part of my anti-racist work, I helped found the Ambedkar Journal on India’s Dalits or black untouchables and went on to co-edit and publish the journal which was the first such publication on the internet (also see Why India’s Dalits Hate Gandhi).

As a part of my work with the Ambedkar journal and its mission to educate the world on the caste/varna/color basis of Indian society I co-founded the Phoolan Devi International Defense Committee which continued until Sister Phoolan’s death (see the film “Bandit Queen”). In 1997 I had to take family leave from my job as an educator to take care of my elderly parents and subsequently founded the Honolulu Medical Marijuana Patients Co-op, the first public medical marijuana dispensary in Hawaii. I continued my work with the Co-op building our membership to over 300 members with referrals from many of the leading neurologists, oncologists, infectious disease specialists and osteopaths in Honolulu.

RJ: You mention you live in Eritrea. I recall going to a couple meetings back in the 1970s during the Eritrean liberation struggle against Ethiopia. For the sake of a memory that is a bit hazy, do you mind summarizing that moment in time and the subsequent history of the Eritreans and Ethiopia?

TM: In 1983 I was first introduced to a representative of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) by Kwame Ture when I traveled to Los Angeles for my first meeting with Kwame. At the time the EPLF was an almost unknown guerilla army fighting an independence war against the Ethiopian colonialization of their country that no one it seemed, other than the Eritrean people, thought possible to win. Kwame himself was a longtime supporter of the EPLF and had a policy of requesting, if possible, a representative of the EPLF to give the opening remarks at any of his speaking engagements.

I was already familiar with the EPLF and the armed struggle of the Eritrean people for national liberation due to my work with the RCP USA whose Revolution Books store carried the EPLF’s literature (alongside the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, more on this later). The EPLF seemed to have the impossible task of winning Eritrean independence from a particularly brutal Ethiopian regime supported by the Soviet Union to the tune of many billions of dollars in military aid. Eritrea only had 3 million people while Ethiopia had some 70 million or more population and the largest best equipped army in Africa (something still true today).   To make matters worse, Ethiopia and its leader Haile Selassie were revered in the Pan Africanist movement as a symbol of African resistance to western colonialism and the forerunner of today’s African Union (AU), the Organization for African Unity (OAU), had its headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

The irony and hypocrisy, really, of the OAU, supposedly founded to combat colonialism in Africa, having its headquarters in Ethiopia, which had occupied and forcibly annexed and colonized the former Italian colony of Eritrea, seemed to have been completely lost on other Africans and the anti-colonial movement in general. It was the USA’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who so infamously wrote in his memoirs that Eritrea was supposed to have had the same right to independence as any other African colony but that it was in the USA’s “national interest” to give Eritrea to Ethiopia, whose leader at the time was the firm US ally known for his anti-communism, Haile Selassie.

So Eritrean independence was still born and after a decade of frustrated attempts to peacefully obtain independence, the Eritrean armed struggle for national liberation was founded in 1961. Thirty years later, after some of the most desperate battles seen in the 20th century, including some of the greatest military victories, the EPLF, without any support from anyone other than the Eritrean people at home and abroad (except maybe Siad Barre, then President of Somalia), crushed the Ethiopian occupation army of over 250,000 in 1991 and not only liberated Eritrea but marched on the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and drove the genocidal butcher Haile Mariam Mengistu into exile in Zimbabwe.

So, in 1991 Eritrea had won its independence on the field of battle (the only country in post- colonial Africa to have done so, more on this later), Ethiopia had seen the end of the brutal Mengistu regime and all was peace and prosperity right? Well this was not to be because Pax Americana was not about to allow a independent, “socialist” government that came to power via the armed struggle versus the western controlled “democratic process” of elections that had taken place in all the rest of Africa to succeed. Within 7 years after independence Eritrea was faced with another round of Ethiopian aggression, this time from their former comrades in arms against the Mengistu regime, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) who had come to power in the vacuum left by the defeat of the Mengistu regime and subsequent withdrawal of the EPLF from Addis Ababa in 1991.

I have written several articles on how the USA co-opted the TPLF’s leadership, mainly with billions of dollars in “aid” and sanctioned a series of bloody murders of more independent minded TPLF leaders. The result was that a particularly murderous thug named Meles

Zenawi was anointed by the USA to head the new Ethiopian government, and having the only effective military force in the country, set about wiping out any resistance to his rule. Item number one on the USA’s agenda, and this was during Anthony “Tony” Lake’s time as Bill Clintons “consigliere”/National Security Advisor, was getting rid of the pesky independence role model, Eritrea.

The result? Starting in 1998 Ethiopia launched a series of attempted invasions of Eritrea over the completely artificial pretext of a “border dispute” which eventually saw the defeat of the Ethiopian invasion of Eritrea in May-June of 2000 and the deaths of 123,000 Ethiopians and 19,000 Eritreans (see the article The War No One Remembers). Today, 15 years later, despite a “final and binding” border demarcation the Ethiopian army continues to occupy Eritrean territory and regularly carries out major military incursions into Eritrea, all part of the US backed policy of “No War, No Peace” to force Eritrea to maintain a large military based on national service in an ongoing effort to destabilize the Eritrean government and damage the Eritrean economy.

Unfortunately for the US plans to maintain hegemony in the Horn of Africa, a strategically critical transport lane via the Red Sea/Suez Canal through which flows the commerce of the two largest trading partners in the world, Asia and Europe, growing insurgencies inside Ethiopia are sowing the seeds for regime change. In the south east of Ethiopia, the Somali peoples of the Ogaden are continuing their armed struggle for independence. In the west the Anuak peoples of the Gambella are still fighting the land theft being forced upon them so their land can be exploited by foreign investors. And in the north, in the province of Tigray, the ethnic homeland of the ruling regime, a large rebel army based on the Eritrean border is steadily expanding its area of operations and beginning to seriously threaten the present ethnic minority government in power in Addis Ababa.

Only an unprecedented wave of foreign investment has kept the Ethiopian regime afloat. Estimates are that Ethiopia runs a trade deficit of over $10 billion a year. The only major exports Ethiopia has to support a country of 90 plus million are coffee and cut flowers. This brings in at best $2.5 billion a year. Only regular massive aid injections and the largest “loan forgiveness program” in Africa are keeping the regime afloat. It is a matter of when, not if, that will see a regime change in the country, for the present US backed mafia that runs the country grows more hated and isolated by the day. This past election didn’t even see a pretense of “democracy,” with the ruling party declaring themselves the winner of 100% of the seats in parliament. Of course, Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, told the assembled media at a press conference during Obama’s trip to Africa that Ethiopia was “100% democratic” with a straight face.

The main purpose of Obama’s recent visit to Ethiopia was an attempt to shore up an increasingly unpopular regime’s credibility, for little in the way of investment by the USA was announced. Internationally, US foreign policy is based on using local “police” to do its dirty work. In South America, that force is Columbia, in West Africa it is Nigeria, in the Middle East it is Israel and in east Africa, and it is mainly Ethiopia. On the behest of the USA Ethiopia attempted to invade and destroy Eritrea in 1998-2000, invaded Somalia and destroyed the first government Mogadishu had seen in 15 years in 2006 and is presently actively supporting the “rebels” putatively lead by Reik Machar in South Sudan. Without Ethiopia and its largest best equipped army in Africa, the USA will be in a very difficult position.

At the end of 2005, shortly after the death of my last surviving parent, I was forced to shut down the Patients Co-op following public threats made against me by the then US Attorney in Hawaii. Following this we sold our home and moved to Eritrea where we have been living ever since. Eritrea is a very peaceful country with almost no crime or even homelessness or what is all too common in Africa, beggars. The streets are clean, the people friendly and for all the malicious lies and slanders calling Eritrea a “police state” the only police on the streets, and very few at that, do not carry any weapons, not even batons. Satellite television via dishes is everywhere without any jamming of any stations what so ever. The internet is completely uncensored, though quite slow due to the lack of a fiber optic connection and the reliance on a limited band width satellite link.

The government subsidizes basic food supplies as well as electricity. While few changes can be seen in the main towns and cities, life for the majority of the people who live in the villages has changed dramatically for the better in the 24 years since independence. Wells providing easy access to clean drinking water, roads and bus services, schools and medical clinics; all are now available to most rural Eritreans with services to even the most remote villages a priority for the government. Most of these services in the villages are powered by solar electric systems and Eritrea is said to be the per capita second most solar friendly country in the world.

Eritrea’s health system has been lauded as one of the most successful in Africa and has reduced malaria mortality by up to 80%. It is the only country in Africa to have seen a major reduction in HIV/AIDS, by up to 40%. Health care is accessible, almost free, and is free to those eligible, and steadily improving. Almost every village in the malaria belt is within two hours walk from a medical clinic where comprehensive treatment is available. Eritrea today is facing two major challenges: the first is the US-lead economic sabotage and aid embargoes. The second is climate change, climate disaster really (see Surviving Climate Disaster in Africa’s Sahel).

Including this year’s drought, Eritrea has been ravaged by drought in 6 of the last 12 years, including historically unprecedented back to back droughts in 2003-4 and 2008-9. In spite of this, due to the massive allocation of scarce resources, Eritrea has been able to prevent any serious food shortages. Another factor is the ongoing construction of major water reservoirs used for irrigation as a part of a national priority campaign of water and soil conservation as well as reforestation. I have written an article titled “Eritrea; The Cuba of Africa” on how Eritrea, like Cuba, is struggling against the all-powerful US empire and while the road ahead for us remains difficult the attempts by the US to deter our leaderships efforts to build “A rich Eritrea without rich Eritreans” are not succeeding.

RJ: You originally contacted me in response to a review I wrote about Nick Turse’s book Tomorrow’s Battlefield, which concerns the growing footprint of the US military on the African continent. Can you please address that and how it looks from your perspective as a resident?

TM: The USA, and its western minions, have targeted Africa with a policy best described as “Crisis Management”, as in create a crisis and then manage the subsequent disaster to better loot and plunder African resources. If the USA can’t manage to directly pillage the newly crisis ridden region at least, as in the case of South Sudan, it can deny access to valuable resource to its competitors. In the case of South Sudan, to have the Chinese prevented from pumping oil, or at least from expanding Chinese oil development there. The Chinese on the other hand, are dominating the development of African resources in a policy aimed at partnership with African governments, no matter how odious. For example, in Ethiopia, China has invested $3 billion in building a new railway linking the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, with Ethiopia’s only access to the sea, Djibouti, a major improvement over the dangerous road corridor now being used. China is also investing $400 million in upgrading Djibouti’s notoriously overcrowded port through which Ethiopia imports 90% of what it needs to survive.

This is typical of Chinese policy in Africa, and the rest of the world, and is in contrast to the rape and pillage policy of western countries. Of course, it is very profitable for China and without the massive infrastructure projects China is developing (i.e. ports, roads, railways etc.), it wouldn’t be possible for China to access the raw materials they need from Africa. China also provides relatively generous aid programs, at least in comparison to the puny benefits Africa receives from the west which are mainly for the purposes of making African countries more dependent on the western economies. Chinese aid has built more schools, hospitals, water and electric infrastructure than all the western governments and the UN combined, and is set to do much more if the present programs that have been announced are implemented. China recognizes that Africa needs educated and skilled personnel to help develop African resources and it is in China’s interest to help make this happen. Again, doing this is a long term investment that will pay off for China, both in good will and in their companies’ bottom lines.

The US military via its African Central Command has been slowly expanding its efforts in Africa. With Djibouti being the only permanent military presence on the African continent, and even this becoming increasingly problematic (see US vs. China in Djibouti) the main military operations in Africa are via the drone assassination program. Some training is going on, and a number of armament programs are expanding but to this day the French military in Africa is substantially greater than the USA’s. Of course, the US has Ethiopia and its large army to rely on, though even this has been badly damaged following the Ethiopian defeat by Eritrea in 2000 with the loss of the cream of the Ethiopian army, and the subsequent Ethiopian invasion, eventual defeat and withdrawal from Somalia resulting in a loss of over 20,000 Ethiopian troops from 2006-2008.

The US is mainly involved in supporting proxy wars such as its support via Ethiopia for the “rebellion” in South Sudan (see Obama’s War in South Sudan) and the nasty counterinsurgency being waged by various African countries at the USA’s behalf in Somalia. The USA has been involved in many crimes in Africa during the past few decades but none have been worse than what would best be described as the War on the Somali People. This includes not only Somalia itself but the Somali people of the Ogaden in southeast Ethiopia. Since 2007, during a series of drought—including the Great Horn of Africa drought from 2010-2012, the worst in 60 years—the Ethiopian government, with the support of the US and the UN, has imposed a food and medical aid blockade for all of the Ogaden and large areas of Oromia in south western Ethiopia. Even MSF (Doctors without Borders) and the Red Cross have been expelled from the Ogaden, something no other country in the world has been allowed to do (see “Full Blown Genocide in Ethiopia” and “Feeding Death Squads in Ethiopia”).

RJ: You wrote a brief piece on CounterPunch (May 7, 2013) about the famine in Somalia. Do you consider these types of “events” to be manmade or not?

TM: In Somalia proper, the over one million refugees, most whom are the result of the war started by the US backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the ongoing occupation of Somalia by foreign UN backed troops, were the victims of a deliberate policy of starvation by the UN, in particular UNICEF, headed by former US National Security Advisor and failed nominee to head the CIA Anthony “Tony” Lake. According to the UN, at least 250,000 Somalis, many in the care of the UN, starved to death during the great drought and famine of 2010-12. This massive starvation, which could be considered genocide, was predicted by this writer when Tony Lake announced in 2010 that he had budgeted less than 10 cents a day to feed over 1 million Somali refugees (see UN and the Starvation of 250,000 Somalis). Other articles have shown how the policy of the US and its lackeys at the UN (the head of the World Food Program was appointed by George Bush) has been to deliberately sabotage Somali food self-sufficiency, (see Angel of Mercy or Angel of Death; the WFP in Somalia).

RJ: It is my impression that Washington has minimal interest in engaging the people of any country it goes into in a manner that benefits the people of that country. Instead, it seems to perceive the world in terms of its own economic and strategic requirements. Do you believe this to be accurate when it comes to US involvement in the nations of Africa? How so? Alternatively, one reads that China, in its pursuit of resources and markets, invests in other nations in a different manner–investing in education, health care, infrastructure, etc… Do you find this to be true? What are your thoughts on this and the different approaches by Washington and Beijing?

TM: The USA and its western minions have targeted Africa with a policy best described as “Crisis Management. In other words, create a crisis and then manage the subsequent disaster to better loot and plunder African resources. If the USA can’t manage to directly pillage the newly crisis ridden region at least, as in the case of South Sudan, it can deny access to valuable resource to its competitors. For example, in the case of South Sudan, to have the Chinese prevented from pumping oil, or at least from expanding Chinese oil development there. The Chinese on the other hand, are dominating the development of African resources in a policy aimed at partnership with African governments, no matter how odious.

For example, in Ethiopia, China has invested $3 billion in building a new railway linking the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, with Ethiopia’s only access to the sea, Djibouti, a major improvement over the dangerous road corridor now being used. China is also investing $400 million in upgrading Djibouti’s notoriously overcrowded port through which Ethiopia imports 90% of what it needs to survive. This is typical of Chinese policy in Africa and the rest of the world, and is in contrast to the rape and pillage policy of western countries. Of course, it is very profitable for China and without the massive infrastructure projects China is developing i.e. ports, roads, railways etc., it wouldn’t be possible for China to access the raw materials they need from Africa.

China also provides relatively generous aid programs, at least in comparison to the puny benefits Africa receives from the west which are mainly for the purposes of making African countries more dependent on the western economies. Chinese aid has built more schools, hospitals, water and electric infrastructure than all the western governments and the UN combined, and is set to do much more if the present programs that have been announced are implemented. China recognizes that Africa needs educated and skilled personnel to help develop African resources and it is in China’s interest to help make this happen. Again, doing this is a long term investment that will pay off for China, both in good will and in their companies’ bottom lines.

RJ: Looking at the various groups/movements the US military has targeted on the African continent–Boko Harum, various Al Queda offshoots, etc.–how do you explain their existence and ability to wreak the havoc they seem to do? And tangentially, what do you see as potential futures for the people and nations of Africa, economically and politically?

TM: The phenomenon of terrorism in Africa is fairly recent and is found in countries that for all intents and purposes are “failed states”. When a government does not provide the essential human rights to its people—food, water, shelter, medical care and education for its children—that government is failing in its most basic purpose and should be considered a “failed state.” In most areas of Nigeria for example, most Nigerians struggle every day just to survive and water- borne disease, malnutrition, malaria and other communicable disease are rife. Education is just a dream for many if not most Nigerians and the existing conditions are ripe for the growth of the most fanatical forms of religious extremism. Somalia and the development of what is described as a terrorist group, “Al Shabab” is an example of how terrorism is created as a direct result of the US policy of “Failed States” (see Obama’s Failed States Policy in Africa).

Prior to the US instigated Ethiopian invasion of Somalia at the end of 2006 there was no terrorist organization called “Al Shabab”. The Union of Islamic Courts, a moderate, nationalist, Islamic confederation of Somali religious and clan based leadership had driven out the warlords that ruled Mogadishu for 15 years since the collapse of the previous government lead by Siad Barre and brought peace to Mogadishu. The very existence of an independent, nationalist Islamic government reuniting Somalia, which lies at the mouth of the Baab Al Mandeb, the entrance from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and its strategically critical trade between Asia and Europe, was intolerable to the USA and it sent the Ethiopian army to put an end to this very positive development; positive for the Somali people and the region, that is.

The Ethiopian army and its armor and heavy artillery quickly drove the UIC from power and into foreign exile and ignited a conflagration of Somali nationalism that the youth wing of the UIC, Al Shabab, quickly took advantage of. In time a more fanatical wing of the youth movement ruthlessly wiped out its rivals and what is today known as the “Al Queda linked Al Shabab” was born. To put it simply, if the US hadn’t sent in its “policeman on the beat”, Ethiopia, to destroy the UIC and the peace they had brought to Somalia there would be no terrorist movement in Somalia. The “Failed States policy” being employed in Africa, whether a deliberate destruction of a country like Libya by the western military, or a more indirect policy of ignoring their puppet leaders mistakes until disaster strikes like in the Central African Republic; an instance which was quickly followed by a French program of ethnic cleansing of the ethnically Muslim population in an attempt to maintain French control, it all boils down to the same thing, a failed state policy.

As a result, the future of Africa is not very bright under the present, western/UN dominated system. A small, independent country like Eritrea should be a role model for Africa, and is seen very clearly by the USA and the rest of the western countries as “a threat of a good example”. For example, Eritrea receives 40% of the profits from its first gold mine in comparison to Tanzania, where Anglo-American operates one of the largest gold mines in the world and only pays the Tanzanian government a 4% royalty. If the rest of Africa starts to follow Eritrea example and demands a real partnership from foreign investors and uses the money for the benefit of its own people instead of paying off extortionate loans from the western dominated World Bank and IMF, then the bloated, wasteful standard of living being experience by the western population will not be sustainable and will result in serious social instability and eventually, possible collapse of the financial elite dominated governments. This may explain why Eritrea, whether you and I may understand it, must not be allowed to prosper, just as Cuba for so many decades has been made to suffer.

(The italicized references in parentheses refer to articles written by Mr. Mountain. One can read them by doing a browser search with the title provided—Ron.)

Thomas Mountain is a journalist, educator and activist. He lives in Eritrea.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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